Gamera has come a long way. Originally, Gamera1 was a particularly bizarre rival to Godzilla from a rival Japanese movie company. That movie company was Daiei (or 大映, which combines the character for “big” with the first character for “movie”—get it?), and the original movie came out during the heyday of Godzilla films and the effusive, overwhelming love of giant monsters that marked that era, both on TV and in the theaters—the mid 1960s. The first film was a big hit, and was soon followed by a string of increasingly bizarre, juvenile sequels, culminating in the glorious bomb Gamera, Super Monster in 1980, which shamelessly borrowed a Star Destroyer from Star Wars, as well as a titillating troupe of spandex super babes. Back then, Gamera was a freaky flying turtlesaurus awakened from an epic multi-million year snooze via nuclear alarm clock who, after smashing cities and doubtlessly slaughtering countless innocents, inadvertently develops compassion for children everywhere and became the first shelled (mutant?) superhero of them all.

Not that any of this makes much sense, and for Daiei, coherence was never a high priority. The fact that a giant flying turtle-monster was about as coherent as an airplane with anvils for wings didn’t matter; the monster was novel. The fact that reptiles rarely care for their own children (let alone those of other species) was equally of no consequence; Ultraman was popular at the time with the rugrat set, and Godzilla, too, was undergoing a PR transformation into a hero, so we got our new metaphorically soft-shelled turtle. But when thirty years had passed (fifteen since the last Gamera film cratered in 1980), Daiei wanted something new to celebrate their turtle treasure—something that would, ultimately, combine the terrifying and the terrific of previous adventures into one. A monster hero, but with an edge. Enter Gamera: Guardian of the Universe.

My first viewing of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe came shortly after ADV released the film on VHS, and at the time the movie popped my kaiju preconceptions. The movie was exciting, well-paced, with a fantastic, mature Gamera far removed from the funny film failures of the past. The movie also featured relatively interesting characters and a smart script with impressive, often beautifully shot monster footage. In short, after a string of somewhat disappointing Heisei Godzilla films (several of which, to this day, I have only watched once), the first film in Shusuke Kaneko‘s much-lauded trilogy impressed me in a way akin to the meteoric impact of Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) had on my system. Thus, recently, and with Anthony Romero’s goading, I was curious to rewatch the film and see how well the film held up compared to my nostalgic euphoria, or whether our years apart had found me jaded.

Well, as a preview, the film holds up well. But also, yes, I have become more jaded as well. But let’s start with the story.

Movie Review: Gamera: Guardian of the Universe

The Patrol Boat Nojima is nervously escorting the Kairyuu Maru, which is laden down with scads of dangerous plutonium. Suddenly, in the middle of the open ocean, the Kairyu Maru runs aground on a previously unknown rocky atoll, which subsequently submerges itself, and departs of its own volition, much to the astonishment of the crew, including one Yoshinari Yonemori, who becomes determined to uncover the mystery behind the strangely mobile island. Meanwhile, on Himegami2 Island, a search for a new species of bird ends in tragedy as team members go missing and a village is destroyed. Soon, with the help of a reluctant but brilliant ornithologist named Mayumi Nagamine and her comic sidekick Inspector Osako, three enormous monster “birds” are revealed; unfortunately for the world, these beasts are asexual, voracious eaters, and have a taste for human flesh. Nagamine heads an elaborate attempt to capture the Gyaos alive, but then the moving atoll arrives on the scene and breaks apart, revealing the enormous Gamera, who is hunting the Gyaos, but fails to destroy all of them at that time. The monster turtle also establishes a psychic link with Asagi Kusanagi, the teenage daughter of one of the officials in charge of the atoll investigation, via a mysterious stone. With her help, Gamera fights the monstrous Gyaos creatures across Japan. But the JSDF identifies Gamera as the worse threat and attacks him, and the Gyaos grow stronger and bigger with everything and everyone they eat. Can Gamera win?

The above story, as executed in the film, is smart, even poking fun at the previous Gamera films and their anti-realism by pointing out how Gamera could not be a normal animal with his wildly improbable ability to fly. Here, Gamera is a deliberately created defender of earth, put together by some gonzo advanced science of the ancients, thus applying a cockeyed sort of logic as to why Gamera is built the way he is, and even giving him a motivation to care for children, or at least young Asagi Kusanagi, who somehow imbues Gamera with succor and help (more on this later). The basic story, that Gamera was created by the ancients who then prophesied his and the Gyaos’ coming (from a stone sign on the atoll) evinces a possible cross-pollination with Godzilla sources, such as the Dark Horse comic from 1987 (with Godzilla prophesied by a similar rock) or even the unproduced 1994 American Godzilla movie3 (which has Godzilla created by ancient technology to protect the world). Here, though, Gamera is constructed in response to the Gyaos, which were also created by the ancients some 10,000 years ago, but which then went on a rampage. This preserves a familiar theme from the original Godzilla (1954): an ambivalent stance on human technology. To wit, our technology destroys us, but is also the key to our salvation. However, in this case, the “oxygen destroyer” stand-in is a mobile moral monster.

