Looking back, Gamera’s rebirth was almost inevitable. History repeats itself and the movie industry eats its dead. Inspired by the success of the modern Godzilla films (beginning with 1984’s Godzilla and ending, on a dower, cliffhanger-note in 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destroyah), Daiei brought their own terrible terrapin out of retirement exactly nine months before Godzilla’s (latest) death. In black and white, as I’ve mentioned, Gamera can be somber, dynamic, dark…creepy in his own, lantern-eyed way. But the advent of cheap color film technology was no friend to the Friend to Children Everywhere.
Like the daikaiju genre as a whole, by the 1970s, Gamera grew down right silly. After all, we are talking about a giant, fire-breathing turtle who flies by projecting jets through his shell’s arm- and leg-holes. (Of what? Don’t ask. My sainted father always assumed it was flatulence. ) Thankfully, the makers of Guardian of the Universe made the informed and, dare I say it (dare, dare), enlightened decision to treat Gamera seriously. Whatever the shortcomings of the Heisei Godzilla series, they were never less than serious films, susceptible to all the snares and pitfalls of the Action/Adventure pictures they emulated. Guardian of the Universe, for the most part, avoids these thanks to its narrower focus. It wants (insomuch as a film can want anything) to be only what it is: the perfect giant monster picture, complete of its kind.
To that end, we open on a dark night in the Pacific. The “Plutonium Transport vessel” Kairyu-Maru runs aground on what under-credit newspaper headlines describe as a “hit and run atoll.” There’s no damage, thank Greenpeace, but the very thought that there might’ve been motivates Marine Safety Agency Lieutenant Yoshinari Yonemori (Tsuyoshi Ihara) to beg a place on the resulting insurance company investigative team. Yoshinari was the first officer on the patrol boat supposedly escorting the Maru, and as a Serious Man in a Serious Film, he’s got to find out what “that thing was.” He will be our Soldier Boy for the remainder of the film and, as such, for Yoshinari, it’s all about honor and responsibility.
Not that Yoshinari has much personal pride, self-consciously begging this job off of the up-standing, salary-man single father in charge, Mr. Kusanagi (Akira Onodera). Kusangi’s teenage daughter Asagi (Ayako Fujitani) aides and abets this buttering-up by inviting the tall, young Navy man home after a fortuitous meeting at the neighborhood corner mart. (In a wonderful twist, the old lady behind the counter doesn’t cry “statutory rape” on this play.) Cooking the Kusanagi’s dinner ensures Yoshinari a place on the team, and it’s off to the Pacific. Shhh…be vewwy, vewwy quiet. I’m hunting atolls…
Meanwhile, at the Fukuoka Municipal Zoo, ornothologist Dr. Mayumi Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama) entertains Nagasaki Police Inspector Osako (Yukijiro Hotaru), who comes with questions about one of Nagamine’s colleagues. Seems a respected professor’s disappeared into the wilds of Himegami Island, along with a sailor. That would be enough to cause rumors, even if the missing sailor hadn’t made one last, frantic transmission to the outside world: the word “bird.” Because, as we all know, “bird” is the word.
Fascinated, Nagamine somehow wrangles passage down the island with Osako team. (Did she have to cook, too? Or were more…impractical arrangements made between the scenes?) They find a welcoming committee of ransacked, roofless homes, as desert as the island’s debris-strewn village streets. Osako immediately jumps to the giant monster conclusion, Nagamine (as the Scientist of our picture) ignoring and dismissing his unshaven, cop’s rambling all the while…until she spots a two foot pile of what looks like bird scat, crawling with roaches. Exploration reveals her professional colleague’s favorite silver pen and glasses among the squishy-sounding shit. That’s enough to bring out Nagamine’s inner-Indian Jones, egging the reluctant policemen into a helicopter-vs.-giant-bird chase, playing that old “lure the monster away from the civilians” tune. Luckily, the “bird” (which looks more like a wire puppet than anything else, really) proves vulnerable to flash photograph and breaks off the chase to rejoin its twos nestmates.
Being the only Scientist to have seen the creatures and lived, Nagamine (and Osako) end up in a meeting of Cabinet ministers and army brass, convened to decide the “bird” question. Except they’ve already decided to capture the creatures. “Not only is it academically important,” the Environmental Minister declares, “but it may be vital for the protection of a rare species.” Excuse me, but…what? Nagamine throws an immediate “bullshit” flag on this play…not that does any good. “The Cabinet has made its decision.” Ah, intransigent political hackery…will you ever stop enabling giant monster rampages? Let’s hope not.
Back at sea, Yoshinori and Kusanagi find their floating island studded with little comma-shaped beads nestled among the rocks. Then there’s the run-covered obelisk Kusanagi finds buried in the atoll’s rocky face. Kusanagi, who’s obviously never seen 2001, declares, “Let’s dig it out.” What could possibly go wrong…right? Yoshinori finds out when his casual touch disintegrates the obelisk and sets the whole island rock n’ and rolling. (Guess he’s never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark.) As Our Heroes flee to their boat, the island shatters from the inside, while a gigantic, submersed shape continues on, toward Fukuoka.
