Maser Patrol podcast episode 56: Lost Films Trailer Reel at G-Fest XXVII

Another G-Fest panel is now up on YouTube, looking at various trailers for projects that either never saw the light of day, or wound up quite differently from their initially advertised incarnations. I wasn’t able to actually play any trailers during the panel, but links to lots of them are in the description.

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Maser Patrol podcast episode 55: Tomoko Ai Interview (live at G-Fest)

Jessica Tseang was due to interview the great Godzilla and Ultraman franchise actress Tomoko Ai at G-Fest this year, but wasn’t able to attend the convention due to a sudden emergency. Since Amanda was already on interpreter duty, Kevin stepped in as Jessica’s replacement for the interview.

We talked about Ms Ai’s career on Ultraman Leo, her time at Toho with Terror of Mechagodzilla, as well as a stint at Toei including guesting on Goranger and (almost) leading in The Kagestar. It was a fantastic experience for us, and hopefully this recording is a good overview and is a suitable consolation for anyone who also wanted to go and couldn’t make it to the convention this year.

Special thanks to Chris Marti for help with editing this episode!

Direct download

Kevin and Amanda interviewing Tomoko Ai, picture courtesy Kiefer Beelman
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Maser Patrol podcast episode 54: Tokusatsu vs Wrestling at G-Fest XXVII (with special guest Chris Eaton!)

One of several live recordings from G-Fest XXVII, this episode was a panel in collaboration with Chris Eaton of the Kaiju Kingdom Podcast, looking into the overlap of the tokusatsu and professional wrestling industries in Japan. We go into shared tropes and shared talent, so it should be fun for wrestling fan and novice alike!

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First reaction to Shin Ultraman (from NYAFF premiere)

*mild spoilers if you haven’t watched trailers or seen the latest Bandai figures*

Shin Ultraman is, after the Rebuild of Evangelion and Shin Godzilla, the third entry in the Shin Japan Heroes franchise, but it’s also significant in that it’s the first made consciously with the “Shin” brand at the forefront. As such, it’s neat to look at how it codifies just what the “shin” prefix represents. There are surface-level aspects, such as Hideaki Anno’s dense, jargon-filled dialogue, rapid editing and Akio Jissoji-inspired unconventional camera angles, pop cultural Easter eggs for otaku in the audience, and a soundtrack comprised of vintage film scores and banging new pieces from Shiro Sagisu. All of that is part of the lens, but ultimately, what the brand seems to be about is revisiting classic franchises, rebooting them effectively from the ground up, and distilling what worked about their original incarnations with an infusion of modern realism.

This has led to a misunderstanding amongst the Godzilla fandom, who interpreted “Shin” to mean “horrific and creepy”, because the original 1954 Godzilla, a dour allegory for nuclear destruction, was horrific and creepy, but 1966’s Ultraman is a hopeful space-age fantasy. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a definite overlap between Shin Godzilla and Shin Ultraman, and not just in the literal crossover in the Godzilla Battle Line mobile game: the film starts with a Shin Godzilla sight gag, there’s some recycled military footage, and one actor even seeming to reprise a role. However, the newer film lacks the profound sense of political commentary and haunting artistic nuance, because, frankly, the original Ultraman TV series wasn’t the traumatic dirge that the original 1954 Godzilla is. The result is a movie that is arguably not as “good” from a substantive perspective, but is a lot more fun.

Certainly, a criticism that will (perhaps unfairly) be levied at Shin Ultraman is a lack of dramatic cohesion, as the antagonist shifts multiple times over the course of the movie, as though it’s several episodes of a TV series put together. This is where a comparison to Shin Evangelion seems apt, particularly the first entry, Evangelion 1.11.  Unlike Shin Godzilla, both Shin Evangelion and Shin Ultraman are based on television shows, so you have multiple antagonists (“monsters of the week”) appear in succession throughout the picture, but the encounters are not truly self-contained; each “episode” shifts the character dynamics and provides a deeper look into some facet of the overall gestalt (which in Shin Ultraman’s case is humanity’s role in the universe). What’s more, another unifying factor between Shin Evangelion and Shin Ultraman is that both were conceived as multi-film franchises, with the original pitch including a Shin Ultraman sequel and a Shin Ultraseven. It’s not confirmed yet that these will ever manifest (or if they’ll suffer extreme delays like the Evangelion rebuilds did), but the success of Shin Ultraman and some cryptic comments from Tsuburaya about further blockbuster motion pictures do seem encouraging on that front.

For those whose primary complaint with Shin Godzilla was the statuesque nature of the title character, I do have good news: much like how the 1966 Ultraman was a peppy action-fest compared to the 1954 Godzilla, this movie is rich with fight scenes. Elements stick quite close to the original show, so Ultraman doesn’t suddenly have brand new abilities unseen in the first incarnation (aside from an enhanced sense of smell? Was that something he did before?), but each battle manages to feel fresh with different styles, including the iconic spacium beam, hand-to-hand melee, and impressive aerial battles that manage to reinvent the vibe of a flying fight: it doesn’t look like the stiff choreography of the original show, but also gives a completely different feel from the Ultraman flying scenes that Ichiro Itano put together in the 2000s as well. The locations for the action sequences also hit the classic staples: mountains, city, oil refinery, outer space, etc, preventing there from being a sense of repetition to the action.

Obviously, with all of these combat scenes, there’s no shortage of special effects to be had, and it seems that Shinji Higuchi is basically repeating what was done with Shin Godzilla: full CG for the monsters with occasional practical miniatures composited into the scenes. While Shin Godzilla was rushed because of the upcoming Legendary movie, the pandemic actually gave Shin Ultraman’s CG team more time to tinker, so there are no shots that look quite as shoddy as some of the Kamata sequences in the former film. However, the CG didn’t exactly blow anyone away with its realism, either; if you’re not happy with how things look in the trailer, you probably won’t be happy with the overall movie either. It’s worth noting that there are a ton of CG characters on display for a much longer amount of screen time, so I’m certainly willing to cut slack. Of special note is how they incorporated so much tokusatsu history into the SFX process, such bringing back Bin Furuya to do motion capture for Ultraman, having Anno do some mocap himself (a callback to his very early Ultraman student fanfilms), and even having Sadao Iizuka return to do hand animation for the spacium beam. That sort of attention to detail likely wouldn’t have been attempted by any other filmmakers in the industry.

Speaking of returning to roots, the designs for Ultraman and his enemies harkened back to a lot of their origins as well, and their execution universally impressed me.  Ultraman himself is as close as we’ve ever gotten to Tohl Narita’s original design, and though he didn’t have a color timer, they incorporated color changes to the suit (a reference to the original grayish stage show appearance) to similar effect. I also dug that they give him a name other than “Ultraman”, Lipia, which was chosen by the filmmakers because they didn’t get any hits on Google when they searched for it, accentuating his alien-ness. Kaiju only appear in the early part of the film (Higuchi explained that the escalation of bringing aliens in doesn’t leave much space for random rampaging creatures, which I agree with), but I dug the Mahiro Maeda takes on Neronga and Gabora, especially with the in-universe explanation of their relation to Pagos. Zarab’s redesign is really interesting, making use of his invisibility for a Hollow Man kind of effect, as though his skin is only painted on; he even first appears in a coat and fedora like in many Invisible Man films. Zōffy (not Zoffy!) is a callback to his original design and even different spelling of his name as first appeared in a children’s magazine prior to his appearance in the show, but his role here is quite different in a way that could have some major ramifications for this version of the franchise. There’s also another kaiju that gives major vibes of Evangelion’s Arael, the God Warrior, or even Diriver from SSSS.Gridman with its redesign, suitable for a dramatic climax; I won’t spoil it, but you can figure it out.

Also there’s Mephilas. Everything with Mephilas in this movie is goddamn perfect; especially his penchant for quoting human aphorisms.

For those fixated on nationalistic subtext of Anno’s filmography, there will undoubtedly be something to latch onto here as well, such as the proclamation that kaiju only appear in Japan. However, while Higuchi began the show with an apology to the audience over the depiction of Americans in the movie, I honestly didn’t notice the subject coming up that much (e.g., the US are the ones who sell MOP2 missiles to the Japanese defense force), with no token gaijin characters like Patterson, Asuka, or Jung in the mix.

Speaking of the human cast, none of the SSSP as we formerly knew them are in this, which is an interesting choice for a reboot. In true Anno fashion, the new team seems to be a ragtag group of nerdy maladjusted weirdos (a realistic take for a thinktank of scientific consultants to military operations). Like with Hayata in the original Ultraman, we technically don’t get much of lead man Kaminaga (Takumi Saito, who was Captain Ikeda in Shin Godzilla) before he gets possessed by Ultraman, but he does a stellar (no pun intended) performance as an alien in a human’s body, giving me flashbacks to John Carpenter’s Starman. Masami Nagasawa (one of the Godzilla franchise’s Shobijin) plays Kaminaga’s partner Hiroko Asami, a tough special agent with some tsundere qualities, kind of like Natsuki in Anno’s version of Cutie Honey, also quite entertaining. Definitely pandering to the otaku demographic is Taki (Daiki Araoka, Gao God from Gaoranger), a nerdy physicist who had Thunderbirds, Star Trek, and Madoka Magica merchandise on his desk at work, but as a member of that demographic I found that charming; he also has a nice little storyline echoing the original’s about finding the balance between how much defense the Earth can do for itself versus what they need Ultraman for. Pop idol Akari Hayami rounds out the SSSP playing the surprisingly schlubby character of Yumi, a biologist who works hard and uh…doesn’t like bugs? She could have used a bit more character development. There’s also perhaps a bit more butt-slapping that one would expect in a professional workplace, but again, the cast are maladjusted weirdoes. Aside from them, there’s a parade of minor appearances from tokusatsu alumni, so keep your eyes peeled for fun cameos, as there were in Shin Godzilla.

I’ll certainly want to give it another viewing whenever it gets distribution, if nothing else because the dialogue was, predictably, fast-paced and dense, to the point where I kept having to pause to think “what was that about Planck space?” or “wait, did you say ‘terraKelvin’?!” A lot of the SF stuff was quite silly, but I have to admire Anno’s earnest attempt at amping up the jargon from the original series to make it feel a bit more grounded; incorporating more interaction between different government organizations in a natural way. Also worth noting is a decrease in title cards compared to Shin Godzilla, which makes sense as so much of the satire in Shin Godzilla was about the impenetrability of government bureaucracy, which wasn’t really the intent here.

Overall, I think this movie nailed it in terms of the balance of bringing what was cool about the 1966 series into the modern era while also leaving their own unique stamp on it. There’s obviously a lot more that could be done (the absence of fan favorites like Baltan, Gomora, Pigmon, and Redking speaks volumes), but with the ambiguous ending, we could be open to more Shin Ultraman or it could also happily conclude at that point. Either way, we know that Shin Kamen Rider is on the horizon, so even without more of this particular subset, the Shin Japan Heroes brand has a bright future ahead.

5/5

Bonus: Here’s Shinji Higuchi’s Q&A from the US premier!

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Sweet, Sensitive (Sometimes Sexy) Sentai-style Supervillainesses

Of all the new anime this season, the one that’s caught the tokusatsu fandom by storm the most has been Miss Kuroitsu from the Monster Development Department.  The show has a lot of gimmicks to write home about, such as cameo appearances from a wide variety of Japan’s most well-established local hero characters, casting various major tokusatsu franchise alumni as voice actors, and a Pretty Cure pastiche getting promotional art by Slayers’ Rui Araizumi. The core concept, though, focusing on the overworked staff of the R&D department at an evil organization bent on world conquest, is a fun one, relatable to anyone who’s ever had to suffer the crunch of meeting deadlines for projects that ultimately wind up feeling worthless (in this case because the hero blows their latest monster up on a weekly basis).

One thing that I’ve found a bit amusing in the discourse around the series, though, is the occasional bemusement that such a program would revolve around a cute girl character, since, if you’re going to make the “villains” your heroes, an attractive female lead is the most natural thing in the world.

You see, there’s a strong tendency in the Super Sentai oeuvre, that, if you have a villainous organization aiming to take over the globe, there’s usually a “face” character, a maskless human among all those rubber monster suits serving as either a primary lieutenant or outright commander of the big bads, and more often than not, it’s a sexy lady.

Now, the pretentious explanation for this would go into ancient Asian mysticism, conflating the female (yin) with darkness against the light of the male (yang), or cite the ever-expanding roster of malicious female ghosts who’ve dominated Japanese horror stories for centuries. However, I honestly don’t think the cultural ingraining goes that far, since you’ll find similar phenomena in American superhero comics (e.g. Enchantress, Harley Quinn, Emma Frost) just without quite the same monster-of-the-week formula attached. Rather, the trope makes sense as a way to humanize your villainous cluster: you give them a token human face, and given that the shows tend to be written by and for male audiences, an attractive female face often winds up being the most appealing to look at.

While the program’s nominal heroines are constrained to (at least plausible) modesty so as to not scandalize audiences with the moral hazard of imitable actions, the villainesses have no such ethical constraint, and thus the bulk of a program’s sex appeal winds up resting on their oft-stylishly-padded shoulders. Villains are allowed to be transgressive, and them breaking cultural taboos can serve as intrigue as much as revulsion; a kid watching the show might be intended to think “good girls don’t dress or act that way” and side against the villain, but often as they grow older, those are the characters that they gravitate to the most. This keeps engagement up with older fans (and even sometimes parents of younger fans), often making for some of the higher-end merchandising of a given series.

(There’s a tangentially related discussion to be had about the enduring popularity of villains who challenge society’s very notion of gender with their existence as well, such as Mazinger’s Baron Ashura, Gatchaman’s Berg Katze, and Devilman’s Satan.)

Another benefit of the pretty-face villain is that she can conceivably have forbidden romantic feelings for or from their opposing male hero, an instant formula for dramatics that has played countless times across titles as serious as Jetman to as goofy as Carranger.

As to how the trope has evolved to the point where these once-ancillary villainesses came to headline narratives, rather than operating as supporting cast, perhaps a history of the trope can help elucidate. A key point of divergence between Japanese superheroes and their American counterparts is the structure of the villains: your Rider or Sentai rarely battle lone muggers or bank robbers, but instead massive, well-endowed, nefarious organizations bent on utter world domination, usually by means of monsters-of-the-week. There’s an easy throughline that can be traced here; from Shotaro Ishinomori’s Goranger back to his Kamen Rider back to his breakout hit Cyborg 009, which set the template that the genre followed thereafter. Cyborg 009 wears its influence on its sleeve, namely that of the contemporary hit, the 007, or James Bond series. James Bond likewise didn’t fight common criminals, but a global baddie syndicate called SPECTRE, which then explains how Japanese villain gangs such as Black Ghost, Shocker, and Black Cross Army evolved from that root. (Though SPECTRE is woefully lacking in their menacing rubber-suited cyborg department.)

