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ADV Films presents
Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)

"They're not birds. They have fangs, and no feathers."
- Mayumi Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: April 15, 2003

Stars: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Akira Onodera, Shinobu Nakayama, Ayako Fujitani
Other Stars: Hatsundori Hasegawa, Hirotaro Honda, Naoaki Manabe, Jun Suzuki, Yuhmi Kaneyama
Director: Shusuke Kaneko

Manufacturer: M.O.F.C.
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (giant monster violence, minor bloodshed)
Run Time: 01h:36m:22s
Release Date: March 18, 2003
UPC: 702727055324
Genre: sci-fi


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B B-BA B-

DVD Review

The genre of kaiju eiga, or Japanese giant monster movie, was spurred into life by the success of Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1954) and its many progeny, which made Toho Studios a massive pile of yen. In the mid-1960s, rival studio Daiei decided to get into the act as well, although by this time the genre had already descended into self-parody. Daiei's Gamera series (then sometimes spelled Gammera) featured one of the oddest giant monsters of them all: a protective giant turtle that was able to fly by means of rockets out of its leg holes; when occasion demanded, it could fire all four rockets and imitate a flying saucer. After the passable first entry, the series quickly devolved into a mess of kid-friendly foolishness that revolved around little boys in short pants mastering alien technologies and basically using the title creature as a handy wish fulfillment device to get the better of their invariably stupid elders. These films, which saw heavy TV syndication in the 1970s in the US, are perhaps best known to American audiences today as the subject of many episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which mercilessly took them apart.

For Gamera's 30th anniversary in 1995, Daiei decided to revive the turtle with a more modern flavor and adult focus, giving the helm to Shusuke Kaneko, whose prior directorial experience had consisted of about forty soft-core porn films. None of that surfaces in Gamera or its two sequels, which Kaneko also directed, however. While still not totally inappropriate for kids, the film is significantly darker and Gamera and the other creatures far more threatening than in the 1960s incarnation.

A ship carrying a ton of plutonium runs aground on a mysterious floating atoll that swims away, and officer Yoshinari Yonemari (Tsuyoshi Ihara) teams up with investigator Naoya Kusanagi (Akira Onodera) to find out what the significance of this event might be. At the same time, ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama) is called in to investigate a mysterious report of a giant bird on a remote island. What she discovers is not one, but three creatures with 15-meter wingspans that have killed six families on the island and are heading for the more populated islands of Japan. A tablet bearing a prophecy on the atoll tells of a creature called Gamera that will return to rescue mankind from the threat of a creature named Gyaos (GHEE-ouse). But Mr. Seito (Hirotaro Honda), head of the Japanese EPA, is determined to protect the bird creatures, even though they may be Gyaos. When monstrous turtle Gamera appears to take out the ever-enlarging bird creatures, the Japanese Defense Force takes Gamera on with all the force available to it. But have they made a dreadful mistake?

This is indeed a very different take on the kaiju eiga in many respects. The environmental concerns demonstrated in such features as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster are inverted here as the environmentalist becomes the bad guy. The children are ineffectual, other than Kusanagi's teenage daughter Asagi (Ayako Fujitani), who through an amulet develops a psychic connection with Gamera. But as the giant turtle suffers injuries, they also appear like stigmata on her body. The impact on a human level of the giant monster violence may thus be too disturbing for the smaller children who were the focus of the earlier series. Gamera does still take some kid-friendly actions, such as saving a small child from one of the bird creatures, but in all this is a safe enough viewing experience for all but the youngest.

