Month of Horror 2016: Genre Exploration – Kaiju: Gamera: Guardian of the Universe

Editor’s Note: The links within all point back to the original sources.  Perhaps one day I will fix them but more than likely I will keep them as is to honor the past (and because it is so much easier).  Links to the AVC are likely off due to the Kinja switchover.

10/17/2016 – Kaiju: Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)
Directed by Shusuke Kaneko

I mentioned Kaiju films before in the subject about natural horror but it’s only fair that they get their own segment. Yet even here, I can’t say I always agree with the distinction made between them and other monster movies (especially since the term is usually used as shorthand for daikaiju or giant monster despite kaiju instead refer to all monsters) but it’s best to treat them as a subgenre of monster films (which of course is already a subgenre of natural horror movies) and not get bogged down in boring discussions of classifications. For all intents and purposes, when I (or most people) say “kaiju” they are referring to the films descended from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Despite the name and popular association with Japan, it’s hard to deny the similarity between the far more famous Godzilla and the The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms from the previous year which it deliberately drew from. Both feature a dinosaur unleashed by an atomic bomb that emerges from the ocean and wreaks havoc on a city (though Godzilla replaced the awesome Harryhausen stop motion with a man in a suit, albeit an awesome suit). Godzilla however was the perfect execution of this idea however and the one Kaiju that really captured the horror of the concept and capitalize on the metaphor of a nuclear threat. Japan (the only nation on the receiving end of an enemy a-bomb and had just suffered from the accidental exposure to fisherman on the Daigo Fukuryū Maru) was the ideal home for it. Granted, it wasn’t necessarily viewed in the best taste at the time, but since then Godzilla has become a national symbol, albeit one that traded in that horror for more lighthearted films and monsters battling each other.

The release of Godzilla led to countless imitators including from home studio Toho (such MothraRodan, and Varan the Unbelievable), rival studio Daiei (Gamera), America (It Came from Beneath the Sea20 Million Miles to Earth), Britain (Gorgo), South Korea (Yonggary), North Korea (Pulgasari), Denmark (Reptillicus), as well as some variations from the “giant animal” of those listed such as Half Human and Daimajin, and dozens of sequels/reboots/reimaginings of varying quality (varying between mediocre and poor) to Godzilla. The Gareth Edwards remake is probably the closest to the original that we are going to get in tone (serious), portrayal of Godzilla himself (both minimize the actual use of him which is a good thing), and quality (the only other acceptable answer is Mothra vs. Godzilla).

Gamera is the closest to Godzilla in terms of impact and number of films but it’s still a wide gap and the Friend of All Children is never going to seriously challenge the King of the Monsters. Still, the original films made from 1965-1971 were generally pretty enjoyable (when they weren’t playing up the child friendly part) and some of the best quality films to make it on to MST3K. Aside from a single film made in 1980 though, the franchise sat still until it was given a modern makeover and reboot with a darker tone. Director Shusuke Kaneko actually went on to helm one of the best Godzilla movies in Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack as well as the live action Death Note films.

The film didn’t get off to a good start. Thanks for not subtitling the onscreen text movie, of course I can read Japanese… Thankfully this was not a sign of things to come. We are introduced to our two main contestants early. Gamera is introduced first as a floating, moving atoll but surprisingly we get much better looks early on of our villains, three Gyaos (not sure what the plural of Gyaos is), an original series villain and given quite an upgrade here. I really sympathized with them considering how like me, they are hurt by camera flashes. The effects all around are top notch with Gamera and Gyaos both looking great and modernized (yet very much in keeping with their original look) and some of the best men in suits I’ve seen.

Gone are the annoying little kids who often defined the series before, this is Gamera all grown up. We get a scene of a scientist observing a giant bird shit (well Gyaos shit) to prove just how serious we are. It’s rare to see a Kaiju actually and visibly consuming flesh and yet on multiple occasions we actually get to see Gyaos doing just that and their fights with Gamera are far more visceral than the genre usually allows. We get plenty of these battles to, not just quick flashes, but substantial ones. I appreciate the Godzilla (1954 and 2014) approach of limiting screen time to maintain tension and impact, but sometimes it’s fun to watch two monsters beat the crap out of other. And fun the movie is. Not in a campy way most Kaiju films traffic in, but just as a fun action movie with a dark tone (yet not too dark it forgets that). Which brings me to a point about Kaiju movies (I’ll get to a counterpoint soon), almost all of them have completely left behind their horror roots for an action feel (notably Pacific Rim).

Story wise, it’s better than most but we aren’t here for that and there’s certainly some allowances I had to overlook. A woman gets a psychic link to Gamera which somehow is able to heal him and also make sure that she suffers when he does and takes damage when he does (except when that’s not convenient since Gamera takes a ton of damage). The military also seems determined to kill Gamera and not necessarily Gyaos. I get that Gamera is a threat, but I really don’t know why they chose to side against Gamera almost instinctually. Gyaos starts fairly small and I guess the military wants to use them as weapons but even once it is clear they aren’t controllable; I guess someone forgot to tell them to change allegiances or at least attack both evenly. Instead, this is just a crutch the series falls on repeatedly to keep Gamera from winning too early, give him a chance to “redeem” himself, and allow the villain to get some uninterrupted wrecking time. Still it’s a great reboot which perfectly introduces the character and concepts to a modern age while still being a blast to watch.

