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
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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.

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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!

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End-of-Year Maser Patrol News Recap

Apologies: I’ve been bad about making timely news recaps this year.

2020 has been terrible, and the general stresses of the world combined with some personal life situations/tragedies have made it difficult to find the time and motivation to pour through the news each week. My new years resolution is to try to get more on top of that, though, and to that end I put together a Facebook page, so all I have to do when I see something cool is hit “share” rather than mucking about in WordPress. That should also keep a roughly chronological account of neat news items, as well as other miscellanea that I encounter, and in turn will make it easier when it comes time to round up items to talk about for the ‘blog posts.

It seems like a fool’s errand to try to discuss everything that I’ve been neglecting to since October, but here’s a rundown of a few of the ones that come to mind:

Productions

  • In what I think is the most exciting development of the past couple of months, we have a trailer for Godzilla: Singular Point, due on Netflix in April. I think that Orange’s CG and Bones’ human animation both look on-point, and the soundtrack is great. Most of the fandom discourse has been around the monster redesigns, though claims that what seems most likely to be Titanosaurus is actually Godzilla because of Keita Amemiya’s old drawing of a Godzilla mosasaur is ones of the wilder bits of speculation I’ve seen bandied about.

A lot of fans are expecting this to be more action-packed and less esoteric than the other modern Japanese productions, but I’ve read enough Toh EnJoe works to know that he can go toe-to-toe with Anno and Urobuchi in the pretentious, impenetrable, techno-philosophical narrative department. I mean, just as one example, for a second the trailer does feature a riff on Kuniyoshi Utagawa’s famous woodblock of Tametomo and the giant fish, only with a red ocean and “古史羅” (“koshira”) written over it, sort of a pun since “koshi” is “ancient history” (NB: this is different than Godzilla’s usual kanji, 呉爾羅). Also EnJoe’s love of time travel and reality-bending narratives also make me think that the “Singular Point” of the title isn’t merely the gibberish that a few others seem to suspect.

More elaborate character profiles have been translated, so there’s a lot to dig into.

  • Takeshi Yagi directed a 90-minute special for NHK titled Godzilla’s Leading Ladies (Godzilla & Heroine in Japanese), and it’s a lot of fun. There’s some rare behind-the-scenes video from the 50s and 60s that Tomoyuki Tanaka shot, Yumiko Shaku got back into her Godzilla x Mechagodzilla jumpsuit, Kumi Mizuno talks about working with Nick Adams, Shiro Sano oversees the show, and there’s a robot girl for some reason. It’s very dialogue-heavy, but apparently a subtitled version has been prepared, so hopefully that sees the light of day soon!
  • SSSS.Dynazenon is still a little slow on their reveals in the trailers, but the newer one has a bit more in the action department. They’re also wasting no time with marketing this time, as a figure of the title robot is already up for sale.
  • As if to respond to the Godzilla SP trailer (but really all just part of Netflix’s big anime reveals presentation), we also got a couple of stills from the unfortunately-titled Pacific Rim: The Black, as well as the leaked opening. I don’t expect much from Polygon, but the opening is in-line with a lot of Netflix openings, from Daredevil to The Haunting of Hill House, not to mention the original Pacific Rim‘s ending.
  • Somehow a stupid pun in the Monster Hunter movie resulted in an avalanche of outrage in China. The full explanation of the controversy is outlined here, but be warned, it’s all very, very dumb. The movie’s prospects would likely have been grim at the best of times, considering how preciously fans of the games erupt against the changes made for the adaptation, but without the Chinese market and a worldwide pandemic, its box office was dire. I personally plan to order the Blu-ray sight unseen, but have no movie that I’d risk attending in the cinema right now.
  • Hiroto Yokokawa is working on a new kaiju short for next year, Yatsuashi. That’s an impressive speed, seeing as how Nezura 1964 is debuting in January.
  • Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger is managing to somehow simultaneously be a celebration of past Super Sentai shows for the 45th anniversary while also not really resembling a Super Sentai team at all. Rather than the typical five matching heroes with the leader in red, this show’s main hero Zenkaiser is a rainbow-colored fellow like JAKQ‘s Big One… the difference being that Big One was an “extra ranger” who only showed up halfway into the show. Zenkaiser is also channeling Dragonranger and Akaranger in his design, but his belt and head crest could just as easily put him at home in a Kamen Rider series.