A common trope in the 007 series is the “Bond girl”, an offshoot of film noir’s femme fatales, because, as a male wish fulfillment fantasy, that franchise is brimming with attractive women who desire the protagonist carnally, both on the good and bad side of the conflict, so the bad guy (emphasis on guy) would often have a lady lieutenant who wanted to jump James Bond’s bones. The success of the Bond franchise in Japan is likely the cause of a similar trope occurring in tokusatsu movies, particularly at Toho, who co-produced the 1967 007 movie You Only Live Twice. That movie features actress Mie Hama, who the same year played the aforementioned kind of villainess character as Madam Piranha in King Kong Escapes, the evil woman who falls for the hero and betrays her organization to help him, paying the ultimate price for it. Director Ishiro Honda’s kaiju filmography is rife with permutations on this tope, also including Miss Namikawa in Invasion of Astro Monster (1965) and Katsura in Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), and is arguably a variation on Chika from Half Human (1955) or, stretching a bit, Emiko from the original Godzilla (1954).

Kumi Mizuno’s role as Miss Namikawa probably had the most lasting impact of that set, and as a result, tight-suited alien invader women started popping up elsewhere in the kaiju genre. However, unlike in Invasion of Astro Monster, the Kilaak villains in 1968’s Destroy All Monsters were not subservient to any male characters, nor were the Terrans in 1969’s Gamera vs. Guiron. X1, from 1971’s Gamera vs. Zigra, is a lady technically under the command of the villainous kaiju Zigra, laying groundwork for the “male villain=rubber monster suits”::“female villain=face exposed” dynamic that would be more solidified in the future.

The same year as Gamera vs. Zigra, the henshin hero genre literally exploded with the arrival of Kamen Rider. Rider’s villainous antagonists, Shocker, was pretty much a proverbial sausage-fest in the mold of previous Toei villain syndicates such as Giant Robo’s Big Fire, with the exception of one monster-of-the-week: episode 8’s Wasp Woman. Despite being a minor one-and-done disposable baddie, the character quickly became a fan favorite, inspiring merchandise, cosplay, and dojinshi for decades to follow, getting a cameo in the original manga, appearing in video games, and even getting brought back, in sexier redesign, in movies like Kamen Rider J and Kamen Rider Decade (not to mention a few porn parodies).

If the Wasp Woman seems like she went far from her humble monster-of-the-week origins, it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the breakout success of another initially one-shot character who first appeared in the second episode of Devilman. The harpy-like demon Sirene was an interesting villainess from the outset, somewhat understandably ticked off that her former demonic comrade/paramour Amon had fallen for a human and was calling himself “Devilman” now, but it was her bare-chested manga incarnation, with additional backstory and more nuanced development, that truly made her an icon. Even in though in the manga she’s still disposed of relatively early in the story, she’s still managed to become an indispensable part of the Devilman mythos, a necessity in every subsequent adaptation, somehow second only to Devilman himself, more recognizable than the series nominal main villains or even the main love interest. Go Nagai has gone so far as to say that she’s one of his favorite creations, which is saying quite a bit considering the size of the man’s bibliography.

Needless to say, with this level of popularity in one of the most seminal works of manga ever, it should come as no surprise that Sirene’s had a few of her own spinoffs over the years as well, ranging from the goofy school comedy Sirene-chan to the dour Sirene: Tanjo Hen, which is sort of like the Devilman origin story but for Sirene.

While she didn’t appear in the show itself, Sirene also shows up in the opening credits of 1994’s New Cutie Honey, which is as good a reason as any to segue into talking about the Cutie Honey franchise. Starting in 1973 and often credited as the genesis of the modern magical girl format, Go Nagai’s third genre-defining opus of the early 1970s basically took a lot of tokusatsu conventions (particularly from Rainbowman) and perved them up with nudity and a gender-swap. The result was that our female lead now had a roster of female villains to battle against, in the form of the evil Panther Claw organization. Both the primary antagonist Sister Jill and the final boss Zora are women, and as such, Panther Claw in many ways feels like the nucleation of the stereotypical evil queen/commander dynamic that you often see in Sentai shows.

Where this trope finally came together in live-action, however, wasn’t in Japan at all, however, but in Hong Kong. Because the movie Super Inframan is so transparently derivative of tropes from the likes of Kamen Rider, Ultraman, and Mazinger Z, it’s very tempting to dismiss the evil princess Elzebub (or “Princess Dragon Mom” in the dub) as another element lifted whole-cloth from Japanese entertainment, in hindsight of the Super Sentai tropes. However, Inframan came first, predating Sun Vulcan’s Queen Hedrian by a good five years, making it the crystallization of the “evil queen sending out rubber suit monsters” dynamic that would later typify the genre.

Inframan didn’t get a theatrical release in Japan, so it’s not clear how much impact it could have conceivably had, though Japanese effects staff who worked on it (and also worked at Toei) might have passed materials around. At any rate, Toei caught up soon enough, first with recurring hench villainesses like Amazoness in Spider-man and Salome in Battle Fever J, gradually codifying the trope.

(I’ve also seen it pointed out that the Canadian/American-made sexploitation Ilsa series also started in 1975 with She-Wolf of the SS. While those movies did release in Japan, elements like Nazis, whips, and sexy lady commanders were all present in the genre prior to their release, so it’s not exactly a slam-dunk that there was any influence there, as most of the individual elements could just be a convenient shorthand for “bad guy” in the same way that devil horns are. But, there’s certain characters with stylistic similarities nevertheless.)

While Toei wasn’t quite on board the villainess commander train in 1975, their competitors in the anime space at Tatsunoko were blazing new ground with their series Time Bokan. A modest success, the show featured heroes who combat the Time Skeletons, a trio of time-traveling thieves, comprised of the sexy leader Majo and her two ugly henchmen.

This villain dynamic became the template for the rest of the Time Bokan franchise to follow, a sprawling marathon of sequels that ran continuously until 1983. The bumbling, ineffective Time Bokan trio became inspiration for numerous inept anime villain trios to follow, from the Grandis Gang in Nadia: Secret of Blue Water to Team Rocket in Pokemon to Pilaf and his goons in Dragon Ball. Particularly within the Time Bokan franchise the formula stayed quite consistent, which is especially fun when the characters cross over with one another in later installments.

If you recognize only a single character in the above lineup, I’d wager solid money that I know which one. The second Time Bokan series, Yatterman, far outstrips the popularity of the rest, having run for a whopping 108 episodes, with a 2008 remake doing a respectable 60 episodes itself, not to mention movies (both animated and tokusatsu), games, etc. Here’s the thing, though: that show’s villainess, Doronjo, is actually more popular than the heroes! Just about any images for Yatterman in any incarnation feature the gangsters prominently, even getting their own video game in 1996. More than just Yatterman, or Time Bokan, Doronjo herself has arguably become a representative character for the entire Tatsunoko studio, on par only with Ken the Eagle from Gatchaman and maybe Speed Racer’s car. And thus, this is where we can start to see a villainess taking center stage away from the heroes. Not too shabby for the “bad guy” role, but one of the key parts of her charm is just what an incompetently poor a job at villainy Doronjo does; such ineptitude for true evil is one of the common themes that you’ll often see in villainous protagonists further down the road.

Doronjo’s impact is so great that the 2015 show Yatterman Night, which was a done as a 40th anniversary tribute to Time Bokan, has her as the main character…sort of. Rather, one of her descendants (along with descendants of her two sidekicks) takes up the Doronbo Gang mantle to rebel against the tyranny of the “Yatter Kingdom” that the original show’s heroes seem to have been responsible for. It’s a nice inversion of the formula, but the groundwork had been laid for it from the beginning.

There are only a few 2D sex symbols of the 1970s that approach the popular saturation level of Doronjo, such as Cutie Honey and Galaxy Express 999’s Maetel, but the queen of them all is, unquestionably, Invader Lum from Rumiko Takahashi’s 1978 megahit Urusei Yatsura. The cute green-haired alien in the tiger-striped bikini is a perpetual icon and face of the franchise so much that people often forget that she’s not the protagonist; she’s technically the antagonist of the story! This is not only because she exists in direct opposition to the protagonist (her irredeemable horndog of a fiancé Ataru, who would decidedly *not* move as much merchandise as Lum would), but because she’s literally an alien invader who’s introduced in the first chapter as the princess of a demonic force out for conquest of Earth. Lum’s imperialist origins rarely play into the story after the pilot, in which the conflict pivots from Ataru having to defeat her to save the planet to him having to deal with her as an unwanted love interest, but it still plays into the overall zeitgeist of the sexy supervillainess transitioning into the cultural limelight. Lum’s impact on anime and manga as a whole can’t be understated, and even today you still see characters from Lala in ToLoveRu to Miia in Monster Musume to Zero Two in Darling in the FranXX to Jellymon in Digimon Ghost Game that are pretty transparent riffs on the most famous bikini-oni in Japanese entertainment.

Most of Lum’s expys are, like herself, fairly innocuous, but Kahm, the horned, bikini-clad, green-haired alien princess of an evil invasion force in Johji Manabe’s 1985 manga and subsequent anime Outlanders is shockingly into her role when she’s introduced, brutally killing a hefty number of Earth defense force troops before eventually failing to defeat, and falling in love with, the human protagonist of the series, becoming one of the good guys. Much like Lum, Kahm is the face of her series despite not technically being the main character, but never quite achieved Lum’s level of worldwide popularity… let’s face it; it’s a tough flex to pivot into a cutesy moe pinup when you’re holding a severed head in your first appearance. It just kinda hits different, ya know?

The shift in world-conquest organizations to humorous main characters continued in 1983’s Prefectural Earth Defense Force, a manga by Koichiro Yasunaga, and its 1986 anime adaptation. The series, about heroes and villains battling for the future of a small, remote part of Kyushu, is an unabashed spoof of tokusatsu conventions from Ultraseven and Super Sentai, but the titular heroes really take a backseat to the inept invaders of the Telephone Pole Gang, particularly their ditzy pink-haired commander (who also happens to be a cute schoolgirl) Baradagi (and yes, there’s a Varan the Unbelievable reference). It’s easy to see why the character is a favorite, playing the role more like an overworked, penny-pinching, put-upon office lady just waiting to punch out for the day than the usual malicious dominatrix associated with the type of role…she even dates the main hero when she’s off the clock! It worked out for her: honestly, I haven’t found a single piece of art for the series without Baradagi front-and-center!

Unfortunately, the Prefectural Earth Defense Force OVA, actually made by several Urusei Yatsura alums, was only ever released directly to ADV’s website in the US, so it’s a really difficult DVD to get ahold of. This is a shame, since it’s well-animated and hilarious…in another, fairer, timeline, it would be regarded here the same way as Project A-ko.

The evolution of the villainess to the proper title character came with 1996’s manga Excel Saga, about the hyperactive, spastic, overenthusiastic Excel, an officer at the evil Across organization, which is, naturally, bent on world domination. While there is a Sentai-like hero team opposing Across, they often disappear into the background cornucopia of unlikely antics going on, especially in the 1999 anime adaptation (the team, Municiple Force Daitenzin, did eventually get their own spinoffs, though, including an official hentai manga).  Nowadays, Excel Saga tends to get a pretty bad rap for being a “it’s funny because the characters are yelling loudly” comedy, but it was massively beloved for its absurdity and audacity in its day, even though, yes, some of the charm does involve the incoherent word-vomit that Excel rants out at a mile-per-minute, so extreme that it led her English dub voice actress to suffer vocal chord injuries. It’s tempting to make everything more of a run-on sentence than I normally do just as a tribute to her cadence!

After the postmodernism boom of the 1990s, the deconstructionist approach to villainesses became quite the common trope, ramping up in prevalence across the 2000s, and even though the villainess may not be the main character, they were often primary supporting cast rather than actual antagonists. A few examples include:

  • The Cosmos House light novel series from 1999, which got anime and manga adaptations released stateside under a renamed based on the hero character: Dokkoida. The series is, like a lot of harem comedies that were popular at the time, about a single guy living in an apartment complex with a gaggle of hot ladies as neighbors. The twist is that our main dude is a superhero, one neighbor is another hero, three are super villains, and nobody knows each other’s secret identities. The villainesses all play into different kinds of archetypes (dominatrix, witch, android), but thanks to some strong characterization and the good judgement to *not* fall completely into the harem genre, it holds up pretty well.
  • I’ve talked a great deal in the past about the Heroes Are Extinct manga from 2003, because it’s just that great. The gist of the story is that a commander of an extraterrestrial invasion fleet, having spent his whole life watching TV broadcasts from Earth, dreams of going to battle the heroes there. Upon learning that it’s all been fictional, he snaps, secretly kidnapping five Earthlings and giving them advanced technology so they can fight, well, him. His direct supervisor, who he has to convince of things like “the best invasion tactic is to send a giant monster into the city each week, trust me” is the princess of the invaders, who serves as the romantic interest as well.
  • Also from 2003, Imperfect Hero sees the green ranger (AKA “the boring one”) from a stock sentai team have the queen of a group of subterranean invaders suffer a head injury and move in with him, magical girlfriend-style.
  • Sekihiko Inui’s Ratman (2007) also plays with the hero/villain dynamic, featuring a guy who joins a villain organization (because his crush and her older sister work there, hence the villainess angle) hoping to reform it from within, only to realize that the so-called hero characters seem to be the real bad guys.

The 2010s saw the supervillainess role in the forefront more than ever before. Aside from the aforementioned Yatterman Night, a few standouts are:

  • In 2014, World Conquest Zvezda Plot is a show about a little girl heading up the world-conquering evil organization, and the misfits who join her quest. Along with Yatterman Night, it really plays up the “moe” angle for the protagonist (heck, she carries around a stuffed animal!). This trend was possibly spurred by the popularity of The Saga of Tanya the Evil (which has a modern man get reincarnated as a little girl who’s also a thinly-veiled Nazi commander in an alternate history 1920s European war).
  • The 2016 manga Precarious Woman Executive Miss Black General is, as though the title were not clear enough, about a bumbling archetypical commander in an evil organization, and her stalker-ly simping for the superhero Braveman (who’s Batman in all but name). A great deal of the series’ comedy arises from Miss Black General’s over-the-top advances and Braveman’s uncomfortable refutations… kind of like actual Batman, at times.
  • Superwomen in Love (2018) is a yuri manga about Honey Trap, an evil commander who abandons her post when she falls hard for the Kamen Rider-like heroine Rapid Rabbit. The duo then team up to battle a lot of Honey Trap’s old comrades, who, as it turns out, also don’t seem all that hostile.
  • 2018’s Raw Hero is arguably cheating, since cross-dressing is involved, but hey, trope deconstruction is still part of the trope. Basically, through a series of blunders, a regular dude winds up under deep cover (in more ways than one) as the “female” lieutenant of a stock evil organization, and like in Ratman, the heroes might just be the real fiends. Things get quite raunchy in this title, but it’s from the author of Prison School, so that much is to be expected.

Even the pinnacle of Japanese superheroism, the Ultraman franchise, is starting to see this trope emerge. In 2018, the Kaiju Girls series, in which highschoolers become magical girls endowed with the powers and abilities of famous kaiju from the franchise’s past, opted to not have a traditional theatrical film focusing on the show’s characters, but instead did a spinoff titled Kaiju Girls Black, where a gang with the powers of Commander Black, Silverbloom, and Nova from Ultraman Leo poorly attempt to rain destruction upon Japan (making these particular kaiju cute moeblobs is quite a punch, considering that they’re based on some of the most horrifyingly destructive creatures in the entire Ultra franchise!).

