Back in the sixties, Gamera was Godzilla’s poor, trailer-trash cousin. This flying, fire-breathing turtle (but of course!) gallumphed his way through a series of films. The first, under its North American release title Gammera the Invincible (the one time there was a double “m” in the name), is a pretty decent monster flick for that period, with some fine destruction, and introduces Gamera’s fondness for children (so though he trashes cities, he can’t be all bad). US-shot scenes were added to the original, and…the producers seem to have gone out of their way to find a Japanese actor whose mispronunciation of English was as stereotypical as possible (as his every “l” becomes an “r,” imagine how he utters the line, “Our fuel supplies are dangerously low”). The subsequent films degenerated almost immediately into full-on juvenilia. Most of these films are available in one form or another (none fabulous) from various budget labels. Check the bins at Wal-Mart.
Flash-forward to 1995. After a long hiatus, the turtle came back in Gamera: Guardian of the Universe. And everything changed. Where before the Gamera pics were hard-pressed to live up to even the weakest of the Godzilla movies, now the situation was reversed. Director Shusuke Kaneko here began a trilogy that set a new high watermark for giant monster movies. Gamera is now the creation of a lost civilization, and his mission is to defend the Earth against whatever might threaten it. In this case, the threat is the flying monster Gyaos, though it could almost as easily have been humanity. There are scenes of stunning pictorial beauty, and the monster battles are as thrilling as the child in you remembers the fights being in the older Godzilla flicks. One scene in particular (involving a failed missile attack on Gyaos) was stolen holus bolus by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich for their misbegotten Godzilla (1998), but rendered nonsensical.
Kaneko managed to top himself with the follow-up: Gamera: Attack of Legion. Not only are the battles even more earth-shattering, but a rather curious subtext running through the trilogy begins to surface, what with various quotations from the Bible being uttered in connection with the evil monster’s name. Then there’s the fact that Gamera apparently dies, only to rise again.
Spinning turtle as Christ figure? You got it, bucko. And in case we missed it, Kaneko drives the point home in Gamera: Revenge of Iris wherein we are granted full-on crucifixion imagery as Gamera battles the monster created by the fusion of a Gyaos-related creature and the daughter of a couple killed by Gamera in the first film. Said union occurs in a scene that might have stepped whole from Legend of the Overfiend or some other sex-and-tentacles anime. As these elements imply, the films aren’t quite the children’s fare of the original series. There are young characters in the films, but there is also a real sense of the cost of giant monsters fighting in densely populated areas. There are deaths here on a scale unseen since the original Godzilla of 1954.
All three films are available from ADV, and are required viewing for any fan of giant monster films. They are the best that’s been done in the field in the last couple of decades, and have yet to be surpassed. Kaneko himself give it the old college try with the rather Lovecraftian Godzilla, Mothra andKing Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. Good as that film is, it doesn’t quite scale the heights of this trilogy. And the new Gamera film, by all accounts, returns the character to the juvenile market. Oh well. We have these three films, and when was the last time you saw a fully fleshed-out giant monster trilogy?