Saturday, January 30, 2010

Monsters Inc. & The Big G

Pixar's Monsters Inc. (2001) is not only a great piece of storytelling, but also sports an unrealized link to Godzilla.

At about nine minutes into the film, Sulley (John Goodman) and Mike (Billy Crystal) greet a large, green, bipedal monster named "Ted" while walking to work. The audio commentary reveals that Ted was meant to respond to Sulley's salutation with the recognizable roar of Godzilla himself. But (surprise, surprise) they were not able to secure permission from Toho, so Ted ends up clucking like a chicken instead (a choice the Pixar guys admit was "bizarre").

Kaiju fans will also be interested in the Blu-ray disc special feature that takes viewers behind the scenes at Tokyo Disneyland, where a Monsters Inc. ride continues the story. Evidently, many Japanese fans dress up as their favorite Disney character to come to the park, both children and adults alike. And, yes, Ted makes an appearance too. In the movie, you only see him from the shins down, but on the Monsters Inc. ride, he is fully visible. While he bears a strong resemblance to Pete's Dragon (another Disney character), the homage to Godzilla is fairly obvious--and where better for him to dwell than Japan's own Disneyland?

Friday, January 22, 2010

G-FAN Magazine # 90 "Mechagodzilla Mania"

One look at the dazzling Chris Scalf cover conveys that J.D. Lees and company have come up with something special for G-FAN issue 90. As the artwork suggests, the spotlight is on "Terror of Mechagodzilla" (hereafter referred to as TOM) in honor of the film's 35th anniversary.

Issue 90's big news (which had broken online some weeks earlier) is that Akira Takarada will be the guest of honor at G-FEST XVII. This is a major victory for the festival. It will mark the first Stateside convention appearance of the most recognizable actor associated with the Big G. There was also much rejoicing in the revelation that the Thursday of G-FEST will bring a day-long film fest at the Pickwick Theater.

Getting into the articles, Abel Alfsonso does an admirable job tying together the known facts about the latest Ultraman feature film, "Mega Monster Battle." Here's hoping for a theatrical release in the U.S.--which may not be out of the realm of possibility with the involvement of Warner Brothers.

totorom's interview with TOM's Tomoko Ai is great reading. "Katsura" impresses with her humility, charm, and detailed memory. Her recollections regarding the infamous "operation scene" are especially amusing. It was somewhat shocking to learn that following the release of TOM, Ms. Ai was "not at all" recognized in public!

That sets the stage for the centerpiece of the issue, the only-half-kiddingly titled "Ultimate Commentary" on TOM by J.D. Lees, with supporting information provided by August Ragone, Brett Homenick and totorom. The article is a loving tribute to a unique, often overlooked entry in the Godzilla series. Highlights include the reflections of Yukiko Takayama, TOM's screenwriter (the only woman to have written a Godzilla script) and Teruyoshi Nakano, TOM's director of special effects. Twenty-two pages are devoted to the 1975 film (not counting the full Tomoko Ai interview), and they are loaded with illustrations, photos, detailed actor profiles, and comments from such luminaries as Kenji Sahara. After reading the "Ultimate Commentary," I couldn't help but watch the film again with renewed appreciation, and I must say that the Classic Media DVD looks fantastic when viewed on Blu-ray.

In the middle of the issue are incredible pictures of new Godzilla footage being shot for a video game, featuring a spectacular showdown between Godzilla 2000 and Final Wars Gigan. G2K is also seen facing off against Anguirus, as well. This is great, exclusive stuff, courtesy of Koichi Kawakita, renowned Godzilla special effects director.

Daisuke Ishizuka shares cool pics of the Final Wars Godzilla suit he stumbled upon while shopping in his native Japan, in addition to a two-meter-tall Gigantor model he saw the same day.

Next up is Brett Homenick's G-FEST XVI interview of Kenji Sahara, and what shines through is the graciousness and goodwill that Mr. Sahara brought to the festival's proceedings. His commitment to his craft cannot be questioned--not after reading that he had his front tooth pulled to play Senzo Koyama in "Matango" (which Mr. Sahara names as his favorite role).

Homenick also checks in with photos from the Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention's "Green Slime" 40th anniversary reunion and an entertaining conversation with Joan van Ark of "Dallas" and "Knot's Landing" fame. Of course, for the purposes of G-FAN, the focus of the interview is on Ms. van Ark's appearance in the Rankin & Bass/Tsuburaya production "The Last Dinosaur," and the actress comes across as fun-loving and professional. Homenick also speaks with writer-director John Fasano, whose memories of being a true kaiju kid make his involvement with the current "Kamen Rider" series all the more sweet. Fasano also shares a really cool tidbit of Godzilla/Star Wars crossover trivia (you'll have to read the article to discover the connection).

