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Posts Tagged ‘Miki Mizuno’

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.

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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.

legionqueen

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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