"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

Saturday, May 24, 2008

「空の大怪獣 ラドン」RODAN (1956)

The titular monster amidst the detailed miniature set of Fukuoka.

Sora-no Daikaiju Radon, Toho, 1956, 82 minutes
Director ISHIRO HONDA • Visual Effects Director EIJI TSUBURAYA

With the success of the first two Godzilla films under his belt, Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka looked to create a new style of monster movie to be shot in color, and solicited a treatment from mystery writer, Ken Kuronuma, who was the one of the translators for the Japanese edition of Amazing Stories magazine. Kuronuma based the core of his treatment on the unexplained, real-life "Mantell Case" of 1948, in which veteran WW2 pilot, Captain Thomas F. Mantell of the Kentucky Air National Guard, died when his aircraft crashed during the pursuit of an Unidentified Flying Object. Such a scene figures prominently in the completed film, and is cited as one of the most memorable in RODAN — one of Toho's finest genre films.

Set on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu (but mostly shot on location in western Japan), RODAN was Toho's first color kaiju eiga featuring a screenplay, written by Takeshi Kimura and Takeo Murata, which centers on two lovers whom are mirrored with the Rodan. While not appearing in Kuronuma's treatment, the murderous super-sized dragonfly larvae, or Meganuron, were inspired by gargantuan ants in Gordon Douglas' THEM! (1954), and became another memorable element of the film. Honda's direction is solid and dramatic, and much less documentarian than GODZILLA (1954), with truly creepy scenes in the dark and claustrophobic coal mine sets, and beautiful panoramic photography of the breathtaking countryside vistas. Heading up the 2nd Unit was Jun Fukuda (1923-2000), who was promoted to director in 1960 with THE SECRET OF THE TELEGIAN, and later became well-known for his stylish gangster movies and outrageous fantasy films.

Toho trumpeted that RODAN starred the "Hopes for 1957," newcomers Kenji Sahara (b.1932) and Yumi Shirakawa (b.1936), who would be paired in several pictures together after RODAN, including THE MYSTERIANS (1957). After placing second in a Toho talent contest in 1953, Sahara was a bit player until RODAN, and summarily became one of the busiest actors at the studio, appearing in over twenty science fiction films. Still active, Sahara recently appeared in the Tsuburaya Productions television series ULTRAMAN NEXUS (2004). Joining Toho in 1956, the beautiful Shirakawa appeared in several of Honda's pictures, and is still acting today. A favorite of Hiroshi Inagaki and Akira Kurosawa, the late Akihiko Hirata (1927-1984) played "Dr. Kashiwagi" and many memorable roles in Toho fantasy films, starting with "Dr. Serizawa" in GODZILLA. Even today, Hirata continues to be one of the most recognizable faces in the history of the genre.

Tsuburaya's elaborate and spectacular visual effects took up 60% of the film's entire production budget, and it's all up there on screen — from beautiful matte paintings to highly detailed miniature sets — and is still quite effective a half-century later. One of his outstanding sequences is the destruction of the Saikai Bridge, a scene that could only be shot once. A matter of precise timing, his wire operators had to pull the Rodan prop over the 1/20 scale bridge, while other crew members pulled another series of wires to collapse the bridge. Shot with several cameras in tandem (a Tsuburaya technique shared by Kurosawa), it all went off perfectly in one take. The finely detailed miniature of the Iwata-ya department store in Fukuoka City (changed to Sasebo City in the U.S. version) was built with real reinforced steel beams, in order to support the weight of monster actor Haruo Nakajima and the 150-pound Rodan costume. Scenes featuring animation of the flying Rodan being pursued by the fighter plane, or streaking through the skies, are still staggeringly realistic.

Because of the international success of GODZILLA in 1956, the U.S. rights for RODAN were immediately acquired by the King Brothers (Maurice, Frank and Herman), who are today best remembered for RODAN (as well as Eugene Lourie's kaiju eiga-styled GORGO, 1961). Starting with a complete work print, several shots excised in the Japanese version were utilized, while the H-Bomb tests seen at the top of the film came from newsreel footage. The English dialogue was written and directed by David Duncan (1913-1999), best known for THE TIME MACHINE (1960). Voice talent included the venerable Keye Luke (KUNG FU) as "Shigeru" and Paul Frees (THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD) as "Nishimura," while a young George Takei, who took RODAN as a summer job — his first acting gig — provided the voice for "Professor Kashiwagi" ("…and at least ten other characters — I lost count!" he recalled). Upon its release in the U.S. in July 1957, RODAN became the highest-grossing science fiction film of that year.

