This month I’m reviewing Gamera 2: Advent of Legion. A.K.A. Gamera 2: Attack of Legion, A.K.A. Gamera 2: Legion Invasion, A.K.A. The Color Purple. Why start a trilogy in the middle? Snow! More specifically, I love Christmas, and wanted to continue my theme of holiday-flavored reviews. That said, nobody’s made Santa vs. Gappa yet, so the most festive thing I could find in giant monster movies is snow. And it’s actually pretty rare! Kaiju are fine with showing up at night, during rainstorms, or in the middle of tidal waves, but it would appear they take most winters off. Son of Godzilla has an amazingly moving and tender snow sequence at the very end of the movie, but the majority of Gamera 2 takes place in Japan’s wintry wonderland. And really, I’ve been itching to talk Gamera for a while now. Not only that, but G2 is stuffed with incredible practical effects and puts Toho’s monster movies of the same era to shame in pretty much every way. So grab a sixer of Kirin, bundle up, and prepare yourself for Legion to attack! Or invade! Or advent!
I always like to start with the music, and it’s a real treat in the case of Gamera 2. Give yourself a taste with the main theme (full soundtrack playlist here). The music perfectly sets the tone for the movie, as it does throughout the entire trilogy. It’s music that says “monster shit just got real,” or at the very least, “Gamera doesn’t do gymnastics in these movies.” Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to you. I figure there’s plenty of goofy Gamera to go around (8 movies worth to be exact), so I really got a kick out of this trilogy for giving us a different take on Japan’s top terrapin.
The music is by Kow Otani who worked with G2 director Shusuke Kaneko on all three Gamera films, plus they collaborated again for one of my all-time favorite Godzilla movies, the ridiculously titled Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. But you’re more likely to know him from the soundtrack he provided for the incredible Playstation 2 game Shadow of the Colossus. In all those examples he does a great job of communicating the epic scope and surreality of giant marauding creatures, but also includes quiet, moving themes too. Plus most of his tracks do this awesomely weird “weeeeeeeee-oooooooooo” thing that sounds like a ghost pirate playing whale songs on an electric guitar in a UFO crashed at the bottom of the sea. It sounds silly out of context, but it really captures the nautical mysticism of giant sea monsters like Godzilla and Gamera.
There are some pros and cons that seem to come with all mid-90s Japanese monster movies, and G2 definitely follows suit. G2 had no theatrical release stateside, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen it playing anywhere on TV/cable. It’s a niche product, and really we’re lucky anyone even bothered to write up English subtitles, create an English dub, and bring the thing out on home video outside of Japan. The localization was a small production to say the least, it sounds like there are 3, maybe 4 different actors doing the dubbing. The upside is that we also didn’t have any dipshit executives chopping up and changing the movie (though there are some cases were smart cuts can actually help more than hurt). Even though you can count G2’s voice actors on one hand, most of them do a solid job, and have a little fun with it. In addition to some redubbed “outtakes,” they decided to create an alternate “Texas redneck” dub track. The comedy isn’t always a slam dunk, but I gotta give them props for the attempt. I can’t think of any other movie, giant monster-filled or otherwise, that features anything quite like it.
Another element G2 shares with its 90s brethren is an adorable, wide-eyed adulation of computers, and everything computers meant for our future. Of course this means the movie opens with a ridiculous, computer animated title sequence: exploding letters, numbers and Kanji flying around and locking into place. Just about every Japanese creature feature made from the 80s on features one. Likewise, computers and even the internet show up throughout the film, often helping to move the plot along or dish out a little exposition. It’s delightful to see 1996 technology showcased so lovingly. At one point the female lead is told to take her call in the hallway because “Computers and cell phones don’t mix.”
After that flashy title sequence, the movie gets off to a rough start. For the first act or so I couldn’t quite get a handle on who the protagonists were. I’m still a bit confused on what their jobs were. They all seem to work for a research unit that’s part of Japan’s military? I think? This wasn’t even my first time seeing the movie, I own it, and I still get lost with who’s who. For better or worse, the true star of this movie is the horde of Legion space-bugs, and their awesomely huge and bizarre queen.
