After the disastrous 1980 entry in the Gamera series – Gamera: Super Monster – which was little more than an hour and a half of clips, along with some truly insane original footage, it took fifteen years for the rocket powered turtle to make a comeback. Known as the start of the Heisei Era films (with the 1965-80 entries forming the ‘Showa Era’, each era named after the Japanese Emperor during the years the films were released), Gamera: Guardian of the Universe takes a notably darker, more mature and serious approach to the kaiju action.

What this 1995 entry brings us is a complete reboot – the new era brings us an entirely new origin for Gamera, as well as a reboot for one of his earliest enemies. Though I was disappointed that the choice of antagonist was Gyaos (and the first glimpse of them is botched after a wonderful build-up), the creature design has improved massively since the flying kaiju’s first appearance, way back in 1967. Unfortunately, the weirdly bulging and lifeless eyes are still an issue for the creatures. 

It takes half an hour before we get our first real glimpse at Gamera – and he looks great! He’s treated reverently and feels like a real threat, with his destruction having actual, noticeable consequences. His rocket powered flight is definitely an improvement on how it used to look, but there’s no getting around how daft it is, no matter how well shot and implemented it is this time around. The more we see of the creatures, the less effective they are too, unfortunately – Gamera included. 

There’s no denying that this is leagues ahead of any Showa Era Gamera film, but it’s not perfect. Though the old-fashioned man-in-suit techniques are generally well done, they’re a poor fit at times for the rest of the film, which is well shot, atmospheric and take itself relatively seriously, even coming up with a new origin for Gamera that better explains his rocket-powered abilities. There’s a new element added with a girl – Atagi – who seems psychically linked to Gamera, even bleeding when he’s injured. 

When the creature effects work though, they really work, faring best in scenes set at night or underwater. There’s more than one beautiful shot of Gyaos perched upon the ruin Ed Tokyo Tower at sunset too – who’d have thought I’d have anything good to say about Gyaos, after my thoughts on the creature’s first appearance?

Ultimately, the film is undone a little by an over-ambitious and far too old-fashioned climactic kaiju battle; with so much work having gone into making this particular Gamera film feel like a much more competently made and even more plausible film than any that came before it, it’s a shame to have it devolve into a monster smackdown that’s little different to any of the preceding entries.

However, the more serious approach does work for the most part – this mid-90s entry is definitely the best Gamera film by a long shot up until this point. It breaks the curse of the series feeling like a cheap, rushed knock off; whereas all but the first and eighth (!) films were released on an annual basis, the fifteen year gap between films seems to have resulted in a much more thoughtful and carefully produced film, albeit with the very old-fashioned feel of the man-in-suit footage at times.

Note: Though I watched the Japanese version (with subtitles), it’s interesting to note that the UK release – a dub commissioned by Manga Films – featured a completely different techno soundtrack, rather than the orchestral music found in the original film; this had a limited theatrical release in the UK too, but is now more difficult to find. Much like the rest of the series however – many of which had altered versions for either US or UK release (or both), I’ve made the decision to watch unaltered Japanese versions (albeit subtitled of course). My reviews of the other Gamera films can be found here.

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