Tuesday, April 19, 2005

GAMERA GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE / GAMERA 2: ATTACK OF LEGION / GAMERA 3: THE REVENGE OF IRIS

Some of you may remember a mutant turtle named Gamera, the featured creature of a series of kiddie kaijus that aired regularly on American TV in the Sixties and Seventies. Those films were, to put it charitably, goofy (which isn't to say they weren't fun), with the giant flying turtle portrayed as "friend to all children," and battling some of the weirdest, wildest monsters in the genre.

Well, in the mid-Nineties, director Shusuke Kaneko (NECRONOMICON) and screenwriter Kazunori Itô (GHOST IN THE SHELL), "reimagined" the titanic tortoise in a trilogy of films that many fans believe are the absolute best in the genre. Action-packed, smart, dark, and visually exciting fantasy films, they've managed to make the idea of a giant flying turtle somehow, well, considerably less goofy.

ADV Films has released all three of these movies – GAMERA GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE (GAMERA DAIKAIJÛ KUCHU KESSEN, 1995), GAMERA 2: ATTACK OF LEGION (GAMERA 2: REGION SHURAI, 1996), and GAMERA 3: THE REVENGE OF IRIS (GAMERA 3: IRIS KAKUSEI, 1999) – on DVD in the U.S., in an attractive boxed set. All three films are presented in beautiful letterboxed transfers (although, for some reason, the first one is not enhanced for 16:9 displays), and include the original Japanese language tracks with optional English subtitles.

In GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE, a trio of giant, bird-like carnivores hatch and indulge in a feeding frenzy – unfortunately, it's the good people of Nippon that fall prey to their voracious appetites. Ancient prophecy has foretold the coming of these creatures (called Gyaos) and states that a Guardian creature will appear to combat them. That creature turns out to be the original mutant turtle, Gamera, who rises from the sea ready to smackdown with the winged predators. Add in a young girl with a psychic link to the towering terrapin (which, yes, still flies by spinning around like a top), a lovely ornithologist and some kick-ass kaiju battles on the ground and in the air, and you have a masterpiece of monster mayhem.

When this film was released in '95, fans were blown away by the quality of the special effects. Rarely had monster suits looked so realistic or miniature cities so detailed. Subtle use of CGI effects enhanced the extraordinarily well-shot destruction scenes, and even more importantly, those scenes of devastation carried with them a surprising amount of power and drama. Also, for a change, the human characters were well delineated, and they didn't get lost amid the explosive action.

It's a great film, and, until the sequels came along, one couldn't imagine how it could be improved upon.

Yet, ATTACK OF LEGION ups the ante considerably, with a more complex, solid science fiction threat – an alien life form that consumes silicon and is made up of multiple individual organisms – even better special effects, and a remarkably tense screenplay. Once again, the human characters are interesting and the cast's performances are surprisingly low-key and effective, lacking in the expected histrionics.

The nature of Legion (the space monster) lends itself to some surprisingly original battle sequences, as Gamera confronts the creature in its multiple forms. Once again, highly detailed suits and miniatures combine with effectively subtle CGI work and artful direction to produce a series of astounding "money shots" that will make most viewers' jaws drop.

And things get even more mind-blowing in REVENGE OF IRIS, the concluding chapter in the greatest kaiju trilogy ever made. In this one, a young girl who blames Gamera for the death of her family during his battle with Gyaos in GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE, discovers a strange, tentacled creature in a cave. She names the creature after her cat, Iris, and by the mid-way point of the film, she's bonded physically with the rapidly growing creature and set out to avenge herself on the titanic turtle.

Everything is bigger in this film: the monster battles are mind-blowing and remarkably realistic and brutal. When Gamera gets a spike through his arm, you can't help but wince. Many characters from the previous two films return, as do the man-eating Gyaos. The plot, which plays out like one of the most bizarre animes imaginable, grabs you and pulls you along in way that most of these films can't. The story is more personal, more human – yet the scale of the destruction is apocalyptic.

ADV's Gamera discs are fantastic. The prints are flawless and the Dolby Digital sound will give your home theater a workout. Each disc contains an abundance of extras, mostly Japanese EPK stuff: trailers, TV spots, outtakes and interviews with the special effects team. REVENGE OF IRIS also includes a jokey audio commentary track by Gamera himself. But even if these had been bare-bones discs, I'd recommend them.

The genre literally doesn't get any better than this.

BUY: Gamera Limited Edition Box Set

BUY: Gamera: Guardian of the Universe

BUY: Gamera - Attack of Legion

BUY: Gamera 3 - Revenge of Iris