Hideki Anno’s Shin Japan Heroes Universe consisting of Shin Godzilla, Shin Evangelion, Shin Ultraman, and Shin Kamen Rider has become a major talking among Kaiju and Tokusatsu circles, and for good reasons. They’re brilliant revivals of classic series bringing them into the modern-day and using them to tackle modern issues. When looking at these movies however I can’t help but see the DNA of an older classic of the genre: The Heisei Gamera Trilogy.
Consisting of Gamera Guardian of the Universe, Gamera 2: Advent of Legion, and epically the third movie, Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris. The trilogy revolutionized the kaiju genre just like how the original Godzilla and the more recent Shin Godzilla with a greater focus on the human characters and using the monsters to delve into deeper themes. If you’re excited to see the recently released Shin Kamen Rider and our looking for more, these might just be what you’re looking for.
Who is Gamera
Gamera is an oddity in the Kaiju kingdom. He’s a giant turtle-like monster that has fangs, breathes fire, and flies by shooting rocket propulsion out of his shell. The big guy had a string of movies in the 60s during the Kaiju boom. Gamera’s films were mostly light-hearted children’s movies, remembered for their weird yet unique monsters, cheezy writing, and annoying kid actors that would act as Gamera’s allies. They were far from the level of Godzilla but this still had a certain charm in how silly they were.
After the stock footage ridden was that was Super Monster Gamera in 1980, Gamera was shelved until 15 years later. Following the end of the Heisei Godzilla series when he would receive a second chance at life under the Direction of Shusuke Kaneko (Death Note Live Action) and the writing of Kazunori Itō (Ghost In The Shell).
We should also note that The SFX Director for the trilogy was Shinji Higuchi, an alumnus of Studio Gainax who worked as the Art Director for Neon Genesis Evangelion (Shinji Ikari was named after him) and would go on to help his long-time friend Hideaki Anno in co-directing Shin Godzilla and solo directing Shin Ultraman.
If that’s not enough one of Hideaki Anno’s earliest live-action projects as a director was GAMERA1999 a documentary about the making of Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris. Needless to say, both creators were aware of the Heisei Gamera Trilogy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the series was a large inspiration for their later Toku works.
Guardian of The Universe
While Kaiju movies have always been used as metaphors for issues in modern society, The Heisei Gamera movies pushed for a more grounded take on the original series, reflecting on the original character. Like the later Shin Japan movies, a lot of emphasis is put on the destruction the kaiju cause to regular people and cities, and the the effect this has on politics and society at large. It also makes the effort of creating human characters that are memorable and have differing viewpoints on the kaiju.
This all leads to the central theme and philosophy of the trilogy. While the Shin Japan Heroes movies, focus on the use of nuclear weapons, foreign policy, or the dehumanizing nature of technology, the Gamera Trilogy takes a more spiritual route, focusing on the theme of faith in the modern world.
When we first see Gamera in Guardian of the Universe, he’s a very different beast. Instead of a prehistoric turtle awakened by Nuclear testing, he’s an action bioweapon created by an Ancient Civilisation to destroy their previous creations: bat-like creatures called the Gyaos who were reawakened by the greater pollution in the modern world.
Despite this, however, he’s still a fairly lighthearted character. He’s not quite the friend of all children but he’s essentially a superhero, he forms a psychic bond with a girl named Asagi (a reinterpretation of his old kid companions) showing his human connection, and goes out of his way to protect people from the Gyaos. The viewer is shown that Gamera is a good monster and that he will save us in times of need, that’s why he was created.
The Advent of Legion
This however starts the come into question with Gamera 2: Advent of Legion. Gamera is pitted against an alien kaiju named the Legion, a being so powerful it pretty much nukes the city of Sendai leaving Gamera a wasted carbonized husk. That is until Gamera absorbs further mana energy from the Earth itself to resurrect and destroy it.
Legion is a very different creature than any other kaiju in the series or many kaiju in general. A giant insect-like creature that required two suit actors to pilot. It houses a swarm of smaller soldier Legion to the size of cars, shoots beams, and has laser whips, pushing Gamera like before. It very much lives up to its Biblical namesake, and further considering Gamera has a resurrection scene it also furthers the idea that he is a godlike being.
