Thursday 9 November 2023

Anime REVIEW: Gamera -Rebirth-

Gamera -Rebirth-

2023 has been a pretty fantastic year for kaiju fans, and that's not just because of all the Godzilla content we've been getting. This year also saw the big return of another powerhouse in the giant monster genre, one that's been absent from the screen since 2006. Gamera -Rebirth- is the first entry in the franchise since Gamera the Brave, as well as the first animated installment for the fire-breathing turtle that's friends to all children. Produced by Kadokawa and animated by ENGI, the six-episode series was released worldwide on Netflix.

Boco, Joe and JunichiBrody

Summer 1989. High school students Boco, Joe and Junichi promise to spend their last summer together - making plans to buy a communications radio so that they can all keep in touch afterwards. At their secret treehouse base, they help rescue a strange turtle trapped in a pond. Later they go to buy their radio and are accosted by a group of bullies led by Brody, the son of a USFJ General. The bullies take their money, and the three friends make plans to get it back.

But when they confront the bullies, the children are attacked by a swarm of monsters. Just as things are looking their bleakest, a giant turtle appears to defeat the creatures. From here Boco, Joe, Junichi and Brody are approached by the mysterious Eustace Foundation, who ask for their cooperation in researching the kaiju. More attacks follow, with Gamera appearing each time to seemingly defend the children. It is soon revealed that these attacks might not be quite as random as they seem, and that the children might also be facing a far greater threat.


If there's one thing most people even vaguely familiar with the kaiju genre know it's that Gamera is a friend to all children. Sure some of his earliest appearances might have seen him in the more traditional rampaging monster role, but the jet-propelled turtle quickly found his niche as a protector of Japan's youth - and has since embodied that role as "Guardian of the Universe" far more than Godzilla's more flexible stance on the matter. So of course Gamera -Rebirth- is, at its heart, a coming of age story. As cliche as it may seem in current media to tell a science fiction story with a group of plucky children, this approach is very much true to Gamera's roots in the Showa era. 

The kids themselves are fairly well-developed and memorable too, even if their dynamic is one that's been done to death in media. A group of close-knit friends who encounter a bully who eventually goes on to become an equally valued friend, it's something everyone will have seen done at least a dozen times before. However it's some of the finer elements in Rebirth that make it interesting, such as the political backdrop of the series and (in turn) Brody's initial reactions to the other three. One reveal about Junichi early on into the series doesn't come as a particularly big surprise, but it is well done in that it helps the dynamic move closer to the four becoming proper friends. On top of the the ongoing kaiju drama they all have their own backstories and character arcs to go through, so never come across as simply being there to carry the plot through to the next monster fight.

The kids of Gamera -Rebirth-Emiko and Tazaki

But as the story progresses it's clear that Gamera -Rebirth- isn't just taking inspiration from those Showa roots, but also the more mystical storytelling of the Heisei era trilogy. The more that's revealed about the origins of the kaiju and the children's link to Gamera, the more engaging it becomes - bringing some surprise twists along the way as well as some genuinely deplorable human villains. Characters who previously felt like they were to simply provide exposition suddenly far more interesting, and the story even manages to set up some potential ideas for a sequel that will probably never come. While admittedly the story might have benefitted from exploring these ideas a little more, it does distract from the somewhat formulaic approach to the episodes themselves. There are even nods to Gamera the Brave in the finale, proving the breadth of the source material the series is pulling from to create the best distillation of everything great about the Gamera franchise.

But as strong as the story may be the truth is kaiju fans flock to these things for the promise of giant monsters, and in that respect Gamera -Rebirth- certainly doesn't disappoint. 17 years off-screen certainly hasn't dulled Gamera, who returns here with a bold new look that captures the ferocity of the Heisei trilogy designs whilst never losing that sense that of benevolence that encapsulates the character. All of his best techniques have made it over as well, from fire breathing to flight - whether it be via his built-in jet thrusters or spinning wildly like some sort of monstrous UFO. But as a long-time Gamera fan it wasn't just seeing those abilities that was nostalgic, it was the way that the fights themselves played out like the ones from the films as well. While Gamera is always going to come out top in the end he certainly isn't adverse to taking a beating beforehand, and nearly all of these fights are keen to show him on the back foot at some point. Not only are there repeated stabbings, but also certain other injuries which harken back to moments from the Heisei trilogy. The fights certainly are never one-sided, and possibly the biggest joy to get out of them is watching how Gamera is able to pull it back at the last second and come out victorious with some suitably over the top move he hadn't previously displayed.


