Before “Gamera: Guardian of the Universe”, Gamera was a pathetic Godzilla knockoff, starring in several films during the 60’s and 70’s. His movies were cheaply made and primarily aimed at young children with very low standards for entertainment. In 1995, director Shuske Kaneko (“Crossfire”) and writer Kazunori Ito (“Pistol Opera”) changed everything by giving Gamera a comeback more stunning than the New York Yankees’ in the 1996 World Series.
The filmmakers wipe the slate clean for “Gamera: Guardian of the Universe”, ignoring all previous films in the series in favor of a new origin. Gamera is now a monster genetically created by the extinct people of Atlantis as a defense against the man-eating birds Gyaos. Gamera reappears in the modern world when his ancient enemy returns and begins using the Japanese population as a buffet. Gamera must destroy his old enemies to save Earth and fight off the military that misunderstands his intentions.
Gamera gets a fantastic new look that makes him fiercer and more battle-ready. He also gets an upgrade in abilities to boot; not only can he fly at hypersonic speeds, but he can also emit lethal fireballs from his mouth. The Gyaos have also been rethought; they’re now more bloodthirsty and have acquired a taste for human flesh. The villains have also been given a supersonic ray that emits from their mouth and is powerful enough to slice through steel. The new look is more realistic and sleeker than before, making them a far more formidable enemy for Gamera.
Director Shuske Kaneko may be a rookie with monster movies, but he directs “Gamera” like a veteran. Kaneko skillfully moves the action along at a brisk pace and ensures that the monster battles have the appropriate sense of drama. He also gives the film a darkly modernistic look that enhances the realism of the film. The script by Kazunori Ito is tightly written and highly imaginative in many respects. But there are parts of “Gamera” that we’ve all seen before: environmental concerns, relics from ancient civilizations, and telepathic teenagers. These are all old concepts and nothing new to fans of the genre.
A bigger problem is how much longer it takes the star to appear. Gamera doesn’t show up until 1/3 of the movie is over, leaving most of the screen time to the Gyaos. While Gamera’s first appearance is very dramatic, the audience shouldn’t have to wait over 30 minutes to see what they came to see in the first place.
Most impressive is the special effects work by Shinji Higuchi, who helps revive the Gamera character with an arsenal of computer animation, monster suits, breathtaking pyrotechnics, and wire works. Overall, the work is excellent, making the monsters and battles seem believable. The Gamera and the Gyaos suits are also highly detailed, as well as the miniatures they trample. But there are a few glitches in Higuchi’s otherwise superior work. The shots of the Gyaos suit, especially the ones early in the movie, don’t always mesh well with the live-action footage. It’s a bit obvious at times that the filmmakers have edited together two separate shots for a single scene. Also, Gamera frequently looks expressionless, and occasionally even a bit glassy eyed. Some of effects — for example the missiles fired at Gamera — are obviously CGI and look a bit cartoonish. Fortunately, these problems were corrected in later entries in the series.
As is frequently the case in kaiju films, the cast tends to blend into the background in order to give the monsters center stage. Sadly, “Gamera” is no different, but for two exceptions. As the jittery Inspector Osaka, Yukijiro Hotaru gives a memorable and funny performance as a policeman working to stop the Gyaos. Hotaru is a man hysterically trying to deal with a situation but has no idea how. Another standout is Ayako Fujitani as the teen that shares a telepathic bond with Gamera. Her luminous presence lights up the film’s darkness, and she proceeds to steal every scene she’s in.
“Gamera: Guardian of the Universe” is an amazing comeback for a has-been monster. The film also throws down the gauntlet to other monster films, daring them to match it. It’s sad to say that the producers of “Godzilla” and “Yonggary” weren’t able to meet the challenge. But while we wait for someone to step up, we can always pass the time by enjoying this expertly crafted monster film.
Shusuke Kaneko (director) / Kazunori Ito (screenplay)
CAST: Tsuyoshi Ihara …. Yoshinari Yonemori
Akira Onodera …. Naoya Kusangi
Shinobu Nakayama …. Mayumi Nagamine
Ayako Fujitani …. Asagi Kusanagi