29 Oct Watching Japanese Sci-fi

In the spirit of Halloween, Jill and I watched a vintage Japanese sci-fi flick last night: Gamera, the Invicible. It’s about a giant prehistoric turtle awakened from its eon-long underground slumber by a wayward atomic bomb. From the 1950-70s, Japanese sci-fi showed an understandable obsession with the atomic bomb — starting with Godzilla, in 1956. In Japanese movies, the bomb didn’t create monsters, it just woke them up. But their monsters are not at all monstrous by American standards. A giant turtle? A giant moth (“Mothra”)? The difference between their monsters and ours grows from the Japanese’s deep and complicated relationship with natural things.

Japanese sci-fi has NEVER strived for convincing special effects. Their monsters are always stunt men in rubber suits cavorting through miniature sets made of painted paper and balsa wood. That’s part of the pleasure in watching them. Gamera, the angry prehistoric turtle, stands improbably, amazingly, on his hind legs as he wreaks havoc. He flies too! And spits fire!

American monsters have always been about killing and eating humans. Japanese monsters only start out irritated by meddlings humans, but then these monsters often turn friendly towards humans (part of that long and compicated realtionship with natural things that the Japanese have). And THEN these monsters get distracted by other monsters and leave the humans alone (a turn of events that we may attribute to Japan’s irrepressible optimism). In his sequels, Gamera goes on to fight 1) Barugon, 2) Goas, 3) Guiron, and 4) Zigra. Whew! This tag-team wrestling scenario — monster vs. monster — modeled a successful formula followed years later by to the popular Transformers franchise. Not surprisingly, Transformers first came to the U.S. as toys from Japan in the 1980s.

This monster-versus-monster formula was well worn by the late 1960s and gave rise to the lampoon “Bambi meets Godzilla,” popularly known as “Bambi Versus Godzilla,” made by then-art-student Marv Newland and now in the pantheon of the 50 greatest cartoons of all time: Bambi Meets Godzilla.

Which brings us to another Japanese sci-fi diistinction: the Japanese never kill their monsters! They’ll imprison a monster or thwart it somehow (sending it back to the bottom of the sea) or exile it (send it into outer space). But they won’t kill it — beacuse the Japanese are pacifists. Which is a stark contrast to the way Americans treat their monsters. The most heart-breaking American monster movie is 20 Million Miles to Earth, about a Venutian alien (a kind of lizard beast) that turns violent after it is abused by everyone that comes across it. We kill the monster before understanding what it is or what it might have taught us. (Ray Harryhausen‘s stop-motion animation in this film is brilliant, by the way.)

I enjoy Japanese sci-fi, in part, for the window on Japan during a heady time of growth: by the 1960s Japan had become America’s little alien cousin, seen by Americans as a harmless mimicker of American culture and a feckless makeer of cheap consumer goods. Woody Alien’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966) underscores how laughable the Japanese seemed to Americans, whio believed that the Japanese couldn’t do anything right, especially when they tried to do things the Westerners did, like make spy movies. Their sci-fi movies seemed to prove the point best of all.

In fact, most Japanese sci-fi were not allowed to stand on their own. They had to be intercut with American scenes to make the stories palatable to American viewers. This practice started with Godzilla, which starred Raymond Burr just before he was made famous for his TV role as Perry Mason. in Gamera, the Japanese story is intercut mostly with scenes in an American military command center, where American officers stare at radar screens and field reports about Gamera’s hijinks.

But look at the hip Japanese journalist, with his Roy Orbison shades and mod ‘do. Dig his shark skin suit and jet-setting style. And watch for the jaw-dropping sexism as the American General asks Sergeant Embers, a woman, to get him some coffee. And, of course, wait for it: Gamera doing a kind of shimmy-and-shake dance as he strides forward to trample all that paper and balsa wood.

Click here for the official Gamera theme song