This series will be a look at the three Gamera films released from 1995-1999, often called the Heisei Trilogy. I am not going to try summarize the films much. If you have not seen them, you can read about their stories online at sites such as Wikizilla. I also use the jargon of the genre:
- Kaiju = weird creature/monster
- Daikaiju = giant weird creature/monster (i.e., Godzilla or Gamera)
- Kaiju Eiga = giant monster movies
- Tokusatsu = movies, or scenes in movies, using special effects such as costumes, miniatures, and pyrotechnic explosions, smoke, and flames
- Showa = the reign of the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. Used to refer to kaiju eiga made from 1954–1980
- Heisei = the reign of Emperor Akihito. Used to refer to kaiju eiga made from 1984-1999
A gigantic, fire-breathing reptilian creature stomps through a Japanese city, leaving a wake of burning devastation. On film, the monster is portrayed by a man in a costume, crushing model buildings, fending off the attacks of miniature military vehicles. Its rampages frequently culminate in tussles with other giant monsters. That may sound familiar, but we will not be looking at the daikaiju you are probably thinking of.
In 1965 the Japanese movie studio Daiei Film, wanting to compete with Toho’s Godzilla series, released their own movie about a prehistoric monster awakened by atomic testing: the enormous, flying, fire-breathing turtle Gamera. Seven Gamera films were produced between 1965 and 1971. These films, dubbed into English, ended up on the American TV creature feature circuit, alongside Godzilla’s adventures. Daiei Film went bankrupt in the 1970’s, though a final Gamera film, a contractual obligation project making extensive use of stock footage, came out in 1980. The last of Godzilla films of the Showa period was released in 1975.
For years it seemed the careers of both monsters was over. Only in 1984 did a new series of Godzilla films began with The Return of Godzilla. Seven films were made in this series, concluding with 1995’s Godzilla vs Destroyah. Just as Godzilla was going into a temporary retirement, 1995 also saw the return of Gamera in a trilogy of films that updated him to this new era.
Gamera: Guardian of the Universe was directed by Shusuke Kaneko, written by Kazunori Itō, with special effects directed by Shinji Higuchi. Kaneko and Itō were new to kaiju films, though Itō was a well-established anime screenwriter, probably best known in the United States for the 1995 Ghost in the Shell animated feature. Higuchi had worked on earlier Godzilla films, and as a part of Studio Gainax was closely involved with the development of Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Spiky bipedal lizard or tusked-mouth bipedal turtle. Does it really make much difference which monster is which? Quite a bit actually. While they share many of the same elements — the signifiers of what makes a film a kaiju eiga — there are subtle, yet important, differences. We’ll be looking at the ways Gamera: Guardian of the Universe demonstrates that what a Gamera film tries to do can make it very different from a Godzilla film.
Myth and Legend
When unexplained disasters begin occurring, or rumors of mysterious creatures are first heard in kaiju eiga, old tales or folklore about mythical monsters are often brought up. It is the fishermen of Odo Island who gave Godzilla his name after all, back in 1954, from their traditions of an ancient sea creature. Over the course of most of these movies, even when legends are revealed to contain some truth, they are usually left behind, considered unimportant as more scientific facts about the monsters are uncovered.
Godzilla’s co-star Mothra is something of an exception, remaining more closely connected to a mythic background. She’s worshipped as a god on her home island and is attended by a pair of fairy-like beings. It was always hard to reconcile them into the same world that otherwise is full of atomic mutations, cyborgs, and space aliens. 1992’s Godzilla vs Mothra made Mothra’s origins the center of the story and the whole movie felt different because of it. Here Mothra, the destructive Battra, and the two fairies are survivors of the ancient Cosmos civilization, which was destroyed by unbalancing the order of Nature. Mothra demonstrates abilities that seem supernatural, including sealing away Godzilla with a magical seal, as if he were a djinn or demon. Later Godzilla films returned to a stricter science-fiction approach. The new Gamera series begins with some very similar ideas as Godzilla vs Mothra, but takes them even further, building a story world that is pervaded with the sense of being closer to the realm of myth and magic —or what appears magic to our limited understanding.
