Book Review: ‘The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies: The Lost Films’ by John LeMay

I am a big fan of John LeMay’s first two big books on kaiju film history, so when I found out about this one, I had to get a copy.

The subject of this installment also really peaked my interest, as I already knew a lot about existing kaiju pictures but this book was all about the lost films in the genre. It looks at films that were actually made but are now lost or destroyed, films that went into production but were never made, alternate versions of films that were scrapped, as well as some fan produced movies.

This is one of the best books I have ever read on the kaiju genre and it is certainly a must own for kaiju fans. It was just stacked with so much information on films that the vast majority of people have never heard about. It truly digs deep and fleshes out all these kaiju pictures that were lost or just not meant to be.

With a third book on the subject, John LeMay, in my opinion, has become the best English speaking writer on these types of films. I can’t imagine how much time was devoted to researching all the titles covered here. There are literally dozens of films discussed and analyzed with a few appendices added on at the end for dozens more where he wasn’t able to get enough info to write up anything larger than a blurb.

I have always been a big fan of “what ifs”, especially in regards to movies. This book is cool as hell and a lot of fun. LeMay deserves a ton of props for the work that went into this. I hope it pays off, in that this book lives on for years to come.

Film Review: The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

Release Date: April 12th, 1962 (Japan)
Directed by: Kenji Misumi
Written by: Minoru Inuzuka
Based on: The Tale of Zatoichi by Kan Shimozawa
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Masayo Banri, Ryuzo Shimada, Hajime Mitamura, Shigeru Amachi

Daiei Motion Picture Company, 95 Minutes

Review:

“Then why don’t you live a decent life?” – Tane, “It’s like being stuck in a bog; it’s not easy to pull yourself out once you’ve fallen in.” – Zatoichi

The Zatoichi films are movies I have heard about for a really long time thanks to having friends that are big fans of jidaigeki pictures. Unfortunately, I have never seen any of them until now. It is a pretty big injustice that I have to rectify and absolve myself of. But since I have the Criterion Channel, I now have access to twenty-five of these pictures. So why not start with the first?

This film introduces audiences to the character of Zatoichi, a blind masseur and master swordsman. He is hired by a yakuza boss named Sukegoro, who thinks that his skills will come in handy due to an oncoming war with a rival gang led by Shigezo. Shigezo responds by hiring a legendary ronin, Miki Hirate.

The film shows that Zatoichi is very humble and because of this and his low social stature, he is often times underestimated by the men around him. Zatoichi also shows that he uses his handicap to his advantage, as he turns the tables on those trying to take advantage of his blindness.

It is revealed that Zatoichi’s rival Hirate is ill with tuberculosis. This makes Hirate eager to fight Zatoichi because he feels that death at the hands of a great warrior is a better fate than dying of his illness. All the while, Hirate and Zatoichi develop a strong bond and friendship, leading up to their confrontation.

The film’s story plays out really well and it is actually quite stellar and builds up to something great, as you reach the climax. This is of course enhanced by the talent of the main actors and the quality of the film from a technical standpoint.

For 1962, this is one of the best Daiei films I have seen, up to this point. Hell, it is one of the best Daiei films, period. It is also cool seeing that Daiei had this jidaigeki franchise alongside their more famous kaiju pictures, just as their rival studio Toho had Kurosawa’s jidaigeki epics alongside their Godzilla franchise.

I’m not sure how well the quality maintains over the course of this long film series but it was off to a good start with this picture. I can assume it will go the route of James Bond or Godzilla, where quality tends to taper off but you still get an occasional high point, here and there.

Book Review: ‘The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters’ by Jason Barr

Jason Barr’s The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters is really a mixed bag. It is a book I tried to like and get behind but ultimately, couldn’t.

It comes with several great reviews on Amazon but I guess I’m in the minority here.

The book is essentially a theoretical analysis of kaiju films throughout history. The author uses all kinds of examples to support his theories on the deeper meaning of all these films and how they change with the times. He covers politics, weapons of mass destruction, economics, foreign affairs, etc.

