"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

Monday, March 17, 2008

MOTHRA (1961)

Staggering detail-perfect miniature of the Shibuya Ward in MOTHRA.

Mosura (Toho, 1961), 101 minutes
Director ISHIRO HONDA • Director of Visual Effects EIJI TSUBURAYA

At the time of its production, MOTHRA was Toho's largest scale kaiju eiga (monster movie) made during the Golden Age, starting with GODZILLA and refined with RODAN. The studio solicited three novelists to each write one-third of a story, based on the treatment for the film, and serialized in the Weekly Asahi. Screenwriter Sekizawa only took basic cues from the short story, added the fairy tale atmosphere, and created a wonderful synergy between the three main characters. The climax in the fictional "New Kirk City" (a hybrid of San Francisco and NYC) was not in the original screenplay, but was commissioned by Columbia Pictures, due to the success of their Stateside releases of THE H-MAN (1958) and BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (1959). The original ending was already shot and was jettisoned in favor of this new climax, which added far greater scope to the film.

A major element of MOTHRA is the wondrous and beautiful score by seasoned composer Yuji Koseki (1908-1989), who occasionally wrote film music (TOWER OF LILLIES), but whose career concentrated on penning hit songs for Nippon Columbia's pop stars. Koseki was not only chosen because of his previous work with pop sensation The Peanuts (twins Yumi and Emi Ito, who were cast as the "Little Beauties"), but because the film is essentially operatic — the music is an integral part of the story. Koseki had been instrumental in writing The Peanuts' biggest hits, and penned their songs for MOTHRA, "The Song of Mothra" (lyrics by Koji Yuki*) and "The Daughters of Infant Island" (lyrics by Susumu Ike*). Koseki and The Peanuts were the perfect choice for MOTHRA, as its fairly tale setting could have been lost in the heavy compositions of Akira Ifukube.

Tsuburaya's team had their work cut out for them, with the scope and size of the miniature sets needed, as well the sheer number of effects sequences required by the screenplay. The Minato Ward, landmarked by the massive Tokyo Tower, was the most enormous miniature set ever built at the time, and accurate, right down to the last house (in 1/100 scale to accommodate the four foot-long mechanical prop of the caterpillar). Other scenes of the caterpillar wrecking havoc was accomplished with a nearly thirty foot-long "costume," needing seven operators (with veteran monster suit actor Haruo "Godzilla" Nakajima in the lead). The sequence where Mothra thrashes the Shibuya Ward (and it's train station in glorious 1/20-scale) is now fully restored in this presentation. The volume and detail of the visual effects are pure motion picture spectacle — and 43 years after it's first release, is still awe-inspiring in its scope, craftsmanship and sheer audacity.

MOTHRA was a massive hit, selling over sold over nine million tickets (impressive for a country smaller than California). There is much to appreciate about viewing MOTHRA, but it is also the vital lynchpin in the development of the genre. No kaiju eiga, before or since, has touched its size and magnitude — a film like MOTHRA simply could not be produced today. Sekizawa's witty screenplay, spot-on acting from leads Frankie Sakai (SHOGUN), Kyoko Kagawa (HIGH AND LOW), Hiroshi Koizumi (LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS) and Jerry Ito (YOU CAN SUCCEED, TOO), the wonderful vocals by The Peanuts, inspired direction by Honda and the visual detail of Tsuburaya, make MOTHRA irresistible entertainment — and one of the finest films ever produced by Toho Motion Picture Company.