Once you realize Legion is the real star of the show, the first act makes a lot more sense. My pal internet hooked me up and explained that the three human leads are Hanatami, a male scientist, Honami, a female scientist, and Colonel Watarase, a male colonel. We maybe hear each of their names once, twice tops. The first act is all about Legion coming to Earth and starting its life cycle. Legion arrives as an asteroid during what appears to be a bright green aurora borealis hanging over the Japanese sky. While our scientists and army guys are busy shitting bricksteroids, we cut to a big beer brewery, for what might be the most surprising product placement since Fred Flintstone smoked Winstons.
Inside the warehouse, we find a pair of doofy security guards have made first contact with a man-sized Legion bug. Somehow, this thing is making the beer bottles disappear, spraying beer all over the place and scaring the bejeezus out of the guards. What’s great is that one of the guards is actually the fussy, C-3PO-ish inspector Osako from the prior movie, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe. The bad news is that his role basically amounts to an extended cameo, serving to push Legion’s story forward. But at least we get to see him again as a drunken bum in Gamera 3: The Revenge/Awakening of Irys! Considering he goes from police inspector to security guard to wino, I can only assume the worst for him in Gamera the Brave.
From here, we find out that Legion bugs are swarming the Sapporo subway tunnels. Director Kaneko pulls from his horror roots and conveys this in just about the creepiest way possible, putting us onboard a subway train that gets attacked by the creatures. In classic horror fashion, we see only fleeting glimpses of the monsters, and instead hear them skitter all over the train car in the dark. We get a really effective jump scare and a pretty gruesome gore-spray as one of the bugs mauls the train conductor. We also get confirmation that Legions are fucking freaks that eat glass, as they sort of suck it up in a cool, kind of goofy-looking visual effect.
I really dig it when giant monster movies unleash some mini-monsters unto the unsuspecting populace. They’re a great way to mix up the action in a kaiju movie, and they give the human heroes something extra to deal with and overcome. It usually reeks of Aliens knock-off, but shit, it’s hard not to. When the cops try to sweep the tunnels, things feel real Aliens-ish with a little Predator to boot, as we get to see things from the bugs’ monstery point of view. Thankfully, it doesn’t cross over into total rip-off territory like the mini-Destoroyah stand-off in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah does.
The cops manage to escape the treacherous tunnels just in time for a gigantic-ass flower to burst out the top of a skyscraper. Okay movie, you had my curiosity, now you have my attention. The 300 ft. tall corsage also gets the military’s attention, and they send in a team to evacuate any possible survivors left in the tunnels. We see it happen in a really odd sort of slide-show set to dramatic music. I’ve never seen anything online to explain it, so I assume it was a style choice, rather than cutting around ruined or unusable footage. It’s jarring and funny, but kind of charming in its weirdness. I bet it looked pretty dope in 1996.
The army/scientists determine that the bugs and their flower are creating a hyper-oxygen rich environment and “if we allow it to survive, we’ll die.” I’ve mentioned it in past reviews that one of my favorite tropes from kaiju movies is when our heroes have to explore or escape a strange, toxic new environment, and the Legion bugs’ hive/flower/subway tunnels filled with lethal amounts of oxygen definitely counts. Bonus points for taking something benign and turning it against us. Like death by snu-snu.
If you found anything even remotely confusing about the idea of Legion creeps caring for the big flower, and the big flower creating a habitable environment for them in return, the scientists helpfully narrate some documentary footage of leaf-cutter ants having a similarly symbiotic relationship with a species of mushroom. I guess its also there to show how the scientists came to their conclusion that the bugs and the flower are symbiotic, but it really feels like a throw-back to the mini science lessons shoehorned into kaiju movies back in the 60s and 70s. Plenty of classic Gamera movies had their own science bits squeezed in, and even Godzilla vs Hedorah had a short astronomy slideshow. The best part is when the movies juxtapose the well-meaning real science with the wacky pseudo-science and straight-up fantasy needed to explain the monsters and their origins and motives.
