A while back I was musing on the old Gamera movies I watched as a kid and I set upon trying to find Gamera: The Brave on blu-ray. While it does exist, it’s out of print and pretty expensive to find a used copy. While I could get a DVD, I just can’t settle for standard def anymore if I can help it, so in the interim I decided to pick up a copy of the “Gamera Trilogy” on blu-ray which was inexpensive and billed by some as the “best Kaiju movies of all time”, especially the last in the series, the Revenge of Iris. Here is my review.
There’s no way to separate a monster movie from the era in which it was produced. Classic Japanese monster movies peaked in the mid 60s and then faded out in the early 70s. There were very few of these sorts of movies from the late 70s through the 80s. In the 90s they started a mini-comeback. My feeling is that the success of Jurassic Park was responsible for the Kaiju revival, although I’m not an expert so I have no way of knowing for sure. Jurassic Park signaled the start of the use of CGI for FX, but this was slow to seep back into Japanese kaiku films, perhaps due to a combination of a lack of expertise and clinging to the tradition of “man in suit” and minatures. Nevertheless, the times they were a’changin’ and you can see it in how these films were put together.
The first film, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe came out over 20 years ago, 1995. Watching films from this era is a very strange experience because it’s definitely modern in most respects, and yet so many things are outdated. They have modern style computers, but they’re all using CRT monitors. They’re starting to use modern cell phones, but they’re not smart-phones. All TVs are low-res standard definition. Beyond that, though, when it comes to overall fashion sense and the look of the cinematography, it doesn’t feel that “old”. So the nostalgia effect isn’t quite there. In the second film I remember seeing a print ad that used Mariah Carey, looking not so different then as she does now. At one point they show the internet and the browser is the original Netscape. So it’s outdated, and yet not quite so out of step that it feels like a different world.
When it comes to the effects, though, the first two films have a decidedly Power Rangers feel. The monsters feel more like puppets like something out of Jim Henson’s creature shop, like Dinosaurs. I really think at times they may have used hand puppets. The films often fail to convey a sense of scale. The use of old grainy film stocks in the classic kaiju movies helped provide more of an otherworldly feel and obscured the models and rubbery texture whereas the modern ultra-accurate film stocks show too much detail, making things look that much faker. Also, as the series starts to incorporate more CGI, the CGI doesn’t blend very well, with its crisp and flat look and tell-tale motion. There are also some composite flying shots that are extremely fake looking, kind of what you might expect from a low-budget TV-show.
At best, it’s very hit-or-miss. Some model sequences do seem to deliver the classic feel of destruction and explosions of 60s and 70s fare and some do not. Also, whenever the monsters blast beams and fireballs they have the same sort of traditional look that you’d expect of all these sorts of painted-on effects, although the fireballs are more realistic and less “animated”.
The one thing it seemed to do a lot better than other films is showing real-life military maneuvers. There are lots of shots of what seem to be actual tanks and jeeps moving around that would normally have been done with models in the old days. There are also some location shots with crowds running around rather than soundstages and rear-projection. These things helped make it feel real, but overall it was a pastiche of things that worked and things that didn’t.
But this is all about the look and the production values…what about the stories?
The tradition of monster movie in Japan started with the original Godzilla (or Gojira) in 1954, seen by most as a parable against the dangers of the atom bomb. Ever since then, filmmakers have tried to reframe the monster motif in various ways. The Gamera trilogy goes in a mythic sort of direction, tying him to a combination of the Atlantis story and some mumbo jumbo about old asian pagan traditions. In fact, Gamera originally appears as a floating atoll with a stone marker on it with runes. So there is a combination of east and west put into a blender. It’s like something out of Dungeons and Dragons by the third film which starts to talk about “Mana”. Mana is like The Force or like the earth-power that flows through ley lines and into monuments like stonehenge. There’s also an element of crystal power with these apostrophe-shaped artefacts that humans use to form some sort of connection with these beings, a connection that proves to be pretty weak. At the same time, the films try to ground things in a zoological basis. The Gyaos birds reproduce and evolve as any other animal does. The Legion is a panspermia story, i.e. an alien lifeform that lands on earth. It’s really Revenge of Iris that hits hardest with the fantasy elements, throwing so much stuff into a blender including millenial end of the world panic, that it feels kind of like The Matrix Reloaded throwing in werewolves.