Executive Producer TOMOYUKI TANAKA Screenplay SHINICHI SEKIZAWA (based on the stories by Shinichiro Nakamura, Takehiko Fukunaga and Yoshie Hotta) Production Design TAKEO KITA and TERUAKI ABE Cinematography HAJIME KOIZUMI Film Editor KAZUJI TAIRA Music YUJI KOSEKI Sound Effects ICHIRO MINAWA Visual Effects Production Design AKIRA WATANABE Optical Photography YUKIO MANODA Visual Effects Photography SADAMASA ARIKAWA

Starring FRANKIE SAKAI (Senichiro Fukuda, Nitto News Reporter) KYOKO KAGAWA (Michi Hanamura, Nitto News Photographer) HIROSHI KOIZUMI (Dr. Shinichi Chujo) KEN UEHARA (Dr. Harada) JERRY ITO (Clark Nelson) YUMI and EMI ITO (Little Beauties) AKIHIRO TAYAMA (Shinji Chujo) SATOSHI NAKAMURA (Nelson's Henchman) OSMAN "JOHNNY" YUSEF (Nelson's Henchman) OBER WYATT (Dr. Roth) ROBERT DUNHAM (New Kirk City Police Chief) ED KEANE (New Kirk City Mayor) and TAKASHI SHIMURA (Amano, Nitto News Editor)

*"Koji Yuki" was the pen name for Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ishiro Honda and Shinichi Sekizawa. "Susumu Ike" was the pen name of Koji Kajita, who was generally Honda's chief assistant director.

MOTHRA plays with BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE at Landmark's Clay Theater in San Francisco on March 20th as part of "Monsters of Mass Destruction: A Tribute to Eiji Tsuburaya" at 3:30 & 7:30 PM


Tsuburaya prepares to shoot the Earth Forces' sortie to the Moon.

Uchu Daisenso (Toho, 1959), 90 minutes
Director ISHIRO HONDA • Director of Visual Effects EIJI TSUBURAYA

BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE opens with a shot of an evocative orbital space station, a title card pronouncing the year as "1965" — an odd date in retrospect, since we know that these advances did not come to pass (the first Moon landing still over a decade away). "Why 1965," one might ask? This is because the film is a loose sequel to THE MYSTERIANS (1957), and within that context, it makes perfect sense — the nations of the world dropped their petty hostilities to unite against a common foe, and were ultimately able to narrowly repel the invaders. In the eight years between the settings of THE MYSTERIANS and BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, Mankind has absorbed the alien technology, and have advanced in science by leaps and bounds — and are just reaching out into space with these technological advancements.

Another confusing element for some viewers was that while a number of the characters from THE MYSTERIANS are carried over to this spectacle (both based on short stories by former test pilot-turned-science fiction writer, Jojiro Okami), the roles were cast with different actors (the original actors were unavailable when the production went into full swing). Most notably, Takashi Shimura (Kanbei in SEVEN SAMURAI) was replaced by Koreya Senda (GATE OF HELL) to essay "Dr. Adachi"; while the stunning Kyoko Anzai (TOKYO HOLIDAY) replaced Yumi Shirakawa (EARLY AUTUMN) as "Etsuko Shiraishi." BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE also features one of the largest non-Japanese supporting casts in a genre film, with Leonard Stanford (THEY WERE EXPENDABLE) stepping in for George Furness as "Dr. Richardson," while Harold Conway (TORA! TORA! TORA!) returned as "Dr. Immelman."

Even though the film lacks the presence of the great Takashi Shimura, it gained an intense performance from Yoshio Tsuchiya, who played "Rikichi" in SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), as the alien-enslaved "Yuichi Iwamura." Tsuchiya (b.1927) excelled in complex or tortured characters, and because of his acting prowess, was hand-picked for Kurosawa's ensemble of actors. Tsuchiya jumped at the chance to play the masked leader of the Mysterians, rather than play one of the human characters, despite the studio’s wishes, and continued to play roles as monsters or madmen in THE HUMAN VAPOR (1960), MATANGO (1963), MONSTER ZERO (1965) and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968). Leading man, Ryo Ikebe (b. 1918), played "Ichiro Katsumiya," a top-billed leading man and renown actor who appeared in such films as Kaneto Shindo's PALE FLOWER (1964), and was still playing leading men well into his 40s. He also appeared in the science fiction films GORATH (1963) and THE WAR IN SPACE (1977).

