Japan's fascination with technology has brought a cavalcade of monsters, mutants and mechanical toys to its inventive silver screen
By RICHARD CORLISS
The Americans and the French invented the movie machine a century or so ago, but no nation has had more instructive fun with it than the Japanese. They unleashed monsters spawned by the A-bomb to terrorize Tokyo. They created TV cartoon shows with machines as heroes, then built a sophisticated form of film animation-anime-that included fierce and friendly robots. Even the "violent pink" genre of erotic films boasts so many dildos and other hardware-store contraptions that the movies can be considered a kind of sexual science fiction. Again, boys with their toys.
Before 1954, Japanese cinema offered comedies, dramas and period movies from some of the world's best directors. The films were art-heavy and gizmo-free. Then a nuclear blast awoke a vicious, voracious dinosaur who tromped through Tokyo wreaking havoc, as movie monsters will do. More important, the creature scared up huge box office numbers in Japan and around the world. The kaiju eiga (monster movie) was born.
The success of Gojiro (released in the U.S. as Godzilla: King of the Monsters) roused Japanese filmmakers to clone more prehistoric predators-even as Godzilla had been inspired by wizard technician Willis O'Brien's stop-motion monsters in The Lost World and King Kong decades before. The dinosaur was followed by other creatures, such as Rodan (a pterrifying pterodactyl) and Mosura/Mothra (a giant moth).Usually these big boys starred alone; sometimes they fought each other. And in the 1964 Biggest Battle on Earth, they joined forces to fight Ghidra/Ghidorah, a three-headed invader from outer space.
Godzilla and his kin soon made the transition from beasties to baby-sitters. They became cute playmates for kids-if giant fire-snorting reptiles can be considered cuddly. Why the switch? Perhaps because marketers envisaged bigger sales of dinosaur toys if the creatures weren't squashing and noshing on human victims. Whatever the reason, it worked in Japan in the '60s-as it would in the U.S. in the '90s, with a purple, chummy dino named Barney.
Godzilla was not exactly a machine; he was a man (originally producer Tomiyuki Tanaka) in a rubber suit. Any movie boss knows it's cheaper to have a guy sweating inside a uniform than to design, build and animate a machine. But producers eventually went out and bought the batteries, and Japanese monsters got more mechanical and fantastical. In the 1957 camp classic The Mysterians, the horny aliens who demand earth women as their slaves send Mogulla, a robot bird, to shoot death rays from its eyes.
Gamera, the jet-propelled turtle in nine epics of the '60s and '70s, did goofy battle with a menagerie of bullies: Barugon, a rhino-headed beast that emits a death ray from its back; Zigra the shark monster; Gaos the bat creature; and Guiron the "steak-knife" creature with a scaly, serrated back. Atragon (1964) sent what Phil Hardy's invaluable catalog Science Fiction calls an "atom-powered submarine-airship mole" against Wenda, an eel-like monster goddess. In the 1967 King Kong Escapes, the Eighth Wonder of the World faces off against a robot alter ego named Mechni-Kong. Even the rubber dinosaur went digital, battling his evil twin in Godzilla vs. the Bionic Monster.
Lost in the kid-friendly silliness of the later kaiju eiga was the theme of the first Godzilla film: that the creature was awakened from its 65-million-year slumber by an atomic blast. Living in the only nation attacked by a nuclear weapon, the Japanese could well feel like the victims in history's most atrocious real-life horror movie. Scriptwriters plumbed this unease for many postwar science-fiction premises, resulting in stories about evil aliens, flying saucers, astral and political calamities. Sci-fi is, in Susan Sontag's phrase, "the imagination of disaster." The Japanese didn't have to tweak reality very far to dream up the disasters in their films.
In The H-Man (1958), a ship passing through a nuclear test zone picks up a contagious radioactive liquid that turns people into icky blobs. The Final War (1960) imagines the ultimate scenario: the U.S. accidentally H-bombs South Korea; South Korea thinks North Korea did it and goes to war with its northern neighbor; the war contagion spreads, triggering hostilities between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and a devastating world war. Finally, only one nation is left: Argentina. To which the surviving moviegoers are compelled to ask: "Huh?"
When Japanese films didn't make you feel apocalyptic, they made you feel apoplectic. Consider the 1965 Frankenstein vs. Baragon: in the '40s the Nazis ship to Hiroshima a box containing the Frankenstein monster's heart; a boy opens the box at the moment the A-bomb drops; the heart is irradiated; the boy eats it and turns into a 15-m monster.
For a dozen years, Japanese filmmakers defined science fiction films, worldwide. The oversize toys they sent around the globe and into uncharted galaxies enthralled two generations of Asian children. For kids on other continents, these monster films proved that the Japanese were not only adept at making transistors tinier; they could also make fantasy creatures that were bigger, meaner, friendlier-and more moving.
But kids were staying home more, watching TV. So Japan plugged into home entertainment with such '60s series as Astro Boy, Gigantor and Speed Racer. The technology making movies was now the animation printer, but the impulse was the same: to delight and astound. Two decades later, sci-fi anime like Transformers pictured battles of the Autobots (good)against the Decepticons (baaaad)-and sold a lot of toys.
Live-action movies for adults also got into the gadget spirit with a vengeance. The 1995 Mechanical Violator Hakaider imagined a robotman entering a place called Jesus Town, which is anything but holy. Like Akira Kurosawa's spectral bodyguard Yojimbo, Hakaider cleans the place up by killing almost everyone around. His final fight is with a creature even more mechanical than he: an Alien-like monster on tractor wheels.
In the flourishing, festering genre of violent pink, on the other hand, gadgets are used as sensual weapons. In the first acknowledged sex-and-violence film, the 1964 Day-Dream, a man imagines that a dentist is violating a female patient. He says he wants to "go electric" and straps her to a voltage transformer that supposedly brings her pleasure beyond pain. Hundreds of Japanese sex movies have taken this motif beyond imagining-or at least beyond our capacity to describe it in a family magazine. But they remind us that Japanese films are unparalleled in devising toys of every variety, in every genre, for boys and girls of all ages.
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