Despite all of these fantastical elements, the style of the films is somewhat cinema verite. There are tons of “shoot the TV screen” moments of newscasters and public officials. And many of the monster shots are from a low or distant angles of the human point of view. The protagonists are definitely the people and not Gamera himself. There is much more of an attempt to tell a traditional ensemble drama. The wrestlemania smackdowns are few and far between. This emphasis on real people and letting them emote has won the films its share of fans, however I couldn’t help but be bored with their X-Files style investigative routines. I haven’t seen Cloverfield, but I guess that is the final evolution if you want to try to show how it would really be if a giant monster were rampaging around, although the newest Godzilla might come close.
The newest Godzilla does compare in other ways too… In the newest Godzilla, he acts as a sort of natural predator of the other “mutos”. This realization that Godzilla is a natural ecological response to the more predatory monsters leads to this famous catch-phrase:
One way or the other the military needs to realize that their best strategy is to not attack our hero as all it does is get in the way of him doing what he needs to do.
So much of the drama, however, needs to revolve around the powers that be trying to decide whether Gamera is a friend or foe. In the first two films, the sequence of events is very deliberately laid out to facilitate the cities evacuating before the crushing, crumbling, and stomping takes place. Therefore there’s minimal loss of life. It’s the Gyaos rampaging prior to Gamera’s arrival that causes the casualties, therefore Gamera is hailed by most as an ally, whether he’s consciously acting on our behalf or not.
The third film sets things up similar to Batman v. Superman. Superman is blamed for the collateral damage of taking on Zod and company. It’s a classic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. Had Superman not intervened at all, the earth would have been subjugated. The greater good was clearly served by Superman choosing to stand and fight. And yet some people can’t get beyond the literal blame game of these people died, therefore you’re to blame and you’re the bad guy. The collateral damage argument in BvS was probably meant to relate to the US military’s application of superior firepower to quash militants surrounded by human shields. It could also be applied to the classic question of whether it was justified to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And it could also be used to question whether war is ever justified, considering how many civilians wind up dying in the process.
The desire by the filmmakers to have something meaningful to say within the vessel of a kaiju film elevates Revenge of Iris above the other two. So I’m going to spend the remainder of my review focusing on this one.
The problem with monster movies in general is they’re mostly about two relatively dumb brutes getting into a smackdown. It’s about spectacle, like watching a gladiatorial battle. One brute wants to kill us and the other just wants to kill the brute. But neither have much in the way of depth as characters. That’s why it’s so much like professional wrestling or watching sports. In pro wrestling you have the “face” and the “heel” as they call it and you’re just supposed to root for the hero passively from the sidelines while you watch various smackdown techniques back and forth. And there’s nothing against that, but it being such low-brow entertainment exactly WHY these kinds of monster movies tend to get bundled up and sold in the bargain bins. I could have gotten this boxed set to get them all (save Brave) at a super-cheap price but I prefer the older Gamera films with dubs, at least as an option, but this is cheap. Anyway, kaiju films rarely have much interesting to say or think about. If you’ve seen one you’ve pretty much seen them all. Since the third film asks a moral question about collateral damage and revenge, it breaks from the mold.
Now, in order to do that, Gamera’s reputation has to take a hit. That’s because in the scene where Ayana’s parents die, Gamera acts really careless and clumsy. Monsters like these are always bulls in a china shop, but Gamera, being the friend of all children as he used to be, was more careful. He was more aware of people being around, especially the kids, and would actively protect them. Here’s a screengrab of him actually gently holding one of the kids.
As silly as it may have been, in the old films, bystanders stopped seeing Gamera as fearful and began to see him as simply an oversized guard-dog. It may very well be that when he crunched buildings as an ally he wound up taking down lots of humans accidentally in the process, but these films in the 60s and early 70s simply did not focus on this aspect. The 90s films tried to be less cartoony and to explore the kinds of things that would actually happen at ground level. Gamera is therefore put forward as an unpredictable force of nature similar to Godzilla. While this is a more realistic scenario, it also kind of negates Gamera’s secret-sauce, as it were. The only commonality is there are still kids, although in the 90s films the kids are more adolescents or young adults.
So in order for Revenge of Iris to make its point, Gamera MUST cause collateral damage one way or another. While it’s understandable that this would happen, and it suits the picture overall, I didn’t like this. In the scene in which the parents died, they could have shown gamera noticing people being around and doing something intended to try to prevent damage, but maybe getting shoved into the building instead. Sure, his shell would have trashed the building, but it was the bad monster that shoved him. So there was a way to get there while keeping Gamera more sympathetic. Instead they chose to keep Gamera’s body-language ambiguous, ala Godzilla.
