Sunday, June 23, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Gamera: Guardian of the Universe’

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Gamera: Guardian of the Universe is a simple movie filled with simple pleasures. Anyone who comes to this movie and expects some grand exploration of the human condition is sure to be disappointed. People in rubber suits wrestle around what is clearly a model set while the humans try to deal with both the destruction and the dawning horror of their day-to-day lives.

Although technically the 9th film in the Gamera series, Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera is a reboot. Even if it wasn’t, it’s easy to connect the dots and figure out what’s going on even if you haven’t seen every single one of them. Kaneko’s Gamera isn’t awoken from his Arctic slumber because of an atom bomb so much as he’s been hibernating until he is needed again.

Yoshinari (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a Marine Officer, is part of a fleet transporting plutonium. The fleet runs aground a floating atoll, a mass of coral reef shaped like a small island. Yoshinari investigates and finds an ancient slab of metal with Etrurian runes written on it. They try to dig it out, and wouldn’t you know it? They uncover a giant radioactive turtle with tusks that breathes fire.

Meanwhile, Mayumi (Shinobu Nakayama), a zoologist, is called to investigate a strange sighting of birds. The birds turn out to be giant pterodactyl-looking things called Gyaos. Asexual and hungry for flesh, they terrorize Tokyo and the surrounding cities. Thankfully Gamera doesn’t take kindly to the man-eating dinosaurs and tries to stop them.

Kazunori Ito’s script does try to keep more than a few plates spinning. There’s a subplot about how the Gyaos are genetically perfect by design, created by some long-dead civilization, destroyed by their own hubris. Atlantis is tossed around a few times, with people scoffing at the idea even though giant monsters are now reigning destruction upon their island.

At one point, Mayumi and Yoshinari are at a restaurant discussing the events and trying to figure out the motivations behind creating Gamera to fight Gyaos. Putting together the clues, they realize Gamera is meant to be the last hope, something left for future civilizations. Furthermore, they begin to realize that the rising pollution, deforestation, and increasing ultraviolet radiation might have led to a chain of events making the world hospitable to Gyaos once more.

Yoshinari mournfully sips his beer. “The ultra-ancient civilization left us a terrible heritage.” Mayumi responds with, “We too are trying to leave a terrible heritage.” She follows up by quizzing Yoshinari how the half-life of plutonium and soon realize they are as guilty as the long-dead civilization.

Granted, it feels as if Kaneko and Ito stuff all of this into one scene; the moment still lands. Look, I’m not going to deny that Gamera, much like most giant monster films, is cheesy. But it’s cheesy in an unrepentant way. But just because it’s cheesy doesn’t mean it can’t also have a social conscience of some sort.

Most kaiju movies have some socially conscious bent to them in some form or another. It’s almost a trope. So here’s your giant monster; what anti-war, eco-friendly topic du jour will you have on the side? Of course, how clumsily they are handled varies from monster pic to monster pic.

There’s also a whole thing about a teenage girl Asagi (Ayako Fujitani), who somehow forms a telepathic link with Gamera. The link is never explained, but whenever Gamera is injured, the girl gets a similar injury. Ito’s script hints that a barrage of tiny stone amulets found on the floating atoll is the source of the telepathic link, but it is never explored.

I cannot stress to you enough how little any of this truly matters. The human drama, the social commentary, the intransigent bureaucracy, and corrupt political officials are all part and parcel of these types of movies. They are not to be ignored, and in fact, Kaneko and Ito find ways to use them to spice things up and give a few of the battles some narrative weight.

But in the end, Gamera is a giant turtle with tusks and rockets in his legs so he can fly away. He can also retreat into his shell and spin around really, really, really, fast and fly as if he was some sort of UFO. That’s just something you have to come to grips with, and if you can’t, then maybe you should keep on moving.

For myself, I enjoyed every schlocky moment. Yet, I couldn’t help but giggle with delight upon seeing how Kaneko and his cameraman Junchi Tozawa found ways to have fun with Gamera. The way the camera spirals into the ocean where the sleeping giant was recuperating. Kow Otani’s score booming, as Tozawa’s camera lands on Gamera’s eyes slowly opening and his wounds healing, lends an air of the operatic to the whole picture.

At one point, Gyaos builds a nest atop Tokyo tower. The sunset in the background, the giant winged monster bathed in shadows—a gorgeous shot that makes the movie pop visually. 

Naoki Manabe and Jun Suzuki played Gamera. The two give Gamera a mood, but he lacks any characteristics. Yuhmi Kaneyama, who played Gyaos, does a much better job infusing the creature with life and giving it personality. 

Honestly, it’s impossible for me to hate a movie that has the first of many showdowns between giant monsters at a baseball stadium. Seeing these rubber-suited titans duke it out at the Fukuoka PayPay Dome is a sight I never knew I needed and now can’t imagine ever living without it. Gamera: Guardian of the Universe is a flimsy excuse for a movie, but it’s impossible not to be delighted all the same.

Image courtesy of Toho

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