Then there’s the Darkness Heels multimedia project, featuring a team of the most iconic evil Ultras from across the franchise: Belial, Camearra, Juggler, Zagi, and Evil Tiga. However, for the most interesting part, the manga, a new character named Lili joins their antiheroic band, and wouldn’t you know it, she also happens to be a cute girl, giving all these former baddies something to protect even as they try to topple her planet’s government (for, uh, good reasons).

Miss Kuroitsu will wrap up in April (unless it gets a second season), but fans of deconstructed sympathetic tokusatsu villainesses fear not, as the next season will bring Love After World Domination, about a taboo romance between a villainess commander and the red ranger on a Sentai team that opposes her. I’ve been negligent in checking out the source manga, but by all accounts it’s a delight, so the anime adaptation should hopefully be as well.

That completes this rundown of the sympathetic villainess protagonists on the wrong side of the superhero/villain conflict. There’s the occasional dude that fits the profile as well (*cough* Hakaider), but for the most part, they do seem to tend to trend towards the fairer sex. So, yeah, check out a few of these shows, and the next time you find yourself up against and evil queen or dastardly lady lieutenant, try to consider things from her point of view!

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Maser Patrol podcast episode 53: Error 4444

In this episode, Kevin sits down for an interview with the team behind Error 4444, an exciting new home video label that’s specializing in Asian genre film. We talk about the company’s origins, licensing philosophy, first few releases, and even tease some of their future plans. Their first Blu-ray release was stellar, and their second (which ships soon) looks promising as well, so if you’re a fan of Asian horror cinema, they’re definitely a brand to check out!

Direct download

Show notes:

Follow Error 4444 on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram

Buy Anatomia Extinction

Buy Funky Forest and Warped Forest

A comparison between the original and remastered Centipede Horror and Red Spell Spells Red prints:

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Maser Patrol podcast episode 52: Ultraman Trigger

On this episode, Kevin is joined by Alex (Control All Monsters, 13AM Games, Seismic Toys), Connor (Easter’s Kaiju Kompendium), and Mike (Vintage Henshin) to discuss the latest entry in the Ultraman franchise, Ultraman Trigger: New Generation Tiga. Does the show make us Smile Smile, or did it turn us into Giants of Darkness? Give this a listen and find out, if you’ve got the GUTS for it.

Direct download

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Maser Patrol podcast episode 51: Covid and Con-troversy

On this episode, Kevin is joined by artist John Bellotti Jr of Robo 7 to discuss recent developments of the convention scene from the Artist Alley perspective. Topics include what it was like to be on the ground floor for the Covid-19 omicron variant at AnimeNYC, the seller experience at a virtual convention, and G-Fest’s recent policy change regarding fanart.

Warning: Part of the episode has John recounting the early days of the pandemic in New York City, which gets a bit grim, so be prepared.

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30 Fun Zeiram Facts for Zeiram’s 30th Birthday

2021’s been quite a year for franchise anniversaries! We kicked it off with some retrospective trivia for the 50th anniversary of Spectreman, had galleries for the 50th anniversaries of Kamen Rider and Godzilla vs Hedorah, and did a panel for the 60th anniversary of Gorgo. Those are certainly milestones, but it seems like one of the bigger achievements to celebrate in Japan is the 30th anniversary; for example, Godzilla rang in three decades with the Return of Godzilla reboot, Gamera with Guardian of the Universe, Ultraman with Tiga, even Toho itself with King Kong vs Godzilla. This being 30 years since 1991, we have some strong contenders to look back at:

But it’s December, so naturally that means time to look at the big winter special effects movie release of the year. You know, the sci-fi monster flick with cyborgs and spaceships and lasers and whatnot. The one that Toho was able to sell around the world.

…uh, the one *without* a hit piece on Entertainment Tonight about it.

That’s right, we’re talking about Keita Amemiya’s tokusatsu tour-de-force, Zeiram, originally released December 21, 1991, so let’s celebrate the 30th anniversary with 30 fun factoids related to one of the most iconic monsters in Japanese cinematic history and the badass alien bounty hunter that’s after her. This likely won’t be of much interest to those not already converted to Zeiram appreciation, but I strongly encourage anyone to check these awesome little effects extravaganzas out. They’re, simply put, the best, products of a brief period where ambitious science fiction filmmaking could channel huge imagination with reckless abandon, and weird, cool monsters could really sell a project.

So, if you haven’t seen them, I implore you to do so, and if you have, let’s get started!

1) Kicking things off on the most basic level, the title is actually inconsistently Romanized.

The Japanese ゼイラム is technically transliterated as “Zeiramu”, so the usual, most accepted rendering is Zeiram. However, the original 1994 Streamline dub and 1995 US release via Image Entertainment laserdisc and VHS (and later DVD) simply spelled it “Zeram”, like the character in the Book of Mormon. Many versions, however, gives the both the movies and the spinoff anime vanity umlaut treatment to seem more alien, using Cyrillic lettering: ZËIЯAM. While this looks cool, it would not be pronounced the same way (Я is actually closer to the “y” sound, so it would sound like “ziyam”) and could prove difficult to render in English, and sometimes you also see the compromised form ZËIRAM used as well.
(Iria also gets rendered as I・Я・I・A in a similar situation, with a unique three-dot umlaut over the “a” that does not exist in any typeface I know of).

2) We have video games to thank for the franchise.

Keita Amemiya always had some interest in directing, but his career started off more as an illustrator and character designer. In 1986, he did designs for Namco’s game Genpei Toumaden (AKA Samurai Ghost) and got to make his pro directorial debut on a nine-minute live-action short promoting the piece. Evidently the company was impressed, because not only did Amemiya return for further designs on Namco’s 1988 game Mirai Ninja, but he was also allowed to adapt it into a feature film, marking not just Amemiya’s feature debut, but the first ever full movie based on a video game. Cyber Ninja (as Streamline renamed the movie) made enough of an impression that plans began for a sequel, but unable to secure the budget for setpieces on the required scale, the movie morphed into what became Zeiram.

Also of note is that the eventual film franchise retained many of Cyber Ninja’s staff, including actor Kunihiko Ida, suit actor Mizuho Yoshida, music by Koichi Ota, designs by Katsuya Terada, and modeling by Takayuki Takeya.

3) The video game connection actually got stronger later on.

The original title for the movie was HP9999 (which is pretty gamey), and it involved a boy getting pulled into a video game created by aliens – he had to beat the game in one night or he’d die for real. There was the idea that he’d be saved at the end by a female alien warrior, and eventually Amemiya decided to make her the protagonist, at which point the game theme was dropped, though the “trapped in a virtual space” theme remained via the Zone.

4) Much like Cyber Ninja, the Zeiram franchise blends classical Japan into its sci-fi imagery.

Bringing Edo-era jidai-geki aesthetics into a science fiction setting isn’t exactly new (the movie that inspired Amemiya to become a director was Star Wars, after all), but Zeiram remixes it in a way that feels fresh and lived in, along with other unusual worldbuilding quirks. For the anime, Amemiya also took elements of Chinese and Vietnamese culture into the mix.

5) There’re modern influences, too.

Aside from the traditional Japanese stuff, the movies tread on imagery similar to the likes of Hollywood action flicks like Star Wars, Alien, and Terminator. Amemiya had previously worked on Metal Heroes shows for Toei, and elements of that also show through in the designs, as well as the Zone feeling similar to the alternate spaces that heroes often battle monsters in for those programs. Iria’s tough-girl, armor-clad persona often gets compared to Samus from Metroid as well.

6) The movie kicked off a long line of collaborations between Amemiya and Yukijiro Hotaru.

Actor Hotaru has gone so far to say he’s now the head of an Amemiya Appreciation Group, having appeared in Hakaider, Mikazuki, Garo, Moon Over Tao, Rokuroku, and Cutie Honey the Live.

7) Zeiram’s suit actor Mizuho Yoshida and Iria’s stuntman Akira Ohashi just keep fighting one another.

Yoshida was Legion in Gamera 2 against Ohashi’s Gamera, while in Giant Monsters All-out Attack, Yoshida’s Godzilla fought Ohashi’s Ghidorah.

8) Lilliput has a rare monster suit actress.

While Yumi Kameyama is usually cited as the first stuntwoman to don a kaiju suit for her role as Gyaos in Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, and some fans will recall Jennie Kaplan for her role as Pigmon in Ultraman Powered, Mayumi Aguni has both beat by a few years for her role as the monster Lilliput in the original Zeiram. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like she was able to make much more of a career out of it, as her only other appearance that I’ve found was as additional cast in a Japanese rendition of My Fair Lady.

Oh, and as long as we’re being feminist, please remember that the monster Zeiram is female; remind people to stop misgendering Zeiram.

9) Zeiram’s face is *not* portrayed by an actress, but a giant puppet.

The pale feminine face’s creepy and expressive enough that a lot of people watching the movie assume that’s an actress, but it’s not. Still, one has to wonder if it freaked people out on set. (Amemiya commented that one shooting session lasted 37 hours without sleep, at which point pretty much everyone would have been pretty loopy, right?)

10) Takeshi Koike once drew Zeiram for Animage.

Long before he was famous, the future Redline director leveraged his experience as an animator by taking gigs rendering current live-action movies in anime style for the pages of Animage. While his rendition of Terminator 2 is probably more famous, I have to wonder if his Zeiram illustration sewed any seeds for the eventual Iria OVA.

11) A weird renga ran in Gekkan Afternoon that made Zeiram 2 look quite different.

The piece showed off and described a “Zeiram Queen”, making it appear as the antagonist of the film, when no such creature appeared in the movie; either tantalizing worldbuilding extra backstory or a total misdirect, depending on your point of view.

12) The mercenaries in Zeiram 2 were literally crowdsourced.

For the scene at the beginning of the film where Iria is confronted by a huge group of mercenaries, it would have certainly stressed the designers and costume department to come up with hundreds of original background designs. So, instead, they placed an ad in the modeling magazine B-Club asking cosplayers to audition their original characters for a chance to cameo in the movie. It was quite successful, yielding the great, varied assortment of alien bad guys.

13) Masakazu Katsura is somehow involved in all three major parts of the Zeiram saga.

If you read the Masakazu Katsura retrospective, this is old news, but it bears repeating that Keita Amemiya and manga author Masakazu Katsura are old friends. So naturally Katsura made a cameo as a passerby during the Akihabara scene of the first movie.

Three years later he did some promotional artwork, which wound up being used on the Zeiram 2 laserdisc:

What’s interesting about this is that it renders Iria in his own art style, yet still looks completely different from how he rendered her for the Iria anime around the same time:

I guess she’s younger in the anime, but why the change in hair color?

14) Iria was briefly the face of anime, according to Central Park Media.

People who weren’t around in the mid-90s may not remember just how big a fish Iria was in the small pond that was the North American anime scene at the time. Not only did the OVA frequently run on the SciFi Channel, but CPM had posters made for video stores promoting anime as sort of its own brand, featuring Iria demanding, at gunpoint, that we ask the clerks there about their anime selection.

15) Moon Over Tao is kind of the third Zeiram movie.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an alien bioweapon monster is loose on the Earth, and it’s up to two human dudes and a sexy alien warrior lady to stop it. Sure, in Moon Over Tao the monster is the red, blood-drinking Makaraga instead of Zeiram, and they never explicitly say that the alien women (all three played by Iria’s actress Yuko Moriyama) are from planet Myce, but it’s easy enough to pretend that Amemiya’s 1997 samurai flick is a prequel, and that Avira could be some sort of ancestor to Iria. Of course, the DVD set released in Japan puts both Zeirams, Moon Over Tao, and Cyber Ninja together in the same package, while even Media Blasters’ “Keita Amemiya Collection” bundled Moon Over Tao with Zeiram 2 at least.

16) The cast of Zeiram cameos in Mikazuki, in bottlecap form.

Further bindingthe Zeiram films to Moon Over Tao was Crowd Toys’ super-limited run of bottlecap figures. Keen-eyed viewers can spot them in a scene in episode 4 of Mikazuki!

17) The Zeiram manga tells an original story.

Often unfairly overlooked, Takashi Shimizu (not that one)’s 1996 Zeiram manga is a cool sequel because it features Iria returning to Earth and fighting Zeiram-based human hybrids that the Earthling government has been developing from the debris she’d left behind three years prior. Iria has a new kid sidekick this time around named Lute, who’s basically the same character that Kei was in the anime. Also, bionic armor.

18) The franchise goes almost full-Metroid with Hyper Iria.

While the influence of the Metroid games on the Zeiram movies, even given their video game origins, is debatable, the 1995 SNES Hyper Iria is a platformer that leans heavily into the so-called “Metroidvania” genre. It’s not a bad game, to boot, and fortunately has a fan translation, though the plot isn’t exactly complicated.

19) Zeiram Zone features all sorts of new monster designs.

Allegedly the final game developed by Megaman creator Akira Kitamura (I can’t find a primary source on that, though), the 1996 PlayStation action game Zeiram Zone features and original story along with a whole host of interesting new enemies for Iria to battle against….of course, they’re kind of blocky polygons, so you might have a better time just appreciating the concept art than looking at them in the gameplay.

20) There was a stage play version in 2007.

The Capsule Corps theater troupe, who have adapted works such as DNA2 and Karakuri Circus for the stage, performed Zeiram the Live seven times in July of 2007. The next year they followed it up with a stage version of Moon Over Tao.

21) There’re numerous options for video releases.

In the US alone, there have been seven releases of Zeiram, six of Zeiram 2, and six of Iria, across various formats. So, which ones should you get? Well, the original Zeiram is getting a 30th anniversary Blu-ray next week from Media Blasters, so, barring disaster, that should be the best version for that film. Their Blu-ray for Zeiram 2 easily tops the quality and features on their previous DVD releases. For Iria it gets more complicated: the in-print release is the Master Collection from Discotek, which has the best picture quality and updated subtitles, but the older 3-disc edition from Media Blasters has concept art and interviews with the voice actors not present on the Discotek release. (Iria is also pretty widely-available streaming, via Midnight Pulp, Tubi, Amazon Prime, etc. Zeiram 2 is also on Midnight Pulp, and I would not be surprised to see the original on there soon.)

22) Some of Iria’s figures are a little different.

Crowd had big plans for their 1997 Zeiram figure line, which only launched with the second film’s Iria and Zeiram 2, but the packaging promised “look for these upcoming characters in the Zeiram line” with pictures of the original movie’s Iria and Zeiram (both of them with and without their capes), Kamiya and Teppei, Fujikuro, and Lilliput. None of those came to be, but we did get clear variant figures, as well as the strangely named Kilyco, described as “Iria’s doppelganger”, who doesn’t appear in any movie.
A decade later, Kaiyodo issued a relatively screen-accurate figure of Zeiram paired with a pale Iria clad in red, black, and bone armor. Described as the “ethnic version”, this take on Iria isn’t really elaborated on any further. Best guess is just that Takayuki Takeya thought she’d be cool that way.

23) Even without movies, new designs continue in model kit form.

The September 2021 issue of Hobby Japan featured a kit with a new design for “Female Zeiram”, which is funny, since as we’ve established, Zeiram has always been female.

