Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Random Movie Report #19: Gamera the Brave

One of my various items of L.A. swag came from the fine people at Amoeba Music (6400 Sunset.) The store's known for CDs and LPs (naturally), but has a fine selection of DVDs, including many imports, including this Hong Kong R3 release of the latest Gamera adventure. (This means you'll need a multi-region DVD player if you're not in that particular region, which includes Hong Kong, the Philippines, Nepal, Monster Island, and Arrakis.)

Gamera, for those who don't watch enough MST3K, is a giant firebreathing turtle who fights evil monsters, protects children and has been the star of several films in Japan, starting with GAMERA in 1965. At the time he was a competitor to Godzilla, with his films done on a lower budget (back when Godzilla movies had fairly strong production values) and aimed at a slightly younger crowd. His first film series fizzled out in the early Seventies when the studio collapsed, and though he appeared in the movie SUPER MONSTER GAMERA in 1980, that was composed mostly of clips and didn't lead to much of anything. Starting in 1995, a resurrected Daiei Studios began a new Gamera trilogy, featuring improved effects and a slightly darker tone; the films presented Gamera as "the guardian of the universe", engaged in an endless war against horrific creatures out to destroy humanity. After it wrapped in 1998, the character lay dormant. Now he's back in GAMERA THE BRAVE (Japanese title: GAMERA: CHIISAKI YUSHA-TACHI, which I've seen translated as "The Little Braves" or "The Little Heroes", but I don't know Japanese so your guess is as good as mine), which goes back to the hero's kid-friendly roots, focusing on a young boy and his pet turtle, who turns out to be a prehistoric monster. Though kaiju fans weren't thrilled at the idea of a kiddified reboot, the results are actually fairly charming; it works as a children's adventure and an all-ages giant monster romp, and though it's a bit on the underdeveloped side, it's pretty, fun, and never dull.

The film begins in 1973, where we see Gamera battling a horde of batlike Gyaos monsters outside a small town in Japan, near Nagoya (I think.) To destroy the creatures, Gamera immolates himself, sacrificing his life to save humanity. We move forward to the same town in 2006, where a boy named Toru (I can't provide cast names because IMDB doesn't know who played whom) lives and works in a restaraunt run by his recently-widowed father. One day he sees a bright light coming from a distant island near the area where Gamera was destroyed, and finds an egg, from which hatches a baby turtle, whom he names Toto. Because he's not allowed to have pets, he has to hide Toto from his father, and in the process he discovers that the turtle has the ability to fly, and can grow at a remarkable rate. He shares this secret with his friends, who help move Toto into a shack when he grows too big. Meanwhile, a giant, man-eating monster named Zedus- who looks like a cross between Godzilla and one of the dilophosaurs from JURASSIC PARK- has been terrorising Japanese ships, and very suddenly comes ashore in Toru's home town. By that point, though, little Toto has grown up into a brand new Gamera, and he quickly shows up to do battle with the fearsome dinosaur thingy. Zedus is driven off for a time, but Gamera/Toto has been wounded and fatigued, and may not recover in time for the monster's next appearance.

In terms of execution and tone, this is really more a children's movie than a monster movie. The focus is not on scientists and military men and the like, but on Toru and his friends and his pet monster. It's a way of sort of approaching the genre from the side, which may be a good idea, as the most recent series of Godzilla films had trouble really capturing the attention of the Japanese public. For about a third of the film's running time, Toto is just a normal sized, and very cute, little turtle, and people who can appreciate such things will have plenty of opportunities to go "aww" as the brave pet waddles along streets and through kitchens. Even as Gamera, he's smaller than the original and given big Bambi eyes, and he's standing up to a much bigger monster. With our hero at a definite size disadvantage, he has to win through courage and heart and that sort of thing, and the kids, acting as Gamera's family even while he's protecting them, have to help out (this ties into a subplot about a friend of Toru's going into hospital for a heart operation, but I'm playing that down since I can't remember her name.) As clich├ęd as this sounds, and almost is, the filmmakers do manage to conjure up an actual plot device by which they can aid Gamera, one that leads to a particularly clever and kid-empowering scene. It's well done, really it is- I would have preferred a bit more suspense, but that's not too big a problem.

There's a slightly dark counterpoint to the main action that gives it some weight. Toru's mother is dead (the fate of many a mother and/or father in children's fiction- it's not just Disney), and at the beginning, as Toru and his father visit a memorial shrine, he narrates that, contrary to what his father says about her looking down from heaven, as far as he's concerned mother is just bones in a tomb. Needless to say, there's something quasi-mystical about Gamera's reincarnation, but Toru, knowing that the last Gamera destroyed himself, doesn't want to admit his pet turtle is taking up the mantle; he doesn't want to lose another loved one. As Toto grows into Gamera, though, he learns that he needs to have faith in the turtle just as his mother and father have some faith in him- there are lessons of trust and willingness to let go that are quite interesting. The convincing performances by the child actors help this angle a lot.

As a kaiju film, the movie still works. The visual effects are, for the most part, very good; having the monsters be relatively small allows for more detailed miniatures, a lesson learned from the last Gamera trilogy. Some of the CGI work is dodgy, while the design of Zedus is vaguely sloppy, but still appealing. (One major complaint I had is that the enemy monster pretty much pops out of nowhere, without even a "nuclear accident" or "ancient prophecy of doom" to explain anything. Perhaps they felt the kids would get too bored with such exposition.) I also, for want of a good lead-in, want to praise the film's visual style- there are a lot of warm-yet-soft colors, and it's pleasant to look at throughout. (I notice this in a lot of Japanese films, for some reason.)

GAMERA THE BRAVE is set up as the first entry in a potential trilogy- I have been able to find no information whatsoever as to whether this film was a success financially, so who knows what will happen (uncomfirmed word has it bombing, which is a shame if true). But it's a solid series reboot, one that makes the material feel very fresh and new. The potential arc of Gamera "growing up" could also be appealing. It's also just a good children's movie, bright and straightforward and exciting without being too scary. Even kaiju fans will find stuff to like, if the "kiddie" element doesn't put them off. I hope this sees an American DVD release soon (there's been at least one screening in the US that I know of), and I'm glad I caught it early.

Written by Yukari Tatsui
Directed by Ryuta Tazaki

Grade: B+

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