Don't get Kermit the Frog mad.
You wouldn't like him when he's mad.
Bringing to a close the trilogy of 1990's Gamera films is Gamera 3: Incomplete Struggle, and we are pleased to say that it is the finest giant monster movie made since the original Godzilla/Gamera cycle ended in the mid-seventies. Gamera 3 features terrific special effects integrated into an engrossing story that ties together all three of the films that have been produced since Gamera was resurrected in 1995.
It's 1999 when Gamera 3 begins, and strange things are afoot. All over Southeast Asia, people are reporting attacks by small Gyaos, the carnivorous flying reptiles from Gamera, Guardian of the Universe. Off the southern coast of Japan, a deep-sea surveyor has discovered dozens of Gamera skeletons on the sea floor. Meanwhile in Japan, a schoolgirl named Ayana Hirasaka has discovered an egg in a cave that, according to legend, is a demon's lair. However, another mythical tradition has led her to believe that the creature may be the legendary guardian of the area, destined to fight a rival being from the north. Hirasaka's mother and father were among the few people killed by Gamera during the battle in Tokyo four years earlier, and she comes to believe the guardian will exact revenge for her.
"It's just a misunderstanding!
I'm here to sell vacuum cleaners!"
At the same time, we're reintroduced to characters we already know. Ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine (still played by Shinobu Nakayama, still cute as a fistful of buttons) is consulting with the government on the Gyaos problem. There she is working with Mr. Saito (Hirotara Honda), the bureaucrat from the first movie who resents his newfound position. "When did I become the monster specialist of the office?" he moans. And remember poor Oosaku (Yukijiro Hotaru)? He was the overwrought Assistant Inspector in the first movie, and, having quit his police position between films, he was one of the first people to encounter Legion as a guard at the beer factory in Gamera 2: Advent of Legion. By 1999, Oosako's anxiety over the constant threat of kaiju attack has reduced him to living as a wino in a park near the Shibuya area of Tokyo.
Then an event occurs that causes the Japanese to reconsider the "Gamera is Japan's defender" vibe that got built up in Gamera 2. Two medium-sized Gyaos appear over Tokyo, followed by an enraged Gamera. Gamera lands, and his footfalls shatter concrete and overthrow cars on the busy streets. He disgorges fireball after fireball to destroy the Gyaos, and the blasts that miss blow up populated buildings. The casualty toll of the battle is estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000 people. This sequence is stunning, and the effect is heightened by an ironic reference to Gamera's friendship with children from the sixties and seventies.
Gotta catch 'em all!
Meanwhile, Ayana's egg, having hatched as a creature named Iris, has grown into quite the monster, and it bonds with her psychically and physically in order to enhance its own development. Anxious to show Gamera who's boss, Ayana puts up no struggle, although she is separated from Iris in a later scene by her newfound boyfriend. Maintaining her psychic link to Iris, Ayana goes along with the creature in her mind's eye as the monster begins terrorizing Japan, looking to pick a fight with our favorite radioactive turtle. But who will Japan side with?
Gamera 3 has many references to trends in Japanese pop culture. The demon in the cave portion is a traditional Japanese storyline, and can be seen in Tenchi Muyo, among other places. The development of Iris is similar to that of a Pokemon ("If I can get Iris to level 35, Gamera will never beat him!"), and we see environmental simulations presented on a Sega Dreamcast game console. Two peripheral characters named Asakura and Kuwata provide those simulations because they are obsessed with some millennial scenario where the Gyaos will cleanse the earth -- which is itself a nod to the current popularity of prophetic and cult based horror films in Japan.
We won't tell you how this "plasma fist"
resulted, but we will say we never
thought that Gamera and Ash
would have something in common.
Kudos must be given to Daiei for turning over the Gamera legend to writer/director Shusuke Kaneko, who has turned Gamera's exploits from merely impressive monster fun (Gamera: GOTU) to utterly convincing epic kaiju battles. The construction of Iris is such that the creature looks wholly convincing whether it is presented as a figment of computer imagery or as a full-blown monster suit knocking around a miniature landscape. Gamera himself is given a few new tricks (also computer-aided much of the way), including some incredibly precise aerial combat tactics -- we always wondered why that spinning mode of flight was considered advantageous, and now we know! It's heartening and gratifying to see a classic Japanese monster treated with such respect -- and with such attention to detail.
Most satisfyingly, Gamera 3 explains some things that may not have made sense in the previous two films. Remember the MST3K version of Gamera vs. Zigra where Joel and the bots see Gamera charbroil Zigra at the end episode and ask, "Why didn't he do that in the first place? Did he forget he could do that?" Well we were sort of wondering the same thing after Gamera defeated both Gyaos and Legion with super-fireball weapons, and there was no indication of why he couldn't have just annihalated his enemies the first time they met, rather than all the wrestling and chomping and stuff. But Gamera 3 explains that using those super weapons had grave consequences, consequences that come back in a big way at the end of the trilogy.
"WOW! What a great space you've
got there! Look at those windows!
How much do you pay for this place?"
Gamera, Realtor of the Universe.
This all brings us back to our old soap-box, upon which we stand and wonder aloud why no one in Hollywood seems to be able to make a big-budget science fiction film as thought-provoking or as entertaining as this film about a giant tortoise and the women who love him. Well, almost no one. But for every Star Wars film there are ten sci-fi crap-fests released each year in which no one pays attention to the ideas of science fiction, or worse, the writing and dialogue. Millions of dollars are wasted each year on CGI aliens and models of spaceships with nothing to say and nowhere to go.
And while Gamera 3 rethinks the conventions of monster movies, it also provides us with characters we care about. The reappearance of most of the characters from the original movie helps this last filmfeel like a worthy sequel. The Heisei Godzilla movies rarely managed to create any characters that were anything more that cardboard cut-outs, defined by a single character trait. Even Miki Saegusa, who appeared in six Godzilla movies, was never much more than her psychic powers. Gamera 3, on the other hand, gives us lifelike characters who have lives outside of chasing giant monsters around Japan, and that keeps us interested in watching them.
Gamera 3 raises the bar for what a giant monster movie should be. But despite the film's ending, and relative financial sucesss, Kaneko has shied from making another Gamera movie, at least for now. The baton is thus passed to Toho and the Godzilla franchise. It's their turn to blow us away. Are they up to the challenge? We'll find out later this summer when Godzilla 2000 opens in the US.