    The rest of the team is not the usual spandex-clad matching heroes, either, but mecha reminiscent of the giant combined robots from Zyuranger, Gaoranger, Magiranger, and Boukenger… they’re even named Zyuran, Gaon, Magin, and Vroon. If anything they remind me most of Gaogaigar‘s support cast (complete with symmetrical docking), so it should make for an interestingly different anniversary series, if nothing else.
  • The third season of Thunderbolt Fantasy starts in April.
  • Platinum End is getting an anime adaptation. The series is from the duo behind Death Note, and represents a return to that same supernatural mystery/thriller genre, but also features a number of characters in a super-powered cat-&-mouse battle royale wearing superhero outfits to keep their identities secret from one another. It’s not quite as engrossing as Death Note, but still good stuff.
  • Mappa will be doing an anime adaptation of Chainsaw Man. The edgy (pun intended) manga has gained a lot of popularity for its insane antics and crass humor, and several readers felt like they were “getting away with something” by having it run in Weekly Shonen Jump, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s been moved online to Shonen Jump+. But regardless, Mappa’s execution of shows like Dorohedoro inspires a lot of confidence in this being superb.
  • The Polonia brothers’ 2015 kaiju spoof ZillaFoot has been available to rent on Vimeo from SRS for a while, but with SRS’s recent kaiju home video boom, they’ve decided to extend its hour runtime to feature length, padding it out with additional footage (ala the US cut of King Kong vs Godzilla) sourced from their fans. Time will tell how this approach works out for them, but it’s an interesting idea, nevertheless.
  • Here’s a proof-of-concept for an independent flick titled City-Crushing Monster. Not much actual monster footage, for a POC.

Home video

  • Most of kaiju fandom is more excited for Godzilla vs. Kong than anything else, so it was a big hullabaloo when it was announced that WB’s entire slate for the next year was going directly to HBOMax. This seems a symbiotic arrangement, since WB’s upcoming slate (Dune, Suicide Squad, The Matrix 4) is overwhelmed by franchises that have flopped at the box office, and HBOMax has very little exclusive content of its own so far to bolster it as yet another streaming service in an oversaturated market. However, this was a jerk move to Legendary (who paid for most of Godzilla vs Kong), since they were only informed about this decision when it was made public, and they had to turn down a very lucrative offer from Netflix for the film.

    It’s definitely a good decision to send the picture direct to streaming during the COVID pandemic, and possibly a good call to offer an alternative to cinemas even during normal times, but Netflix would have probably been a better home for the title, so it’s a shame that it got to the point where things have begun to get ugly between Legendary and WB.
  • SRS has picked up the rights to Monster Seafood Wars, one of the most exciting entries yet in their ever-expanding kaiju library. I hope they take a look at some of Minoru Kawasaki’s older titles that haven’t made it to the English-speaking world yet, as well.
  • Arrow’s release of Daiei’s Invisible Man movies is up for preorder for a release in March. A lot of their fans were salty about this announcement (evidently they saw that bandages were hinted at and thought they’d announce Darkman), but I’m ecstatic that anyone’s taking a chance on vintage tokusatsu titles with no prior international release.
  • Hakaider is getting a Blu-ray release from Media Blasters; I see they’ve eschewed the “Mechanical Violator” title. I don’t believe there’s a Japanese Blu-ray for the film, interestingly enough, so this might be the first HD version on the market.
  • Ultraman Taro is up for preorder, hitting January 12. As mentioned in the panel at Kaiju Con-line, it looks like the numbered classic sets are planned up through Ultraman Leo, and then they’ll do something different.
  • Howl from Beyond the Fog is getting a mass-market release on DVD. While it’s neat that getting the movie into Walmarts will get more people to see it, I’m not sure how well it’ll go over with that orange-and teal King of the Monsters mockbuster cover (a lot like a certain Total Film issue, below), though, since it’s such a different kind of film.
  • Scorpion is releasing Voyage into Space on Blu-ray. With all of Johnny Sokko on DVD, I don’t have a lot of incentive to pick up the compilation movie, but I’m sure some folks will be into it.
  • Not a giant monster movie itself, 1930’s Ingagi was a huge influence on King Kong, but has long been very difficult to see due to its banned film status. However, Kino Lorber is putting it onto Blu-ray, which should go well with their releases of Konga, A*P*E, The Ape, etc…
  • Discotek has licensed a bunch of classic mecha anime, including Acrobunch (nobody saw that coming), as well as Daimos and Daltanious (completing the set they started with Combattler V and Voltes V).

Comics

  • After their license expired for a while, Godzilla is back at IDW. First on the docket: a five-issue comic for “middle-grade readers”, evidently simply titled Godzilla. Erik Burnham, Dan Schoening, and Luis Antonio Delgado are running the book, all of whom have experience with licensed titles at IDW with Ghostbusters, which I’ve heard some good things about. The decision to go after a younger audience makes a lot of sense; the Scholastic market is a huge and under-appreciated segment of American comic sales, routinely trumping the likes of Marvel and DC.

