"There is so much writing in English on Japanese cinema that can't be accepted at face value — not because the writers are careless, but because the differences in culture and language are just too intricate. When I see August Ragone's name on a piece of writing, it gives me permission to place my faith in it completely. Among Japanese fantasy film historians, he's the best working in English." —Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Legendary Japanese Tokusatsu Magazine Returns


Reborn with new logo by director Kieta "Zeiram" Amemiya.

It's here! I have been waiting three years for its return, but have grown anxious since the official announcement last fall... and now, it's here! The legendary Uchusen (or "Spaceship") magazine has been reborn like a mythical phoenix! I feel like a kid waiting for his new issue of Famous Monsters to arrive in the mail. Some of you might be asking, "what's all of the fuss about?"

Originally launched in 1980 by Tokyo-based Asahi Sonorama publishing house, Uchusen was the premiere source for Japanese genre fans to learn about the latest in news from Japan and abroad on upcoming productions and extensive retrospectives — with an emphasis on classics of tokusatsu eiga and television. From the first issue, with Kaida's evocative cover — seen below and revisited in the cover of the relaunch seen above — readers were hooked. For 25 years, I was hooked, too, and couldn't wait to get my hands on the latest issue — each and every issue was a proverbial treasure trove of stills and information.

Premiere Issue, 1980 with Yuji Kaida cover and title design.

I first met the original editor, Saki Hijiri, at WesterCon 32 in San Francisco during the summer of 1979, when he and his crew (including now-famed illustrator Yuji Kaida) were putting together the first issue. During the convention and I was privy to see — as were fans in Chicago — some of Kaida's amazing cut-away drawings for famous SF automatons, such as Robby the Robot, which would appear in the premiere volume. Because of this fortunate meeting, I got my teenage mug in that very first issue promoting my Godzilla Fan Club and met many great people though that ad, at home and abroard, including the late Guy Tucker (author of Age of the Gods: The History of the Japanese Fantasy Film).

Over the years, American fans and professionals who were visited by Saki-san and Co. during their annual sojourns, were generously given copies of the latest issues, each packed with amazing photos and graphics. Uchusen also celebrated and exposed the outside world to the phenomenon of Garage Kits. Even though many people outside of Japan have never heard of Uchusen magazine, the influence it made on those in the Hollywood visual effects community, old and new, has yet to be told. Even I was impacted in strange ways. One day, I received a call at work from Saki-san who desperately needed someone to pick them up from San Francisco International Airport. My boss refused to let me leave early, so I walked. That job blew anyhow.

Fantastic Collection No.13: Gammera (1979).

Initially, the magazine grew out of a series of one-shot publications called Fantastic Collection, each covering a specific topic from SCIENCE NINJA TEAM: GATCHAMAN to GODZILLA, which were aimed at the young adult and adult fan, and were met with enthusiastic response and sales. So, Asahi Sonorama offered Saki-san and Co. a magazine of their own, as long as they continued working on Fantastic Collection series as well. Uchusen started out as a quarterly, and saw highs and lows right from the beginning (it was almost canceled when sales of #6 hit rock bottom, and was fortunately saved by the strong sales of the following issues), but managed to always be there, as it went to bi-monthly and back again to quarterly. Then, back to bi-monthly for the remainder of its run. Fans of Uchusen, such as myself and other readers around the world, had always relied on it to be there.

Then there's that annoying axiom, "All good things must come to an end." Over the last decade, the fandom-lauded magazine seemed to be losing its edge. There were fewer and fewer retrospective articles on Toho's Golden Age, and there was an overall feeling lacking with newer issues. Another problem also reared its ugly head — competition from similar upstart periodicals such as Newtype the Live (Kadokawa Publishing) and Toei Hero Max (Tatsumi Publishing), who were pulling away Uchusen's waning readership. While the magazine saw several editors at the helm after Saki-san departed, for better or worse, it began improving in content and interview subjects in 2004 — but, the inevitable could not be avoided.

Final issue with Asahi Sonorama, 2005.

Due to declining sales, Asahi Sonorama felt that the magazine was "old fashioned," and therefore should go on hiatus, and when/if it returned, Uchusen would be completely re-imagined, said then-Chief Editor, Akihiro Fukuba in #119 (July 2005)... Uchusen's "last issue." While Newtype the Live and Toei Hero Max have continued successfully, the void left by their forerunner's impact was immeasurable. Sadly, there were no signs that the magazine would return, and it seemed as though the statements by Asahi Sonorama were a polite way of telling their readers, "Uchusen has left the building."

Things were looking especially dark last year, when Asahi Sonorama decided to call it quits. During their nearly fifty years in business, the publisher launched hundreds of successful magazines and specialty books — especially during the "Monster Boom" of the mid-to-late 1960s — and they were also the progenitors of the "Sonosheet" (or "flexi disc") record phenomenon in Japan. Today, the evocative art of their books and Sonosheet EPs give many Japanese fans in their 40s and 50s warm, fuzzy feelings, causing them to involuntarily sigh, "Natsukashii!" (akin to saying, "Ah, memories!").

ULTRAMAN Sonosheet storybook EP, circa 1966.

Then, like an Angel swooping down from the heavens, rescue came the in form of the perennial and vastly popular Hobby Japan Co., which publishes — you guessed it — Hobby Japan magazine. The publishing company purchased the vast holdings to Asahi Sonorama's back catalogue, including their considerable tokusatsu materials and titles, including Uchusen magazine. Soon afterwards, it was announced online and via Hobby Japan that the re-birth of everyone's favorite "Space Mag Controlled by [the] Visual Age" was nigh. Now, it's back — and it's about time!

Do yourself a favor and grab yourself a copy of Uchusen #120 from Amazon Japan and see what all of the fuss it about!

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