While the army is planning to C4 the shit out of the flower before it finishes blooming, the scientists come up with a not-very-hopeful hypothesis. Since the Legions are a space-faring species, maybe their city-block-sized boutonniere doubles as an organic launchpad so their creepy cycloptic asses can spread to even more worlds. They run a computer simulation (COMPUTORS FUCK YEAH!) on what would happen if the flower detonated with enough force to send a seed into space. According to their computer, the blast would level the city, making it impossible to evacuate. And since the flower is on the verge of blowing its space-load, bombing it would have the same effect.
In an amazing show of restraint, the scientists don’t rip their clothes off and start end-of-the-world fucking (that should happen just once in one of these movies). Really at this point, the only thing that could stop the Legion flower from destroying the entire city of Sapporo would be if some giant being, I mean it’d have to be a real monster, came along and tore the thing up by its roots. Aaaaand we finally see Gamera! He scares the piss out of some dolphins as he comes rushing up out of the ocean, because apparently his weird-shit-o-meter finally went off.
Gamera looks super dope in this movie. The Legion flower is ready to bust, towering above the rest of the city in the night sky, sucking in glowing green gas and generally looking pretty damn menacing for a flower. Gamera lands, and his footfalls are made all the more real by tiny bikes and pay phones getting rocked in the foreground. A random soldier on the scene speaks for everyone in the audience and asks “Where the hell’s he been?” Gamera goes H.A.M.-era on the flower, tearing the whole vile thing out of the ground, roots and all. The miniature work in this scene, and really the whole movie is insane. The roots tear up through the snow-covered dirt and concrete, and it’s all these little details that sell you on the crazy story. While G1 was no slouch, G2 thoroughly one-ups it on the special effects photography.
And that’s something really important to note that these Gamera movies do right. It’s not necessarily that they have better suits or miniatures (I’m not sure if they do), but they shoot them a hell of a lot better than Toho was around the same time. You gotta shoot these things at low angles, with lots of little foreground details to sell us on the scale of everything. Give us constant visual cues that we’re not watching dudes in suits, we’re watching skyscraper sized beasts, knocking over actual skyscrapers! Guillermo Del Toro did the same thing for Pacific Rim, and those weren’t even suits and miniatures!
So Gamera knocks over the flower, movie’s over right? Nope! The Legion bugs are super pissed about Gamera’s impromptu gardening, and start crawling all over him and killing him because bugs are always the worst, even if they’re from outer space. For a Japanese monster movie in the mid-90s, the CG bugs crawling up Gamera look pretty decent. They smartly mix in some impressive practical effects shots that do a great job of making you itch all over because bugs are just fucking awful.
Gamera scrapes off as many of these little shits as he can, and when he finally takes off, flying-saucer style, he sprays the nearby skyscrapers with a big streak of his green monster blood. This is a big theme that separates Gamera movies from Godzilla movies. In just about all of his movies, Gamera initially gets his ass whipped by the villain monster. Brutally. While Gamera can shrug off conventional weapons like any worthwhile kaiju, evil monsters are really good at spilling his colorful blood, and will generally beat his ass so bad he has to just bail mid-fight and go sleep it off at the bottom of the ocean or some other remote location. Godzilla has had to conduct a few strategic retreats, and even suffered a couple straight-up losses, but it’s pretty rare for him to bleed, let alone gush goo everywhere like Gamera does on the regular.
Besides satiating movie-goers’ bloodlust, Gamera getting gutted is a big part of what makes him such a compelling monster character. He’s vulnerable. He might be big and bad, but the monsters he fights are bigger and worse. The kicker is that not only does he face these mega-monsters alone, but he fucking charges in without giving it a second thought. He knows he’s fighting the uphillest of battles, but he also knows if he doesn’t, no one will, because no one can. It’s a trait Godziilla can’t ever really have, and it makes Gamera a strangely lovable and sad monster. Guardian of the Universe and G3 focus on it a little more (and in different ways), and the end result is that Gamera actually has a bit of a character arc across this trilogy. He’s the original mutant turtle, and he has chronic hero syndrome.
