Gamera, everyone’s favourite giant fire-breathing turtle, had a good run during what is referred to as the Shōwa Period, with eight films spanning the years 1965 to 1980, then with the bankruptcy of Daiei Films in 1971 and the failed attempt at reviving the franchise with Gamera: Super Monster – which consisted almost entirely of stock footage – the series was rebooted to once again compete with Toho’s Godzilla franchise during the King of the Monsters “Millennium Series” but this reboot would no longer be the family-friendly Gamera of old but a fiercer and more destructive entity that considered saving humanity to be only incidental to saving the Earth. This Gamera was no “Friend to all children” but a creature of immense power who would do whatever it took to defeat threats to the planet, even if that threat was us.
In what is a hard reboot of the Gamera franchise Gamera: Guardian of the Universe is an epic kaiju adventure film that brings the classic monster back to once again rampage across Tokyo and also returning is the horrifying winged creature Gyaos, this time with a small flock of friends, and though Gamera is apparently the “Guardian of the Universe” that doesn’t mean he won’t destroy a city to achieve his goals. Collateral damage, thy name is Gamera. This particular reboot of Gamera moved away from the “Friend to all children” and completely ditched the family-friendly fantasy elements that had dominated the Shōwa Period in favour of a more realistic approach to a kaiju film – well, as realistic as two guys in monster suites fighting through a miniature city can be – and with much of the big monster attacks being filmed from the perspective of the humans, which goes a long way in preventing everything from looking like a kaiju pro-wrestling match. Now, there is a young Japanese girl who inadvertently forms a spiritual bond with Gamera, and she is the one to inform people that “Gamera is coming!” but the fact that she also suffers the same wounds and fatigue as Gamera suffers from makes everything just a bit darker.
It should be noted that Gamera: Guardian of the Universe is not just a reboot but also a re-imaging with both Gamera and Gyaos getting in a new origin story, back in 1965 with Gamera, the Giant Monster the big turtle was a creature that dated back to ancient Atlantis but in this reboot, we get a more fleshed-out history where we learn that Gyaos was a genetically engineered Atlantean creation, one that got out of control and thus Gamera was created to end that threat. Super science turning on its maker is nothing new to science fiction and having both Gyaos and Gamera be bioengineered beings goes a long way to explain why one of them has an ultrasonic beam attack while the other is a giant rocket-propelled turtle.
Tonal changes and new origins aside Gamera: Guardian of the Universe is not just one of the best Gamera movies but easily one of the best kaiju movies period, Godzilla films included, and the incredible battles that unfold are vibrant and energetic. The model work on display is simply spectacular and gives these two titanic foes a fully realistic cityscape to hold their grudge match, and when fireballs fly and the ground shakes you’ll be glad that Gamera is on our side, even if we might get crushed in falling rubble in the process.
“My name is Legion, for we are many” and with that quote from the Bible, we have the basis for one of the best kaiju movies ever produced. Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion may owe its origin to the Gamera films of the Shōwa Period but the terrible terrapin of the Heisei Period is a much darker beast and has scenes that are more reminiscent of a straight-up horror film than that of a giant monster movie. Not only do we get a monster straight out of one’s nightmares but director Shusuke Kaneko throws blood and carnage in a way that is anything but family-friendly.
This second installment of the Gamera trilogy starts out with a very X-Files feel to it, with various individuals scrambling to unravel the mystery of a meteor that seemed to somehow slow its entry into the atmosphere before impacting in a snowy region of northern Japan. Soon an army of insectoid extraterrestrials are marching south, wrecking beer bottles and massacring some passengers aboard a subway car, until eventually forming a hive beneath a mall in the city of Sapporo. It’s here where the movie borrows a page from the 1960s science fiction series Ultra Q by having the legion of insect warriors nurturing a mammoth flower that was a nice nod to the fourth episode in that series, which in turn could be considered an inspiration to The X-Files many years later.
There are more than a few truly terrifying moments in Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion, one being that brutal attack on the subway, but also when Gamera is is ambushed by a swarm of the alien insect soldiers – seeing the giant turtle in a writhing mass of insectoid creatures is more than a little unnerving – but Gamera isn’t alone in this fight as he is aided by the human characters in this film, an equal mix of scientists and military. Sure, there is one general who is against helping a monster, despite that monster currently fighting a clear threat to the planet, but eventually everyone buckles down and does their best to end the threat of Legion. Let’s hear it for the good guys!
If it’s possible the special effects work in this movie are even better than what was seen in the previous films, with jaw-dropping miniatures and kaiju fights that would make any kaiju fan’s top ten list. The design for the Legion queen is also one of the best kaiju creations with its multiple arms and legs as wells numerous grab-like pincers – a suit that would require two operators inside and numerous puppeteers outside – and the two titans clash it is a sight to behold.
Now, once again, this Gamera is not really “Friend to all children” because even though he may go out of his way at times to save humans he is more a guardian of the Earth and not so much humanity in particular, and the film ends with the uneasy thought “What would happen if Gamera considered us a threat?” a question that would be answered in Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris. Overall, Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion is the best of this particular Gamera trilogy and also one of the greatest kaiju movies ever made. That’s not hyperbole folks, that just the god’s honest truth.
