Kaiju & Competency in Gamera II: Attack of the Legion

Please see my introduction to this series in my previous post.

For a summary of this film see the write up at Wikizilla.

After the success of Gamera: Defender of the Universe, the same creative team of director Shusuke Kaneko, screenwriter by Kazunori Itō, and special effects director Shinji Higuchi quickly went on to make a sequel, Gamera: Attack of the Legion (or Advent of Legion, as it was first called) in 1996. The movie is a direct follow-up, though the connections are mainly through short appearances by a few characters from Gamera: Defender of the Universe, a glimpse of a un-repaired Tokyo Tower, and mentions of the earlier Gamera vs. Gyaos incidents. In my previous post I described the ways the first Heisei Gamera film distinguished itself from the conventions of Godzilla kaiju eiga. Legion, in those terms, is a return more a traditional approach to the genre, though its visuals and artistic design progress beyond anything that had been done before in portraying a world beset by gigantic, fighting monsters.

Gamera: Attack of the Legion has some of the elements of body horror I described as a feature of the previous film. The Legion swarm is certainly terrifying on a human scale, and they make some bloody attacks in the early parts of the movie. The horror is lessened a little as we learn the monsters are going after people’s electronics rather than their flesh, as the hungry Gyaos were. Gamera himself takes the most physical abuse, as he is bitten, stabbed, and even has chucks of his body blown away, green blood pouring out and spraying across the screen. The image of a writhing Gamera, entirely covered by the Legion swarm, is certainly nightmarish. It is all in the Gamera tradition though, as he suffered this kind of abuse frequently in his Showa films as well.

Explosion effect in Evangelion

The mythological and supernatural themes are also minimized in this story. There are a couple biblical allusions, staring with the opening titles where a cross appears in a burst of fire only to transform into the katakana character “me” in “Gamera.” And of course the name “Legion” comes from a soldier quoting Mark 5:9. I don’t think these Christian references really mean much in context of this film.  Like their use in the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime, they are just there to broadly suggest the scale of the situation and its apocalyptic danger. Asagi Kusanagi, who shared a spiritual bond with Gamera in the last movie, makes a reappearance, but their link is greatly weakened now. The supernatural side of Gamera only appears in the last act of the film, where he is almost literally prayed back to life by crowds of worried children, and when he calls on the life-force of the planet itself to make a final attack on the Legion Mother. That whole sequence is very manga/anime like, resembling the climax of a Dragonball Z story where Son Goku channels spiritual energy from all living things to finish off a foe through an ultimate special move.

JSDF at work

The plot of Gamera: Attack of the Legion has few surprises for long-time viewers of monster movies. The first half of this film reminded me greatly of the 1954 American monster film Them. Not just from the menace being a swarm of insects (Them, with its giant-sized puppet ants, is very much in a kaiju tokusatsu style) but that the focus is on the military dealing with the problem. Once the danger is identified, the human response is science, reason, careful strategy, courage, and effective tactics. In Legion it is the Japanese Self-Defense Force at work and they do their job pretty darn well. During the first Legion attack on Sapporo, the JSDF have a handle on things. While it is Gamera who shows up to destroy the first giant flower, it isn’t clear that the humans really needed his help.

In contemporary American monster films the military often makes dumb decisions, gets in the heroes’ way, or might even be secretly the real villains. In most daikaiju films from Japan, the military is, at worse, just ineffective, their weapons useless against the monsters. Often, in fact, they get things done. Sometimes there is an escalating back and worth of weapons and tactics, as in the struggle against the extraterrestrial invaders in Ishiro Honda’s 1957 The Mysterians. In the Ultra Q and Ultraman shows, human military (sometimes with the aide of advanced super-weapons) manage to fight off and defeat monsters effectively. In Legion, by the time the Legion Mother shows up, the humans are indeed outclassed. The military still acts with efficiency and organization, putting the safety of civilians first. Legion contains many of the classic kaiju eiga scenes of civilians being evacuated. Even when the entirety of the city of Sendai is wiped off the Earth (in a very anime-styled blast) the impression is that no one was actually killed, thanks to the military’s efforts.

