Friday, May 16, 2014

Stomping Tokyo: The Allure and Appeal of Japanese Giant Monster Movies


Virtually everyone can say they've seen a Godzilla movie, or an episode of ULTRAMAN at some point in their life. The generation of fans who grew up with Japan's unusual brand of SciFi is growing slimmer with each passing year; much less those who still enjoy them. The usage of suitmation on the big and small screen is also becoming an antiquated form of filmmaking that's even slipping away in the one corner of the world where it's been a tradition since the 1950s. That PACIFIC RIM (2013), a film about giant robots and monsters, failed to connect with Japanese audiences is telling. Even though it was all CGI creations, the film was a tribute to Japan's most famed genre export, despite not catering to the life's blood that has sustained it for decades -- men in rubber suits.

With Japanese SPX and the incoming technicians veering further away from the use of suitmation with an increasing reliance on CGI, the art of 'rubber suit acting' may very well be reserving a plot in the Graveyard of Monsters.

The appeal of 'Big Rubber Monsters' likely varies from one person to the next. For me at least, nostalgia is a key component along with simply enjoying the films for their creativity and entertainment value. While us fans cling to our childhood memories in our enjoyment of these films and television shows, the men making them are just as much big kids themselves with the added incentive of being paid to live out their childhood fantasies. 

Between the two cultures of East and West, the SciFi genres were vastly different beasts, but with fleeting similarities. Ironically, if it hadn't been for KING KONG (1933), or THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), Japan's profitable, and prolific kaiju eiga and tokusatsu industries may have ended up as something entirely different.

Today, the genre in the US retains its fans -- some wearing their love of rubber suit creatures like a badge of honor, and others treating it as a guilty pleasure. There's also those that enjoyed the product as a child, but outgrew it heading into adulthood. Then there is a large contingent who ridicule the genre, showing contempt for it with flurries of condescending remarks to the glaring fakery of it all, and eye-rolling at the overt kiddie-natured programming. Of course, they didn't start out being geared towards the small fry set. In the beginning it was all serious till a strong interest from kids pushed the films more in their direction; not to mention Eiji Tsuburaya had a soft spot for the little tykes. With each succeeding movie (and especially the TV shows), toy lines based on the characters became as much a lucrative enterprise as the stories got wilder and wackier.

I was around eight years old when I saw GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956). This was when Vestron Video released it on videocassette in 1983. I'd seen Japanese monster movies before then, and American ones like the old Universal horrors and things like THE GIANT CLAW (1957) and THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957), but GODZILLA was vastly different. There was something in those images of an ominous beast rising from the sea to destroy cities and trample screaming citizens underfoot that resonated with my young eyes at the time; that and the Big G would easily turn 'The Giant Claw' into a giant turkey sandwich, and use the 'The Deadly Mantis' as a toothpick.

During that period in the late 70s and early 80s, seeing Japanese science fiction on TV was a regular occurrence. Other than Christmas morning, the only time I was that excited was getting up supa early to catch ULTRAMAN and BATTLE OF THE PLANETS on television starting at 5am. Late night airings of MOTHRA (1961), GODZILLA'S REVENGE (1969) and TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975) weren't far behind; nor were others like RODAN (1956), GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973) and GODZILLA VS. THE COSMIC MONSTER (1974) -- which, like GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, I enjoyed for the first time on video.

I remember scouring the TV Guide to see what monster movie was coming on in the hopes I would be able to watch it. I also remember being extremely aggravated at the sheer number of monster pictures that were showing on channels we didn't have. Channels 3,5,5W, and 20W seemed like they were always airing some sort of monster movie, and we had none of those channels. Thankfully, 8, 13, 45, and 48 more than made up for this. This was back when TVs had dials you'd turn to a select number of channels. The picture wasn't always clear, either. You'd have to fiddle with the antenna to get the picture to stabilize. Still, it was a fantastic time to be a kid, and enjoy good old fashioned monster movies.


Compared with similar homegrown fare, Japanese monster pictures struck a chord within my young mind in a way no other similar type of movie ever did. Whether it was the outrageous story lines, or the variety in mecha and monsters, Nipponese SciFi kept me enthralled as a kid, and mystified as an adult as to why I enjoyed seeing it as much now as I did some 30 odd years ago. Friends I grew up with moved on in their cinematic interests, but my fondness for the residents of Monster Island remained. Some things just stick with you when you're a kid, and one of the things that stuck with me were monster movies. 

