Thursday, May 22, 2014

We've been eating Gamera, part V: "Don't you believe in spaceships and spacemen?"

Gamera isn't the most important, or the most influential, or the most popular Japanese monster.  That just means the Guardian of the Universe may have to content himself with simply being the best.  This series of reviews is dedicated to my very favorite turtle. 

(Gamera tai daikaiju Giron)

If anything even more childish than our previous outing, Guiron remains a pretty fun piece of pop cultural flotsam.

Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Written by Nisan Takahashi
With Umenosuke Izumi (Gamera), Nobuhiro Kajima (Akio), Christopher Murphy (Tom), Miyuki Akiyama (Tomoko), Kon Omura (Officer Kondo), Hiroko Kai (Barbella), Reiko Kasahara (Florbella)

Spoiler alert: high

Can you imagine a world where motion capture guru Andy Serkis went unbilled?

The very thought courts insanity, and yet that's exactly what the two big kaiju factories did with their suit actors, such as Haruo Nakajima (notably, Godzilla, 1954-1972), Teruo Aragaki (Gamera, 1965-1968), and who knows how many dozens of others, for many years.  Nakajima and some other Toho actors finally started getting credited around Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster; by contrast, even as late as the 1990s, Daiei still wouldn't be doing it.  It's just easier to find out who did the bulk of the actual acting in a kaiju movie if it happened to be released in the Information Age.

Following Gamera vs. Viras, Aragaki left Daiei for the distinguished competition.  And what happened after 1969, the year of his last known work, is a story only his loved ones could tell, for even the Internet has no good God damned idea.

But whatever it was you were looking for, Mr. Aragaki, I hope you found it.

He carried that weight.

Starting with Gamera's fifth picture, it's someone else filling out the shell.  So let's welcome aboard Umenosuke Izumi, to whom credit cannot be given for giving life to the monster, but who is responsible for what may be Gamera's most famous momentscertainly, his dumbest most whimsical.

As for our three principals behind the camera, however, screenwriter Nisan Takahashi, effects supervisor Kazufumi Fujii, and director Noriaki Yuasa remain very much in place.  Let's begin with Takahashi.

Riding the new Gamera idiom on the bullet train to heck, Takahashi gives us yet another ill-fated trans-Pacific duo, Akio and Tom.  This time he adds a little sister, Tomoko, whose presence doesn't amount to much other than a great deal of adorable sneering at her brother's bullshit.

And Akio gives her a lot to sneer about, obsessed as he is with astronomy, space travel, and aliens.  On their way to investigate a possible spaceship landing nearby, we're treated to the trio's youthful hijinks and run-ins with Officer Kondo, the good-hearted, somewhat-simpering, closest-thing-to-an-authority-figure-in-this-movie, played by comedian Kon Omura.  I am made to understand he is something of the Don Knotts of the Orient, explaining some of his broader physical gesticulations.  (Like Tomoko, he has no real narrative function in the film.)

Akio and Tom, two Goofuses without a Gallant, are impulsive and irresponsible enough that when they find the spaceship, they immediately start pressing buttons.  Naturally enough, this sends them to Earth's twin star planet on the other side of the sun, Terra.  Tomoko watches on helplessly and worries about how she's going to explain this to their mom (as she well might).

Ridden with a great deal of detail for a child protagonist in a Gamera film, Akio surely must rank amongst Takahashi's most sharply-drawn characters in any of his screenplayswhatever that may wind up saying about Takahashi's writing.

As you'll recall from Guiron's appearance on MST3K, Akio is pathologically obsessed with the reengineering of society, to a degree that would make even H.G. Wells nod in approval.  Indeed, Akio would positively welcome an alien takeover if only they were more civilized.  To Akio, the most salient markers of advanced civilization are the progression beyond 1)war and 2)traffic accidents.  He mentions this three times throughout the film, and if anything the emphasis is on the traffic accidents.

With such a radical program, Akio was in the vanguard of the revolutionary upheavals of late 1960s Japan.

We do meet Akio's mother and, in the cutaways to Tomoko's struggle to get anybody to listen to her, Tom's mother as well, but we never once see or hear tell of either boy's father.  One is thus almost compelled to imagine the hideously dark backstory that underlies Akio's bizarre monomania, and which tied Akio and Tom together as blood-brothers, reborn out of the twisted metal tragedy that left them each fatherless in a patriarchal world.

David Cronenberg's Crash Babies.

Alternatively, Akio's father took off because his spouse was shrewish and stupid, or at least profoundly ignorant of series continuity: Mom not only belittles the two boys for their interest in space, but berates Tomoko for lying about the ship.  All of this seems delusionally close-minded, given that in the Gamera universe alien life is not just an established factTokyo just got flattened by it the year before.

Once on Terra, Akio and Tom find a world devoid of traffic altogether, but in a state of ecological collapse anyway.  Global cooling has rendered the star planet all but uninhabitable except to the legions of Gaos that have infested itor rather the legions of Space Gaos, Gaos which have been repainted the accepted color of Space, silver.  Akio and Tom have landed in the last remaining settlement on the star planet, but their spaceship's autpilot has bad timing, setting them down in the midst of a giant space bat raid.

Since Terra is easily the Showa series' single most fantastic miniature set, and Fujii's very best as the sole effects supervisor on a Gamera film, it's almost a shame.  I say "almost," of course, because it'd be an even bigger shame if it didn't get blown at least a bit to smithereens.

