Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)
Anthony Romero
May 18, 2012
Note: review may contain spoilers

I will be one of the first to defend Shusuke Kaneko's Gamera trilogy as some of the finest films in kaiju cinema The love for the genre and craft show through, while Kaneko's expertise as a director and later a writer elevated the movies as a whole. That said, their first foray into the trilogy, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, never quite clicked with me. It's a good, enjoyable film but not one I get particularly excited about. This is hard for me to quantify. I can normally sum up why I feel a certain way, but Gamera: Guardian of the Universe has always mystified me a bit in my overall apathy toward it. So this review is going to be a bit different from my others, as its as much an exploration of myself as it is for the reader, so let's take it from the top.

In terms of plot, a giant floating atoll is run into by a ship, prompting one of the on-board crew, Yoshinari Yonemori, to insist they be involved in researching the object. Meanwhile, avian researcher Mayumi Nagamine has been trying to reach a coworker who ventured to a remote island. Upon visiting the island with Inspector Osaka, they discover the village leveled and the inhabitants missing. The source is quickly discovered, as Gyaos, a giant bird-like creature, flies overhead. Shortly after, two more of the creatures are discovered. The government then insists that Nagamine and Osaka devise a way to capture the creatures, which they enact using the retractable roof of the Fukuoka Dome and tranquilizers. The plan hits snag when one of the creatures escapes while the other two are drugged. However, the atoll has awoken and the entity inside swims to meet them, turning out to be the monster Gamera who kills the escaped Gyaos. The final two Gyaos awake from their drugged state, and fly off before Gamera can defeat them. The two species battle across Japan, while the military sees Gamera as their adversary. It isn't until Gyaos, having grown to a size to match Gamera, devours a large number of people in the heart of Tokyo that their priority shifts, as the two creatures face off in Japan's capital.

The story is both straight forward and also a little complex for the genre. The film tries its hand, successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully, at bringing some real world sensibilities to the kaiju genre. This includes Japan's military situation that would prohibit it from quickly counterattacking a monster, to talking about grounded air travel and the stock market impact. Suffice to say, the details are not always riveting, and the sequels wisely choose to gloss over this level of detail. However, it does ground the film if only a little to make it stand out from the many features that came before.

At heart, though, the movie is a loving homage to the kaiju genre, featuring Akira Kubo (Invasion of Astro-Monster, Son of Godzilla) and an update to some of the Showa era familiars in the form of Gamera and Gyaos. Now I should state that I'm not a huge fan of the older Gamera films. I enjoy Gamera vs. Barugon, but the others never tickled my fancy. Kaneko's update is another story. The outlandish concept of Gamera, a rocket propelled giant turtle, is treated seriously enough to make the idea work for genre fans, while his adversary makes a name for himself as a true threat. Gyaos had previously lived in the shadow of Rodan for being similar in concept, with an added beam and an arrow-like head. The update gives the creature an evil swarm nature and makes him the definitive rival from Gamera's rogue gallery. That stated, the story doesn't do anything over arching in brilliance... but the plot is done well to the point that it stands out among other films in the genre.

So the story is good, how about the acting? Well this is where the film falters a little, and perhaps where my apathy lies toward the general production. First off, Shinobu Nakayama, who plays Mayumi Nagamine, deserves some kudos for her performance as one of the lead characters. She's not amazing, but credible as a strong lead female character. Her romantic love interest is a different tale. In fact, Tsuyoshi Ihara (Letters from Iwo Jima), who plays Yoshinari Yonemori, is very dull. His personality is non-existent and his character development is weak, especially in regards to the forced romance angle that is not properly developed. The chemistry between the leads is just not there, although the same goes for most of the cast. In fact, the only one to have any chemistry is Yukijiro Hotaru's Inspector Osaka. He is over the top, but plays well off the Nagamine character, who is also the most developed of the lot. It's somewhat unfortunate that Osaka gets forgotten as the film progresses, but thankfully he made enough of an impression to return for both the sequels. The Asagi Kusanagi (Ayako Fujitani) character also makes her debut in this film, one of several ongoing characters in this franchise. While this initial film is a little light on character development as a whole, the series does make amends in later movies that continue to work with the characters established here... with the exception of Yoshinari Yonemori, who is wisely forgotten.

In terms of special effects, Shinji Higuchi takes a great first swing at the kaiju genre. He pioneers a lot of effect choices, such as outdoor filming, that benefit the film immensely. Like the genre in general, the movie is uneven at times in its special effect execution, especially the lazy way that Gyaos ascending was done (where her wings are closed as she flies straight up, which creates a logic failure) or some of the puppet work done for the smaller Gyaos. The action pieces, while good, don't convey the same level of interest that they do in the sequels, which are more fast paced and enjoyable. That said, Higuchi is great at his craft, and he certainly amplified his skills for the coming films.

As for the musical score, Kow Otani does a solid job with the soundtrack. Otani crafts a great main title theme and also a perfect heroic-like theme for the title character. The theme for the collapse of Tokyo Tower is also perhaps too good, being a career highlight for a sequence which is a footnote in the film as a whole. In this instance, Otani actually delivered his best work on the series in this initial outing, although was consistently good through out all three movies.

Overall, if anyone asked, I would without doubt say that Gamera: Guardian of the Universe was a good film. My general apathy then probably falls on the shoulders of the characters, with a lack of chemistry, and perhaps the action not being as captivating as it could be. Minor points perhaps in the grand scheme of things, but enough that I tend to revisit the sequels very often but only rarely watch this 1995 production.