The old school Gamera is either over- or under-rated, and it is hard to figure out which. A near-copy of Godzilla/Gojira, Gamera was a giant turtle who could breathe fire and launch flames from his arms and legs and fly. While his first outing placed him in the bad-guy roll, Gamera quickly became "friend to the children" as the plots became less cohesive, the effects more rubbery, the children more annoying, and clips of previous "episodes" longer and longer. I watched six of the original seven Gamera movies, and liked two of them (Gamera: the Invincible and Gamera vs Gyaos) and admired one for its sheer tenacity to be that dumb (it was brought to America as Destroy all Planets). When I found out they had restarted the series, I was curious almost in a morbid way. I figured they would blow junks with a higher budget, but found, surprisingly, that the three, starting with Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, was actually quite watchable. Better budgeted, but also better scripted, focusing on the core of what makes kaiju fun. What's more, the transformation of the "friend to children" into a monster who protects the Earth even at the cost of leveling a city or two felt more mature, and pleasantly dark in a genre that tends to the bright and cartoonish.
Considering the postive fan and critical reaction to this new direction, it seems kind of odd that they scrapped it and went back with more of an homage to the original series, in Gamera: The Brave. Gone are a lot of the darker elements and they are replaced, again, with children. Sort of. Keep in mind, though, that the subplot involves dicussions of death and children dealing with concepts of mortality and the afterlife. While the older Gamera films entrenched him as friend to the children, it was strange how rarely did said children note the massive amount of pain and blood and sweat the Gamera was putting into the relationship. This movie makes the children more aware of his suffering, if not pedantically so.
At the end of the 90s, darker, Gameras, the movie ends in mid-climax with a promise of an even harder battle coming (man, that's two ejaculate puns right side by side) and the eponymous Tortoise Majeure facing them and preparing to fight to the death. Gamera: The Brave opens with a scene heavily inspired by that moment. Some have even speculated, based on the monster design at the beginning, that the original intention was to have this movie be the fourth part in that saga. Anyhow, Gamera is facing down the last of the Gyaos and ends up killing himself to stop the Gyaos from attacking the humans. Fast-forward thirty-five years, and we find a world that is apparently kaiju free. The Japanese government has just disbanded its kaiju department and all the drama in Japan seems to be of a more personal nature, such as a young boy whose mother has recently died and whose slightly older, big-sisterly neighbor is about to have to undergo the surgical knife.
After a few minutes, and some character introductions for fathers and neighbor's fathers, and so on, our intrepid young hero, Toru, notices something glimmering off on a nearby island. He swims out and finds what appears to be a small sea turtle egg surrounded by red rocking. Watching it hatch, he adopts the small creature. The pet fills a void in the kid's life caused by the loss of his mother, and he quickly becomes attached. He even names the young Gameraling "Toto", which was the petname his mom gave to him. However, in no time at all, complications arise as the young Toto grows larger by the day and beings to develop his basic powers of flight and, in a cute scene meant to reference Gamera v Guiron fire breathing.
Off shore, ships have started to disappear and we witness a lone man at sea get swept under by something large. It is getting closer and closer to Japan, and soon bursts forth as a Zedus, a large spiky lizard that is designed close, but not precisely, to the American rendition of the Big-G (that's Godzilla, not Gamera). Zedus's primary special attack is a stupid looking purple tongue spike that could use some retooling, but overall the monster design is good and the motion and more animal like attacks are very well staged. The monster designer(s) and the director manage to make Zedus look quite believable for as long as they keep that stupid purple people eater tongue in his mouth. The later battle scene in the city actually feels like a large monster moving around a modern city.
The Gameraling is unable to trounce Zedus outright, and gets quite damaged before driving the lizard beastie off. Keep in mind, this is a Gamera staple. In most (maybe even all, excepting the first where he was not a hero, yet) of his outings, he is cut and shredded and bleeds quite a bit before fighting back to save the day. As said before, this is often with children watching and shouting "Gamera, you can do it" and the "it" in that sentence apparenly refers to bleeding profusely through the gash in his face. The battle is over, and in an X-files moment, the Japanese government rushes in and takes him away, depriving Toru of his friend and raising questions about whether Toru is going to have to watch something else he loves die.
A short time later, Zedus attacks again, the Gameraling wakes up even bigger and is much close to being a full Gamera, and there is a huge fight that manages to completely trounce a town. Lots and lots of scenes of Japanese people scattering to the wind (for once, shot kind of convincingly, most of the crowd-fleeing scenes suggest they are walking away from a particularly bad smell, not so much a megaton monster that is splattering buildings by the block-full). The kids become aware of one important fact, that the red stone that was near the birth site is needed. It is up to them to save the day. Bring popcorn and enjoy the ride.
Director Ryuta Tazaki, who did both "Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon" and "Kamen Rider 555", brings a steady and creative hand to the process. A good allegory might be taking some of the worst tropes in science fiction or horror history, and giving them to a writer who can handle them and bring them to life. Like the shots of people running, and a lot of the destruction in the distance. Every single kaiju movie in the world has these scenes, and it is just as often as not that the distant cut feels like a product of special effects than anything we can believe in. That is somewhat true here, the special effects do not always hold up to Tazaki's vision, but he helps to keep the best angles, driving up believability. He also does a great job at pacing. It all works well for the film. He even takes a later movie "relay race" with kids rushing to help Gamera and plays it both cheesy and touching at the same time. It exists in both universes: complete camp and totally relatable. Ever kid who sees that scene is probably going to get up and run off to save the day. You may want to lock your doors before they get to it.
By the time the movie gets to a flying, swirling turtle, you are either invested or not. And if the final product has a couple of moments of complete and undeniable cheese, as well as few plotlines that you wish they would glance back at; it ends on a highnote. As the last sentence is uttered, and the Gamera fan from way back in you wakes up and realizes those are probably the last words for the entire franchise, you will be moved. At least the kid inside of you will be moved. Maybe he or she will clap a little. Mine did.
The movie gets a Good from me and Tokyo Shock seems to have taken the DVD somewhat seriously and so it gets a Good as well. All you get is a couple of trailers, a brief documentary, and a few TV spots, but the menus and quality of translation show some respect.
For those of you wanting to read more, I recommend this informative article: Gamera The Brave @ SciFi Japan.
Si Vales, Valeo
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Written by Doug Bolden
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