Monster Movie Monday: Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)
Gamera vs Gyaos8
Matthew Turner | On 15, Nov 2021
Director: Shusuke Kaneko
Cast: Shinobu Nakayama, Ayako Fujitani, Yukijiro Hotaru
Where to watch Gamera: Guardian of the Universe online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Arrow Video / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
In the mood for a creature feature? Amazon Prime has a veritable menagerie of monster movies, so we’re working our way through them, one killer beastie at a time. Welcome to Monster Movie Mondays.
Directed by Shusuke Kaneko, 1995’s Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (retitled from the original translation, Gamera: Giant Monster Midair Battle) is the ninth entry in the Godzilla-rivalling giant turtle series, which effectively serves as a reboot of the franchise. It was followed by two further films: Gamera 2: Attack of Legion in 1996 and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris in 1999.
The story begins with a ship full of deadly plutonium – “Let’s hope nothing goes awry,” someone says, optimistically – awakening three giant prehistoric birds, known as Gyaos. Unfortunately, the birds have a taste for human flesh and, when they eat people, they get even bigger. Fortunately, help is at hand in the form of fire-breathing giant turtle Gamera, who awakens from his slumber to defend the Earth.
Meanwhile, humans get caught up in the turtle-based chaos. These include expert ornithologist Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama), Marine Officer Yonemori (Tsuyoshi Ihara), renowned scientist Kusanagi (Akira Onodera) and his teenage daughter, Asagi (Ayako Fujitani), who gains a mysterious bond with Gamera after touching an ancient, glowing amulet.
The 90s version of Gamera is even more impressive than the version that made its first appearance in 1965’s Gamera: The Giant Monster. Gamera seems to have quietly lost his enormous tail in the interim, but otherwise it’s the same fella, fireball breath, UFO-style flying ability and all. As before, there’s excellent man-in-monster-suit work, this time from actors Naoki Manabe and Jun Suzuki, and Gamera’s eyes are a lot more animated, thanks to some subtle digital effects work.
The Gyaos make fabulous foes for Gamera, and their design is equally striking. The effects work is superb, especially when they’re eating humans (the sound design is delightful) and start growing (an effect that’s sadly only used once).
A lot of thought has gone into the different creature-related effects. In addition to the monsters’ super powers (fireball breath and flight for Gamera, laser-breath and sonic breath for the Gyaos), the production design team have had a lot of fun with other things too, such as a huge pile of gooey guano containing “undigested objects” and some giant eggs. There’s also a nice shout-out to Mothra, with a scene that references the strong winds caused by the monsters’ giant wings flapping.
On top of that, director Shusuke Kaneko is clearly familiar with the pleasures of the genre and he includes a number of great monster movie moments, from the winged theft of a dog – lovely detail: the leash pinging back as the monster makes off with the dog – and the monsters flying off with a train carriage full of people (and, shockingly, squashing a crowd of bystanders by dropping another carriage onto them) to the inspired plan of trapping the giant birds in the Tokyo Sports Dome, with its closeable roof.
It is, of course, a time honoured tradition to destroy a famous building or monument in a film like this, and Gamera doesn’t disappoint on that front. The expected destruction (a requirement for the kaiju genre) is simply phenomenal, with some of the best cinematic explosions you’ve ever seen. The city-stomping is thrilling too, even if at least one of the sets does a bit of a wobble before Gamera smashes it to the ground.
There’s also a clever little twist on the trope, because it’s actually the humans who accidentally destroy Tokyo Tower with their own missiles and then stand around looking comically sheepish about it. That sequence also occasions one of the film’s best images, with the surviving Gyaos nesting in the tower’s smoking ruins.
It’s also traditional for a Japanese monster movie to have a strong environmental message. In this case, the Earth has become so polluted over the years that our terrible atmospheric conditions are now perfect for the Gyaos to survive.
Script-wise, these movies aren’t exactly known for their sparkling dialogue, but there are two memorable lines here. The first is a taxi driver telling Asagi to “go to a movie theatre if you’re a monster freak” and the second is a beautifully delivered, out-of-nowhere romantic moment, where Yonemori casually tells Nagamine: “Someday I’ll show you around a monster-free Tokyo.”
In addition to staging an exciting final fight (although there’s a detail about Gamera’s fire-absorbing powers that isn’t referenced in the script and you won’t get if you haven’t seen other Gamera movies), Kaneko includes a number of inventive directorial touches that keep things visually interesting, like some fun POV shots.
Finally, the film effectively ends with a James Bond-style “Gamera will return”, in that the characters correctly surmise that there are giant Gyaos eggs all over the world waiting to hatch and that the big turtle will, indeed, be back one day. Next up, Gamera 2: Attack of Legion!
Gamera: Guardian of the Universe is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription. It is also available on Arrow UK, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.