"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, June 30, 2008

Haruo "Mr. Godzilla" Nakajima Returns to G-Fest


"I'm not as afraid of Godzilla as I am the Editor; he's meaner."

This week I will be heading to Chicago as a guest of the only kaiju eiga (Japanese monster movie) convention in North America, G-Fest XV, taking place July 4th-7th, at the Crown Plaza O’Hare. I’ve only attended two of the previous events held in Southern California (for which I put together video programming and co-hosted several presentations), mostly because the event is ostensibly held in Chicago — and how does one choose between Chicago and Tokyo? Other times, I’ve been so caught up with things at home, I space on attending G-Fest (I do the same thing with Comic Con, too). But, things are different this year.

First off, my book on the father of Japanese Visual Effects was released this past November, and as the author, I am compelled to make the rounds to press flesh and forge my name on tomes — otherwise known as book signings. Secondly, the organizers of G-Fest XV have invited Haruo Nakajima, the actor-cum-stuntman who played a plethora of monsters for Eiji Tsuburaya and was the primary man in the Godzilla suit from the original GODZILLA (1954) through GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972). With Nakajima there, whom I haven’t seen in eight years, how could I not go?

And so, writer Brett Hommenick and I will have the great honor of conducting the on-stage interview with Mr. Nakajima at G-Fest XV on Saturday from 10:00 am-12:00 pm. We will cover his career from Godzilla to Ultraman, and ask for the behind-the-scenes stories on making these classics, including his near death experiences on the set. Mr. Nakajima will be attending the event all weekend, and this is going to be a special, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for fans, who haven’t already had the pleasure, to meet with the man they call Godzilla.

Other guests attending G-Fest XV include UFC fighter-cum-actor Don Frye who appeared as “Captain Gordon Douglas” in Ryuhei Kitamura’s awful GODZILLA FINAL WARS (2004). Who knew that the German filmmaker Jörg Buttgereit, who made the notorious NEKROMANTIK (1987), was a Godzilla fan? Jörg, who has put together extras for Deutsch DVD releases of kaiju eiga (including interviews with folks such as Mr. Nakajima), will be at G-Fest XV to shoot footage and interviews for his new documentary, Monsterland! Returning to G-Fest XV will be noted writer Donald F. Glut and actor Robert Scott Field.

At G-Fest XV I will also be hosting two special presentations: The Genesis of Ultraman (Friday from 2:00pm-3:00pm) which will explore the origins of the classic 1966 series produced by Eiji Tsuburaya, how it was produced, and the cultural impact the series continues to have today, around the world, through continued rebroadcasts and spinoffs. On Saturday from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm, I have selected over 150 behind-the-scenes photos for Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, which will take us through all the major fantasy films from GODZILLA to LATITUDE ZERO. If you are attending G-Fest XV, you won’t want to miss this show.

Over the weekend, I will also be participating on these philosophical panels about Japanese Monster Movies, which should prove to be a lot of fun: What is a Kaiju? on Friday from 3:00-4:00 pm, will try to search for what makes Japanese monsters Japanese, and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS 40th Anniversary on Sunday from 2:30-3:00 pm, celebrating one of the most beloved Godzilla films of the 1960s. Of course, there are other great presentations and events at G-Fest XV (and bad-ass lowbrow artist David Durrett will be there, too), but they don’t want me to spoil the fun for you!

Dammit, Jet Jaguar! I almost forgot about the book signing! Over the weekend, I will be scribbling rude comments into copies of my book, EIJI TSUBURAYA: MASTER OF MONSTERS at the Clawmark Toys booth in the Dealer’s Room. I will be signing from 6:00 pm-8:00 pm on Friday, 3:30 pm-5:30 pm on Saturday, and 10:00 am-12:00 pm on Sunday (all times approximate and subject to change, unless you buy me dinner). I hope to see you there!

For more information about G-Fest XV, please go to their official website at G-Fan.com.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

「美女と液体人間」THE H-MAN (1958)

Shirakawa's Beauty is threatened by Tsuburaya's Beast.