The question of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution comes up again in this movie and we are given a scene of the Prime Minister making an official statement. Legion’s attacks are ruled as fully justifying the military acting in self-defense. Cue the montage of tanks and jet fighters. The Gamera films were made in cooperation with the JSDF so it isn’t too surprising that they, in this film particularly, are shown in a positive light.

While on the whole, the plot and characters in Legion don’t stray far from the conventions of kaiju eiga, it is the visuals and special effects of the film that make it stand out from anything else in the genre. Just opening the movie on the snowy, cold island of Hokkaido is an almost unheard of choice. The original Ultraman TV series had a couple episodes in Winter settings but it is very rare location to use. Even when other movies have shown the city of Sapporo being destroyed, the weather has been temperate (the product placement of Sapporo Beer is also amusingly blatant in the early sequences).

Legion concept art by Mahiro Maeda

Shinji Haguchi and his team’s special effects are what make this film what it is. He developes the style used in Gamera: Defender of the Universe even farther. The fundamental artistic approach is to keep everything on the human level. Most shots look upwards toward the monsters, often with a human point-of-view at the titans above. The kaiju are also frequently seen at a distance, across wide views of countrysides or houses. The camera will sweep over or through the environment as well, a shocking reminder of how a fixed, unmoving camera is so often the norm in special effects shots (and a requirement for techniques such as stop-motion animation, until recent times when sophisticated, computer driven motion-control cameras were available). Keeping everything in motion is vital to the look of the monster scenes. Gamera is a very active, kinetic monster, compared to the limbering Godzilla. The Legion Queen is designed to always be moving, all claws and feelers and mandibles. It is such a non-humanoid and alien creature a viewer’s mind struggles to even grasp its overall shape. The Legion swarm too scuttles and buzzes around. They are often portrayed by Haguchi’s increasing use of computer graphics. Even when the cgi doesn’t measure up to 2021 standards, it contributes to what makes the Heisei Gamera movies so memorable. After over 40 years of giant monster movies we were seeing images that we had never seen before.

Ultraseven episode: “The Marked Town.”

While the Gamera films make bold artistic innovations, they are also part of a strong artistic tradition. I thought about that a lot during my recent rewatch of these films. Since the last time I’d viewed the Gamera films, I have watched a lot of Ultraman and seen the artistic experiments and designs explorations of those series. There are plenty of visual homages and references to the Ultra series in the Heisei Gamera — as there are in Neon Genesis Evangelion, which was being made at roughly the same time by some of the same people! Gamera and Evangelion are siblings in many ways. And then, looking at what came after, Shin Godzilla becomes more clearly the artistic follow up to the Gamera series. While still an astonishing achievement in kaiju eiga, Shin Godzilla’s visuals fit well in an artistic continuity of Ultraman -> Gamera/Evangelion -> Shin Godzilla.

While Godzilla’s status as villain or hero changes from film to film, era to era, Legion strengthens Gamera’s position as a heroic figure. Much of the injury he suffers in the movies comes holding off Legion while humans try to escape. He is willing to fight to the end and to defend… well, the movie ends with the warning that Gamera is the defender of the Earth as a whole, and that if humans threaten the Earth, Gamera could become our enemy as well. The themes of the relationships between individual human, kaiju, humanity, and the planet as a whole continue in the next Gamera film in this series.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters — and a little bit of Proust

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Michael Dougherty, 2019) was better than the previous U.S. Godzilla film, Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014), but still pretty bad. That earlier film was so awful it left a lot of room between it and “okay” for other bad films to live. I don’t intend this as an extensive negative review, but rather a comparison of what didn’t work in this film with what I do enjoy in more successful movies of this genre – movies I frequently wished I was watching instead of this one. What I thought of most often was Godzilla: Final Wars (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2004) with its frantic energy and love of all things crazy and over the top in “kaiju eiga,” — the giant monster movies which Godzilla epitomizes. A better example to call on though is Hideaki Anno’s 2016 blockbuster Shin Godzilla.