24) The series’ props are among the most popular bits of merchandise.

Crowd made a model kit series specifically for replica props from the films. Entries included:
1) Iria’s handgun (first movie version)
2) Iria’s communicator
3) Iria’s save gun, lighter, and grenade
4) the Kamalite, card, and Kannon from Zeiram 2
5) Iria’s handgun (second movie version)
6) Iria’s submachinegun

25) Zeiram 2 won the 1995 Seiun Award.

Winning the award for Best Dramatic Presentation from the oldest SF awards ceremony in Japan is no mean feat… even the Godzilla franchise didn’t manage to pull that off until 2016! Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, and Studio Ghibli similarly only have a single win a piece.

26) There are several parallels between Zeiram and Garo.

There was a time when Zeiram was definitively Amemiya’s magnum opus, but now the Garo franchise has eclipsed it by far. In fact, an average Garo episode has a budget roughly the same as the whole first Zeiram movie’s! That said, there are certainly echoes between the premises of the two: both revolve around a monster hunter who operates in secret from the main population of the Earth befriending a regular civilian and dragging them into their crazy hidden monster world. Both have a variety of gadgets, including a disembodied entity that lives on their hand and gives them advice, long flowing clothes as an outer garment, and armor that they can summon. Heck, both even have animated prequels of contested canonicity with character designs by Masakazu Katsura!

27) There’s a bit of a resemblance between Iria and Karin from DNA2.

Masakazu Katsura began working on the DNA2 manga in 1993, between the original Zeiram movie and the Iria OVAs. So, as much as Katsura may have gleaned from tokusatsu Iria for Karin’s look, he then put it forward when he designed Iria for the anime.

28) Amemiya also recycled Iria’s look a bit for Justy from Juskiss.

Released in 1996, the direct-to-video spoof Juskiss was an adaptation of a play about a female alien agent who comes to Earth pursuing a criminal. Naturally, for a character premise this close to Iria, you might as well get Keita Amemiya himself to do the heroine design, so as a result the parody element of this is intensified.

29) The movies may have even influenced the designs in Final Fantasy VII.

We all know that Keita Amemiya was involved in Final Fantasy XIV, which went so far as to have Garo armors available for their characters. But it’s also been suggested that some of the Zeiram designs may have been on the minds of Final Fantasy developers as far back as FFVII in 1997. It’s not as farfetched as it sounds, given that Zeiram 2 was a sizable hit in otaku communities and FFVII designer Tetsuya Nomura was apparently a fan of Takeyuki Takeya, who joined working on the franchise with the next entry, FFVIII.

By the way, for those skeptical souls that don’t think that the franchise could have had an impact on one of the most important video games of all time, please remember that Resident Evil 2’s final boss was originally planned to be named Zeiram.

30) It’s hard not to see parallels between Iria and Pacific Rim: the Black’s Mei as well.

Given that the Pacific Rim franchise is rife with tokusatsu homages, this has got to be one, though I haven’t seen any confirmation from the showrunners.

On that note, let’s kick back and enjoy the rest of Zeiram’s birthday. If you want to celebrate, remember the new Blu-ray release, as well as some new merch coming out of Japan… who knows, if they do numbers, maybe Amemiya will finally make good on his promise of Zeiram 3!

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Kaiju Masterclass II this weekend!

This weekend is Kaiju Masterclass, the second annual meeting of the premiere online convention for all things kaiju-related.

There’re lots of cool guests this year, including Ryuhei Kitamura, Tom Kitagawa, Kazuki Omori, Fuyuki Shinada, and more; check out the schedule for when each interview will go live (though they’ll remain online in perpetuity)!

Of course, on the Maser Patrol front, Kevin will be giving a solo panel Saturday at 1PM EST, this time on the complicated entertainment business background of the Tsuburaya family, as well as joining Kaiju Transmissions‘ Matt and Byrd, along with The Lost Films Fanzine‘s John LeMay, 3PM Sunday to discuss the 50th anniversary of Gorgo.

On top of that, Amanda will be interpreting for several of the guests, including Tom Kitagawa, Reijiro Koroku (in his first-ever English-language interview), and Makoto Inoue.

It’s sure to be a fun, busy, educational weekend; hope everyone is able to tune in! Opening ceremonies are tonight at 8PM EST.

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Halloween Hijinks: Japanese “Slasher Monster” Movies

It’s almost Halloween, which means it’s time for an annual tradition at Maser Patrol: a recap of a horror-related trope or subgenre in Japanese entertainment! We’ve talked in the past about body horror, kaiju horror, horror anime, horror movies from Godzilla directors, yokai, zombies, witches, werewolves, vampires, and Frankensteins, so we might be close to emptying the tank of topics. So, what’s left? An obvious answer, taking up a fair amount of the genre landscape, are slashers.

Now, clearly, Japan has no shortage of iconic slasher movies:

…but this is fundamentally a monster ‘blog, so mundane human slasher characters just won’t suffice. To that end, we want to look at a subcategory that I call, for lack of a better term, “slasher monsters”.  To clarify:

  • “Slashers” are villains who stalk and kill a group of regular-folk protagonists (who are usually cut off from the help of the rest of society) one by one. Slashers generally work alone but stopping them serves a significant obstacle to the hero.
  • “Monsters” are physically abnormal creatures, either due to mutation, or magic, or displacement in space and time, which makes them incongruous with the setting of the narrative.
  • “Slasher monsters” are characters that fill both the role of slasher and monster, living at the intersection of the spaces:

Now, it’s arguable that these kinds of monsters have been around forever, and you can certainly make a case for various characters across the whole history of Japanese cinema, such as the Invisible Man in the 40s and 50s, the Jaguma ape in the 60s, the Venus Fly Trap in the 70s. But the slasher genre as we know it is really a child of the 1980s, so we’ll focus our attention around that timeframe. In that heyday, slashers were quite popular in Japan, from imports (see the previous retrospective on Friday the 13th, which somehow missed the manga short Final Girl), to co-productions (did you know that Daiei was on the production committee for Cheerleader Camp?), to original features.

Whenever the topic of Japanese slasher flicks comes up, the elephant in the room will of course be 1988’s Evil Dead Trap. The focus of the film is on a TV crew who, upon receiving a copy of a snuff film, decide to go investigate an abandoned military base themselves instead of reporting anything to the authorities. Naturally, the place is booby-trapped to ribbons, so the group is picked off one-by-one by a mysterious cloaked figure.

It may be a bit of a spoiler, but from the inclusion here, you can figure out that the killer Hideki is no mundane maniac. It turns out that he, much like the killer in a recent high-budget Hollywood flick (spoilers!) is actually a malformed conjoined twin bullying his brother into a murderous rampage. The effects here, both for the uncanny embryonic Hideki and his brother after suffering extreme burns, are great, and it was the picture that put Shinichi Wakasa on the map and led to the likes of Peacock King and his later Godzilla work. (The movie was followed by the misleadingly-titled Evil Dead Trap 2: Hideki, which was unrelated.)

As you can surmise from the English title, Evil Dead Trap (in Japanese Shiryo no Wana) was named such to exploit the popularity of the Evil Dead movies, called Shiryo no Harawata in Japan, meaning “Entrails of Departed Spirits” (the Japanese titles of flicks like ReAnimator and Day of the Dead also leverage a “Shiryo no <something>” title format). The Japanese title of Evil Dead, however, was itself likely intended to invoke the nasty pink film series Tenshi no Harawata, AKA Angel Guts, and in full circle, the main character Nami in Evil Dead Trap is named after the lead from an Angel Guts flick.

Anyway, it’s not clear whether director Kazuo ‘Gaira’ Komizu was trying to invoke Angel Guts, Evil Dead, or both when he came up with his own “Entrails” series, Entrails of a Virgin and Entrails of a Beautiful Woman, both in 1986. Both movies combine pink softcore pornography with sexual violence and monster horror, so depending on one’s threshold, it could be a bit much. Entrails of a Virgin has a group of photographers in the woods getting stalked by a rapist mud monster. While there’s a memorable part at the end where a survivor gives birth to a monster baby, the monster for most of the movie itself is relatively showed in shadows that made getting satisfying screencaps difficult, so we don’t have any here. On the other hand, Entrails of a Beautiful Woman is a creature spectacle, as its story about a sexually assaulted woman reviving as a demon who kills off her attackers keeps things much more brightly lit.

1986 was quite a busy year for director Gaira, since he also made Guzoo: The Thing Forsaken by God – Part 1. The flick (pronounced like “gew-zew”) was produced specifically for the Japanese horror magazine V-Zone, but alas, the magazine ceased publication before a part 2 could be produced. It deals with a group of four schoolgirls on a trip to a remote, abandoned resort, where a tentacle monster lives in the mirrors and comes after them. The concept and monster design for the piece was by Hitoshi Matsuyama, who would go on to write Battle Girl: Living Dead in Tokyo Bay for Gaira (often cited as the first Japanese zombie movie), as well as direct a lot of direct to video monster stuff like Monster Commando, Space Hunter Miki, and Welcome to the Vampire Onsen. It’s not a bad monster design, kind of a tentacled venus flytrap sort of deal, but unfortunately the sound it makes when it attacks is somewhere between the squeaks from the rubber stretching in a balloon and a flatulent whoopie cushion.

While the next movie’s name has Guzoo’s strange rhyming cadence and only-on-VHS status, 1987’s Conton‘s plot more echoes Entrails of a Beautiful Woman’s description about a wronged party turning into a monster and exacting gory vengeance on those that did them in, as the hero turns into a big nasty thing to go up against some yakuza at the climax. It’s the only directorial credit for Takuro Fukuda, but he’s since become a minor powerhouse of the TV tokusatsu screenwriting industry, writing for titles like Vampire Host, Ultraman Max, Ultraseven X, Kamen Rider Ghost, and Kamen Rider Sabre. I really wish Conton were available in better quality, since the creature does look pretty good.

The protagonist’s transformation towards the end doesn’t come out of the blue, since it’s set up across the whole flick through a series of dreams where he’s stalked by a mysterious armored demon.

The demon kind of resembles a samurai, which brings up a bit of a recurrent theme in the genre: jidai geki-inspired stuff is all over the place in Japanese monster slashers. Heck, it’s even around in American-made ones (look at BloodBeat or Ninja III: The Domination), so it goes without saying that it’s been a factor in Japan’s own flicks as well. Let’s look at a few, shall we?

Because I love this particular franchise, I’ll start the “period piece influence” discussion with Zeiram. It’s pure science fiction, but like some other major scifi franchises (*cough* Star Wars), it invokes some samurai movie aesthetics, particularly with the title monster’s head looking like a kasa (a traditional straw hat) in the first movie. In the second movie, the hat is actually a hat, and underneath it she’s designed to evoke a kitsune (fox spirit).

Anyway, Zeiram is one of the most iconic and intimidating creatures in all of Japanese cinema, managing to exude pure malice doing little more than standing there…it’s very Jason Voorhees of her. Anyway, I won’t say too much since we’ve talked quite a bit about those movies on the Keita Amemiya podcast discussion, and expect me to do something more by the end of the year (the original Zeiram is turning 30 in December), but if you haven’t checked those out, get those movies and the OVA series ASAP! (The original film is hitting Blu-ray in the US soon, and Zeiram 2 is already out.)

Zeiram’s combination of retro and sci-fi could also be seen the year prior in Macoto Tezka’s second theatrical outing, Monster Heaven: Ghost Hero. While nominally a sequel to 1986’s weird direct-to-video period-piece anthology Monster Heaven, Ghost Hero is completely different as it has a single plot throughout, all set in the modern day as a high-tech office building is terrorized by a maniac possessed by an ancient samurai spirit. There’s shades of Gremlins 2 in the premise, but the scene where the villain faces off against a glowing, holographic, silver-clad videogame heroine also foreshadows Iria and Zeiram’s impending series of duels across their own franchise. Anyway, Ghost Hero is a hell of a lot of fun, and hopefully Tezka eventually gets his due as a creative in his own right instead of getting pigeonholed as the guy who makes adaptations of his dad’s work.

Ghost Hero’s effects director Tomoo Haraguchi followed it up with a movie of his own (also with actor Masato Ibu, and a cameo by Tezka, to boot!), also featuring a killer sci-fi samurai: 1991’s Mikadroid, AKA Robokill Beneath Disco Club Layla (nobody calls it that, though). The film features an abandoned WW2-era killing machine reawakening in modern day under a night club, to predictable consequences. While not the best in the genre, the titular creature design is certainly memorable. In fact, it’s one of only a few on this list to ever get made into a vinyl figure!

Mikadroid was actually first conceived as a zombie flick titled “Mikado Zombie”, until the stigma associated with horror flicks following the otaku murder case led to it getting retooled. Samurai zombies did eventually become a thing, though, in 2008’s Samurai Zombie, which was directed by Tak Sakaguchi and written by Ryuhei Kitamura, of Versus fame, and similarly, the movie also features a group of people beset by an undead samurai in the woods…granted, Versus also has zombie samurai in spades, but this film bulks them up to closer to slasher status than the comical non-threat they were in Versus.

(Though truly, along those lines, all that got started with arguably the most slashery Japanese title that Kitamura ever worked on, his 1997 debut, Down to Hell (to which Versus is a sequel), where a murdered guy comes back as a zombie to dispatch his attackers one by one.)

Temporal displacement for slashers need not always just come from the past, as the 1986 movie Biotherapy shows. This film has the staff of a laboratory getting stalked by a figure in a fedora and black trench coat, with the twist at the end that the killer is a super-evolved bacterium from the future who’s after a medication that the lab is going to develop. Extreme gore aside, the mystery, tension, and wild concept of the whole thing plays a lot like an episode of Ultraseven, completed by the presence of Shouji Nakayama (Captain Kiriyama himself) in one of the lead roles…he was also in Monster Heaven: Ghost Hero, now that I think about it.

Of course, the bacterium wouldn’t have necessarily needed to grow to the size of a full adult human to be an effective slasher; as any fan of Chucky or Leprechaun could tell you, a killer imp can be just as scary. Case in point: Tsuburaya’s 1985 direct-to-video flick Gakidama, which I’ve talked about in the past and will continue to do forever until it gets a US release. While the first half of the movie is more body horror, as a guy who swallowed a spirit coughs up a sentient, malicious ball of flesh, but it goes much more slasher in the later half as the creature then stalks the guy’s wife, including an attack in the shower.

Getting a little weirder with the tinier terrors, one could make the argument that the titular Hiruko the Goblin in Shinya Tsukamoto’s 1991 adaptation of Daijiro Morohoshi’s manga Yokai Hunter manga also works like a slasher, in that she lurks in the dark and stalks people around an abandoned school. Of course, she does so in the form of a severed head with spider legs sticking out of it, so it may depend on if you consider John Carpenter’s The Thing a slasher as well…until the end, where it turns into more of swarm situation. (This is another film with a Blu-ray release coming soon to the UK and US, by the way!)