    I must confess that this launch title is a little less exciting than last time around, but it still seems worth checking out, and hopefully will lead to more diverse output from the company (but please, guys, see if you can reprint the old Dark Horse/Marvel runs in English!).
  • More details have been announced for Phase 6’s Aizenborg comic: Replicating the disparate aesthetics of the original anime/tokusatsu hybrid, the human scenes are being done in this version by Matt Frank using digital art, while Hiroshi Kanatani uses markers to represent the kaiju/hero pieces. It’s a pretty clever approach to take, and after seeing how Redman: The Kaiju Hunter turned out, this could easily bring Aizenborg to a whole new level!
  • Rise of Ultraman must be doing somewhat okay as a miniseries, since Marvel just announced that they’re continuing it with Trials of Ultraman in March. There was a little concern after the drop in sales between the first and second issues, selling around 30,000 copies; this isn’t huge numbers for Marvel, but perhaps the potential power of the brand is keeping them on it.
  • Skybound has a new Ultraman pastiche on the way, Ultramega. As a fan of Skybound as a line in general, I’d already be onboard, but since James Herrin was also involved with some giant monster stories in BPRD, I have a little extra confidence in it. I know a few Ultraman fans are concerned that it looks a bit like it’s trying edginess for its own sake without doing much original, but we’ll find out when the comic drops in March.
  • In very exciting and utterly unexpected news, Seven Seas picked up the license to Shotaro Ishinomori’s original Goranger (or, I guess, “Gorenger“) manga. It’ll be interesting to see how the manga (which is a little goofy at times) is received by the modern Sentai/Power Rangers fan base, and I absolutely love the way that Seven Seas are emulating the (woefully defunct) Shout Factory DVD releases with this cover design. August Ragone’s liner notes with background about the franchise should make for good reading as well.
  • Negi Haruba (most famous for The Quintessential Quintuplets) is doing another manga about a group of five, this time titled Sentai Daishikkaku (戦隊大失格, “Sentai Disqualification”). It starts in February in Shonen Magazine.
  • Koyoshi Nakayoshi’s manga Sentai Red Becomes an Adventurer in Another World (戦隊レッド異世界で冒険者になる) recently started running in Shonen Gangan. The popular isekai genre has had all sorts of everyday people get reincarnated as heroes in Dragon Quest-like fantasy realms, but this one turns the trope on its head by making the protagonist who dies and gets whisked away to the sword-&-sorcery realm the leader of a sentai team in his past life, bringing his transformations and mecha along with him. These two major genres have certainly met before (e.g. Rayearth), but never in a mash-up quite like this!
  • After Ultraman, Getter Robo, and Robot Detective, Eiichi Shimizu and Tomohiro Shimoguchi are rebooting yet another classic hero character, with Batman: Justice Buster for Kodansha’s Morning magazine. Hopefully this one gets a US release; it can always be a crapshoot with manga but Batman has the best history of all American comic heroes in that department.
  • Monthly Hero’s is moving entirely online. The magazine going that way is a big deal, since it’s the number one Japanese manga anthology for superhero content at the moment. They’re a 7-11 exclusive, so hopefully this is a way to broaden horizons, rather than a sign that the imprint as a whole is in trouble.

Video Games

  • Symphogear XD Unlimited added Gamera to the ever-expanding list of kaiju franchises that it’s crossed over with. As with their ULTRAMAN, Godzilla, SSSS.Gridman, Nanoha, and Attack on Titan collaborations, it was a good mix of splicing the franchise mythologies together and giving the gears neat new armors based on the kaiju characters. This one apparently got some merch that I’ll have to be on the lookout for, such as posters, buttons, and acrylic standee figures.
  • A Godzilla skin showed up in Fall Guys.
  • ULTRAMAN‘s Ultraman, despite not being a giant robot, is a main feature in mech fighting game Override 2. (Also, I had to look up their character Watchbot to confirm that it’s not actually Draco Azul)

Miscellaneous

  • Part of the Godzilla Day festivities this year that I don’t think was on anyone’s bingo card was the return of Hamtaro collaborations. I guess with the 20th anniversary of the original Godziham products, it made sense to revive the merchandising line. Matt Frank designed the main image at the center of the new line!
  • Mega64 has been doing amusing sweded versions of titles like Dragonball Z and Metal Gear Solid for a while, but their Evangelion really picks it up a notch.

On a sad note, RIP to a few creatives who we’ve lost in the past few months.

  • Izumi Matsumoto, creator of the seminal romantic comedy (with ESP powers) Kimagure Orange Road. His work is a powerful, emotional manga at times, and one of the finest anime of the 1980s.
  • Tom Kotani, the director of the Rankin Bass pictures The Last Dinosaur, The Bermuda Depths, The Ivory Ape, and The Bushido Blade. The Last Dinosaur is a personal favorite of the entire 1970s tokusatsu canon.
  • Daiji Kazumine, arguably the most prolific kaiju mangaka of all time, with work on King Kong, Ultraman, Spectreman, Mirrorman, Godzilla, and countless other titles.

Yeah, it’s been one of those rough years.

But hopefully 2021 will be better. Best New Year’s wishes to all!

