Japan’s flying, fire-breathing turtle returns in a movie that takes him back to his child-friendly roots. Ignoring Super Monster Gamera (1980) and the revisionist Gamera trilogy directed by Shusuke Kaneko, Gamera the Brave opens in 1973 where an awestruck little boy watches as Gamera sacrifices his life to save imperilled townsfolk from the evil Gyaos. Thirty years later, Japan is a monster-free zone. Budget cuts cause the government to scrap their monster defence force. Meanwhile, the boy is now Kosuke Aizawa (Kanji Tsuda), a widower raising his eleven year old son Toru (Ryo Tomioka) in a sleepy, seaside town. Both struggle facing their first summer together after mom died in a car crash. Young Toru hides his pain behind youthful bravado but feels worse knowing his best friend, lovely teenage Mai (Kaho), faces life-threatening surgery.
A glowing red light draws Toru to an island where he discovers a tiny egg atop a mysterious red stone. The egg hatches a baby turtle whom Toru christens “Toto”, sharing the nickname his mother bestowed upon him. He becomes its surrogate parent, but soon discovers this is no ordinary amphibian after Toto starts to fly, spit the occasional fireball and grows larger every day. With help from Mai and youngsters Ishimaru (Shingo Ishikawa) and Katsuya (Shogo Narita), Toru keeps the magic turtle out of sight. Meanwhile, a spate of maritime disasters foreshadow the arrival of Zedus, a giant monster that ravages Tokyo while Mai languishes in hospital. Somehow Toru must help Gamera fulfil his destiny.
Seven years on from the trippy and existential Gamera III: Incomplete Struggle (1999), a section of cult movie fandom were disconcerted to see Gamera back in family-friendly mode. Which might be why, as of writing, this never made it to British or American DVD. But with its seaside setting and lyrical flavour, Gamera the Brave is closer to an early Hayao Miyazaki anime and boasts one of the best screenplays of any Gamera movie. Screenwriter Yukari Tatsui crafts strong characters and themes that are perhaps more accessible than the hip, metaphysical undertones in Kaneko’s movies.
Coping with death and growing up are two dominant, intertwined themes. Memories of the original Gamera’s self-sacrifice cast a spectre over proceedings. Toru struggles to deal with his mother’s passing (“Mom is not in heaven, she’s just a pile of bones in this grave”) and the possibility that Mai could die. Consequently, he seems determined to keep “Toto” his childhood pet, since growing up leads inevitably to death. Young actors Ryo Tomioka and Kaho cope impressively with their weighty roles, while Kanji Tsuda is equally strong as the hapless dad doing his best to understand a son who is practically a stranger.
Ryuta Tasaki, whose background lies in sentai (“superhero”) television shows, directs with a steady hand. Early comedic scenes where little Toto/Gamera creates chaos in the Aizawa household gradually give way to an apocalyptic monster mash. While the tone is largely nostalgic, Tasaki imparts an epic sweep absent from those cut-price Gamera movies from the Sixties. Special effects artist Isao Kaneko conjures visions of mass destruction on a smaller scale than the Nineties’ trilogy, but his miniature work is top-notch. The bridge fight is an especially striking set-piece ably demonstrates how traditional man-in-a-suit techniques fused with camera trickery can be just as spectacular as computer graphics. However, the film has two notable flaws.
Tomoo Haraguchi - director of Sakuya, Slayer of Demons (2000) - contributes creature designs, but whereas the Gamera featured in the opening scenes set in 1973 is an intriguing fusion of his Sixties and Nineties incarnations, the Toto/Gamera boasts an appallingly cutesy makeover. With his goo-goo eyes and puppy dog demeanour he looks more likely to fetch the morning newspaper than defend the Earth. Early scenes involve a real turtle given CG facial expressions that are surprisingly more interesting. His opponent Zedus is an impressively reptilian evildoer with an extendable killer tongue, but is the source of the second flaw. There is no explanation for how or why Zedus is there. He’s a monster attacking Tokyo, that’s it.
Such flaws are excused however, since this features one of the finest sequences in any Gamera movie ever. It involves Mai and a succession of kids across Tokyo race through the scattered debris to deliver Gamera his life-saving power source. As the glowing red rock is passed from one brave little tyke to another, this evolves into a rousing, beautifully realised set-piece. When all those involved beam at the sight of the messianic monster turtle soaring in triumph, it is a reminder that above all else “Gamera is friend to all children.”