Despite the extensive re-editing of the film (approximately ten minutes shorter than the Japanese, and the removal of some of Ifukube's score), the U.S. version benefits from Duncan's surprisingly poetic narration, especially as the Rodans are consumed in the fiery climax: "Like moths in those rivers of fire, they seemed almost to welcome the agonies of death. The last of their kind, masters of the air and earth, the strongest, swiftest creatures that ever breathed… now, they sank against the earth like weary children. Each had refused to live without the other. And so, they were dying together… I realize now, that by the narrowest of margins, man had proved himself the stronger. But, will it always be so? May not other and more terrible monsters, even now, be stirring in the darkness? And when, at last, they spring upon us, can we be certain to beat them back a second time? That answer lies in the future. Our fears, for now, have gone up in flame and smoke."

Executive Producer TOMOYUKI TANAKA Original Story KEN KURONUMA Screenplay TAKESHI KIMURA and TAKEO MURATA Production Design TATSUO KITA Cinematography ISAMU ASHIDA Film Editor KOICHI IWASHITA Music AKIRA IFUKUBE Visual Effects Production Design AKIRA WATANABE Visual Effects Photography SADAMASA ARIKAWA [US Version] Producers THE KING BROTHERS Film Editor ROBERT EISEN English Dialogue and Director DAVID DUNCAN

Starring KENJI SAHARA (Shigeru Kamura) YUMI SHIRAKAWA (Kiyo) AKIHIKO HIRATA (Professor Kyuichiro Kashiwagi) AKIO KOBORI (Police Chief Nishimura) YOSHIFUMI TAJIMA (Iseki, Seibu News) MINOSUKE YAMADA (Constable Ozaki) RINSAKU OGATA (Goro) and HIDEO MIHARA (Japan Air Self-Defense Forces Commander)

Monday, May 19, 2008

John Phillip Law (1937-2008)

Actor John Philip Law made a strong impression on me as a kid — and little did I know it at the time that he was the very same actor in three memorable films of my youth. I wasn't even in grammar school at the time, but one of my older sisters, who swore me to silence, took me with her and he husband to see Roger Vadim's BARBARELLA (1968) at a drive-in. I didn't really understand anything in the film — but three images were burned into my little mind: The frightening Man-Eating Dolls, Anita Pallenberg as the Black Queen and John Philip Law as the Blind Angel. I doubt that these were healthy images for an impressionable child, but I'm still creeped out by dolls (I'm sure that these memories would make intriguing fodder for some Shrink out there.)

Several years later, I saw Mario Bava's delirious and colorful DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968) in a second-run theater on some double or triple feature, and again, the imagery was scorched into my psyche — Diabolik's sinister costume, Law's intense eyes, and Marisa Mell's incredible, stunning beauty. While I only saw the film once, and it was years before I saw it again (when DANGER: DIABOLIK was released by Paramount Home Video on VHS in the early 1990s), those images were very deeply ingrained.

Somewhere around that time, I rushed to see Gordon Hessler's THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974) upon its first release, and while I had no idea that the star was the very same actor in both DANGER: DIABOLIK and BARBARELLA, the film made a strong impression on me (and still remains my favorite Ray Harryhausen production). Again, as typical with Harryhausen, there were numerous visual wonders in the film — such as the beguiling and murderous Kali — as well as the villainous Koura, played by Tom Baker (DOCTOR WHO), and the most special effect of all, you guessed it, the mesmerizing Caroline Munro (CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER).

By the time I was in High School, I knew John Philip Law as my favorite screen Sinbad, and connected his name to his other films, including BARBARELLA and DANGER: DIABOLIK; and now I am at a loss in expressing how much these films he appeared in fascinated and entertained me over the years. There were many fans who were fortunate to know Mr. Law and were privileged to interview him in recent years. While I was not one of them, I was — and still am — in awe of an actor who truly was larger than life and cooler than thou.

Sleep well, Mr. Law, you will not be forgotten.


Related stories:
Tim Lucas' Video Watchblog
The Telegraph obituary
The LA Times obituary

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Don't You Dare Miss This Event Tonight in Oakland!

Classic Bob Wilkins in the mid-1970s. Has it really been that long?

WATCH HORROR FILMS—KEEP AMERICA STRONG is the new feature-length documentary all about San Francisco's fondly remembered program CREATURE FEATURES (1971-1984) is having it's world premiere — TONIGHT ONLY — at the amazing Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, CA (right across the Bay from San Francisco). This premiere event is a benefit for the "Bob Wilkins Alzheimer's Fund" to help our much beloved Horror Host with the care he needs. This man was my hero as a kid, and if you remember the show, please try to make it out — but if you can't make it, you may send in donations directly to the fund via the official Bob Wilkins website.

See last month's related story "The CREATURE FEATURES Documentary!" for more details!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

フランケンシュタインの怪獣 サンダ対ガイラ

Tsuburaya directs Haruo Nakajima as Gaira, 1966.