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Unmade movie review: Versus (2008)

Note: this thumbnail was for fun and was not part of the unmade movie’s script

The early-to-mid 2000s were perhaps the peak of Japan’s soft power in Hollywood. Anime (or anime-inspired cartoons) dominated all the children’s networks, Hayao Miyazaki won an Oscar, blockbuster movies like The Matrix, Kill Bill, and Transformers flaunted their Japanese influence, and suddenly people knew who Ken Watanabe was. The horror genre, in particular, was indelibly impacted, by two Japanese titles remade in Hollywood in 2002: Paul WS Anderson’s Resident Evil (based on the 1996 video game), and Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (based on the 1998 Hideo Nakata movie, in turn based on the 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki), kicking off new interest in zombies and ghost stories. Just as Nakata’s movie had inspired a glut of imitators in its native country, Hollywood scrambled to remake as many titles as possible from the contemporary “J-horror” boom: Dark Water (2005), Pulse (2006), One Missed Call (2008), Don’t Look Up (2009), Apartment 1303 (2013), among other remakes drawing from various Asian countries.

It wasn’t just the concepts, but also the talent, that was being brought over. Nakata himself was hired to direct The Ring Two (2005), Takashi Shimizu remade his own work with The Grudge (2004) and The Grudge 2 (2006), and Masayuki Ochiai got the job for the 2008 remake of Shutter despite having nothing to do with the original. Interest was high enough that American studios were starting to invest in Japanese productions, and the likes of Takashi Miike and Norio Tsuruta were getting gigs on Masters of Horror. This is the environment that Ryuhei Kitamura, having achieved the pinnacle of what he thought possible with Japanese cinema with 2004’s Godzilla Final Wars, found himself in when making his Hollywood breakthrough.

Despite an interest in Japanese horror and Kitamura’s fluent English skills, it was still an uphill battle to land a project, eventually landing 2008’s The Midnight Meat Train, which was unfortunately scaled back to dollar theaters upon release due to studio meddling. Even with a Hollywood film under his belt, Kitamura’s cinematic calling card remained the same: his notorious, revolutionary 2000 debut, the zombie/action/gangster cult-opus Versus. It was his claim to fame, and his most entwined picture, beginning as a sequel to his debut student film Down to Hell (1997), he poured his all into it, and it paid off big time, launching the careers of both Kitamura and his collaborators Tak Sakaguchi, Yudai Yamaguchi, Hideo Sakaki, et al. In 2004, as a sort of capstone to his whirlwind Japanese career before going Hollywood, he released The Ultimate Versus, an extended edition of the already-two-hour movie with a lot of newly-shot action sequences. He was always teasing the prospect of Versus 2, and the demand was certainly there; the movie’s American distributor Media Blasters had commissioned Versus’s action choreographer Yuji Shinomura to do something similar with Death Trance (2005) and star Tak Sakaguchi was tapping into the subject matter with his own directorial work (written by Kitamura), Samurai Zombie (2008). Thus, an American remake seemed like a no-brainer.

Kitamura announced the American remake while promoting Midnight Meat Train at Fantasia International Film Festival in July of 2008, telling a Dread Central reporter “The US Versus will be insane!”. The exact progression and number of revisions to the remake’s script is unknown, but it seems that the preferred version was completed around December of 2008, and has been brought up several times since, most notably in 2010 when he told Andrez Bergen:

“This year will be tenth anniversary year of Versus so I’m thinking of doing something special. The original film means a lot to me and has huge fans all over the world, so I can’t do anything easy or cheap – I can’t guarantee anything in the long run, it’s a definite that I’ll do the new Versus in the future for sure.”

After that, conversations shifted back to a Japanese-made sequel with Tak Sakaguchi rather than an American remake, which was what was touted during the promotions for No One Lives in 2013. However, in 2019 Kitamura told Cinapse:

“There will be no Versus 2. But I am working on a Versus reboot, which is 100 times crazier, bigger. It’s kind of like Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s all new, but the same. So, it is kind of like, Versus: Fury Road, that is what I am working on right now. So, I don’t know when. I have a lot of things going on, but I will do it in the near future.”

At any rate, things appear to have been in a holding pattern for a while. So, being more a decade removed from the draft that was, and on the heels of Versus’s recent rediscovery thanks to the Arrow Blu-ray release, this is a good opportunity to explore the film which could have been. The intent here is not to leak spoilers for the film in development, as I assume that whatever incarnation presently exists has evolved significantly from the 2008 version, but to evaluate that incarnation as a lost project in its own right.

The script draft I have seen is dated 12/01/08, presumably following the American convention to mean “December 1” rather than “January 12”, and is listed as JAZ Films, a production company who according to IMDB only produced two movies, both in 2008: The Objective and Reservations. The co-writing credits are more encouraging, however: after Kitamura is listed George Krstic, the creator of Cartoon Network’s tragically underrated Megas XLR and a writer for Motorcity and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, along with Mitch Wilson, best known as the writer/director of Knucklebones (2016). Krstic is a particularly inspired choice for collaboration, given his comedic sensibilities and familiarity with Japanese pop culture conventions (again, just watch Megas XLR); he and Kitamura would go on to pitch the Syfy series Orion, described as “National Treasure meets Firefly”, which was picked up for development in 2010 and was announced as on-track at Universal in 2013.

