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Tuesday, March 23, 1999

Gamera's economical resurrection

Remember when Japanese monster movies used to be cheesy camp, good for a few giggles among serious Western cinephiles? Now the trash of an earlier generation has become the obsession of young overseas otaku, whoput up dozens of Web sites dedicated to Godzilla, and thesis fodder for graduate students, who deconstruct the symbolism of Mothra movies with same hermetic zeal they once expended on the syntax of "Finnegan's Wake." Is this madness or what?

Meanwhile, cashing in local fan nostalgia for their old monsters, Japanese studios have, over the past decade and a half, revived one after another with fair to good success. Yes, Toho's made-for-the-'90s Godzilla did not equal the take of his much-reviled American cousin, either in Japan or abroad, but his movies were far cheaper to produce and more profitable as well. No wonder Toho has decided to film their own Big G movie for the new millennium, instead of waiting for another over-produced disappointment from Messrs. Emmerich and Devlin.

Daiei has also been busy cranking out new installments of its franchise Gamera series, whose star, a giant flying turtle, was first wakened from his eons-long sleep by atomic testing in "Daikaiju Gamera" (1966). Originally conceived as a Godzilla rival (or knock-off, if you will), Gamera appeared in seven films before going into hibernation in 1971.

In 1995, he returned in "Gamera Daikaiju Kuchu Kessen -- Gamera the Guardian of the Universe," a film that may have featured his old nemesis, a batlike creature named Gyaos, but offered fans snazzier effects and a new heroine in Ayako Fujitani, the dewy-eyed daughter of action star Steven Seagal. The film was not only a hit at the box office but also scooped several domestic prizes, including best director awards for helmsman Shusuke Kaneko at the Yokohama Film Festival and the Mainichi Blue Ribbon.

Now Fujitani and Kaneko, as well as series scriptwriter Kazunori Ito and special effects supervisor Shinji Higuchi, are back for a third installment: "Gamera 3 -- Jashin Irisu Kakusei" (whose subtitle translates as "The Awakening of the Demon God Iris" but whose English working title is simply "Gamera 3"). The budget is again a small fraction of what Hollywood lavishes on its effect shows, but the results are by no means shabby. Though Higuchi and his team had to work with clunky models instead of high-end computer graphics for much of the film, they managed to create eye-popping illusions, including the fiery battle royal between Gamera and his latest multi-story-tall opponent.

Also, instead of space opera pap for the kiddies, the script contains a jargon-laden blend of ancient folklore and modern pseudo-science that should delight the hearts of otaku and academics everywhere. In Japan, the film is drawing large numbers of the same young adult fans that devour the SF products of the Japanimation industry, including the megahit "Evangelion" films. Daiei is doing something right and "cheesy," as an adjective, no longer cuts it.

The film begins with the arrival of ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama) at a remote Philippine village to investigate a dead Gyaos. The revolting buggers have been multiplying like, well, bats. How to stop them?

Meanwhile, a junior high school student named Ayana (Ai Maeda) is recalling the horror of Gamera's tromping of Tokyo four years earlier -- a rampage that killed both her parents, while sparing her and her younger brother. Understandably she has developed an invincible loathing of the monster.

Living in the countryside with relatives, she is seemingly safe from further monster attacks, but one day, forced by a gang of bullying classmates, she enters a cave where a fierce dragon god -- the Ryuseicho -- is said to be sleeping. Instead of a fire-breathing dragon, however, Ayana discovers a mysterious pendant and what appears to a fossilized turtle shell with strange markings on the bottom. Next, she finds, deep in the cave, a large rock that looks like a scaly egg. To her astonishment and delight, it cracks open to reveal a cute baby monster with long, wiggly tentacles. Is this the ally against Gamera she has been praying for?

Flash back to Tokyo. Mayumi attends a meeting of a government anti-monster task force, where she meets Mito Asakura (Senri Yamazaki), a deeply strange government researcher who is working with a deeply strange, but brilliantly gifted game designer (Toru Tezuka) on a computer simulation of monster behavior. What would happen, for example, if the Gyaos were to breed and breed and breed?

Then, while the meeting is still in session, Gamera and a Gyaos suddenly appear in the heart of Shibuya, locked in mortal combat. Loose-socked crowds run screaming in terror as monsters thrash and buildings burn. At this moment of panic and confusion, Mayumi encounters an intense young woman who has been up-close-and-personal with Gamera before: Asagi Kusanagi (Ayako Fujitani). The mass spawning of Gyaos, she says, has been caused by an earlier battle between Gamera and another monster, Legion, that upset the balance of the natural world. "The worst is yet to come," she warns. And, sure enough, it does.

To moviegoers accustomed to Hollywood SF shows, such as the "Jurassic Park" films, that link their fantasies, however tenuously, to scientific fact, this may all seem arrant nonsense. Those, however, who have lived through a few Japanese natural disasters, including the inevitable earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, can better understand why monster movies have had such a deep and enduring hold on audiences here. The bombings of World War II added to the general insecurity -- the feeling that one is living under threat from large, inhuman and horrifically destructive forces -- but they certainly didn't create it.

"Gamera 3" expresses the psychology of that insecurity, including its mythological underpinnings, with more clarity than the usual genre outing. It also has some undeniably awesome battle scenes, edited for maximum impact: Director Kaneko has been doing some heavy woodshedding with Steven Spielberg tapes. Snicker if you will at the overacting, groan if you will at the cliches, but Gamera, that green giant with the atomic breath, still has it all over that overgrown iguana from Manhattan.

"Gamera 3" is playing at New Toho Cinema in Yurakucho and other theaters.

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