I’ve been watching Gamera movies. So many of them. Eleven in fact. And now that I’ve hit the eleventh film I’ve seen every Gamera movie I currently own. Gamera the Brave seems to be a little hard to find, but I might have to cave and purchase it for the sake of completion. That might lead to a bit of a time between this review and the last one. So this isn’t the last Gamera review, however it is still the end of an era, of sorts. Gamera the Brave is still technically a Heisei film, but it’s not directed by Shusuke Kaneko, who directed the initial Heisei film trilogy. Gamera the Brave builds on the continuity put forth by Kaneko, but it was created by a different studio, Kadokawa Pictures, who bought up Daiei Motion Picture Company. So not only is this the last of Kaneko’s trilogy it’s the last Daiei Gamera movie and the last Gamera movie distributed by Toho, all of which is sort of a big deal. So even if this isn’t the last Gamera movie I’ll review it’s still a bit of a milestone.
This is another one of those Gamera movies distributed under fifty different titles. The opening titles and closing titles on my DVD didn’t even match, switching from Gamera 3: The Revenge of Irys to Gamera, Absolute Guardian of the Universe. The DVD case claimed the movie was called Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris. The movie was also distributed under the titles Gamera 3: The Incomplete Struggle (how artsy) and Gamera 3: Evil God Irys’ Awakening.
The Gamera series certainly changed drastically between the Showa period and the Heisei period. Not only are the three chief Heisei films much closer sequels than any of the other Gamera movies, they’re substantially grittier than the other cartoonish films and they reinvented the character of Gamera a bit. Instead of the cartoony and fairly unexplained giant turtle from the Showa period, the Heisei Gamera is the result of Atlantean genetic engineering, a mythical guardian built to protect the world’s life. It’s a change that makes a lot of sense to me. The mythical element really suits the character and the genre, and Shusuke Kaneko really leans into as he wraps up the series, to great effect. The more I think about Gamera 3 the more I like it, it really serves as a wonderful climax to the trilogy and send-off to the character.
In the beginning of Gamera 3: Evil God Irys’ Awakening not only is Irys not awake, he’s not even hinted at. Instead we’re introduced to a world still surviving after the events of the first two films. This film reintroduces Mayumi Nagamine, the ornithologist from the first movie. She’s travelling around the world, following a series of Gyaos appearances. The vicious and quickly evolving Atlantean weapons have been showing up all over the world. We see Mayumi Nagamine studying the body of a dead Gyaos in the Philippines. She ends up getting flown back to Japan to help the government plan for this potential second-wave of Gyaos occurrences. In Japan an exploratory unmanned sub discovers a shocking underwater graveyard. Sitting on the ocean floor are hordes of dead giant turtles. Failed attempts at creating Gamera, rejected beta versions of the Atlantean creation. Their fossils litter the ocean floor ominously. We’re also introduced to another strange phenomenon in Japan, Miss Asukura and Kurata Shinji, threatening government officials with a fixation on kaiju. Through hints and murmurs provided by the film it becomes clear that Miss Asukura has some link, possibly a merely spiritual one, to the culture that developed Gamera and Gyaos. They don’t trust Gamera however, instead they are convinced that letting the turtle survive jeopardizes the whole world.
We also meet a young girl named Ayana, who at first seems like she might be Gamera’s new child link. However Ayana has moved to a small village from Tokyo, where she lived when Gamera first fought Gyaos. This conflict tore apart her home, killing her family and her cat Iris, maybe named after the Greek god associated with rainbows. Ayana’s sleep is haunted by visions of a monstrous Gamera, smoke, and destruction.
And then two Gyaos show up in a heavily populated portion of Tokyo. Gamera emerges from the sea and bears down on the flying monsters. He knocks one from the air with a powerful plasma blast, sending its flaming body crashing into a subway. He follows the beast, finishing it off with another blast. Then he starts chasing the second flying foe, shooting fire after it time and time again. Finally he catches it and kills it, amidst a mass of flaming buildings. He leaves the Shibuya district of Tokyo aflame. The damage Gamera causes kills an estimated twenty thousand people, turning the army against Gamera. This battle feels grimmer than a lot of the trilogy’s past fights. Fireballs toss people through the air in droves, and the flaming chunks of Gyaos fall to Tokyo’s streets like the rubble caused by some massive bombing run. It’s apocalyptic and bleak, setting up this change in opinion nicely. Between this and Ayana, this movie is much more interested in the collateral damage and deaths Gamera causes. In the past Gamera’s fights took place in abandoned areas, or marked him as a clear hero. This film is much more interested in the shades of grey inherent in any fight on this scale.
Ayana, still unhappy and depressed, emotionally scarred by the traumatic experiences she’s endured, enters a mysterious shrine/cave-thing near her town. She explores it in the hopes of convincing some kids to stop bullying her younger brother. Inside the cave she finds a mysterious rock and picks it up. A boy her age appears, imploring her to put the rock down. He explains that his family has long been tasked with protecting the cave, and specifically the stone inside. He warns that moving the rock will awaken something within the cave. The two get along well, and the boy shows Ayana the documented copies of information found within the cave. The carvings he shows her speak of powerful guardians associated with compass directions. One of these is a dragon, another a tiger, and another a turtle. The last is too damaged to make out, but Ayana theorizes that it might have been a Phoenix.