Furankenshutain-no Kaiju Sanda tai Gaira (Toho, 1966), 88 minutes
Director ISHIRO HONDA • Director of Visual Effects EIJI TSUBURAYA

One of the most beloved of Toho's non-Godzilla kaiju eiga, THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (Japanese title "Frankenstein's Monsters: Sanda vs. Gaira") was produced as a direct sequel to FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965), but this connection was obscured in the US version by co-producer Henry G. Saperstein. His reasoning was that the characters did not look enough like the Giant Frankenstein from the previous film — the four-year gap between the release of FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD and THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS in the States, may be a better (and more logical) explanation.

The first draft of Mabuchi's screenplay featured the same trio of characters from the previous film, "James Bowen" (Nick Adams) "Sueko Togami" (Kumi Mizuno) and "Yuzo Kawaji" (Tadao Takashima), but for unknown reasons, Nick Adams was not available, and so the characters' names were changed and the parts recast, with Kumi Mizuno (MATANGO) being the holdover (as "Akemi Togawa"). Kenji Sahara, the star of RODAN (1956) and THE MYSTERIANS (1957) replaced Takashima (as "Yuzo Mamiya") and Adams was supplanted by Russ Tamblyn (THE HAUNTING) as "Paul Stewart." The rest of the cast is rounded out with the usual stable of character actors, including Jun Tazaki (ATRAGON), Yoshifumi Tajima (MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA), and Ren Yamamoto (GODZILLA).

Prominently featured in the film are the Self-Defense Forces' mobile Maser Cannons, one of the more evocative and iconic creations in the genre — a tradition that started with the Katusha Rocket Tanks in GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955), the Markalites in THE MYSTERIANS, and the Atomic Heat Ray Cannons in BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (1959) and MOTHRA (1961). The principal behind the weapon was a concentrated microwave beam, used to disrupt the cellular structure of its targets. Designed by Mutsumi Toyoshima (the unsung genius behind some of Toho's famous "mecha"), the Maser Cannons were built upon the A-Cycle Light Ray Cannons previously featured in MONSTER ZERO (1965). The Maser Cannons were also featured in GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972), GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973), and while offshoots and variants appeared in the Godzilla films of the 1990s, the originals were revived for GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA (2002) and GODZILLA: TOKYO SOS (2003).

Another element that has made the film memorable was the Gargantuas themselves and the striking use of the monster suit actors' own eyes, emphasizing the physical performances of Haruo Nakajima (as Gaira, the Green Gargantua) and Hiroshi Sekita (as Sanda, the Brown Gargantua), and allowing for a realistic and unsettling effect. This element of realism is one of the contributing factors in the film's rabid cult following on both sides of the Pacific, coupled with Tsuburaya's highly detailed studio and outdoor miniature sets (roughly 1/10 scale) which achieve a greater illusion of reality — and the furious fight to the death between the monsters — making this one of Tsuburaya's best monster films. Unfortunately, Honda's original concepts concerning the Gargantuas' growth from another's cells (adding a threat of more such creatures), and the original ending, having the undersea volcano engulfing and destroying Tokyo in flaming magma (an ironic twist that Honda wanted to punctuate the ending with), were cut from the final script. Honda later stated that shooting these destruction scenes would have run the film well over budget.

There were a number of editorial changes made between the Japanese and American versions of the film that are worthy of spotlighting: Tamblyn was given more scenes for the US version, including those only featuring Japanese cast members in the original, emphasizing his central importance in the narrative (Tamblyn was also asked to loop his dialogue to remove any references to "Frankenstein"). S. Richard Krown replaced Ifukube's repetitious military march with more suspenseful stock library music cues (including cues cribbed from MONSTER ZERO), which actually help the scenes in question. And there are additional visual effects scenes, unused in the Japanese version, which were employed to great effect, and help to make the US version four minutes longer than the Japanese. Honda told the late Guy Tucker (in his 1996 book, "Age of the Gods"), "Actually, I find [the film] a little boring. I'm glad it's popular, but [I feel that it] doesn't really have much heart."

Executive Producer TOMOYUKI TANAKA and KENICHIRO TSUNODA Screenplay KAORU MABUCHI and ISHIRO HONDA Production Design TAKEO KITA Cinematography HAJIME KOIZUMI Film Editor RYOHEI FUJII Music AKIRA IFUKUBE Visual Effects Production Design YASUYUKI INOUE Monster Design TOHRU NARITA Visual Effects Photography SADAMASA ARIKAWA and SOKEI TOMIOKA [US Version]: Producers HENRY G. SAPERSTEIN and REUBEN BERCOVITCH Original Story RUBEN BERCOVITCH Dialogue Supervisor RILEY JACKSON Film Editor FREDERIC KNUDTSON Production Supervisor S. RICHARD KROWN

Starring RUSS TAMBLYN (Dr. Paul Stewart) KENJI SAHARA (Dr. Yuzo Mamiya) KUMI MIZUNO (Dr. Akemi Togawa) JUN TAZAKI (Colonel Hashimoto) NOBUO NAKAMURA (Professor Kita) YOSHIFUMI TAJIMA (Hirai, Maritime Safety Agency)) NIDAO KIRINO (Lieutenant Kazama) REN YAMAMOTO (Saburo Kameda) and KIP HAMILTON (Nightclub Singer)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

May 7, 1911 - February 28, 1993


Honda (left) with Tsuburaya on the set of GODZILLA in 1954.

