Two films came out in the 1990s that revamped the friend of all children for a new era – Gamera. Both films have the same plot: Gamera is an ancient guardian created to protect us from the ravenous Gyaos. While the Japanese Self-Defence Force distrust him, the human heroes know he’s our last hope – especially Asagi Kusanagi, a teenaged girl who gains a psychic link to Gamera, boosting his power, but feeling his pain.
The first film is Daiei’s Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995) – a classic of daikaiju cinema. Daiei wanted to do for Gamera what Tim Burton did for Batman and turn a beloved and traditionally campy character into something cool. They hired Shusuke Kaneko – who’d won Best Director awards at Yokohama Film Festival – to direct, Kazunori Ito, the man behind anime sci-fi classics like Patlabor, to write it; and then-up-and-coming Shinji Higuchi – whose goal, through aerial battles and being “cutting edge”, was to make sure that this wasn’t your dad’s Gamera – to do the special effects.
The second film came out in the UK, when Manga Video brought out Gamera: Guardian of the Universe: UK Special Edition (1997).What was special about it, however, was that about 85% of the film now shook with the sound of pounding techno. You will believe a turtle can fly to the electro-beat of D.O.M’s “Acid War”!
Gamera UK is a greatly obscure dub. The original video went out of print. In 2002, PlayNation magazine gave away a free DVD version; there was never another. In 2020, Arrow Video’s Gamera blu-ray box set gave Americans the option to watch the UK dub, but that boxset swiftly went out of print and many owners may not realise the dub’s on it. It’s probably seen as a curiosity by most that have heard of it.
While it sounds like it’s that simple, this isn’t just a silly dub – by changing the music so much, Manga Video had seemingly created an entirely new film.
While Daiei was a mainstream film company targeting a general audience with Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, Manga Video was aiming for the niche anime home video market. It was founded by Island Records’ marketing manager Andy Frain, who was blown away by Akira and decided that if no company existed to put it on video, he’d make one. Befitting his music origins, he would later tell Empire the idea was “we could treat [anime imports] like a record label, like Def Jam, a genre in itself”.
In practice that meant targeting young men who liked to be edgy, flagging up the sex and violence in anime (infamously adding a lot of swearing to certain dubs) and making it “cool”. The company ad on both video and DVD shows clips of action shots from anime over heavy guitar and random bits of a guy going “URHH!!!” (especially over a hot woman). Anime isn’t for dorks, you see; anime is for lads. Everything about Gamera UK knew who its target audience was, right down to the cover boasting an 8/10 review from lads’ mag Loaded.
On the DVD, you get ads for a video of the UK Breakdancing Championship 1998 and Talkin’ Headz: The Metalheadz Documentary, about a recently founded drum and bass record label.
This also meant contemporary techno from Truelove Label Collective, and it plays in almost every scene in the film – there are no quiet and contemplative scenes in Gamera UK. If someone answers a phone, goes to the shops, or meets with the suits, there’s a steady stream of bouncing music to keep up the pace and a sense of constant action. You know you’re really in for it when the opening credits happen. Where the original Gamera: Guardian of the Universe had an old-school orchestral classic theme tune for the opening and its montage of newspaper headlines of disaster, creating a sense of grandeur and importance to tell you that Something Is Coming, the UK dub gets the ripping electronic beat of The Weathermen’s “Thunderflash”, telling you – SOME COOL STUFF IS COMING – HELL YEAH!
Techno comes in for emphasis when the monsters fight, when the JSDF bombard Gyaos, and when Gamera shows off his powers. When Gamera first takes to the sky, the Japanese score is a triumphant march to emphasise everyone’s shock that he can fly. The UK cuts from Japanese music to the aforementioned “Acid War” – the sign that something badass is happening and your blood should pump; this techno wants you to think every monster fight is fast and furious.
This does make for some real fun, especially when Manga Video starts to blend the techno with the original score – a showing that the dub, recorded at the famous Pinewood Studios in London, was neither a cheap nor quick effort. In the climactic battle, we have the Guardian of the Universe theme playing as Gamera makes his attack and buildings explode before cutting back to “Acid War” as the two kaiju wage a great dogfight against each other and then take it to the mat.
The obvious drawback is that sometimes you get the daft sight of urgent techno playing over scenes like “a car pulls up outside a shop”; or for reasons only Manga Video could explain, they play “Cyanide” by Baby Doc & The Dentist over a scene where Asagi arrives to summon Gamera. (For context, Asagi is a teenager. “Cyanide” includes the sound of a woman moaning. We have questions.)
Now, while Gamera: Guardian of the Universe is not exactly a Dogme 95 classic, multiple scenes have the score left out entirely in order to make the audience feel ‘grounded’ in a real world and give some weight to the events. When Gamera makes landfall, districts are evacuated; people flee in terror as sirens wail; Gamera emerges from the smoke of a fallen building lit up by spotlights; the army flees. All of this has no music like we’re watching something happen ‘for real’. It’s treating a kaiju appearance as a terrifying thing, and Gamera as an awe-inspiring figure. Gamera UK doesn’t think that’s what lads want and slaps “Buzzwave” by Lochi & Verdi over it: changing the scene’s weight to instead showing this badass kaiju storming forward stomping shit, and the sirens and police whistles of the chaos sound like they’re part of a dance track.
