Gamera: Guardian of the Unvierse DVD Review

Brought out as a straight counter to Toho Studios rabidly popular Godzilla series, Gamera appealed more to children than adults (something many people attribute to the same change in the Godzilla series). Stripped of that cheese factor, director Shusuke Kaneko takes this revived series in a new direction. Bringing back Gamera's most popular foe, changing the origins, and giving the film a darker feel makes this one of the best giant monster movies of all time.

A ship carrying plutonium runs aground in the middle of the ocean. Ravenous giant reptile-like birds ravage a small town. Authorities are baffled and decide to capture the birds for study. During that operation, that atoll turns out to be a giant flying turtle, washing up in a harbor. Named Gamera after an ancient legend, the military focuses their attention on that giant, never realizing that the giant birds (named Gaos) are the real threat.

It's incredible just how entertaining and fun this new Gamera is. The original film, released in 1965, was a tolerable knock-off (butchered for release in the US), but this is something entirely different. It's a movie only bested by the two sequels.

Changing the mythology from radioactive mutant to ancient man-made Atlantis legend was a risky move, but as least it gives some explanation for how Gamera can actually take off into the air, spinning wildly, to chase after his foes. Everything else is executed so well, from the countless money shots to the exquisite miniatures, it's a real shame this film only went to cable here in the states. It could have found an audience.

Redesigned while still keeping the basics, Gamera looks nothing short of fantastic. The suit never looks obvious, while the Gaos are almost all controlled via wire work. Their design is even stronger, completely believable considering the somewhat absurd premise in the first place. Combine these two with some of the most detailed miniatures ever created (right down to strewn papers and garbage cans in an alley) and you have a winner even before getting to the human characters.

First time actress Ayako Fujitani plays a young girl with an odd attachment to the title beast. It's the only plot devices that never really gets a full explanation and does stick out even with her great performance (especially for a first timer). She would take the same role in the next two entries as well. The rest of the cast does a fine job with a surprisingly solid script, though the focus is on young Fujitani.

If for some reason this loveable and rather goofy genre has eluded you over the years, this is the film to get you started. It's not just a nice piece for nostalgic fans, but a classic of the genre that can be enjoyed by anyone. It's easy to follow, has fantastic action, and incredible non-CG filled special effects. It's a must see. (**** out of *****)

ADV is usually very good at preserving their Japanese films for a US audience, but fails miserably here. This is very likely a transfer taken from the VHS version, and that is in no way an exaggeration. The resolution is obviously lower than the usual format standard due to some aggravating flickering. Compression is completely out of control in almost every scene and even when turning down the brightness on the TV, black levels still fail to stay solid. Colors are completely faded. A final flaw is that this widescreen transfer isn't centered on the screen, leaving too much room on the top. A terrible job at presenting a great movie. (No stars)

Though the Japanese region 2 disc would provide a full 5.1 track, ADV fails again with a meager 2.0 mono mix. The only positive here is both the English and Japanese dialogue. Everything has a scratchy, hard to follow quality to it. It does stay together during some of the louder sequences, something that usually proves to be an issue with a track like this. That's not a compliment. (**)

A real rarity on these shores, "Gamera" is packed with special features. Carried over the course of the three discs in this box set, special effects director Shinji Higuchi covers all three films in an interview. This first segment is just over the 30-minute mark with English subtitles. It's a shame there isn't more behind the scenes footage. It's a blast to see these movies get made.

Next is some footage from a 1994 press conference announcing the return of this monster. The actors, studio execs, and the director all speak during this 5-minute piece. "Backstage" is a complete disappointment, carried by an awful music piece over footage of the actors/actresses on the set. There is nothing on the two real stars except for clips from the finished film.

"Promotional Events" basically covers the days leading up to the premiere for just over six minutes. There's some nice footage and some rather pointless interviews. "Opening Night in Japan" is basically the same thing with different footage. The crowds were certainly impressive. (****)

The series would find a finale in what many people consider to the be the best kaiju film ever made, "Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris." That doesn't make this starting film any less spectacular. Do yourself a favor and pick up the box set ADV released, or go even one better and track down the official Japanese disc. They actually do these films justice.

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