The upside of this is that it helps the audience understand why Ayana has a vendetta against Gamera. Had she witnessed Gamera make note of the humans in the building next to him and gesture to shield them, then she may have been more understanding. The only way to insure that she blamed Gamera was to have him appear just as reckless in his flailing motions as the bad guy.
Considering that I really wanted to see Gamera: The Brave, it’s interesting to note how Revenge of Iris is pretty much the same story, in reverse. Instead of raising a baby Gamera to be the hero, Ayana is raising Iris to be the villain.
What I found strange is that instead of joining with Iris, she becomes separated from her (him?) and eventually winds up kidnapped by a looney game developer/end-times cult-leader and his equally loony assistant, and then they wind up together with the “priestess” who kind of has a link with gamer and kind of doesn’t.
The reason I found this strange is that if Ayana was really responsible for unleashing this monster, she’s got blood on her hands via the monster having sucked the life out of the villagers and whatever else it’s about to do. They don’t focus very much on the blame-game aspect even as Ayana keeps talking up how much she hates Gamera and holds onto her crystal connection device with Iris.
To the film’s credit, it shies away from painting Ayana as an iredeemable villain, instead having Iris go so far beyond Ayana’s desire for revenge as to cause Ayana to begin to realize the error of her ways.
Through two and a half films, there’s scant interaction between the humans and the monsters despite the presence of those crystals. But at the final climax, the two monsters sort of duke it out as if in front of a stage, with the key humans standing and watching, eventually leading to moments where both Iris and Gamera finally directly interact.
In a way it kind of reminds me of the scene in Toy Story where Woody finally breaks the unwritten rule of toys and speaks directly to Sid:
The mystery of the monster movies is how much actual consciousness the monsters possess. Are they driven purely by instinct or can they actually reason in a way recognizable as such by humans? During this climax, the trilogy finally allows some degree of anthropomorphizing, first by having Iris suck in Ayana to merge, and then how it handles Gamera’s final actions. You know, the big three movie payoff.
Iris has the ability to suck life-force through its tentacles, so it pins Gamera’s hand and begins to suck his green blood out. Gamera looks at his hand and decides the only way to prevent being sucked dry is to handle it like an animal stuck in a bear-trap. He blows his hand off with his fire-breath. Now, why he has not, at this point, attacked Iris in close quarter by blowing his fire breath directly at him (her?) is a verifiable plot-hole, but having Gamera perform an act of self-sacrifice like this is both noble and shocking.
Once his hand is off, somehow it’s smoldering, maybe because he’s like a dragon and he’s full of fire, but he sticks one hand into Iris’ guts to claps at Ayuna (and at this point we don’t know this) and the smoldering fist pretty much blasts Iris away with the other, and before you know it there’s a huge explosion and a ringed shockwave straight out of Star Wars: Special editions. The spectacle in this single explosion and all of the wreckage it creates blows away all of the action in all of the previous movies combined.
Of course, despite this huge fireball, the humans who are hanging out on this stage-like platform have survived, as has Gamera of course, while Iris is reduced to bits and pieces. Now if Gamera’s purpose were simply to wreak havoc one would expect him to just start flailing his arms like before, but again, the film wants to humanize him. So it’s at this point where he turns around to face the humans and opens his hand to reveal the cocooned Ayana. He then carefully presents her back to them.
From that point onward there is an attempt to have a dialogue with him, but all he can do is kind of express body language. At this point I was hoping he’d reach his hand out and have them touch his finger or something like E.T. but that’s the sappy part of me speaking. He does what he can to have a quiet moment of nonverbal “understanding” before he goes out to attack the swarm of Gyaos that are now heading for Japan in what a cliffhanger that is sort of like the end of the Incredibles.
Even though there wasn’t a 4th film, it works, because it’s says “a hero’s work is never done”. And that’s pretty much how these films operate. There’s never a definitive ending. There’s always one more sequel or reboot or reimagining…
Even though Gamera: The Brave flopped, there was an attempt to bring Gamera back in 2015-2016 but apparently all it produced was this promotional short. But this is what you get with an all-CGI Gamera. It’s good up to a point, but it also reinforces my point about the excesses of CGI. Iris, made as it was in 1999, sometimes exhibited some shaky-cam and super-closeup action (specifically in a mostly CGI flying battle) and you can see how fast-forwarding 17 years later brings us this style of visual overload.
I still intend to find a copy of Gamera: The Brave in HD one way or another, so I’m not yet done with Gamera. If you’d like to know even more about the trilogy, someone posted these three interview clips recently.