Speaking of The Thing, that and Alien are certainly the main inspirations behind the 1987 anime movie Lily CAT, dealing with familiar themes of aliens, cyborgs, and…well, a cat on a spaceship. The same year, another OVA, Black Magic M-66, aped the original Terminator, with a killer android on a kill mission. I kind of miss the era when anime would make neat little low-horror flicks shamelessly lifting the plots from Hollywood horror flicks, especially with their own spin. (Yeah, Black Magic was technically a manga before Terminator came out, but the OVA isn’t all that close to its source material.)

Slashers, and subsequently slasher monsters, really peaked in popularity in the 80s and 90s, but subsequent eras have had shades of them continuing into the 2000s, even as the Japanese horror landscape shifted more towards zombies, ghosts, curses, and whatever the heck you call the things that Yoshihiro Nishimura does. Among the Sushi Typhoon generation, you can most make a case for the slasher/monster-ness Predator-inspired titular alien in 2010’s AVN – Alien vs Ninja, whose producer Yoshinori Chiba actually started his career with Zeiram. (Japanese AVP riffs aren’t just limited to that, as Junya Okabe also made a really neat fan short for ZVP – Zatoichi vs Predator!) Another cool suitmation baddie was from 2015’s Gemu, a short independent flick from Shingo Maehata, which riffs on Hiruko (and Garo) as a student and teacher fight a huge man-eating creature at school at night.

One of the shifts in the effects industry in the 21st century is a greater emphasis on adaptations of popular manga series, which tend to be long-form in a way not particularly conducive to the slasher movie format, but there are times where sections can have that vibe. For example, there’s 2010’s Gantz, which while mostly an action franchise, has some slasher vibes on its first mission when the hulking Onion Alien goes up against the first batch of helpless humans pitted against him. Gantz’s author Hiroya Oku also did Inuyashiki, which has an absolutely chilling cyborg serial killer as its villain, and got a movie in 2018.

Purely in terms of design, I have to give it up for 2008’s Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge, though, as the film with some of the most undiluted slasher DNA in its antagonist. Based on the debut novel of Tatsuhiko Takimoto (Welcome to NHK), it’s about a girl who’s forced to go out and do battle against a silent, chainsaw-wielding maniac on a nightly basis.

It’s tempting to leave it at that, but that’d be omitting a pair of the most noteworthy characters, for the taxonomically awkward reason that they’re not technically in Japanese movies, but rather Hollywood films based on Japanese games. However, being some of the most iconic of all Japanese monsters, and especially titans of this subgenre, I can’t fail to bring up Nemesis (from 1999’s Resident Evil 3) and Pyramid Head (from 2001’s Silent Hill 2), both of which go far beyond being just memorable boss fight monsters and became the face (or lack thereof) for their respective franchises and genres. Either one of these dudes probably inspired more nightmares than the rest of this list combined.

As mentioned earlier, both the slasher genre and Japanese horror have seen ebbs and flows over the decades, and with a decreased appetite for practical special effects and a studio system generally more averse to risk than in previous generations, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a return to the glorious (and under-appreciated) level of this style of monster flicks that we had in the 1980s. However, there’s still a lot to pick from, and hopefully some of these get license rescued from their current prison of Japanese VHS-only releases, and shared with generations to come. Many of the movies from this era are pretty short, so they’re the perfect thing to pop on for an hour or so to get into the spirit of the season. Happy Halloween!

Special thanks to the horror community of The Yurei at Grimoire of Horror for suggestions for this post! The article will be cross-posted there as well.

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Thirteen Japanese Jasons for Friday the 13th

Compared to other major occidental holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day, Halloween has been notably slow to pick up momentum in Japan. The reason for this is mainly that Japan already has a spooky season: the summer, culminating in their festival of the dead, Obon, in mid-August (or mid-July, depending on where you are in Japan). There’s a particular resonance of spookiness on years like this, though, when Obon lines up with a Friday the 13th. Though the day-before-Satuday-the-14th’s superstitious unluckiness is much more a tradition in English, German, and French-speaking countries than it is in Japan, there is one horror-related aspect that they’ve wholeheartedly embraced about the day: Friday the 13th. The movies. Y’know, with that Jason fella.

The films of the Friday the 13th franchise, remarkably, all got released theatrically in Japan almost concurrently with their American counterparts, fueled by the ravenous appetite for horror and the video boom during the bubble economy. In fact, fandom was so strong there for a while that international collectors seeking the definitive editions of the movies would import from Japan; for example, Japan had the only 3D-formated home video version of Friday the 13th Part 3 (which, incidentally, was produced under the fake title “Crystal Japan”) for some time. Oh, and as some related trivia: that movie’s director, Steve Miner, was at one point going to direct the American-made Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 3D immediately following. There’s even a Godzilla nod in Part III, with a shot of one of Ed Godziszewski’s old articles.

Now that we have our obligatory Godzilla mention out of the way, let’s discuss one of the other most iconic monsters of cinema: Jason Voorhees. The hockey-mask-clad maniac is such a tentpole that people around the world know his image without having to see a single movie, and Japan is no exception. He might not have any real cinematic connection with the country (well, aside from strangling one Japanese-American character in Jason Takes Manhattan), but he resonated nevertheless, much more than, say, the couple of Japan-centric episodes of the Jason-less Friday the 13th: The Series. I mean, how often can you find a common element across titles as varied as Fruits Basket, Dorohedoro, Himouto Umaru-chan, and Sword Art Online?

So, to that, let’s kick off Obon festivities and celebrate the 13th with a look at some of the more memorable appearances and homages to the great Crystal Lake slasher in Japanese media.

Part 1: Crystal Lake at Yamanaka

In 2009, Yamanaka, the largest of the five Fuji lakes, officially renamed to “Crystal Lake” for thirteen days to promote the latest movie. During the same period, the Snoop steakhouse on the shore was rebranded as a F13-themed “Jason Diner” where the manager prepared Jason burgers while wearing a hockey mask.

Part 2: Magical Girl Spec-ops Asuka‘s Voorhees-class Disas

Makoto Fukami and Seigo Tokiya’s gritty, ultra-violent take on magical girl tropes weaponized for military purposes breaks its enemy monsters down into a number of classes inspired by horror cinema, and one of the first introduced is the lumbering brawlers in the Voorhees class. They’re not as magically powerful as some of the higher-ranking enemies, but still prove quite a lot to take on with conventional weapons.

Part 3: Irresponsible Captain Tylor’s Jason

Perhaps foreshadowing the events of Jason X, the crew of the space battleship Soyokaze in the classic scifi comedy The Irresponsible Captain Tylor includes one space marine known only as Jason. Like all the space marines, he’s prone to unnecessary fits of violence, wielding a chainsaw in situations when it’s rather uncalled for, and there’s a recurring gag about how he doesn’t work on Fridays.

Part 4: Tokyo Ghoul’s Yamori

A cruel gangster who runs Shibuya (the 13th ward of Tokyo), Yamori is known by the alias “Jason” for his imposing mask and sadistic demeanor. Keep in mind, this is in a franchise where the majority of the cast are monsters that eat people.

Part 5: Akazukin Chacha episode 67 “Dread! Friday the 12th”

Akazukin Chacha (or Lil’ Red Riding Hood Cha-cha, if you go by the official English name for it) is a cute show about a girl going to school to learn magic, but mostly getting into miscellaneous misadventures. The 67th episode sees the class go on a camping field trip, where they naturally hear spooky stories about Jason. They then run into a masked man with an axe in the wilderness who terrorizes them completely inadvertently, since he’s just a kindly lumberjack.

Part 6: Soul Eater‘s Sonson J. and Horror Dragon

Soul Eater shows off its horror geek cred by having a minor villain by the name of Sonson J, who, unlike the stereotypical hockey-masked Jason expy, wears a bag on his head like Jason had in his debut in Friday the 13th Part 2. We don’t spend a lot of time with Sonson, but he’s mentioned as the “Bloodthirsty Killer of Emerald Lake”, and one of the people evil enough to get targeted by the death god protagonists of the series. It’s an honor, since most of the characters like that are loosely based on real people (e.g. Jack the Ripper, Rasputin), and the only other movie-inspired one is the amalgam “Frey D Sadko”, of which you can probably parse out the original namesakes.

While it didn’t make it into the anime, the Soul Eater manga also has a “horror dragon” that looks kind of like if Cerberus if it was cosplaying the Freddy/Leatherface/Jason trinity.

Part 7: Kindaichi Case Files “The Legend of Lake Hiren”

The seventh volume of the Kindaichi Case Files manga (and the fifth episode of the anime), like every other story in that franchise, is a murder mystery, this time with young detective Kindaichi looking into a nasty series of slayings at a lakeside by an axe-wielding criminal explicitly described as wearing a Jason mask. The distinct triangle marking on Jason’s mask is gone in the anime version, but there in the manga. This is a popular story with Kindaichi fans, so sometimes you’ll see Japanese “Jason” cosplayers who are actually just doing Kindaichi Case Files cosplay.

Part 8: Slasher Maidens

Tetsuya Tashiro’s Slasher Maidens is set in a world populated by dangerous kaijin, so the best way to combat them is by equipping magical girls with powerful relics belonging to famous historical (and referenced in roundabout ways for copyright reasons) kaijin. In our main heroine trio, there’s one girl with a chainsaw and one with a fedora and bladed glove, but the leader inherits her mask and large machete from a certain vaguely-familiar slasher of old. Of course, sometimes these relics will take over and drive the girls to go berserk, which is when they have to be snapped back to their senses by a character who’s basically a less comedic version of Ataru Moroboshi. (In fairness, I don’t think we’ve ever seen Freddy Krueger kill anyone who was trying to blow in his ear at the time.)

Part 9: Bite Me If You Love Me

Naoyuki Tomomatsu has made one of my favorite zombie movies (Stacy) and some that make my brain hurt (Lust of the Dead), but his 2011 romantic comedy Bite Me If You Love Me definitely falls into the “great” camp. It follows a rabid horror fangirl who turns her boyfriend into a zombie because that’s her fetish, only for a weird love triangle to emerge when she also falls for her burly, mute, and mask-clad American classmate, Jason Yamada. There’s lots of laughs to be had as she playfully frolics around with Jason, surrounded by glittery romantic shoujo sparkle effects, and yes, there’s even an explicit sex scene between the two that goes on for nearly three minutes. True to the character, he immediately attacks her with a hatchet for her sexual conduct.

Part 10: Jason x Sadako shipping fan art

As major horror icons, both Jason and Sadako Yamamura from The Ring featured prominently in Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights events of the mid 2010s (along with the likes of Ju-On’s ghosts, Chucky, and Resident Evil zombies). Well, apparently, this was enough to trigger the “they certainly are next to each other, they’re probably a couple” logic of shipping fans, and a whole meme of Jason and Sadako being a couple exploded across fandom. The amount of fan art on this is truly astounding, including permutations where Chucky is one of their kids.

Of course, if if a cute romance with the petite Sadako isn’t really your thing, there are alternatives, as I’ve also seen a hardcore yaoi doujinshi or two where Jason gets down with the equally burly Leatherface. If nothing else, the horror community is a diverse one.

Part 11: Jason’s Blood Diner

Speaking of Halloween Horror Nights, Jason had haunted mazes at the event for three years in a row, with the 2012 and 2013 events being called “Jason’s Blood Diner” (some American sites list it as “Jason’s Bloody Diner”, but photos of the event contradict that), a more unique moniker than 2014’s stock “Friday the 13th”.

Exactly what Jason has to do with dining is not exactly clear, but at the same event, you *could* get Bloody Jason sandwiches, which were chicken and onion, with an impaled quail egg for his eye.

Part 12: Kotobukiya’s Bishoujo Jason

Japanese figure collectors have no shortage of options when it comes to their Jason Voorhees merchandise. They could go for an articulated Revoltech with lots of accessories, or a Deforeal if they wanted something cuter. Or a Pitanui plush if they wanted something *much* cuter. These are all nice, but not unlike similar merchandise available in the US.

So, that begs the question, is there a Jason figure so out there that only Japan would even attempt it? Well, Kotobukiya has you covered. In 2013 they launched their Bishoujo Statue line, based on Shunya Yamashita’s illustrations of beautiful girls based on comic, movie, and game characters. A good deal of the line is conventional, but an early announcement was for Freddy vs Jason. The outlandishness of the concept was so popular that sexy lady versions of Edward Scissorhands, Chucky, Ash, Pennywise, Beetlejuice, Michael Myers, Leatherface, and Pinhead (as well as an original Ghostbuster) swiftly followed. Interestingly, the concept art shows the design in a different pose as well, but the one produced is probably the better for display.

Part 13: Splatterhouse

In the name of saving the best for last, let’s talk about Splatterhouse!

One of the most iconic of all horror video game franchises, Splatterhouse wears its influences on its cut-off sleeves, with copious overt references to everything from ReAnimator to Aliens to Evil Dead to freaking Deadly Spawn and Rejuvenatrix… it’s a best-of-the-best of 80s horror. Most blatant, however, is the “ancient Mayan mask” that gives protagonist Rick the ability to go on his beat-’em-up quest through a haunted house full of nasty critters…arguably too much so, since the mask had to be altered to be red for the US release out of fear of angering the Friday the 13th rights holders (who had their own game the same time. Uh, I guess we should talk about that also). Sequels slowly made Rick’s mask more skull-like to get away from that, but ironically Jason himself wound up moving to look more like Rick when Jason X rolled around.

Nevertheless, for most, the iconic version of Splatterhouse is the original Japanese arcade game, as can be seen by cameos in other franchises from Tekken to Tales of Eternia to Point Blank, and merchandise, such as the dope figure line from Unbox. But really, the whole original trilogy is worth a shot, with fun gameplay and lots of monster gore (the original was one of the first games to get a content warning for violence on the box, and the third was brought up in the US senate’s video game panic of the 90s). Plus, they should be of interest as an evolutionary stepping stone between the horror gaming titans of Castlevania and Resident Evil. In short, Splatterhouse’s a blast.

Bonus: Friday the 13th (NES game)

Having closed things out on the high note that is Splatterhouse, it would be remiss not to cover the actual Japanese Friday the 13th game from a year later, though it’s admittedly nowhere near as good. I mean, I feel like it’s not even fair to compare an arcade game to a home console one from that time:

Nevertheless, the Friday the 13th for NES does have its share of fans, and, while panned critically and at release, it seems to be more popular than ever three decades later. The game is actually the third title ever developed by eventual industry juggernaut Atlus (Trauma Center, Shin Megami Tensei, Persona), after their original Megami Tensei and a Karate Kid tie-in game. Nostalgia aside, the game is notable for a lot of walking (and throwing rocks at zombies and wolves), a fighting engine reminiscent of Punch Out, and of course, a purple-and-teal Jason. The exact reasoning behind this unusual coloration isn’t exactly clear, but some have speculated that they modeled it after one of the Part 3 posters that was available in Japan via theater programs.

Those tacky colors may have resonated with modern collectors (or maybe just with manufacturers looking for an easy excuse to do a repaint), because tons of figures of this variant have popped up in recent years…even without any actual movies! The 2017 Friday the 13th: The Game used that as an alternate skin, as well, so it’s getting up there as one of the most iconic looks for the character.

On that note, hopefully this gives you some good Japanese-styled Jason fodder to celebrate this Friday the 13th and spooky summer season. Just stay away from Camp Blood, or you’ll be all doomed!