Indeed, Gamera is a terrible technology, with a mystical sensibility and a god-like role to play. Gamera may also be faintly echoing traditional Japanese folkloric ideas of turtles, which tend to symbolize longevity, or perhaps even the “World Turtle” mytheme of several world religions. Furthering the mystical theme, Asagi Kusanagi is deliberately painted as Gamera’s priestess; she defends Gamera’s actions to the humans, and sustains injuries (inconsistently) when Gamera is hurt. (Interestingly, at one point a Japanese Mary Poppins poster can be seen in Asagi’s room, which may also hint at her pseudo-magical role to play in the film.) However, much of the mythology and the “rules” that govern Gamera’s powers are poorly explained, at least in the first film.

Basically, all of the Gamera mythology is built on a very brief prophetic transcription and the (sometimes wacky) hypothesizing of the main characters. The prophecy simply states that Gamera will come when Gyaos returns. That’s about it. The main characters determine that Gyaos is 10,000 years old from broken egg shell and Gyaos corpses, and further determine that the monsters were designed by an intelligent agent (Intelligent Design!) based on a DNA analysis. From this, our heroes theorize that Gyaos was created by Atlanteans (or their equivalent), that these Gyaos monsters went nuts, that Gamera was hastily created in response, but that their response was too late—Gyaos devastated civilization, ran out of food (!), and went into hibernation, only to be reawakened by pollution. None of this makes much sense—what, the Gyaos can only eat humans? And why couldn’t they fly away to eat more humans elsewhere, once the Atlantean appetizer was finished off? Why didn’t Gamera destroy the hibernating Gyaos after they took a snooze? Maybe we need a prequel…

Movie Review: Gamera: Guardian of the Universe

Whatever. Though many questions are left unanswered, the fast-paced, entertaining narrative makes all this matter little, and Asagi provides a vital connection for us to really care about Gamera AND the human cast—a trick that few monster movies pull off. Still, Asagi seems like a missed opportunity. She can read Gamera’s mind, but never provides anything but the most obvious insights into why Gamera is here. Essentially, her insights amount to “Gamera’s a good guy” and “Gamera needs to rest.” Further, though sometimes she is hurt when Gamera is injured, at other times when he is getting beaten silly, her reactions are understated, as if she is suffering from indigestion rather than feeling what it’s like to be blasted by incendiary missiles. My biggest issue with all of this is really the ending (MASSIVE SPOILERS). Gamera seemingly is incinerated by an explosion, apparently blown to pieces. Earlier, after getting blasted by missiles and having his arm cut by Gyaos’ sonic beam, Gamera needs to sleep underwater for hours to recuperate, with Asagi needing to sleep as well. This time, Asagi doesn’t so much as receive a light burn nor a singed hair, and, to heal Gamera, simply holds hands with the nearest bloke for a few moments, which is apparently enough to cause Gamera to completely reconstitute himself. I was never very satisfied with this conclusion, as it seems deeply incoherent with what came before, not to mention downright stupid, but, hey, at least there are big explosions. (END SPOILERS)

Other than the mythology of the movie, the story (by Kazunori Ito, who wrote all three in Kaneko’s trilogy) is mostly satisfying, with fun characters, inventive situations, and steadily escalating excitement that nicely climaxes with an elaborate, thunderous final fight in Tokyo (natch). Clever bits of dialogue are also sprinkled amongst the sound and fury, my favorite being a moment when a government official compares the Gyaos to a Japanese ibis (indicating that the monster needs to be captured and studied), and Yonemori responds with, “The Japanese ibis doesn’t eat people.” A welcome observation, Yonemori! Gamera: Guardian of the Universe also, at least briefly, explores the economic and structural ramifications of a real monster attack years before Eric Powell’s unfortunate run on IDW’s Godzilla: Kingdom of Monsters comic, with the value of the yen plummeting, and the stock exchange shutting down completely. Gamera, further, was the first kaiju film I can remember that takes note of how the JSDF works, driven home when the officials exclaim in horror that they cannot attack Gamera when he rises from the ocean and begins wreaking havoc. The Japanese military is for defense, and can only act when attacked—thus pointedly displaying the possible absurdities that can arise from what amounts to an emasculated military tied up in red tape.

