Review: Another Japanese Sci-Fi Double Feature
Today, I once again headed over to Japan Society for the final double feature in its science fiction retrospective: Blue Christmas and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris.
Blue Christmas actually shares a few themes in common with last week’s Invisible Man, namely the plight of misunderstood “monsters” and the destructive nature mass hysteria—though director Kihachi Okamoto, best known in the West for the uber-pessimistic Sword of Doom, has far less faith in humanity’s potential for redemption. This time, the target of mankind’s hatred is a small percentage of the population that has been transformed by cosmic radiation. Aside from minor changes in personality (mostly losing “negative” emotions, such a jealousy and vanity), these individuals can only be identified by their dark blue blood. Tatsuya Nakadai, one of my favorite Japanese actors, plays the dogged reporter investigating the phenomenon. Eventually, he discovers that the governments of the world are conspiring to fan the flames of paranoia, hoping to gain public support for a preemptive strike against these so-called invaders. The tension builds to a brutal bloodbath that would make Michael Corleone queasy, concluding with a chilling, beautiful image that succinctly illustrates the folly of blind prejudice.
Sadly, while the film’s high-concept premise is solid—even poignant—it can’t quite support Okamoto’s rickety narrative structure: the running time (133 minutes) feels bloated, scenes end abruptly, leaving the viewer little time to digest the (considerable) exposition, and significant characters (including Nakadai, to my profound dismay) vanish from the plot with little rhyme or reason. Still, the unforgettable sight of a denim-clad Zatoichi villain interrogating the thoroughly confused denizens of Travis Bickle’s New York ultimately made Blue Christmas a worthwhile viewing experience.
The second feature, on the other hand, I enjoyed without any reservations, and the packed theater seemed to concur: of the four films I saw these past two weekends, only Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris inspired thunderous applause. This delighted me to no end: I’m a massive fan of the original incarnation of Daiei’s kaiju franchise, which features such deliciously absurd imagery as the titular big turtle becoming ensnared, bear-trap style, in the nose cone of an enormous rocket before being launched into outer space. However, it had never occurred to me to seek out the ‘90s reboot series—an unforgivable error in judgment, since it apparently includes Gyaos, the most legitimately terrifying of the old-school Gamera villains, as a recurring antagonist. Although its plot and tone occasionally veer into “live action anime” territory (psychics and spirituality, deranged video game programmers, childhood friends with unresolved feelings for each other), Revenge of Iris absolutely delivers the awe-inspiring, monumentally destructive monster battles that the early pioneers of the genre struggled to effectively realize. The design of Gamera’s primary foe, a bio-mechanical Lovecraftian horror, is particularly impressive, and while the late '90s CGI utilized to augment the traditional man-in-suit techniques hasn’t aged gracefully, Iris remains as iconic and intimidating as the legendary King Gidorah himself.
As this mini-festival comes to a close, I must reiterate my praise for the work Japan Society is doing. Not all of the movies they screened are lost treasures, or even “good” in the conventional sense, but I’d argue that each is culturally and historically valuable to some degree, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to view them on the big screen, surrounded by fellow Japanophiles. I look forward to whatever the film programmers have in store for their next exhibition.
[Originally written April 9, 2017.]