Today’s selection: Gamera, Guardian of the Universe (1995, dir. Shusuke Kaneko)
Available from: Mill Creek
Gamera, Guardian of the Universe was more than a giant monster movie; it was a revolution for the genre. Since the inception of the genre, Godzilla had been, well, “King of the Monsters”. Look at the kaiju flicks from any given year, and if one had Godzilla in it, it was the year’s best. The Gamera franchise had nipped at Godzilla’s heels for several years, with movies ranging from mediocre to terrible, and had died an ignominious death with Super Monster Gamera (possibly the worst kaiju movie ever) fifteen years prior.
I shall now recount a personal anecdote. In 1996, I was in elementary school, and there had not been a single kaiju feature released theatrically in the US during my lifetime. However, HBO had released Godzilla vs. Biollante on VHS, and Manga had brought Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah and Godzilla vs. Mothra to tapes in the UK, so I was not completely unfamiliar with what modern effects could do for my favorite genre (I’d even gotten into fansubs of some of the later films by that point). Flipping through the newspaper one weekend, I saw that a Gamera movie was actually playing at the cinema (because ADV actually did that, bless them), and despite Gamera being an inferior Godzilla-knock off, I jumped at the opportunity.
The experience was mind-blowing. Somehow this Kaneko fellow had crafted a Gamera movie that was superior to the Godzilla movies of the time, to most of the Godzilla movies of all time. In this reboot of a franchise that nobody had previously cared all that much for, Gamera had gone from a franchise where singing children rode Gamera’s back while stock footage of the previous movie played to a franchise where grown-up scientists dug through kaiju excrement for human remains. The character reacted with gravitas, and the threats were palpable, slaking a thirst for a “serious” monster movie in my young brain (a serious movie about a giant turtle with jets for feet; I told you it was mind-blowing). Helping matters, the special effects, from Shinji Higuchi (who, at the same time was storyboarding for some show called Neon Genesis Evangelion) also blew even the Heisei Godzilla films out of the water.
The movie is not flawless, in hindsight. Some of the compositing effects don’t hold up as well any more (though the miniatures generally still look excellent), and certain scenes feel lifted from Jurassic Park and the Heisei Godzilla series. The two sequels increase in quality (Gamera 3 arguably being the best giant monster movie ever made), so I sometimes think of the first in the trilogy as the weak one. And yet, whenever I watch it, I find myself thinking “Damn, I forgot how great this was!”
As a side note, Dark Horse printed a four-issue comic miniseries as a sequel to the first film, brining the classic Gamera monsters Zigra and Viras into the Heisei Gamera timeline. It’s never been reprinted as a TPB, but if you can find the individual issues, check them out; they’re a lot of fun.