Off the coast of the Philippines; a ship carrying plutonium mysteriously runs aground on a moving atoll. Meanwhile; a village in the Goto Archipelago is destroyed by a rather large flying creature that eats people. Are these incidents completely coincidental, or is there something more terrifying about to take place?
Released in 1995, and directed by Shusuke Kaneko; Gamera: Guardian of the Universe is a Giant Monster Movie from Japan, and the ninth installment in the Gamera film series, and the first in a trilogy of films also known as the Heisei Gamera Trilogy. The film is also a reboot of the series, carrying no references to earlier films, other than the two monsters featured in it. The film was written by Ghost in the Shell screenplay writer Kazunori Itō, with special effects produced under the watchful eye of Shinji Higuchi (who would later co-direct Shin Godzilla). And, to add a little interesting cherry on the cake; the soundtrack was produced by Kow Otani; who also composed the soundtrack for the classic PlayStation 2 game Shadow of the Colossus!
In The Beginning (a God of War III trailer reference there); there was Godzilla! Created by a Japanese producer; the first film launched a long and illustrious career with further films being released over a period over more than 65 years; with some domestic, and international releases to boot. Godzilla became the most famous Movie Monster in the world; and for a time had no real competition!
Inspired by the success of the Godzilla series (as well as Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Birds); rival Japanese studio to Toho; Daiei Film decided to make their own Giant Monster Movie in Gamera, the Giant Monster, after an attempt to make a giant rat movie didn’t go to plan. This new film featured a giant Turtle called Gamera attacking Japan. Gamera though wasn’t restricted to water based attacks; as he could also fly, and breathe fire. The film was relatively successful in Japan, and began the Gamera film series, with an additional seven films released between 1966 and 1980. But whilst being of some relative success; it didn’t necessarily mean that Godzilla had any worthwhile competition from it!
You do not really need to watch all the Showa Gamera films to see what I mean, as a few short clips demonstrate why Gamera was the sort of lower rent underdog of the two monster series in Japan at that time. The effects, were pretty dreadful! The first film by comparison is not too bad; and the use of black and white footage does create a real cool nostalgia feel for Monster Movies from the 1950s and 1960’s, but as the series progressed, the special effects regressed!
Just look for a few shots or clips from some of the Gamera films from the 1960’s-1980, and you will easily see what I mean. They are pretty low quality, especially when you compare them to Godzilla films released from the same period. Yes, while many of the Godzilla films later produced during this same period began to regress; there was still a decent level of quality. In Gamera’s case; well, for one, the suit looks like something a child would make, in that it looks like a cardboard suit, with no room for a more organic look, or in the additional effects: such as movement, or rounded edges. And this continued throughout the Showa Period with little development in quality!
Also, some of the films had their ridiculous moments; such as (you know I sort of had to mention it), the scene where Gamera spins around on a trapeze, which is somehow strong enough to take his weight! Now this level of quality was pretty shocking, but in fairness to Daiei; they did have some financial struggles at the time, so perhaps it was the case they just weren’t making enough to increase the quality of the films, choosing rather to get them made, to keep the company afloat!
So; at this stage, Gamera was floundering in the background, whilst Godzilla roared on gloriously and victoriously. But that didn’t mean Gamera was out for the count just yet! Between 1984 and 1995; Toho had brought Godzilla back after nearly a decade long hiatus, and once again found a strong level of success. But with a major American release (let’s not talk about it) on the way, they let Godzilla die (seriously) to let the American one live a little. So, there was now room for another Monster Movie series to return; and with it, a new breath of life, especially in the special effects department!
From this point forward, the tables were turned, and Gamera became the King of the Monster Movie. How? Well; just look at Gamera for a start. In comparison to his earlier life, he looked more organic, round, and realistic. He looked like something that Toho themselves would make! But it’s not just the props themselves that make these film’s work in the effect’s department, it’s also how they are shown!
Up From the Depths states in their video “How Gamera Beat Godzilla At His Own Game“, that the camera’s were angled at such a way to ‘convey the size’ of the monsters from the ground level up. Godzilla films from the time chose to use ‘flat’ ‘wide’ shots of the monster action, but thanks to better positioning of the cameras in Guardian of the Universe, the film makes you feel like you are actually there, witnessing the action! There are other subtleties too. Toho’s Godzilla films frequently used miniature tanks and vehicles, for close-up battle scenes with the monsters. But in Guardian of the Universe, the use of miniatures is rather in-frequent, choosing to use close-ups of real tanks on maneuvers, with tanks even firing their guns. This subtle use of real vehicles in favour of miniatures adds and extra level of reality, making the battle scenes believable, as if this is actually happening right before your eyes!
Watching the Gamera trilogy again, it’s hard to look past the irony in the films, as there is something very familiar in them, but it has nothing to do with the giant turtle. It’s that the films somehow pre-reference two major American blockbuster films. And whilst both films have shown no connection or inspiration from Gamera, the references are rather plain to see to some degree. One of the films (rather interestingly) is The Dark Knight Rises (but as this has more to do with Gamera 3, I will leave that to another time). The other one though is more ironic, in that the film in question is the 2014 Godzilla!
Godzilla 2014 tells the story of a species of giant winged creatures called MUTO‘s, who suddenly appear and go on the rampage. These then in turn wake-up an alpha predator in Godzilla, who hunts them down. Gamera: Guardian of the Universe meanwhile is a story about a group of giant winged creatures called Gyaos, who wake up and cause terror. So, to defeat this terror, a giant turtle called Gamera appears, with the sole intention of bringing them down! When you cut down deep into both films, there are many differences, as Gamera focuses more on a mix between Science Fiction and Mythology, where as Godzilla is more Environmental based Science Fiction. But from just the base outline; it’s hard to not see the similarities. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just kind of nice for this amazing trilogy to get a mini reference in another major monster movie!
The release of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe changed the Monster Movie scene. Maybe not on the entire world, but quite probably in Japan, as many people consider this to be the first Gamera film to be able to properly compete with Godzilla. There is so much more to say and discuss. From the intricate detail in the story, to the relatable cast, to basically everything here and there. But The thing that stands out most for me, is the irony of it’s later relationship to a Godzilla film, but also the vast improvement and detail in it’s effects. Whilst each Godzilla film (except for at least Shin of course) has for many years always found a way to directly link itself to the original film; Gamera decided to go for a full blown reboot; and what a film we got! So now, with all the set-up and introductions out of the way; what could possibly happen next?!