How do you deal with the fact that the supposed “Guardian of the Universe” is responsible for the death of your parents? It’s questions like that which lead to director Shusuke Kaneko taking a bit of a step back from massive kaiju on kaiju action for this third and final chapter of his Gamera trilogy, so as to focus more on the emotional cost of such battles and not the monster smackdowns, and in this case, we have a young girl who had watched her mother and father becoming collateral damage to Gamera’s battle with Gyaos and this has caused her to stew in hatred for the giant terrapin, which would be a key factor in releasing one of Gamera’s greatest foes.
Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris may not have as many monster fights as the previous two installments in the trilogy but the two big encounters we do get easily make up for that “shortcoming” as it is in this film that we truly get a feel for the consequences of such cataclysmic fights. In Gamera: Guardian of the Universe it was made clear that the survival of humanity was secondary to Gamera’s duty to protect the Earth but that agenda reaches staggering levels in this third chapter as a battle between Gamera and new evolved Hyper Gyaos results in almost the complete destruction of Tokyo’s Shibuya District – during a busy Friday night – and the resulting death toll reaches upward of 20,000 people. The imagery on display during this particular showdown is as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying and one can almost understand the military flipping their pro-Gamera stance and considering the giant turtle to be the pre-eminent threat.
One element this trilogy has clearly revelled in would be its horror aspects and the creature Iris, motivated by hatred and bitterness, is quite the horrifying creation as not only does it evolve into an incredibly threatening giant monster but even in its early stages it leaves desiccated husks of its prey – meaning any poor human who crosses its path – and when it “bonds” with a young girl bent on revenge against Gamera it is sad as it is horrifying because this girl is not the film’s antagonist but simply a victim of a war she had no say in. It should also be noted that this entry has four female leads and that the males mostly have supporting roles – barking generals and concerned possible boyfriends – and when the film reaches its conclusion it comes down to Gamera and these women to end the fight….well, mostly Gamera. As to the big bad in this film, the creature Iris has a very distinct look – no mouth and many waving tentacles – and though the revenge-fueled creature has only one fight with Gamera it is a very intense encounter, Gamera even has to blow off one of his own limbs to escape having his energy drained, and the choice to have the fights within the confines of Kyoto building added an extra sense of claustrophobia to the battle.
Once again the filmmakers prove that they are best at what they do as Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris provides not only some of the best miniature work but the use of CGI is well balanced and gives us some of the more impressive visual moments in the film, but as amazing as the movie’s special effects look it is the emotional core of this entry that makes it an excellent conclusion to what was already an amazing run of kaiju excellence.
Following the success of the Gamera Trilogy by director Shusuke Kaneko we get a new creative team behind this final Gamera movie, at least as of the writing of this review, and with Gamera the Brave the filmmakers decided to take the franchise back to the Shōwa Period when Gamera was “Friend to all children” but the fact that this outing is more family-friendly, with the prerequisite child as a protagonist at the center of things, it doesn’t stop the filmmakers from getting a little dark at times.
How dark you ask? Well, the movie opens with a prologue that takes place back in 1973 where we see Gamera battling a trio of bat-like Gyaos monsters and just before the wounded giant turtle is overwhelmed he self-destructs, detonating himself like a personal hydrogen bomb, taking the Gyaos with him. That certainly wasn’t what I expected to find in the opening ten minutes of a Gamera movie. The film then jumps ahead to the distant year of 2007 where a young boy named Toru, whose father witnessed the self-destruction of Gamera when he was a little boy, and this film is about Toru’s journey as he is the one to discover an unusual egg that gives birth to a cute little turtle. Three guesses who this turtle grows up to be and the first two don’t count.
As far as child protagonists in Gamera films go Toru is easily the best of the lot and as he is fairly well-rounded and is plagued by memories of his late mother as well as the fact that the girl next door will soon be undergoing dangerous heart surgery, so when a little joy comes into his life in the form of an adorable little turtle that he names Toto, we can’t help but sympathize with the kid. Now, this sympathy does get strained a bit by the fact that Toru keeps running towards giant monsters fights – what he hopes to achieve I have no clue – and I’m totally on the dad’s side here when Toru gets a big slap for his complete lack of self-preservation, but then we get this glorious moment where all these random kids start relaying the red stone which Toru had found with the egg – Toru believes this will allow Gamera to grow big enough to fight the current kaiju threat – and it really is a sweet moment.
Gamera the Brave doesn’t have the scale of the previous run of films and their citywide destruction, and though the action is well-orchestrated it doesn’t have the same impact that the previous Gamera Trilogy had and even the kaiju fights, with Gamera up against a man-eating creature named Zedus, it doesn’t have that same scale or impact of his previous encounter. Now, to be fair, during most of the film’s runtime we are not dealing with a fully grown Gamera so his inability to fight is not a story flaw, then there is the fact that even as he gets larger he still looks adorable and is a dead ringer for Morla, the giant turtle from The Neverending Story.
That all said, Gamera the Brave is a wonderfully engaging chapter in the life of one of cinema’s greatest heroes and though it may not have the scope or scale of earlier entries it does have a lot of heart and when it comes to Gamera films that has always been a key ingredient.
Gamera: The Heisei Period (1995–2006)
Franchise Rank - 7.5/10
In this darker era, we find ourselves viewing Gamera in a whole new light and though the Gamera Trilogy was then followed up by a return to the giant turtle being a “Friend to all children” the Heisei Period is most notable for its more serious storylines and grimmer tone.