Gamera: Defender of the Universe opens with an ocean vessel running aground on an uncharted atoll. Before the sailors can figure out what has happened, the underwater island disappears. We, as viewers of a Gamera movie, catch on to what is really going on, though the characters, living in a world that has not seen kaiju before, do not. A giant turtle or other sea creature being mistaken for an island is a common motif in folklore about the sea. The idea frequented gets incorporated into popular culture in both the East and West. When a mission to locate this mobile island eventually tracks it down, what the investigators find only strengthens the connections with myth. The island is littered with comma shaped jewels known as magatama, objects with a rich tradition in Japanese history and folklore. They also unearth a mysterious monolith, covered with strange runes. The monolith shatters and the atoll quakes, throwing the investigators into the sea. From underwater they get their first glimpse that this might not be an island after all. Something more than legend is awakening. Actual elder forces, incomprehensible to the modern world, are in motion.
Later, after Gamera and the Gyaos have appeared and are causing havoc, the runes on the monolith are translated. They reveal that these monsters, like Mothra and Battra, are from a lost civilization, what is remembered in old tales as Atlantis or Lemuria. The monsters are actually bio-engineered living weapons, with Gamera having been created as a specific counter measure to the Gyaos. When the cells of the Gyaos are studied, they are found to have a single, perfected chromosome which is capable of adapting to environments and threats, growing ever more dangerous. The jargon is scientific, but the “science” of Atlantis is embodied in strange symbols, glowing energies, and the mysterious jewels found on Gamera’s shell — which are said to be made of orichalcum, a metal Plato described as being mined from Atlantis. Science is being used to make the Gyaos more dangerous and frightening. As H. P. Lovecraft did in his stories, this is science fiction used to evoke cosmic horror. Knowledge doesn’t solve problems, only reveals them to be even worse than we thought. The Gyaos have much in common with the shoggoths of Lovecrafts’ At the Mountains of Madness: artificial, self-evolving entities that destroyed their creators’ civilization and threaten to do the same to ours, literally devouring us to grow stronger.
While the world-threatening situations of the film are ancient in origin and mythic in scale, the human level of the story is touched by the magical as well. It is another situation where the Godzilla and the Gamera series both introduce a very similar concept. The Heisei Godzilla series featured the character of Miki Saegusa, a psychic who has a mental connection with Godzilla. In Gamera, teenage Asagi Kusanagi ends up spiritually bound with Gamera after she touches one of the orichalcum magatama. In neither case is their direct communication, only an exchange of awareness, emotion, intent, and some small amount of influence.
The details in what they do with the idea highlights the differences in the types of stories being presented by these two monster franchises. Miki works at an institute of psychic research. There are experiments and people in lab coats and plausible looking measuring equipment. Mental powers can work with and be enhanced by technological augmentations. The premise of psychic abilities is given a classic pseudoscience façade to make them fit in a science-fiction framework.
Asagi is just an ordinary teenage girl until she touches the magatama — which glows mysteriously at the contact, as if possessed of an unknown power. This might be a sign that is a product of an advanced technology, but effectively, to our understanding, it is magic. Asagi’s connection with Gamera is not just of information. Their spirits and bodies are linked in a complex way, beyond immediate understanding. She sleeps when he rests. When Gamera is wounded, the same injuries appear on Asagi. There is no rational reason for this, but it does make a kind of sympathetic magical sense. Asagi’s spirit even seems to strengthen Gamera, as their bond tiggers a final boost of power that helps him finish off the final Super Gyaos.
Contemporary horror films, particularly as special effects have improved, have come to rely less on mood and suggestion, and more on “body horror.” American movies such as Alien and The Fly helped establish this style in popular films. In Japan, with cultural traditions of purity, cleanliness, and bodily integrity, films have made great use of the repulsion and terror of physical contamination and disruption.
In the older, Showa films, Gamera shifted even more quickly than Godzilla did from being a catastrophic menace to a hero for children. Children are the main human characters in most Gamera films of the period, and the plots, enemy monsters, and scheming villains are more outlandish and fairy tale-like. In what seems contradictory to an American perspective, the for-kids Gamera films are also more violent. Godzilla is rarely injured during his battles, and even more rarely bleeds. Gamera, in contrast, gets stabbed, sliced, and impaled all the time, spewing copious gouts of blood. Enemy monsters frequently get limbs and heads lopped off. It could be a shock to see such carnage on an American TV screen, but I’m sure the intended audience of children relished it.
By the 80’s and 90’s any physical contact between Godzilla and other monsters was rare. The monster suits of the Heisei Godzilla series became increasingly complex and elaborate. Godzilla and his foes lumbered slowly across the countryside or stood still while exchanging bolts of multicolored energy. There were occasionally moments of physical violence but they were rare. The bulk and complexity of the suits themselves made it hard for the performers to walk, let alone wrestle with each other.
