It Came From Tokyo 2 (Via Boston…)

Silver Screen Samurai
Cocoro Books, $19.95

The samurai is an icon of Japanese cinema, standing for many of the same attributes that the cowboy does in Hollywood. His popularity may wax and wane as the decades go by, but will never die out completely, not as long as there is a yearning for simpler times, when a sense of honour and a weapon were all a man needed. The genre is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment, with Takeshi Kitato’s Zatoichi and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volume 1 showing the concept still has relevance in the 21st century.

It is thus a fitting time for Cocoro Books’ third volume of Japanese movie posters, after their general edition, and one devoted entirely to anime. Its 116 full-colour pages cover films from 1935 up to Kitano’s entry of last year, along with side-essays covering topics such as Zatoichi, or women in samurai films. These help explain what to look for in the posters, and the significance of the various elements therein.

For fans of the genre, this is an absolutely essential work, with many of the photos likely never before seen in the West. The sense of a auction catalog that permeated the first volume is toned-down, though prices are still attached to each item. Actually, they seem pretty reasonable: a 20×28-inch poster for the 1959 film, The She-Devil Lineage is only $35. Few original posters for Hollywood movies of that vintage can be had at such a low cost.

Razor 2: The Snare

As more of a dilettante when it comes to these films – who, if truth be told, doesn’t like cowboy movies much either – there was a certain sense of sameness about a lot of the pictures. A samurai, with sword and top-knot, stares out of the frame while projecting an expression of intense seriousness; red text sprays down one side of the image, like an arterial gush from one of his victims. Woman are rarely seen, active ones, even less frequently – and if you’re looking for miles of smiles, this is the wrong volume entirely.

In such homogeneous company, the odd one that bucks the trend stands out more than usual. Kurosawa clearly didn’t need to use traditional imagery for one of his takes on Shakespeare, Ran. Similarly, Nagisa Oshima’s Taboo [Gohatto in its native land] portrays an androgynous figure, in keeping with the unconventional nature of its story. I also noticed that more recent entries seem to be favouring black as a colour – guess it must be the new red…

The presence of no less than three indices – by Japanese, Romanized and English titles – is definitely a welcome addition, even if I’m certain this book merely scratches the surface, rather than making any claim to be comprehensive. While more narrowly-focused, and thus personally less interesting, than its predecessors, it is still worth a look for anyone with the slightest interest in Japanese cinema, design or even if you simply appreciate unusual art.

For more information, see the publisher’s website – the book is also available from Amazon.

Kaiju Big Battel
A Practical Guide to Giant City-Crushing Monsters

Hyperion, $14.95

If we were neutral – though we certainly aren’t – we might have to admit that Kaiju Big Battel is a one-joke idea: “What would happen if you mixed the worlds of professional wrestling and Japanese monster-movies?” And, let’s be honest, neither of those fields are exactly deep in themselves. Yet, somehow, Kaiju is becoming far greater than the sum of its parts, and this book shows, without a doubt, that there is more life to the concept than perhaps even its creators expected.

What started off as guys in bizarre costumes hitting each other with cardboard buildings in Boston has become a merchandising juggernaut offering T-shirts, stickers, DVDs, even little packs of meat harvested from dead monsters. [The last idea is borrowed from Japan – I got Chris a tin of Mothra eggs for Christmas. On the other hand, a Kaiju sticker graces the previously pristine bumper of the Trash City PT Cruiser] And now, a 170-page volume that explains the basic concept for beginners, yet is sure to delight any existing fan of Dr. Cube, Silver Potato, Dino Kang and the other Big Battelers.

It begins with the origins of Kaiju, as an epic battle of good vs. evil, that previously destroyed cities, but is now constrained within the ring – despite the evil efforts of Dr. Cube and his posse to achieve world domination. It then segues into two-page pieces focusing on each Kaiju creature, and also describes previous Big Battels, the weapons used therein, how the monsters work, plus quizzes to test your “Kai-Q”, and handy survival tips for what to do if a Battel suddenly erupts nearby.

