Posts Tagged ‘Gamera’

There’s a thing which happens to every great fictional character, or at least those not bound to a particular story, where they become the property of each new generation, and get reinterpreted and revitalised as a result. Thus you get the various different takes on Batman and James Bond, not to mention people like Sherlock Holmes and Godzilla. If nothing else, this guarantees the character a degree of immortality – provided it’s done properly, of course, and assuming the character is both flexible and universal enough to survive the process in a recognisable form. And it also provides an instant sort of social history, as by comparing the different stories being told, you can learn a lot about society at the time they were made.

One of the things which cheered me up most this week was the discovery that a subtitled version of Ryuta Tasaki’s Gamera the Brave (J-title: Chiisaki Yusha-Tachi Gamera, and, I believe, also known in some territories as Young Braves of Gamera and Gamera: Little Heroes) was available on a popular video-sharing website which had recently celebrated an anniversary. Gamera the Brave came out in 2005, by which point Toho had announced a decade-long lay-off for Godzilla, and the dust had settled on Shusuke Kaneko’s superb Gamera trilogy (1995-1999). Daiei, original producers of the Gamera series, had gone bust by this point, and the new film was made under the auspices of the Kadokawa company (not that it matters much).


Tasaki’s film disregards the Kaneko trilogy’s continuity, and – rather like the Millennium Godzilla films – gives Gamera a definite but essentially vague presence in the way-back-when. In this case, the opening sequence of the film is set in 1973 and depicts Gamera’s fall in battle against a flock of Gyaos creatures, none of whom survive. (The origins of the various monsters are not gone into at all, by the way.)

Thirty-odd years pass and we are introduced to Toru (Ryo Tomioka), a young boy who has recently lost his mother, and his dad Kousuke (Kanji Tsuda). Toru is, inevitably, having a tough time coping, but finds some distraction when he notices a flashing red light on a small island just off the coast of the sleepy seaside town in which he lives. (We are required to accept that either no-one else sees the light, or that if they do, they ignore it completely. This is perhaps the first sign of the kind of film this is.) Anyway, the light turns out to be a glowing red rock, on top of which is incubating a tiny little egg.

Inside the egg is the cutest ickle baby turtle you ever saw, which Toru naturally adopts and christens Toto. The audience being several steps ahead of all the characters, it comes as no surprise when cute little Toto starts growing at a frankly surprising rate and reveals the ability to fly and belch flame in a manner atypical of most turtles. This does not stop Toru bonding with him in a frankly time-consuming and slightly schmaltzy manner.

Rather more rewarding for the connoisseur of the classic kaiju formula are various other scenes punctuating all the boy-and-his-turtle stuff. There is a cherishable news bulletin on in the background at one point, in which the top item is the announcement that after 33 years of complete inactivity, the ‘giant monster council’ is being shut down, and the very next piece is a report of ships mysteriously vanishing off Okinawa. Say, those two things couldn’t be pertinent to the plot, could they…? Later, a survivor of one of the sinkings is abruptly sucked beneath the waves and a gory plume rises to the surface in his place. Clearly something is on its way to Japan…

But not just yet, because we have many scenes of Toru and his friends having fun on the beach and at the skate park, and Gamera Jr getting up to various adorable antics in the kitchen of Kousuke’s restaurant, to get through. As if all the young-boy-is-helped-with-grief-by-baby-monster stuff wasn’t enough, there’s another domestic subplot going on, this one about the teenage girl living next door, and her impending heart operation and the stress this is causing her and her family. By this point I was getting the same kind of vibe off Gamera the Brave I got off Godzilla Raids Again, in which the director seemed much more interested in the running of a fish-canning business than the actual giant monster stuff. For much of the film, Tasaki seems determined to tell a heart-warming yet bittersweet story about the lives of young people by the seaside, with the actual monsters only included as a contractual obligation.

If you can make it through all the cutesy/sentimental stuff, however, the film does improve quite a bit, as the town is attacked by a new monster which they eventually decide to call Zedus. Why? I don’t know. Monster naming protocols in Japan remain as obscure as ever; possibly the ‘giant monster council’ left a list of names as the last act before they were wound up. Where has Zedus come from? Why has it suddenly appeared? Why does it enjoy eating people so much? It would have been nice to know, but all those scenes on the beach were obviously more important.

