THE TOHO LEGACY
Part One: 1960 – 1962
by Greg Shoemaker with editorial assistance by Randall Larson
Original Article Published in JAPANESE FANTASY FILM JOURNAL # 13 – 1981
The Japanese Fantasy Film Journal (JFFJ) was the first significant American Kaiju fanzine. Created, published and edited by Greg Shoemaker, JFFJ was published on a yearly basis from 1968 to 1983. JFFJ covered the entire spectrum of Japanese fantasy film, but with an emphasis on live-action SFX films, especially the Godzilla series. Highly regarded by Kaiju fans both then and now, JFFJ was well-designed by Mr. Shoemaker and offered skillful analysis of it’s subject. Earlier issues were mimeographed, with the last few being printed offset. JFFJ was never mass-marketed, but was made available only to a select population of Kaiju enthusiasts. Though JFFJ ceased publication in 1983 and lasted for only 15 issues, it is universally considered both the insparation and the standard for all later Kaiju-related fanzines.
he Japanese cinema of the fantastic has proliferated, reaching the conclusion of its third decade in spite of the opinion from those who wish it never to have existed. The most prolific of the studios has been Toho International Inc; whose lead has apparently provided a course the country’s remaining film companies elected to pursue, and in so doing procreated a national image as to style and content. To view the film works of Toho is thus to perceive the whole, including the Japanese people’s bent for fantasy entertainment. In this study of the Toho phenomenon, the following installments will bear commentary upon the 1960 through 1970s period.
The first part of the decade finds Toho surprising its critics, and proponents as well, with a marked divergence from monster fantasy for three productions, two of them bearing so striking a similarity that Toho’s reticence toward innovation is finally becoming apparent. Yet, Toho has taken several steps forward in 1961, one of which is THE HUMAN VAPOR, an offbeat scifi/fantasy thriller whose undertone of horror is borrowed from “The Phantom of the Opera.” Here a love affair affected by science gone awry, rather than in Leroux’s novel in which love has gone awry, as detailed in the following:
The story deals with a man who, through a freak scientific experimental accident, is given the power to turn into “vapor” at will. A love affair revolves around a dancer and the vapor-man who uses his newly acquired talent to secure financing through robberies and murder to aid his lover in keeping her classical dance school alive while the police attempt to break the mysterious crimes. In the end, the dancer, consumed by desperation and love, blows up herself and the vapor-man in a fiery holocaust. The vapor-man and the dancer apparently are caught in the throes of change. For her, interest in classical Japanese dancing is on the wane; for him, as guinea pig, a failed experiment of modern science produces an unfortunate side-effect. Their love for one another produces another side-effect, perhaps positive in nature. Threatened by the world around them, both pitiful souls are transported to some more hopeful dimension where their infatuation can continue by an explosive, life-comsuming force at film’s end.
Director Honda and special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya enthrall the viewer each in effective manipulation of his field. Honda slowly introduces the audience to a realization that the film is not what it appears. The picture unfolds with each “clue” transforming that which seems to be a rather routine melodrama crime film into a vision of uncontrolled madness. Tsuburaya incredibly brings the unstoppable terror to life in a series of creative tableauxs each time the menace is loosed to provide for his beloved. THE HUMAN VAPOR is a slow film, exacting much from the viewer to maintain his attention, but an unusual story and threatening progression into the bizarre. appended by slices of Japanese mores, prescribes recognition for the film as an example of excellent fantasy.
Toho, in their promotional material, describes SECRET OF THE TELEGIAN as, “A thrilling, exciting and entertaining drama of ‘Science of Tomorrow.” Basically a crime film, as was THE HUMAN VAPOR, TELEGIAN’s twist concerns an incredible machine which enables a man to be transmitted on an electric current to distant places in a bare instant. The apparatus is used by the “Telegian” to gain murderous revenge upon fellow members of the former Imperial Japanese Army who had left him for dead during WW II, forewarning them of their death by sending them military ID tags. The “Telegian’s” murderous rampage ceases when the transmitter he is in goes haywire. Far from innovative today, matter transfer, still years away from reality if it is at all possible to accomplish, in 1960 garners interest here due to scarcity of filmic pieces plying the idea prior to TELEGIAN. Handled matter-of-factly throughout the movie. the teleportation device is clumsily portrayed by a telephone booth-like set piece reminiscent of that used in THE FLY series and features a rather disappointing disappearing act from Tsuburaya’s usual extravagant imagination. A paucity of effects indicates a storyline geared to the verbal rather than the visual, requiring creativity on the part of the director. Unfortunately, Jun Fukuda’s leaden direction appears starved for Tsuburaya’s garnishes.
