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The Gamera Trilogy Review

Gamera
Who says a giant fire-breathing turtle can't also be a badass?

When it comes to internationally famous Japanese kaiju, Gamera is the Snorks to Godzilla's Smurfs, a more obscure knock-off often derided for being patently inferior despite having an generous fanbase all his own. As an enormous, jet-powered, fire-breathing turtle who started life as a painfully transparent attempt by Daiei Film to capitalize on his more notorious Toho cousin, Gamera quickly became a kid-friendly, heroic creature whose films during the Showa era are a frustrating exercize in diminishing returns, shrinking budgets, increasing amounts of recycled footage, and extremely lackluster quality. If this were all there was to the monster, poor Gamera would rightfully languish in obscurity, only to come out of his shell occasionally to be lambasted by MST3K and various YouTube personalities.

But just as Godzilla got a second chance during the Heisei era, Gamera returned to theaters with a trilogy of films that are far darker than their Showa predecessors. These three movies dispose of Gamera's kid-friendly reputation and offer something a bit more mature and with a much higher budget. Generally refered to as "The Gamera Trilogy," these are easily the best films in the canon, and they are a good starting point for any budding kaiju fan who wants something other than Godzilla to sink their teeth into.


GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE (1995)
Gamera: Guardian of the Universe
GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE (1995)
Gamera: Guardian of the Universe

THE JIST: After terrorizing a small island, giant man-eating birds begin to threaten the mainland of Japan, while beneath the ocean, an enormous fire-breathing turtle awakens from an eons-long slumber to do battle. Can humanity figure out which side to take in this epic battle between two terrible genetic creations from a forgotten ancient civilization?

THE VERDICT: This is a movie that takes its time to get started, and in so doing, it sets a serious tone that stands in stark contrast to all the Gamera films that came before it. It has good human actors who are more than capable of carrying things through and delivering even the most ridiculous bits of exposition with earnestness, and when the monster fights begin, the characters slip into the background so that the film can deliver on its promise of giant monster action, which it does admirably. All that said, it's not a perfect film. It still struggles to integrate some of the goofier aspects of Gamera into this new era, with things like his spinning jet flights and the derpy look of the Gyaos not quite meshing. The music, too, is distractingly bad, and while the third act has some awesome monster-on-monster mayhem and amazing bits of city destruction, the well-drawn human characters are given absolutely nothing to do but stand and gawk. The practical special effects and creature designs are not only an enormous step up from the Showa era, but they hold up just fine beside other high-budget Japanese films of the time. However, the visual effects are marred by terrible CG and some truly awful composites, but they are blessedly few and far between. All in all, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe does a good job in giving Gamera the street cred he so desperately needs and it earns its place in the pantheon of good Japanese kaiju flicks. I'd even go so far as to say it's better than many of the Heisei era Godzilla movies.


GAMERA 2: ATTACK OF LEGION (1996)
Gamera 2: Attack of Legion
GAMERA 2: ATTACK OF LEGION (1996)
Gamera 2: Attack of Legion

THE JIST: A meteor crashes into rural Japan, unleashing swarms of energy-eating monsters who mean to destroy every major city in their path in an effort to terraform the Earth. It is up to Gamera and his human allies to stop the aliens' inexorable march toward Tokyo.

THE VERDICT: The first act of this movie again goes a bit slow, but since it doesn't have to waste time resetting the entire Gamera mythos, it is far more effective at filling the minutes with increasing levels of suspense and dread. The characters this time around are more memorable, too, and they are actually given much more to do during the climax, with each having a satisfying arc that culminates in a useful contribution to the final battle. Additionally, the practical effects are even better, with Gamera getting a notable upgrade and the creature design for both the small and large Legion being light years ahead of the previous films' inferior Gyaos designs. Unfortunately, there's a much heavier emphasis on visual effects, and they haven't improved. Still, the plot is quite solid. While it does rely on a few too many big exposition dumps, it tries to ground everything in science that makes sense at first blush (just don't think too hard about it), which is refreshing for a genre that usually stomps all over scientific plausibility as surely as it does major Japanese metropolises. There is one massive coincidence that irks me involving a character who just happens to be at the same place at the same time as the protagonist for absolutely no logical reason, but I'll forgive it because of an earlier scene in which Gamera is overwhelmed by a horde of smaller creatures in a way that is as clever as it is memorable. I also like that, when he flies away in his usual, spinning fashion, he sprays blood on the windows of nearby buildings. That's a nice touch. All in all, this sequel is my favorite of the trilogy, because it improves on the first film in almost every way and has only a handful of flaws.


GAMERA 3: REVENGE OF IRIS (1999)
Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris
GAMERA 3: REVENGE OF IRIS (1999)
Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris

THE JIST: A girl whose family was killed during Gamera's fight with the Gyaos five years earlier bonds with an ancient creature capable of bringing an end to human life and the reign of Gamera once and for all.

THE VERDICT: From a sheer production standpoint, this is the most well-made of the trilogy and arguably the entire Gamera canon. The visual effects that dragged down its predecessors are vastly improved this time around, and the practical effects don't slack off either. It also has, hands-down, the most intense climax of any Gamera film, culminating in a bad-ass, knock-down, drag-out fight that will leave you utterly spent. The entire film is filled with intensity, with an unflinching focus on the collateral damage in human lives that most kaiju flicks tend to gloss over. The plot centers on it, too, with suprisingly resonant themes about excruciating loss and the soul-crushing anger that follows. Unfortunately, for everything it does so incredibly well, Gamera: Revenge of Iris is hampered by a nonsensical plot that tries to juggle about three storylines too many, can't give a consistent read on its multitude of human characters, and is filled to the brim with confusing exposition that contradicts itself in multiple places. In other words, it's the most well-made film of the Gamera trilogy, but it's also the most poorly written, despite its ambition and emotional weight.



The Gamera Trilogy is something quite special, and fans of Japanese kaiju films absolutely must see it, no matter what they may think of Gamera. I'm not reviewing it today, but Gamera (or rather, Gamera's son, Toto) did go on to star in another reboot, Gamera the Brave, and it's not bad either, though I wouldn't put it in the same league as these three movies. He is a good character who is lovable in his own way, and I don't think he deserves to be as overshadowed by the big lizard as he is. If he could get more fans outside of Japan, who knows? Maybe one day we'll finally get to see Gamera and Godzilla duke it out on the big screen. (Fans of obscure trivia might know they did fight in a Japanese stage performance for ten days in 1970, but that's the closest we've ever come to an officially licensed battle between the two.) I know I'd pay big bucks to see it. ...But sorry, Gamera, I'd probably still root against you; it's nothing personal.


-e. magill 8/23/2018

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