The physicality and violence of Gamera: Defender of the Universe works to both move beyond the static action of Godzilla, and to recall those gory old days. Here Gamera and the Gyaos grapple and claw each other with plenty of blood (though Gamera bleeds green). There are still energy attacks as well. The Gyaos have their Supersonic Scalpel, though rather than just be a firework-like sparkle, it is a cutting beam that slices through even Gamera’s hide. Gamera spews explosive Plasma Fireballs that can blast a Gyaos into flaming fragments.
There is no shortage of bodily fluids throughout the film, starting with an enormous pile of Gyaos guano. Gyaos are moist and slimy, mucus dripping from their maws. Blood and gore splatters when they are wounded or blown to pieces. Human trauma is generally off screen, aside from the red slashes of blood that appear on Asagi’s limbs when she manifests the stigmata of Gamera’s injuries. But human death is definitely present, as I’ll describe more below.
The range of physical action given to the creatures in this movie is refreshing and exciting. Gamera, like Godzilla, is amphibious, able to manage both on land and at sea. Gamera can also fly. In his first movie he was initially believed to be flying saucer, given his aerial technique of withdrawing his head and limbs into his turtle shell and firing angled rocket blasts from the openings so that he spins like top. He can also just withdraw his legs and fire the rockets from there in a more conventional flying style. The Gyaos are also flying creatures, so Gamera give us multiple aerial chases and dogfights. All these potential modes of travel, the visual possibilities of monsters soaring through sky, dodging fireballs, and ascending to the edges of space, deliver a sense of speed and motion very different than the kinetics of Godzilla.
The special effects are of course in the tradition created by Eiji Tsubaraya: a man in costume (or woman, since the Gyaos suit performer is female) smashing through a miniature cityscape, surrounded by pyrotechnics explosions, flames, and smoke. That style of effects limited flying scenes to what could be done through wire-work, puppets, or miniatures. In Gamera, Shinji Higuchi primarily used practical effects such as suits and models, but he also began incorporating computer graphic elements to expand the possibilities and move beyond tokusatsu conventions. Higuchi would use more and more computer graphics through the three Gamera films he worked on (by the time he was special effects director on Shin Godzilla, Higuchi was using a fully CGI Godzilla).
Playing Against Tropes
Gamera: Defender of the Universe has several moments where events go in different directions than is conventional for the genre. They are not major turning points in the plot or a character’s personal arc; sometimes they are even misdirection about how events will unfold. They contribute to an aura of uneasiness, and keep the viewer from falling into complacency about what this film will be doing.
The ocean vessel in the opening sequence is just going about its business. When we learn that it is transporting plutonium we begin to feel we are in a familiar situation. In kaiju eiga, anything associated with radiation or atomic power is normally either the cause of whatever monster trouble that is coming, or else is a sign that it is already here, since monsters such as Godzilla are frequently attracted to and feed off radiation. Here, the ship’s cargo is incidental to the actual inciting incident of the ship running aground on an uncharted atoll in the ocean.
Another twist for the genre is that it is, at first, it is the government officials who want to capture the Gyaos alive rather that just kill them. A plot conflict of so many creature/aliens films is the hero or the scientists trying to preserve the monster for study, protecting it from the overly aggressive military who just want to kill the menace and get the matter resolved. Mayumi Nagamine, despite being the scientist, the ornithologist who might be expected to argue for saving and studying a unique creature, has seen for herself how dangerous the Gyaos are and is in favor of eliminating them as quickly as possible.
An important aspect of Japan’s place in the world is that Article Nine of their constitution bans the country from maintaining a military force for the purpose of war. What they do have is the Japanese Self Defense Force. In all the times Japan gets attacked by monsters, or invaded by space aliens, issues of what the JSDF can do rarely come up. In Gamera the problem does arise that since the Gyaos aren’t shooting weapons at them, can the JSDF attack them in “self-defense”? It ends up taking a special law passed by Parliament to allow them to attack. 2016’s Shin Godzilla would go on to make kaiju vs bureaucracy a main theme.
Human Scale of Horror
Establishing personal connections between human and kaiju characters is a challenge in giant monster movies (how Legendary Pictures attempts it in their “Monsterverse” films such as Godzilla vs Kong is a whole topic itself). In many of his films, it is not always clear how much Godzilla is even aware of human beings. Their annoying planes and tanks, yes; as individual persons, maybe not. A moment of direct interaction is rare, which is what makes the eye contact between Godzilla and Shindo so memorable in Godzilla vs King Ghidorah.
