Museum of the Slightly Curious

Curious Recommendation: Designing the Final Frontier

Someday I want to write about my history with Star Trek. For me the franchise is not so much about a fictional universe or a narrative experience, but an example of how media, particularly television, get created, designed, developed, and produced. For now I’ll just mention this fascinating book I happened to pick up while on vacation. It was one of those old pre-Amazon experiences of just wandering into a bookstore and by chance seeing something on the shelf that caught my attention.

The authors of the book have gone through the episodes of the original Star Trek and attempted to identify the various bits of furniture and decor that were used to create the sets throughout the show — from the couches on alien planets to the classic chairs of the Enterprise’s bridge. It’s a great example of how the design crew of the show had to do what they could to create “strange new worlds” with limited time and budget. It’s also a good survey of Midcentury Modern aesthetics and of the artists and craftsmen who developed the style. An amusing point the books makes is these Midcentury Modern designs would have seemed old-fashioned to European tastes, even while being “futuristic” to American viewers of the time.

I’ve read a lot about the development, writing, casting, and even fashion of Star Trek, but this book presents yet another aspect of the show. I feel like going back and giving the original series another viewing just paying attention to the furniture!

Questions of Scale in Gamera III: The Revenge of Iris

Please see my introduction to the first post in the series.

As usual I will not be summarizing the story of this film. For that please see a write up at a site such as Wikizilla.

1999’s Gamera III: Revenge of Iris was the third film in this kaiju series from director Shusuke Kaneko, screenwriter by Kazunori Itō, and special effects director Shinji Higuchi. While it is a sequel to Attack of the Legion, it more directly follows up the first Heisei Gamera film, Gamera Defender of the Universe. Events from Legion are mentioned, but they don’t have much to do with the story. Instead, we start with an ongoing return of the Gyaos, a military that distrusts Gamera, and the characters of ornithologist turned monster-hunter Mayumi Nagamine, broken police detective Tsutomu Osaka, and a maturing and wiser Asagi Kusanagi. Iris is also a return to themes of the mythical and the supernatural rather than the military sci-fi of Legion.

The special and visual effects in Iris achieve new levels of quality and sophistication, surpassing even the earlier films of the series. Higuchi incorporates more digital effects that ever. The CGI is an improvement from what was used in Legion — though still does not compare well to the standards of 2021. Gamera’s first arrival in Tokyo, as he converts from aerial to biped mode, is unfortunately not so great. Or the tentacles of the fully-developed Iris, which must be a kilometer or more in length, don’t move with the speed or mass proper for things so huge. But putting the CGI element aside, the use of digital compositing and blue screen work is a huge advancement in tokusatsu. And it needs to be, given the film’s attempt at something that has hardly been attempted before, something that breaks an important convention in the genre: the portrayal of a daikaiju battle taking place in the middle of a busy, populated metropolis. In almost every giant monster film of the past, including the previous Gamera films, there have been montages showing the populace desperately evacuating the city before the monsters show up. Not here. The battle begins, lightening up the sky, before the humans are aware of it. The image of a flaming, crippled Gyaos plummeting from the sky behind oblivious citizens enjoying the Tokyo nightlife is one of many that we have simply never seen before. And the film does not hesitate to show the carnage unleashed by the battle between Gamera and the Gyaos. It makes it hard for the audience to even fully grasp what is happening by, for instance, first showing Gamera doing a very traditional Gamera thing — protecting a small child — before incinerating several blocks with a fire burst, sending victims tumbling through the air from the impact. People die with ever step Gamera takes. How often, in the entire history of giant monster films, have we ever actually seen civilians die? Many anonymous soldiers in tanks, fighter planes, or sea vessels die in combat against monsters, yes, but just ordinary people out enjoying the nightlife? News reports mention 15,000 to 20,000 casualties from this one incident. Not since 1954’s Godzilla have we seen a thriving city reduced to a flaming hellscape. Higuchi would take such apocalyptic imagery even farther in Shin Godzilla and it’s fascinating to see the development of that movie’s effects begin here.