Actually, Zedus is a fairly decent-looking monster – rather more traditional-looking than the Legion Queen or Irys from the Kaneko movies – and while it’s obviously a dude in a suit (his name is Mizuho Yoshida, an ex-Godzilla suit actor) – it’s quite hard to see how the suit is operated. The only real brick I can throw in Zedus’ direction is that from some angles it does look strikingly similar to Uncle Deadly from The Muppet Show.

I rest my case.

I rest my case.

Naturally, Gamera Jr takes it upon himself to save the townspeople from Uncle Deadly Zedus, and succeeds in driving the larger beast off. In a fairly novel twist, rather than wanting all the monsters disposed of, the Japanese government take Gamera into custody, realising he is their best shot at getting rid of Zedus once and for all. The thing is that as a young Gamera, Toto isn’t at full power yet, and in order to access all of his abilities he needs the rock on which he was incubated – and which Toru has given to Mai the heart patient.

If nothing else the race to get the stone to Gamera before Zedus stomps him into the ground provides a natural way to interweave the stories of the humans and the monsters as the film approaches its climax. There is something tonally very weird going on here, however.

As you can probably tell, Gamera the Brave abandons all the mythos and grandeur of the Kaneko movies in favour of kid-friendly fantasy adventure. I suppose this isn’t a totally insupportable creative decision, especially given that the original Gamera films from the 60s and 70s were much more juvenile, but it inevitably feels like a bit of a backward step. This movie feels like it’s aimed at a pre-teen audience much more than any other kaiju movie since about 1975, culminating in an interminable sequence in which a relay of cute kids rush Gamera’s power-up rock across Nagoya. As someone else said about a different topic, yeuchh.

Just about the only thing Tasaki retains from the 90s trilogy is a penchant for surprisingly graphic and icky monster battles: Gamera Sr gets nastily savaged by the Gyaos at the start, while slime goes a-spattering everywhere as Toto is repeatedly spiked, even impaled, on Zedus’ pointy tongue. But the direction doesn’t do anything to give the monsters the same sense of unstoppable power, or moments of startling spectacle. I’m starting to realise, also, just what a big contribution Kow Otani’s magnificent soundtrack made to the success of the Kaneko films: the score here is wholly forgettable.

Splatter aside, the monster mashing isn’t anything to write home about, either: the most memorable moments here aren’t awesomely cool, but unintentionally funny – for example, the moment when Gamera gets himself wedged headfirst in the side of a skyscraper. This sets the scene for a truly egregious moment in which, instead of handing over the power-up stone which is supposedly so important, Toru spends literally minutes telling Gamera how much he likes him, and basically ordering him not to blow himself up fighting Zedus. The child acting is not that bad, but it’s just will-sappingly sentimental.

That’s the thing about Gamera the Brave: it’s not actually a badly made film, for the most part, though I would say the special effects are a little wobbly in places. It’s just that the basic concept seems to me to be quite suspect: this is a schmaltzy kid’s melodrama masquerading as a proper kaiju movie. The film seems to have been constructed with a potential sequel in mind – it concludes with the new Gamera flying off, ready to take up the mantle of friend to children everywhere – but none has been forthcoming. (I suspect if Godzilla’s new movies continue to turn a profit, it’ll only be a matter of time, however.) I will put my hand up and confess to not being a ten year old Japanese child, and thus not the apparent target audience for this film. But I think that earlier films in this series created a wider interest in Gamera and his world that Gamera the Brave does not serve at all well.


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I have realised that my declared intention to do more Japanese movies has not really been followed up with action. Oh, I know that this year I’ve done Record of a Living Being and, quite recently, Grave of the Fireflies, but two films in five months isn’t much to celebrate. They’re also both quite worthy and earnest films, not to say actually depressing.

So, anyway: time for another Japanese movie, one with a real energy and sense of joie de vivre about it (or whatever the Nihongo translation is). I am speaking of Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera: Advent of Legion from 1997, one of a trio of brilliant, brilliant genre movies which Kaneko made with writer Kazunori Ito and special-effects artist Shinji Higuchi. This is the middle film of the three and the one which wears its classic SF influences most openly.


