Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Into The Wild Reviews: Gamera Attack Of The Legion (1996)


After the sudden success of Daiei's revival of its long-mordant kaiju icon, it was clear that the throne of Japan's big baddies was suddenly up for grabs. Which is why it was only natural to follow up the Shusuke Kaneko/ Shinji Higuchi hit that newly heated iron with all rockets bursting. Only a little over a year since the previous film, it was time to deliver a to-the-nines action piece with attitude to spare. Now a full-fledged new franchise, Gamera Tsu: Legion Shurai (Attack Of The Legion) comes at the audience with everything a bigger budgeted sequel could offer in terms of thrill factor.

                                Opening the film, we are witness to a Japan amidst reconstruction, and unyielding concerns regarding the whereabouts of Gamera, whom many still consider a threat to humanity. Trouble almost immediately rears its head with a bizarre series of meteor showers that end with a significant impact within the mountains of Hokkaido. Initially there with a busload of touring children, Youth Science Museum team member, Midori Honami (Miki Mizuno of Gilgamesh Night fame) witnesses the intense crash that ends with the supposed meteorite "vanishing" to the bewilderment of the scientific community.

                            No sooner does this happen that even more puzzling, and violent attacks on humans begin taking place, including a terrifying attack on the Sapporo train system. As the military, and scientists scramble to explain the rash of events, the ravaging insectoid horde creates a nestlike cocoon, along with plantlike vegetation around major structures in the city. And it is only after a massive attempt by the JSSDF, a familiar roar is heard, and the giant turtle returns for what could very well be a shocking final battle.

                             Now unburdnened by the admittedly hackneyed attempt to unveil the shelled-avenger via a so-called mystery plot in the previous film, Gamera: Attack Of The Legion hits the pavement with both feet firmly planted, delivering an aggressively paced actioner, complete with a significant upgrade in visual effects. True to Kaneko's rendition of the monster mythos, it is schlocky fun, but schlocky fun done right. By this point in tokusatsu history, the vernacular as explained last time is dished out in truckloads, and also ups the monster battle ante by offering one of the more intimidating villains in the genre's history; an army of large symbiotically linked, Hercules-beetle-like creatures that are attracted to electromagnetic waves, and overwhelm simply by their increasing numbers. Only made all the more trying by them protecting...SURPRISE..A giant, flying queen. Make no mistake, this is ALIENS to Gamera: GOU's ALIEN. A film that knows what has come before, and just gets on with the proceedings with gusto, not to mention real stakes.

                             And the stakes come in several well-implemented touches; Firstly, Gamera. As tough as this creature can be, to see Legion unleash its fury upon our hero is a truly impressive, and in some ways, unsettling sight. Second, this interstellar threat's predilection for the aforementioned waves also carries with it an additional battery of nasty. (Sure, one can attempt to quell the problem in Sapporo. But what about Tokyo?) Furthermore, with the public still concerned about where the giant turtle stands with us, the military are ready to consider taking out both sets of monsters if necessary. (Where's the Z-Plan when you need it?) So it's up to Honami, Colonel Watarase (played by Toshiyuki Nagashima), and others to fight to survive, and perhaps once and for all, see who's side Gamera truly is on.

No sooner that all of this madness comes down like an avalanche that we also see that Gamera's human contact from last time, Asagi Kusanagi (a seemingly shoehorned, but still welcome Ayako Fujitani) is almost among the many victims of Legion attacks after returning from a skiing trip.(???)

                             It is here that the film's want to have its cake and so-on almost detours the film into vintage 60s-70s Gamera sillyville. Thankfully, the urgency of the movie's running time helps from making matters more glaring than they have to. And even with Kazunori Ito serving writing duties, it is clear that this project is one of great admiration for the genre, and attempts to have fun paying tribute while making good on the action side. The cast is fun, but again nowhere near as exciting to watch as the meticulously crafted chaos takes place around them. Higuchi & Co. craft some truly memorable battle sequences this time around, utilizing some very clever camerawork, along with some interesting uses of CG animation for certain biological effects. But it is the image of an overwhelmed Gamera that sticks like a sliver in the brain. One can imagine some childhood nightmares being borne out of this moment.

                                 Again, the film also teeters into the expected hokum with egregious overacting, overlong takes, and some seriously dopey dialogue. But as mentioned, this is a style of filmmaking borne out of years of making giant monster films for largely young audiences. Naturally, kaiju films would have to evolve in some form after all those years, and in doing so, it was largely in two places a) the special effects and b) a sense of continuity. Thankfully, the Heisei Gamera films as slight as they can be, have an interesting thematic bridge between them in the concern for the monster's role in the lives of the people of Japan, as well as the possibility that we may very well become the greatest threat Earth has ever known. How different does it see us next to the ravaging masses of the fearsome Legion?

                         So the second entry in the Heisei Gamera series is nothing short of summer-movie style fun, high on energy, and short on logic (What's with that finishing move? Never seen Gamera do THAT before!). Yet it pays off the first film in many ways. And even carries with it sobering notions that may hit closer to home now than back in 1996. "Could we be destroyed by the little ones, or the BIG one?" The stigma of having to live in the shadow of calamity has long been a staple of Japanese myth, and yet somehow, the kaiju film has worn many hats since Gojira became legend in 1954. Not the least of which is to help us better cope with the difficulties within worlds we share, as well as alter on a daily basis.


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