Joining Gamera is a selection from his reasonably extensive rogues gallery, all of whom have been given a similar upgrade in terms of looks and abilities. When it came to selecting just who would be appearing in the series alongside Gamera himself it's clear just what the creators were fans of, with them all hailing from the Showa era rather than more modern favourites like Legion or Iris. It's almost a full house too, with all of Gamera's classic enemies making any appearance other than poor old Barugon. In many ways seeing these kaiju is actually more exciting than Gamera himself, given most of them haven't appearance onscreen in decades. Viras for example has had a particularly significant upgrade, retaining its squid-like body but gaining the ability to shoot lasers and even launch itself into space with its own propulsion system. Jiger, Zigra, Guiron and Gyaos have had similar overhauls, even if the latter's more recurring appearing in the Gamera franchise means it's had much less of an overhaul. But when it comes to Gyaos Rebirth still understands why the supersonic bird monster works perfectly as Gamera's greatest nemesis. Ultimately it isn't the one giant one that's the biggest threat, it's the seemingly never-ending swarm of them. Gamera may swat them down like flies, but the sheer endurance of the swarm has been shown to be one of his greatest challenges throughout the franchise. In Rebirth, one tiny Gyaos somehow manages to be more grotesque and terrifying than any of the larger variants. And of course, hearing souped-up versions of all those familiar roars again is an audio delight.


However if there's anything that's going to hold Gamera -Rebirth- back, it's the animation. Its status as a wholly 3D CGI-anime series is will likely already have some skeptical, but shows such as ULTRAMAN have definitely shown that the medium shouldn't be completely written off. Similarly, despite being a 2D/CGI hybrid series Godzilla Singular Point showed off very impressive kaiju visuals in exactly the same way. And to its credit that is one lesson Rebirth did seem to take away from Gamera's closest rival as the kaiju scenes are spectacular. Not only were the kaiju designs themselves excellent, but the CGI was able to get across a level of detail that really added to their scare factor. That form of animation (whether intentional or not) also manages to give a real weight to the kaiju themselves - their lumbering movement conveying their size nicely. As one should expect these battles were always the highlight of the episodes, but of course in true kaiju movie style they only take up a small portion of the runtime. Viewers come for the promise of giant monsters, but it's the quality of storytelling that makes them stay.

Gamera -Rebirth- has that in spades, but the rest of the animation leaves a lot to be desired. When a 3D CGI anime is being discussed usually its detractors will throw out hyperbolic comments like it looking like an old video game cut scene or something along those lines, but sometimes with Rebirth it doesn't feel that far from the truth. While the character designs themselves aren't bad, the renderings themselves are quite 'soft'. Facial expressions are often just varying degrees of open mouth, and the reduced frame rate gives them jerky movement almost akin to puppets at times. This all seems particularly egregious in the very first episode too, which is the biggest hurdle for anyone unsure whether they want to continue on with the series. Though it feels like the animation does marginally improve as it progresses, it's hard to tell whether that's true or whether simply your eyes get used to it after a while (and by that point, the story is doing all the heavy lifting). While ENGI have done 3D CGI animation in the past, they don't work solely in that medium (and when they have it's never been for anything of this scale) so whether it was the right choice here is debatable. A mixed approach like Singular Point would have definitely served this series better.

Gamera takes flightGamera vs Gyaos

If animation wasn't such an integral part of a visual medium, then Gamera -Rebirth- could easily be written off as a triumph. Perfectly blending the styles and storytelling of both the Showa and Heisei Gamera films, it perfectly encapsulates exactly what this franchise is all about with strong child characters, a clever sci-fi mythos and exciting monster battles. However outside of those fights the quality of the animation really brings the show down, in a way that could easily put off casual viewers before the show has even started. While this titan of the genre undoubtedly deserved better, if you are able to look past the awkward expressions and stilted movement you'll quickly realise why Gamera stands tall as the only real contender to Godzilla's crown.

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