Bonus Episode #22 – Kaiju: Gamera 2: Attack of Legion (1996)
Directed by Shusuke Kaneko

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I mentioned the turning down of the horror as very few post Godzilla (which emphasized the horrors of Godzilla/nuclear devastation and portrayed him as a real threat). This whole series though, especially starting with this entry, brings back the horror at least somewhat. The film turns up the horror early and with an especially bloody kill for a kaiju movie and almost Aliens type feel. The insect-like alien creatures are a wonderful design, with Legion being a horde of Starship Troopers-esque bugs (though it predated that film) with an equivalent to that film’s brain bug in the queen. They look especially awesome in stop motion though the CGI bits, much less so. It is a mid-90s film so this is to be expected and thankfully the first two films are able to minimize it to when it’s absolutely necessary which keeps it from looking too dated.

The aforementioned queen is our prime baddie and it looks like a cross between a beetle, a lobster, and Guiron which acts as a sort of tie to the original series. Still, it’s nice to see them try something new after bringing back Gyaos last time (which worked in easing the transition). The effects for its electricity and energy beam effect are impressive and it held up in appearance as hunks of monster flesh ripped off and its CGI worked swarmed from her body. Gamera feels believably out matched yet not so much that you feel cheated when the inevitable happens. The story here is basically the same as last time and feel even more like something to string along the fights but the human scenes were all well-handled and as a whiole, the film is a marked improvement from the first (itself a great film). Gamera’s long slide to a stop during the final fight made me feel like a kid again in how cool it looked and what more can you ask for?

Bonus Episode #23 – Kaiju: Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999)
Directed by Shusuke Kaneko

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Gamera 3 made me nervous by bringing back children early but they are far less obnoxious this time. The lead girl even gets a tragic backstory and villainous revenge plot that teams her up with the villain to take down Gamera (who killed her parents in a bit of collateral damage), a nice twist from the typical plot of a spiritual connection between Gamera and a different young girl. The film really plays up the fear and emphasizes the destruction caused by Gamera (who seems to have gotten a slight unneeded redo in design) which gives at least gives them a plausible reason not to side with Gamera this time. He may be their defender, but his defense comes at a high cost of thousands of lives and the devastation of cities. Still no one learns their lesson about Gamera being a necessary evil who regularly stop the cities in the process of being wrecked. Gamera is literally fighting the giant fücking monster and you still want to go after him first. If I was Gamera I’d have let those idiots die and just gone and hung out on some deserted island in the Pacific (or maybe he fears that the American military is actually competent and not run by the Keystone Kops). There is even some dumb subplot about a guy who wants Iris to kill Gamera so the Gyaos can wipe out the human race but SPOILERS luckily that guy gets the Trevelyan treatment and the subplot is forgotten immediately. END OF SPOILERS

There’s far more CGI this time around and I don’t need to remind you that 1999 was not a great time for prominent CGI. The monsters still look great when they are done by men in suits with Iris feeling far more alien and unique even if the tentacles make me uncomfortable (not the good horror kind), but when it would abandon them, the film would instantly lose attention. They Gyaos make a return with a lovely gruesome sight of a dying Gyaos that the film makes sure you appreciate. Occasionally the film will go into some exaggerated slo-mo with blurring effect that looks awful but at least one time it was generous enough for this effect to leave a desiccated corpse behind.

This is a far more story driven film than the last two and the continuity is very welcome even if the human characters change from film to film. By the end, it truly felt like this was a world we were living in (albeit a world too quick to go to the mystical side) with a unique history and understanding. The aforementioned tentacles on Iris allow it to twice suck up his designated girl (who raises him up from a discovered egg for the very purpose of killing Gamera) and the second time they merge makes for a great dream scene that had me wondering if Guillermo Del Toro had seen this film before making Pacific Rim. Heck, we even get to watch this girl stare coldly out as Iris fights Gamera, not caring how many others die as a result (parallels!) until of course she turns face later on.

But let’s get back to the monster fighting which is as great as always, possibly even better (at least when it isn’t turning into an anime to show off some of Iris’ attacks). Their fights are brutal and bloody until at one point SPOILERS Gamera chops his own hand off with his atomic breath or whatever and then rips the girl out of Iris’ chest like this is Mortal Kombat just to prove how awesome he is. He’s practically wearily sighing by the end as he walks through flames having defeated Iris knowing he’s got to keep fighting for these incompetent, ungrateful fools. I’m bummed we don’t get to see him wipe out all the Gyaos that swarm the film at the end while Gamera quips that he’s too old for this shit but at that point I was too happy to care. END OF SPOILERS These films aren’t perfect but I had a great time with all of them. I don’t know if I’d rank 3 about 2, it depends how tolerant I’m feeling of certain stupidity of the military and more prevalent CGI of 3, but it’s the rare trilogy that is consistent and improving throughout. They are some of the best Kaiju films I’ve seen and I highly recommend them.

Gamera may have proven himself as awesome and all, but we still have this to remember him by.

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