I wonder if 1995's Gamera: Guardian of the Universe is without precedent in how massive a shift it makes in tone from anything that precedes it? The closest thing I can come up with is Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, which brought a considerable degree of sharp-edged grimness to a property that most people still associated with bright colors and camp, but that ignores the huge volume of comic book material predating the Burton film that posited an even dark, more brooding Batman, stretching all the way back to the '30s. And it also forgets that the 1960s Batman TV show was craft, self-aware camp, and not just stupid kiddie schlock. Neither of those caveats apply to the eight Gamera films made between 1965 and 1980, all of which were stupid kiddie schlock whose campiness was unintential, and only the second, 1966's Gamera vs. Barugon, made any legitimate claim to being serious in any way whatsoever.

You would think that any attempt to do a dark and gritty reboot of the Gamera franchise could only happen in the spirit of parody, and yet when Tokuma Shoten Publishing, then the owner of Daiei Film relaunched the franchise in the mid-'90s, when Toho's second wave of Godzilla films was starting to wind down, that's exactly what they did. What's really surprising, though, isn't that a character whose entire filmography had, to that point, been the most lavishly camp-soaked nonsense you could imagine was randomly selected to be treated with gravity and rough realism, but that it would actually turn out incredibly well. Under the guiding hand of horror director Kaneko Shusuke and screenwriter Ito Kazunori - who, the same year, wrote the screenplay for the beloved sci-fi anime feature Ghost in the Shell - Gamera: Guardian of the Universe rather shockingly turned out to be one of the most sensible, creative daikaiju eiga of its generation, certainly equaling the best of the 1990s Godzilla films while breaking further from genre convention. It's a film that spends not one second wondering how to trade on the audience's built-in nostalgia for the franchise (how could it, when it represents such a massive and merciless overhaul of the franchise's basic goals?), instead working from the ground up to create the rarest sort of giant monster movie: one that functions as a movie, even when it's not wowing you with giant monsters.

Now, to be fair, the solution that Kaneko and Ito came up with to make the first-ever genuinely and objectively good Gamera movie basically involved cheating off of Jurassic Park's answer sheet whenever they couldn't come up with something on their own. Sometimes this is vague and probably coincidental, like the similar rhythm in the build-up to a Pacific storm; sometimes it's clear but transmuted enough that it feels like it's own thing, as in a scene where a giant prehistoric predator rears its head out of the jungle foliage in a very T-Rexish way, but for completely different narrative reasons. Sometimes, it's so exact that the only thing to do is ask if Jurassic Park hadn't been released in Japan yet, and the filmmakers assumed they could resort to blatant thievery without getting caught, like a scene in which a lady scientist digs in a huge pile of animal shit hunting for clues, in shots that are framed identically to JP's own shit-digging scene. Though it must be conceded that there is surely a finite number of ways you can stage that scene.

But as Jurassic Park copycats go, Guardian of the Universe has the decency to be one of the very best that I've ever seen, marrying the American thriller mechanics of that film to a distinctively Japanese idiom without the join ever threatening to split apart. There are moments scattered throughout that, hell, I'll even suggest maybe improve on anything to be found in Steven Spielberg's dinosaur movie: the first glimpse we get of Gamera, an enormous but indistinct tusked face underwater, is as close to a perfect creature reveal as you're ever going to get, awesome and just a little terrifying in the finest popcorn movie tradition.