The script is 128 pages, a large portion of which is predictably dedicated to action choreography. The story of the original Versus is not terribly complicated, so several aspects appear to have been fleshed out to be more palatable to a wide audience. It’s an interesting mix of scenes that are nearly verbatim with the original and those that would otherwise be utterly unrecognizable; whether that compromises the simplicity of the original would likely have been a matter of debate.

To start with, in this version characters have names. While this seems like a no-brainer in film production, one of the unusual things about Versus is that nobody does, so invariably people discussing the movie come up with their own monikers for them like “the dude with sunglasses” or “facial expression guy”. Actually having names streamlines things a lot from a scripting perspective, and I don’t think that names associated with roles actively detracts from anything. While characters like “The Girl” have been replaced with “Jess” and “The Man” with “Kizaki”, the notable exception preserving the Clint Eastwoodian anonymous appeal is the protagonist, who’s still only referenced as KSC2-303, or “303” for short.

Every character present in the original has some analogue in the remake, along with their particular eccentricities (the one alteration I noticed was that it’s now the marshal with both hands who gets triggered by getting called an officer, rather than the one-handed one), but there are some new touches as well, such as the assassin trio now being Christian evangelicals. Being an American film, ethnicities have been changed to diversify the cast: 303 and the prisoner that he escapes with (who’s been amped up as a hoodlum similarly to a character in Kitamura’s Alive) are Caucasian, Kizaki and Tiny (Minoru Matsumoto’s character in the original) are Japanese, Lorenzo (Yuichiro Arai’s analogue) is Latino, Rick (Ryosuke Watabe’s short-lived character) is African American, the lead marshal is African American while his partner is white. Jess is only described as “pale”, and Reggie and Francis (the characters corresponding to Kenji Matsuda and Kazuhito Ohba) were not specified, which is probably wise so they could leave casting open to whoever could look psychotic and/or pretty enough. The progressively-minded will also likely appreciate that Jess has a bit more agency than The Girl did, actively shown fighting against the zombies, albeit without the insane bravado of the practically superhuman surrounding cast. On the other hand, she and 303 share a kiss, a cliché by Hollywood standards but which almost never seems to happen in Japanese action flicks.

Among the returning casts, the most profoundly altered is Ken (corresponding to Toshiro Kamiaka’s character), who this time instead of dying offscreen and contributing nothing more than a cool-looking leather duster, fills a kind of Kyle Reese-meets-Ben Kenobi role here as the only hero who knows what’s going on, interrupting Jess’s kidnapping and keeping her safe until 303 happened to drop in (unlike the original, our hero running into the gangsters was a coincidence not arranged in advance), all while speaking cryptically about destiny and hinting at their previous reincarnations. Much like the fake-out in the opening of the original film, the remake does make it seem for a while like this could be our hero, until he subverts expectations by kicking the bucket. There’s also a flashback to him and “the samurai” (303’s past life) training together in the feudal Japan, towards the end of the film, when we find out about the “princess’s” resurrection powers.

The two marshals are also a blast, amping up the bullshitting that we all love (this time he claims to be 1000 times faster than Evander Holyfield, instead of Mike Tyson) with a ton more ludicrous claims including how he worked for Area 51 and that must be the source of the zombies. The duo get a few more action scenes to take out zombie hoards (they don’t get their fight with the assassin, though), and, in a piece echoing one of the deleted scenes from the original movie, get fused together into one hyper zombie!

There are numerous new characters, as well: an additional gangster character (the one who actually abducted our female lead) named Kevin, an angry biker name Goat who 303 strips for his clothing Terminator-style and who eventually partners up with Tiny for some antics, and a host of bit parts, reminiscent of both the rapid character appearances and comedic tone of Final Wars.

The expanded cast is an indication of an expanded budget, and that’s certainly not the only clue to that. Rather than in an abandoned forest, the zombie pandemonium in this movie takes place in bustling Las Vegas with a ton of collateral damage, which I imagine may have been one of the more controversial deviations from the source material. (Vegas had also just been used for the setting of 2007’s Resident Evil: Extinction, from Kitamura-favorite director Russell Mulcahy.) The setting shifts across an array of locations: a few casinos, a swimming pool, a morgue, a brothel, a parking lot, and the climactic showdown is at Anasazi ruins. Ruins aside, these probably wouldn’t have the creepy atmosphere of the Forest of Resurrection, but decades of zombie flicks have demonstrated that an overrun cityscape can prove just as unsettling. The movie’s combination of numerous extra cast members with nonstop violence also keeps the zombie cycle self-sustaining, so even without the plot device of a mobster corpse-dumping ground, there’s no shortage of bodies to get zombified. (The script is explicit that the resurrections are associated with an eclipse, unlike the vagueness of the original when it comes to the subject. It’s possible that the woods were just always full of zombies, but that wouldn’t fly in a major metropolitan area.)

