Category Archives: Japanese Cinema

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I’m currently writing a sci-fi book called Outer Limits: The Filmgoers’ Guide to the Great Science-Fiction Films. It follows the format of earlier ‘Filmgoers’ Guides’, such as Stagecoach to Tombstone and Crime Wave, in that it looks at an entire genre’s history, tracing its development from early days to the present, via select, representative films. Stagecoach to Tombstone looked at the great westerns, from (as the title says) Stagecoach through to Tombstone, while Crime Wave (which was published to accompany a film season also called Crime Wave on Turner Classic Movies) looked at classic crime films from The Public Enemy to Ocean’s Eleven.

Outer Limits traces the history of sci-fi cinema, from Metropolis to Avatar, with diversions to Forbidden Planet, Star Wars, Alien, The Terminator, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, Mad Max 2, Independence Day, Blade Runner, The Thing and Back to the Future, plus many, many more.

I also cover Japanese sci-fi cinema, which had led me to track down many ‘Kaiju Eiga’ (monster movies) and other top-line Japanese sci-fi. Japan’s Toho Studios was synonymous for international audiences in the 1950s and 1960s with the works of Akira Kurosawa. His Rashomon, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo, among others, were hailed as masterpieces of world cinema. But there was another side to Toho, as it was this studio that also released Gojira in 1954, which in its redubbed and recut international version, starring Perry Mason actor Raymond Burr, was a hit in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

The title monster, a giant fire-breathing lizard, was the creation of nuclear testing and the physical embodiment of Japan’s attitudes to and fears of nuclear weapons. Other monsters followed, including beaky Rodan, self-explanatory Mothra, hydra-like King Ghidorah, Hedorah (a pile of toxic sludge) and the ever popular flying turtle Gamera – some of which were from Toho and some were launched by rival studios. But it was Godzilla that prevailed. From the early 1960s he transformed from a threat to become Earth’s protector against various giant predators and intergalactic invaders. The best of the original 1950s-70s series was Destroy All Monsters (1968 – Operation Monsterland) which deploys all the Toho monsters in an all-stops-out ‘creature feature’ free-for-all.  Invasion of the Astro Monsters (1965) is also highly entertaining, as is Son of Godzilla (1967), but even the average entries are worth a look. Godzilla has been periodically resurrected over the years – in the 1980s and 1990s – culminating in what many fans believe to be the best of the entire franchise in Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-out Attack (2001 – or GMK for short) by writer-director Shusuke Kaneko, which was from the Toho stable and released internationally by TriStar. This very well produced movie – Toho’s repost to the appalling Roland Emmerich-directed Hollywood attempt at the story in 1997 – ignored all the intervening ‘Godzilla’ films and was a direct sequel to the original Gojira, with Godzilla the villain and Earth protected by the ‘Guardian Monsters’: Baragon, Mothra and King Ghidorah.

The master director of Japanese sci-fi was Ishirô Honda, who helmed the original Gojira and many of the finest entries during the 1950s-70s heyday. But Godzilla movies weren’t the only Japanese sci-fi releases and thanks to enterprising DVD companies, some real gems have surfaced over the last few years. ‘Icons of Sci-Fi’, issued in 2009, is a Region 1 release also known as the ‘Toho Collection’ which includes three Honda classics: Battle in Outer Space (1960), Mothra (1961) and The H-Man (1959).

Ishiro Honda

Battle in Outer Space is the sequel to Honda’s The Mysterians [which is available in another ‘Toho Pack’ three-film set, with Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People and the aptly-named Varan the Unbelievable]. Battle in Outer Space is an alien invasion space opera with the Natalians attacking Earth with an anti-gravity ray. Mothra is the moth’s film debut and is another allegory on nuclear testing. But the gem of the set is The H-Man which is The Blob, Toho-style, as people dissolve and mutate into gelatinous monsters, and the creeping blob eventually makes its way into Tokyo’s drains for a ‘Turd Man’-inspired finale in the sewer system. Its imaginative melding of film noir gangster movie, murder mystery, night club acts and sci-fi creature feature is a winner and is well worth a look. The sequel is the difficult-to-find The Human Vapour. All three films in the set boast special effects by the great Eiji Tsuburaya and all are presented in their original colour and Tohoscope 2.35:1 widescreen ratio. Even better, this great value set features both the original Japanese releases (with English subtitles) and the international English language versions, distributed by Columbia Pictures. Mothra and The H-Man are both shorter in their international release than the Japanese originals. There are also extras, including audio commentaries on Battle in Outer Space and Mothra from Japanese sci-fi experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski.

Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection is available in the UK and US, though note the disks are Region 1 (US and Canada) only.

The Toho Pack (with Mysterians, Varan and Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People) is also an excellent set, worth getting for the colourful psychedelic fantasy adventure Matango.

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Servant of Two Masters

It’s just been announced in the UK that the stage production One Man, Two Guvnors starring James Corden is heading for the West End. One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean, with songs by Grant Olding, is currently on a popular, critically acclaimed run at the National Theatre. On 15 September 2011 a performance will be broadcast to cinemas around the world, as part of National Theatre Live. One Man, Two Guvnors will be on tour from 27 September to 29 October, after which it will move to the Adelphi Theatre in the West End, from 8 November. One Man, Two Guvnors is an adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1745 comedy Servant of Two Masters (orig: Arlecchino servitore di due padrone, or Harlequin Servant of Two Masters), relocated to 1960s Brighton.

YojimboFistful of DollarsWhen Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was a smash in Italy in the fall of 1964, Leone’s work came to the attention of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Leone had used Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai movie Yojimbo (The Bodyguard) as the entire basis for his plot, with some (very) minor differences. Leone received a letter from Kurosawa, pointing out that ‘I have just seen your film. It is a very fine film, but it is my film’. Kurosawa claimed copyright infringement and demanded payment. Leone, clutching at straws, discovered that both Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars bore a passing resemblance to Goldoni’s play. After some negotiation, Kurosawa and co. were allowed exclusive distribution rights to A Fistful of Dollars in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, plus 15% of the worldwide box office. It’s now been established that both Yojimbo and Fistful were influenced by numerous sources, including Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (titled Piombo e sangue, or ‘Lead and blood’ in Italy) and the western-set Corkscrew.

Judge for yourself who borrowed what from where:

A Fistful of Dollars


Servant of Two Masters

Red Harvest


For more things Italian Cinema, check out my my books: Once Upon a Time in the Italian West: The Filmgoers’ Guide to Spaghetti Westerns and Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult published by I.B. Tauris

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