Incidentally, Fujii's use of smoke to simulate "immersion in water" is also an improvement over his previous effort of "nothing."

Despite the inevitability of its ruin, the Terran settlement is nevertheless a well-defended installation, complete with a surface-to-air missile battery and, more importantly, the Terrans' gargantuan watchdog, the technologically-controlled monster Guiron.

By their nature, kaiju are gimmicks, more or less concealed.  Guiron is emphatically "less," but all the more impressive for it: he is, quite literally, a quadrupedal knife.  More than a third of his body's length consists of the enormous blade that doubles as his skull, and even his name is a play on "guillotine."

In service to a storytelling trope as old as time, Guiron proves his place in the pantheon by taking on one of the Space Gaos, whom we are to presume is at least equal in capability to the monster that so tested Gamera's mettle a couple of films ago.

Not content with the irony of reflecting Gaos' sonic attack with the perfect sounding board of his head, Guiron leaps about ten times the length of his own body, meeting the enemy midair as it retreats.  Guiron cripples it with a single, spectacular blow.

The Gaos does survive this, but not for long:

Guiron's final dispatch of the Gaos is on the very short list of the Showa era's goriest moments.  I still hold the impalement from Viras is slightly more disturbing, but the sight of the Gaos' head still screaming after its decapitation, and the subsequent juliennation of his body, would be an R-rated nightmare if it were only the slightest bit more realistically rendered.

Akio and Tom wisely retreat inside, where they meet all that's left of Terra's inhabitants, which turns out to be a pair of groovy spacewomen, Barbella and Florbella.  They initially appear friendly, but if there's one thing you learn from kaiju movies, it's to fear and distrust that which is foreign and unknownthey are, in fact, vicious nietzschean cannibals.

Gamera, as usual a better judge of character than most humans in his movies, arrives to rescue the boys.  Guiron is again released; battles ensue; Barbella and Florbella, evidently in the mood for empty calories, try to eat Akio's brain while planning to relocate themselves to Earth; in opposing them, Akio and Tom have adventures not unlike those of the Goonies.

Well, except for the cannibalism part.

Indeed, other than that delicious wrinkle, nothing much can be said about Barbella and Florbellathey're inept even by the standards set by the villains in Barugon and Viras.  If they're a bit more colorful than Onodera, they manifestly lack the sheer surrealistic charm of the corpse-snatching, arm-detaching Virans.

No, what Guiron has going for it if anything are its kaiju battles, which are relatively frequent and pretty good, occasionally approaching spectacularthe Gaos battle is, in keeping with that foemonster's tradition, the best of the film and one of the best of the franchise.  The struggles between Gamera and Guiron aren't really even close to as good as that single fight, but they do remain entertaining.

Like with all Gamera's enemies, Guiron has a weakness.  This time, it's the aperture in his head-knife that he uncovers whenever he uses his telekinetic ninja stars

Oh, did I not mention those?  They're what prompt Gamera, in Tom's words, to infamously dance go-go.  He's actually trying to pull the embedded stars out of his legs, so he can use his rocket power to fly, but Tom is, if possible, even dumber than Akio.  What cannot be so readily explained is the moment when Gamera does a cartwheel routine on a Terran structure that has a vague resemblance to a gymnastic bar.  (I'd love to attribute this to Izumi, but it's pretty clearly a plastic figure.)

Yuasa has clarified that the Olympics were a big thing at the time.  But, for better or worse, his slide into if-it-feels-good-shoot-it nonsense was pretty much complete after Viras anyway.

The thing that continues to feel best for Yuasa is a delightful fixation on ultraviolence, but the animalistic desperation of Gaos is gone.  The sequence wherein Gamera disposes of Guiron is notable in that it confers a fully human intelligence to Gamera, something only vaguely implied before: to destroy his enemy, the turtle must know what a missile is, what it does, and that when he wedges it into the hole in Guiron's head, it will make his face explode.

Yet when the missile detonates, one wonders if two separate directives were informing Fujii's effects work: in one shot, Guiron's severed leg flies across the screen; in the next, Guiron dies, relatively peacefully, given that he's clearly supposed to have just been distintegrated by an alien explosive.  For the second Gamera movie in a row, the disgusting death that should have occurred gets watered downin Viras, quite literally, by hiding it beneath the ocean, and here, through shockingly bad editing.

I can prove nothing, but I hypothesize that Daiei wouldn't permit Yuasa and Fujii to film the endings as Takahashi's overheated imagination had originally conceived them.  If soand I can't imagine what else it could bethen it's a damned shame.

The endings to each of the last two films are arguably cleverer than those of Barugon and Gaos, and they do succeed in avoiding repetition, but one could not be blamed for missing the days where every Gamera film seemed to close with the turtle biting the enemy's neck until he bled out all over the frame.

(Don't worry about Akio and Tom.  Gamera fixes the spaceshipwhich is less weird than it sounds, but still very weirdand transports them back to Earth.  Everyone learns a lesson about maybe listening to their kids.  Hooray?)

Guiron is absolutely lesser Gamera.  The series had already entirely given up the pretense of being for adults; and Yuasa's current aim was, unmistakably, to create utterly condescending camp crap for children.  There are, however, good ways and bad ways of doing that.  Guiron certainly chooses less weird ways than Viras, but perhaps that's an impossible comparison.  In Guiron there are just enough moments that fail to be subverted by its own lowered expectationsagain, that battle between Guiron and Gaos is simply superbthat, ultimately, I just can't help but recommend it, if only a little.

Score: 6/10

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