Looking back at 1991’s The Guyver

An adaptation of a popular manga and anime of the same name, The Guyver’s one of the most camp and rubbery movies of the 90s. Ryan takes a look back…

There was a time when filmmakers really didn’t have a lot of respect for comics. Anyone relieved at just how reverent and knowledgeable Joss Whedon is about Avengers lore, spare a thought for fans of the Japanese manga, Bio Booster Armor Guyver. It was subjected to a less than respectful movie adaptation in 1991, called Mutronics in the UK and The Guyver elsewhere.

As we’ll see in this retrospective, the film isn’t entirely without merit, but it’s a far different specimen from the manga series which inspired it…

The Guyver’s origins

Bio Booster Armor Guyver, first published back in 1985, remains an enormously successful series. Conceived and written by Yoshiki Takaya, Guyver’s still going strong; the manga’s avidly read, and has been adapted for the small screen several times in Japan. The 1986 straight-to-video feature: Guyver: Out Of Control was the first, followed by a 12 episode anime series was produced between 1989 and 1992 – Manga Entertainment later sold these on tape in the UK. Most recently, another Guyver anime, subtitled The Bioboosted Armor, retold the first 59 chapters of the manga in a 26 part series.

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For fans of the Guyver manga or anime, the series is best remembered for the distinctive, oddly beautiful suit of bio-armour worn by its hero, its gallery of bestial Zoanoid enemies, and the bloody clashes between the two.

Guyver’s origin story isn’t unlike that of Marvel’s Spider-Man, in fact. Its protagonist is the 17-year-old Sho Fukamachi, a nebbish youth who stumbles on an alien device that turns him into an armoured superhero. There are two problems with this, however; first, the device once belonged to an evil corporation called Chronos, whose army of mutating minions will stop at nothing to get it back.

Second, Sho and the Guyver unit become inextricably intertwined, and as the device continues to work into his DNA, he fears that his humanity may become overwhelmed by alien technology – and worse, if the Guyver suit’s control centre is damaged, it devours whoever’s wearing it.  This lends the otherwise straightforward sci-fi action plot a pleasing hint of Cronenbergian body horror, and a hint of the same inner conflict most modern superheroes suffer in western comics.

The 1991 movie

While Yoshiki Takaya’s series was shot through with a streak of inner turmoil, melty violence and body horror, the 1991 American movie adaptation was more akin to the 1960s Batman TV series. It’s wildly camp – sometimes cringe-inducingly so – but also guiltily enjoyable.

The basic plot survives roughly intact. An evil corporation called Chronos is experimenting with an alien technology which transforms DNA, allowing otherwise ordinary humans to transform themselves into Zoanoids – hulking ‘super monster soldiers’, to use the opening crawl’s term. As the movie opens, a scientist called Dr Segawa escapes with a Guyver unit, which for various contrived reasons ends up in the hands of Sean Barker (Jack Armstrong), a teenager who also happens to be the boyfriend of Dr Segawa’s daughter.

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The president of Chronos, the brilliantly named Fulton Balcus (David Gayle), wants the devastatingly powerful Guyver unit back, and sends out his henchman Lisker (Michael Berryman) to get it. Unfortunately for Balcus, Sean’s already activated the unit, transforming him from a normal student with minimal martial arts abilities to an armour-clad superbeing capable of throwing a 200lb man clear across a warehouse floor.

The Guyver was produced by Brian Yuzna, who was behind such fleshy classics as Re-Animator and From Beyond, and sat in a director’s chair for the fantastically grim satire, Society (1989), as well as other, lesser movies including Progeny (1998), The Dentist (1996) and cyborg dog movie Rottweiler (2004).

Screaming Mad George, who created those mutating rich people for Society’s icky conclusion, co-directed The Guyver with Steve Wang, who would later direct the Mark Dacascos martial arts flick, Drive, as well as 1994’s Guyver: Dark Hero (more on this later).