After the Gamster takes his leave, the Legion Queen explodes out of the ground, flying away from Sapporo to try again in the next big city, Sendai. Fighter jets are on her big ass immediately, and fire off a volley of decently rendered CG missiles. I bring this up because Toho stuck with practical “fireworks” missiles well into the 90s. Of course the practical missiles look more “real” because they actually exist and are photographed, but they’re fireworks, man. We can tell. And it’s just about impossible to aim them consistently and accurately. Fireworks for missiles make Air Force pilots look like villains on The A-Team. I think Kaneko and co. made the right call with CG missiles.
Also, that’s right, the huge, bizarre-looking Legion Queen makes her entrance tunneling out of the Earth and flying into the air like a lunatic. With Legion, Kaneko dishes out the monster’s changes and transformations over the course of the movie to give us the best of both worlds: we get to see the monster a lot, but we never get bored with it because it’s constantly changing. I wasn’t savvy to this little trick until I listened to Guillermo Del Toro’s terrific commentary track for Pacific Rim, but now that I know to look for it, I find it happening in a lot of my favorite creature features. Legion doesn’t stop at sprouting wings either, she starts shooting laser whips and splits her face open and all kinds of crazy shit later on. As far as narrative goes I’d say this is maybe the weakest in the Gamera trilogy, but when it comes to balls-out monster action, this is one of the best. Ever.
Of course, pacing dictates we spend some time with the human heroes so we don’t get bored of monsters beating the piss out of each other. Scientists dissect a dead Legion bug, and in a fun twist on the old alien autopsy trope, the Legion bug doesn’t spring to life, nor is it filled with hilariously disgusting slime. Rather, the thing stays dead, but still manages a jump scare when it gets cut open due to all the pressurized gas blasting out of the incision. Legion bugs don’t have blood and muscles, they’re silicon-based creepazoids full of gas chambers and bladders. I love these little fuckers because they’re some of the most alien aliens I’ve seen in a movie. Sure they’re your classic bug aliens, but they’re cycloptic, eat glass, communicate electromagnetically, are full of compressed air, and get from planet to planet via exploding ultra-flower. Plus I’m pretty sure they were the inspiration for the first boss monster in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Our heroes are trying to figure out what the hell Gamera’s whole deal is too, which is understandable, because he’s a 200 ft. tall flying turtle that beats up evil monsters. Luckily for them there is literally a Gamera website that clues them in to the latest Gamera pics and gossip:
Thanks to Gamera’s Myspace page, our heroes find out about Asagi, the young girl that serves as Gamera’s connection to humanity via a mystical stone from Atlantis her dad gave her. That probably sounds insane, but it’s all set up well in the previous movie, and it’s nice to see another familiar face make a comeback in G2. She has a more substantial part to play than Osako, and we see her and a friend trying to evacuate Sendai with everyone else.
Asagi is Kaneko’s answer to “Kenny.” Kenny is the shorthand used to describe the obnoxiously precocious kid that seems to show up in every old school Gamera film. Generally clad in horrifyingly short shorts, a Kenny will run around screaming for Gamera to come save the day, call adults idiots for even thinking that Gamera won’t save the day, and generally end up in some kind of mild peril so Gamera will come personally save him. Thankfully, Asagi never does any of those things. She’s more of an interesting, introverted weirdo kid.
Most of the classic Gamera movies were targeted at kids, so it’s not surprising that the monster became “The Friend of All Children,” with kids serving as the main human leads. I don’t think Kennys are so bad. As long as their voices aren’t super grating (which unfortunately happens sometimes), they’re usually good for a laugh, and even popped up in some of Godzilla movies in the 60s and 70s. I actually really like the one in Gamera vs Gyaos.
What’s cool about the Sendai evacuation is that we actually see what happens after the exciting montage of people stampeding out of the city. In this case they’re getting stuffed into big ol’ helicopters. Asagi and the female scientist manage to get on the same one, but this movie won’t let ’em off the hook so easy. The Legion Queen busts out of the ground to commit the ultimate evil: delaying flights.