Damn, I Really Love Monsters & Lowbrow Art!

"Bad Ass." Acrylic on canvas 16" x 20." © David Durrett

A few months back, I was "knocked for a ghoul" (to paraphrase Toho's English language brochure for VARAN), when I saw one of David Durrett's pieces based on Ishiro Honda's much beloved THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS on a message board. I was especially struck by David's use of texture, color and caricature, which felt as if they were painted in the 1960s during the height of the Kustom Kulture boom — when Ed "Big Daddy" Roth reigned supreme with his knight errant, Rat Fink. The so-called "Lowbrow" art flooded children's hearts with monstrous glee with exaggerated bug-eyed creatures emblazoned on t-shits, trading cards, stickers and model kits. It's a style and sensibility that's been often imitated, but rarely captured.

Then came David Durrett. Born April 1964 in New Orleans, Louisiana, David is the Vice President of Client Service for the Dalton Agency, a full service ad agency in Jacksonville, Florida. A Graduate of Jacksonville University, summa cum laude in Commercial Art, he said "Right after I got out of school, all the hands-on graphics techniques I had learned gave way to computerized approaches, which was great for the industry and for clients, but didn’t appeal to me as an artist." When asked about his influences, he quickly stated, "I’ve been a lifelong fan of Al Hirschfeld, Mort Drucker (who hasn’t), and Ronald Searle. Among current popular artists I really like are Gary Baseman, Tim Biskup, Amanda Visell, and David Horvath—I have many of their toys to prove it."

The Mad Monster Artist hard at work!

After seeing his amazing art, I had to ask why he had been "hiding" all of these years, "I’ve decided to get back into art for a number of reasons. Mainly, I’ve come to realize that my creative side is the part that’s really me, and it’s been dormant for too long. Also, the Lowbrow movement is perfect for artists with my personal history and sensibilities… suddenly, you can merge your art with the pop culture icons you’ve loved since childhood. I also am an avid toy collector, primarily of figures that render two-dimensional cartoon characters into three dimensions. That’s always fascinated me. With Lowbrow, and its offshoot Urban Vinyl, artists themselves are controlling how their characters are transformed into the third dimension, and I’m really into that."

When asked why he has started with the Gargantuas, David replied, "To so many of us, Japanese movie monsters are the stuff of our fondest Saturday morning memories, and Lowbrow gives us a chance to pay tribute as well as offer our own perspective on these characters that we view simultaneously with awe and amusement. (They’re also a lot of fun to render in acrylic.) I remember seeing THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS as one of the summer matinees my mother took me to at the old San Marco Theatre here in Jacksonville. GARGANTUAS was particularly memorable because what I knew as 'the Green one' was so frighteningly and excessively evil, and the fighting between the two was so relentless. Years later I got hold of a DVD and found that my 30-year-old memories were still spot-on."

"The Brown & the Green." Acrylic on canvas 24" x 30". © David Durrett

Asked to comment on "The Brown and the Green," he said, "The brother-against-brother theme suggested one of those tragic stories you read about families torn apart by the Civil War (in fact the script includes such a reference), and I just had to put them into a Matthew-Brady-style portrait complete with full regalia and weaponry. It was a lot of fun to research the uniforms and rifles, and to render such varied surfaces as leather, brass, wood, cloth, gunmetal, and, of course, fur. Following August Ragone’s very encouraging comment that the painting was 'bad ass,' I realized that Gaira perfectly epitomizes the term and was worthy of a follow-up portrait."

"Simultaneously, I have begun pieces with titles ranging from 'Candid Gamera' to 'Toho Presents The Mikado.' I plan to have at least six paintings completed by G-Fest, where I will be offering prints and posters (maybe 'Bad Ass' T-shirts?) as a member of Artists’ Alley. I’ve launched a simple website, daviddurrett.com, where I plan to both show and offer my work. In addition to paying tribute to existing characters, I’d like to develop some of my own, which is a natural progression of subject matter among Lowbrow artists."

Check out David's site at daviddurrett.com and visit him this July 4th-6th at G-Fest in Chicago — his dynamic work redefines the term "Bad Ass" for the Monster Kid in everyone. I'm sure that we'll be hearing a lot more from David and his wonderful Lowbrow creations in the near future — I just hope he remembers me when he's famous!

Friday, May 2, 2008