The problem is that the author just reads way too far into these films. Most people who are fans of the original Godzilla film understand the meaning behind it and the warnings it presents. However, most kaiju film after that were purely entertainment. Japanese culture certainly sprinkles in their philosophy and their view on life in many of these films but Barr digs so deep it feels like we are left to bear witness to him trying to make his theories stick.

It reminds me a lot of how conspiracy theorists over analyze things for so long that they can make anything into a conspiracy without much evidence and just a lot of theorizing and speculation. I feel like a lot of this book is cherry picking to fit the conclusions that Barr wants to make. It reminds me of Room 237, that conspiratorial documentary on The Shining, where the bulk of the rhetoric just seems like academic babbling.

Also, Barr takes sides on some of the issues and paints a picture that supports his stance. He also presents his theoretical analysis as if he is speaking factually and not simply theorizing.

In the end, most of these movies were made to capitalize on the kaiju craze of the 1960s. Many of the non-Toho films were just poor ripoffs of Gojira (the original Godzilla film). I just can’t buy into the idea that the writers, directors and producers sat down and tried to stuff so much political and social consciousness into these films, as Barr implies.

Book Review: ‘The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies: Vol. 2: 1984-2014’ by John LeMay

The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies: Vol. 2 is a perfect continuation of what started in the first volume.

The first volume, which I have already reviewed, covered kaiju films through the Shōwa period. That is the era that most people are familiar with when it comes to the Godzilla and Gamera franchises.

This second volume covers the Heisei and Millennium eras. These are the films that were part of the attempts to resurrect the franchises in the 80s and 90s. They are lesser known in the United States but still beloved kaiju pictures.

John LeMay wrote this book in the exact same format as the previous one and I’m a fan of the way he organizes his information. He lists out the essential credits (similar to how I start my film reviews), then he gives a rundown of the plot, goes into the history and production of the film and then caps off each section with some trivia tidbits.

LeMay does a fantastic job of providing real context to each film he talks about. Also, the trivia bits are usually filled with facts that even I, someone who has been immersed in kaiju films for decades, didn’t know.

There are a lot of books you can get about kaiju movies but this and its predecessor are must owns for loyal fans of the genre.

Book Review: ‘The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies: Vol. 1: 1954-1980’ by John LeMay

I love kaiju. I love books. This is one of the best books on kaiju ever written. Therefore, I love this book.

The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies covers pretty much every kaiju film from the years 1954 through 1980. It even covers some films that aren’t kaiju pictures but that have some relation to them, like Toho’s vampire films.

Each chapter focuses on a film and it gives a lot of analysis, facts, history and the author’s take on it. John LeMay did a great job of keeping the book straight to the point and well organized. There are several kaiju books out there but this one seems to be the most valuable and the one “must have” of the lot.

It spends a lot of time covering the early Toho Godzilla pictures, as well as Daiei’s Gamera and Daimajin franchises. The book goes into all the attempts by other studios to try and piggyback off of Toho’s and Daiei’s success with the kaiju formula. In fact, it introduced me to kaiju films I had never heard of and I’ve been a kaiju aficionado my entire life. Well, at least since I first discovered Godzilla on television in the mid-1980s.

The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies is a fantastic and fun read. Especially, if you have a love of the subject matter.

Film Review: Gamera vs. Zigra (1971)

Also known as: Gamera tai Shinkai Kaijū Jigura (Japan), Zigrah, O Terror do Planeta (Brazil), Gamera vs. the Deep Sea Monster Zigra
Release Date: July 17th, 1971 (Japan)
Directed by: Noriaki Yuasa
Written by: Fumi Takahashi
Music by: Shunsuke Kikuchi
Cast: Eiko Yanami, Reiko Kasahara, Mikiko Tsubouchi, Koji Fujiyama

Daiei Film Co. Ltd., 87 Minutes

Review:

This is the fifth and final Gamera film to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. However, it is actually the seventh Gamera film in the franchise and there were five more after it.