The film's story is a bit more of a mystery than normal for a daikaiju eiga, which is possibly what you get to do when your title monster has only appeared in one bomb in the preceding 24 years: some kind of inexplicably moving atoll collides with a ship carrying plutonium, at around the same time reports of an enormous bird attacking villagers have been coming in from an island in the southwest of Japan. The atoll, for its part, cracks apart after scientist Kusunagi Naoya (Onodera Akira) discovers an ancient slab covered in European runes, and only one member of the investigating team, Yonemori Yoshinari (Ihara Tsuyoshi) catches a glimpse of the giant animal that has emerged from the atoll as it swims away. The giant bird is a much more immediate concern: ornithologist Nagamine Mayumi (Nakayama Shinobu) fairly quickly discovers not just one, but a whole population of enormous leathery creatures somewhere between a bird, a bat, and a pterosaur. In finest creature movie tradition, the government decides that these enormous terrorbeasts should be captured and studied (and, it's not quite spelled out, weaponised), and Mayumi ends up working to help lure the creatures even closer to Japan, hoping to trap them in the then-new Fukuoka Dome, a baseball stadium on the island of Kyushu. So that's one set of murderous daikaiju maneuvered right into killing distance of plenty of large cities; the other one is on its way. For as Dr. Kusunagi discovers with his teenage daughter Asagi (Fujitani Ayako, the closest this film gets to the series stock type of the child with a magical connection to Gamera) and Yoshinari, the atoll and the giant turtle inside of it is a chunk of the lost continent of Atlantis, and that turtle, called Gamera, is the protector designed to fight the same giant bird-beasts who were built by the Atlanteans in a fit of ill-advised genetic experimentation, called Gyaos. The pollution and nuclear toxicity of the 20th Century brought these creatures back to life, and now Japan is the battleground for an ancient monster fight to work itself out again. But the government, more concerned about Gamera's destruction than the Gyaoses', and perhaps looking to save their investment, would rather focus on stopping him than the flock of carnivorous hellbeasts, despite all Asagi's protestations that Gamera is a good turtle, who is kind and gentle. Or words to that effect.

There's a lot that's fascinating in all that: the government's initial decision to focus on stopping Gamera rather than the escaped Gyaos especially adds a wrinkle and level of complexity that's not at all common in the genre, and the anti-pollution, anti-nuke sentiments, though they are borrowed wholesale from the Godzilla franchise, are incorporated into the movie with a delicacy and subtlety that keeps the film from becoming any kind of haranguing message movie. But what's most impressive and admirable about Guardian of the Universe are the bigger strokes: the way that the filmmakers actually try to ground Gamera in some kind of plausible now, treating the build-up to the daikaiju in a very logical, story-first approach that makes this feel as rational and grounded as any daikaiju eiga since the very first Godzilla, 41 years prior. The characters are etched out just enough to give them personalities and plausible motivation, but thankfully, the movie isn't trying to throw together some ginned-up human subplot that weirdly intersects with the monster action; it provides a strong narrative reason for all of the people who are involved to be there, and proceeds to function as an anti-monster procedural as much as it is an action movie about giant creatures duking it out in and over and through Tokyo.

Though when it is that action movie, it's a good one. The effects, supervised by Higuchi Shinji, are absolutely terrific, suggesting a sense of scale that's not to be found in any but the best Godzilla films, and is totally absent in any of the preceding Gamera vehicles. The lighting, the slightly slowed-down action, and the camera angles all give Gamera weight and mass, and sell the primordial threat of Gyaos; I am stunned that a monster whose shovel-headed design I'd have considered so impossible to redeem could end up being such an effective, otherworldly but still plausible creature of nightmares given life. The film also boasts what are, if I am not mistaken, the first CGI effects in any daikaiju eiga: they're not flawless (the first shot of Gamera spinning around to lift off is a real disappointment, one of the film's few clear missteps), but they open up the possibilities for much greater scale and ambition in the fight scenes than any of the earlier Gamera pictures would have known what to do with.

Without necessarily addressing itself to weighty questions of life and death (though it has a sense of true danger), Guardian of the Universe never quite turns into anything but a top-notch genre film - but it is a top-notch genre film. The story structure is tight as a drum and has just enough mystery, even when we should already know damn well where things are headed, that it's always really exciting and interesting to follow, and that already is a huge achievement for a daikaiju eiga; tthere's just enough winking humor that it always remains fun, even at its most sober - "Someday, I'll show you around a monster-free Tokyo", Yoshinari wryly suggests at one point. It's not the perfect daikaiju eiga, or anything like that, but given the market of the 1990s, and the enormous baggage the film had to dispose of before it could even get started, I have a hard time imagining a more completely successful reset to the Gamera franchise than this one.