In fairness, the additions also had music that wasn’t techno; giving the bat-like kaiju Gyaos – a kaiju made more of a horror villain through the musical score of the Japanese version – a unique theme in most of his scenes. It’s an electronic orchestral B-movie horror beat like he’s a very funky Dracula, making him a ‘bwahahaha’ old-timey villain version of a kaiju. Honestly, even this works well when the human heroes see him flying alongside their helicopter and try to drive him off, or when he swoops down on a train at night. It doesn’t work as well, however, when it blasts all over a scene of Dr Nagamine excavating Gyaos guano and finding human remains.
Music is changed again when the JSDF engages Gamera. Gamera: Guardian of the Universe uses an upbeat march that cuts out when Gamera is fired upon by tanks; grounded realism is attempted again as people watch the news and Asagi sees helicopters fly overhead in silence. Gamera UK puts a low-beat, ominous dirge of a march over this whole sequence. The JSDF here are menacing, a threat to poor Gamera and bad things are coming. Though sadly, this effect is undermine when planes bomb to the start of snarling techno…!
There is one moment I’d argue Gamera UK does better, however – when Nagamine tries to evacuate a child from a Gyaos attack. In the original Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, horror music builds and builds as she runs but trips over, accidentally causing the child to cry out and attract the monster, and builds further as Gyaos comes for them. In Gamera UK, when she trips, the underlying techo suddenly stops. The child crying and Gyaos reacting play out with no score. It emphasises ‘oh shit, Gyaos heard that, they’re dead’.
All of this may sound silly, but in a historical context Gamera UK isn’t that different from how many daikaiju films or anime were brought over to the West. For decades, these were edited to fit primarily American sensibilities. Sometimes that just meant fitting broadcast standards, but it could also mean replacing the score with music Saban happens to own or hacking out & rearranging the footage. It almost always meant attempts to make the story “less Japanese”.
Famously, Godzilla: King of the Monsters inserts scenes with Raymond Burr to give Americans one of their own witnessing the story. Even at the turn of the century, Pokemon told us rice balls are donuts and Shinto ofuda talismans are “anti-ghost stickers”. This happened in Britain as well: the BBC did a bawdy comedic dub of Lum the Invader Girl for an Anime Night, and Franco-Belgian cartoon Insektors made it to Channel 4 with a massive rewrite to be a more British comedy show.
Compared to all these, Gamera UK slapping techno on everything isn’t too weird. Other than adding a policeman yelling “THERE IS NOTHING TO SEE HERE” over a shot of Gamera and a taxi driver now calling Asagi “luv”, there’s no big rewrites to make things more British, there’s no use of regional accents and slang for character, there’s no removal of anything Japanese. Their change was, primarily, just adding a lot of bangers to the soundtrack.
And at the end of the day, there’s something important about Gamera UK: until ADV brought the Kaneko trilogy out on DVD, you might hear that Gamera: Guardian of the Universe was a great film but the only way to see it was on Manga’s video. For a teenaged me, that was the way I first saw the film.
I can crack the dub open and talk about which bits work and which don’t and how they differ from Kaneko’s original vision. I can do all of that, but it still remains the very first time I watched Gamera in action, and as youths can do with anything they fixate on, I watched it a lot. The dub is buried deep within me and shapes how I see the film, the franchise, and the genre. When I read the word ‘Gyaos’, I hear it the way the dub said it (“guy-oss”) and not the original (“GOW-sss”).
The shot of Asagi looking up at helicopters over the station is one that I think of as a defining scene of normal people reacting to a genre happening where they live – I remembered it when I saw a similar scene of planes overheard in the Greenland trailer – but when I think of it, it’s with Manga’s score. When I think of Gamera fighting, I think of techno. Something feels a bit missing, not just in the original Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, but also Gamera 2 when there’s no “Acid War” and “Thunderflash” blaring during the fights.
I’m not alone in this. If I say “Digimon” to anyone who saw the original anime in English, they’ll think of the DigiRap theme song, and there’s two generations around the world who will say they’re fans of Robotech or Battle of the Planets rather than Macross and Gatchaman. For Gamera, a chunk of NeoText’s American readers will immediately think of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 lampooning him. To many of them, the idea of a hip 90s update must seem laughable in a way Burton’s Batman does not. And somewhere, a forty-something dad is going to see an anime DVD and remember getting it on video from Manga Video and how it was “well sick bruv”, only to be disappointed it sounds wrong.
This is the subjective nature of art, that we all have different personal experiences with it and no more is this true than with edited material. Even in bits where I can honestly agree that Gamera UK is inferior to Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, that inferior part will still be the ‘real’ version in my head and heart.
Gamera is really neat, Gamera brings the beats.