Gamera: Guardian of the Universe Review

There is a blend of fantasy and reality to this 1995 Gamera reboot, a plot that allows an anything goes attitude while grounding everything in a base reality. That’s impressive, especially considering when we left the giant turtle in the early ’80s, he was chasing cartoon anime trains that were stock footage, and that wasn’t even the most absurd event in the franchise.

Leave it to a new director and writer to jump start this series fresh, and in the process, create the greatest monster trilogy ever. Gamera faces off against Gyaos in this 1995 effort, not so fresh after the 1967 scuffle between the two of them. They now have purpose, not fighting because that is what giant monsters do, but because they are human creations, left over from the lost city Atlantis. It is a change in their origin, Gamera originally born from an accidental nuclear explosion, Gyaos a hold-over from Earth’s early past. The fantastical explanation is aided by some real world elements, including the crash of the stock market and other social issues. It’s a blend that should be out of place, but adds authenticity to absurd proceedings.

In the original, there was a single Gyaos, this update adding multiples. Gamera’s first appearance, rising out of the bay near an oil refinery, is a small homage to the first Gamera effort back in 1965. Past that, this is all new. Instead of an epic battle, Gamera simply swats one of the Gyaos’ like a fly, the bird-like creatures not yet at full size. It’s as if director Shusuke Kaneko is tossing aside any ideas left over for his own, and that could not be a smarter move.

Guardian of the Universe is gutsy, utilizing brilliantly crafted miniatures in natural light, in studios, and from a variety of angles. Kaneko is brave enough to shoot on street level and from above, two general no-nos when shooting miniatures. They hold up to scrutiny, the smallest of details from miniature bikes to newspaper stands accounted for. They would only get better.

Guardian is a monster-mash that continues its onslaught of battles, but the script integrates the human actors directly into the struggle. Scientists and military generals are here, yet the lead character is a young girl with a personal connection to Gamera. Asagi (Ayako Fujitani) holds a small amulet that lets her physically connect to Gamera, although in a way that is not as absurd as it sounds. Given the nature of this fantasy-driven script, anything is possible, the giant monsters even brawling into space before tumbling back to Earth.

The Gamera portrayed here is a gentler creature, the suit utilizing rounder edges and prominent eyes. It is direct contrast to Gyaos played by a one-time female suit actor Yuhmi Kaneyama, that suit rather grisly and angular. It’s that perfect good vs. evil look, a style that would become less obvious as the series progressed. That leaves Guardian of the Universe as the trend setter, a film that pushed the Japanese kaiju into a new era where it could be respected for its action, and enjoyed for its absurdities. It has the budget, the director, and the heart, all of which benefit the final product.

Movie ★★★★☆ 

The first Blu-ray for Guardian of the Universe comes on a single disc with the sequel Attack of the Legion. It is released by Mill Creek Entertainment, a company known for releasing those 50 packs of public domain movies onto DVD, which didn’t hold much hope for this release. For the most part though, this is a pleasant surprise, although it is a rough start with the credit cards bleeding out against the nighttime sky.

Apparent immediately is the compression. With two films on one disc, it was only inevitable. The grain structure has been maintained, but it is anything other than film like. It is significantly blocky and digital, leading to substantial smearing in close-ups as the AVC encode struggles to keep up. The source used behind all of this looks clean, with no specific defects or scratches. Some fading on the right side of the screen after Gamera first appears at 31:47 are the only noted issue with the source. It simply looks faded.

There is some texture that comes through despite this, facial detail occasionally strong and the zooms on the monster suits spectacular. Every ounce of work that went into their creation can be seen, equally true of the miniature sets during the daylight finale. It struggles in the mid-range, undoubtedly the compression taking over, and some of the pan shots of the miniature forests appear muddy and indistinct. The image is soft overall, although to an acceptable degree. However, it is apparent there is something great trying to break through.

Colors are muted, and they always have been. Whether it was the ADV US DVD releases or the Region 2 DVD imports, the color scheme has always been quite natural. Nothing here changes that and for the better. Flesh tones are accurate, and there are some colors that shine. The neon green jackets of the atoll research team are vibrant, and one of the greatest shots in all of kaiju-dom, that of Gyaos resting on a broken Tokyo Tower as the sun goes down, is cast in a wonderfully bright orange.

There are numerous shots of TV screens used for news reports and other updates, and they look as they should. Of bigger concern are the minuscule black levels, dim and grayish from the start on-board the ship two-minutes into the film. Rarely do they ever improve. It leaves the image looking flat, certainly lacking in terms of depth. Contrast is a bit flat as well, merely adequate, although artificially cranking it up would do no favors either.

Video ★★★☆☆ 

Press material states each movie would offer a Japanese DTS-HD 5.1 mix (and English dub in 2.0 stereo), and that is close. What they are encoded with is the rarely used DTS-HR, a compressed audio format that sits between DTS and DTS-HD, locked at a stable 2MBPS. The result is adequate, keeping pans clear and precise. There are a lot of helicopters in this film, captured in the surrounds, stereo channels, and passing through the center. It is effective in setting ambiance.

The monster fights stick to the front channels, which makes sense. That is where most of the on-screen action takes place, in front of the viewer. Gyaos swoops around at times, and missiles fire across the soundfield with some minor aggressiveness. Of larger note is the score from Ko Otani (who would score the next two movies as well), themes that accentuate the intensity of the action, not necessarily the scale of it all. It bleeds forcefully into the surrounds, yet never overwhelms the other elements. In this regard, it feels subdued, never reaching a peak on the low or high end, with clarity slightly dulled.

Bass is the real disappointment, lacking much of any punch, this despite a multitude of explosions, monsters stomping around, and tanks blasting shells. Any impact from the sub is lackluster, even when noted. Gamera’s first appearance is greeted by a small shot of bass at 22:46, the rushing water creating the need for some subwoofer work. He is later knocked over by some military fire, this also generating a rumble. Given the scale of this action, it is hardly adequate.

Audio ★★★☆☆ 

There are no extras on the disc at all. One thing to take note of are the subtitles, which do not translate any of the newspaper headlines as they flash on screen, nor the credits.

Extras ☆☆☆☆☆