If Gamera II perfected the art of Japanese monster moviemaking, the controversial Gamera III takes the genre someplace it’s never been. The flying, fire-breathing turtle and schoolgirl sidekick, Asagi Kusanagi (Ayako Fujitani) are back, in their most apocalyptic adventure yet. It’s 1999 and all over Southeast Asia people report sightings of Gyaos, the man-eating flying reptiles who tangled with our turtle hero in Gamera, Guardian of the Universe (1995). Ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama) is back on the case, determined to answer that age-old question: “Why is Japan constantly being attacked by monsters?” The trail uncovers an eco-prophecy lain down in ancient scripture, secretly scrutinized by devious politico, Mito Asakura (Senri Yamasaki) and videogame designer/mad prophet, Shinya Kurata (Tooru Teduka).
Elsewhere, a troubled teenager named Ayana (Ai Maeda) struggles adjusting to life in the countryside, four years after her parents died… in a building destroyed by Gamera. Behind a local shrine tended by siblings Tatsunari (Yuu Koyama) and Miyuki Moribe (Nozomi Ando - star of another great monster movie: Sakuya, Slayer of Demons (2000)), Ayana stumbles upon a cave housing a newly-hatched, squid-like monster - all squirmy tentacles and puppy dog eyes. Ayana names the hatchling Iris (in memory of her mother’s pet cat) and raises it as her instrument of revenge against Gamera. But when Iris morphs into a spectacular supernatural terror, it slaughters dozens of innocent folk, including several of Ayana’s friends.
The military scrambles to deal with Iris and the rapidly spreading Gyaos plague, while Mayumi reunites with former police inspector Osako (Yukijiro Hotaru) and Gamera’s gal pal, Asagi, who sports a cute haircut and a mystical theory regarding “Mana” - an energy force that surrounds Planet Earth. Myriad characters and plot threads convene amidst Armageddon: a city engulfed in flames, doomsday scenarios re-enacted by videogames, screaming prophets, magic talismans, Tatsunari racing to free the imprisoned Ayana, Mayumi trapped beneath an iron girder, and Gamera’s blazing showdown with Iris. Humanity, bravery and forgiveness all figure in the most mind-blowing and moving finales ever seen in a Japanese monster movie.
Existentialism, emotional turmoil and disaffected youth were prevalent themes amidst Japanese fantasy films of this period, especially cutting edge anime like The End of Evangelion (1997), Serial Experiments Lain (1998), and Adolescence of Utena (1999). With Gamera III (known as Revenge of Iris in the West, although the Japanese title: Incomplete Struggle seems more apt), director Shusuke Kaneko, co-screenwriter Kazunori Ito and special effects wizard Shinji Higuchi (both anime veterans) draw from the same well and tap into the emotional dislocation and pre-millennial tension present in those heady days of 1999. You could call this the kaiju eiga answer to Fight Club (1999) or American Beauty (1999).
The first thing you’ll notice is two thirds of the movie focuses on human drama, with sporadic monster appearances (Higuchi’s inspired combination of computer graphics and traditional man-in-a-suit mayhem reaches its zenith) and solid shocks (a shrivelled corpse swings from above to scare Mayumi) icing the cake until the kaiju candy-rush, sensory overload finale. Kaneko and Ito outline their themes in both subtle ways, as when Mayumi casually ignores an answer-phone message from her parents begging her to visit, or the shots of homeless people amidst Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district; and grand gestures like Ayana absorbed into Iris’ body where she relives victims’ pain in a trippy, psychedelic self-revelation a la Akira (1988) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Kaneko, Ito, and Higuchi are of the otaku generation. While western geeks were content to collect action figures, otaku were idealists for whom anime was their Woodstock and sci-fi, a way of life that would save the world. Like Evangelion, Gamera III links the fallout from that lost idealism with the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy. A dark aura hangs over the encroaching millennium, layered in dense, mystical foreboding. Kaneko crafts amazing, apocalyptic imagery: raining fire vaporizes Shibuya, an explosion flings bodies into the sky, Iris extends its razor tendrils and looms like a Lovecraftian nightmare by the light of a moonlit sky. Characters are either embittered, uncertain, or crazed as they revel in destruction. Creepy Kurata is both a Lovecraftian character, maddened by unravelling the grand cosmic plan, and an otaku parody. A man who can’t help but exclaim: “This is so cool!”, even as he’s overwhelmed by Armageddon.
Even Gamera briefly becomes an ambiguous presence (and given a spiky, feral makeover). Guardian of the Earth for sure, but his mantra sometimes seems like: protect the innocent at all costs and to hell with everybody else. For the first time since the original Godzilla (1954), we see the high price paid by ordinary folk caught in the crossfire. After a narrow escape a child cries: “Gamera saved me!”, a reference to the deluded Kenny, from Gamera the Invincible (1965), the only time the flying turtle played the villain.
Yet unlike H.P. Lovecraft or Evangelion, Kaneko doesn’t let humanity go out with a scream against the dark, despairing night. We see the resilience of ordinary, decent folk: Mayumi shows kindness towards Osako, who in turn inspires Tatsunari to race towards Ayana’s aid. Asagi’s big heart, bravery and youthful idealism - is paralleled with Gamera’s noble, self-sacrifice. The triumph of Gamera III is a bittersweet, yet never despairing, revelation that life is a constant struggle so that we may all evolve. Kaneko called his movie “a love story between humans and monsters”. By the closer, Gamera sheds his ambiguity like a second skin to become a messianic figure, resurrecting one character in a selfless gesture.
Not everyone got the message. In Japan, a group of fans released their own version of Gamera III with the last fifteen minutes replaced with homemade visual effects footage. A.D. Vision’s DVD includes a silly “Gamera commentary” (wherein the turtle sports a Texan accent!), which suggests many out there still find these movies laughable. Never mind them. Seek out Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera trilogy and have your minds well and truly blown. Even his Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: All Monsters Attack (2001) couldn’t top it. Gamera eventually returned, in child-friendly mode, for Ryu Tasaki’s Gamera the Brave (2006).