Gamera’s turtle sense seems to be a bit quicker on the uptake now, because shortly after the Queen pops up, Gamera 9/11s into her. Gamera’s trying to buy the helicopters some time, but their brawl is shaking the ground too much for them to take off. It’s another clever detail that I don’t think has been addressed in a monster movie before or since. Gamera guides their rumble far enough out for the choppers to finally take off, but he gets his ass beat even worse this time than he did before. Legion cuts him open and blasts off a chunk of his shell. Legion peaces out because she knows the flower in Sendai is about to go off, and she may be a hard-ass, but nobody’s ass is that hard.
Gamera doesn’t peace out, because he’s too swell of a guy to just let Sendai get bone-zoned. Naturally his plan is to knock that flower over like it’s a 7-11, just like in Sapporo. Except now he wasted too much time getting into a slap-fight with a giant Queen, so when he gets to the flower, he’s too late. It blows up as he’s pushing it over and Sendai gets spectacularly erased off the face of the Earth in the process. For all intents and purposes Gamera is fucking dead.
I’m sure they were shitting bricks already, but this causes Japan’s military to shit like, double-bricks. Cinder blocks? The Prime Minister authorizes full military action against the Legion bugs, which is a pretty big deal because after World War II, Japan’s armed forces are strictly a self-defense force. They’re depicted as such in every kaiju film (you’ll see JSDF on their tanks and planes), though sometimes they get around it by introducing a special anti-monster team. It’s a little trippy (and corny) to see American-style gung-ho jingoism in a Japanese movie, but I guess it makes sense when space bugs level one of your cities… and kill your giant monster bro.
While the military valiantly keeps trying and failing to stop Legion from doing whatever the fuck it wants, Asagi and Honami sneak through blockades to get to Gamera’s corpse. Asagi still has her Gam-rock, and if she’s still alive, he must be too. When they get to our totaled turtle, he’s surrounded by human well-wishers, including a mother trying to console her kid. Not only does this movie have a Kenny, but they snuck in a sly reference to Gamera’s kinship with children. With Asagi and the rock so close, Gamera rises from the grave, but it costs him his connection with Asagi, as the stone shatters in her hand. No longer connected humanity, Gamera takes off to shred some monster ass.
Gamera hauls ass to Legion, ready for murder. This final showdown is cool because the humans actually have a part to play alongside Gamera, basically taking on the little asshole Legions while Gam-gam runs roughshod over the Queen. Gam and the queen trade blows, with Gamera eventually ripping her face off. Unfortuantely, being a horrible bug, there’s even more face under there, and now it’s crazy pissed.
The military manages to blow up most of Legion’s horrible little babby bugs, and thanks to their hivemind this stuns the Legion Queen long enough for Gamera to start channeling a shitload of mystic energy from the Earth. Beautiful gold waves of energy stream into him from around the world, his chest opens up, and he fries the bejeezus out of Legion. For good.
Sapping the Earth’s lifeforce for his ultra beam has some really interesting (i.e. negative) consequences that get addressed in the next movie, but for now, it’s just a killer way to finish off their perfectly over-the-top rivalry. Few villain monsters get trashed this thoroughly, and while I’m quick to say they were asking for it, they really weren’t. The Legion monsters aren’t evil. They’re just trying to survive like any other species. It just happens to be that their survival is very, very detrimental to ours.
As day breaks, Gamera gives the army a little roar of approval, and they salute him as he flies off. It’s just the right type and amount of ridiculous to wrap up a film like this. Later we see the human leads walking through a wintery festival, happy to have Gamera as an ally, and hopeful that humanity doesn’t ever make it onto his shit-list. It’s a fitting, uncertain tone to take at the end, and serves as a good segue into G3’s darker world.
I love these movies because you can tell they were a total labor of love by cast and crew alike. It’s easy to write Gamera off as the Go-Bots to Godzilla’s Transformers (or the “Ghostbusters” to Godzilla’s Ghostbusters), but with their passion to tell a great monster story, Kaneko and crew breathe vibrant life into the character, and soundly outdo Toho’s kaiju contribution of the time (for 1996, that would have been the abysmal Rebirth of Mothra). Have one shell of a Merry Christmas everybody!