Gamera, 200ft tall, jet-powered, fire-breathing turtle - yes, you read that correctly - was the only Japanese monster as beloved as Godzilla. Produced by Daiei Studios, the original eight movies - from Gamera the Invincible (1965) to Gamera Super Monster (1980) - were sunny confections aimed at squarely at kids, with Gamera promoted as “friend to all children”. Despite their charms and regular screenings on television, most westerners considered Gamera a cheap knock-off of Godzilla and his movies were routinely mocked (chief culprits: those misanthropes on Mystery Science Theatre 3000). That is, until Shusuke Kaneko reinvented him with Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995), a sublime monster movie that left Toho’s new Godzilla series in the shade. For the sequel, Kaneko cranked everything up to eleven, and was roundly acclaimed with creating “the greatest kaiju eiga of all time.”
All hell breaks loose after a freak meteor shower hits Sapporo, Japan. Electrical problems, overgrown plant life, and thousands of scuttling, monster insects threaten the human race. Local science whiz Midori Honami (Miki Mizuno) assists the steadfast Colonel Watarase (Toshiyuki Nagashima) in the military’s efforts to repel the menace. Everyone’s favourite flying turtle is also on the case and splatters the satanic swarm. An overawed soldier quotes scripture and dubs them: Legion (“for we are many”), as several escapees morph into airplane-sized attack drones. Legion returns, reborn as a laser-wielding, Lovecraftian horror that defeats Gamera, wipes out Sapporo and advances menacingly towards Tokyo. Just when all looks lost, Midori stumbles upon Asagi Kusanagi (Ayako Fujitani), the teenage girl who shares a mystical bond with Gamera.
Gamera II: Attack of Legion (or Advent of Legion, as it’s known in Japan) offers pulse pounding excitement from start to finish. Gamera scales new levels of mythic resonance here and his battles have a truly cosmic scope, reaching a delirious highlight where he channels energy drawn from planet Earth into an almighty super-blast. Whereas Godzilla films from the Nineties were examples of filmmaking by committee, the Gamera movies were made by fans for fans. Many of these men were anime veterans, including special effects creator Shinji Higuchi (who designed monsters for the groundbreaking Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995)) and screenwriter Kazunori Ito (who wrote many of Mamoru Oshii’s best films), who sought to revitalize the tired kaiju eiga with a sharp dose of anime creativity.
Higuchi doles out the citywide destruction and fantastical monster mayhem with aplomb, while Kaneko’s camera is more audacious and experimental than in most monster movies, utilizing stop-motion, freeze frames, thermo-vision P.O.V. shots, and culminating in an awesome tracking shot that follows missiles as they streak towards Legion. He and Ito relish the minutiae: illustrating the effect monster attacks have on the Tokyo stock exchange, theorising about insect behaviour and diseases borne from outer space, forging links between genetic engineering and ancient prophecy (the mitama talisman Asagi carries, and that lines Gamera’s shell, is common to Japanese archaeology), and indulging fan boy fun (jet fighters vs. flying bugs!).
Legion is an inspired, creepy creation. Kaneko builds menace through teasing glimpses: a flailing pincer here, a glowing eye there. The combination of computer graphics and traditional rubber suits yields amazing results, going from Legion’s nightmarish attack on a subway train to Gamera’s mind-blowing, solar-powered coup de grace. Noted genre buffs, Kaneko and Ito include an element of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass paranoia, wherein humanity discovers they are just tenants occupying a world ruled by giant monsters, and draw upon the Howard Hawks communal action movie, referencing The Thing from Another World (1951) and also Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954). Everyone pulls together, a model of dutiful Japanese virtue.
Yet, unlike the brusque, no-nonsense, military types from the latter day Godzilla movies, the human heroes are warm and likeable. Kaneko includes welcome touches of comedy, such as when Midori’s concerned father eyeballs the young men calling on his daughter. The scene where Gamera and Legion grapple near a helicopter carrying Midori and Asagi carries genuine tension because we care about these characters. Ayako Fujitani (daughter of Steven Seagal) is our gateway into the impenetrable psyche of Gamera, a friendly face humanizing the world of magic and monsters. This benevolent air results in Gamera II’s most charming scene: a candlelit vigil held by children for the fallen monster. As hundreds of fairy lights revive Gamera, and the kids jump and cheer it reminds us the flaming frisbee is still very much a “friend to all children”.
God i hate these movies. It's kinda like Ultraman, which stinks, and the monnsters were really bad. This is even worse, an di hope they never make another Gamera film. The only cool one was the first one, and it sucked too.
Also, for those who thinks he fights Godzilla in War of the monsters, he doesn't, they couldbn't use the big lizard but they made an identicle monster and called it Baragon, like the cute monster out of When Frankenstien ruled the world, but a total rip off.
14 Apr 2011
Well, I'm a little surprised you're so down on this. I genuinely think the Gamera trilogy is superior to the Nineties Godzilla films. These were monster movies that were actually about something and had a faster pace, better scripts and unique set-pieces not derivative of Hollywood or recycling classic Japanese films from the Sixties. The monster designs were heavily influenced by an artist called Tohl Narita. He created the monsters for Ultraman too and wanted to break away from the usual American style of giant lizards or insects into something more surreal. They actually influenced a generation of Japanese avant-garde artists.
17 Jan 2012
I think my main issue isthat they aren't as good as the Showa movies. The 80's-90's godzilla movies are great in comparison. maybe i'd apperciate Gamera more if i had been raised with it.