Warning Spoilers Ahead!
He’s Our Guardian…Right?
So in a few weeks as of writing this editorial the boutique physical media distributor Arrow Video has released their highly anticipated Gamera Blu-Ray box set. With its release, fans of the big flying turtle new and old can watch what many consider the greatest series of films not only in the Gamera series but in the Kaiju/Tokusatsu genre as a whole: Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera Trilogy released from 1995 through 1999.
Also referred to as the Heisei Trilogy, these films have garnered critically acclaimed for their stellar effects, mature storytelling, and how it legitimized the character of Gamera, who at this point was seen as an ironic cult fair thanks in a large part of the Showa Era of Gamera films (1965 through 1980) being featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The one film many considered the peak of the trilogy (though its final conclusion garnered some ire) is Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris, because the film represents everything Kaneko wanted to speak of with the character of Gamera when it comes to faith and the desire for a conclusion.
Every Creature, However Unappealing, Fights to the End to Survive
To give a summary of the film, Gamera 3 takes place a few years following the events of the previous film, where Gamera had to use much of the planet’s life force or ‘mana’ to kill off the alien invaders Legion. In doing so, Earth is subjected to an infestation of the first film’s main antagonists, The Gyaos, which is already exacerbated by humanity’s harm towards the planet, as well as making Gamera much more aggressive in his battles against the Gyaos as he also lost his connection to humanity in the last film. His aggression towards the Gyaos (now dubbed “Hyper Gyaos“) reaches a point where he is more prone to colossal collateral damage in populated areas without giving mind to the innocent humans around him.
During the course of the film, many individuals are split on their thoughts on Gamera. Some like the JSDF (Japanese Special-Defense Force) see him as too much of a danger and feel he needs to be killed. Others such as returning characters ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama) and Gamera’s former human connection Asagi Kusanagi (Ayako Fujitani) truly believe Gamera is an ally to humanity and the only hope to stop the Gyaos from wiping out life on earth.
However, the main conflict within the film focuses on the teenage protagonist Ayana Hirasaka (Ai Maeda), who after the tragic death of her parents during Gamera’s final battle against Gyaos in the first film’s climactic battle, holds a hateful grudge against Gamera. This reaches a point where she befriends the creature Iris, which is a failed creation of the Atlantians that also created Gamera, in the hopes the creature would kill Gamera. Iris would then start consuming humans and grow kaiju sized while having a psychic connection with Ayana. Eventually, Gamera battles Iris and manages to save Ayana from Iris before it could fully consume her. The film ends with a massive swarm of Gyaos converging on Gamera as the heavily wounded Gamera readies to battle the swarm.
Benevolent Giant or Rampaging Monster
One of the more brilliant aspects of Gamera 3 is how it reflects on Gamera’s role not only in the past two films but throughout the entire franchise. One thing that is notable about Gamera is that he’s predominantly seen as a heroic character compared to fellow kaiju like Godzilla who frequently shifts his morality. Whether it was how he is the “Friend to All Children” seen in the Showa Era to this revamped “Guardian of the Universe” seen in the first two Heisei films, Gamera is shown to the audience as the hero that fights off malevolent kaiju, but Kaneko wanted to address the power of faith by having both the characters and audience question Gamera’s motives.
At the start of Gamera 3, we see how Gamera has changed to become much sharper and aggressive, which is explained in-universe as him evolving after fighting Legion and was intentional behind the scenes for the film’s themes, along with how merciless he was in killing the Gyaos. We see the carnage from the civilians’ perspective as they are caught in the crossfire of the damages of the two causes. And then we even see a mutilated Gyaos barley alive look up to Gamera, who looks almost like a being of death as he coldly kills the kaiju. This definitely shakes up what we’ve seen of Gamera before and we genuinely question if he has always been a good guy.