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Maser Patrol podcast episode 50: Junji Ito Goes to the Movies (Otakon 2021)

Wow, episode 50 already? Well, that’s not counting a handful of other panels like Kaiju Con-Line, Kaiju Masterclass, Anime Lockdown, and more, so maybe it’s not that much of a milestone… we’ll do something more commemorative next time. Anyway, this time is a panel from this year’s Otakon, looking at various adaptations of horror maestro Junji Ito’s work in cinematic form. Some of the content may be familiar, but I think I found a couple of gems that haven’t gotten much coverage in English so far as well, and some intriguing possibilities in the unmade “lost films” category to boot!

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Anime Lockdown: Ultraman in Animation

I was recently able to present at the Anime Lockdown online convention and salvage the doomed “Ultraman in Animation” topic from a few years ago. Thanks to John-Paul of Anime Lockdown for having me on and running a fantastic convention!

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Maser Patrol podcast episode 49: Otaku Life in Germany

Grüß Gott!

In this episode, I’m joined by Henning Strauß (not “Straub”!) to discuss the history of kaiju (and also of other tokusatsu, anime, and manga) in Germany, along with how the development of fandom there has in some ways similar or different to the US and other countries.

Germany has a vibrant otaku community that puts the US to shame in some regards, so it’s always neat to see what can be learned from our fellow Japanophiles around the globe.

Direct download

Notes:

Title Frankensteinification:

More name swaps:

Heidi, Girl of the Alps, whose crew included Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Yoshiyuki Tomino:

Operation Mystery (“S.R.I. und die unheimlichen Fälle”) is kind of like a police procedural show, I guess.

Surprisingly Winspector was one of the rare titles on tokusatsu titles on TV! It was even novelized (so was Saban’s Masked Rider).

German dubs are the only way to watch some Taiwanese edits. For example The Iron Superman is on Tubi in its German dub subtitled in English.

Shogun Warriors and Micronauts in German:

We didn’t mention it in the podcast, but Germany also got a proper release of Takeshi’s Castle (or, at least much less mangled than the US release). Here’s one of the episodes where Ultraman shows up:

Many manga anthologies in the early 2000s, including Banzai, which was the first foreign edition of Shonen Jump. Manga Power led the charge in the late 90s.

Numerous shows have original German opening themes, but Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball‘s banging Eurobeat tunes are my personal faves:

Those irritating FSK ratings on every home video release:

The German equivalent of MST3k: Die Schlechtesten Filme aller Zeiten (or SchleFaZ for short). They even got cameos in the Sharknado franchise!

Recommended reading (auf Deutsch):

Fan magazines:

  • 1988-1989: 9 issues of “Godzilla Family”
  • 1989-1998: 10 issues of “Godzilla Fanzine”
  • 1996-2018: 41 issues of “Pranke” (continuation of “Godzilla Family”)
  • 2006: 1 issue of “Asian Cinemagic”

Kaiju-con in Uelzen (not to be confused with German Kaiju Con, which was supposed to start in Hamburg last year, but got derailed by pandemic):

A documentary on kaiju fan culture:

Gazorra: The Beast from the Depths of the Earth, Jörg Buttgereit’s short from 1984.

Kongula: Affengigant des Grauens (2003)

The Gualagon audio drama:

The anthology novel German Kaiju:

No Budget Nerd’s YouTube channel:

For as many titles that the US has gotten but Germany hasn’t, the grass is always greener on the other side. Here’re some titles available in Germany but not the US, in case you’re up for some importation:

  • Anolis’s excellent transfers of Toho’s tokusatsu films
  • Terror Beneath the Sea subtitled
  • Necronomicon, Armicron in Outlaw Power (only available on VHS stateside)
  • Physical releases for Gantz: O, the Godzilla anime trilogy, Samurai Flamenco, Tomie Unlimited
  • The Next Generation Patlabor, Bloody Chainsaw Girl, Ninja War Torakage, Tokyo Ghoul S, Hentai Kamen, Ajin, Space Firebird 2772
  • Manga: Q, DNA^2, Katsura & Toriyama Short Stories, Billy Bat, most of Gou Tanabe’s HP Lovecraft adaptations, Killing Bites

Check out Henning’s audio commentaries (in German) for Frankenstein’s Kung-fu Monster and Gamera vs Barugon and articles (in English) in G-Fan!

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Old-school Special Effects with S(e)oul

Welcome to Maser Patrol, a weblog that covers Japanese genre fiction. But, it being April Fool’s Day, imagine if we did something crazy, like punking readers by instead talking about, say, SOUTH KOREAN genre movies. Haha; that would be ridiculous.

…let’s do it.

As a lot of genre fans are aware, SRS just released 1984’s War of the God Monsters, or, as we old-timers know it, The Flying Monster, or perhaps even Flying Dragon Attacks.

What’s not mentioned in SRS’s publicity material is that the movie is noteworthy for having effects almost entirely composed of recycled Tsuburaya Productions stock footage from Ultraman, Return of Ultraman, and Fireman, plus the Taiwanese movie The Founding of Ming Dynasty (which Tsuburaya staff worked on), with rare exceptions:

The process of repurposing foreign effects footage like this should be familiar in a modern context from the likes of Power Rangers, but it was not unusual then, either. After all, Taiwan was making new things using Japanese footage from Mach Baron and Kamen Rider, and South Korea had even already done something similar with the very same The Founding of Ming Dynasty, which, while harvested for a dragon fight in War of the God Monsters, had previously been used as source material for 1977’s Prince of Dragon King (AKA 3rd Son of the Dragon King, 용왕 삼태자). That movie is often confused with the 1977 Taiwanese flick Sea Gods and Ghosts, which is understandable, since they have the same stock effects footage, same title in Chinese characters, and even the same story structure.

Thus, if you’re going off memory, it’s easy to conflate the two, but if you actually watch the two movies in succession, it’s easy to see that these are not the same cast. Best guess is that one was made aping the other, like Universal’s Spanish Dracula, and the Korean version seems farther removed from the source there.

The mix-ups can be attributed to dearth of available documentation on these movies. While Japan’s effects films are famous worldwide, most of the Korean stuff hasn’t really been played outside of Korea, and even there it hasn’t always been widely preserved (for example, the original Korean audio for Yongary is lost, so if you want to watch the whole movie, you have to check out the English dub). You see this changing around the beginning of the 21st century, which is why many film fans, especially fans of Japanese genre content, will point to titles like The Ring Virus or Oldboy as the start of the conversation for Korean genre cinema, or kaiju fans might have a frame of reference limited to international co-productions like Yongary, A*P*E, and Crocodile Fangs. However, the South Korean tradition of such tokusatsu-influenced effects films is broader than that, which is what I thought might make a good subject today.

A lot of the content that does survive has not been reissued in higher quality for another possible reason, which ties back to War of the God Monsters and Prince of Dragon King: sourced from multiple locations and multiple inspirations, certain productions seem poised to run afoul of international copyrights. This is not to mention how exploitation mockbusters (e.g. how Crocodile Fangs lifts heavily from Jaws, or A*P*E from King Kong), despite being very much the vogue of the industry for a good couple of decades, can have a temporary boost by imitating a popular hit, but suffer irrelevance once hype for the source property declines. Anime fans are all too familiar with a few of the more suspiciously-trademark-straddling South Korean productions, but for tokusatsu fandom, it might be news.

I suspect the fast-and-loose approach to intellectual property back in the day might have something to do with the reluctance of licensors to allow a home video release of the country’s debut giant monster movie, 1967’s Big Monster Wangmagwi (우주괴인 왕마귀). Even though it may have been just a cheaper cash-in on the upcoming Yongary (even getting sued by that movie’s producers) and a retread of King Kong, the film is significant for being a breakout giant monster feature for the nation, and having a record-holding count of extras. So, there’d certainly be interest, but SRS was flatly refused the option to license it. Fans were bemused, speculating that the copyright holders were perhaps holding out for more money, or that the print was in incomplete condition (which has been refuted by individuals who have attended screenings of a restored version from the Korean Film Archive), but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s possible that they simply doesn’t want to verify that there’s no unlicensed stock footage, music, or sound effects present that they’d have to clear before duplication was allowed. Or maybe they’re just afraid of getting sued by the owners of Yongary again.

I suppose that’s as good an opportunity as any to start talking about Yongary, who, aside from his infamous neighbor Pulgasari to the North, holds the title of the most iconic creature associated with the Korean peninsula. It’s worth noting that much like “Godzilla” is a portmanteau of “gorilla” and “kujira” (whale), “Yongary” (용가리) is similarly a combination of “yong” (용, dragon) and “pulgasari” (불가사리, an iron-eating monster from mythology), and likewise “Yongary” has entered the Korean popular lexicon simply to the image of something big and strong.

(Of course, the latter term “pulgasari” is somewhat loaded in the English-speaking fandom context because of the 1985 North Korean movie by that name (which, if you don’t know, is a whole can of worms), but it’s kind of a genericized “unkillable monster” word in Korean (fun fact: also a homophone for “starfish”). One of South Korea’s first monster movies from 1962 was also titled Pulgasari (totally lost, unfortunately), and there was also the final episode of the fairy tale puppet show Once Upon a Time (옛날 옛날에, airing 1979-1980, with the finale in 1981) that did a giant monster Pulgasari story (which was awesome, because puppet shows and kaiju go together like chocolate and peanut butter). Even after the hullabaloo with the North Korean film, when Tremors was released in South Korea, its Korean title was “Pulgasari”, pretty much eclipsing all the other films by that title!)

Back on Yongary, we needn’t say too much, since both of his movies are available and well-documented (the original is on Mystery Science Theater 3000, after all!). I think it’s fair to say that in all incarnations he’s very much a response to Godzilla, with the 1967 original popping in during the kaiju boom as Korean cinema was really starting to take off (the country had their first animated movie the same year), and the 1999 English-language remake Yonggary (called Reptilian here) exploiting 1998’s English-language Godzilla just as South Korea was becoming a power player on the international cinematic stage. And just like Godzilla, he’s had cute, animated adventures thanks to his position as a mascot for Yongary Chicken (dinosaur-shaped chicken tenders), along with his pals, a green triceratops named Yongyongi and pink female Yongary named Yongnali.

“But wait!” certain long-time die-hards might interject, “wasn’t there another Yongary movie between 1967 and 1999?” The answer to this is “No…..mostly.” See, there was a movie that came out in 1993, from the same director who directed the 1999 Yonngary, which some enterprising bootleggers back in the day figured they could sell as “Yongary 2”. A cursory glance at the monster makes it clear why:

But this movie, Young-gu and Princess Zzu Zzu (영구와 공룡 쮸쮸, which translates to “Young-gu and Dinosaur Zzu Zzu”, so not sure why everywhere lists it with the “Princess” title) actually has a lot more interesting of a franchise history than merely being a sequel or remake to Yongary. It’s an entry in the long-running Young-gu franchise, which is kind of like the Korean equivalent to Tyler Perry’s Madea or Jim Varney’s Ernest series: a dopey character gets into a variety of ridiculous situations. While the character of Young-gu entered the scene on television, he was immortalized by actor Hyung-Rae Shim in film starting in 1986, continuing until 2010.

Young-gu and Princess Zzu Zzu treads ground familiar to kaiju fans: while exploring an underground cavern during an earthquake, Young-gu finds and befriends a newborn dinosaur. After some ET-like hide-the-monster antics, the beast attracts the attention of gangsters, but also the parent dino. Young-gu and Zzu Zzu are kidnapped while the fully-grown therapod engages the military and trashes a city looking for its offspring. The movie is hardly spectacular, as the miniatures look amateur-tier, and while the adult dinosaur isn’t too rough (it has nice features like nostril wiggling and blinking eyes), the child dinosaur looks like one of those inflatable dinosaur Halloween costumes (though it also blinks). What’s more, while I don’t speak Korean, it certainly seems that the humor isn’t particularly sophisticated, relying on cues like “he made a funny face”, “he’s walking in fast motion”, and “his pants fell down.” That said, despite the timing of the release exploiting Jurassic Park’s dinosaur mania (i.e. it was released the same day), the titanic, bipedal, smoke-breathing saurian with a horn on its nose is nothing if not reminiscent of Yongary.

The movie is significant for being the first entry that Shim actually directed, and it served as the foundation of his studio Young-gu Arts, which would later make Yonggary and Dragon Wars. Shim sold his personal real estate investments in Gangnam to pay for the movie, wanting it to be a step up from the special effects in the prior films. Thus it was a major step towards Shim getting the perpetual rights to the Yongary character, and it shows his pride in the work that a statue of Zzu-zzu was erected outside of Young-gu Arts offices. For something still fondly remembered in the right Korean crowds, it’s a shame that no translated release (official or unofficial) has ever come to light.

Young-gu’s various cinematic misadventures frequently brought him into contact with science fiction and fantasy elements, likely due to Shim’s own interest and ambitions to establish South Korea in the special effects industry. Shim’s approach might generously be described as “backwards from conventional wisdom” (he views experience as a detriment, since it teaches you what’s not possible, so he prefers to minimize preparation), so the quality of the movies is usually significantly below what they’re attempting, but they have a charm to them in that respect, arguably peaking during the mid-1990s when Shim took the directorial reins.

Among the character’s earlier genre outings were Young-gu and Daeng Chiri (영구와 땡칠이, 1989), which was a riff on horror stuff, most notably the Mr. Vampire series out of Hong Kong, featuring Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, jiangshi, etc. The costume work there is minimal, but it did lead to incremental improvements with 1989’s Young-gu and Daeng Chiri go to the Shaolin Temple (Young-gu fights a giant centipede), 1990’s Young-gu and Daeng Chiri 3: Youn-gu Rambo (which features a killer robot), and 1991’s Young-gu and Daeng Chiri 4: Hong Kong Granny Ghost (with werewolf ninjas!). After the character went solo, there was also Youn-gu and Dracula in 1992, part of a big stream of “Young-gu meets X character” titles like Young-gu and the Three Musketeers, Young-gu and Phantom Thief Lupin, etc, which is what led up to Zzu-zzu.

The follow-up to Zzu zzu was 1994’s Yong-gu and the Space Monster (영구와 우주괴물 불괴리), which sees an invading alien force attempt to conquer the earth with a bipedal boar-like monster. The monster’s name, Bulgoeli, means “bullshit”, and apparently the flimsy costume caused problems for the crew during production, but it doesn’t look half bad on screen. There’s also a lot of hijinks involving a tiny flying saucer that resembles the Enterprise if it were missing one engine and had a googly eye stuck to the other, and some martial arts with the alien foot-soldiers.

1995 saw the release of another Young-gu adventure, even though his name isn’t in the title: Power King (파워킹). While it’s certainly an attempt to cash-in on Power Rangers, it’s worth noting that it has the same name in Korean as the anime Muteking, so the main hero’s red costume and visor might have been an attempt to double-dip on name value. This one sees Young-gu transform into a traditional superhero and take on a stock supervillain syndicate, and has a lot of decent action sequences. So many, in fact, that this movie actually did get the Power Rangers treatment, having the actor sequences re-filmed in America so a white dude stepped into the Young-gu role for the first and only time (only they call him “Barry”). This version, Armicron in Outlaw Power, was only released on VHS in the US, but it’s available on DVD in Germany as Power Warriors and in Hong Kong as Masked Rider AMC. A sequel titled New Power King was announced (there were even toys sold by that name in 1999), but much like Yonggary 2 and D-War 2, the picture never materialized.

