Welcome to Tokusatsu Gesundheit, where today we’re getting away from the venerable studios of Toei and Toho for the less moneyed flicks of Daiei. In particular, we’re watching the serious 1995 reboot of their goofy Gamera franchise, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe.
First, a Japanese ship transporting tons of uranium runs aground a mysterious, free floating island. Then, a group of giant bird-like reptiles start annihilating small villages on outlying islands. These two strange phenomena converge during an attempt to capture the bird creatures, when the “island” comes ashore as a giant turtle monster! As Japan’s scientists struggle to figure just what these creatures are and how they’re connected, the Japanese Self Defense Force is taking unprecedented moves to kill them – but is it wise to kill creatures we don’t understand?
Gamera was created by the film studio Daiei in 1965 in order to get some that sweet giant monster movie money that Godzilla was bringing in hand over fist. The franchise proved fairly successful, producing seven films in as many years. It didn’t save the studio from bankruptcy, and it ended alongside the studio in 1971. That was basically the last word on the franchise, save for a 1980 movie assembled from existing footage, until the mid-90s Godzilla resurgence prompted the rights holders to make this movie.
- The film uses the avian Gyaos, from the original series flick that cemented Gamera as a heroic monster and friend to children, reimaging the singular beast as a whole swarm – all with Kaiju sized potential, of which only one is left and fully grown for the final battle.
- Gamera’s status as a hero is given a somewhat sensible backstory: here, both he and Gyaos were creations of an ancient civilization (AKA Atlantis). Gyaos was meant to be an extremely omnivorous solution to pollution that first succeeded completely before backfiring wildly (turns out living things like to keep eating even when their initial food source dries up) while Gamera was the more intelligent attempt to fix the “oh crap, there’s a swarm of giant ravenous birds attacking people” problem.
- Gamera’s status as a friend to all children is given a nod here, with him stepping in to protect a child from an attacking Gyaos midway through the film (thus cluing in the human heroes that he might be on their side) and mentally connecting with a protagonist’s teenager daughter via Atlantean artifact to draw strength in battle. With his new backstory in place, having been essentially an organic, intelligent battle tank meant to protect a civilization from Gyaos, this works rather than coming off as ridiculous.
This movie is pretty great. It gives a strong, if fantastical, explanation for its monsters that pegs them somewhere between “unknowable beasts” and “bestial superheroes” (the two extremes of the genre) to great effect. Doing so sets it apart from the contemporaneous Godzilla and Mothra films, carving a niche for itself that feels unique. Definitely worth watching.
Come back next week for another installment of Strange Times & Places!