Bijo to Ekitai Ningen, Toho, 1958, 87 minutes
Director ISHIRO HONDA • Visual Effects Director EIJI TSUBURAYA

Often woefully mistaken for a rip-off of Irving S. Yeaworth Jr.’s THE BLOB (1958), "The Beauty and the Liquefied Man" (the film’s Japanese title) was in production long before the infamous creature feature ever hit American screens. According to official records, a former Shochiku Studios actor who was hired by Toho, under his new stage name, Hideo Unagami, submitted the story treatment that became THE H-MAN (the film’s U.S. title). His story caught the eye of producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, and was pushed through for development under the supervision of genre specialists, Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya — thus launching Toho's "Mutant Series," incorporating Honda's THE HUMAN VAPOR (1960) and MATANGO (1963).

As with the original GODZILLA (1954), the premise of THE H-MAN was based on the real-life "Lucky Dragon" incident, where a Japanese fishing trawler wandered into the waters of the H-Bomb test site at Bikini Atoll. The crew and their catch became radioactive, and death came to several of the crewmembers as a result of poisoning from radioactive fallout. In November 1957, Tanaka, Honda and Tsuburaya finalized the story with writer Takeshi Kimura, who penned the screenplays for RODAN (1956) and THE MYSTERIANS (1957). The pessimistic Kimura was put in charge of fleshing out Unagami’s treatment, and created a world where the law is only a thin veil that differentiates the police from organized crime.

This mixture of detective story and science fiction was not new to the Japanese; "Tantei Shosetsu Henkaku" (or Irregular Detective Fiction) took root in the 1920s with the rise in popularity of such pulp magazines such as Shinseinen (New Youth) and Kagaku Gaho (Science Pictorial), where this sub-genre originated. The first movies in this vein were Daiei Studio's THE RAINBOW MAN and ENTER THE INVISIBLE MAN (both 1949), the latter with inspired effects work created by Tsuburaya. While Toei made Rampo Edogawa’s juvenile stories, Boys Detective Gang, into a series of films between 1954-1958, THE H-MAN was far more adult; with its mixture of seedy nightclubs, lurid characters and drug smuggling — akin to similar "Anokokugai" (Underworld) pictures pouring out of post-war Japanese studios, such as Seijun Suzuki's UNDERWORLD BEAUTY (1958).

Honda paired Kenji Sahara and Yumi Shirakawa for the third, and last, time in THE H-MAN. Playing the young theoretical scientist, Sahara would continue to appear in many films for Honda, as well as star in Tsuburaya's classic television series ULTRA Q (1966). Shirakawa plays a Cabaret Chanteuse, and shortly thereafter was cast in such films as Yasujiro Ozu's EARLY AUTUMN (1961). She only made a handful of fantasy films after THE H-MAN, Jun Fukuda’s THE SECRET OF THE TELEGIAN (1960), Shuei Matsubayashi’s THE LAST WAR (1961) and Honda’s GORATH (1962), and then married Nikkatsu Studios star Hideaki Nitani (TOKYO DRIFTER). Cutting an imposing figure as the vile "Uchida," Makoto Sato was launched into a long career as heavies and heroes alike, despite his brutish features, and recently appeared in Takayoshi Watanabe’s DEAR HINAGON (2005).

Although there are no colossal beasts in THE H-MAN, Tsuburaya managed to conjure up some very special effects for this picture; especially eerie is the hydrogen ooze that dissolves the human victims — and when the shapeless mutants manifest into humanoid forms (most notably, during the flashback set aboard the "haunted" fishing trawler). Another remarkable visual effect is the death of Detective Sakata (Yoshifumi Tajima), when the liquefied creatures dissolve him in the cabaret. While these effects were considered somewhat shocking in 1958, even more shocking were the scantily-clad cabaret dancers, who were a little racier than allowed in mainstream American cinemas at the time. (While Columbia Pictures' trims for the U.S. release resulted in more than five minutes of footage hitting the cutting room floor, most was comprised of police exposition, the aforementioned saucy bits, and some of the shots in the sewers featuring Shirakawa in nothing more than a slip.)

To achieve the effect of the dissolving human beings, Tsuburaya had life-sized latex dummies of the actors made, and dressed them up as their flesh-and-blood counterparts. Shooting with high speed cameras, Tsuburaya’s crew literally let the air out of these dummies, and when combined with optical effects in post-production, they appear to be dissolved by the gelatinous monsters. Then, there’s the creeping ooze itself (cooked up from a special silicon compound), which was manipulated on special sets constructed to roll 60%, thus allowing the deadly miasma to threaten the cast. Tsuburaya also created some atmospheric miniature photography of the ghost ship for the title sequence and the creepy flashback, as well as the spooky lattice of sewers under Tokyo — transformed into a raging inferno, as they are engulfed in the conflagration created to incinerate the H-Men in the fiery climax.