Of course, the main question in a review of giant monster movies is, are there plenty of fights? Yes, happily, there is a good deal of mayhem between Gamera and the bird creatures, and plenty of destruction of downtown Tokyo, with buildings collapsing and refineries exploding on every side. In particular, Gamera's first appearance gives rise to a memorable setpiece combat at a domed baseball stadium. There are some nifty aerial battles as well, including one that even goes into outer space. The effects are on the whole well done, though the closeups are still (happily, from my viewpoint) obviously of a guy in a rubber monster suit. And that's where the heart of the genre lies. Columbia completely misunderstood this point with its ill-fated attempt to render Godzilla in CGI. But the suits are here married to CGI, stop-motion and other effects in restrained ways to allow Gamera a wider range of activity than before. The end result, provides a passable display of onscreen magic that doesn't unduly strain one's disbelief. Well, assuming that one accepts giant monster turtles in the first place. The main cast is given some nice character bits, and is generally more likeable than the anonymous denizens of most such films. In particular, Nakayama as the ornithologist has a presence and charm that makes her a very strong female lead, another oddity for the genre. Although a romance is mildly implied between her and Yonemari, it's tucked well into the background and it doesn't get in the way of the monster battles. The story flows well enough, despite some very awkward and repetitive bits of exposition about Atlantis that really shouldn't be necessary for most viewers.

ADV's presentation unfortunately uses English language overlays throughout the film and on the credits. Better practice would have been to use subtitling. The English dub is okay, although the actress dubbing Asagi sounds far too old, and the one dubbing Nagamine makes her sound much less sympathetic. But at least Daiei is allowing a region 1 of the Japanese language film in the original aspect ratio; we may never see such a release for any of Toho's Godzilla films or other kaiju eiga, and for that we should be grateful to Daiei and ADV.

And yes, Gamera still flies like a saucer. Sometimes, you just have to go with a good thing.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The film is presented in widescreen, but it (unlike the sequel discs from ADV) is nonanamorphic. The loss of resolution actually doesn't hurt too badly, except for the presence of aliasing and a fair amount of shimmer in difficult patterns. Color is very good, with decent black levels and shadow detail. The source print is practically flawless, which makes it a shame that an anamorphic master wasn't available.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Japanese, Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: 2.0 Surround tracks are provided for both English and the original Japanese. Both have good presence, and Gamera's footsteps have a ton of low bass that will challenge many systems. The sound has a good enveloping quality, with plenty of activity from the surrounds, especially during the critical monster battles. During a storm sequence early on, the realism of the sound mix is downright disturbing. Hiss and noise are practically nonexistent on both tracks, and the score sounds very nice as well, with decent richness and little harshness.

Audio Transfer Grade: A

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 8 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring Gamera 2: Attack of Legion
6 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Scanavo
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:17m:22s

Extra Extras:
  1. Previews of ADV series Farscape, Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda, Princess Blade, Noir and RahXephan
Extras Review: ADV, which hasn't exactly gone overboard in its extras for its anime titles, comes up very strong with supplements for this picture. First up is a 31m:03s interview with Shinji Huguchi, the director of special effects. This interview is continued on the discs for the two sequels, although effects sequences from all three films are presented here (though nothing in the way of significant spoilers). Huguchi is a funny, self-deprecating character who is amused by the shortcomings of his art. The only drawback here is some overly imaginative camerawork that sometimes resembles public access television. A set of four brief featurettes gives background on the press conference where the film was announced, a behind-the-scene short that seems to be random footage assembled music-video style without any narration, a glimpse of promo events including sneak preview showings, and the premiere in Tokyo on March 11, 1995. These are supplemented by a set of 3 trailers and half a dozen TV spots. The latter are interesting for the manner in which they play on the nostalgia angle, incorporating clips of the 1960s incarnation of Gamera.

The only significant beef I have with the package is the chaptering on the feature is wholly inadequate. This should have had 20 stops, minimum, to make the monster battles easier to locate. This takes the grade down from what would have been a solid 'B.' A brief documentary on the original series also would have been welcome here. ADV does supply its usual panoply of cryptic previews of its other discs.

Extras Grade: B-

 

Final Comments

A fun return to the giant monster turtle of the 1960s, with a more adult tone and a much better script than its predecessors ever dreamed of. ADV provides a surprising accumulation of extras, and while the sound is very nice, the picture is nonanamorphic and suffers a bit from aliasing.

 


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