The movie opens with a Stock Footage Alert at NASA, as a mysterious object approaches Earth from deep space. Inevitably, given this is a Japanese movie, it impacts in Hokkaido in the north of the country, but almost at once local scientist Honami (Miki Mizuno) uncovers strange anomalies: there are signs the meteor was slowing down before it landed. There are peculiar electromagnetic phenomena in the area. Bizarre creatures like giant beetles break into a local brewery and appear to eat all the bottles.

The movie handles all these classic B-movie tropes with enormous confidence and skill, and follows them with a sequence which appeared to me to directly reference Them – a subway train in Sapporo is derailed and the passengers gorily attacked by the same giant alien beetles. Almost simultaneously, a gigantic plant-like organism erupts from the ground in the centre of the city, a flower-like structure at its centre.

The scientists and military who are handling the crisis realise that both the beetles and the flower are components of the same alien gestalt creature, which they nickname Legion. They deduce that Legion is a parasite which creates the conditions to cause vast explosions, using them to propel its pods from one planet to another. One such blast is imminent, and predictions indicate that it will level Sapporo.

However, the city is spared, its saviour taking the unlikely shape of an 80-metre-high nuclear-powered flying turtle: yes, it’s Gamera! For anyone not following along, this incarnation of Gamera is the creation of ancient Atlantean science, programmed to protect the biosphere of Earth from just this sort of unusual threat. Gamera uproots the Legion plant fairly easily, but reckons without the Legion beetles, which are too small for him to effectively attack. The beetles swarm all over Gamera and bring him down, and he is only saved by a freak stroke of luck. (Given the subject matter and the fact that this isn’t what you’d call a big-budget movie, this whole sequence is breathtakingly well-mounted.)

Sapporo has been saved, but the main Legion creature survives and escapes, heading for Tokyo (as giant monsters nearly always do in Japanese movies). With the organism rapidly adapting to the threats posed to it by both Gamera and the Self-Defence Force, can the humans put aside their distrust and find a way to co-operate with their chelonian defender?

I have to say that for a long time I was inclined to dismiss Advent of Legion as by far the weakest of the Heisei trilogy of Gamera films (the others being 1995’s Guardian of the Universe, and 1999’s Incomplete Struggle), but having seen it again a couple of times recently I fear I may have been doing it an injustice.

Certainly it is a rather different film to either of the others, in terms of both its plot and tone. The other films share characters and themes – not to mention the same antagonists, in the form of the monstrous Gyaos – but, apart from a brief appearance from Ayako Fujitani as Gamera’s human soulmate, Advent of Legion can really stand alone providing you already know who and what Gamera is. It’s also much more of an SF movie than the others, which have a much stronger fantasy element to their storylines.

One thing the storylines of all these films share is that they are a definite cut above what you might expect from a Japanese kaiju movie. Let’s bear in mind that we’re talking about the genre where a film’s raison d’etre is the bringing about of a climactic battle between two or more men in giant monster costumes, and as such a different set of standards is necessarily in place – but having said this, Advent of Legion manages to include all the standard tropes and conventions of the genre and feature a number of brilliantly-staged monster battles, yet it never feels camp or silly and the plot does a good impression of making sense. It’s very hard to sufficiently stress just what a breakthrough this is.

The same is really true of Guardian of the Universe, of course; what Advent of Legion adds to the mix is its knowledge of American SF B-movie conventions, and a stab at including some plausible-sounding science. The stuff with Legion eating bottles ties into both the alien’s biology (it’s a silicon-based lifeform) and its life-cycle (if you extract all the silicon from glass, you’re left with pure oxygen, an explosive gas). The tendency of kaiju to home in on major cities, particularly Tokyo, rather than gambolling about in the countryside, is also addressed in a relatively thoughtful way. All right, so it’s not very rigorous science, but you’re still left with the impression that someone has really sat down and thought about this stuff.

The script is certainly something which has been carefully structured, in the classic three-act manner: each act concluding with a clash between Gamera and Legion. If the film has an actual weakness, it’s that the final battle doesn’t quite live up to expectations. The peripheral stuff with the SDF and the Legion beetles is fine, but the central clash seems to boil down to a lot of pushing and zapping. Perhaps the design of the main Legion monster is also to blame – it’s a weird-looking beastie, certainly, but also rather unwieldy and not really as charismatic as Gyaos.