Each of the tokusatsu sequences in the film attempt something new, something that pushes boundaries and conventions. Self-Defense ground forces go up against Iris in a densely forested area, with the kaiju looming above them, only glimpsed through the treetops. The high-speed, high-altitude dog flight between jets, Gamera, and Iris is one of the best uses of CGI in the film, and something only that technique could achieve. The final battle between the monsters in Kyoto is a daikaiju fight that takes place indoors, within the cavernous space of the Kyoto train station.

The station fight also includes some of the most direct human/kaiju interaction we’ve seen. There’s no doubt that the monsters are aware of the individual humans, and their interactions are fundamentally to what’s going on. It’s a battle for a young woman’s soul as much as between giant monsters punching and stabbing each other.

Kaiju eiga are all about issues of scale. Giant monsters cause destruction because they are placed into a human-sized world. There is the difference in size — which leads to the mass destruction and (in Godzilla 1954 and this film at least) mass death. There is also the problem of dramatic scale. Can there be a story that encompasses both human and monster characters? A failure I see in the Legendary Pictures Godzilla movies is that while they try to construct human scale stories for their characters, those end up as melodramas that play out independent of the monster stories going on. The kaiju are just doing their thing as a background for squabbles over family issues, or as a largely generic threat meant to heighten the suspense of a soldier trying to get home to his wife and child. Godzilla vs Kong works better, using people to anchor the plot to a human scale, provide exposition, and add procedural complications to the core premise of the kaiju conflict. In that film, having to deal with the giant monster situation is the most important thing going on for the humans. Even when we are not seeing monsters fight, everything else in the story is at least a consequence of or was anticipatory to such fights occurring. The narratives in the previous Gamera films work in much the same way.

Iris tries something more. The story of Legendary’s Godzilla: King of Monsters would have played out almost the same if there were no humans in the story at all. In Gamera Defender of the Universe, Asagi’s spiritual link strengthens Gamera and in Attack of the Legion, the prayers of children revive him and the JDF give him some tactical support in the fight with Legion. While these are connections across the human/monster scale, they are not human stories. Ayana though is at the heart of Iris’s story. The struggle to save the world from Iris is not only a symbolic parallel to trying to save Ayana, it is the same story. To Moribe, his adolescent attraction to her is linked with his family duty to protect the world. The fortune teller Mito Asakura and game designer Shinya Kurata see her as the key to understanding and controlling the spirit world. Asagi sees her as a reflection of herself, what she could have become as a pawn in a titanic war. And even the monsters view Ayana as an individual being, not an abstract. Iris needs to merge with her to evolve in a form that can defeat Gamera (and perhaps perform its function of clearing the taint of humanity from the Earth?) Gamera goes to great length and sacrifice to save her, maybe seeing her, and the affection her fellow human exhibit for her, as a sign that humanity is not hopeless and is worthy of being protected as part of the Earth, rather than being a bane to it.

Ayana herself has what is probably the most common personal connection between human and kaiju in the genre: A Captain Ahab-like monomania for revenge. She, as flashbacks to the first film show, was left an orphan by Gamera smashing through the city to fight the Gyaos. (I noted in my post on that film how the realism of the miniature work made one feel concern for the people, and here we see just that). Hatred for Gamera is what drives her eventual partnership with Iris, who seems to offers her the revenge she seeks. But that isn’t the only problem Ayana has. After the death of their parents, Ayana and her brother were adopted by a family in a rural village and she has a hard time adjusting. Local customer is for her to give up her old family name and take that of her new family, something she resists. She and her little brother are bullied by other school girls who taunts her as “Tokyo Girl” and goad her to break into the shrine which leads to the awakening of the Iris egg. I would have liked some of these other factors to have gotten more attention in the narrative. The hints are there, for instance the first thing Iris does after merging with Ayana is attack the village, killing everyone, her adopted family and, one assumes, the bullies. It’s hard not to think Ayana was settling some scores. The story does not make much of it afterwards, beyond the memories contributing to her realizing that merging with Iris might not be a good idea. Once the merging begins, Ayana actually has little agency in the story and mostly stands around in a trance as others fight over her. A more complex exploration of her and her motivations would have lifted up this story into something really outstanding. What there is still becomes a narrative structured across the human monster scales more than the genre has attempted before (or has after for the most part).

