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For many kaiju eiga (Japanese monster movie) fans, the release of Shusuke Kaneko's Gamera: Daikaiju Kuchu Kessen (Gamera: Giant Monster Midair Showdown) in 1995 felt like a breath of fresh air compared to the staleness of Toho's creatively stagnant Godzilla films. With a thoughtful approach to the genre and lively special effects, the film was declared an instant classic and was popular enough to spawn two highly-regarded sequels and a devoted fan following. A few years after releasing a badly dubbed VHS tape, ADV Films has at last made the film available to American fans in its original language on a new DVD under the title Gamera: Guardian of the Universe.
Daiei Studios introduced Gamera to the world in 1965 in Daikaiju Gamera (Gamera the Invincible in the U.S.). The first three films were formulaic imitations of Toho's internationally successful Godzilla franchise, but with the fourth outing, Gamera Tai Uchu Kaiju Bairasu (Destroy All Planets, 1968), the Gamera series began to forge its own distinct identity by focusing on child protagonists (usually two - one American, one Japanese). 1 Gamera went from being a fearsome, fire-breathing city-stomper to the 'friend of all children' who defended the Earth against outlandish foes to the tune of his own peppy theme music. The new, kiddie-oriented Gamera movies proved so popular that Toho began aiming its Godzilla films at younger audiences in response. 2 After the release of the seventh installment, Gamera tai Shinkai Kaiju Jigura (Gamera vs. Zigra) in 1971, financial troubles at Daiei brought an end to the series. A feeble attempt to revive the character in 1980 with a film built around stock footage (Uchu Kaiju Gamera, or Super Monster Gamera) was unsuccessful.
Most kaiju fans greeted the announcement of a new Gamera film in 1995 with skepticism, anticipating either a cheap imitation of Toho's recent Godzilla movies or a campy, juvenile adventure in the style of the 1960s series entries. Director Shusuke Kaneko and screenwriter Kazunori Ito surprised the skeptics by instead crafting a film that was both an homage to vintage kaiju films and an imaginative reinvention of the Gamera character. Their fondness for the genre is clear from the opening scene, a mysterious encounter between two ships and the 'floating atoll' that recalls countless monster films of the past, and features cameo appearances by kaiju veterans Akira Kubo (Kaijuto no Kessen: Gojira no Musuko/Son of Godzilla, Kaiju Soshingeki/Destroy All Monsters, several others) and Kojiro Hongo (three of the original Gamera films) as the ship captains. Later scenes of the military battling the monsters take place at such familiar settings as Mt. Fuji and Tokyo Tower, similarly echoing the classic kaiju epics of the 1950s and 60s.
Although Kaneko and Ito are respectful of the genre's past, they are fortunately not slaves to its conventions, and much of what makes Gamera: Guardian of the Universe feel fresh is their willingness to abandon much of the established Gamera formula. Gamera is still a 'good guy' fighting to defend mankind, but he's no longer tagging along after little boys like the faithful family dog. (One scene of Gamera helping to save a toddler trapped on a bridge under attack by Gyaos is included as a nod to his cinematic past as the 'friend of all children.') He's also no longer a revived prehistoric turtle either, allowing the film to avoid all the tired, cliched scenes explaining how mankind's tampering with the atom brought forth a monster. Unfortunately, the alternate Gamera origin story introduced in this film is a mish-mash of underdeveloped 'New Age' ideas that became increasingly confusing as the series progressed.
Introducing the concept of the psychic bond between Gamera and the teenage girl Asagi is a unique way to crack a narrative problem common to kaiju films - how to link the 'monster story' with the 'human story.' Gamera's and Asagi's fates become intertwined, with the teenage girl suffering whenever the monster is injured, and healing when he heals. The concept is fresh, but the execution not entirely successful because the details of the psychic bond are left so vague. The bond is formed after Asagi handles a strange piece of metal found on Gamera's back, apparently put there deliberately by his creators. Yoshinari theorizes that Asagi has become a 'priestess' for Gamera, but just what this is supposed to entail is never explored. 3 Is she supposed to guide or control Gamera? Has the metal passed on knowledge from the civilization that created the monsters? Is Gamera somehow dependent on her life-force to survive? The movie provides no clear answers.
For all of its innovative ideas, the greatest weakness of the film is perhaps that Kaneko and Ito did not go far enough in their genre revisionism. The success of this film would embolden the pair to experiment with the formula even more in the sequels, but in this first film they don't manage to completely escape the clichés and traditional weaknesses of kaiju films. The human characters are paper thin and not particularly engaging. As in the old Gamera films, the story is structured around three major monster battles: a preliminary bout Gamera wins, a rematch in which the enemy wounds Gamera, and Gamera's final victory. This structure became predictable and tired in the original series, and it's hard to tell if its re-use here was motivated by a desire to follow tradition or a simple paucity of imagination. Several scenes of the military opposing Gamera from the belief that he is the greater menace feel like padding, and we grow impatient for them to learn what we know from the start - that Gamera is a 'good guy.'
