Gamera 3: Awakening of Iris (1999) - Kaiju done right.
Directed by Shusuke Kaneko - Produced by Daiei Film - Cert. PG
Godzilla might be The King of the Monsters, but he's had some unimpressive runs of form down the years. It happens with many long - running film series. An obvious comparison in the West are the Bond films. The first bunch of the series come out of a darker Bond from the original novels and a history of cold-war thrillers. Gadgets yes, but nothing too outlandish; just a little escapism. And some real edge - Connery fighting Robert Shaw on that train; two big men beating the hell out of each other. It's fantastic. Then the 70's happened and Roger Moore comes along and it all goes wrong.
The same thing with Godzilla. Early films are straightforward and great - later, he gets a freaking child, there's those moron Aliens, the tiny twins. Nothing, seemingly, can escape the zeitgeist. So, they've been up and down. A later film brought us King Ghidorah, possibly The Big Mans' best enemy (giant moths are just silly, Japan). Ignoring the first U.S remake I thought we were going to be onto a very good thing with Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) as it was directed by action-impresario Ryuhei Kitamura, but it was mostly a daft mess of a film (excepting the cool reveal near the end which I'd managed to figure out earlier - I think I managed to suppress any fanboy squeals of delight).
So, long-running successes go off-track occasionally; it happens. They also attract imitators.
A decade after the original Godzilla a company called Deiei decided to make their own version. Between 1965 and 1971 seven Gamera films were produced before the studio went bust. A later film was produced, but consists almost entirely of stock-footage from the earlier films.
Godzilla's back story is obviously commentary on nuclear power and the trauma suffered when such power is used against a nation. Gamera's story is not based in reality, but is legitimately fascinating. Rather than being a mutated lizard Gamera is a giant turtle, but in practical terms they're capable of pretty-much the same things - with the exception that Gamera can fly. First explored in Gamera 2 it becomes clear that he was created by an ancient civilization. To give further details of where he comes from and why would possibly damage enjoyment of the films and although it's a story further explored in this third film watching the first two is not necessary - they stand on their own well enough.
I had always wondered what a Godzilla or Gamera film would look like if the "man in suit" aspect wasn't so obvious (this was before the Hollywood remake) - if it was made the same but shot more inventively. And finally we get it. The main showdowns take place in the city at night, shot in ways that enhance the size of the monsters and feel more "real" than any of the other traditional Kaiju movies that came before. The action scenes are fantastic. As a result the impact of the fights have real resonance and are thrilling in a way that we just hadn't seen before.
Gamera is coming back. After this three-film reboot a version was made for children - it's awful. The new version looks like things are back on track, but this time with a completely CGI Gamera who could be coming out around the same time as the new Godzilla films (Toho are producing their own new version alongside the coming Hollywood sequel).
Will it be any good? Who knows. But it certainly won't have any singing twin-sister aliens in it. If you're a fan of the better Godzilla films such as Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (a personal series high point for this reviewer) then track down this film - and the earlier two are nearly as good - for something that pays homage to the past but also has a giant clawed foot in the present.
Promotional material copyright Daiei Film