The recent Western reboot of Godzilla as part of Universal’s MonsterVerse (yuck) has led to an uptick in appreciation of all things kaiju.
With Godzilla vs. Kong originally due to launch this November, Arrow Video have gone all in on the Gamera franchise – the oft-maligned but wildly successful Godzilla rival – putting together an exhaustive eight blu-ray collection of all 12 theatrical Gamera releases, packed with bonus features, alternate cuts and commentaries.
Originally conceived in 1965 by Daiei Films to capitalise on the Godzilla phenomenon in Japan, the original series of Gamera films quickly descended into kid-friendly romps that are largely interchangeable and forgettable. After a long hiatus the franchise was rebooted in 1995 (again no doubt due to Godzilla’s renewed box office fortunes at the time) with Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe the first of a trilogy of films that attempted to take the character in a more serious direction.
The setup is just what any kaiju film fan has come to expect: Plutonium use in Japan has led to an ancient evil awakening, Gyaos, who is best described as two parts giant bat to one part dinosaur.
As is often the way, and luckily for the people of Japan, ancient evils rarely get locked away without a good guy equivalent, and so it’s not long before Gamera emerges to save the day. There’s the usual mix of tracking the monster’s movement, lots of military boardroom inaction (who inevitably shoot the wrong big monster when they finally get going) and domestic drama, with schoolgirl Asagi and her curious link to Gamera the central thread running through the human side of the story.
Again, this is nothing ground-breaking, but in the tight script and inventive directing Guardian of the Universe is far more than the sum of its parts. This is a very traditional kaiju film made extremely well.
No scene drags on too long, each set-piece battle feels unique and the miniature work is destroyed in satisfyingly dramatic fashion. The suit on suit Gamera vs. Gyaos showdown is saved for the last ten minutes of the film and is suitably climactic, with plenty of fisticuffs, an exploding oil rig and even a trip into space.
As fun as the film is, it’s a pity that the central problem is the main star himself. Gamera is a 250 foot turtle that flies, sometimes by firing up jets in his feet and sometimes by spinning very fast and turning into a flying saucer looking thing. There’s no getting away from the fact he is a goofy looking dude, with the giant and slightly crossed bobble eyes he’s stuck with not helping either.
There are shots where he looks fairly majestic, but these are few and far between. Thankfully Gyaos is a much better design and the film’s most beautiful visuals all feature the villain. I would argue the shots of Gyoas nesting upon a destroyed Tokyo Tower at sunset rival some of the most gorgeous tableaus in any kaiju film.
Beyond the obvious influence of a certain very tall lizard Guardian of the Universe is also indebted to the original Jurassic Park. From the borderline litigious score to the many shots that are all but identical to similar scenes in Spielberg’s film, the references come thick and fast.
There’s even a subplot involving same sex reproduction and a scene with a giant pile of shit. Happily, though, there’s enough else going on elsewhere that these similarities are amusing rather than tired, and the cues in pacing that director Shusuke Kaneko has taken from the Hollywood blockbuster gives Guardian of the Universe a spritely feel too often lacking from kaiju flicks.
There’s no getting stalled on a twenty minute boardroom conference here, the action bouncing between the various subplots with satisfying speed.
Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe is, above all else a fun roller coaster of a movie, and easy to recommend as a perfect place to start with the franchise.
The film isn’t shy about its influences, and doesn’t stray far from the established kaiju template, but by doing the simple things well there’s a lot to enjoy here. As long as you can forget that there’s another giant monster who would look much, much cooler in Gamera’s place then Guardian of the Universe is worth a watch for any kaiju fan.
Gamera: The Complete Collection Is Available On Limited Edition Blu-ray Boxset, 17 August 2020