A comparison between SECRET OF THE TELEGIAN and THE HUMAN VAPOR cannot be ignored due to their identical years of release and the common crime structure. Both films climax in surprise revelations wherein an antagonist receives retributive justice for audacities to mankind. There is the “science gone wrong” prevalent in the titles as well, which makes it appear as though Toho may dread a technological breakthrough as a threat via misuse or that man must pay dearly for his cultivation. Lastly, THE HUMAN VAPOR and SECRET OF THE TELEGIAN sport murderers committing crimes abetted by an ability to appear/disappear at will, courtesy of machine or mental command.
The departure from proven formulas continues for Toho with its release of MY FRIEND DEATH, a black comedy minus special effects, detectives, newspaper correspondents, and color cinematography. Along the lines of DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, this motion picture personifies “Death” as a character who becomes involved in the attempts of Hachigoro, an undertaker’s assistant. to win the hand of a beautiful woman. A number of dark bargains are arranged: “Death” helping Hachigoro become a great doctor by determining which patients will die and which will miraculously recover, until the two quarrel and a pursuit results. In the end, “Death” decides to go his own solitary way, and Hachigoro is left in the loving arms of his wife. The film’s optimistic conclusion is paradoxical because of the protagonist’s contract with “Death.” Predominating storylines in film and literature maintain an eventual corporeal death with the soul forever damned to hell for committing such a pact. MY FRIEND DEATH is an exhilarating reverse.
The last entry for 1960 is misleadingly described in a quote from a Toho publicity announcement “Boys, girls, gangsters and ghost are blocked in by an avalanche. What happens?” The blurb hints at more than is offered by THE SPOOK COTTAGE, a youth-oriented, comedy film whose plot appears stolen from the archives of the early years of American International. The ghost is revealed to be a businessman whose resemblance is so striking to the deceased husband of a woman who owns a cottage nestled high in a snow-covered mountain that she believes the man is her spouse, killed in an avalanche some 30 years earlier. His death somehow precipitates a rumor, that anyone approaching the “spook cottage” will be faced with an imminent accident. To respond to the rhetorical question posed by Toho’s publicity writer: “Who cares!”
look to the skies…
Filmed as a plea against the arms race, primarily the build-up of nuclear armament, and to defuse the button-pushing mentality so common with the military establishment. THE LAST WAR focuses on a family and several individuals in government and the armed service, all impotent to obviate the flow of events which eventually lead to near destruction of all mankind, creating a personal film of incredible power. It is an awesome and frightening view of a time when man, rather than uniting to seek a workable solution to his ideological conflicts, resorts to the impersonal devices of modern warfare. As the film unspools, it hints of hope, that logic will prevail. But it is not to be so. The film does end on a positive note, offering hope for the remaining few survivors to rebuild anew that which man had so thoughtlessly torn asunder, but still the tone of the film is one of pervading doom, the intent of the producers of the film succeeding. to warn of the result the present course could lead. Eiji Tsuburaya and his technicians enhance death and destruction with their moving landscapes filled with colorful mushroom clouds and choreographed rocket attacks. Reality is held in check as the viewer acquires an affection for the characters threatened with annihilation. One hopes that, as the screen goes black, it would never happen.Furthering the format of new film/new monster, the story of MOTHRA is told as a modern-dress fairy tale, though American advertising would lead us to believe otherwise. Breaking the film down into its components: tiny, twin Ailenas of Infant Island, innocent beauty and charm typified by songstresses Emi and Yumi Ito, kidnapped for commercial enterprise; ritualistic endeavors of the Infant Island natives to their god of the mountain for safe return of the twin acolytes; the god, Mothra, transforming through three life cycles, acting as unintentional dreadnought in its quest; detailed, colorful monster war waged against man and machine; efforts of the honest folk to aid in the Ailenas rescue; twins returned to Infant Island riding upon the god’s back; villains meeting with justice; peace restored with a world at last in balance.
Yet, there is horror evident in MOTHRA, viewed in the scarred and scorched terrain of Infant Island where nuclear testing occurred, a grim reminder of the islands decimated by America prior to and following the attack upon Japan. Just desserts to the officiousness of man are portrayed by the wholesale destruction of cities, bulldozed into oblivion by the caterpillar and wind-blasted by the moth in sequences akin to the awesome spectacle of RODAN or BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE. An analogy is evident in Mothra’s transformation from its ugly larval stage to that of the beautiful, winged insect: Man’s increased awareness of his destructive tendencies at the finale makes him more beautiful for the knowledge he has amassed.
