Elbow Spikes and Atlantis:

Gamera: Guardian of the Universe

When I started watching the entirety of the Gamera series…actually no, before that…when I developed an interest in watching Gamera films, it was because I’d read about the later Gamera trilogy. I’d heard it was an especially good series of kaiju films. So I went looking for the DVDS. Which turned out to be challenging, the Blu-Rays were actually far more readily available. I did, however, wind up stumbling across a complete set of DVDS, and, well. The rest is history. History leading up to this moment. We have reached the final era of Gamera movies, starting with 1995′s Gamera: Guardian of the Universe.

Which marks a major change in the Gamera filmography. The once-bankrupt Daiei Studio teamed up with a series of co-producers, including Nippon Television. Toho took over some of the distribution duties. You may recognize Toho as the studio behind the Zatoichi series. And also this little series called Godzilla (and a million other successful properties). Gamera, originally conceived as box office competition, designed to snag some of that sweet Godzilla money, was distributed by Toho.

As has become customary of my kaiju reviews, whenever dealing with a brand new monster I have to talk about the design. Gamera: Guardian of the Universe leaves me in a unique situation however. Every monster appearing in this film is a redesign. Obviously a new series starting up fifteen years after the last entry means an updated and tweaked version of our shelled hero, Gamera. The non-obvious redesign comes about because the foe presented by this movie is a redux too. When rebooting Gamera there was a clear thought process: which of Gamera’s past enemies merits a reboot and the role of arch-nemesis. The answer was clearly Gyaos. Out of all of Gamera’s pre-shark-jumping villains he was clearly the best. A few of the enemy kaiju later on achieved a sort of campy awesomeness, but Gyaos was just legitimately a superior opponent for Gamera, due in no small part to the quality of that film.

So let’s talk new Gamera. It’s a pretty light redesign, which I’m okay with. Basically he’s still just a giant toothed turtle with large tusks and bipedal movement. The changes mainly consist of texturing. Gamera gets a new crest running down his head and a more heavily textured shell. His face has a few extra grooves and his teeth are further back in his mouth. This is what everyone assumes modernizing a design entails, so it was really to be expected. The alterations are mild enough that it’s generally a positive effect. Gamera also gains a new power – elbow claws. Retractable elbow claws. Let’s just move on. The biggest change is Gamera’s eyes, which are even more human-like than ever. It’s only natural that in attempting to humanize and lend emotion to Gamera, who is at heart a sympathetic and heroic character, designers would turn to his eyes. The human eyes do make the giant turtle seem a little cartoony. Which would have been fine in the earlier films, but this movie is pretty serious. I’d like to point to Treebeard, from The Lord of the Rings series as a counterpoint. A giant puppet with sympathetic but alien eyes.

Interested in Gamera’s new powers? Let’s turn to Wikizilla:

Cells: Because of his superior ability to regenerate, Gamera can recover quickly even when wounded.

Shell: Compared to his Showa counterpart its defensive abilities have fallen. It can withstand Gyaos’ ultrasonic scalpel, but could not completely withstand the missile assault from the Japanese SDF, resulting in him being knocked from the sky. Legion was also able to damage it with its attacks.

Power: Gamera possesses superhuman strength, with physical strength alone Gamera was able to tear off Legion’s nose horn.

Gamera’s Brain: Gamera’s semicircular canal was developed to withstand his rotation, even in disk flight his eyes and brain are unaffected by the rapid spinning. Gamera was also made to be very intelligent.

Telepathy Brain: Gamera was created to communicate with people using the jewels left behind by the ancient civilization. With these he could sense Asagi Kusanagi’s spirit.

Thermal Energy Conversion reactor (Plasma Conversion Furnace): Gamera’s blood can absorb heat, flames, high voltage current and nuclear fuel. These energies are converted into electrons, protons and atomic nuclei and stored as plasma energy to be used. Life energy from the Earth, Mana, can be converted as well. The power of the total release of Plasma is unknown.

Elbow Claw: Sharp nails on both elbows, they are strong enough to tear into the flesh of Gyaos. In 2 they could also damage Legion who lost her Egg Chambers to them. Originally they were tucked away inside the body, in the second movie they were always out by default and in the third movie they had two tips for extra damage.