None of the Shōwa era Gamera films are that great. Really, they only appeal to those of us who have a dying passion for kaiju movies. Also, as the franchise rolled on, the films got worse and worse. While Gamera vs. Zigra isn’t the worst, it is still a pretty crappy movie overall.

In this film, you guessed it… Gamera fights a monster named Zigra. In a nutshell, Zigra is a gigantic shark with a nose like a swordfish. He follows the design scheme of many of Gamera’s foes in that he is very angular in design. Lots of sharp edges mean lots of weapons to try and pierce the shell of our tortoise-like hero creature.

Zigra starts off as a UFO that looks like an electrically charged candy dish with a dorsal fin. It brainwashes a girl on the moon and uses her to do his evil bidding on Earth, mainly chasing children. Gamera confronts the candy dish and it transforms into shark Zigra. Then it grows to giant shark Zigra. Then we get some killer low budget kaiju action.

The film is entertaining enough for kaiju fans that don’t have a lot of expectations. It certainly doesn’t play as well as the Godzilla films of the era but it isn’t a complete waste. It’s dumb, mindless entertainment but it does its job. Realistically, it suffers from being in a franchise that had already run its course while in a genre that was in rapid decline. Kids in Japan had Ultraman on TV and didn’t need to see big monsters on the big screen anymore, as they got them in their living room every week.

Gamera vs. Zigra isn’t innovative. It didn’t bring anything new to the genre or the series. Also, most of it takes place at a marine park and when has there ever been a good movie that took place at a marine park? Jaws 3-DFree WillyRevenge of the Creature? Okay.. well, I can’t knock the Creature.

If you are a Gamera completist, jump in the pool. If you don’t care about the big lovable goofy turtle, then why are you reading this anyway?

Film Review: Gamera vs. Guiron (1969)

Also known as: Gamera Tai Daiakujū Giron, lit. Gamera vs. Giant Evil Beast Guiron (Japan), Attack of the Monsters (UK)
Release Date: March 21st, 1969 (Japan)
Directed by: Noriaki Yuasa
Written by: Fumi Takahashi
Music by: Shunsuke Kikuchi
Cast: Nobuhiro Kajima, Christopher Murphy, Miyuki Akiyama, Yuko Hamada

Daiei Film Co. Ltd., 82 Minutes

gamera_vs_gurionReview:

“You know, guys… it just kinda dawned on me how weird this film is, you know? It’s kinda goofy.” – Tom Servo, Mystery Science Theater 3000

Gamera vs. Guiron is not a good movie, even for Gamera standards. Although it does feature the coolest kaiju in the original run of Gamera films and it is pretty hilarious in its hokiness.

In this film, Gamera battles Guiron, which should be apparent by the title of the picture. Guiron also battles Gyaos, a villain kaiju from a previous Gamera movie. Both battles are actually pretty cool but most of that is because of how cheesy and ridiculously violent they are.

At this point, the Gamera franchise was geared towards kids. Every movie featured young children with Gamera acting as their protector and friend. This was to give kids in the theater a natural way to relate to the big monster. Strangely, this film has no reservations about kaiju monsters dismembering each other. Guiron reflects Gyaos’ laser, which severs Gyaos’ leg. He then chops his head off and proceeds to cut him up into bits and wave around his fresh kaiju cutlets in total glee.

The plot of the film isn’t that important but in a nutshell, two boys hijack a UFO on Earth, end up on another planet after flying through space with Gamera, witness the battle between Guiron and Gyaos, they then get captured by aliens, they defeat the aliens and then cheer on Gamera as he defeats Guiron using gymnastics moves.

The film is stupid yet it is fun. There isn’t much more to say about it. But I’ll leave this review with Gamera’s version of the “Safety Dance”, as it’s a better look into this film than an actual trailer.