Like Both Screaming Mad George, Steve Wang was adept at creating monster effects, and Wang worked on the prosthetic effects for such films as Hellboy II, Alien: Resurrection and Predator. Unfortunately, neither George nor Wang has much skill at directing actors, and The Guyver is full of stilted, sometimes hilarious dialogue (“I’m sure the inventors of the atom bomb didn’t know what they were doing either”), and some blank-faced acting from some otherwise okay performers.

Mark Hamill coasts through the role of CIA guy Max Reed, and lets his moustache do most of the heavy lifting (though he does get one quite surprising transformation sequence late on in the film). Vivian Wu, as the hero’s love interest Mizky, is appalling. Weirdly, she was in good stuff before and after, including the acclaimed The Last Emperor (1987), The Joy Luck Club and, erm, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III.

Jack Armstrong is little better as Sean, though he’s fortunate enough to spend much of the movie clad in his Guyver suit. Of the cast, only David Gayle (who played a similarly lip-smacking, evil role as the horny dean in Re-Animator) seems to be really enjoying himself, though Michael Berryman’s welcome, as always, as his mutating right hand man.

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At first glance, it seems as George and Wang have done a good job on the Guyver costume. It has the same cool silhouette, broad shoulders and bony protrusions as the one in the comic, and the brief sequence where it takes over Sean’s body is quite impressive.

The fights between the Guyver and his rubbery Zoanoid enemies are, unfortunately, about as intense as watching two people hitting each other with pillows, and completely lack the grit and grue of the comics, where characters were regularly ripped limb from limb. This isn’t to say that the original manga was entirely without its own daft moments – this was, after all, a story in which the hero could fight a pair of giant monsters in his high school, and then fight another character in a Guyver suit, without appearing to attract any attention whatsoever.

The Guyver movie, meanwhile, goes for 90s camp of the highest order, and it’s unlikely that fans of the comic or anime were expecting something more along the lines of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (Steve Wang later went on to direct a Power Rangers movie, in fact). There’s even a bit where a Zoanoid (played by Jimmy Walker) does a little rap, which is as embarrassing to watch as it sounds.

If you can get over the film’s blatant disregard for the property that inspired it, and enjoy it as a piece of B-movie madness, it’s actually a lot of fun. Jeffrey Combs shows up in the last act (playing a mad doctor, naturally), and as goofy and lumbering as they are, the various mutants have a curious charm. One of them looks a bit like an elephant.

It has to be said, though, that for a movie called The Guyver, the actual Guyver doesn’t get a lot to do – having engaged in a lengthy fight in the middle of the film (which he loses), he’s then barely seen until the last 20 minutes, where he emerges, bizarrely, from the corpse of one of his enemies (“You can’t kill me. I’ve been rejected by death!”). And while the suit looks passably like the one in the manga, it displays few of its awesome powers – the massive chest lasers don’t make an appearance, and the hero instead spends much of the film kicking and punching things instead.

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The aftermath

That The Guyver didn’t get terribly good notices shouldn’t surprise anyone, and the movie went straight to video in the UK. (Cheekily, the movie’s advertising implied that Mark Hamill has a much bigger part to play than he actually does, with his face splashed all over the American poster.)

Nevertheless, The Guyver became enough of a cult hit to allow Steve Wang to direct another one. This was a reboot of sorts, called Guyver: Dark Hero. It was R-rated rather than PG-13, and was much more violent and faithful to the source manga than the 1991 movie was. David Hayter replaced the stilted Jack Armstrong in the lead, and Dark Hero was much more positively received than its predecessor.

It’s difficult to watch the original Guyver movie without wondering what a big-budget, serious handling of the comic would look like; certainly, if one were adapted with a tenth of the care and knowledge Joss Whedon brought to Avengers, it could be fantastic.

For now,  we’ll have to make do with Dark Hero – a more faithful yet painfully low-budget take on Yoshiki Takaya’s concept – or its predecessor, The Guyver. The latter is goofy, ridiculous and quintessentially 90s, but buried within it are some great monsters and cheerfully gooey mutation effects. If approached on its own terms, there’s much to enjoy about this trashy, straight-to-video oddity.

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