To navigate the gauntlet of locations, and also highlight the budgetary increase, there’s a plethora of high-adrenaline car chases… in fact I completely lost count of how many. Vehicle-fu in general is a recurring motif as characters pursue one another with, fight on top of, and run each other over with cars, jeeps, trucks, motorcycles, helicopters, and fighter jets. While the original film only implies a crashed armored vehicle preceding 303’s escape, this one shows him full-on leaping from a crashing plane in full flight…twice! Perhaps the comparisons to Fury Road reflect that some of these factors persist into Kitamura’s current draft, but honestly it feels a bit more like Crank.

Another piece that wouldn’t have been possible on the original movie’s budget is the ending fight scene, in which the portal actually swallows the combatants. Instead of merely representing otherworldliness with a simple orange filter, this version has them duking it out in a full-on hellscape, and then flashing through various reincarnations that they’ve had in different time periods: the Civil War, Medieval Europe, the Roman Colosseum, even some sort of Lovecraftian alien prehistory with cyclopean ruins and pyramids at non-Euclidian angles! This sounds like it’d be quite a challenge for the effects team, so I’m curious if it would have come across organically or looked more cartoonish with all of the required CG.

The Lovecraft connection is interesting given that similar subject matter had just been tackled in Midnight Meat Train, but it also represents another trend that I notice with this script compared to the original: the pop-culture seems a bit more on-the-nose. The original movie certainly makes no bones about being inspired by Sam Raimi, George Miller, Highlander, and more, but it rarely name drops nods very explicitly, while this one…well, there’s a part where the marshals take off in helicopter and “Danger Zone” starts playing. There are references to Terminator and JJ Abrams, parts reminiscent of From Dusk ‘til Dawn, and there’s even a scene where the one-handed cop is told he can join the likes of “Ash, Cobra, Luke Skywalker, and that mad cat from Rolling Thunder” (Space Adventure Cobra isn’t exactly well-known in the US, but a Hollywood version was announced in 2008. If Alexandre Aja had gotten to make his Cobra movie, perhaps audiences would have gotten the reference, but as it stands it’s wild to think of a joke in one unmade movie hinging on a different unmade movie – both remaking Japanese properties, no less!). One of the nods that I particularly got a kick out of was Ken’s refusal to explain the situation to Jess during their initial car chase, mostly because Kitamura has raved about how Schwarzenegger doing the same to Rae Dawn Chong in Commando is one of the greatest repartees in cinema history. I have to wonder if his work on Final Wars and LoveDeath (which both namedrop cinematic references left and right) influenced this direction at all.

There’s a lot of potential in the screenplay, and had it been made, perhaps it would have been a cult hit, inspiring memes and Funko pops and T-shirts with the main characters’ matching phoenix-shaped birthmarks of destiny. However, as much of an uphill battle the first movie was to make, this time would be harder, since Kitamura needs to top himself, keeping somewhat faithful without coming across as simple rehash, which is a delicate balance. Versus was certainly able to utterly surpass the scope of Down to Hell, but it’s not clear if that’s scalable, especially given the monolithic cult status that it had since achieved. There have been remake cases where everything worked (The Grudge comes foremost to mind), but it’s a difficult balance, and Kitamura’s original support network might not have been able to drop everything and fly to Hollywood to compose music, design costumes, and action-choreograph the film… critical components for a movie that’s the unironic epitome of “style over substance”. So, he’d need to find people stateside who could realize his vision, not to mention find a cast capable of embodying these over-the-top characters, a tall order even when there isn’t an economic crisis putting a pinch on investors (again, this was 2008). Fallout with Lionsgate over Midnight Meat Train had stalled Kitamura’s career taking off stateside, resulting in him getting more work in the direct-to-video range than theatrical, and interest in Asian horror films was starting to wane. Altogether a confluence of troubling factors, no fault of the script, appear to have put the American Versus into stasis.

Time will tell what becomes of Kitamura’s aspirations for the film, but I remain hopeful that he can, as he alluded to with Fury Road, pull off something with all the gusto and energy that he did decades prior. In that case, it’ll be interesting to compare not only to the original picture, but also this screenplay, to see what’s been retained and what’s changed over the years, since at this point the draft’s composition is considerably further removed from the present than it was from the original Versus. Regardless, it was still fascinating to see what could have been and imagine what it would have been like if such a project had come to life a dozen years ago.

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Kaiju Transmissions podcast: Ryuhei Kitamura’s Action-horror

I was on Kaiju Transmissions last month for a post-Halloween show to talk about some of Ryuhei Kitamura’s early action/horror output, including:

  • Down to Hell
  • Versus
  • Alive
  • Aragami
  • Longinus

He’s a favorite director of mine, so it was great to geek out over.

