Twenty years ago today, Daiei’s Gamera: Guardian of the Universe hit theaters in Japan. The product of director Shusuke Kaneko and writer Kazunori Ito, Daiei’s production shocked fans and general audiences with an unexpectedly successful revival of what had been the campiest of kaiju series. Originally Gamera had been Daiei’s attempt to cash in on the “monster boom” of the mid-1960s, but the films degenerated as budgets shriveled to nothingness. When it was announced that Daiei would be reviving the titanic terrapin for a then modern audience, it was assumed that the films would be mere shadows of the 1990s Toho Godzilla series. When the film surpassed the special effects, writing, acting, and pacing of those Godzilla films, a kind of revolution in the kaiju genre took place.
Kaneko’s style breathed new life into the genre. His approach to storytelling centered around a fixation on elevating fantasy at the expense of the traditional science fictional approach to kaiju. Kaneko explains:
Nowadays, I think monsters cannot exist in science fiction. That’s because now science has advanced and the audience knows so much more…
So now what we do is, because everyone still wants to see a fifty-meter monster, we actually create a fantasy movie which has the atmosphere or mood of a science fiction movie… (239)*
In this version of Gamera’s origin, the creature is a genetically-engineered weapon of an ancient civilization. The traditional fantasy of ancient civilizations—Atlantis, Lemuria, Mu—was given a science fictional twist (quite becoming of the utopian origins of Atlantis in Plato’s Timaeus) with the component of genetic engineering and technology far superior to our own.
In the later installments of Kaneko’s trilogy, more fantastical elements—such as “manna”—would be introduced, yet ultimately given a “credible” (that is, a rational justification within the narrative itself) explanation. As David Kalat puts it, "a Kaneko [kaiju film] establishes a fantastical premise, but having done so, proceeds from there with logic and emotional realism” (239). The structure of the trilogy is that of a fantasy epic which follows the hero’s journey of Gamera and several human characters.
Those characters are the subject of thoughtful treatments by Kaneko. His philosophy of film is that any character who appears on screen, no matter how minor, ought to be subject to development. For instance, in his Godzilla installment (known as GMK among fans), a character’s attempt to stop smoking is portrayed throughout the film, giving it a dose of light humor and commentary on the state of his anxiety. A similar character appears in all three of Kaneko’s Gamera installments, Inspector Osako. In the first film he is a police detective, but the events of the film lead to a downturn in his life. By the second film he is a security guard at a beer bottling facility. After the catastrophe of that film, poor Osako is a homeless alcoholic who is caught—yet again—in the middle of a battle between Gamera and his rubber-suited foes.
Asagi Kusanagi is the main recurring character through the films. Her spiritual connection with Gamera—not unlike his ability to communicate with children in the original series, solidifying his role as “friend to all children”—drives Gamera’s relationship with humanity across the trilogy. A kind of inverse character in the form of Ayana emerges by the third installment, who forms a perverse connection with the final villain of the trilogy. In the second film, Asagi’s connection to Gamera—her “avatar” status for the monster—is broken as a consequence of the energy used to revive him from near-death, adding weight and loss to the saga.
The film was nominated for and won several awards for the acting of Shinobu Nakayama (who portrayed the ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine), the directing of Kaneko, Ito’s screenplay, and the special effects work of Shinji Higuchi. With a much smaller budget than Toho’s concurrent Godzilla series Higuchi managed to pull off incredible effects work including superior suits, miniatures (helped by Gamera’s scaled down size in comparison to the ever-growing Godzilla), and the all-important pyrotechnics.
Fans of the genre had suffered almost without exception from the unevenness of the films following Toho’s Golden Age. During that period kaiju films represented the cutting edge in special effects work and sported talented actors, superb writing, and compelling narratives which oscillated between social critique and enjoyable sf adventure. With competition from TV shows ramping up through the late 1960s and into the collapse of the Japanese film industry in the 1970s, the genre suffered greatly. The amount of time allotted to production, the amount of attention allowed for talent to work on the material, and the amount of money allocated all took a sharp nosedive. In fact, the 1980 Gamera film Gamera: Super Monster was constructed almost entirely through stock footage.
Toho revived the Godzilla franchise—called the Heisei series among fans—in the mid-1980s with a series of films that ran through the mid-1990s. Though it included some notable effects work, a superior Godzilla design (from my point of view as well as Toho’s marketing department), and some enjoyable films, the overall trajectory was highly uneven. The 1984 The Return of Godzilla set a more serious tone for the new series and yet suffered from poor acting and character development. 1989’s Godzilla v.s. Biollante struck an excellent balance between the fun of the old films and the seriousness of the new ones, and even sported worthy characters and an excellent story. But it was quickly followed by a time-traveling mess (Godzilla v.s. King Ghidorah) and a several other films, culminating in the emotionally powerful but otherwise questionable Godzilla v.s. Destroyah in 1995.
Thus, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe represented a breath of fresh air. In many ways, Kaneko’s film recalled the quality of Toho’s Golden Age. In the process it rejuvenated the character of Gamera among fans and broader audiences across Japan. With each subsequent film the design work and personality of the strange beast unfolded, culminating in his infamous act of self-mutilation in the series’ third act. This new Gamera was to his predecessor what Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series was to the 1960s Batman television show—a thoughtful reimagining of a hopelessly campy project.
In this respect, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe’s 20th anniversary is a fitting marker for what some fans are calling “The Year of Gamera.” Though we are not getting a new film anytime soon, 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the original Gamera film and his entry into the giant monster landscape. In that respect it is important to celebrate this film and what it represents for the genre. Not since the 1960s had the quality of film-making risen to these levels. A new kaiju could now respectably stand alongside Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah as a symbol for the genre itself, recognizable enough to appear on The Simpsons. The dream of carrying out respectable tokusatsu-style filmmaking was revived for a new generation. The impact was felt on the next series of Godzilla films—though Toho’s executives will never admit it. The Millennium Series used scaled down designs to improve the detail on miniature work, employed fantastical elements alongside traditional science fiction tropes, and even employed Kaneko himself to direct the third installment in the series.
So as we enjoy this year of the giant fire-breathing turtle, the “friend to all children,” “the invincible,” and “the guardian of the universe,” let us remember the vital role of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe. Characters, miniatures, explosions, writing, story, tropes, giant turtles, the return of Gyaos…all of it represents for us an example of how the genre can continually be revived when talent, passion, and proper funding combine to produce a new spectacle.
*Quotations from A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series by David Kalat