As mentioned, the mythic and the mystic return to the forefront of this story. Particularly there is the idea of “mana” as the life-energy of the Earth and the source of the fantastic power of kaiju. It gets suggested that the Gyaos are awakening in response to dropping levels of mana across the planet, perhaps due to the increasing industrialization of the world. That might be why monsters have been drawn to Japan, “Japan eats mana” a character says — though Gyaos attacks are reported in many countries over the course fo the film. It is also suggested that Gamera himself, particularly with his finishing attack on Legion last film, is draining mana. Are the Gyaos not so much destructive evils, but part of a system that rebalances the world when a civilization such as ours — or Atlantis’s — threatens to drain Earth of mana? (This would make them even more like Battera in Godzilla vs Mothra). Why did Gamera break his connection with humanity by shattering not just the magatama jewel that Asagi owned, but all of the ones found on his shell? Did he think the protection of humanity specifically was getting too costly to the planet as a whole?

The human characters in the film struggle to understand what all these things mean for the future of humanity on Earth. Nagamine is studying the increasing number of Gyaos appearances. Asagi has been traveling the world trying to understand what she experienced while being spiritually linked with Gamera in the previous films. Two new characters introduced are fortune-teller/government advisor Mito Asakura and mystic/game designer Shinya Kurata. They, effective a two-person cult, have a lot of ideas about these things, but are not exactly reliable sources of information. Even their goals are a hazy, other than apparently a general sense of wanting to save the world (though by supporting which side?) and seeing Gamera and Iris as a way of making contact with the divine realm.

As in the first film, some secrets are hinted in myths and legends. We learn about an old family that believes it has the responsibility of protecting an ancient shrine that seals away a world-ending monster called Ryuseicho. Such a folklore structure is pretty common in anime/manga, for instance the Tenchi Muyo series. The grandmother of the family explains this all to Moribe, the boy who has been chosen to carry on the tradition. She also speaks of the Chinese myth of four sacred Beasts that guard the cardinal directions. The guardian of the North is of course a Turtle. It is unclear (at least in the English subtitles) if the suggestion is there that Iris might be the Bird (or Phoenix) Guardian of the South, or one of the menaces that the Guardians are meant to defend against. Unfortunately this theme gets never really goes anywhere, though I like that the sacred dagger entrusted to Moribe does have a final function — to help break Ayana out of her trance.

The Revenge of Iris infamously ends on a cliffhanger, as the wounded turtle, surrounded by the burning ruin of Kyoto, is left to stand against a gathering swarm of Gyaos. The military has decided to fight with him, rather than against him, but there are, as the film says a lot of Gyaos… An official fourth film in the series never came to be, though a fan production, Gamera 4: Truth was made in 2003. It takes up right where Iris leaves off, and even includes the characters of Nagamine and Osako. Completely unauthorized, this production is rarely seen in public. The next official Gamera movie was a reboot, Gamera the Brave in 2006. This took the franchise back to being something aimed at children, with a boy raising Gamera from an egg as a pet.

In Japan, as in the United States, many old characters and series are being brought back in big-budget project by filmmakers who loved these properties in their childhood. Shin Godzilla was a huge success and is being followed up by Shin Ultraman and a promise of a Shin Kamen Rider. Does anybody care for Gamera strongly enough to bring him back as well? Will an entertainment company, working its way through lists of existing IP to notice and reboot Gamera? The best result would be for a creator to take the opportunity to have Gamera take us somewhere new and startling once again.