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.

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.