Where, not so coincidentally, Dr. Nagamine’s reluctantly presiding over the JADSF’s doomed-to-fail, capture-the-bird plan. Things go fairly well at first. All the birds, lured by beef slabs and pumped full of tranquilizers, lay confined to Fukuoka’s designer baseball stadium…save one, which makes for the bay, and but quick…only to be destroyed by bipedal, a two hundred foot tall, God-help-us-all turtle. Who makes his own b-line for the stadium, and it’s “birds,” cutting a swath of destruction through Fukuoka in the process. The turtle’s tender attentions allow the two surviving birds to escape, and everyone’s “holy shit”-o’meter ramps up to Eleven when the turtle reveals his own peculiar brand of powered flight.
Around dinner, the Kusanagi’s and Yoshinori hash out the backstory. Seems the runes on that obelisk stuck to Gamera’s back were translatable. “The last hope,” they read, “Gamera. We commit it to the cradle of time. May it awaken with Gyaos, the shadow of evil.” This sends Our Heroes into some fantastical speculative hole involving ancient, sunken civilizations. One of those could’ve created Gyaos, the man-eating things everyone keeps referring to as “birds.” Nagamine’s research avenues all-but confirm this with the discovery that Gyaos has only one pair of chromosomes…not exactly what you’d call “natural.” When the Gyaos grew too numerous and hungry, the ancients must’ve rushed Gamera off the production line, their last word in Golden Age Gyaos-elimination. Obviously, it was too little, too late…though who put the ancient, dueling monsters back to sleep, how Gamera wound up entombed in floating, comma-bead-studded rock, and what in God’s name might be powering him, are never explained.
And I don’t mind one bit because, just when things are looking their silliest, Yoshinori hands Asagi one of those little comma beads he found Gamera’s back. Previously inert, the bead glows like a coal in her hand, and over the course of the film we’re given to understand the bead forges a psychical-philological link between the girl and the Gamera. At long last, after years of watching small boys in short-shorts casually stroll through security checkpoints only to stand around and gawk, the Kenny-archetype finally has a role to play in the giant moster ‘rasslen we’ve came to enjoy. She, who must live through it, suffers for it tangibly, and with a quiet dignity the young actress’ more-famous father (Steven Seagal) could never achieve. Deftly handling her character’s hard-left turn from Girl to Girl-Kenny, Ayako Fujitani anchors the film by proving, despite evidence to the contrary, that Gamera is not the greater threat to humanity. What could’ve been a simple-minded “monsters-on-the-loose” film becomes something more once Ms. Fujitani’s given a chance to spread her dramatic wings.
Not that being a straight daikaiju piece hurts the film one bit. As I said, Kazunori Ito serious treatment of his subject does a lot to shore up a suspension of disbelief which uneven suitmation special effects (occasionally blended with cheap CGI) would otherwise tax. Veiled-satires and out-and-out condemnations of the bureaucratic inefficiency and selective moral blindness that (presumably) ruled Japan’s political culture in the 90s add a patina of reality to the proceedings unseen since Godzilla: 1985. This, an out-and-proud Message regarding humanity’s ecocidal habits, and Shusuke Kaneko’s superior knowledge of pacing (so obviously superior to Sandy Frank’s it’s not even funny – Guardian is a film, Gammera the Invincible is a newsreel) inject an apocalyptic tension into what would otherwise be a silly, silly story about a giant turtle and the humans who, if they don’t outright love him, at least acknowledge his service to the Greater Good.
How Great that Good might be is a topic the film sets down, in favor of all the high notes you’d expect daikaiju movies to hit. Scenes of mustering military force; of reporters struggling to report monster-movements with a straight face; of self-absorbed, soccer-playing teenagers on trains and the inevitable Final Battle in Tokyo (of course). Someone (most likely everyone involved) did their genre-homework, and their obvious love shines through every frame. Unlike certain, American kaiju films, there’s not a drop of self-consciousness on display here, not even from the human cast.
Here, too, Ito uses a light touch, spreading his broad, characterizing brushstrokes over the film with no front- or back-loading to mar the pace or sabotage the drama. Rather than monologue or agonize over his single-father status, Akira Onodera’s Kusanagi does what any teenage girl’s father would do and sneaks into her room while she lies half-comatose, recovering, with Gamera, from a battle with the Self-Defense Force. In a special effects extravaganza like this, isolated, quiet moments like this (or Yoshinari’s choice “I’d like to take you out to a monster-free city,” comment to Nagamine, near the end) speak volumes.
The perfect daikaiju film, complete of its nature and kind, Guardian of the Universe is also the most accessible thing to come out of the genre in fifteen years. Sure to become a classic, this first chapter of what everyone and their mom now calls the Gamera Trilogy marked a new feat to beat. Guardian’s makers would go on to beat it, using this film as their springboard, surpassing not only themselves and this, their first efforts, but every daikaiju film made in the last twenty years, on either side of the Pacific. Fans have no excuse not to know and love these films. Non-fans are hereby ordered to check them out. They’ll flip you like clusterbombs flip a two hundred foot turtle.