Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films: A Critical Analysis of 103 Features Released in the United States, 1950-1992
by Stuart Galbraith IV
I picked this one up while wandering the stacks at the Cooper (Clemson University) Library, and I took it home to read about the 20-odd Godzilla movies, among others.
The introduction essays to the book point out something I've learned myself over the years -- that the common conception of Japanese SF/F movies (of the 50s, 60s, and 70s especially) is of cheaply made schlock, kiddie movies, laughable and stupid films of men stomping miniature buildings while wearing rubber monster suits is both true and grossly false. Like the American movies that inspired them, these movies are also dealing with very real, very important fears and hopes, and represent how a culture looks at those fears and hopes via the venerable method of fantastic story-telling.
The book starts out with the classic Kurosawa film Rashomon before delving into the steadily murkier waters of giant monster movies I so love. Once we get into Godzilla (Gojira) country, I'm happy. The book has even changed my mind about one of the movies, Godzilla vs. Biollante (Biorante). In this one, our favorite radioactive not-a-saur goes up against -- wait for it -- a giant rosebush mutated with his own cells. Yes, this cracks me up whenever I think about it, Godzilla as hedgeclipper, but the essay points out small bits in the movie I missed, such as how this movie is actually rather dark and even a touch haunting and thoughtful. Sure, that's a big stretch for a rubber monster movie, but considering how moved I was when I saw the original, un-Americanised version of Gojira, and how really scary mid- and late-90s additions to the series are, I think I need to give this one another chance.
While often interesting in terms of history, "critical analysis" is, in my opinion, an overstatement of what the book contains. Each movie is presented with a plot summary, some facts about the actors and crew, notes about changes made to American versions, and comments about critical reception. The author touches on various themes in the movies -- few of which are obscure, as they were often delivered to the audience with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the kneecap -- but never delves far into the particular cultural or historical events taking place prior to or during the movie's development and production. Even more disappointing, the author makes no attempt to unpack any symbols or ideas that are peculiar to the Japanese and are obscure to an American viewer.
I've seen many of the Godzilla movies (and these movies are the major subject of the essays), and I've seen several of them multiple times. They brim with puzzling relationships, actions, ideas, and images that I'm certain make perfect sense to the Japanese but are mysterious to me (just as I know that many US films contain perfectly understandable cliches, tropes, symbols, and stereotypes that are strange and obscure to those outside my culture.) I hoped some of those might have been explained in a movie analysis, but they rarely, if ever, are.
Nevertheless, the essays are accessibly and entertainingly written. They contain a lot of facts about the movies, the directors and the production companies. Galbraith gives us a peek into a world more complex than most of us ever consider.