Shim did one more Young-gu flick prior to Yonggary as a sort of finale for the character (and his acting career), and that’s 1996’s Dragon Tuka (드래곤 투카), in which he travels back in time to the 1500s and gets possessed by alien cops (who basically look somewhere between henshin heroes and head-to-toe motorcyclists) that are out to arrest a space crook and his huge quadrupedal dragon. Needless to say, that one is pretty much a blast (also, there’s Mortal Kombat music. And zombies). In some ways the medieval Joseon-era setting and plot revolving around a dragon demanding a sacrificial maiden was a precursor to the higher profile Dragon Wars, and it was better-received by critics than any of Shim’s subsequent movies. There was also a tie-in shooter game for PC titled Dragon Tuka 3D the following year, which’s fondly remembered. Oh, it’s also noteworthy that Hee-jun Park (Brothers in Heaven) got his start working on that movie.

One movie that doesn’t overtly appear to be part of the Youn-gu series, though some have claimed it features one of Young-gu’s ancestors, is Tyranno’s Claw (티라노의 손톱), which Shim directed in 1994 right after Zzu-zzu. More violent than anything else in his filmography, the movie is essentially an update to the Hammer classic One Million Years BC, featuring cave people speaking gibberish in a world populated by quite impressive animatronic and suitmation dinosaurs. A biproduct of the dialogue-free format is that this is one that’s quite accessible without subtitles, perhaps deliberately so, which may have helped pave the way towards the filmed-in-English later films like Yonggary, Dragon Wars, and The Last Godfather.

Of course, the Young-gu adventure of most interest to fans of Japanese superheroes would be 1991’s Young-gu and the Golden Bat (영구와 황금박쥐), directed by Ki-nam Nam. Since the original 1960s anime was popular in Korea (it got around the ban on Japanese media because a Korean studio worked on the backgrounds), it’s neat that fairly accurate replications of the Japanese Golden Bat hero and villains show up in this movie, along with a hoard of lower-rent monsters (one of whom looks suspiciously like a store-bought Gremlins mask).

I have to specify that Young-gu met the original Japanese Golden Bat because Korea has an entirely homegrown version as well who’s completely different…namely, he’s just yellow Batman. The character featured in the animated movie Black Star and the Golden Bat (1979), complete with a poster that ripped off Gatchaman, and has actually been marketed around the world as a straight-up Batman movie. The story gets better, though, since that character was then itself ripped off for the character of Super Betaman in the second Star Zzangga movie, 1990’s Super Betaman and Mazinger V (스타짱가2 슈퍼베타맨)… including the same pose on the poster!

For the movie Betaman was paired up with a giant robot who’s also a knock-off of a knock-off: Mazinger V was a palette-swapped version of Mazinger 7, from 1983’s Korean animation Super Express Mazinger 7 (known in the US as Protectors of Universe), which, as you may surmise, was taking a page from Mazinger Z. Naturally, this was a way to resell old model kits.

The film combines our live-action hero, who does the requisite Kamen Rider-style karate against a bunch of low-rent monsters, with animated giant robot scenes, but weirdly also has animated character sequences as well. There’s a villainess who looks suspiciously like Sister Jill from Cutie Honey and a heroic visored character who also feels lifted out of another franchise, both carrying over from the original Robot Star Zzangga (로보트 스타짱가) from 1988.

(That wasn’t even the only Batman knock-off, either, since there was also Eagleman, the Warrior of Heaven (이글맨) in 1991, exploiting Tim Burton Batmania in Hollywood. Eagleman has a grappling hook and utility belt, wears all black and yellow, and despite being an “eagle”-themed hero, he fights crime by night like Bats. That said, the level of hand-to-hand chop-socky puts any of the Hollywood Batman movies to shame.)

Super Betaman was far from unique as a live-action Korean superhero to costar with an animated giant robot. We already mentioned the original Star Zzangga, which takes a similar approach (and sometimes gets accused of copying design elements from Xabungle), but it was just one of many. For example, 1987’s Hwarang-V Trio (화랑브이 삼총사), 1987’s Thunder Dragon from Outer Space (외계 우뢰용) (which took designs from Flashman), 1987’s The King of Black Star and the Super Prince (흑성 마왕 과 슈퍼 왕자) (which took designs from Gundam and Transformers), 1987’s Macarian Go (마카리안 고), 1988’s Alien Cobra (외계인 코브라) (whose robot resembles Dynaman‘s), and 1990’s Taekwon V ’90 (로보트 태권V 90) use the same method. Taekwon V is particularly noteworthy, since it’s been running as an animated film series since the 1970s (you might know the character as Voltar the Invincible or “that Korean Mazinger Z“), going for a live-action/animation hybrid with its ninth entry. Of course, there was also the attempt at a full live-action Taekwon V in 2009 that never went beyond a pretty decent proof-of-concept movie, but you can argue that a CGI robot carries on the spirit of all the hand-animated ones.

The animation/live-action hybrid format was popularized by the Wooroimae or Urume (우뢰매 can get Romanized different ways), or “Thunderhawk” series, which consisted of nine movies from Wuroi-Mae From Outer Space (1986) to Ureme the Invincible Fighter (1993). The series revolves around the space hero Esperman, played by none other than Hyung-Rae Shim.

The titular Thunderhawk is Esperman’s transforming robot, which turns from a hawk form into a humanoid warrior that…well, might look a little familiar. See, they repurposed model kits of the Phoenix Thunderhawk from the 1985 anime Ninja Senshi Tobikage for the merchandise line, and thus our protagonist wound up being an unauthorized knock-off of that mecha.

Eventually the series changed the design to avoid infringement on Tobikage, but it still played it fairly fast-and-loose when it came to influences, so some designs may look familiar, particularly to Diaclone fans. (One of the movies even used actual Zoids kits for props!) Esperman himself also got an upgrade for the sixth picture, at which point he looked an awful lot like Captain Power.

Plans for a Wooroimae reboot were floating around as recently as 2017, but even in the modern era, the franchise still manages to get itself into IP hot water. When a graphic novel was announced, whoever did it just copied Jim Lee’s artwork from Superman Unchained, which certainly ticked off the famous (and notably Korean American) artist.

Overt attempts at exploiting the popularity of anime aren’t limited to single elements, though, sometimes a hit title would just get lifted whole cloth. The standout in this category is the filmography of Ryong Wang, a martial artist/actor-turned-director who produced a whole host of live-action adaptations. Let’s start with the most famous one, because it’s an adaptation of one of the biggest hits in the history of Japanese animation: 1990’s Dragon Ball.

Despite being the first live-action adaptation of Akira Toriyama’s classic and a bootleg product, this Dragon Ball is somehow still the most faithful, most entertaining adaptation, heartily beating out both the Taiwanese Dragon Ball: The Magic Begins and the American Dragon Ball: Evolution. The characters look right and act in-character based on what fans of the property would know, including Hyung-Rae Shim himself in the Master Roshi role. It does take some liberties, such as having Nappa inexplicably there as one of Pilaf’s henchmen, and it throws in a couple of robot suits from Sparkman (we’ll get back to that title in a bit) as well as the giant centipede from Young-gu and Daeng Chiri go to the Shaolin Temple, but generally it’s a fun mash-up of wirework kung-fu, tokusatsu-style action, and gags from the source material. I really wish Shueisha, Bird Studio, Toei, and the other companies with the Dragon Ball rights could play ball (no pun intended) to get this movie rescued, restored, and re-released in higher quality than the VHS rips currently in circulation!

Apparently, there was a bit of a winning combination there, since in 1992 Ryong Wang re-teamed with his young actor Seong-tae Heo, still sporting Goku hair, for the Kangdagu Fighter (깡다구 화이터) series. It’s nominally based on Tatsuyoshi Kobayashi’s manga Little Cop, but also includes heavy elements lifted from SD Gundam (such as the hero robot) and Dragon Ball (such as the alien villains), which the studio Daewon justified since they were the Korean distributor for both properties at the time. The main character also uses a gun out of Winspector, and some Sharivan footage also shows up!

There were other South Korean Dragon Ball knockoffs at the time as well; such as the animated movie Super Kid (1995), and the live-action Dragon Boy (드래곤보이) from 1991, which features a kid kung-fu fighting aliens while dressed like the hero of Mashin Hero Wataru.

Shonen Jump’s other major martial arts property of the era, Fist of the North Star, has had unauthorized live-action adaptations around the world, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, even Italy (not to mention the authorized American version). Naturally, Korea got in on the game as well with 1993’s Bugdu ui Gwon (북두의권), also directed by Ryong Wang. Much like the more famous American effort, this movie is relatively bloodless compared to its source material, but it does get credit for attempting to recreate a few of the weird blurry/glowing martial arts effects from the anime.

As if that wasn’t enough Jump action, Wang also adapted Yu Yu Hakusho with The Crazy Ghost (정신나간 유령) trilogy in 1992. Oddly enough, despite being an authorized adaptation (unlike Fist of the North Star), Crazy Ghost is a pretty loose retelling, taking the broad strokes of the source material without being immediately recognizable… for example, Hiei is a weird monkey demon and Kurama is female. Still, for how popular the original is, it’s quite surprising that this isn’t better-known…perhaps it’ll have a renaissance when the Netflix live-action version hits?

The same year, Wang gave us Street Fire (맹구짱구 스트리트 화이어), which is pretty blatantly riffing on Street Fighter II. From the clips online, it doesn’t look like the best adaptation of the video game to live-action, but also not the worst. Also, it starts with some Super Sentai stock footage of buildings blowing up, for some reason.

(Note that this is not to be confused with Street Fighter (스트리트 파이터 가두쟁패전), a different, prior live-action adaptation made in Korea, which is actually a bit better. That one takes place in the far future of 2010, and the world is populated by radioactive mutants, explaining the weird character designs.)

(Oh, and there was also Taekwon V/Thunderhawk creator Cheong-gi Kim’s Street Fighter Q (스트리트 파이터 Q, 1992), which has nothing to do with the Street Fighter 3 character named Q, but does have one of the aliens from the Space Police series (more on that in a bit) and features the main cast getting trained by Dragon Ball’s Master Roshi. Basically, there were a lot of Korean Street Fighter adaptations, each one wackier than the previous.)

Ryong Wang did a few other knock-off movies, including adaptations of Iron Fist Chinmi and Magical Hat, but there’s only so many hours in the day. So instead, let’s pivot to an original (-ish) property of his that should appeal to tokusatsu fans: 1991’s Fighting Man (화이팅맨). Now, it’s oft speculated that there might have been some aesthetic influence of Metal Heroes on RoboCop (there absolutely is in the opposite direction), but this movie takes a bold stance in ripping off both and pitting a transforming metallic hero against a villainous RoboCopy android. Also, Seong-tae Heo shows up in a lead role again.

(Speaking of RoboCopy crossovers, there’s also a brief gag of one in 1993’s Hong Gil-dong vs. Terminator (홍길동 대 터미네이터), which was one a few Korean Terminator knock-offs at the time.)

(Heck, Korea loved RoboCop so much that he even got to share Yongary’s honor of selling fried chicken.)

It might not even be fair to say that Fighting Man was directly Metal Heroes-inspired, since there was actually a whole movement of Metal Heroes-inspired Korean cinema during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The high-water mark is likely 1988’s Sparkman (스파크맨) a Hyung-Rae Shim flick where he plays a little more serious, though there’s still a bit of comedy (including some toilet humor/nudity that might not go over well with all audiences). The film oozes with influence from Spielban and Maskman, and really does look as good in parts, with a cool hero, cool villains, and cool giant robots (who are live effects, not animated! They got reused for Dragon Ball, remember?).

One of the longer-running series of Korean superheroes was Mask Bandal (반달가면), or “Half-moon Mask”, who had six films from 1990-1992, and became sort of a calling card for BUM Production, one of the biggest studios for Korean children’s films at the time (and the successor to Seoul Fairytale Production, who had made the Thunderhawk films). As the name might imply, this is sort of Korea’s answer to Japan’s first TV superhero Gekko Kamen (“Moonlight Mask”), but the initial design was actually based on Mad Gallant from Juspion, figures of whom were repainted to make the first wave of Mask Bandal figures.

One of the initial gimmicks was that it wasn’t clear if the main character (notably played by singer Heung-Gook Kim, not a comedian like most heroes of the day) was actually the secret identity of Mask Bandal or not, as the two would sometimes share screen time. Of course, he actually was, and it turns out he had an assistant to step in and help out, resulting in numerous different Bandal Mask hero characters over the course of the film franchise.

It wasn’t just Metal Heroes that inspired imitation in South Korea; Super Sentai did as well, so there were a few color-coded hero teams running around. One that seems to come up quite a bit is 1992’s Space Police Human Power (우주경찰 휴먼 파워), about a trio of alien protectors representing love, fraternity, and service. Since the whole industry is kind of recursive, the film was directed by Taekwon V/Thunderhawk creator Cheong-gi Kim (hence the alien reuse for Street Fighter Q), and the team’s leader (who’s orange instead of red) was played by the dub voice of Goku in Dragon Ball! A sequel, sometimes called Space Police Human Power 2, but sometimes called Three Superpowers: Thunder Bigman (3인의 초능력자 썬더 빅맨), hit the same year, with a similar premise and similar heroic trio, but slightly differing in design.

That brings us to one of the wildest titles to generally fly under the radar in English-speaking fandom: 1991’s Morph Warrior Trans And Toady (변신전사 트랜스 토디), which I really think is due for rediscovery and cult film status.

So, I’ll just start with the elephant in the room, since it’s a quirk of the evolving English language: this movie features a team of five color-coded, transforming superheroes (of varying races, which was pretty much unheard of in Sentai knock-offs prior to Power Rangers!), and the name of that team is…well… they’re called Transman. You’ve got Trans Dragon, Trans Tiger, and Trans Jaguar (the guys), and Trans Lion and Trans Eagle (the girls), so it’s similar to Liveman or Jetman, except with the awkwardness of having to explain that, to the best of my knowledge, this was more about playing into the popularity of Transformers than making any statement on gender dysphoria.

(Of course, if the transgender community wanted to appropriate this team, they’ve already got a sweet logo ready to go onto t-shirts and patches and whatnot. Just saying….)

To really nail down that the “Trans” in the team name is for mockbuster purposes, the Transman team even have a giant mecha, Alpha Base Robot, which is basically Overlord from Transformers:

However, Transman aren’t even the real heroes of the movie, since that honor goes to Toady (or “Tody” as his T-shirt says), an alien frog dude. Toady has super kung fu skills and powers like shooting beams from his hands and streams of poison gas from his butt; he even dies and comes back to life! (As for why a suitmation amphibian martial artist would be the hero of a children’s movie in 1991, one would have to assume that a certain set of reptilian teenage mutant ninjas would be to blame.)

In true tokusatsu spirit, it wasn’t just the Alpha Base Robot that was merchandised, but there was also a soft vinyl figure of the villain kaiju Kukulgan and the crab robot Crobo as well.