Chromosomal Manipulation: Like the Gyaos of the Heisei era, Gamera could manipulate his own genetic structure to adapt to his environments. Although his mass never changed, his appearance altered over the course of the three movies as his body evolved for combat.

Never change internet.

Gyaos gets a pretty cursory redesign too. He was already a decidedly cool, fairly modern looking design. His angular form is at once organic and weird, without being Clover. The biggest changes are again textural. Gyaos gets some new grooves and a more realistic mouth. He gets a more dramatic, bat-like set of wings, which sets him apart from the original design fairly dramatically. He also gets a new paint job, one with more red and black. The scale is also different, at least to start. By the climax Gyaos has grown to the size of Gamera, but initially they (there’s a flock of them sorta) are much smaller.

Both creatures get dramatic new origin stories. It’s just like a comic book reboot really.  Gamera is now a man-made creature, the result of genetic engineering. “How else would you explain a creature that flies like a saucer?” Gamera was designed by the ancient people of Atlantis to be a literal guardian against the threat of Gyaos. Gyaos, in a dark twist, was also a weapon manufactured by Atlantis. Just like we’re leaving plutonium around. Like, a character actually says that, in case we missed it. Gamera even comes complete with a handy set of instructions in the form of a stone tablet. Also he has a bunch of little metal comma-looking amulets scattered across his back. These amulets allow the chosen holders to connect mentally with Gamera. Of course in this movie it’s a young girl who gets given this power. Gamera remains the protector of children.

The plot of this movie is half decent. It starts with a series of incidents that turn out to be kaiju. First of all there are a bunch of “bird” sightings. Then there’s an island that appears to be floating through the ocean. A scientist is dispatched to explore the bird sightings. She finds an island filled with broken houses and colossal bird droppings before sighting Gyaos. The attempts to study the floating island culminate with a landing party that finds the aforementioned stone tablet and amulets. After discovering Gyaos, the scientist helps the government set up a trap to capture the three threatening monsters before they start trying to eat too many people. This plan is basically a classic “government tries to capture a kaiju scheme.” They drive the Gyaoses through the city by chasing them with spotlights on helicopters, then force them into a football stadium with a series of stationary lights. When they land and attempt to eat a bunch of cows at the bottom of the stadium, the roof is closed and the military pumps them full of tranquilizers. Two of the three Gyaoses fall for this. The third escapes. While all this is happening Gamera is waking up, breaking the stone surrounding him open and striding towards the stadium. He arrives even as Gyaos escapes.

Eventually it’s figured out that Gyaos can reproduce on its own and will create an adaptive species that will overrun the earth. Even the escaped Gyaos adapts, loosing the aversion to light and growing in size. This lends him a pretty threatening vibe. This all leads to monster fighting, as one would expect. There’s a little bit of human character stuff too, and while its surprisingly watchable, it’s not monster fighting. The thing is the sum is pretty good. I mean, even Ebert liked this movie, giving it three out of four stars:

Gamera: Guardian of the Universe is precisely the kind of movie that I enjoy, despite all rational reasoning. How, you may ask, can I possibly prefer this Japanese monster film about a jet-powered turtle to a megabudget solemnity like Air Force One? It has laughable acting, a ludicrous plot, second-rate special effects and dialogue such as, ‘Someday, I’ll show you around monster-free Tokyo!’ The answer, I think, is that Gamera is more fun.

The movie is pretty damn fun, the fights are energetic and dynamic, the human elements are watchable, the movie maintains a consistent tone, a sort of silly darkness. The movie aims for drama and seriousness but never forgets it’s about a giant turtle. The Atlantis prophecy business injects a nice mythological veneer into the proceedings, which is a really good choice. It just matches the giant heroic turtle better than muttering something about radiation and pretending that’s an explanation. Some of the digital effects start to wear thin. When early Gamera breathed fire it was basically a little flamethrower, and no digital fireball is quite as cool as that. The suit work is good though, so that goes a long way towards polishing up the fight scenes.

All in all it’s a good start to this trilogy of Gamera movies.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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