Formative Fears is a column that explores how horror scared us from an early age, or how the genre contextualizes youthful phobias and trauma. From memories of things that went bump in the night, to adolescent anxieties made real through the use of monsters and mayhem, this series expresses what it felt like to be a frightened child – and what still scares us well into adulthood.
“Gamera killed Iris’ family, too.”
The Gamera franchise was given a new lease on life for its thirtieth anniversary. Filmmaker Shūsuke Kaneko updated not only the setting and technical aspects, he breathed life into the titular hero’s uninspired origin story. No longer was Gamera a mere Godzilla cash-in who habitually rescued children in peril; the carapaced, flying gargantuan was now a long-gone civilization’s bio-engineered wonder whose unfettered determination to save the planet also incurred chaos and pain. Gamera had the distinct, predestined mission to quell great evils who threatened Earth. And to save this endangered world came at a high cost which Kaneko ardently explored in his trilogy’s final entry, Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris.
Gamera’s most enduring and external struggle in the Heisei era was battling a flock of invasive Gyaos – predatory, bird-like monstrosities also created by Gamera’s makers, the Atlanteans – hell bent on turning Japan into a giant nest. While the Gyaos were quashed for the time being after the events of the first movie, another threat emerged in their short-lived absence; a species of silicon-based extraterrestrials dubbed Legion arrived in hopes of colonizing Earth until the planet’s self-appointed guardian stepped in. A good many people considered Gamera a hero at this point, but there were plenty of those opposed to the creature’s existence on the basis it caused as much, if not more, damage than the antagonizing monsters. The Japanese government, divisive when it came to the topic of Gamera, begrudgingly needed the creature’s help because the Gyaos were reproducing and evolving at an alarming rate, yet those reckless methods of extermination – one encounter between Gamera and Gyaos incurred 20,000 human casualties – were inexcusable. Someone had to intervene, and that person was a teenage girl.
In 1995, Tokyo was awash in fear and anticipation as a colossal Gyaos descended upon the nearly evacuated city. The Hirasaka family was still escaping when their apartment building was suddenly crushed by a powerful force. Ayana (Ai Maeda), who had been waiting for her parents downstairs in the car, could only watch in terror as Gamera destroyed her entire world in a matter of seconds. Four years have since passed and Ayana and her younger brother Satoru (Takahiro Itō) are living with relatives in the small village of Asuka. Already singled out as an outcast, Ayana succumbs to a school bully’s dare and retrieves a supposed mystical stone from a local sacred cave. Her moving it, however, spells doom for everyone. In a matter of time, the Ryūseichō – the fabled Guardian of the South protected by the Moribe family – is reborn and now requires a caregiver. Ayana is immediately drawn to the otherworldly, aberrant creature and their shared interest in killing Gamera. And once the monster, having since been renamed Iris, gains both size and power from consuming Asuka’s residents, he seeks out his mortal enemy.
While the previous two movies were straightforward in terms of plot and characters, the third and most critical installment looks past the surface. Kaneko shifts focus away from Gamera to better examine the monster’s impact in areas often overlooked in kaijū cinema. For the time period, this was a bold choice given the fact human characters were still playing second to the larger-than-life headliners. Revenge of Iris instead centers itself squarely on Ayana and those directly affected by Gamera’s hazardous behavior and incidental carnage. For the most part, Toho’s concurrent Heisei reboot of Godzilla concentrated on the government and army fighting the monsters rather than addressing the immense damage they caused; Gamera went in the opposite direction by having each movie be more personal than the last.
In a world gradually becoming more and more inhabited by unpredictable monsters, Ayana’s constant state of unease is reasonable. On top of that, the trauma she suffers after seeing Gamera allegedly kill her parents isn’t addressed by anyone, much less herself. Her aunt and uncle treat her like she’s a burden, her peers show no sympathy for her troubles, and her brother had the good fortune of being out of town when tragedy hit the Hisarakas. With no one to talk to, Ayana’s turn to Iris – her greatest commiserator because they have both been wronged by Gamera in the past – is inevitable. An ordinary teenager obviously lacks the ability to bring an 80-meter monster to its knees, but with a weapon like Iris, Ayana is one step closer to making her dark wish come true.
A uniquely intimate relationship like that of Iris and Ayana’s isn’t without its caveats. In this extraordinary case of symbiosis, Iris is a vampiric mutation of Gyaos who feeds on other advanced organisms, namely humans. This biological need both exponentially increases Iris’ size and dwindles Asuka’s populace; ghastly images of the desiccated victims are startling. Ayana almost succumbs to the same fate as others including her aunt, uncle and cousin, but her “ingestion” is on a deeper and more intense level – Iris ultimately absorbs her whole in a net of spindly tentacles to sponge off her life force rather than kill her. In turn, he channels her fury as well as augments his own evolutionary instinct to destroy Gamera.
In Kyōto where Ayana has been taken for evaluation by an occultist claiming to be of Atlantean descent, the full-grown Iris follows with Gamera in hot pursuit. Ayana’s spiteful influence gives Iris an edge over their opponent, whose own initial defeat stems from severing ties with humans, including teenage telepath Asagi Kusanagi (Ayako Fujitani). The concern is Gamera has turned on humanity in order to protect Earth by any means necessary. In some fashion, though, Ayana is operating on a similar wavelength as her adversary – their obsessions blind them to the misery of countless others. She and Gamera are responsible for massive collateral damage even if their motivations are different. It is only once Ayana is fully assimilated with Iris does she realize the weight of her actions and what really happened on the day her parents died.
Ayana’s sizable anguish was left unanswered for so long it was only a matter of time before it came out. Within the framework of kaijū fantasy and to some degree, body horror, that sadness then manifested in the most destructive way possible. Ayana’s wavelike, emotional release indeed comes at the expense of innumerable lives, but Gamera’s determination to save her and finally reconnect with humanity as a whole is an immeasurable moment in an otherwise bleak movie whose ending only foreshadows more trouble for mankind.