Direct download

Expect something else Versus-related shortly!

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Interview: Tokyo Shock

I recently sat down for a conversation with Media Blasters to discuss the past and future of the Tokyo Shock line. The brand has been particularly active lately, with Zeiram 2, Zebraman, Devilman, and Gappa getting Blu-ray releases, plus Hakaider, 964 Pinocchio, Zebraman 2, and more on the way.

Well, thank you for agreeing to chat. Tokyo Shock has been a big influence on me ever since seeing Moon Over Tao and Story of Ricky on VHS 20 years ago. How did you first get interested in Asian cinema?

Oh, that was through I would say Miike. I remember when I saw Fudoh and was blown away. I knew that Japan was making some special stuff.

That’s a strong entry.

Yeah, Fudoh I still feel [is] one of his best early works.

How did Media Blasters come about? It’s a pretty diverse company between the labels, with Anime Works, Tokyo Shock, Kitty Films, etc. Was that always the vision?

It came about because of a Star Trek convention and I saw my first anime, Project A-ko … I went [to] horror, anime, and all types of conventions and found all these great titles.

I see! Back in the day there was quite a mix of content at the conventions scenes.

Yup, and no where else to get it. If not for conventions and college clubs [we] never saw this stuff.

Is that still how you find content to license?

Not as much, the internet changed everything.

So, looking for reviews or talk about titles online now is the main method?

Pretty much, but as we got bigger we saw them in production. Before the public.

That’s neat! So you were able to do set visits outside of the Fever Dreams productions?

Yes, or even in preproduction.

Are there certain studios that you’re able to work better with because of that?

Yeah, very good with Nikkatsu, Shochiku, Media Suits.

Is there a licensing philosophy behind the Tokyo Shock label? Like the sort of thing that makes you think “this is a good fit” or “this not so much”.

Director mostly and type of content.

The director aspect makes sense. You certainly did more than anyone else in the US for Takashi Miike, Keita Amemiya, Ryuhei Kitamura.

Have there been any titles you can talk about that you thought would have been great fits, but weren’t able to license?

Audition.

Ah, yeah, that seems very much up your alley.

Or maybe many Toho.

On the subject of Toho, you released several of Toho’s giant monster movies, and I know that there were some issues with getting the two Godzilla movies to market. They have a reputation for being very protective of the Godzilla brand specifically; did they treat those releases any differently than they had the prior ones?

Not really, just we were too excited and we went overboard. They really approve no extras. We did all these extras and this became an issue later.

But yes, Godzilla is special to them.

Right, I think those were all new while the other discs were extras from the Japanese versions.

Yup, and we had to correct them all and only barebone release they approved.

Although, I remember you did a new edit of Frankenstein Conquers the World, right?

No, whatever they have is [it] …While fans were happy we took a hit for sure.

That’s a shame.

It is ok. Maybe one day work [with them] again.

So, no plans for any of the other Toho flicks on Blu-ray for the time being, it sounds like?

Not at this time, Toei and Nikkatsu to start. Shochiku has not many films we really like that much. Pony soon.

Because Blu-ray is the same region code in the US and Japan, there’s more opportunity for reverse importation than there was with DVD. Has this affected how studios treat licensing?

Not really.

That’s encouraging; it’s something that a lot of fans speculate about.

Sure.

Have there been unique challenges working on Korean, Hong Kong, or Thai movies as opposed to the “bread and butter” of Japanese stuff?

No, they are easy; just Korea is very expensive and Hong Kong is fine, just not as well organized. Korea makes great stuff. Thai, very good too.

Which titles have been surprise hits for you?

Hmmm… hard to say. Guess you are taking Tokyo Shock?

Mostly, but feel free to talk about the other labels as well.

I would say biggest surprise probably on Tokyo Shock be Visitor Q. I really thought “just not much there”, but did really well.

That’s a very strange film, but I remember it was my roommate’s favorite in college.

Yeah just too strange. She was a contest. The directors given low low budget and make a film.

A lot like Aragami, in that regard.

So, I notice that Anime Works seems to have an equal distribution between movies and TV series, but Tokyo Shock leans a lot more heavily into the movie side. Are live-action shows more expensive to license, or do they not perform as well?

[They do] not perform as well, and just too much work for that many episodes.

I mean, shows like Ultraman or Ultra Q [are] exceptions, but not many. We looked into those shows but they were messed up back then.

Yeah, the rights were tied up in a legal battle.

Yes.

In the last year, Tokyo Shock has made a huge return, with several times as many releases as we’ve seen in previous years. Why is now the time for them?

I recently went Japan prior to COVID, and then after COVID we were able close deals finally. So that visit, which I had not done in years, was very important.

Also we stopped producing.

Producing dubs?

Producing movies. We recently did Shinobi Girl, Flesh for the Beast. Voodoo Virus is it.