The biggest thing that American Godzilla movies seem to miss is that a sequence showing giant monsters fighting should be *about* giant monsters fighting. The titanic, city-wrecking melee shouldn’t be functioning just as a background for humans playing out an uninspired family drama. It is like the film’s creators have a hesitancy or lack of faith in the very monsters that are supposed to be their stars. Shin Godzilla itself has a lot of focus on its human characters, their scenes were their scenes. It is fundamentally a film about people, but once monster action started, that’s what we were meant to focus on. If a sequence did involve both monsters and humans, it was about their actions and reactions to each other, not an “A” plot and a “B” plot to cut between.

The Godzilla: King of the Monsters battle scenes were technically impressive, but rarely left much emotional impact. They played out just as you’d expect. If you tried to imagine what this film looked like from a few still pictures, you’d probably be on target. Marcel Proust wrote that we often approach art by seeking the familiar, what we know we like and have liked in the past. What truly moves us though is discovering the unexpected. One of the most classic Godzilla tropes is his powering up for his atomic breath. A glow begins along the scales on his tail, moves up the large spines along his back, building up to a radiant blast from his mouth. We’ve seen this many times, and both recent America films make a big deal of it. It is “fan service” giving us what we are supposed to want in such a familiar way that we know exactly how it is going to play out. Shin Godzilla sets this up this familiar situation – only to unsettle us by having Godzilla belch out not firey incandescent vapor, but a torrent of black bile that ignites into a napalm-like holocaust that incinerates entire city blocks. Godzilla’s jaw enlarges and splits unnaturally as the energy focuses into a brilliant laser knifing through skyscrapers.We’ve watched Godzilla use his atomic breath for decades, but we have never seen or expected it to appear as it does here, and so it shocks, amazes, and terrifies — things Godzilla: King of the Monsters never does. Shin Godzilla has several such moments that throw the viewer off balance, messing with our expectations, and leaving us almost unbelieving that we are really seeing what is there on the screen. Godzilla’s first appearance on land in a floundering, tadpole-like form leaves us unsure what we are meant to be feeling. Is it funny or an incomprehensible nightmare? Godzilla: King of the Monsters, like most Hollywood epics, never really tries to surprise us and telegraphs exactly what it expects us to feel as it runs through its check-list of set pieces and tropes. And if ever those feelings risk developing any weight, there’s always a character available to make a wisecrack or funny profanity to keep us from actually experiencing anything lasting.

Making an effective giant monster fight is a serious challenge for any film. The best Godzilla films present the conflict as humanity against an elemental force. We are struggling against a walking atomic bomb, an untouchable natural disaster, or the embodiment of supernatural vengeance. It is more problematic when a film pits Godzilla against another giant monster. Through the history of the franchise most of Godzilla’s fights have looked like professional wrestling matches. That has been part of the fun and can be appreciated as the stylized dance performances they, like pro wrestling, are intended to be. Trying to be more serious or “real” is a problem. Director Shusuke Kaneko approached the issue with his trilogy of Gamera moves between 1995-1999 by breaking the rules and playing with the expectations of the genre in his own way, but that’s a big enough topic for another day. The recent American Godzillas – as well as other giant monster films such as the Pacific Rim series – try to deal with the issues by throwing vast amounts of money into the visual effects. The results continue to be uninspiring.

One of the best realized giant monster fights in live-action or animation is in End of Evangelion, an earlier work of Shin Godzilla’s director Hideaki Anno. This was the feature film conclusion to the anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion. The fight is climatic confrontation between the character Asuka in her giant robot/cyborg Eva Unit and a squad of faceless winged giants. There is balletic combat, horrific violence, and an environment torn apart by this deadly dance of gods. In the midst of all this auction, the real the focus is on the very human Asuka. Every aspect of the titantic external battle is representative of the character’s personal story arc and ultimate mental breakdown. The two elements, internal and external, of character and conflict are united.