The cast is competent but isn't given much of a chance to flesh out their characters. The two leads earn our respect early on for their sense of responsibility: Dr. Nagamine feels out of her league advising the military on giant monsters, but does so because her mentor, Professor Hirata, was killed by the Gyaoses; similarly, Yonemori, as a member of the Marine Safety Agency, feels compelled to be part of the team that investigates the dangerous collision between a ship carrying plutonium and the 'floating atoll' that turns out to be Gamera. Shinobu Nakayama and Tsuyoshi Ihara handle these early scenes well, but they're soon stuck delivering reams of exposition, and by the end of the film they are mostly passive spectators. 4 Ayako Fujitami, daughter of martial arts expert and 'actor' Steven Seagal, is pleasantly natural in early scenes, but tends to come across as a bit distant and sullen later on when she bonds with Gamera.
Of course, the true star of any kaiju film is the special effects, and here Gamera: Guardian of the Universe delivers. Director of Special Effects Shinji Higuchi shows a willingness to experiment with different techniques, including CGI and filming miniatures in natural sunlight, to accomplish the effects and create a unique and dynamic style. He brings a lot of brisk energy to the staging of the monster scenes, and knows how to build the sequences for maximum impact. Inevitably, not every shot is a complete success, with some miniatures looking a little under-detailed and the lighting sometimes revealing the rubbery texture of the monster suits. Nonetheless, considering the limited budget Higuchi was given (a fraction of what Toho spent on their Godzilla films), his accomplishments are impressive. One weakness that cannot be blamed on Higuchi is the design of Gamera himself. A bipedal, fire-breathing, jet-propelled turtle is a bit silly even by the broad standards of kaiju eiga, and Gamera has always had an unfortunate tendency to look more like a sports team mascot or theme park character than a mighty monster. No matter how detailed or ferocious Higuchi tried to make the titanic terrapin look over the course of three films, he never completely overcame this fundamental flaw, but audiences with a fondness for the character never cared, and happily accepted Gamera in spite of his inherent goofiness.
ADV's DVD is a mixed bag which will likely both delight and frustrate fans. The biggest disappointment is that the feature is presented in a flat letterboxed transfer, in spite of the package's promise of 16:9 enhancement. This will be particularly problematic for viewers with widescreen TVs, since blowing up the picture to fill the screen will partially crop the subtitles if one watches the film in Japanese.
Aside from the lack of anamorphic enhancement, the transfer is fine, with nicely-rendered color and good detail. The contrast level appears a little low, but this is never a problem. The Japanese main titles have been covered up with animated black strips upon which English-language credits are superimposed, and the original end titles have been completely redone in English. A few purists may object, but this is better than Sony's treatment of the Godzilla films, in which the end titles have been dropped completely.
Both the original Japanese language track and an English dub track are included, with English being the default selection. Both are in 2.0 stereo, another disappointment since the Japanese DVD feature 5.1 Surround Sound. Both stereo tracks are adequate, although the awful English dubbing should be avoided by anyone old enough to read subtitles.
On the positive side, ADV has included most (all?) of the generous extras from Daiei's Japanese release, and provided thorough English subtitles. The centerpiece of the supplements is a half-hour interview with Shinji Higuchi conducted by Hirokatsu Kihara, one of the founders of Studio Ghibli. Shot against a stark white background that seems designed to wreak havoc with TV monitors, the discussion focuses largely on Higuchi's conceptual approach to the effects instead of the technical details. The interview would have benefited from the inclusion of more behind-the-scenes footage and stills, but fortunately the modest, self-effacing Higuchi is a thoughtful and interesting speaker. The interview is billed as the first of three parts, with the remaining segments slated to appear on the DVDs of the two Gamera sequels.
The other extras on the disc are:
Highlights from the press conference announcing the film's production (5 minutes)
Three Japanese trailers (3 minutes, 40 seconds total)
Six Japanese TV spots (2 minutes, 12 seconds total)
A montage of behind-the-scenes footage of the live action sequences, cut to an annoying pop song that will have the viewer yearning for the old Gamera theme music. (4 minutes, 15 seconds)
Footage of the cast and crew - and someone in a Gamera suit -- promoting the film at the Yubai International Fantastic Adventure Film Festival (6 minutes, 10 seconds)
Footage from opening day in Tokyo, with the cast and crew addressing the audience at the Hibiyu Theater. (2 minutes, 55 seconds)
Trailers for other ADV titles, including the first Gamera sequel, Gamera: Attack of Legion.
ADV is making the disc available by itself, or in a box with extra space designed to hold the DVDs of the two sequels.
Fans with all-region DVD players may want to seek out Daiei's Japanese disc for the superior picture and sound quality (English subtitles are included for the feature but not the extras), but for the majority of American kaiju buffs, ADV's DVD of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe provides a decent transfer and a wealth of supplements at an attractive price.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Both Daikaiju Gamera and the third film,
Gamera tai Gyaosu (Return of the Giant Monsters, 1967) feature important child
characters, but not as the main focus of the story as in later entries.
2. This is most apparent in
Gojira-Minira-Gabara: Oru Kaiju Daishingeki (Godzilla's Revenge, 1969), which
focuses on the fantasy life of a young boy.
3. Since adults handle the metal without forming a bond with Gamera, the
film subtly suggests that it is Asagi's youth and virginity that qualifies
her for the role of 'priestess.'
4. When Yonemori turns to Dr. Nagamine late in the film and says that
he'd like to show her around a 'monster-free' Tokyo some day, you get the feeling he's really
saying "I hope they give us some emotional scenes to play in the sequel!"
The reviewer wishes to thank Stuart Galbraith IV, whose books ( The Emperor and the Wolf, The Japanese Filmography, Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! and Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films) belong on the shelves of all Japanese movie buffs.