In American monster films, everything had a modicum of pseudo-science attached to it that kept the plot just within the realm of reality. Particularly in the 1950s, the giant creatures, bugs, humans, etc were more often than not the result of exposure to atomic radiation. Other times they were beasts taken from far-flung islands, or found on other planets; or the behemoths were invaders from another galaxy. The atomic fear was echoed by many in the US during that period, and this fear was exemplified in countless SciFi films of varying quality. On the other side of the coin, the theme of atomic horror was felt by the Japanese after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nowhere was this more acutely captured on screen than in Ishiro Honda's original GODZILLA (1954), the film that started it all.
Moreover, the giant creatures of American SciFi pictures generally had no special powers; and were most often seen as victims of, or born from man's folly that resulted in rampant destruction. The same applied in Japan, but their creatures had their own identity. They weren't merely giant crickets or spiders, or lizards; they looked like mutations of existing creatures all the while retaining certain attributes of their inspirations.

The monsters and aliens of Japanese iconography had a distinct quality about them regardless of how unconvincing they may have looked to Western eyes. As for the popular theme of intergalactic conquerors, there was no set pattern as to what an alien (seijin) should look like in a Japanese production. They were often downright strange, to put it mildly. Many times over the aliens would hide behind a human form and reveal themselves later. This was a recurring plot point on countless ULTRAMAN shows. There was no limit to the abstract weirdness of Japanese Seijin. Even the aliens that were human in appearance (the Planet X aliens of MONSTER ZERO) had quirky qualities about them (dig those "sunglasses" and curly-toed boots!); and in some of the other movies, the invaders ranged from cockroaches (GODZILLA VS. GIGAN), to apes (GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA), to metal worm-like creatures (DESTROY ALL MONSTERS) when reverting from their human guises to their original alien forms. 

In the Japanese films, virtually everything was pure fantasy -- from the monsters to the man-made machines designed to combat them (the Oxygen Destroyer, the Maser Cannons, the Super X I,II,III). Granted, some of the Japanese monsters were Earth-boundingly believable in their births -- Godzilla and Rodan are two of the most obvious with their origin deriving from atomic testing. But others like Mothra (the benevolent god of Infant Island), the alien monster Ghidorah, Manda (the undersea guardian of the Mu Empire), inner and outer space threats such as Megalon, Gigan, and Mechagodzilla showed that those behind Toho kaiju eiga had vivid imaginations. 

The Daiei studio with their competitor daikaiju Gamera, went in even wilder, childishly silly directions (areas that would periodically contain questionable violence unusual for what is universally thought of as kiddie fare). Not only was Gamera a gigantic prehistoric turtle, but he somehow possessed the unearthly ability to spin around like a top via jet propulsion, and emit a wide-reaching stream of flame from his mouth.

The monsters in the Gamera series were an equally imaginative mix of incongruous elements. Barugon (spelled differently from Toho's Baragon) was an ancient creature that looked like a chameleon. What made it outrageous was its quick-freezing ability of its elongated tongue, and a rainbow beam attack that emanated from its back spikes. Jiger was another island-worshiped god with wacky abilities. It fired darts from its horns, emitted a beam that turned all those caught in its ray to bones, and possessed a poisonous sting that injects its egg into Gamera. The wackiness carried on with Guiron, a giant living knife that had magnetic suction cups in its hands and fired shuriken from its bladed head! In this way, Japanese SciFi pictures tended to cater to the fringes of the imagination, far from the safer climes of quasi-believability of the American monster movies. Both styles differed in other ways, too.

In the US produced creature features, the monsters were consistently brought down by man-made weapons of war, or some modification of an existing one. In KING KONG (1933), the mighty ape is slain by machine gun fire from biplanes. The Rhedosaurus from THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) is felled by a radioactive isotope fired by Lee Van Cleef. In THEM! (1954), the giant ants are killed with conventional machine guns and flamethrowers. The outsized arachnid of TARANTULA (1955) was exterminated by a napalm attack spearheaded by Clint Eastwood. These are just a few examples. Alien threats were sometimes treated differently with mother nature doing what mankind couldn't do. The very air we breath was a veritable biological weapon the war-waging aliens of WAR OF THE WORDS (1953) had no immunity against. THE BLOB (1958) was a virtually indestructible being from another world that was frozen and dumped in the arctic where it remained until Larry Hagman unleashed it again in his comedic 1972 sequel. 

