Disclaimer: The following films are difficult to find and may be out of print.
So you’ve watched a bunch of new anime and wonder, “why do they keep referencing these older super robot shows?” Or you’ve heard about Godzilla movies as well as shows like Super Sentai and don’t know where to start. Finally you may just wonder why well-known directors like Hideaki Anno, or studios like Gainax, revere these subjects.
Well you don’t need to wait any longer! I’m going to give you a guide to the topics of monsters, robots, and superheroes. Monsters, robots, and superheros were the hot topics of male Otake in the 1980’s according to female critic Mari Kotani (Galbraith, p.31). I will cover these three broad topics in this and subsequent articles– starting with the monster genre of entertainment. The purpose of these articles will provide a guide for newcomers of Japanese Animation (anime) and Japanese special effects (tokusatsu) to learn about popular low-brow staples of Japanese entertainment. These topics formed the foundation of many of the themes in anime and tokusatsu and continue to influence the culture to this day.
Daikaiju Eiga (giant Monster Movies) is one of the most universally known sub-genres of Japanese tokusatsu. Although Japan has made other types of Sci-Fi and horror films, this particular format has captured public imagination since its inception. The recent Godzilla remakes in America and Japan are proof of continued interest in this genre both in Japan and abroad. David Kalat in his book, A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series, argues that the notion of realism held by American and European countries is not held by the Japanese (Kalat, p.51) Kalat states that:
“Certainly not all western art aims to be realistic. Audiences that fail to enjoy the Muppet Movie because Kermit is not a realistic frog cheat themselves. Japanese monster movies may share some of the appeal of the Muppets, and Godzilla should not be taken as a true representation of a Dinosaur any more than Fozzie represents a true bear. (Kalat, p.52)”
This argument has even been referenced by YouTube reviewer Dead Stock Paradise (Dead Stock Paradise) to explain the lack of realism in Godzilla proving that the internet can disseminate sensible ideas. Although the audience may mock low-budget special effects, people always end up watching and enjoying these films.
This article focuses on the Sci-fi films created by Toho studios, Toho Sci-fi for short. Toho Sci-fi is the motion picture company responsible for distributing the most popular Daikaiju Eiga including Godzilla. Toho studios are heralded as the forerunners in a “golden age of Science Fiction films” (Cho Japan). The following series of movies from the studio is primarily known for daikaiju eiga, but also includes horror and traditional sci-fi in some instances as well.
Rather than start with the classic Gojira (Godzilla), because hopefully you’ve already seen it, I will introduce you to the category through other movies from the Toho Sci-fi genre. Rodan (1956) was Toho’s first full color Daikaiju eiga which starts as a series of coal mine accidents in Kyushu and escalates. This movie features Giant caterpillars, Crimson Pteranodons, and a grand finale of a (miniature) erupting volcano. Next is, Mothra, a 1961 monster movie with several unique twists. It features a giant moth who acts sympathetically in this film against consumerism (Tsutsui, p.47). Mothra, an intelligent god of a south sea island, must save her two tiny twin priestesses, the Shobijin (little beauties), from greedy entrepreneurs. The movie has a theme of understanding and its supporting characters, the Shobijin, appear as often as their giant moth guardian.
If not for licensing issues I would recommend the original Japanese version of King Kong vs. Godzilla. It is one of the best films of the original series of Godzilla. Until that time though, the best films to view as an introduction to the Godzilla universe are Mothra vs. Godzilla, Ghidorah the Three Headed Monster, and Invasion of the Astro Monster. The trio of films set the template for the “versus” monster battles and alien invasions which have become stereotypical of this genre. These films typically feature Godzilla as a threat at first who gradually changes into an ambivalent hero defending the planet from space monsters. These films also feature classic Toho Sci-Fi monsters working together to fight off a common threat. My main problem with these movies is they are sequels with similar stories. In one sitting these films might seem repetitive but watched over time the development in special effects and storytelling can be clearly seen. To start Mothra vs. Godzilla is a straightforward movie and features Mothra as a defender against Godzilla as a threat. Although the story is now predictable now, when the film was first released it was a groundbreaking concept and the special effect sequences are still very striking. Next, Ghidorah the Three Headed Monster is the first film to feature Godzilla Rodan and Mothra fighting King Ghidorah, a monster from outer space. It continues the standards set by the previous film. The plot may seem complex, but climaxes in the Japanese named title, the greatest battle on earth (Ragone, p.90). Invasion of the Astro Monsters features the return of King Ghidorah in a plot featuring aliens with terse negotiations in a potential interplanetary battle.
Although these next movies are peripheral to the Godzilla universe they are an important introduction to the variety of new concepts and special effects that Toho Sci-Fi produced.The first movie is the Mysterians, Toho’s take on an alien invasion. According to August Ragone, this film and its sequel Battle in Outer Space was designed to showcase special effects (Ragone, p.56). It not only succeeds in this endeavor, but also the story’s explorations cold war tensions and the consequences of a careless scientific advancement are engaging. Next is the film Atragon, a story of a powerful naval vessel created to fight invaders from the lost continent of Mu. Partially based on a novel written at the turn of last century, this story contained many nationalistic elements (Clements). However in the post-war period, the film adopts a more cynical look at military expansion and imperialism. The horror film Matango (Attack of the Mushroom People) is one of the most unique entries in Toho’s filmography. It is a horror film that is very different from the usual films Toho was making at the time. It has a very subtle atmosphere and creates a sense of foreboding for the plot. The story concerns a shipwrecked crew, fungus monsters and social alienation. Finally, Frankenstein Conquers the World which contains an unusual take on the classic Mary Shelley novel. In this film Frankenstein’s heart is taken to Hiroshima during World War II for research. After being irradiated during the atomic bombing it slowly grows to a gigantic Frankenstein monster leading to a showdown against one of the most iconic monsters of Toho Sci-Fi, Baragon. Although this design is still a standard giant dinosaur, the suit was used multiple times for various episodes of Ultra Q and Ultraman. We will revisit these series in another installment.
Hopefully these recommendations will make new viewer comfortable with the Daikaiju Eiga genre of movies and more cognizant of the foundations of many well known Japanese Anime.
Galbraith, Patrick W. The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime, and Gaming. Tōkyo: Tuttle, 2014.
Kalat, David. A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series. 2nd Ed. ed. Jefferson: McFarland, 2010.
Ragone, August. Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters: Defending the Earth with Ultraman, Godzilla, and Friends in the Golden Age of Japanese Science Fiction Film. Paperback ed. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2014.
Tsutsui, William M. Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Clements, Jonathan. “Oshikawa Shunrō.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Eds. John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls and Graham Sleight. Gollancz, 9 Apr. 2015. Web. http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/oshikawa_shunro Accessed 3 Sept. 2016.
“Tokusatsu Museum・特撮博物館 (SciFi Japan TV #02).” YouTube. uploaded by CHO Japan, 24 Aug. 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3unlD_XIhQ Accessed 3 Sept. 2016
“Westerners Don’t Get Japanese Monster Movies: Illusion of Life vs. Extravagant Showmanship.” YouTube. Uploaded by Dead Stock Paradise 10, Aug , 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PgRzhP_rPE Accessed 3 Sept. 2016