Looking back on the unmitigated diaper fire that is 2016, I noticed I’ve only done one Gamera review this year! I’ve got something ultra special planned for next month, so I had to squeeze in some more titanic turtle before the year is up! Being November, I naturally picked one where our chivalrous chelonian roasts some turkeys!
Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (or its Japanese title Gamera: Giant Monster Midair Battle) was unleashed in 1995 and successfully rebooted the Gamera series. Directed by Shusuke “GMK!” Kaneko, scored by Kow “GM-FUCKING-K!!!!” Otani, with special effects by Shinji “did the fighter jet scene in GMK!” Higuchi.
I really really like GMK, and Gammy here is what most of that dream team was doing pre-GMK. If you’re playing a drinking game where you take a shot every time you read GMK, please call 911. If you’re still conscious, great! This movie is a ton of fun, gave Gamera the second chance he always deserved, and in a lot of ways outshined Toho’s Godzilla output of the time. Keep reading to find out how!
Take a peek at the trailer!
It’s got all the charming faux sleekness of a mid-90s VHS trailer! It also smartly focuses on critical acclaim (even if it’s a little backhanded), bitchin’ visuals, and Otani’s slam dunk ass-kick score. I’ll circle back to Ebert’s praise at the end of the review… it is weirdly positive, and positively weird.
Here’s a nice big taste of the score! Soaring horns, sawing strings, and a mix of lurking malevolence and epic mystery. Basically all the best elements of monster movie music in one place! Plus occasional guitar riffs and orchestra hits so you never forget this came out in 1995:
So if this is the GMK dream team’s first big live-action kaiju outing, what were they up to before wrangling the monster reigns? Higuchi was making a big splash in anime and getting special effects experience with work on movies like Godzilla 1985 and the creature comedy The Eight-Headed Giant Serpent Strikes Back. Similarly, Otani was scoring up a storm in anime-land.
So howzabout Kaneko? He probably helmed some classic anime series or something right? Nope! He directed a potentially groundbreaking gay coming of age story and a wild flick about Dracula’s HIV-infected blood turning a meek scientist in a vengeful vampire, but that’s not quite where he got his start! If not there, then where?
No seriously, dude-man was cranking (heh) out boner movies. Hey, everybody’s gotta start somewhere, right? Kaneko counts himself as a lifelong Godzilla and Gamera fan, so it’s kind of hilarious to imagine early-career Kaneko going through the motions of directing bouncing boobs but all the while daydreaming about kaiju.
So Daiei was basically like “let’s hand this dead franchise off to a promising former pornog director and some anime nerds and see what happens.” Turns out what happens is pretty fuckin’ rad.
The movie opens with a moonlit ship carrying a deadly load of plutonium. Surely nothing meaningful will happen in this Japanese giant monster movie with the lethally radioactive cargo.
Haha, surprise! The boat ran aground! On an “atoll.” Except the atoll seems to be following the ship… The music deliciously shifts from eerie to bombastic, and we slam into the insane title card sequence above (not… not the one with the cartoon dog). If you’re watching the English version, you’re treated to a reasonable facsimile instead. It’s not quite as impressive as the original Japanese version, but they did their best:
And for some reason, this specific viewing of this movie (maybe even the compressed title card specifically) reminded me how fucking old the 90s are now. Guardian of the Universe still feels hot and fresh and new in my rotten garbage brain, but this movie is old enough to legally drink now.
Just when I was ready to jettison that morbid reminder and escape into GOTU’s wonderful cinematic fantasy, the thought was reinforced during the opening credits. Not because of the emergency and rescue teams being scrambled, but because of the montage of newspaper headlines that followed. Keep in mind this isn’t some throw-back period piece, newspapers just still mattered in the mid-90s!
But even weird, stray thoughts about the relentless, cruel passage of time (and the looming, inevitable twin specters of irrelevance and death) can’t stop the fact that GOTU is fun as fuck and a monster masterpiece. We come down from the whirlwind credits and meet one of our leads, young Asagi Kusanagi. Asagi and her friend are cruising around an aquarium talking about Mu/Atlantis.
I mentioned in my Gamera vs. Jiger review that Mu is a pretty major cultural touchstone in Japan. With both being isolated island nations regularly beset by disasters (natural and otherwise) it’s easy to see why.
