Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Books - Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films

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.


Nina May said...

After the above boob-pillow complexities, I felt the need to try to say something intelligent, although I'm not sure I'm there yet....

Just yesterday some fellow students and I were discussing various cultural film conventions. I think it was mostly about the sheer joy of watching Bollywood, the music and plot-twists that come out of nowhere, and how they all seem to run for three hours. But those, at least, I can basically follow; the characters and plot make basic sense to me, even if they are sometimes expressed in ways that I could never have predicted, and the key to understanding it is knowing it is fantasy. The industry produces escapism from the misery of real life. That's what the story is there for, and as such makes sense.

Chinese movies are somehow even closer kin to our own storytelling language. And then there's the Japanese. Some make total sense - the ones, I suspect, intended for broader international markets. And some make no sense at all, that I can tell. There are some I'd love to rewatch with a Japanese person, pausing every few minutes for cultural translation. There was one live-action movie, Casshern, which left me and my (Australian) friend completely flummoxed. I mean, we loved every confusing moment of it, because we are just those kinds of people. There was one point where the DVD seemed to have repeated a chapter, and we couldn't tell if it was supposed to be that way or not.

So. Context would have been very enlightening. Just one more vast area of study I'll probably never get to....

Sherri said...

I've made several forays into Japanese popular literature via assorted manga and Banana Yoshimoto's "chick lit" (not really) books. I really enjoy Yoshimoto's stories, but I KNOW I'm missing a ton of subtler stuff that I don't stand a chance of catching even on a reread without a guidebook.

Part of that comes from my joy in unpacking, via repeated watchings, the details of English language films. Except for the most trite and trivial movies, there's always a layer or two -- intended or not -- in a movie awaiting discovery. And, it doesn't have to have the "Great Art Here" label to be art (in fact, I tend to shy away from anything labeled Great Art because there is always a prescribed "meaning" hammered in, which is no fun to see -- it's more like a coolness test.) I can find a lot to discuss in a Pixar film (Ratatouille is chock FULL) or films from the 30s and 40s that were meant for entertainment only, yet contain so much about the expectations and lives of people living then.

That's why I'd love more cultural information about these seemingly thin, simple films -- they tend to be more revealing than most realize. I just need a key.