Sunday, October 7, 2012

Gamera - the Heisei Series

I've never gotten over the combined chill from childhood of the Canadian autumn, when the temperature drops and nights grow increasingly long. Halloween is just around the corner, and I celebrate my return to blogging here at Triple Bladed Sword with a series of posts on some monstrous fiction, both literary and cinematic.


I was introduced to Gamera, the rocket-powered turtle and Mystery Science Theatre in the same evening, when a classmate from college provided a bootleg VHS tape as entertainment one evening. I was an instant lfan of Joel and his robot companions on the Satellite of Love. For years to come, my friends and I would drop lines from the SF snark of MST3K, eliciting easy, nostalgic laughter. It would take another twenty years before I'd become a fan of the object of their derision: not the film, Gamera vs. Zigra, which was deservedly subjected to the MST3K treatment, but the turtle himself, in his 1990s Heisei iteration through the creative team of director Shusuke Kaneko and writer Kazunori Ito.

 

When I first read rave reviews for Gamera 3: Revenge of Irys (Irys hereafter), I was dumbfounded as to how someone could make the concept of a giant turtle who flies by rocket propulsion, who is the heroic protector of children, something that daikaiju fans would hail as the best giant monster movie since the original Gojira. Unwilling to risk the price of the collected DVD set from Amazon, I rented Irys from iTunes and watched it in installments before going to bed. Thusly, I found myself awake past midnight on a weeknight, while the credits rolled, feeling somewhat awestruck by the ambivalent ending and the stunningly threatening new design for Gamera's suit. I knew nothing about the first two films, but the third was satisfyingly stand-alone. It would be another year before I'd see the perfectly child-friendly Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (Gamera hereafter) and jump-scare laden horror/alien invasion crossover, Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion (Legion hereafter).

Irys remains my favorite of the trilogy, but when compared to even the majority of the Millennium Godzilla series, stands as a testament to what someone can do when they aren't hampered by conservative studio interference, and when the expectations are so low that the only direction to head is up. This may sound like I'm making a caveat: the new Gamera movies are only worth seeing when you compare them with the laugh-fests of the original Showa series from the 1960s. This is not the case. That said, I cannot state that these films have "something for everyone," or that Western-viewers with their predilection for photo-real special effects will see the quality of these films. As David Kalat notes in A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series, "Japanese art does not value "realism" as single-mindedly as Western art does. Japanese filmmakers recognize other values as well: beauty, interesting images, and spectacle" (62). The Heisei Gamera films do not have the photo-realistic qualities of contemporary '90s monster-cinema like the groundbreaking digital dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, or their plagiarized cousins in the much maligned American Godzilla of 1998. But while the Heisei Gamera films may not look as real as 'Zilla stomping through downtown New York, they have the beauty and spectacle of the best Japanese daikaiju films.

In Gamera, the night battle between the giant turtle and the Japanese military at the base of Mount Fuji is a beautiful piece of cinema. I can tell the landscape is a model diorama, but it's a gorgeously rendered diorama, lit in the same fashion as black box theater. I am fully aware I am watching an actor in a rubber suit on a soundstage, but I am still impressed by the visuals. As Shiro Sano, who appeared in both Godzilla: 2000 and Godzilla: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (when Gamera's director Kaneko took a stab at rescuing the Millennium Godzilla series), instructed a younger cast member who laughed at early Godzilla films' special effects: "Realism is not the point. It's about style--it's about mood." Kaneko is a master of mood.  In Legion, the image of a defeated, seemingly dead Gamera hunched over in silhouette while children and their parents look on in hopeful anticipation is powerful. And the moment when Gamera faces an oncoming horde of enemies at the open-ended conclusion of Irys is one of my favorite visuals from the series: mutilated, possibly mortally wounded, but unwilling to admit defeat, even in what is likely certain death. I do not love the Heisei Gamera films because their plots are brilliant, or their acting Oscar-worthy. I love them because they generate a stylistic mood: these films paint an impossible apocalypse, a literal reading of the beasts from St. John's Revelation. But instead of a rider on a white horse, the redeemer figure is a giant turtle sharing a symbiotic, telepathic bond with a young woman.

In "The Imagination of Disaster," Susan Sontag stated that science fiction films are not about science. Shusuke Kaneko agrees with her. At his website, Kaneko has stated that daikaiju films can no longer be treated as science fiction. Audiences are too savvy about science to believe in giant monsters. Consequently, these are fantasy films. Kaneko treats them as such. From Asagi Kusanagi's mystical bond with Gamera through a tear-shaped amulet (a more dignified way to handle Gamera's tradition of juvenile sidekicks) to the idea of mana (a concept from the Showa series) to Gamera as a guardian monster (which Kaneko will drag into his Godzilla film), this is the stuff of fantasy. Even the implied origin of Gamera as bio-engineered weapon-of-mass-destruction is still couched in the aesthetics of fantasy: Gamera was built by Atlanteans! Kaneko's daikaiju universe is arguably the same as that of Hiroshi Yamamoto's MM9 with its "anthropic principle" (17), a concept whereby giant monsters can only exist in a universe where we effectively believe they are possible. Or as David Kalat puts it, "a Kaneko kaiju eiga establishes a fantastical premise, but having done so, proceeds from there with logic and emotional realism" (239).

This emotional realism is the other reason I love the series, and Irys as the crowning jewel. For moreso than any other Japanese monster movie, Kaneko considers the ramifications of a giant monster rampaging through Tokyo: buildings are not only destroyed, but the people inhabiting them die. What Gojira and Irys share behind the bombast of the Japanese military giving Godzilla and Gamera the full nine yards, is a pacifist sentiment. We need to stop doing what we're doing, or there will be grave consequences. For Gojira, it was the spectre of the H-bomb. In Irys, the reference is broader. It is the universal propensity to seek revenge when we are wronged. Gamera's opponent mirrors his own symbiotic link with Asagi Kusanagi, with the monster Irys telepathically linked to Ayana, an orphaned girl whose parents were killed in the battles between the winged Gyaos and Gamera in the first film. Her anger has festered, and when she finds the egg of a highly advanced Gyaos, forms a link with it. Her rage against Gamera blinds her to the reality that Irys is an indiscriminate killer. Ayana is inadvertently responsible through Irys for the deaths of her adopted family and other innocent people. She sees that her revenge will not only result in Gamera's death, but has already resulted in collateral damage. Irys is Gandhi's now famous statement, "An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind" rendered in daikaiju scale images.
 Some daikaiju fans think Irys is overrated, and I concede that it is inferior in many ways to The Host, Trollhunter, or Monsters. But as a lush, hyperbolic fantasy, it is a glorious mess. And while we're waiting for Gareth Edwards and Guillermo del Toro to reveal Pacific Rim and the new Godzilla to those of us who weren't at Comic-con, these films remain what they were in the 1990s: serious competition for Godzilla's daikaiju supremacy, and proof that with the right crew, even the most ludicrous of concepts can be subverted into something very cool.

Works Cited:

Kalat, David. A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series. 2nd ed., McFarland. 2010.