Like we said: there’s a lot more to this than you probably thought.

All of this is written in an utterly engaging mix of sarcastic English and Japlish – if you cycled the same text repeatedly through an automatic English-Japanese-English translator, you’d be in the right ballpark for that delightful hybrid. Hence, phrases such as: “Dr. Cube is mostly evil plastic surgeon helps hide him and in real is monster man with amazing bloody spattering squares type head.” The full-colour section in the middle is a repository of many such gems.

Should you be one of the ever-diminishing number unaware of the Kaiju phenomenon, this is an ideal place to start. If you have, you’ll still learn much from this tome, which received (and fully deserved) Chris’s highest award: being taken to the Post Office to amuse her while she’s in the queue. If it can calm, soothe, and entertain under such a stress-provoking situation, imagine what it can do for you…

For more information, see the Kaiju website – the book is also available from Amazon.

It Came From Tokyo: Japanese Movie Posters

Mothra

Japanese Movie Posters
Chuck Stephens, Tetsuya Masuda, Kairakutei Black
Cocoro Books, $30.00

There can really be no argument: film posters are works of art, in a way that no other advertising medium can quite match. Hang a car advert on your wall, and people will look at you strangely, but a movie poster is simultaneously aesthetically pleasing, cool and a statement about your personality. Room with a View or Stewardesses in Heat? The choice is yours…

Bruce Hershenson’s collections of posters, mostly themed by genre, have done sterling work in gathering some of the best examples of such art, but are limited in scope, covering only the output of Hollywood. Just as great films are produced around the world, so it is for great artwork, and Cocoro Books’ collection of promotional material for Japanese movies is particularly welcome because it opens the doors to a world that is little known in the West.

Young Girls’ Holding Cell

The book is divided into seven categories: yakuza, sci-fi and monster, samurai, pink, horror, animation and new cinema. “Pink” is the Japanese term for erotic films, and the posters therein are eye-popping, simply because they are notably more explicit than anything permitted in America or Britain – along with the nudity, bondage and coercion seem common themes – making them perhaps somewhat questionable candidates for decorating your living-room.

Less likely to offend your maiden aunt are the yakuza films, featuring tough guys (and gals – in one case, even nuns!) looking…well, tough. The samurai section is not dissimilar; swords replace guns, but the emphasis is still on staring Very Intently. A number of the titles in the animation section may seem familiar, since it’s one area where Japanese cinema has made significant exports in recent years. But the poster for Ghost in the Shell is still different enough from the Western one to be striking.

However, my favourite section of all was the one devoted to the monsters, simply because these are films for which there is no real equivalent in the English-speaking world, as the woeful Hollywood Godzilla proved. Whether it’s the Tokyo Tower being destroyed by Mothra’s caterpillar, or what looks like a giant narwhal with a laser-beam coming out of its forehead (that’ll be Jigura, then), these provide a glimpse into a universe that is at once fascinating, frightening and surreal.

Ship of Bloodsucking Skulls

Each poster is accompanied by three or four lines of information on the film (studio, year, etc.), and trivia about it. Each section is also prefaced by commentary from Masuda and Black, talking about the genre’s history and place in society. These little mini-essays are teasingly short, and I would have welcomed their extension to greater length.

The book also operates as a catalog for Masuda’s store, @wonder, offering all the posters in the book for sale, at prices ranging from $20 for the new films, up to $150 for Sleepy Eyes of Death and the fabulously named Ship of Blood-Sucking Skulls. If the walls here weren’t already completely covered – with poster-tubed reserves waiting in the cupboard – there are a number I’d be very tempted to acquire.

Maybe instead I’ll just buy an extra volume of the book, so I can hack it apart and frame individual pages as mini-posters. But what, then, to do when we have Mothra on one side, and Son of Godzilla on the other? Better make that two more. Such cunning marketing, which requires the reader to purchase multiple copies of the book, can only be admired. Sigh… 🙂

For more information, see the publisher’s website – the book is also available from Amazon.