So you can empathize with Ayana as she saw her parents killed by Gamera (though unintentionally), she didn’t have context for why he’s fighting Gyaos, all she saw was a giant monster that killed her family. And while she was influenced by Iris and a duo of occultists who see Gamera as an evil spirit, she still wanted revenge against Gamera. In fact, Iris itself reflects that as when it is first seen it appears cute, almost akin to a Pokemon. And when we see its final form its almost appears angelic and noble, in contrast, to the more monstrous Gamera, but it’s clear despite its noble appearance, Iris is a perfect metaphor for Anaya’s hatred and desire for vengeance. While it might seem noble in her eyes, all it does is lead to more suffering as Iris needs to feed on humans in order to gain power and in the end tries to fully absorb Anaya into itself.
Throughout the film, we see a counter-argument on Gamera through Mayumi and Asagi. As characters who have been part of this trilogy since the first film, these two have seen Gamera’s benevolent nature first hand and, in Asagi’s case, on a spiritual level. However, those in opposition to them, aside from the two occultists, aren’t portrayed as two-dimensional characters. The JSDF, for example, sees a very large, powerful being whose presence is causing the death of civilians and are prioritizing the safety of people for a creature they see as dangerous. And unlike many monster movies were the military are just “kill the monster” and are almost cartoonish in the use of military power, the JSDF acknowledge Gamera’s role of destroying the Gyaos, Legion, and eventually Iris so they decide the aid the kaiju against the Gyaos swarm at the film’s conclusion.
The Incomplete Struggle
While the film as a whole has garnered acclaim, as said before, the more divisive part of the film among fans is the film’s cliffhanger ending. Some felt the ending was cheap and was set up for nothing (or an official fourth film that never saw the light of day), others saw the ending as part of the themes on the power of faith. In fact, Shusuke Kaneko has always intended the films to be a trilogy with a fourth film never planned. In an interview in Fangoria #173, Kaneko said:
“I think after G3, I think I have had my fill of Gamera. In G1, Tokyo Tower is destroyed, in G2, the City of Sendai is laid to waste and in G3, perhaps the fate of Japan and the rest of the world will be in balance. That leaves nothing for G4.Shuske Kaneko. Interview from Fangoria #173.
And that last part on Gamera 3 is very telling: “perhaps” Japan and the world are safe. See there isn’t an official confirmation on what happens at the end of the film, but that’s the point. Spirituality is a key thematic element of the entire trilogy, right down to Gamera being almost a creation of magic rather than pure science (something Kaneko would agree as he saw the films as “supernatural” instead of science fiction). And in Gamera 3’s case, the central thesis is the power of faith. And while faith is normally equated to religion, the film broadens that to the very concept of faith. Faith in a belief, in a person, in an ideal, and so on. And at the film’s ending, the characters have faith in Gamera’s victory over the Gyaos and, in a meta sense, so does the audience. So the cliffhanger is a test of the audience’s faith in Gamera. Does he win? Does he die? It doesn’t matter. What matters is how much you believe in Gamera’s victory will be your answer.
It also works in-universe as ever since the first film, Gamera is fueled by the faith those have in him as seen in Asagi’s connection with him. And despite that connection being shattered at the end of G2, Gamera proved himself to Asagi and even to Anaya as he made sure she was safe from being devoured by Iris before he dealt the killing blow to the kaiju (losing an arm in the process). And at the end, she champions Gamera and the Gyaos swarm, finally seeing the benevolent nature within Gamera and her faith in the world is restored as her vengeance completely dies.
A Kaiju Three Act Trilogy
Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris remains one of the most thematic rich films within the Kaiju and Tokusatsu genre, up there with the greats such as the original 1954 Gojira. While a fourth film would be created with the officially sanctioned (and rarely shown) fan film Gamera 4: Truth from director Shinpei Hayashiya, G3 works very well on its own, cliffhanger and all. Gamera 3 elevates the kaiju genre and shows that there is more to these films aside from the monster on monster combat. And while there is nothing wrong with a good monster brawl, Shusuke Kaneko masterfully crafted an entire Gamera trilogy with its titanic final film.