GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE (1995)
Director: Shusuke Kaneko
Fifteen years after Gamera kamikazed himself into a giant not-Star Wars ship to end the original run of films, Gamera found new life with director Shusuke Kaneko and a slightly more serious and darker tone. It reinjected life into the series with a massive whollop, being both a commercial and critical success across three films and introducing an entire new generation (like myself) to the titular turtle. The first film of this series, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, revitalizes the series almost perfectly, laying down the impressive groundwork and truly giving Godzilla a rival during his second run of films.
In this first film, director Shusuke Kaneko and writers Kazunori Ito and James Shanks ably layer in all of the themes, style, and ideas of the original, but change the direction toward a more adult-oriented narrative that packs a lot of concepts into a tight package. It repackages the formula in such a way that it feels utterly refreshing and punchy. Gamera is still the savior of the Earth, now a weapon created from a long-lost civilization to combat the rival species of kaiju, Gyaos – which also get a solid 90s makeover as a small flock that devours flesh like vicious birds of prey. The human story ably modernizes the plot, while still homaging the original with a secondary plot of a young girl that finds a psychic connection with our tubular turtle titan, and it works to brilliantly balance out the kaiju action. The puppetry, suit work, and miniatures are top-notch here, delivering unique and often odd details for both Gamera and Gyaos with ease. The way that the eyes on the Gyaos creatures have an almost googly nature to them is almost as frightening as it is goofy and it’s that balance of silly to intense that truly makes the film tick. The action is fantastic, the performances ably shift with the tonal beats of the narrative, and film just plows through as an entertaining new take on the classic genre. Gamera: Guardian of the Universe is fantastic and, strangely enough, still perhaps the weakest of the trilogy.
GAMERA 2: ATTACK OF LEGION (1996)
Director: Shusuke Kaneko
After the surprise success of Gamera, the second film was sent immediately into production. Gamera 2: Attack of Legion, while occasionally feeling rushed in terms of its script, also follows up the original in a way that takes the franchise to the next level. In this entry, a space meteor brings to Japan a new terror, Legion, as a swarm of insect-like monsters that aim to spread like a plague throughout the galaxy. While the human element of the film is substandard to the work in the previous entry, although they did bring back the young woman with the psychic connection to Gamera for continuity, the rest of the film is such a delightful combination of modern kaiju action, incredible action direction, and phenomenal sets, suits, and puppetry that the film breezes through.
Perhaps the biggest change to the film, outside of the focus on a new kaiju that is not brought in from the old series like Gyaos, is the tonality of it. Legion is oftentimes shot like a horror film, particularly in the first act. Gamera doesn’t even really show up until the second act as the film spends a lot of time establishing the overwhelming threat of Legion to humanity. Enough so that the film has reached a relatively hopeless state that requires the intervention of our titan turtle to right the balance in the world. Once Gamera does arrive on the scene, boy howdy does Attack of Legion lay it on thick. The action and kaiju destruction are more detailed, more intense, and more effective. Director Kaneko has only fine-tuned his skills with the effects and how to pace the action and those skills are in full display here. Ultimately, Legion has a weaker script and a more ineffective human story to its plotting than its predecessor, but creative strokes with the new villain and more exciting action make it a film that makes it an equally impressive sequel.
GAMERA 3: REVENGE OF IRIS (1998)
Director: Shusuke Kaneko
For the third and final installment of Kaneko’s now considered classic 90s Gamera trilogy, the director fully develops the themes and ideas he was toying with in the first two entries by completely deconstructing the entire kaiju genre in a brisk 108 minutes of sheer destruction and darkness. Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris, sometimes stylized as GIII, is perhaps the boldest of the three film and one that packs an insane right hook of emotional tones for a giant monster flick. Following the events of the first two films, the Gyaos flocks are hatching and once again Gamera must step up to save the Earth. While this is happening, a young girl discovers a psychic connection with a new and powerful kaiju, Iris, a creature she plans to use to take revenge on Gamera for accidentally killing her parents.