The legend of G-Fantis is extended in the latest installment of " G-Fantis: Heart of the Beast part III."

Rounding out the issue are essays by collectible purveyors James Bond and Steve Agin, both of which provide sufficient inspiration to keep saving one's allowance for the G-FEST Dealer's Room.

G-FAN # 90 is a Titanosaurus-sized antidote to the winter blahs. The idea to concentrate on TOM was smart and was well-executed. With the arrival of this issue, the countdown to G-FEST XVII, Return to Monster Island, is now officially on!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Now Playing: Ultraman vs. Woo

Last week, two (count 'em, two) snow days were all the excuse that we needed to enjoy Ultraman episode 30, "The Phantom Snow Mountain." This entry in the original series features wonderful and arresting visuals--the wintry slopes of the ski resort area are a huge shift from the often urban settings of the series. There is just something cool about Hayata, Ito, and Arashi swerving down the snow-white hillside in their orange jumpsuits and Science Patrol helmets! There are also some awesomely detailed miniatures in this episode, such as tiny skis stuck into a snowbank outside the chalet.

I have always enjoyed stories about Bigfoot/Yeti/Sasquatch, making "The Phantom Snow Mountain" a natural favorite. The subtitles propose that Woo, the great white Yeti-like creature at the heart of the story, could be a Yukionna, which I am assuming is a Japanese type of "wildman." Interesting, then, that the "Snow Girl" of the English dub is named Yukinko, which would appear to be a play on words. The tale revolves around the connection that exists between the Snow Girl and Woo. Woo (the Yukionna) watches over the Snow Girl (Yukinko), especially when she runs afoul of the mean-spirited locals. Towards the end of the episode, Ito theorizes that Woo may be a substitute for the girl's mother, who died at an early age. (The Snow Girl's upbringing as an orphan also leads to the revelation that Ito lost his mother at an early age as well.)

What really stands out is the fact that by episode 30, Ultraman was already toying with its own formula. That, I believe, is significant, because here you have the first truly grand-scale Japanese superhero show establishing the formula, but also experimenting and subverting the formula. What I mean is this: Ultraman is often criticized for being "formulaic," but in truth, all television programming follows some sort of formula or ritual. Here, in the mid-late 60's, you had a show for children which was not afraid to take side trips into self-parody and occasional sophistication.

"The Phantom Snow Mountain" subverts the formula in one very striking way: Ultraman does not win his final fight. True, Woo gets pelted with bombs and then half-heartedly wrestles Ultraman in the snow, but in the end, the giant Yeti simply fades into the mist. Ultraman, with no foe to battle, takes to the skies, and that's it. It is a bit jarring, because everyone knows that the formula dictates an Ultraman victory, yet there is none, in a traditional sense. It was an interesting choice on the part of the writers, and one that hits precisely the right note. Woo remains a mystery--a bit of folklore come to life--but in the end he cannot be apprehended. Anyone who has studied wildman folklore from around the world knows that this outcome is absolutely appropriate.

The existence of Woo also allows the members of the Science Patrol--Ito, in particular--to consider the ongoing theme, "Why do we destroy monsters?" In this episode, Arashi seems to have no patience for this line of questioning, but Ito is troubled by the fact that he is tasked with eliminating a being that is simply too large for the world that he inhabits. This is coupled with the fact that Ito seems to sense that Woo is a guardian of the Snow Girl, and actually has a noble quality. Ito seems relieved when he learns that Woo was not captured or killed and that the Snow Girl has evidently disappeared as well. (Although the imagery we are presented with would seem to suggest that Woo disappeared because Yukinko died.) The bottom line is, Ito is not at peace with his core assignment as a Science Patrol member, which is to dispatch with monsters, and that gives his character a depth you might not expect from a "formulaic" kid's show. Ultraman would return to this theme quite often, with unexpectedly poignant results. Subsequent Ultra-series would do the same.

"The Phantom Snow Mountain" is a visual treat with the unique resonance of a folktale. We're left to consider who is the bigger monster: A giant, protective Yeti--or human beings who would chase down a teenage girl with shovels and clubs?

Monday, January 4, 2010

G-FAN Magazine # 90 On Its Way

Brett Homenick reports on his blog (see link to the right) that G-FAN #90 has shipped and features a section devoted to Terror of Mechagodzilla (which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year). Look for a full review here in the near future.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Happy New Year

Enjoy the new year in kaiju style with a "Fake Monsters..." calendar available at