Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The King Baby, The Motherfuckin' King

Lots of video game stuff has been appearing in this ‘blog. Partly that has to do with the cyclical nature of hobbies… you have an interest rise to preeminent position, the others fall down the priority scale. It also has to do with the activity level of a fan community. There’s just a lot going on with fans talking about and playing games and getting into all the nerdy details. My other interests like aren’t ‘fed’ in quite the same way. I buy music still, but a lot of the active fanboy aspect of that pastime is torpedoed by lack of concerts where I live. In fact, the fuel for many of my interests is by my location. There are only so many things you can do in a tiny isolated town where it is winter seven months out of the year. But a hobby where you can just stay inside, waggle a little controller, and fatten yourself up on cupcakes and Doritos? You can manage THAT shit anywhere.

I’m not here to talk about video games in this entry. Nosirree. Today it’s all about my oldest, deepest, most insidious, yet most misunderstood fanboy interest of all.


Oh yeah, baby. Break out the sneers, chuckles, and looks of disbelief. In a tale spanning my considerable years on this planet, I’ve had a deep abiding passion for the big gray metaphor (as opposed to the common misconception of big green dinosaur).
Actually, my passion is more properly understood as ALL kaiju (lit. legendary beast, but often translated ‘giant monster’) characters and films, not just Godzilla. So that scoops Gamera, Mothra, Rodan, and in fact any tokusatsu (lit. special effects, but usually applied to Japanese fantasy and science fiction cinema/television). I have been an unabashed fan of this genre since I was but a wee lad.
Like a lot of kids, I was drawn to the excitement of SF and fantasy in all its forms. I read comics. I watched cartoons, I went to the movies, I read books. That last one might not be all that common today. This is some time before the advent of video games… ahem. Importantly, I was a regular reader of ‘monster magazines’ specifically Famous Monsters of Filmland and The Monster Times.

Now these rags are famous for use of stock photos, corny humor, crappy paper, and loads of inaccuracies. But they had what is missing from a lot of fan and genre magazines these days:

These mags just exuded love for monsters and monster movies. They talked about the directors and the screenplays and the actors. They talked about the old things and the new. They had big sections in the back where you could order masks, film clips and back issues. These days, periodicals about supposedly fun things all start with a healthy dose of cynicism. While I don’t want magazines I buy to degenerate into maelstroms of idiocy, everything is just so serious. Nowadays. Fangoria might be the closest thing I’ve seen in a mainstream magazine to still capture some of this spirit. I don’t buy it but I glance through every now and then. If you can find some of the kit mags like Amazing Figure Modeler, those are pretty upbeat and fun too.

Anyway. Through those old periodicals I came to discover Godzilla. A lot of older kaiju fans can tell you that Famous Monsters #144 was the turning point. A special all-Japan science fiction issue it brought the awesomeness home to a grade school age kid. In my hometown Godzilla movies were not shown on TV all that frequently. If I’d run across one I’m sure I would’ve watched it, loved it, and sought more of the same thing. But mostly my childhood was Harryhausen, Hammer, and Universal… all awesome to be sure. Famous Monsters opened the door on this hitherto unseen-by-me universe of city crushing fun and after THAT I made it a point to chase down any local listing that might be a kaiju film. I even bought some of the 8mm trailers and shorts that Famous Monsters sold in its back pages. I found out about The Monster Times and Godzilla was a favorite of theirs. They were constantly running pages about him. It was rough, intermittent going but eventually I started to accumulate kaiju-watching experience.

Like any kid fan I drew the hell out my obsession. I had little notebooks cataloging the monsters. Comparative size charts too. I bought the Aurora model kits, some more than once! Sometime after 1978, after home video cassettes started appearing in homes, I landed the ultimate item, a VHS copy of Destroy All Monsters. Somehow the stars aligned and I was at my uncle’s house (he was the first family member to have a VCR), he had a blank tape, and I had caught a late TV showing of the movie. Fortunate too, that although it isn’t the greatest of the first-gen Godzilla movies it is a pretty good one, and it had the benefit of having so many of the other kaiju all in one film. A new level of accuracy now permeated my drawings. I made all my friends watch the movie that’s for sure. It didn’t make any of them become a frother like I was, but they understood my enthusiasm.

Over in Japan, the fan object marketing craze was not what it is today, but there were a number of Godzilla toys, models and such available over there. But there was little to no connection here. I had the Aurora kits for Godzilla, Rodan and King Ghidorah, but that was just about it as far as ‘official merch’. I didn’t get much chance to tape further movies either. At some point in here I got Mattel’s line of big ‘Shogun Warriors’ that were derived from the jumbo machinder toys from Japan and Godzilla and Rodan were late additions to that range. Now, there is no shortage of crap for kaiju movies, but back then every little thing was like gold to a little fan-kid like me.

Growing up (but not completely obviously) I never lost my love for this genre. As time has worn on, I have always carefully acquired new editions of every kaiju film that comes available. I have collected more modern model kits that make the old ones look crude by comparison. I have burdened my own son with my love of giant monsters. Now he’s as big a fan as I am. For him, toy collections come and go, but the one he always comes back to and continues to actively collect for is his collection of Bandai Godzilla vinyls. He is up to around forty or so. It is easy to find info on kaiju now in fan magazines like G-Fan or on the internet.

