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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Japan through the monster's eye


By GIANNI SIMONE
THE MONSTER MOVIE FAN'S GUIDE TO JAPAN, by Armand Vaquer. ComiXpress.com, 2010, 48 pp., $15.00 (softcover)

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Last year was the 100th anniversary of director Ishiro Honda's birth, but most of the English-language press in Japan didn't seem to notice. Granted, Honda may not be on the same level with such movie greats as Kurosawa (for whom he worked as an assistant), Ozu and Mizoguchi, and a good part of his production has little artistic value, but for decades he consistently made solid entertainment for young and old alike.

He helped popularize the tokusatsu genre (live-action stories featuring special effects), and kaiju (monsters) movies in particular. One of them, "Godzilla" (1954), has been through the years a model for scores of local and foreign directors, and its titular "hero" is one of only three fictional characters to have been awarded the MTV Lifetime Achievement Award.

English-language literature on Godzilla and all the other monsters that followed is rather scarce, probably due to film company Toho's legal actions that in the past have successfully blocked the publication of a number of books. Among the titles worth mentioning, there are Stuart Galbraith IV's "Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo" (1998), Steve Ryfle's "Japan's Favorite Mon-star" (1998), and Peter H. Brothers' "Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda" (2009). Now Godzilla lover and writer Armand Vaquer has come up with a guidebook for all those fans who want to turn a trip to Japan into a pilgrimage to the places that were cinematically trashed by the Big G, Mothra, Gamera and their friends.

Vaquer's slim publication (it actually looks more like a magazine than a book) features a useful section on how to reach and move around Japan, followed by a detailed list of all the cities, islands and mountains that had to endure the monsters' antics. Judging from the travel information, one gets the impression that monster movie fans are a little clueless about practical matters. Indeed, just a few lines into the guide, Vaquer announces that "you are going to need a valid passport to even enter the country." Awkward kaiju film otaku (nerd) need not to worry, though, as Vaquer guides them step by step with a pleasantly chatty writing style.

Some of this information is a little outdated, but with Japan — and Tokyo in particular — this is unavoidable as the country seems to constantly reinvent itself like a shape-changing monster creature from outer space

Obviously the most interesting part is the one devoted to the 32 places featured in the guide — from Sapporo in the northern island of Hokkaido to Mt. Sakurajima near Kagoshima, in the deep south of Kyushu. For each place, the author tells the reader where to find the landmarks that appear in the kaiju movies; lists the titles of those films; and enjoys explaining how those places where destroyed. A longtime contributor to famous Japanese monster movie fanzine G-FAN, Vaquer knows his stuff and indulges the reader with many details and comments. Among other things, we learn that when "Godzilla" was first released in 1954, Japanese audiences applauded the scene of the giant lizard's rampage through the Diet building in Tokyo, while King Kong climbed its tower in "King Kong vs. Godzilla" (1962).

The text is at times a bit uneven, and there are a few rough transitions between paragraphs. Also, people who are not familiar with the subject may be left wanting more information about the connection between certain places and the movies. When writing about the city of Matsumoto, for instance, Vaquer only tells us that it was featured in "Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster," leaving out the juicy details. Then again, the guide's target reader seems to be the dedicated fan, who probably already knows all the details. On the plus side, the book includes some interesting information about spots that rarely are mentioned in other guidebooks.

One of them is the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall in Tokyo, which houses the Japanese fishing boat that in 1954 was exposed to nuclear fallout from the U.S. hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll and later inspired the opening sequence of the original Godzilla film.



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