With a revenge plot that powers the human plot element to parallel the returning characters from the first Gamera film, Revenge of Iris makes huge improvements on this portion of the film over its predecessor. The young girl, Ayana (Ai Maeda), and her narrative is why this film can deconstruct the genre in the way that it does. It allows the visuals to far more intense and terrifying which allows Kaneko to utilize some of the darker elements and horror tones from the last. There are a ton of shots from the street level as Gamera and his various foes do battle here and the destruction and loss of life can be felt on screen. This is a film where its thematic weight is directly tied to an audience that conveniently ignores the reality of what would happen if two giant monsters descended on a city to battle. It’s also a theme that Kaneko would continue to run with after this when he jumps ship to do his one Godzilla film.
Through this deconstruction, Revenge of Iris is able to hammer home some fantastic key moments both from the kaiju side of things and the human side. Truthfully, the design of Iris is a bit much for me, looking too much like a combination of an anime monster with the evolutionary traits of a Digimon or Pokemon, but it does create quite the different beast to tango with Gamera. The fights are incredibly well shot, although the CGI certainly dates itself as it’s the heaviest in that realm of the three films. Although the finale is far less action pack than one might hope, the emotional payoff and key moments certainly are effective. So let’s give Gamera a hand, everyone.
As a final note, the film is left on a cliffhanger, promising a fourth film, but it’s one that we never received. That sucks. The series would receive one more film though, another reboot and the last film that this article series will cover.
GAMERA THE BRAVE (2006)
Director: Ryuta Tasaki
My initial watch of Gamera the Brave some ump-teen years ago was highly a negative one. The pacing, the lack of a memorable villain, and the re-emergence of the child protagonist felt like a wild swing in the wrong direction after the impressive feats of the 90s trilogy. So much progress had been made in creating a darker more serious universe for our heroic guardian, why snap back?
However, now that I'm binge-watching the Arrow Video set in all of its prestigious glory, I have to admit – Gamera the Brave is kind of fucking awesome. All of my notes from above stand, but my ability to accept them on their own merits beyond the promise of a fourth 90s film is far more open. The film heavily leans back into the kid and family-friendly realms of the better part of the original run, but it parallels a soft reboot of the series with the coming of age story of a young boy grieving over the loss of his mother. It's not the most action-packed of the series, in fact, adult Gamera is only in the opening sequence in a bitter fight to the end with Gyaos and new teenage Gamera and the villain don't show up until the 45-minute mark, but the parallels and emotional resonance of the story strive to bring the Gamera series forward while it harkens back to the original run. It's a different film than the rest, but it's remarkably heartfelt in its narrative and execution. Again, as I tend to say far too often on this site, if you can’t beat a previous entry in a franchise, do something different. Gamera the Brave is different, but it’s also completely in line with the rest of the franchise.
If the previous entry, Revenge of Iris, completely deconstructed Gamera and the kaiju genre, then Gamera the Brave reconstructs it in a way that works with emotional impact. The story with the young boy finding his own courage in the face of adversity along with a newly born Gamera is the perfect way to kick start a new era of the series and, unfortunately, it was a short one as this would mark the end of Gamera…for now.
Although there was a 2015 video that would eventually go viral that was meant to showcase how Gamera would modernize, which I have added below, Gamera has remained dormant. This latest massive box set from Arrow certainly acts as a kind of franchise love tome which will hopefully kick start a worldwide interest in rebooting the series once again. For now, it’s best for fans to go back and love the films as they are and take a massive gander at the immense amount of features in the set. As for me, it was a blissful experience to go back through the entire franchise and I highly suggest going through it yourself. I have added links to the various other parts of the article that cover the rest of the films. Gamera might be in hibernation, but no one should be sleeping on this set. It’s worth every penny.
Written By Matt Reifschneider