Thursday, August 12, 2010

No More Mister Nice Gyaos

Gamera, Guardian of the Universe
(Gamera Daikaijû Kuchu Kessen, 1995)

DVD Description: Released by ADV (2003); additional material: trailers, TV spots, interviews, press conference, behind-the-scenes featurette

Directed by Shusuke Kaneko

Starring: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Akira Onodera, Shinobu Nakayama, Ayako Fujitani, Yukijirô Hotaru, Hatsunori Hasegawa, Hirotarô Honda, Akira Kubo, Kojiro Hongo, Takashi Matsuo

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Not that the Showa-era Gyaos was particularly nice, but the Heisei version, which makes its first appearance in this film, is quite the nasty critter indeed. And there's more than one of them.

For the Heisei Gamera series, the big turtle's origin has been completely reworked; no longer merely a prehistoric giant resurrected by a nuclear bomb, Gamera is the genetically engineered product of an advanced but extinct race that lived 10,000 years ago—a counterforce against the Gyaos, which were previously created by the same race to devour environmental pollution but which evolved into a carnivorous, aggressive menace. In the present, three of the pterosaur-like Gyaos appear in the South Pacific and make their way to Japan. In the meantime, a ship carrying plutonium collides with a floating "atoll", which turns out to guessed it...Gamera itself. Attached to Gamera are a number of amulet-like artifacts, and a young girl named Asagi Kusanagi (Ayako Fujitani) discovers that, through one of them, she and Gamera become psychically linked. When Gamera is wounded, she shares its pain; conversely, she is able to provide strength to monster so it will rapidly recover.

The military lures the three Gyaos monsters to the covered stadium in Fukuoka, so that scientists may study them; however, one of the creatures escapes, only to be destroyed by Gamera. The other two, growing rapidly larger, also escape and attack Gamera, who kills a second one with his fire beam. The remaining Gyaos makes a nest amid the wreckage of Tokyo Tower while Gamera retreats to licks its wounds. Eventually, the two monsters come together again; Gamera prevails and returns to the sea till the next time it is needed (the following year, Gamera vs. Legion).

Except for Gamera vs. Barugon—and to some extent the original Giant Monster Gamera—the Showa-era Gamera films catered to a juvenile audience and devolved further into absurdity with each successive film. This newer incarnation, with director Shusuke Kaneko and effects director Shinji Higuchi at the helm, forsakes all previously established history and presents a "guardian" that has little interest in humankind per se, but a fierce loyalty to the planet Earth itself. In its battle with the Gyaos, Gamera racks up some serious collateral damage (and in subsequent films, Gamera's disregard for humanity increases, peaking in the Heisei series' final entry, Gamera III: The Awakening of Irys, where its single-minded focus on defeating its foe results in some graphically depicted death and destruction). In this film, several of the more graphic scenes of carnage exceed most of the depictions of human suffering in the wake of a monster attack up to that time. This element of verisimilitude brings the fantasy closer to the realm of reality, and the staging of the monster attacks gives one the impression that, yeah, if giant monsters existed, they would be like this.

While some scenes featuring Gyaos fail to disguise the fact that they're puppets, most of the monster action succeeds to a remarkable degree in the realism department. Higuchi's effects work excels on virtually every count, particularly in shots of the monsters from low camera angles with realistic scenery in the foreground. The shot of the last remaining Gyaos perched in its "nest" amid the toppled Tokyo Tower, silhouetted by a blazing sunset, is one of the most memorable images in daikaiju history. Despite the advances in CGI over the years, I still prefer good, old-fashioned miniature SPFX, especially when the finished product works as convincingly as so much of this film.

Composer Kow Otani provides a fairly atmospheric musical score, similar in tone to his score for Toho's Godzilla - Mothra - King Ghidorah: All-Out Monster Attack, though considerably less distinctive. Most of the music leans toward the subtle, underscoring the action effectively enough, but rarely coming forth to establish a clear musical identity. In fact, on my first viewing of the film, I found the music altogether underwhelming; when it comes to Gamera, I'm rather partial to the scores by Tadashi Yamauchi (the original Gamera and Gamera vs. Gyaos) and Chuji Kinoshita (Gamera vs. Barugon). I do enjoy Otani's work in GMK, but while I've warmed to his Gamera compositions as used in the films, they're not particularly impressive as stand-alone experiences.

The cast boasts a few standout performers—Shinobu Nakayama as ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine, Ayako Fujitani (daughter of actor Steven Seagall) as the psychic Asagi Kusanagi, and Yukijiro Hotaru as the beleaguered Inspector Otaru, all of whom reprise their roles in subsequent Gamera films. Veteran daikaiju actor Akira Kubo makes a welcome, if brief, appearance as the captain of the Kairyu Maru, the ship that runs aground on the mysterious floating "atoll."

While not perfect, Gamera, Guardian of the Universe succeeds better than most any of the Heisei Godzilla films, largely due to the filmmakers' attention to detail, innovative cinematography, and serious treatment of the monsters. It certainly starts the Heisei Gamera series off on a high note, and happily, the subsequent films maintain—and even surpass—the high standards of quality set by director Kaneko and his team on this landmark monster movie.

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