That being said we learn something extra about Gamera: he’s not a friend to humans, Gamera’s job is to protect the planet, just the planet, and he will destroy anything that puts it ask risk including people if we ever get to that state. Further while resurrecting, the magatama that connects him to Asagi shatters, meaning that no human knows what Gamera is thinking.
At this point, I should mention that Director Shusuke Kaneko has said that regular turtles don’t exist in the Heisei Gamera universe. For the people of this world, he is truly an unknowable eldritch abomination that looks like nothing on this planet (although the dub ruined this by referring to him as a turtle).
The Revenge of Iris
This all culminates in the third movie, Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris, one of the best kaiju movies of all time, right up there with the original King Kong and Gojira and the movie that has the most in common with the Shin Japan Universe films. A movie that builds on top of its two predecessors and shows the true consequences of living in a world of godlike beings.
Gamera’s use of the mana beam to kill Legion has caused more pollution and more Gyaos to be born all around the world. Gamera of course is trying to kill them all but when we see him in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo, it goes down like this:
What’s interesting about this scene is the little boy at the end. We learn the fight in Shibuya killed 20,000 people but that kid still says Gamera saved him. It puts into question the entirety of Gamera as a character, perhaps all this time he was only a hero because that’s what the kids that supported him saw, and in reality, he was a destructive monster. Politicians and the media debate this, and there’s even a growing cult rallying that Gamera and the other monsters are malevolent spirits meant to bring destruction to the world.
At the center of all this, however, is a young schoolgirl named Ayana. Her parents were killed during the battle between Gamera and Gyaos in the first movie and she soon finds an egg in an old cave containing a strange creative named Iris. Whether influenced by her hatred or further fueled by it Iris bonds with Ayana and grows into the closest thing there is to a live-action Angel from Evangelion and terrorizes Kyoto. The two act as a dark parallel to Asagi and Gamera, but it can be argued that perhaps Ayana’s dark thoughts are somewhat justified. We see clearly that when monsters fight, people do get hurt.
A Leap of Faith (spoilers for Gamera 3)
Gamera 3 ends with Gamera defeating Iris and saving Ayana by pulling her out of Iris’ chest and placing her safely on the ground. From here we’ve learned that the fight has caused even more Gyaos to swarm Kyoto but Asagi is certain Gamera will fight them until the end, the final shot seeing the beaten down guardian with one hand blown off (after he gets stabbed through the palm, more Jesus symbolism), roaring into the distance as the city burns around him.
Many have said the cliffhanger ending is bittersweet but perfectly encapsulates the themes of the trilogy. Can Gamera beat the Gyaos? Does he actually have humanity’s best interests in mind: We don’t know but we have to have faith that he does.
In a world of god-like beings that can appear and bring calamity in the blink of an eye, we have to have hope that Gamera, a 50-foot monster that we have no way of properly communicating with or understanding, can save us and intends to save us, otherwise, we have nothing but despair. If I may be pretentious for a second, it very much mirrors Kierkegaard’s idea of a leap of faith: there’s no logical reason to believe but having faith may be necessary to function in this dark world.
It’s an interesting and nuanced take on the idea of a superhero-ish creature as a metaphor for god with a profound ending and message. It’s certainly better than anything Zack Snyder has come up with.
In an interview with Tokusatsu Network, Shinji Higuchi was actually asked if fans could expect a Shin Gamera and he said the following:
“For me when I made Gamera [the Heisei series], that was Shin Gamera. So if there was a new version that would come out, it should be made by someone younger than myself. I was 28 when I made Gamera. I think it should be made by someone in their youth currently, someone who looks at my work and says “Oh Director Higuchi’s work, that’s boring, I can make it a lot more interesting”.
Well, that’s a pretty big confirmation but the Heisei series, particularly Gamera 3 very much did for Gamera what the Shin Japan Heroes Universe is doing for Godzilla and the others. These three movies pay homage to the original cheezy 60s romps but also update the character to fit a modern and more complicated world, deconstructing the characteristics associated with him. The best kaiju movies have always seen the monsters as allegories for the woes of the time they appeared and both the Gamera Trilogy and the Shin Japan Anthology understand and execute these ideas perfectly.
I suppose this article is my way of saying, if you like Shin Kamen Rider or the others in the anthology, give the Heisei Gamera Trilogy a try. They’re among the best that Tokusatsu has to offer with beautiful practical effects, mounds of miniature destruction, and giant monsters showing the best and worst of us as people.