Before Gamera appears on screen, it is the Gyaos who are the danger, and they are a human scale threat. One of the first victims, taken before we ever see a Gyaos clearly, is an unfortunate dog (I noted this because Legendary’s 2014 Godzilla made sure to show that any canines in danger from the monsters escaped unharmed). Most kaiju eiga are not presented as horror films, in the sense of their goal being to scare or shock a viewer. The original 1954 Godzilla was a dark and disturbing film. It’s rare in the genre that film created that we see things such as a mother comforting her terrified children before being incinerated, or hospital wards overflowing with those injured by the monster’s rampage. In many films it seems like the only casualties are the pilots of the fighter planes that are blasted or swatted out of the sky. A signifying feature of the genre is the montage of civilians evacuating the city before the kaiju arrive. As an audience, we are being told that property damage is the main danger from giant monsters. The government might not be able to stop Godzilla, but they can at least keep private citizens safe. It is almost like Godzilla is too big to actually be a threat to us individually.
In 90’s horror films there were definitely monsters that would come after us personally. The xenomorphs from the Alien franchise for example. Kaiju films of the era also started to introduce monsters that threatened on the human scale. Blood sucking monstrous lice were the first sign that something bad was going on in The Return of Godzilla. The larval forms of Destroyah in Godzilla vs Destroyah are clearly mean to invoke Alien and give targets that humans could fight off (I don’t recall that any of these small form Destroyahs actually kill anyone on screen). Though I should note that 1956’s Rodan also used dealt giant insects as initial threats and narrative misdirection. In Rodan and these others films the smaller monsters are there to introduce danger before the star of the film shows up and takes everything to daikaiju scale.
When Mayumi finds her missing professor’s glasses in a mass of excrement, the fact that the Gyaos are eating people is quite a shock. If a viewer had sat down to watch a horror movie that situation would not seem at all unusual. In Godzilla films, the danger from monsters poses is more abstract, not the direct horror of their seeing us as prey. As the Gyaos grow bigger, they continue to hunt humans. They are not just going to knock over buildings and maybe step on us. This climaxes in the gruesome sequence when the fully grown Super Gyaos carries off a train car, peels it open, and begins pecking out the passengers — individuals that the film made a point of visually introducing us to earlier, so we would know exactly who is being devoured.
Gamera: Defender of the Universe presents even that most classic of kaiju eiga tropes, the monster stomping and smashing through the city, in ways more connected to human peril. Shinji Higuchi’s special effects shots are subtly different than the style Eiji Tsubaraya created. In Gamera we are more likely to be placed on the street level of a city, rather than towering above it as if sharing the monsters’ perspectives. Explosions and destruction might be shown in the middle distance of the cityscape, with buildings in front and behind the action, rather than always being staged directly in front of us, or as a framing backdrop for the monsters. There are postal boxes on street corners and laundry hung out to dry on the balconies of buildings. These are still models of buildings, without a pretense of photorealism, still the stylized world of tokusatsu. Yet the small details of the miniature city signify connections to human life. Some of this detail is there because the overall size of the monsters in Gamera is a little smaller than in Godzilla (who tends to get bigger and bigger as his movies progress). Yet, somebody hung that laundry out to dry this morning and now Gamera has made that housework a waste of time. You find yourself caring about these people more.
I have had some terrifying nightmares about Godzilla in my life, but I would not describe Godzilla or his movies as scary. Even Shin Godzilla, probably the darkest Godzilla movie since 1954, is more a disaster movie than horror. Godzilla’s genre is that of weird science fiction. The main new thing Kaneko, Itō, and Saguchi are bring to the revised Gamera series is horror. There is the cosmic horror of forces beyond human comprehension clashing with little concern for the damage wrought on our insignificant civilization. There is also the earthly horror of physicality and exposed biology. Life is moist and smelly. Flesh tears and bleeds. Humans are no longer on the top of the food chain.
From the perspective of 2021, it can be hard to recall just how much of an impact Gamera: Defender of the Universe had when it was first released in 1995. It had been many years since a new Gamera film and the monster was mostly known in the United States through tired Mystery Science 3000 jokes. In the years after the new series, we continue to see its influence in works such as Shin Godzilla and the 2021 Godzilla: Singular Point anime. The creative team that made Gamera: Defender of the Universe continued to expand and challenge the conventions of the genre in the two subsequent Gamera films which we will examine next.
If you’d like to learn more about the history and background of the Heisei Gamera series, I recommend checking out this panel discussion on YouTube:
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