Nevertheless, this is simply a hugely solid monster movie. It may not be a breathtaking update of the entire genre for a modern audience (that’d be Guardian of the Universe), nor an attempt to move it on and transform it into something wholly new and surprising (I refer, of course, to Incomplete Struggle). But it is still one of the very best movies of its kind ever made. I suspect that kaiju movies will soon be making a comeback in a big way – Del Toro’s Pacific Rim is out in a month, Gareth Edwards’ take on Godzilla this time next year – but when it comes to the gold standard of the genre, it’s movies like Advent of Legion that we’re talking about.

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An excerpt from the Hootoo Archive. Originally published 22nd November 2001:

…which leads us neatly into Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera: The Guardian Of The Universe, the first of the new-look Gamera movies. The story opens with Yanemori (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a young naval officer, escorting a freighter full of plutonium across the Pacific. The convoy runs into an uncharted floating atoll, which drifts off towards Japan. Meanwhile ornithologist and babe Muyami Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama) is called in when a mysterious new species of giant lizard-bird devours the entire population of a small island. The government lures the bird-things (which we later learn are called Gyaos) to a sports arena on the mainland, hoping to trap them under the retractable roof (a useful fringe benefit of this feature which the architects of the new Wembley stadium might want to consider).

As the plan goes into action the atoll, now monitored by Yanemori and investigator Kusanage (Akira Onodera), enters the nearby harbour and turns out to be, startlingly, a 60-metre tall turtle (yes, this is Gamera, a rather good costume albeit with slightly boggly eyes). Gamera stomps his way to the arena and goes after the captive Gyaos. But what is the relationship between the two types of monster?

Well, thanks in part to Kusanage’s daughter Asagi (Ayako Fujitani, better known as Steven Seagal’s daughter) forming a psychic link with Gamera, the truth is revealed. It all turns out to be perfectly simple: 12,000 years ago the Gyaos, a genetically-engineered Atlantean life-form, ran out of control and destroyed their own creators. But not, however, before the Atlanteans were able to create Gamera to defend humanity from the winged menace. Now environmental damage has caused a clutch of ancient Gyaos eggs to hatch, and Gamera’s expertise is clearly required. (I said it was simple, not that it actually made sense.)

The movie zooms along at a manic pace, with vast amounts of property damage and some nifty special effects. Well, perhaps I should qualify that by saying that you’ll hardly ever be in doubt as to how any of the effects are achieved (the Gyaos are obviously glove puppets, Gamera is obviously a guy in a rubber suit), but they tell the story brilliantly. This was one of the first kaiju eiga to use CGI – for Gamera’s and the Gyaos’ breath weapons and some rockets the army use on them – and it adds enormously to the look of the picture.

I saw the dubbed UK Special Edition of this movie and inevitably this adds to the comedy value of the dialogue – it’s weirdly-accented, bizarrely-cadenced, and at some points it seems deliberately designed to raise a laugh – ‘Move along, there’s nothing to see,’ a rather-too-mellow traffic cop entreats the crowd at one point, while behind him an enraged giant turtle demolishes a national landmark.

The other interesting thing about the UK version is the music. Rather charmingly the UK producers thought that today’s sophisticated young audience would all rush to see an old-fashioned foreign monster movie as long as it had bangin’ techno tunes on the soundtrack. And so virtually the entire movie takes place to a pulsating backbeat. The first time I watched it this drove me up the wall in annoyance, but on subsequent viewings it really grew on me: it adds an odd kind of urgency to the story and is a refreshing change from the stilted march music that comprises the average Godzilla soundtrack.

I am, of course, aware that a lot of people would choose to donate a kidney rather than sit through a dubbed, foreign, not-exactly-big-budget monster movie. And while I respect this, I still think it’s a shame, because – if you’re in the right mood – this is at least as entertaining as your average Hollywood blockbuster. Of all the kaiju eiga I’ve seen – which is probably more than is healthy – the only one I’d even consider recommending over this would be the 1992 version of Godzilla Vs Mothra. Monstrously entertaining, and you should really give it a chance…

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