After the phenomenal (and quite unexpected) success, artistically and financially, of Daiei’s monster reboot Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995), director Shusuke Kaneko was granted leeway to work his movie magic on a sequel with a more monster-worthy budget. The result was the much-celebrated Gamera 2: Attack of Legion, which did even bigger numbers at the box office, and the film helped further solidify Kaneko as a top director of Japanese science-fiction/fantasy films, a reputation that would lead him to much further success with giant monster films as well as manga adaptations such as the high-profile Death Note films. A big step up from his early work in pornography! Gamera 2: Advent of Legion is almost universally celebrated as a kaiju masterpiece amongst fans. However, my reaction to the movie was much more subdued than most when I originally watched the movie back in the late 1990s, and now, over ten years later, I was curious to revisit the film with eyes more jaded by Hollywood extravaganzas like The Avengers. How does the mayhem hold up?
To start with, the story: Some few years after Gamera and Gyaos thrashed one another and trashed Tokyo in the process, an unusual meteorite shower peppers the snowy landscape of Hokkaido while Midori Honami (Miki Mizuno, the Bayside Shakedown films) from the Sapporo Science Center looks on. Soon, a series of bizarre phenomena manifests around the fallen star rocks, and before long insect-like cyclopean aliens emerge, stealthily whisking about the countryside before settling in the city and attacking the locals. With astounding speed, the beasts (called “Legion” by a Bible-quoting Japanese soldier) grow a gargantuan flower in the middle of the city—a flower that, once matured, will detonate in order to send the Legion’s seed back into outer space, the resultant explosion deadly enough to level a city. Gamera arrives in time to stop the apocalypse, and barely manages to fight off the swarms of Legion bugs. However, the monster turtle is unable to destroy all the alien menaces, which are on the move to find a new place for their flower power. As Gamera fights the monsters, larger versions of Legion appear, culminating in an enormous, bizarre looking creature that towers over Gamera and can deflect his plasma breath. In the ensuing struggle, Gamera is apparently killed, and the Legion march on towards Tokyo with all of humanity (or at least Japan) trying desperately to find a way to stop the monster menace. Is humanity doomed forever? And, more importantly for monster fans, is Gamera really dead???
Gamera 2 takes its time to build up at first, taking a darker tone, and gradually reveals a creatively unusual menace with a surprising array of abilities. Screenwriter Kazunori Ito, returning after penning the first Kaneko Gamera film, here seems more confident, initially utilizing a slow-burn suspense as increasingly strange happenings foreshadow a dark future (ala Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster ). Even when the monsters do show up, at first we get only glimpses, slippery shadows, and quick cuts before they are revealed en masse in the subway tunnels. The feeling is somewhat like Rodan (1956) how treated the Meganulons, and with equally nasty results.
Yes, blood is spilled anew, which is not unusual for Gamera films, but here the action gets darker. Much of the film takes place at night, or in underground tunnels. Even the initial scenes taking place in a wintery Hokkaido might be suggestive of a final winter for the world. The comparative brightness of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe is shunned for dour grays and spouts of sizzling steam. Gamera is angrier looking, with a more vicious visage and a streamlined body. Humor is also toned down, with living cartoon Osako (Yukijiro Hotaru) having only a very minor part, and other jokes staying low-key. The new antagonist, though, is arguably not as dark as the flesh-munching Gyaos, but also much more creative.
Legion is an unusual giant monster; Kazunori Ito goes to some lengths to create a truly alien monster, with steampunk locomotion and electromagnetic communication abilities, among other quirks. Ito takes inspiration from diverse sources, from the aforementioned Toho films, to similarities to Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), Them (1954), and perhaps even the Neon Genesis Evangelion, which had recently released to overwhelming popularity. Neon Genesis Evangelion relies heavily on pseudo-religious iconography and mixed that with giant monster action, which makes Gamera 2’s otherwise somewhat inexplicable reference to Biblical demons more understandable. Legion, of course, is the name of a group of demons that are cast out of a man by Jesus Christ in Mark 5, and then proceed to possess a herd of pigs. The comparison makes little sense; Legion the daikaiju does not possess anyone, nor is it supernatural, and the big bug certainly doesn’t talk. In fact, Gamera is the one who possesses people, most notably in his pseudo-magical influence over Asagi, although that plot element is largely absent here. Further underscoring the religious theme, the animated title sequence shows a massive black cross that transforms into the メ(me) of Gamera’s name, which misleadingly indicates a foe of biblical proportions. Yet the naming of the monster comes from a nameless army grunt who sticks around long enough to quote Scripture and then disappears. The Legion also manifest a number of haunting, almost supernatural powers, but this is never capitalized on as demonic, which makes the religious flavor seem out of place. Still, having a main monster named after a demon contributes to the overall “darkness” factor of the script.