Occasionally I get asked to explain just what the big deal is… why hang on to such a kitschy interest? A lot’s been written about this in recent times. As seems inevitable with older pop culture items and icons, kaiju films have been undergoing a reassessment. Since the mid-80s when the first of the so-called Heisei Godzilla films was released (and actually came to US theaters!) tokusatsu films have been given another look, and fans old and new have found a voice in books, magazines and online to focus more appreciation, at least in this country. Godzilla in his home country has usually been given the benefit of the doubt. With more information available, the west has sought out these films in the original cuts with widescreen prints in clean colors. Shown this way, their value culturally and as entertainment becomes much more apparent. Formerly scratchy, faded, and cropped, these were seen as crude, jumpy, camp wrestling fests (and some deserve that description no matter how you clean up the print), the best of the kaiju films now are considered on par or even better than contemporary films from the west.

Japanese sensibilities for what sort of spectacle should be shown are different than the western take on the same subject. Western filmmakers have typically tried to go as realistic as possible, believing the closer you get to ‘the real’ the more the audience gets caught up in the work. Some older western SF films don’t hold up very well because that was the best that could be done with the technology… and the best that a shoestring budget would allow, SF not exactly commanding the blockbuster audience it does today. If viewed through an appreciation for the times and technology these old movies can be fun. The Japanese don’t need the realism so much. They aren’t necessarily averse to it, but more importantly they want the striking image. They want the indelible impression. The awe and the art. Many viewers find that kaiju films hold up well on a number of levels even now when compared to American B-movies and monster films because the Japanese didn’t treat them like B-movies. If you watch a good widescreen DVD in the original Japanese language you will see expansive colorful cinematography. Decent acting from a roster of names that were well-known for other genres not just SF. The special effects may not be realistic, but there are times when the craft of it becomes so apparent, especially today in an age of clicking and dragging our special effects into place. Look at the intricacy of any Tokyo Tower model used in Mothra. Or think about what it would take to marionette King Ghidorah with three heads, two wings, and two tails. NO CG, man. No CG.

Even with scratchy crap prints, as a kid I was in awe of the spectacle. As a grownup, knowing more about what went into these things, I’m just as much in awe of what was done to put them up on the screen. In a western film if something was totally crazy—unworkable or out of budget—it got scrapped. In a kaiju film there was a better than even chance they’d figure out a way to get it up on screen. No US film would’ve dared to show something like King Ghidorah’s birth from a meteor the way it was done in his debut in 1964. We would’ve done something totally lame, or worse yet off-camera. What he actually happened is the meteor cracks open, spews steam, then showers of sparks and soon a fireball shoots up, with a combination of reverse photography and animation having it coalesce in full-view into the aerial monster. This whole process only takes a minute or so, but cripes, as a kid that kind of awesome wasn’t found all over the place. It shows the imagination and attention given, even if the sum effect doesn’t exactly knock the kids out today.

The attitude towards the monsters was different too. They weren’t ‘just animals’ to be eventually killed when the right weapon was found. Typically they were unstoppable, elemental forces, almost godlike. There’s no logic in a 150-ft beast being able to withstand tank shells, rockets, and enough electricity to power Tokyo. But these were ‘legendary beasts’, almost like our conception of superheroes who are more than the sum of mere tissue and bone.

Want to know where the American Godzilla film REALLY failed. It made Godzilla into The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. There is nothing wrong with Beast. It was a great movie, a tribute to Ray Harryhausen. But it is his work on it that makes it a standout. The beast itself is just another prehistoric creature running around ‘til the scientists or military figure out how to put it down. That’s all GINO (the American Godzilla, Godzilla In Name Only) was. With kids and eggs. Even if you don’t like Matthew Broderick or Hank Azaria, if the film had used American resources, money, and effects to make a film about GODZILLA—heat beam, indestructibility, massive skyscraper destruction, and an inscrutable purpose—you KNOW we’d all remember that film A LOT more kindly. Even people who aren’t into kaiju films ‘got’ on some level what was wrong with GINO. Godzilla has a rep as a super-destructive, unstoppable force. Where was that? Where the hell was that? So in the end, although it had been a long time since Hollywood had made a giant monster film of note, it felt lame. Americans have already had plenty of movies with a vulnerable misunderstood monster. One you are supposed to feel sympathetic with at the end. We have Kong.

How awesome was motherfuckin’ Cloverfield? THAT movie captured a lot of what a kaiju film should be about. The street-level personal camera thing didn’t hurt, though I wasn’t too keen on the monster design. That’s okay. I enjoyed that movie quite a bit. After a lot of rumors, sometime last year Legendary Pictures acquired the American rights to a future Godzilla project. Let’s hope they tilt toward Cloverfield and away from GINO.

Now that I’ve kind of opened the door on this not-so-guilty pleasure of mine, I’ll be picking through past (and hopefully future) kaiju films with a goal to proselytizing. More later.

1 comment:

  1. I totally thought you were going to be bringing up the new flick. All that reading, and just a teaser to tune in again!