Starring KENJI SAHARA (Dr. Masada) AKIHIKO HIRATA (Detective Tominaga) YUMI SHIRAKAWA (Chikako Arai) EITARO OZAWA (Chief Detective Miyashita) MAKOTO SATO (Uchida) YOSHIO TSUCHIYA (Detective Taguchi) YOSHIFUMI TAJIMA (Detective Sakata) TETSU NAKAMURA (Chen) NIDAO KIRINO (Shimazaki) AYUMI SONODA (Emi) NAOMI SHIRAISHI (Mineko) MACHIKO KITAGAWA (Hanae) TADAO NAKAMARU (Detective Seki) HISAYA ITO (Masaki) and KOREYA SENDA (Professor Maki)

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Monday, June 2, 2008

"Eiji Tsuburaya" Conquers the World!


The Father of Japanese Visual Effects: Eiji Tsuburaya!

Alright, that might be overdoing it, but as an old friend of mine, Spencer Coppens, used to punctuate his hysterical nightclub managing accounts, "Who knew?" When I was researching and writing EIJI TSUBURAYA: MASTER OF MONSTERS, I knew that it would be immediately embraced by fans of Japanese Monster Movies, Asian Cinema and Classic Fantasy/Horror/Science Fiction Films, a voracious, but very niche, demographic. Even a year ago, I would have never imagined the volume of mainstream attention — and accolades — that the book has generated outside of the unfortunately labeled, "Fandom Ghetto," in the wake of its release.

Positive notices have been pouring in since last fall, from The Library Journal and Locus Online to Barnes & Noble and Time Magazine. (Time Magazine? Somebody pinch me!) Most of them unanimous in their praise for the book itself and it's mission — to bring Eiji Tsuburaya into the international spotlight. I was also taken aback that it was nominated for a coveted "Rondo Award," and all of the book signings (so far) have surprised not only me, but the managers of the venues as well. It's all about timing, and it has been extremely fortuitous — right now, people are interested in reading (and hearing) about Tsuburaya's films, as well as his life, achievements and innovations.

The door has finally been opened — and the reviews keep coming in. Chelsea Bauch, in the June 2008 issue of Boldtype ("The Monthly Review of Books Worth Reading"), has kindly written:

"Ragone's account is an insightful look at the innovation and technology behind one of the industry's pioneering craftsmen. Tsuburaya is still widely honored in Japan, but his international recognition is often eclipsed by his iconic creatures... And yet, as Ragone tells it, the story behind their construction is as engrossing as their infamous acts of destruction... MASTER OF MONSTERS is part biography, part coffee-table art book... balancing Ragone's absorbingly detailed account with stunning images of the man in action... Although the subject matter may seem esoteric, Tsuburaya's story is as much about the evolution of Japanese cinema as it is about one of its most pivotal practitioners."

That has been my mission — to shine a beacon onto Eiji Tsuburaya and let people be drawn to that light (no Mothra puns intended or implied). It didn't have to be me, but somebody had to do it. This is the first major step in a long journey and has been a culmination of years of dedication on my part. After decades of reading mostly snide, dismissive and condescending comments in English-language publications on Visual Effects and Science Fiction Films (some bordering on racist), with others being erroneous (because of the language barrier or lazy research), or passing him over altogether (some out of ignorance or distain), Eiji Tsuburaya can no longer be swept under the rug, and is now getting his due outside of the confines of his birthplace (where he is still widely respected and revered by filmmakers and fans, alike).

His was the first name that stuck to my pre-adolescent grey matter, when I read the TV Guide listing for the sadly-titled ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE (1963), which ended with, "Special Effects by Eiji Tsuburaya." This was the start of my lifelong obsession to discover more about the reality outside of the narrative of the movies themselves — the people behind the cameras and how the films were made — and put them into context. After that initial epiphany (in a long succession of them), the next boot in my arse came from an article on Tsuburaya in #110 of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, featuring some amazing behind-the-scenes production stills (one of which I made sure got into the book). My fate was sealed.

But, this is not about me. It never has been; I'm merely the vessel — it's all about Eiji... and it's about damned time.

For a sample of more reviews, as well as announcements of upcoming book signings and film screenings, please visit the official MySpace page for Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters