Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
The Strong Women That Make Up the Gamera Trilogy
As I begin on thinking about what to write my piece for Women In Horror Month I wondered “what does the Kaiju genre have to offer?” In the current discourse of the importance of human characters within Kaiju films, there is one series of films that we fall back to as the gold standard of the genre, the Heisei Gamera trilogy. After recently re-watching the films, I realized how not only do these have some of the best human narratives in the genre, but some of the best female characters as well!
The trilogy, directed by Shusuke Kaneko (Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack) and written by Kazunori Itō (The Ghost In The Shell), follows various human characters as they try to help the mystical bio-weapon/protector of the Earth, Gamera (the fire breathing giant turtle) from many different monsters that threaten the planet and humanity.
Despite that one-sentence summary sounding like the usual monster fare, I assure you these films are beyond stellar. Like really stop reading this and find time to watch all three films! If you have a vague interest in the kaiju genre I say without a shadow of a doubt these films are mandatory to watch.
Faith In Gamera
One of the reasons for that is that Kaneko and Itō made a story where the kaiju and human narratives are woven together in such a way that one couldn’t exist without the other. It’s clear a great kaiju story needs to balance its focus on the human protagonists and monster protagonist which can lead to some films in the genre feeling unbalanced in that lack of focus (as seen with the almost polar criticisms towards Legendary’s Godzilla films).
But the trilogy has gracefully shown that it can be done and no aspect of the film felt malnourished. Not only that but the films also delt in very grand themes such as our relationship with our planet in both an environmental and spiritual sense, banding together against overwhelming odds, the toxicity of vengeance, and above all else…the power of hope. These themes are manifested very well in the incredibly well-written Women in these films.
Mayumi Nagamine in Gamera
The first character to highlight is the ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine (portrayed by Shinobu Nakayama). Making her debut in 1995’s Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, Nagamine goes against the tropes of both scientists in kaiju films and women as well. For one in many kaiju films before this film scientists are normally portrayed as a male with women either being an assistant or intern studying under a male scientist.
This shift can also be seen in many other Japanese media in the 90s such as Ritsuko Akagi in Neon Genesis Evangelion and pretty much becomes more of a norm by the time the genre reaches the 2000s and today. Another trait in Nagamine is how proactive she is to the narrative. In Guardian of the Universe, she was the one who discovered the carnivorous kaiju Gyaos as throughout the film she travels across Japan trying to stop the Gyaos and eventually learns that Gamera is a benevolent kaiju.
In a lot of kaiju films the human characters, especially women, usually become spectators to the kaiju action, and as seen in this and other standout films in the genre having characters engage in the kaiju plot raise the stakes and gets you much more invested in their plight. Nagamine even goes as far as ensuring civilians are safe from the Gyaos such as warning the public about them to even saving a young child from being devoured, clearly showing initiative to take action rather than let the military or Gamera take care of it.
Nagamine later returns in what many (myself included) consider the best in the trilogy, Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris. In it, the Gayos have returned to plague the earth after the events of the second film along with humanity questioning if Gamera is still an ally as he seems to become much more violent and destructive when fighting off the flying kaiju. Nagamine’s role in this film is part of the film’s themes on the power of faith. As seen in Kaneko and Itō’s work, spirituality is a major aspect of their work, but they analyze the very concept of belief in the third film. For Nagamine, she has faith in humanity despite what humans have done to the Earth along with wanting to kill Gamera.
She shows kindness to people such as helping her friend Tsutomu Osako, a former inspector who became homeless after the events of the previous films, get back on his feet along with confronting the film’s human antagonists Mito Asakura and Shinya Kurata who are part of a doomsday cult wanting to wipe out both humanity and Gamera with the Gyaos and the primary kaiju antagonist Iris. She even saves one of the film’s protagonists Ayana Hirasaka (we’ll get to her later) from the cultist who was trying to manipulate her in making Iris stronger.
It’s clear that Nagamine sees there is more good in humanity and despite there being some who want to do evil, humanity itself isn’t evil and is worth saving as seen in wanting to help both Osako and Hirasaka. She even allies herself with a government agent named Masaaki Saito who despite being her foil in the first film, was able to see the good in Nagamine and vice versa in ensuring Gamera’s survival.
Asagi Kusanagi in Gamera
The next character we’re going to highlight is one who appears in all three films Asagi Kusanagi (portrayed by actress Ayako Fujitani). Kusanagi fills two roles in the trilogy: a subversion of the “Kenny” tropes in the Gamera series and another central part of the themes of faith. For those unaware, a “Kenny” is a term in the kaiju fandom coined by Youtuber Brandon Tenold and named after the main child character in the first Gamera film 1965’s Gamera The Giant Monster.
The trope can be described as that of a young child (usually a boy) who is obsessed with the film’s primary kaiju and magically knows everything about the said monster without any reason. What makes these characters infamous amongst kaiju fans is how contrived they are in appealing to younger audiences and how they usually come across as nuisances that annoying viewers. It’s this aspect alone that makes the Showa Gamera films infamous among viewers and in a way ruined Gamaera as coming across as a legitimate monster franchise in the public eye before the release of the Heisei trilogy. And is why Kusanagi completely shatters that trope.
For one having her be a teenager doesn’t come across as forced as it’s clear the filmmakers wanted to have a more mature theme with these films and with all the characters being much more active in the plot, the audiences wouldn’t have to suspend their disbelief if there was a child in the middle of the kaiju action. The same can be said of having her be a girl so it’s also not meant to pander to one of the main demographics of kaiju films ie young boys. She’s even allowed to grow up as the series progresses and by the time we see her in the third film, she is an adult studying both Gamera and his creators from the lost city of Atlantis.
Kusanagi is also almost a figurehead for the film’s themes on faith. In the first film, her father gave her an artifact found on Gamera’s back that turned out to be a relic that connects a human’s soul or “mana” with that of Gamera himself, to which is what happens to Kusanagi. Or to what the film describes, Kusanagi became a “priestess” to Gamera. Through this connection, while she feels the pain Gamaera feels whenever he is attacked, he gains strength from her faith in him and this allows Gamaera to become stronger in battling the kaiju seen in the finale of Guardian of the Universe.
Later in the second film Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion, Kusanagi again tried to give Gamara strength after he apparently dies after a massive explosion of a Legion plant in Sendai. But in order to save Gamera, her connection to him was shattered by he managed to absorb the planet’s own mana to defeat The Legion and their colossal queen once and for all. But worries Kusanagi as she fears what would happen to Gamaera now he’s “disconnected from humanity” and this becomes a major plot point of Gamera 3 where the central conflict is whether or not Gamera was ever an ally to humanity.
As said before the central theme of the Gamera Trilogy is the power of faith in belief. Whether it’s faith in a religion, a philosophy, or in someone, that belief can be a powerful thing for someone. Throughout the trilogy, Kusanagi sees Gamera as a truly good being and despite the destruction in unintentionally cause, it is clear he’s trying to stop a greater evil and ensure it doesn’t run amok.
In Gamera 3 she talks with Nagamine about the idea of Gamera turning on humans and while Kusanagi worries that being disconnected from humanity has made Gamera more violent, she still believes he is still a force of good. In hardship having something to put your faith into can be a truly helpful way of dealing with that pain. It can be either a higher power, a loved one, or even yourself, either way, it is faith is what is used to maintain the strength.
But sometimes a broken faith can create something dark and toxic, enter the last character we’ll highlight Ayana Hirasaka (portrayed by Ai Maeda). Being one of the protagonists of Gamera 3, Hirasaka is almost a dark reflection of Kusanagi as she despises Gamera as he was inadvertently responsible for the death of her parents and pet cat, leaving her and her little brother orphaned. This even left her bitter towards the world and made Gamera an avatar of her hatred.
She later discovers a squid-like creature she names Iris who turns out to be another creation of Atlantis to battle the Gyaos, but it turns out it was just a malevolent and wants Gamera dead. She takes care of the creature as she connects to it similar to how Kusanagi bonded with Gamera, but it corrupts her, and Iris begins consuming people in order to grow into its monstrous final form.
The Shadow Of Vengeance
Another theme Gamera 3 deals with are the toxicity of revenge and how it should never be one’s goal. Despite many of her loved ones wanting to help her, Hirasaka desire for revenge clouds her judgment to a point of taking care of Iris despite being warned how potentially dangerous the creature is by her friend Tatsunari Moribe which would later come true as Iris begins feeding off the humans in the surrounding area and tries to literally absorb her.
Iris itself can be seen as vengeance personified as while it forms can be seen as appealing with its first form being designed to be cute and its final evolution being designed to almost be angelic and beautiful. But as seen its nature all it does it cause pain and bring out the darkness in someone. But despite how toxic revenge can be, you can still be redeemed. At the end of the final battle, Iris tries to absorb Hirasaka into itself, but Gamera saves her despite losing an arm and being gravely wounded. In a sense, the events are metaphorically saying letting go of your hatred can save you from the poison of revenge trying to consume you.
All in all Shusuke Kaneko and Kazunori Itō made some of the most complex and thought out stories within the kaiju genre and their female characters truly did aid in the trilogy’s themes and narrative. All of which are three-dimensional humans who you root for and empathize with their plight. With the desire to see stronger female representation in genre media, the Heisei Gamera trilogy continues to shine as a beacon of quality in not only kaiju films, but Asian cinema as a whole.