In the Nipponese counterparts, modern tanks and planes were useless against the monsters; more times than not, it was another monster that got the pin fall on its dinosaurian, or alien adversary. Man and his military might were just window dressing with which to spice up scenes of miniature cityscapes being wiped out in wholesale destruction scenes. The military scenes with their wild weapons and methods for dealing with monsters were integral to the daikaiju cinema. The films would be naked without them. However, man-made hardware occasionally triggered a natural disaster whereby the giant beasts would perish, or merely hibernate till the next sequel. In GODZILLA (1954), it was Dr. Serizawa's Oxygen Destroyer; GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955), but jet plane missiles cause an avalanche that buries the Big G in an icy tomb; missile fire causes a volcanic eruption that puts an end to a pair of reptilian birds in RODAN (1956); and bombs dropped at sea amidst a WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966) resulted in an underwater volcanic eruption seemingly bringing its two hairy combatants to their fiery, oxygen choked end.

Probably where the Japanese monster movies really found their stride while carving their own niche in the SciFi canon was in its pitting of one monster against another. This was seen in GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955), but didn't catch on till 1962 with one of the classic kaiju pairings of all time, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962). The scenes of Godzilla and Anguirus battling in the former appeared awkward, if more animal-like than the latter. The monster war in KKVG was what put this sort of 'Meeting of the Monsters' over the top. The humanizing of the giant beasts really shined through. Both showed joy when getting the upper hand (Godzilla "clapping" after forcing Kong to retreat after their first meeting; Kong's display of satisfaction is apparent after sending Godzilla down a mountainside); they both are sneaky (Kong hiding from Godzilla only to grab his tail when he passes; Godzilla feigning ignorance that Kong is very much awake while he smacks him with his tail); and they both evoke humanistic qualities while pounding, tossing and throwing one another all around Japan's countryside before both tumble off a cliff.

This was something the American monster movies never tapped into (and probably didn't care to). Any sympathy derived for the rampaging creatures in US SciFi features came as a result of mans ignorance; wherein their mistake is rectified by the utter destruction of what they inadvertently let loose. Three successful examples of this can be found in KING KONG (1933), THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957). What these three share in common is stop-motion animation. Granted, Kong had personality to spare, but the other two were little more than mindless monsters whose audience compassion was born out of the fact that it was mankind's meddling that caused their rampage; and it was mankind who brought about their demise. Both O'Brien and Harryhausen instilled their stop-motion creatures with character, but not to the degree of Japan's suitmation creations. The irony of this is that bringing Godzilla to life via stop-motion was what the filmmakers wanted to use to begin with, but the process proved too costly and time-consuming. The use of rubber suits became both a bane and a blessing for the Japanese -- critically speaking, more of the latter than the former.

The enormous success of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) ensured more in a similar vein was forthcoming. Britain got in on the act with the classic GORGO (1961). As spectacular as GORGO is, the filmmakers were unable to capture that humanist quality that resonated in the same way as Japan's monster opuses. I remember my dad raving about GORGO as its first release on VHS drew closer. Upon finally seeing it, I did enjoy it, but it didn't leave the same impression on me as the Japanese equivalents. This, too, was ironic considering GORGO had a crucial element that would be adopted later on in the Japanese films -- the use of a child as a focal point.

From KKVG onward, Toho's kaiju movies grew increasingly sillier (in a good way, for the most part), as did their appeal to me. As much as they made grownups cringe (and some G fans today), I giggled heartily at Godzilla's 'happy dance', the "Jumping Shie" seen in MONSTER ZERO (1965), and his sliding drop-kick in GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973). As quasi-goofy as the monsters were in the Godzilla/Kong square-off, things got serious one last time with arguably the best film in the series next to the original, MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA (1964). After that, this consistent tone of somberness didn't return till 1975.

The small fry set found a lot to smile about with what was known in America as GHIDRAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER (1965). Shinichi Sekizawa's script contained a strong adult angled plot while catering to kids sensibilities with monsters that were deeply in touch with their human sides. At one point, Mothra attempts to negotiate with grumpus Godzilla and rampagin' Rodan to help mankind rid the world of Ghidorah, the three headed destroyer of worlds. With the Shobijin translating this monster speech, they're shocked at Godzilla's terrible language! Again, you would never see this sort of thing in an American creature feature where everything was taken seriously -- even the bad films. 

For those who didn't like Godzilla as a villainous creature, a move was made by Tsuburaya to turn him into Earth's savior (or buffoon in some cases). Tsuburaya carried this kid-friendly element over to his gigantically successful ULTRAMAN series and spin-offs which provided Japanese companies an endless revenue stream in action figures and other related toys. Financially speaking, it would seem they made the right decision, yet things got even crazier with the monsters and their opponents.