With all the attention paid to the monsters and building up the action, however, the human characters come across as neglected. There are no interesting human relationships, and characters returning from the last film have surprisingly small parts—including Asagi Kusanagi (Ayako Fujitani), who barely has anything to do here, and apparently has lost some of her “sympathy” powers with Gamera—when Gamera gets injured in this movie, Asagi doesn’t feel a thing. (This is a good thing, I suppose—I didn’t want to see Asagi’s shoulder blasted off.) Fujitani, then, has even less to do in this movie than in the previous film, and her relationship with Gamera and the mythology behind her priestess role are not developed further—which, once again, seems like a lost opportunity. All the other characters are present merely to further the plot (or, in the case of Osako, provide comic relief). Newcomer Midori Honami, played by another cute Japanese girl (this time Miki Mizuno), is basically just another version of Mayumi Nagamine—a determined, beautiful Japanese scientist who somehow has almost a supernatural ability to understand and predict monster behavior. Mizuno acquits herself adequately in the role, showing authority and seriousness upon her movie star features, but not much else—because there isn’t much else to show. She has a nerdy scientist side-kick in the person of Obitsu (Mitsuru Fukikoshi, who also had a small part in Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla , and the absolutely atrocious Space Hunter Miki), who sits at the computer dramatically. The only other character of note is General Watarase, played by Toshiyuki Nagashima, who has had significant experience in genre work in Japanese films such as Pyrokinesis (2000) and Moon Over Tao: Makaraga. However, like most military men in monster films, he is just a walking, talking stern face. It’s hard to care about the people when they function solely as plot props.
Still, this way the monsters get more loving attention, and the monster action here is often stunning. Legion makes an intimidating foe for Gamera, towering over the turtle and easily shrugging off most of our hero’s attacks. Much like in the first film, the battles are inventive and exciting, with a particular nod from me going to the sequence wherein Gamera slides across the ground sideways blasting plasma fireballs at Legion, and the gut-twisting scene where the tiny Legion bugs engulf our protagonist and “sting” him into submission. Gamera’s visible breath puffs in snowy Hokkaido add an atmospheric touch of additional realism as well, which I thought was great. The Legion Flower is also a memorable addition, especially when Gamera uproots the kaiju plant, and devastates the streets in the process. A few scenes are less successful; in some scenes, the Legion bugs come across as shakily as the early bug-eyed Gyaos from the previous film, and a particular sped-up sequence of Gamera struggling with Legion also distracts. Nevertheless, the budget increase goes to good use here, with a fine sense of scale, and outstanding monster action.
That said, the way the monster action is resolved (on a plot level) is just as unsatisfying here as in the first film, and the denouement replaces character development for a quick, tacked on “take care of the earth” message. Blah.
Music complements the action well, with Kow Otani turning in a wonderful score. Here, the Gamera theme from the first film returns, and is as brass-heavy and brain-catching as always, meshing well with the new, driving themes Otani has composed for this chapter. Otani has also put together an exciting, industrial-flavored military march that gives a mechanized flavor to humanity’s efforts at self-defense, which stuck out to me. Otani’s work is splendid, although an unusual, folksy song with a singer crooning “arigatoooooou” and children chanting is a curious choice over the end credits.
And really, in the end, there is much to celebrate in Gamera 2. The high quality and craft in the monster footage and more subtle tension-building show an unusual attention to detail that one doesn’t find often in daikaiju eiga, and demonstrates clearly how Kaneko has earned his “legion” of fans. On the other hand, the plot does not meaningfully extend much of the plot details from the original, and human characterization is almost absent entirely. On both of my viewings of this movie, I had a vague feeling that Gamera was not strictly necessary for the proceedings, and the film feels like a side story that juts out uncomfortably from the main tale that takes place in the first and third films. Still, there is much to commend and enjoy for monster movie buffs, easily besting the majority of Godzilla’s films from the same period. Who would have guessed that a flying turtle best known for incredibly silly children’s flicks could actually overcome the daikaiju king?