Anyway, the movie (or movies, since the three-hour runtime is usually broken up into two parts) is a madcap delight, bouncing all over the place. Just take a look at a few random screencaps and tell me it doesn’t look interesting:

At this point, having mentioned animated robots superimposed onto live-action actors, designs from toys, and Ninja Turtles exploitation, I’m sure the savvy reader is screaming “what about the 1989 movie Our Friend Power 5 (우리들의 친구 파워 5)?” Have no fear, there’s no going through this subject and not mentioning the infamous, blatant attempt to coopt both TMNT and Machine Robo (American reviewers tend to call them Gobots) into one weird project.

Our Friend Power 5 is a weird kind of outlier in that it seems to be better-known in the English-language fandom than in the Korean one. To the best of my knowledge, it’s the only title on this article to have gotten fansubbed, and I’d have to credit the sizable Ninja Turtles fandom for that. However, I imagine for Korean audiences, the movie has none of the crazy novelty value for being a blatant unauthorized cash-in that it does with Western fans; if nothing else I hope I’m communicating the frequency with which these kinds of copyright nightmare exploitation flicks were produced in the late 80s and early 90s.

Actual TMNT fans will probably have a meltdown with the treatment of the property, since it’s evident that the characters were basically modeled after the Playmates figures with little else taken into consideration. There are five turtle heroes in the movie, they all have red bandanas, but they’re color-coded by their shells (pink, yellow, blue, brown, and black), and they’re aliens fighting another group of aliens, namely rat creatures based on Splinter. So, yeah, the giant robots are probably the least problematic element for die-hards. One would think these changes could have been made to obfuscate the characters for plausible trademarking deniability, but the toy-line referred to them as “Teenage Mutant Turtles” nevertheless.

The low-rent hero productions go on and on, and the more I look, the more crop up. Just to rattle off a few more, there’s the gold helmet guys in The Trio Stars (삼중성, 1991), or the yellow-and-black Space Warrior, Fireman (우주 전사 불의 사나이, 1991). There were also quite a few more Hyung-Rae Shim vehicles, like Don Quixote and Sancho Commando (돈키호테 형래와 산쵸 특공대, 1991), A Policeman Hyung-Lae and Trio of Insect (포졸 형래와 벌레 삼총사, 1990) from Vandal Mask director Jong-ho Lim, and Black Knight (흑기사 형래와 광대들, 1990), which has a pretty blatant Darth Vader helmet on the title character.

As far as straight-up creature features go, I’d also be remiss not to mention 1983’s Grudge of the Sleepwalking Woman (몽녀한), a Korean/Taiwanese coproduction. Unfortunately, the original version of this flick with a snake woman somnambulist appears to be gone, but the 1988 Godfrey Ho re-edit Scorpion Thunderbolt is available fairly widely, if you don’t mind gratuitous Caucasian actors sprinkled in. The monster, funnily enough, doesn’t look like either of the films’ posters would have you believe.
(Fun fact: Grudge of the Sleepwalking Woman’s director Beom-gu Gam also directed A Monstrous Corpse (괴시), South Korea’s first zombie movie, in 1981. Japan wouldn’t start on the zombie game for another decade after!)

Of course, the late 1990s and early 2000s changed the Korean moviemaking landscape tremendously, and now it’s seen as a power-player on the international cinematic stage. One of the names leading the charge, Joon-ho Bong, has huge international special effects co-productions like Okja and Snowpiercer, and even won the Academy Award for his drama Parasite. Bong first got on a lot of western radar for 2006’s monster movie The Host, which I sometimes get called out for not including on my rundowns of kaiju films. Here’s my rationale: there’s nothing overtly “kaiju” about the monster on surface level, since it seems more like just another big CGI beastie than anything in the Tsuburaya aesthetic. There’s a case to be made for it, though, if you compare it to the 2002 anime WXIII: Patlabor, which also features a slimy, amphibious man-eater brought about by human pollution (which, due to its genesis as an adaptation of an adaptation of a parody of kaiju flicks, absolutely counts), but both the Korean distributors of The Host and the creators of Patlabor maintain that any similarities are coincidental…ergo, not “kaiju”.  Which is not a qualitative judgement, just saying that it’s doing its own thing.

Modern Korean genre filmmaking has been doing its own thing quite successfully as of late, with excellent content like Train to Busan, Sector 7, The Mimic, Sweet Home, Arahan, Monstrum, and countless others. It’s got its own identity, and seldom leans on adapting Japanese or Hollywood content anymore (possibly owing in part to the country adopting the Berne Convention in 1996), with rare examples such as A-lister Jee-woon Kim’s Illang: the Wolf Brigade (adapting Jin-roh) or Power Rangers Dino Force Brave (an original sequel to Kyoryuger). And even then, some have been wildly unique takes, much to my personal chagrin with cases such as City Hunter. The relative availability of K-dramas, K-pop, and even webtoons compared to their conservative Japanese contemporaries is resulting in a global audience shift, and thus we’re seeing large American streaming sites like Crunchyroll and Netflix pouring resources into Korean productions. Rather than aping (A*P*ING?) other nations like it did before, Korean pop culture has become a heavyweight in its own right in just two decades, and I expect we’ll see a lot more of it in the future.

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While I’m at it, here are a few of the Korean TV shows that utilize the henshin hero format. These are kind of after the time period covered in the article, but I know someone will comment otherwise. Maybe they’ll get their own run-through at some point in the future:

  • Earth Warriors Vectorman, (지구용사 벡터맨), 1998
  • Environmental Warrior Zenta Force (환경전사 젠타포스), 2003
  • Power Master Maxman (수호전사 맥스맨), 2004
  • Erexion (이레자이온), 2006
  • Environmental Garrison WildForce (환경수비대 와일드포스) 2008
  • VoLTE Ranger (광속전사 볼테레인저/光速戰士 VoLTE Ranger), 2012
  • Chul Dong! K-Cop (출동!케이캅), 2015
  • Legend Hero Samgugjeon (레전드히어로 삼국전), 2016
  • X-Garion (엑스가리온), 2019
  • Nano Fighters LOKAPA ( 나노전사 로카파) 2020
  • GUNBLADE, never released
Posted in Articles | 3 Comments

Maser Patrol podcast episode 48: Symphogear

After a long hiatus, it’s time for another episode of the Maser Patrol podcast. This time, we take a look at a show with a valuable life lesson:

That’s right, this time around Josh and Kevin discuss the sweet Swan Songs of the Valkyries in the Senki Zesshō Symphogear franchise. It’s largely a synopsis of the five seasons, but hopefully our enthusiasm (and a little bit of the historical context) gives a sense of why it’s a program absolutely worth checking out.

Warnings: Many spoilers. Also, the editing for this podcast might not be all that tight due to Audacity problems (but it’s Maser Patrol, so of course it’s a couple hours long anyway).

Direct download

Show notes:

Marketing

  • How Symphogear is marketed in Japan:
  • How Symphogear is marketed in the US:
  • How Symphogear probably should be marketed:
  • But what Symphogear is really about:

Sample clips:

  • The marketing leading up to season 1 all implied that Kanade would be a main character, and not, say, someone who would die halfway into the first episode:

Talking about the show:

  • Hibiki Tachibana in a nutshell:
  • The Noise designs are very much like Tohl Narita’s Ultraman monsters:
  • Even more psuedo-Ultraman: The Nephilim was modeled after Zetton, while Hibiki turns into a red-and-silver giant at one point.
  • Yumi’s self-awareness:
  • Ignite module vs Kill la Kill god robe:

The mobile game

  • Symphogear XD Unlimited mobile game opening:

XDU Collaborations that’d be of interest:

  • SSSS.Gridman
  • Godzilla
  • ULTRAMAN
  • Nanoha Detonation
  • Attack on Titan
  • the Gamera trilogy
  • Nendoroids mentioned:

Hopefully that all sheds some light on why the franchise has such a devout fanbase, and why “watch Symphogear” has become a meme associated with rabid, proselytizing otaku. But seriously, if you’re even a bit curious, it’s worth checking out.

Posted in Podcast | 3 Comments

Happy 50th Anniversary to Spectreman!

It’s now 2021, marking the 50th anniversary of the start of the 2nd Kaiju Boom, also known as the Henshin Boom, a period when Japanese television was flooded with transforming superhero characters. No doubt a lot of fandom is ecstatic to celebrate the half-centennial of Kamen Rider, which was made as direct competition to Ultraman’s return in the likewise seminal Return of Ultraman, but, there’s one title that beat both of them to air, debuting on January 2, 1971. This show even aired on American television alongside the likes of Ultraman, Johnny Sokko & His Flying Robot, and Space Giants, so every once in a while when I’m be out and about with some tokusatsu T-shirt on, a Gen-Xer will approach me and ask:

“Hey, is that Spectreman?”

The 63-episode show clearly made an impact on a number of young viewers, and is still a staple of gray-market convention tape traders to this day. A cornerstone of vintage tokusatsu content and a foundational link in the evolution of the genre, luxury merchandise from expensive home video sets to hyper-detailed vinyl figures continue to feature prominently in the Japanese market as well. In short, it’s a classic.

I’m sure others will do some sort of proper series retrospective for this anniversary, but for my part I thought I could round up some 20 fun pieces of trivia to celebrate the big gold guy’s 50th.

  1. While the US version and the Japanese re-broadcast is titled Spectreman throughout, this wasn’t the case for the show’s original Japanese run. The first 20 episodes were titled Space Apeman Gori, after the show’s main villain, followed by Space Apeman Gori vs Spectreman until episode 39. The change to promote the hero more in the title seems obvious in retrospect (sponsors weren’t happy with the show being named after the villain to begin with), but at the time when the show started there were no similar hero programs on the air with which to conform.
Space Apeman Gori/ Space Apeman Gori vs Spectreman opening
Spectreman opening

2. The villainous alien apemen Gori and La were a deliberate attempt to cash in on Planet of the Apes, which was very popular in Japan.

3. Spectreman himself is very much a mock Ultraman: he’s an alien from Nebula 71 (not M78), he can fly, he has a human form that works with a government organization to combat monsters, he even has a flashing light that indicates when his power is running low. But he does have one advantage: his height, according to official stats, is however big it needs to be, which at times gets ridiculous.

3. The show was made by P-Productions, continuing the trend of golden heroes from Space Giants and their failed 1967 pilot Jaguarman. The animal theme of the latter carried over to Gori (not to mention Lion Maru and Silver Jaguar), while the size-changing aspect went to Specterman.

4. The show was rushed into production. The previous show in the slot, Akai Inazuma, ended abruptly in December 1970, leaving only 25 days to create a replacement, so Masaki Tsuji wrote the scenarios for first two episodes overnight. P-Pro president Tomio Sagisu’s proposed concept for Elementman, about a hero who could turn into solid, liquid, and gas, was also incorporated.

5. Before the series, a pilot was produced, with a very different look for the hero and villain. The Gori suit from the pilot was reused for La, and, being a hot otaku property, there is even merchandise of the unused Spectreman design.

6. The identity of the actor from the pilot is unknown. Originally it was reported as Jiro Dan, the very lead of Return of Ultraman, but this has since been debunked. There is a resemblance, though.

7. The early part of the show had a strong environmental theme, with pollution-based monsters with names like Dustman and Hedoron (“hedoro” meaning “sludge”), a precursor to eco-savvy kaiju flicks like Godzilla vs Hedorah and Gamera vs Zigra. This made the sponsors uncomfortable for some reason, and the messaging was phased out of later episodes.

8. And what could be more eco-friendly than recycling? The show reused kaiju from both the Jaguarman and Hyo-man pilots, and fans of Goke the Bodysnatcher from Hell might want to take a close look at Dr. Gori’s flying saucer.

9. Less eco-friendly: as a promotional stunt, producer Takaharu Bessho solicited viewers to send in their cockroaches for episodes 7 and 8. Some of the resulting fan mail actually did contain live cockroaches, to the disgust of the higherups.

10. You know how children somehow manage to get into rooms that they’re not supposed to all the time in tokusatsu movies? This also happens in real life, as the studio used for filming effects was pretty run down, so a child broke in and stole one of the Spectreman flying props! This prompted the production to move to a new studio with the 32nd episode.

11. The show was twice adapted for theaters as part of Toei’s Manga Matsuri. Episodes 9-10 played alongside Go Go Kamen Rider, Alibaba and the 40 Thieves, Andersen Monogatari, and Mako the Mermaid, while the 27th episode played with Kamen Rider vs Shocker, Return of Pero, Moomin, and Sarutobi Ecchan.

12. The late, great manga maestro Daiji Kazumine was in charge of the comic adaptation, and it became one of the works most associated with him, running a whopping seven volumes. As with his Ultraman work, there are some original stories mixed in among the adaptations of TV episodes, and some deviations between the two, including more graphic violence and a more expressive main character.
I should clarify, though, that this is only for the Spectreman manga that Kazumine did in the pages of Adventure King and Shonen Champion, since he also had a version in Delightful Kindergarten targeted at much younger children.

From Delightful Kindergarten

13. While Spectreman himself doesn’t appear, his human identity Jouji Gamou does get a cameo in Go Nagai’s Abashiri Family. He says that he can’t transform to face the monster threat in the issue because it’s not owned by P-Pro.

14. The US dub of the show was directed and written by Mel Welles, best known for playing the penny-pinching boss in the original Little Shop of Horrors, but also a staple of English dubs for things like Magic Boy and The X from Outer Space. He punched up the dub a bit to suit his own sensibilities, though not as extremely as some English tokusatsu dubs (Ultraseven, Ultraman Tiga).

15. The US theme song is definitely a catchy and iconic piece in its own right. The backing uses Mystic Moods Orchestra’s “First Day of Forever”, which is notably uncredited, only listing Bob Todd, Gregory Sill, and Jeremy Winn for the song.

16. If you want to watch Spectreman in the US, your options are limited. While it doesn’t have as complicated a rights situation as Ultraman or Space Giants did, it’s never been licensed for DVD or Blu-ray stateside, so your best option is tracking down the Image release of the show on VHS and laserdisc. Even that only gets through about a quarter of the show, however, so hopefully it gets picked up some day!

17. Though Spectreman isn’t available on DVD in the US, Yudai Yamaguchi’s movie adaptation of the zany delinquent gag manga Cromartie High School is.
Why is this relevant? Gori and La literally drop in for a scene!

18. Spectreman was among a few sources for footage compiled into the 1983 Leslie Nielson comedy Naked Space. Heck, I’m seeing Gori and La as the thumbnail on the trailer on YouTube:

19. Gori was one of a few Japanese influences (like Kagestar and Speed Racer‘s dub) on the villain Mojo Jojo from The Powerpuff Girls.

20. The show also inspired the Franco-Belgian spoof Léguman, about a vegetable-themed tokusatsu hero.

Bonus fact: The main character Jouji Gamou is named after Russian-American physicist George Gamow, best known for work on the big bang theory (the actual theory, not the sitcom). Tomio Sagisu used the name as one of his many pen names for a while, so it was a natural fit for the hero in his story.

That’s a wrap! Happy anniversary to Spectreman!