Gamera the Brave

He coulda been a contenda

Everyone knows Gamera! Right? The giant turtle created in 1965, meant to feed off the success of the infinitely superior Godzilla? Well, for those of you not in the know, Gamera is kind of similar to Godzilla, in the sense that Mega Bloks are similar to LEGO, Carl’s Junior is similar to Burger King, or Universal Studios is similar to Disneyland: designed to do almost the same things, but with nowhere near the same efficacy or usefulness.

While Godzilla is a radioactive dinosaur, quite possibly the best combination of two words the English language has to offer, Gamera is a gigantic turtle, who can walk on two legs and also fly. He also tends to be kind of a loser most of the time, as he usually only wins fights after almost getting killed in the first place. Without superpowers of any kind or much of a heroic origin, Gamera has to win most of his fights with sheer tenacity and a complete inability to know when he’s outmatched – fitting for a turtle, I suppose. His main advantage is his shell, which protects him from just about all harm, and his ability to fly by pulling his limbs into his shell and propelling himself with flame extruded from the holes in his shell where limbs normally come out.
Exactly how the flying happens has never been explained satisfactorily, but it doesn’t really matter. Like Godzilla, Gamera just sort of exists, doing his own thing and occasionally getting involved in battles that just so happen to place the fate of the human race in peril. Also like Godzilla, he’s gone through numerous incarnations with different looks, abilities, and combinations of powers. In Gamera the Brave, all these past versions of Gamera are combined to create what could, in my opinion, be the best representation of the character yet and the first real signs I’ve seen that he just might be able to stand apart from (though still lesser than) Godzilla.

In American and Japanese cinema, there is a subset of kids’ movies that revolves around one of the few culturally universal premises: a small child stumbles upon an alien, or a dragon, or a giant turtle’s egg, or a clockwork device capable of summoning a legion of demonic warriors to the mortal plane, and takes it home as a pet only to cause all kinds of wacky shenanigans (and on rare occasions, subsequent hijinks) to occur. It’s been seen in everything from blockbusters like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to movies nobody’s heard of, like¬† Adventures of Galgameth

Not very good.

Gamera the Brave uses that storytelling motif as the framework for an enjoyable giant monster film: the original Gamera died in the 1970s, according to the film, when it sacrificed itself to destroy the flock of space pterodactyls that Gamera tends to butt heads with on a pretty regular basis. When Gamera was struck down, however, he became more powerful than his enemies could possibly imagine, in the sense that he left an egg behind which would eventually hatch into a bumbling, chirping baby version of himself, like if Superman had to leave Earth for a long time and left Porky Pig in charge. Eventually, the egg is discovered by the son of a man who was at the scene of the previous Gamera’s last stand, and this is where our story begins.

This version of Gamera is a lot faster and tougher than previous incarnations, though he still kind of lumbers along when he’s not flying. He’s a turtle, after all. He walks on two legs, uses his forelimbs for manipulating things or hitting stuff, and can shoot balls of fire from his mouth. His powers are more biological than Godzilla’s, because rather than being given to him by radioactivity they are just sort of… things he has. (Oh, that is a terrible sentence.) By contrast, the baby version of Gamera, which is named Toto by its young caretaker, has the typical big eyes and squishy-looking features of any fictional character’s “baby version”. It fits, though, because Toto is appropriately cute when paired with his human friend, and we’re worried about him when he gets into fights.

During his first fight with Zedus, the giant lizard that’s attacking Japan, Toto pretty much gets his shell handed to him. This is par for the course for Gamera: in the opening scenes of the film Gamera is being attacked and almost eaten by his space pterodactyl enemies, and only defeats them by blowing himself up. Gamera is bad at everything. And so is Toto! The Friend of all Children in-training gets slapped around like a nerd going up against the school bully – that honestly is the vibe that this fight has always given me, because it’s really just a little kid trying to fight somebody much, much taller. The big difference between this fight and the one Toto’s predecessor exploded during is that Toto has somebody rooting for him, cheering him on, and reacting when he gets beaten up. Rather than being terrified, flailing collateral damage, the humans in Gamera the Brave are very much a part of the story, and oddly enough it doesn’t feel forced. Toru, the little boy who finds and cares for the baby Gamera, recently lost his mother in a car accident, and the name he gives the turtle was the nickname his mother used to refer to him by. There’s an emotional aspect to Gamera the Brave that was entirely missing in the previous Gamera film, Awakening of Irys, which had more of an unhealthy fixation/mind control aspect to the human-monster relationship. Toto and Toru are friends – they worry about each other, they try to keep each other safe, and they both have names with two syllables and two vowels. The human government even participates in making Toto stronger in order to take on Zedus more effectively. This is the biggest and in my opinion most important difference between Gamera and Godzilla, and the thing that needs to be capitalized on so Gamera can come into his own: he’s less a force of nature like Godzilla than he is a willing ally of humans (or at least Earth).

The monster part of the film (unarguably the most important part of the “monster movie”) doesn’t suffer either, luckily: Gamera, Toto, the space pterodactyls (that’s more fun to say than “Gyaos”, which I’m not sure how to pronounce), and Zedus are all well-designed, from the way their bodies are shaped and the suits are designed to the sound effects used when they battle and roar.
Zedus in particular stands out because of his unusually long tail, more proportionate to a real lizard than most movie monsters have, and his tongue, which he uses as a weapon. Zedus looks and feels like a real animal that only happens to be several stories high, which is some of the best praise one can give a movie monster. Using a suit with an actor inside, augmented with animatronics and the lightest use of CGI possible has always looked more convincing to me than an all-CGI monster, with only a few exceptions, and it remains true here. Zedus is heavy, he’s big and hostile and eats people and he looks like he probably smells really bad, too.

The really interesting thing about this movie is how it blends human elements with giant monsters fighting, and actually does it well. It’s common for a film to include aspects of both, as those of us who will see movies that are just about monsters whaling on one another are outnumbered by the people who would rather see actual human beings interacting. Gamera the Brave has both elements, and they mesh together surprisingly well. The humans make up a large part of the movie’s emotional core, as is to be expected, but the “boy and his giant monster” relationship feels pretty real, probably because having a pet is pretty much a universal thing. The monsters are of course the most important part of the film, and they’re handled very well, but having a human element in a movie and not making me want to fast-forward or start mocking the film is pretty rare. It’s odd that it took so long for a Gamera movie to feel as effective and moving as the best Godzilla films have, but now that a Gamera film has been able to accomplish that, the odds are good that if subsequent films ever get released I’ll be on board to watch them. Gamera the Brave is a fittingly ambitious and, it must be said, brave entry into the monster movie arena, one that deserves to stand on its own among the greats.

Godzilla is still better though.

Starring:
Ryo Tomioka
Kanji Tsuda
Kaho

Director:
Ryuta Tasaki

Screenplay:
Yukari Tatsui

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