Ayana goes back into the cave, where she comes across an egg. The egg hatches, and from it emerges a monster. Its head is smooth and pointed, missing a mouth, and an array of tentacles extend from its body. She names it Iris (only the film’s titles use the alternate spelling, which is strange). The boy finds out about this, and fears the creature to be the danger prophesied by his family. Ayana tells him she understands the creature, and gets along with it, in part because they both hate Gamera. She feeds the creature cans of food, and it threateningly uses its tentacles to spear and absorb the contents of the cans. Ayana begins wearing a black and pointed variation on the amulet from the first movie. Much like the amulet in the first film it appears to grant the wearer a psychic link, except in this case Ayana is linked with Iris, not Gamera. She continues to raise the creature, who starts to grow at an alarming rate.
Ayana follows Iris through the woods, passing by disturbingly hollow animal corpses. When she finds the now larger Iris, he hovers above her, gently encasing her in his tentacles. Ayana seems a willing participant in what’s happening. Iris seals her in a cocoon and places it in the cave for reasons that are initially unclear. Ayana’s newfound friend, wielding a stone knife given to him by his grandmother for the express purpose of killing the cave’s demon, finds the trapped Ayana and cuts her free, taking her to a hospital. Iris, seemingly arranged, emerges from the underground temple and begins attacking and draining the people in the nearby village, growing ever bigger as he does. The Japanese military send troops in to attack the fierce kaiju. They also send Mayumi Nagamine, who has now reunited with a familiar face. While walking through Tokyo earlier in the movie Mayumi Nagamine stumbles across a homeless man who appears to be the same police officer she worked with in the first film, who later showed up briefly as the ashamed security guard in the second film. Mayumi Nagamine convinces him to clean up his act and help her again.
They start investigating Iris, finding the boy, the comatose Ayana, and the egg in the cave. Examination of the egg’s DNA suggests that Iris is an extremely mutated strain of the Gyaos kaiju, sort of a superior and powerful daikaiju version. Meanwhile the military attempts to take down Iris, driving it into the air and chasing it with fighter jets. Iris is about to kill these pilots when Gamera shows up, attacking the tentacled creature. Gamera and Iris chase each other through the air in a flurry of fast moving pixels. Shusuke Kaneko makes shockingly good use of CG in these movies, especially the last two, and this scene doesn’t look anywhere near as terrible as you’d expect. The fighter jets get their new orders as they monitor the fight. After the Gyaos fight in Tokyo Gamera is officially an enemy of Japan, and they’re ordered to shoot at him. This distracts him and gives Iris the time to escape and head towards Kyoto – where Ayana has been moved.
Mayumi Nagamine has headed to Kyoto too, in an attempt to track down the now missing Ayana. Miss Asukura and Kurata Shinji have shown up and removed Ayana from the hospital as part of their anti-Gamera scheme.
Lets take a second to talk monster designs. Gamera gets another update in this movie. He’s increasingly pointy and crested. He still has fins occasionally, but now his shell looks more like a trilobite than a turtle. His head has a bigger crest and more prominent tusks. His eyes are less benign than ever, and generally he’s less welcoming and more animalistic. Iris, this film’s big villain, is kind of a problematic design for me. The pointed inorganic head is pretty cool, but in general there’s just too much going on with him. He has tentacles that are also wings, he has glowing lights and spikes and fins. These elements are all assembled in a vaguely interesting way, but its a little cluttered most of the time.
The movie’s big climax brings all the characters, including the girl who could communicate with Gamera in the past two movies, together to great effect. Gamera and Iris fight, and it’s pretty brutal. Iris tries to absorb Ayana again, linking them forever, but Ayana rejects him when she realizes that he killed her foster parents in the village. She also realizes that Gyaos possibly deserves more blame than Gamera in the death of her biological parents. However this rejection doesn’t free her from Iris’ clutches, and in the end Gamera has to punch through the kaiju and pull her out.
The battle hits its peak when Gamera gets pinned to a wall by Iris and is forced to blast off his own hand to prevent Iris from absorbing his energy. He then creates a hand out of energy and punches Iris to death. He stands one handed, wreathed in flame, as the military makes a report – thousands of Gyaos, from all over the world, are descending on Tokyo.
It’s a wonderful, mythic, dramatic climax to the Heisei trilogy, and a fitting end for Gamera. Facing off against unbeatable numbers of his most iconic foe. The film only grew on me the more I thought about it. It’s a grim, epic conclusion to a wonderful character. Gamera 2 might have slightly better action, or more thrilling human elements, but Gamera, the Absolute Guardian of the Universe might be the better movie. RIP GAMERA.