Spoiler warnings for Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, Gamera 2: Advent of Legion and Gamera 3: Revenge of Irys.
Kaiju make for lousy heroes. Generally superheroes and supervillains are distinguishable by their differing regard for collateral damage. A powerful good guy with no interest in preventing innocent casualties, contra Zack Snyder, isn’t a far cry from his dastardly antagonist. Giant monsters have limited options in this area. When you weigh hundreds of tonnes and stand several storeys high, the best avoidance strategy for damage is to stand really still. Hardly practical or – frankly – entertaining. So these are the horns of our dilemma; if our huge beast does nothing, they will be safe but ineffectual and tedious; if they try to act, they will certainly cause considerable death and destruction among friend and foe alike. The best heroes are neither impotent nor catastrophically dangerous. Whence cometh the heroic kaiju?
As far as I am aware the best exploration of this concept can be found in the 1999 classic Gamera 3: Revenge of Irys, the stunning conclusion to the Heisei Gamera trilogy. Ordinarily the point at which summoning a colossal and catastrophic monster to resolve a crisis seems reasonable is referred to as the “Godzilla Threshold”, but I wish to start a movement to have this rechristened in honour of Gamera. Godzilla, at least since 1975, has rarely risen above the level of merciless force of nature, while Gamera remains a steadfast agent of good, and far more deserving of status as a hero, albeit a hero who regularly demolishes buildings. Revenge of Irys goes where few kaiju movies have gone before or since, into a world of consequences, sacrifice, and thoroughly human reactions of living in a world where huge reptiles are a recognisable threat.
As a young teenager, you are unfortunate enough to be living in Japan at the onset of the age of the kaiju. As such, it comes as something of a shock the apartment block your parents are standing is suddenly collapses under the onslaught of a tremendous fire-breathing turtle, killing them both. Given this formative experience it is entirely understandable to bear some hatred against this creature, regardless of any later heroics. This is the genius of the Heisei Gamera films: events have consequences. In this third installment, the surge in the Gyaos population is the result of the extreme lengths to which Gamera was forced to defeat the alien Legion, Sendai is still a smoking crater after its destruction by the Legion’s explosive seed pod, and the driving force of the plot began years earlier during Gamera: Guardian of the Universe. This is not just a film set, it is a living world in which life must go on in the wake of events both tragic and triumphant. In addition, a realistic world often involves making the choice between a terrible situation and a worse one. Allowing Gamera to co-exist with humanity is a constant risk, but to look at what his absence would entail, his presence is certainly the lesser of two evils. Though Sendai was destroyed, Sapporo and Tokyo would also lie in ruins. Humanity, if they had survived the predatory Gyaos of Earth, would have been further annihilated by the alien Legion. Thousands have died, but at the expense of millions.
Gamera 3 is an almost perfect reversal of the plot of Guardian of the Universe. A huge creature appears, causing death and devastation. Luckily, there is another creature who emerges, forming a close, mystical bond with a young woman, and growing in power to take down the former monster. This is carried to the point where Gamera himself looks more bestial and terrifying than he has previously, now sporting a spiked crest and darker colour scheme – looking positively demonic in Ayana’s memory – while the new monster Irys looks much more traditionally “good”. Baby Irys is frankly adorable, and its grown form looks almost like a phoenix in vivid colours with only its tentacles, a classically sinister attribute, hinting at its true nature. Any film worth its salt will feature more motivations than a simple good vs. evil dichotomy, and here we are treated to a very able example. Ayana is justifiably furious at Gamera over the death of her parents and behaves entirely understandably when given the power to carry out her vengeance. Irys seems to be exploiting Ayana’s negative feelings and gaining power from their connection. Mayumi and Asagi, and to some extent Gamera himself, recognise the threat that Irys poses, and realise that Gamera is a necessary evil in the face of the Gyaos population explosion. Asukura and Kurata are happy to use Ayana to destroy Gamera, believing him to be a harbinger of doom. Some of these motivations are relatable, others are not, and the split does not lie along the simple split between good and bad.
Monster movies, like so many things, tend to fall on a bell curve. Most are good. A few are terrible. And some transcend the genre to become genuinely great films. The whole trilogy of ’90s Gamera films is well worth seeking out, but the final instalment brings all the threads together to become one of the best kaiju flicks ever made. If you want your audience to accept the absurdity of a huge, pyromaniacal turtle, you need to keep the rest of your fictional world very grounded, and Revenge of Irys pulls this off beautifully. To return to the beginning, in the real world, sometimes we need to accept that our heroes are less than perfect, and that thankfully perfection is not a prerequisite for acting for a better world.
[Reposted from Podzilla! King of the Podcasts]