As had begun in KKVG, the implementation of wrestling moves, and even martial arts maneuvers grew in Toho's Godzilla, and other related films. Godzilla played "tennis" with Ebirah using a giant boulder as the ball in GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1967); The green and brown Gargantuas used buildings and sea vessels to inflict damage in a veritable daikaiju Hardcore Wrestling Match in WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966); Karate, and Judo style martial arts are the specialty of Ultraman and his brothers in countless ULTRA shows. This sort of melee is absent in American style monster pictures -- not that there are any long-running film series' built around a giant monster meeting up with another giant monster. Harryhausen did it a few times in his dinosaur and fantasy films pitting stop-motion beasts against one another in a more believable, animalistic style of combat. Other than that, the closest America came to emulating the Japanese style was dressing up real lizards as dinosaurs and having them bite and claw each other to death in movies like ONE MILLION B.C. (1944), KING DINOSAUR (1955), and THE LOST WORLD (1960).

Daiei's Gamera series went in an entirely different direction with their monstrous confrontations. They amplified the kiddie machinations and increased the violence level for a bizarre concoction of ideas. For example, Gamera would use Viras as a pair of water skis (GAMERA VS. VIRAS [1968]), or play his theme song on the spiked back of Zigra, a shark from outer space (GAMERA VS. ZIGRA [1971]). Meanwhile, Gyaos ('67 version) hungrily munches on screaming humans trapped inside a train car; Jiger turns fleeing humans into skeletons (GAMERA VS. JIGER [1970]); and Guiron slices Space Gyaos into pieces (GAMERA VS. GUIRON [1969]). The Godzilla movies in the 1970s took a cue from the Gamera series and began integrating spurting blood in their monster battles, too.

My first experience with Gamera, the lovable, child-protecting, jet-propelled, flying turtle came with GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE (1966) and DESTROY ALL PLANETS (1968) one Saturday morning on WGGT-TV 48. CBS showed them occasionally at 3am on the Late Movie -- films like RETURN OF THE GIANT MONSTERS (GAMER VS. GYAOS), and WAR OF THE MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. BARUGON). There was a noticeable difference between Daiei's monster movies and Toho's -- from the aforementioned monster gore, to the sound effects, music, and the quality of SPX work. If nothing else, Gamera was one of the most fantastical monsters ever brought to the Silver Screen, and his appeal with children was palpable.

Interestingly, the above-mentioned style of monster gore married with kiddie oriented material prospered in the numerous giant monster and superhero programs on television, too. It wasn't unusual to see monsters losing heads and limbs on ULTRAMAN, and the many spin-offs that followed during the Showa Era. Some of the storylines, particularly in ULTRASEVEN, were a peculiar mixture of monsters paired with adult storytelling. Plots about women impregnated by aliens, children marching on the world armed with high-powered guns, and alien insects sustaining themselves on the blood of humans are some examples.

This type of scenario is really quite startling to see. The bombings in Japan during WW2 may have something to do with why so much of Japan's giant monster output during the 60s and 70s was so brutally violent. This is one of the more curious aspects of Japan's SciFi heritage that makes them so strangely appealing. 

To the average American, especially today, suitmation, whether recent or old, is a hard sell. You'd be hard-pressed to find a review from a critic that didn't throw in at least one jab at the alleged "bad special effects" -- no matter how good they were. Granted, even Ray Harryhausen's meticulous stop-motion effects work is poked fun of these days by the mainstream -- applying classic derogatory terms to his films often reserved for Japanese SciFi fare.

Just like the Japanese, American films used miniatures, too; and no matter how obvious they looked, words and remarks like 'kitsch', 'fake-looking', 'poor special effects', and two key terms where these films were concerned -- 'low budget' and 'cheesy' -- were bandied about with regularity. Even the best of Toho's output had these terms applied to them. With the passage of time, the SPX became more advanced, but no matter how good the Japanese special effects became, the condescending labels remained. 

As a kid, I never thought of Godzilla (and other monsters) as guys in rubber suits stomping on miniatures (or toys as many critics referred to them). They were monsters to me. It didn't matter if it was Ray Harryhausen stop-motion, or lizards masquerading as dinosaurs, if it was big, it was a monster; and I believed in it insofar as the world created by the filmmakers. I knew they weren't real, but for 90 minutes, I was immersed in an incredible fantasy world rife with visionary ideas. For Godzilla and company, they were what they were -- larger than life creations made by craftsmen who had equal admiration for their craft, and for what they were creating.

And maybe therein lies the secret to the allure of these films and TV shows -- everything is larger than life. Everything was bigger in Japan's offerings -- from the scripts, to the size of the monsters, to the gadgets designed to stop them, and right on down to the imaginations of the individuals dreaming them up. One's imagination is often just as big as Godzilla and company. Some of us grow out of these "old clothes", and some of us never do. Some things never truly get old.

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