Artist Shigeru Komatsuzaki (1915-2001), who conceived the iconic '50s spacecraft designs, also provided similar chores on THE MYSTERIANS, which refined by Art Director Akira Watanabe and his staff. Komatsuzaki would later go on to create one of the most memorable icons of science fiction cinema for ATRAGON (1963). BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE is one of the most action-oriented and miniature-filled of Toho's early special effects productions, trumping the vast majority of space pictures of the time, and Eiji Tsuburaya outdid himself in regards to the sheer number of effects scenes, especially during the final battle above the Earth — which floored audiences in 1959 — and can only be fully appreciated on the Big Screen, the way these films were meant to be seen.

Executive Producer TOMOYUKI TANAKA Original Story JOJIRO OKAMI Screenplay SHINICHI SEKIZAWA Production Design TERUAKI ABE Cinematography HAJIME KOIZUMI Film Editor KAZUJI TAIRA Music AKIRA IFUKUBE Sound Effects ICHIRO MINAWA Special Effects Production Design AKIRA WATANABE and SHIGERU KOMATSUZAKI Visual Effects Photography SADAMASA ARIKAWA Optical Photography HIDESABURO ARAKI

Starring RYO IKEBE (Major Ichiro Katsumiya) KYOKO ANZAI (Etsuko Shiraishi) KOREYA SENDA (Dr. Adachi) LEONARD STANFORD (Dr. Roger Richardson) HAROLD CONWAY (Dr. Immelman) YOSHIO TSUCHIYA (Yuichi Iwamura) HISAYA ITO (Kogure) NADAO KIRINO (Okada) ELSIE RITCHER (Sylvia) GEORGE WYMAN (Dr. Ahmed) ED KEANE (US General) and MINORU TAKADA (Defense Commander)

BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE plays with MOTHRA (1961) at Landmark's Clay Theater in San Francisco on March 20th as part of "Monsters of Mass Destruction: A Tribute to Eiji Tsuburaya" at 5:30 & 9:30 PM

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Tribute to Eiji Tsuburaya in San Francisco

On March 20th, in celebration of the release of my book, EIJI TSUBURAYA: MASTER OF MONSTERS, San Francisco's Clay Theater will proudly present a spectacular Tohoscope double feature dedicated to the legendary director of visual effects (known in Japan as the "Tokusatsu-no Kamisama"). The event will feature beautiful 35mm scope prints of Ishiro Honda's MOTHRA (1961) and BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (1959) for one night only — courtesy of Sony Repertory — where they belong, on the big screen!

The Clay will be screening the uncut Japanese-language version of MOTHRA, featuring scenes edited from the original U.S. release in 1962, and fully subtitled in English. The spectacle that is MOTHRA is one of my personal favorite of all of Toho's fantasy films from the Golden Era, and was a big hit on both sides of the Pacific: New York Times film critic, A.H. Weiler said, "There's that color, as pretty as can be, that now and then smites the eye with some genuinely artistic panoramas and décor designs... Fantastic though the plot may be, there are some genuinely penetrating moments, such as the contrast of the approaching terror and those patient, silvery-voiced little 'dolls,' serenely awaiting rescue. Several of the special effects shots are brilliant, such as the sight of a giant cocoon nestling against a large city's power station tower."

Meanwhile, BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE will be the English-language version produced and released by Columbia Pictures in 1960. A sequel to THE MYSTERIANS (1957), BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE is generally derided as a lesser film by some fans, but I find it more dramatically and technically accomplished than the former — the stakes are much higher, the destruction is world-wide, and the final confrontation above the Earth was the first of its kind (18 years before STAR WARS). New York Times film critic, Howard Thompson said, "Some of the artwork is downright nifty, especially in the middle portion, when an earth rocket soars to the moon to destroy the palpitating missile base... The Japanese have opened a most amusing and beguiling bag of technical tricks, as death-dealing saucers whiz through the stratosphere like fireflies... the lunar landscape is just as pretty as it can be."

For the evening performance, I will be on hand to introduce both features and sign copies of my book during the intermission (courtesy Super 7, who will be also selling related merchandise). For more information on this event, and how to order tickets, please click here: TOHO DOUBLE FEATURE @ Landmark After Dark.