What exactly makes a good giant monster movie? Is it just the monster fights, the special effects, the costumes and chaos and catastrophe? How much does the story really matter, or the little folks running around underneath the feet of the gargantuan combatants? If the movie is entertaining, is that enough, or is there a higher level of craftsmanship that should be aimed for, or even a message embedded in all that mayhem? Does it matter if there's a point?
I ask this after watching Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris because this movie goes well beyond the usual stock plot limits of the average monster mash. Though the film trades on familiar monster themes, it does so with unusual flair and visual panache, with characters that have heart, yet still managing a few winks and nudges amongst the pathos and pain. So much of giant monster films are fairly empty affairs, with little thought given as to how to tell a really potent, meaningful story. From where I write, Shusuke Kaneko's third film succeeds far beyond the average Japanese monster romp, and hints at even higher heights that, frankly, few folk even attempt.
For this movie, I am going to freely discuss spoilers because I think the movie is worth the analysis, and also, most Toho Kingdom readers will have already seen the movie.
The story takes place directly after the events of Gamera 2: Advent of Legion (1996), but with more narrative threads connecting it to the original. All over the world, more Gyaos monsters are appearing—and killing anew. Meanwhile, a teenage girl named Ayana (Ai Maeda, Battle Royale) is struggling with a new life. In the events of the first Gyaos attack, Gamera inadvertently killed her parents, and now she lives with relatives, bullied by her peers, and harbors a seething hatred for the purported guardian of earth. Due to the actions of said bullying classmates, she is coerced into entering a cursed temple where a powerful demon is said to be trapped. There, she accidentally hatches a multi-tentacled mysterious monster that she names Iris, after her former pet cat. Despite the objections of the guardian of the temple, a teenage boy (Tatsunari Moribe) who has a crush on her, Ayana raises the monster herself, and her blood rage further fuels the creature's own maliciousness as it develops into a mountainous monstrosity. Mayumi Nagamine (reprised by Shinobu Nakayama) is back also, working with Gamera's former “priestess” Asagi Kurosagi (Ayako Fujitani again) to investigate the return of the Gyaos, and the mysterious happenings surrounding Ayana and her family. All the while, Gamera fights the returned Gyaos beasties, decimating cities, and slaughtering hundred of innocents along the way. Inevitably, Gamera and Iris are drawn together in a monumental struggle over Ayana's soul, and, of course, the fate of the world.
That's the basic outline, and I haven't even mentioned the return of former inspector Osako, the crazy game designer, and a creepy fortune teller. Some of these additional plot elements seem like unnecessary complications, throwing out numerous ideas and distractions from what really matters—Ayana and Asagi, and their respective relationships with the monsters.
Although the “person with a grudge against a giant monster” plot has been done before, here writer Kazunori Ito brings it off the best I have seen it done, perhaps in any medium. Ayana is deeply hurt with good reason; even though Gamera is trying to save the world, a beast with such power will inevitably kill innocents, and those innocents who survive will justifiably be pretty angry in consequence. We get a significant glimpse into Ayana's miserable life, we see her pain, and we know why she wants to destroy Gamera. (The bullies seem a bit much, though. At least her adoptive family isn’t actively abusive.) Ai Maeda turns in a good performance, too, showing the devastation, moodiness, and dark lethal intent required for her role.
Asagi returns, now disconnected somewhat from Gamera due to the events in the previous movie, and earnestly trying to research whatever connection she might have left. She can see the goodness in Gamera, despite the enormous destruction the monster wreaks upon the earth, and Ayako Fujitani gives her most nuanced performance as Asagi yet, with more maturity, and even a little uncertainty coloring her visage as she faces such a perplexing situation. Shinobu Nakayama also has more to work with as super-ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine, who remains authoritative, but also protective of Asagi and Ayana, and even has an amusing exchange with a monster response official, and charmingly reconnects with Osako (Yukijiro Hotaru), a man whose life has been decimated by the monsters from the previous films.
And that is how Gamera 3 really, really excels—showing us how the monsters really affect the lives of everyday people, and very special people alike. We see a devastated old woman and her outrage against the Gyaos that killed her family, mirroring and anticipating Ayana's vendetta. We see Osako’s shattered life as he slumps among the homeless. We see Asagi, traveling the world to try to understand herself because of Gamera’s role in her life. And we see Ayana, tormented by nightmares of a demonic Gamera, filled with rage. As Ayana gives in to her hate, we wonder how much she is controlling Iris, fueling that monster’s murderous ways—and how much Iris is influencing her. This also reflects the backstories of Gyaos and Gamera as well, since they were created by humans, but went beyond human control. Thus, monsters are born from human will, and human will is twisted by its own creations, which evolve and become deadlier over time by human influence.
Indeed, a big theme of the movie is the evolution of the Gyaos, and, to a lesser degree, of Gamera, too. The Gyaos are evolving, and it is indicated that Iris, too, is a mutated Gyaos, albeit sort of a super-form that can bond with humans. Indeed, part of Iris’ evolution is caused by his interactions with Ayana in the most intimate manner imaginable. Given that Iris is a multi-tentacled beastie, and the way that the creature embraces Ayana (and her expression during the encounter), the implication is that they have something of a sexual meeting—and I am not the only reviewer to note this, and given director Kaneko's soft porn background, it’s not altogether surprising. Indeed, Iris lustfully pursues Ayana, wanting to become one flesh with her, and acts as a rival to Tatsunari Moribe, the temple guardian teen who has a crush on her. It’s disturbing, but furthers the theme that Iris and Ayana are really one, and that the destruction visited upon humanity comes from humanity itself. The theme resonates with me as a Christian, because it reflects the natural evil of sin within everyone. Truly, within human beings, there is great capacity for evil, and, even when we try to save others, like Gamera does here, we can end up destroying lives.