Ah, I see. Okay, well, I’ll let you go now, but thank you very much for your time!

Thank you.

Keep up with the latest Media Blasters announcements on their Facebook page.

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Halloween Hijinks: Japanese Body Horror

Confession: I was struggling to come up with another iconic monster to round up for this year’s Halloween article, and as such, a suggestion came my way – why not focus on a monster movie subgenre that isn’t constrained to the individual monster’s form? Or, that form itself is without constraint? Basically, I got a request to cover Japanese body horror.

Body horror isn’t about fear of the monster itself (exclusively, anyway), but rather the process of a person involuntarily transforming into one. Naturally, this has overlap with many major monster types: werewolves who don’t want to be werewolves, zombies decaying as they retain their humanity, the people who have an adverse reaction to eating mermaid flesh. In the interest of time I certainly can’t hit them all (having procrastinated on starting this until right before Halloween), but I’ll try to cover the titles that are best, best-known, and potentially interesting to readers here.

To start with, while “body horror” is usually assigned as a genre beginning with Cronenberg and his ilk, the idea of fear at a gross unnatural physical change is fundamental to human psychology and dates back throughout literature. In Japan, you could look to the rapid aging of Urashima Taro at the end of his legend or the protagonist’s gradual draining of vitality during the Peony Lantern story as such, the same with cautionary tales about deformed-and-deforming vengeful spirits such as the Kuchisake Onna and the Teketeke.

The second World War brought about deformity on a larger scale than previously encountered, enhancing the taboo of the subject but also cementing it in the collective subconscious, and thus prompting a certain level of metaphor to be tactful about the topic (lest one handle it outright and get banned, like the haunting Prophecies of Nostradamus). This, as with most subjects, brings us to the topic of Godzilla. Very much analogous to radiation victims, the world’s most famous kaiju was designed with hide resembling the keloid scars that developed on a-bomb survivors. While I’ll credit Shin Godzilla as the entry that leans the most heavily into this “gradually evolving, unpredictably amorphous” take on the character, Godzilla’s role as a mutation has been a staple of the franchise since the beginning.

The body horror in 1954’s Godzilla isn’t really realized from the human perspective, however, but that came from some of the science fiction films that Ishiro Honda directed in its wake. The next worth mentioning is 1958’s The H-man, in which people are attacked by blob monsters and, in turn, become blob monsters themselves (the same time period saw other countries making liquid creature movies, such as The Quatermass Xperiment, The Blob, and Caltiki the Immortal Monster; blobs were in vogue). However, while horrifying, these melting transformations were relatively quick; there wasn’t a sense of lingering with the effects…that would arrive with what’s arguably Honda’s best horror film, Matango.

A moody horror drama, Matango focused on a group of misfit castaways stranded on a remote island without food. They discover irradiated mushrooms with devastating effects: ingesting the fungus gradually turns the person into a mushroom monster, sort of a zombie predating the modern zombie phenomena. But how long can a starving person hold out? Those mushrooms are delicious after all…

Of course, the mastermind behind such monster effects was none other than Eiji Tsuburaya, so I guess it’s a fine time to bring up the Ultraman franchise, which has a number of arguable appearances. While the character of Kanegon has become quite a cute mascot with numerous appearances, it’s easy to forget that he’s supposed to be a human child karmically transformed into a money-gobbling freak, and the Ultra Q episode “Kanegon’s Cocoon” was actually a major influence on Shinya Tsukamoto when conceiving Tetsuo the Iron Man – the *definitive* Japanese body horror flick (though one can argue that Kanegon’s rotting appearance in Redman is a horror unto itself). Another iconic character with a tragic backstory is A. Jamila, an astronaut who was mutated into a kaiju only for Ultraman to murder. Those are both examples from the 1960s, without a graphic fleshy component of the transformations, but the franchise got there eventually, as is evidenced by the gradually evolving, live-organism-absorbing Beast the One in Ultraman the Next.

That’s not to say that there weren’t graphic transformations during the golden age, though. The most notable title of the time is probably 1959’s The Manster, which is admittedly a mostly American-made feature filmed in Japan. Our hapless hero is the victim of medical experimentation and winds up growing an entire evil twin out of his shoulder.

Medical experimentation is certainly a source for a fair degree of body horror, from the notorious Horrors of Malformed Men (the banned Toei picture about artificial mutilation, itself stitched together from five unrelated Rampo Edogawa stories) to the equally notorious Guinea Pig pictures of the 1980s (which Charlie Sheen famously mistook for actual snuff films) all the way to the insanity of the modern manga Franken Fran, in which the cute girl protagonist performs miraculous surgeries that sometimes turn her patients into monsters in thematically ironic ways. On the particularly monster-movie-heavy side of these, the 2018 gekimation flick Violence Voyager is certainly an experience, centering on a theme park where the proprietor has lured in various children to turn them into boxy-headed misfits.