Other considerations on the film:
Lastly for 1961, there is THE YOUTH AND HIS AMULET, a rather depressing and complex melodrama about a boy, his loves and heart breaks, and the misunderstanding of adults. Fantasy enters the picture when Gen, a lO-year-old boy, finds a small idol of his favorite god, Fudomyoh, favored because of his strength. Imagining the statue to come to life and speak to him, the living god played by Toshiro Mifune, Gen steals the idol and consults it whenever he seeks advice. The bared theft adds to Gen’s already crumbling family relationship, and he is sent away for adoption.
horrors from the void…
KING KONG VS. GODZILLA features the return of two of moviedom’s most successful monsters. Kong has been absent twenty-nine years, Godzilla seven. Unfortunately, the wait is not propitious. No longer an animated puppet, Kong is now a man-in-suit creation, possibly one of the poorest to grace the screen, fake fur and latex failing to hide the motivating force within. Godzilla has gotten fat and squat since his previous days of athletic glory. Kong’s battle with a live squid provides the only realistic and terrifying moments of either star. As the beasts pass toward crudity, so does the tone of the film. Gross humor and slapstick have been implanted in the production’s structure. The tragic deaths of the Japanese citizenry are coupled with the slapstick antics of two giant buffoons with miserable results in this serio-comedy. Robert Salmaggi in his June 27, 1963 review for the New York Herald Tribune expresses it thus: “A knockdown, dragout showdown battle. It’s like that straight through…with everything played for laughs. Kong gets the major share of the laughs with his half-nelsons, stone throwing and right hooks.”
The effects fare just as well. “When the pair of prehistoric monsters finally get together for their battle royal, the effect is nothing more than a couple of dressed-up stunt men throwing cardboard rocks at each other,” opines Eugene Archer in the New York Times’ June 27, 1963 issue. Salmaggi adds: “The buildings that crumble under Godzilla’s heel look as fake as they really are.” The American version inserts English-language footage which attempts to scientifically authenticate the monsters’ motivations as they race pell-mell to their eventual goal, each other. The ruse, bringing the pace of the film to a virtual halt whenever the scenes appear, falls flat on its face when an “authority” holds up to the camera a children’s book on dinosaurs with which he defends his sentiments, adding unintentional humor to an already ludicrous film.
Ties to the 1933 KING KONG remain, however, though none match the atmospheric splendor and mystery of the original: the primitive, aggressive natives; the island retreat of Kong from which he is sequestered; the giant ape’s attraction for a singularly attractive woman; Kong’s grand play atop the tallest structure in his new environment; and his battles with primordial denizens.
KING KONG VS. GODZILLA’s importance to Toho’s history cannot be denied, providing as it does the battleground for a re-emergence of two popular monsters long in hiatus. It also presents for Toho the first pairing (since GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN), of beasts, a device which this author finds most destructive due to the promulgation of endless “meet” films, the majority of which add little to the monster genre. But money dictates direction. And then there is overkill. An ironical sidelight to this picture finds the Japanese players discussing the means with which they might dispatch or divert the rampaging behemoths. The atom bomb is discussed as a last resort, yet it never is employed.
Toho’s last venture into the realm of the space opera/science fiction film until the latter half of the seventies, though the far flung reaches of the universe will be the spawning ground for several monsterific creations, is represented by GORATH, notable for its intelligent approach to space and the human lives affected by the inexplicable happenings from that mysterious void, here a meteor 6000 times the mass and gravitational pull of Earth toward which it is swiftly moving. The first part of the film involves the launching of several rockets into space to probe the fiery orb, code-named “Gorath:’ involving the loss of many human lives in the quest. The latter portion of the film which is set on Earth dwells on a few souls, representing humanity, singled out to develop the effect of the impending catastrophe. Following THE LAST WAR’s example, the message is unification of effort of all peoples, and like that film the finale offers an opportunity to rebuild from the destruction, in GORATH resulting from the passing meteor and the shifting of the Earth from its orbit by means of enormous jet engines strategically located at a South Polar base.
With what appears to be a throwaway sequence, Toho introduces a mammoth, antedeluvian walrus, long before Ray Harryhausen ever thought to use such a beast in his SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER, a creature released from his eons-old prison of ice in the Antarctic to imperil the implementation of the hydrogen-jets. His moments on celluloid are short as he tries to snuff out the alien heat and is repulsed by the laser blast from a reconnaissance craft cruising over his swath of destruction. The American print deletes any reference to the walrus, Magma, but the gap is evident in the editing.
The originality of GORATH’s story line is in question. Daiei, Toho’s major competitor until the company’s bankruptcy in 1971 (since reformed in 1976 on a much smaller scale), released a film bearing similar plot developments in 1954 under the title of SPACEMEN APPEAR IN TOKYO which details the events surrounding an asteroid whose path lies blocked by Earth. Witnessed are violent storms, the effects of great temperature increases, bursting dams and waves of pounding water. Screenplay similarity is probably coincidental, or is it? Special effects are numerous and superb. Tsuburaya’s credentials are again put on the line as he creates natural calamities, military operations and space flights that are ambitious, complex and enormous in scope. He has proven himself up to the task once again.
Next up: 1963 – 1964
Original Article © 1981, 2006 Greg Shoemaker. All rights of the original publisher reserved.
Kaijufan OnLine © 2006 John Rocco Roberto/Daikaiju Productions