Asagi’s friend is totally convinced that Mu is the realest shit ever, but Asagi quickly establishes herself as calm, cool, and even knowingly mysterious. Asagi says (but not really) “Calm your tits, friendo. For now, Mu is just the stuff of baby bullshit fairy tales, but my old man may have found evidence of your merman boyfriend’s stupid underwater house.”
Asagi is one of my favorite human protagonists in a kaiju movie. She’s a kid, but never obnoxious or overly precocious. She’s mature for her age, but not in an irritating “look how smart I am” Kevin McCallister sort of way. Asagi also avoids the frustrating angst that makes so many teen protagonists unbearable. She’s like a Japanese April Ludgate but 90% less evil. It’s a complex balance actress Ayako Fujitani pulls off terrifically, making Asagi the perfect evolution of the kid heroes (Kennys!) that starred in the old school Gamera movies.
Basically, Fujitani crushes as Asagi. She’s also Steven Seagal’s kid? She’s also also still starring in movies, writing them, and is an accomplished author. Basically, Fujitani crushes at life.
After this we get to know our other human leads, starting with Yoshinari Yonemori (played by Tsuyoshi Ihara). Yoshi was an officer on the plutonium-shuttling ship from the film’s prologue. He rolls into Asagi’s neighborhood, buying them drinks and cooking them dinner, buttering up her dad (Naoya Kusanagi, played by Akira Onodera) to give him a spot on his research team. He wants to get up close and personal with the mysterious moving “atoll.” It’s a cute way for them to all meet up (Yoshi and Asagi run in to each other at the store beforehand, Asagi clues him in to dad’s favorite booze), and it gives us a fun, chill hang-out scene early on.
Next up is renowned ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine (played by former J-pop singer Shinobu Nakayama), who’s getting pestered by the fussy and fearful Inspector Osako (played by Yukijirō Hotaru)! Osako is another recurring favorite of mine, popping up in all three of Kaneko’s Gamera flicks. Director Kaneko tapped Hokaru for a very Osako-like role in GMK too! He’s great.
Asagi’s dad gives Yoshi a no-pay internship on his expedition (complete with peppy upbeat music and colorful uniforms not that far from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou‘s orbit), and Osako finally convinces Mayumi to come investigate reports of bird attacks on a remote fishing island.
Mayumi and Osako make it to the island, finding the small village got its shit pushed in sideways. Houses and shops are demolished, and there’s not a soul to be found. It’s yet another (albeit very grounded and low-key) example of one of my favorite genre tropes: Monster-ified Environment! It effectively hearkens back to heavier, horror-focused films like Gojira. Otani’s score shines here too, capturing the eerie mystery of exploring a town that’s been wiped off the face of the Earth for no obvious reason. Mayumi puts a bow on the scene by dropping a legit truth bomb: the only animals capable of this kind of devastation are humans.
Mayumi may(umi) have been spewing some for-sure realness, but in the universe of GOTU, she’s (thankfully) wrong! This is quickly proven by the huge disgusting gloppy bird turd (“pellet” if you’re a bird nerd) they find on the scene. Mayumi investigates it, only to find the monographed pen of her mentor deep in the sludge.
This is as good a time as any to pile on some more Osako love. Assorted delighted observations:
- Sometimes his dub voice sounds like a mature, restrained (but still stonery and fun) Pauly Shore
- Sometimes he also sounds like (a slightly dialed back) Ed Wynn.
- He’s constantly got a towel with him, Craig Robinson-style.
- He is super ready to get off this fucking island already, making him an incredibly relatable character.
Despite Osako’s suggestion they bail and get backup, Mayumi insists they push on into the forest in search of more evidence.
We get an awesome shot of Gyaos flying over them in the woods, and the movie has now officially sunk its hooks into you. The tension they’ve been building up and teasing seamlessly converts into wild action and excitement with a totally bananas chopper-chase through the sky:
Some effects shots are definitely better than others, but it’s crazy how alive GOTU’s monsters look and how fun and fresh its action setpieces are… especially considering its miniscule budget. This movie was made by whiz kids that are passionate about big bad beasts, and it shines through in every frame. And just when things have gone totally off the rails, fighter jets scream in to provide backup… but then more Gyaoses show up!
Osako shrieks comically at the ravenous reptiles, and our heroes manage to get away with all their skin and meat still attached to them. Let’s put them on hold for a sec, because there’s a whole other monster we have to check up on!
Yoshi, Naoya, and their research team have found the “atoll!” They send a team to hop on it and… do science to it. They find Amber Relics from Skyward Sword (a.k.a. Magatama) scattered all over it, plus a crater with a big creepy monolith standing in it. The monolith is warm and pulsing like a heartbeat.
After they collect some Amber Relics (they refer to them in-movie as “beads”). The monolith crumbles dramatically, the atoll crumbles dramatically, and the scientists tumble dramatically. Into the water. One even locks eyes with the Gam-ster before he putters away underwater.
We cut away from the atoll assholes to find Mayumi and Osako dealing with Mr. Saito (Hirotaro Honda), an incredibly oily, sneering EPA agent (Ghostbusters says hi!) who informs our heroes that the Japanese government intends to capture the Gyaoses alive. The thing is, I get where he’s coming from. Saito argues that Gyaoses are the zoological find of the century, and need to be studied–and technically, he’s not wrong! Honda plays this character with such leering disdain that the performance alone would sell him as a hateable douchnozzle, but then Kaneko pulls some tricks from the playbooks of young Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson! Uncomfortable zooms, weird dollies, and aggro close-ups subconsciously seal the deal and drive home that Saito is an unrepentantly greasy asshole.
Mayumi and Osako rack their brains to come up with some kind of plan to catch the Gyaoses alive. It ends up being a mini hang-out scene, with some fun, stealthy, food based character building: Osako daintily nibbles a single riceball, Mayumi goes apeshit on a big-ass hoagie!
It’s a fun little detail, and the brainfood helps them conjure up a plan to ptrap the pterrible pterodactyls in the Fukuoka Dome, a baseball stadium with a bitchin’ retractible roof. The JSDF scrambles to set the trap with Mayumi, Osako and (EUGH) Saito in attendance supervising. Yoshi swoops in and tries to warn everybody about the whole mess of Gamera coming their way, but Saito of course shuts him down… until the harbor patrol calls in a huge unidentified “sub” heading for the dome.
At this point Gamera hype is hitting terminal levels, but it’s not quite time for him yet. The big gross cow-halves the JSDF planted as bait work, and the Gyaoses make their way into the dome. The Gyaos puppets are a little stiff when they come in for a landing, but they look amazing(ly gross) when they hunker down and start mowing on cow.
The Gyaos’ awful, beady eyes roll orgasmically as they jam beef down their throats, and sloppy strands of bloody meat flop around everywhere. They are straight up, unredeemably horrible, which makes for really fun villain monsters. They’re so horrible that some of the JSDF guys get ants in their pants and start shooting tranquilizers before the dome is completely closed! DERP!
One gets dropped by tranqs, one gets strobe-light KO’d (‘zat you Trollhunter?), but one gets out and starts hauling ass across the city! Shit! Shiiiiiiiiiiiiit!
That’s right, Gamera Dikembe Mutombos the bejeezus out of the third Gyaos… right into a fucking oil refinery!
So Gamera’s all aces right? Dudester is a totally safe, effective Gyaos-counter measure, right? Ehhh… almost. I mean the intent is clearly there, but the execution leaves something to be desired. Gammy’s a rookie at this whole “humanity saving” schtick, and isn’t up on our complicated manners and etiquette.
People (naturally) freak the fuck out, and the JSDF has to wait for authorization to attack “even in cases as ridiculous as this!” Gamera just keeps plowing a beeline for the two Gyaoses while chaos erupts all around him. He’ll stop at fucking nothing to take those jerks out, and it is delightful. The mayhem is all gorgeously rendered, with hyper-detailed miniatures that crumble and explode satisfyingly, ending with Gamera triumphantly, eerily emerging from a billowing cloud of smoke near the stadium.
Gammers pokes his head in, the JSDF straight up bails (understandably), and during the chaos, the Gyaoses use their holy shit laser breath to bust out of their cages.
In the confusion, the last two critters get away, then Gamera takes to the sky after them! YES! The music picks up dramatically, Gammy’s initial launch kicks out tons of exhaust (looking a lot like a space shuttle launch), then he spins out over the horizon UFO-style. It is rad as fuck.
Now of course this isn’t my first Gamera rodeo, I already knew he flies. It’s just that GOTU handles it so awesomely. Gamera flying feels shocking and spectacular the first time he lifts off, and all of GOTU’s flight scenes are exhilarating and triumphant. GOTU follows Guillermo del Toro’s rule of continually “transforming” monsters. The idea is that the audience desperately wants to see your monsters, but if you show them too much it stops being exciting and becomes humdrum. The classic way around it is to only give your audience little tastes of your monster throughout your film, then revealing it at the end (see Jaws). That’s a solid technique that works really well when done right. The other technique, the one GOTU practices, is to show off your monsters, but to keep changing them throughout the movie. The audience gets an eyeful, but never gets bored. Gam and Gyaos are introduced, then we see Gam fly and Gyaos spew lasers. Later Gam will start barfing big-ass fireballs everywhere, and one gnarly Gyaos will get huge.
With the monster cats out of the prehistoric bags, we get a cool “Japan responds” montage (which yes, includes the cryptic and ancient papers-of-news). The government passes a bill that allows JSDF intervention, fish prices skyrocket, and people are glued to TV news for updates. If 50s kaiju flicks (particularly Gojira) invoke the atomic bombings that ended WWII, GOTU seems to conjure up the for-profit media frenzy and infotainment of The Gulf War. Japan was pretty far removed from that conflict, so maybe I’m making connections that aren’t really there.
In the aftermath of the Fukuoka fiasco, Yoshi returns to Asagi and Naoya’s house. Naoya has decoded the monolith runes from the Gameratoll:
The last hope, Gamera. Awaken with Gyaos, the shadow of evil.
Yoshi gives Asagi a spare bead as a souvenir, and when she takes it, it fucking glows. The shape of the bead and the crazy-impossible metal it’s made of all point to Atlantean/Mu…ian origin. Same for Gamera himself!
It isn’t long before the Gyaoses are back on the hunt though! This time they’re terrorizing a small town in the Kiso Mountains. Gamera rockets out of the sea to seek and destroy these man-eating monstrosities.
The village is gorgeously olde tymey, complete with the big iron warning bell some dude wails on to warn of an incoming monster (a staple of golden age kaiju flicks). Gotta love that super 90s, yellowy filter it’s all shot in too! We get a delicious setup here: the town is evacuating because big goddamn murderbirds are swooping around eating fools.
Some people (including Mayumi, Yoshi, and a local father and baby) have to cross a precarious little Indiana Jonesy suspension bridge to get away from the Gyaoses (the plural is probably still just Gyaos, but that’s boring. How about Gyaeese?). Sounds simple enough, but whoops! Gyaos fucking eats the dad in front of his wife and child, and Mayumi trips while trying to get the baby across! Yoshi goes to help, but that Gyaos is swinging back around for seconds! They’re so boned!
Gam unleashes his fireballs, and they are terrific! They have weight and explosive force to them, they’re like fiery cannon balls, and it is so satisfying when they slam into something. Gam turns one stanky-ass Gyaos inside out and turns his attention to the one remaining. Gyaos is winding up to laser the shit out of our heroes still stuck on the bridge! What can Gamera do?!?
Shit like that is why I love Gamera. Dude is totally selfless in his mission to protect our silly little asses, and will never hesitate if he has to put it all on the line for us. The classic 60s Gamera flicks touch on the idea, but Kaneko’s movies dig a little deeper, and it serves as the meat of Gammy’s character arc over the three films. It reminds me of my favorite moment from the old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons:
In GOTU though, Gamera throwing himself face-first into peril has a really intense wrinkle: whenever Gamera gets hurt, Asagi gets hurt too.
They bonded via the bead: Asagi makes Gamera stronger, but she has to take the same punishment he does. This is the classic Gamera series’ “Friend to all Children” theme cranked up to a whole new, kinda fucked up level.
Phew, okay, this is getting long, and I’m literally on the last day of November! I hate the idea of completely missing a month, so I’m going to cut here. Click here for more red hot Gamera-on-Gyaos action!