Amongst all this kaiju catastrophe, we have the actors who are trying to make it real, or at least entertaining. The main characters, arguably, are the conscientious member of the military, Yoshinari Yonemori, played by Tsuyoshi Ihara; super ornithologist/budding (unwilling) kaiju expert Mayumi Nagamine, played by the lovely Shinobu Nakayama; and of course teen kaiju queen Asagi Kusanagi, played by Steven Seagal’s daughter, Ayako Fujitani. Of the three, Tsuyoshi Ihara, best known over here for his role in Letters to Iwo Jima, turns in the blandest performance. Ihara injects a certain earnestness into his character, a kindness and a mild heroism, but I found his character to be overall uninteresting, even if he got one of the best lines. Shinobu Nakayama (who has appeared in many films, but may be most recognizable to us Americans from her role in the Jet Li vehicle, Fist of Legend, and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II) has the advantage of being just plain beautiful, so even if her character comes across as somewhat stiff, it’s easy to get lost in her big eyes. (Did I just write that? Good grief.) Anyway, Nakayama gives her character an appropriate wariness to getting involved, and a crisp, go-getting strength when facing down the inevitable. She’s likable enough. Ayako Fujitani as Asagi Kusanagi is the most disappointing. She is cute, giving a mild personality to Asagi, but as the teen is pulled into the increasingly dangerous situation, Asagi’s personality disappears. Fujitani’s performance shows no hesitation to rush into danger, no real depth; Asagi just does stuff because it has to be done, and she simply accepts her lot. Her reactions to being wounded and beat up due to her connection with Gamera are also understated, as mentioned before, and reflect poorly on the severity of the situation at hand. An obvious way to bump up the tension of the monster battles would be to have Asagi reacting severely to the attacks, doubling over at impacts, reeling from the blows. Fujitani just takes it like a soldier, which might show a dull sort of heroism, but seems dishonest to the character of a teen girl thrown into bizarre, vicious circumstances.

Side characters add some color to the proceedings. Particularly memorable was Yukijiro Hotaru (who also appeared in Pyrokinesis and Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack) as Inspector Osako. His constant bug eyes and complete overacting provided a nice juxtaposition with the much more serious Nagamine. Still, he seems to fall out of the narrative to the point that I wondered if one of the Gyaos had eaten him. (Spoiler (?): he returns in the sequel.) Along with Osako, most of the minor characters show surprising, well, character; a nutty taxi driver, teens on a train with unusual fashion sense, a smarmy official with a knack for chewing scenery—all these show up, each proffering their own piece of electricity to an already well-charged movie.

Movie Review: Gamera: Guardian of the Universe

Supporting the performances, the subtitles (from the ADV DVD release) are not too bad, though occasionally confusing, particularly during a section wherein the mains are discussing the monsters’ origins. In the ADV dub I am familiar with, on the other hand, ADV uses a cast of their usual anime voice actors, and, though it has been years since I watched Gamera:GOTU dubbed, I still remember some of the goofy voice acting, particularly the voice of Inspector Osako, who really does sound like a cartoon. I have a fondness for this dub, though, and recommend it for those with an open mind.

And an open mind you will need for kaiju films in general. Jaded American audiences would probably laugh at the special effects in this movie today, though the kaiju costumes and many particular shots are still impressive. Gamera looks great, making stunning entrances, rising from the water with the rocks of the atoll falling from his back, or bursting from beneath the ground near the end (a scene Kaneko would revisit with Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, replacing Gamera with Baragon). The Gamera here doesn’t look as “edgy” and “cool” as he would in subsequent entries in the series, but still looks undeniably cool, albeit somewhat bug-eyed. Gyaos is more shaky—literally. The young Gyaos puppets wiggle and shake as they move, with ridiculous-looking rolling eyes, undermining their menace. As the Gyaos grows, the design changes, and culminates in an intimidating, sinister Super Gyaos with evil reddish eyes, but even here there are some missteps. When Super Gyaos flies, horizontally through the streets or vertically straight up into outer space, the monster folds her wings, achieving a missile-like shape, which, though it looks kind of cool, begs the question—how is this monster staying aloft? Gyaos has no jet propulsion, unlike Gamera—the only thing keeping the beast in the air is her wings. Nevertheless, through gruesome sound effects whenever the Gyaos creatures feed, through the gristly texture of their skin, and via the gorgeous photography, effective camera angles, and copious explosions, the monsters and their battles are captured beautifully. Again, by today’s standards, much of the CGI looks terrible, and some model work is questionable, but overall the film looks pretty great, and it’s easy to get caught up with the narrative as the urgent orchestral score by Kow Otani pulls the viewer along.

And, despite my dour mood at the time, I was pulled along with the narrative again during my latest viewing of this classic kaiju crunch-fest. The movie honors the previous films with bloodier action than Godzilla usually dares, and goes further with a more mature plot than most Godzilla movies ever reached. The viewer is compelled to care with some likable characters, and director Shusuke Kaneko is well-credited with the majesty that the film manages with many shots (even if some of the scene changes strike me as corny now). Daiei really showed how to do a monster reboot right, succeeding where other monsters often failed while borrowing judiciously from some of those same sources to make something special, despite the minor rankling annoyances of some thin characterizations and a poorly explained mythology. Not a perfect movie, no, but this Gamera has a thick shell, and the flaws do not break this modern monster classic.

3 and a Half Stars

1 The name “Gamera” (ガメラin Japanese) comes from the Japanese “kame” for “turtle,” plus “ra,” which seems to be appended to the names of most giant monsters. However, “Kamera” doesn’t sound very exciting, and since in Japanese, under certain circumstances “ka” words can become “ga” words, it wasn’t much of a stretch to do the same to Gamera.

2 The fictional Himegami Island, or 姫神島, literally means “princess god island,” which might be a reference to Gyaos, since all of them are female and “god” like.

3 Interestingly, just three years later, the American GODZILLA (1998) would take Gyaos’ asexual super-beast bent on world domination via reproduction plot and apply it to the infamous iguana-styled Big G.