And Gamera and Iris have human-like character. Iris, influenced by Ayana, kills her adoptive family, and manipulates his human bond-mate. Gamera is more interesting, because he has become a marauding monster now, desperate to stop the Gyaos, and literally blasting hundreds of humans with his plasma breath, yet also trying valiantly to protect individuals when he has the chance. In the end, when Iris consumes Ayana into himself, Gamera makes her safety his top priority, and sacrifices his own body in order to rescue her from Iris. The implication seems to be that Gamera wants to save every individual life when possible, especially children. Why Gamera saves children is never explained, however, especially given his seeming indifference to killing innocents earlier in the movie. One possibility is their usefulness as priestesses, if one wants to look at the situation with a gimlet eye, but of course, Gamera has long been known as the friend of children, and that’s probably all the justification needed.
Visually, Gamera has changed quite a bit, too, and his new look reveals the darker side to his character. While in the first film he looked comparatively kind and friendly, in the second movie he began to look more beastly, and here the transformation is complete, with his newest design the most intimidating yet. The suit looks amazing, with little of the jerky movement and none of the cartoonish goggle eyes of the first costume. His skin is darker now, and his shell is segmented with wicked-sharp seams—and that’s not even counting the satanic Gamera of Ayana’s nightmares, screaming fire and brimstone through her twisted memories.
Indeed, all the suits are very impressive, with the third film sporting the most astonishing special-effects of the trilogy—as well as the most gruesome. This movie was simply not made for little children, with gore a-plenty, including one Gyaos with a dislodged eyeball, Gamera's severed hand, as well as monsters having their bellies ripped open with blood and piles of torn organs. The execution of the shots, too, is gothically gorgeous, tragic and awesome simultaneously. The CGI, while not perfect, still looks quite good. Iris in particular is frequently depicted via computer graphics, and though one animation seems to be shown twice, in general the effect is beautiful. When Iris floats through the air and tangles with Gamera in the sky, the effect is almost magical. The only big stumble, I felt, was the rubbery corpses left behind by Iris after he sucks the “mana” out of them, which look like Halloween dolls one might find at K-Mart.
Along with the dark imagery, religious themes are strong, too, with the subplot of the demon-infested shrine and the multi-generational guardianship, which seems a standard plot nugget in Japanese pop mythology. Interestingly, the legends behind the shrine are more fleshed out in some ways than Gamera’s origins throughout the trilogy. Thus, though Gamera, Iris, and the Gyaos all were supposed to have been created by humans, there is a supernatural bent once again coloring the events—although perhaps the inclination is that, since the monster “gods” were created by man, religion itself is a man-made phenomena as well. This idea is further supported by the aforementioned creepy seer, Asakura Mito (played solemnly by Senri Yamazaki), who calls on the gods to defeat Iris, but is killed in the attempt. The most (inexplicably) knowledgeable individual about the monsters is the megalomaniacal game designer, Shinya Kurata, played with excess relish by Tooru Teduka. Kurata somehow understands the source of the monsters’ power (mana, which is like a more scientific Force ala Star Wars), and speculates with authority on the monsters origins. He, too, dies, but seems to delight in his death. He is a source of knowledge in understanding the very materiality of the monsters, but his intelligence and understanding seem to have driven him mad, or at least twisted his morality. The fact that he is a gamer and a source of such knowledge may have been a way to appeal to the viewer base that goes to movies like this, but the end implication for that lifestyle is not a good one. Morality, rather, can be found chiefly amongst the strong females of the movie. They are the caretakers, who possess great insight into the monsters as well, but further act as guardians alongside Gamera, chasing after peace and compassion.
Underscoring these themes, music from Kow Otani is really beautiful this time around. I loved the new, melancholy themes surrounding Iris and Ayana, and felt that they really added to the emotional resonance of the story. Older themes resurface as well, reinforcing the connection to previous films. Also, this time, instead of the folksy tune from the credits of the second film, the third sports a spunky pop jingle over the end credits. I would have preferred something moodier, given the subject matter of the movie, but the pop didn’t really offend.
Frankly, I found this movie startlingly good, even on this second viewing. Coming back to Gamera 3 some ten years after my first encounter, the movie has mostly aged incredibly well, providing very special effects, effective performances, interesting characters, and a story that drills into the heart. The monster action isn’t as impressive as in the second film, and the last fight admittedly is a bit confusing. Further, the ending still frustrates me, due to the fact that an army of Gyaos still exist, and we don’t know who will prevail—in a way, the movie feels like a TV pilot—but there is something gutsy about leaving us hanging like that, too. The future, with monsters on the prowl, is not safe, and the battle will ever rage on. Yet the Gyaos still need to be dealt with, and I really want to see what Asagi and Ayana are going to do next, not to mention Mayumi and Osako, or even Gamera 2: Advent of Legion (1996)'s Midori Honami. (Too bad Mayumi’s replacement female lead from that film didn’t get to meet the ornithologist here.) Nevertheless, by and large, this is how a giant monster movie should be done. Not to argue that all daikaiju eiga should have dark themes, or that there isn’t a place for pure pulp, but Gamera 3 simply excels as a movie with thoughtful plot development and superior artistic direction. Of course there is room for improvement, and I hope to see some even better monster movies in the future.Still, this is about as fine as a giant monster movie gets today, and I can’t help but bemoan the fact that the series ended so soon.