Disclaimer: While reading the first book in the "Big Book" series, I have gotten to know John LeMay over email and even discussed working on future books together. Nevertheless, I am striving to be as even and fair as possible in this review.
Over the last few years I have gotten increasingly cynical about self-published books. Books like Titans of Toho and Memories from Monster Island and There Goes Tokyo all follow the same basic, uninspired format: funny reviews of monster movies. Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men, a self-published exploration of the sci-fi/horror films of Ishiro Honda by Peter Brothers, is much better, but still suffered from poor editing and, at least for me, was tiresome to read. I have been trying over the last few years to read the second edition of Brothers' book for an updated review, but so far I am struggling to get through. That's where longtime fan John LeMay's contribution comes in: The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies Vol. 1: 1954-1980. LeMay was canny enough to survey the available tokusatsu-themed tomes and has tried to address the frequent flaws of some of his book brethren. After finishing his book recently, I have to say that this is easily the most enjoyable self-published kaiju book I have read yet—although not without some flaws.
First, the breadth of the book—as the title indicates, LeMay covers all (or at least most) of the giant monster films from Japan between 1954 to 1980, including the Showa Godzilla and Gamera films, the Daimajin films, as well as the vast majority of other giant monster films from Japan hailing from this period, including obscure favorites like Daigoro vs. Goliath (1972) and even 1964's Agon the Atomic Dragon. LeMay also has bonus reviews of the Toho vampire trilogy, Battle in Outer Space (1959), Matango (1963), and The War in Space (1977). He also, rather surprisingly, includes reviews of monster movies from other Asian nations—the Korean Yongary, Monster from the Deep (1967) and the Hong Kong King Kong rip-off Mighty Peking Man (1977)—because those two films had some Japanese staff involvement. LeMay includes these as regular reviews—he doesn't set them aside as "bonus reviews" as he does for the vampire trilogy, for example. I don't really mind—I love reading about all these films—but if he wanted to include foreign giant monster movies that had some Japanese involvement, logically Infra-Man (1975) and the two Thai-Japan co-productions, Giant and Jumbo A (1974) and The 6 Ultra-Brothers vs. the Monster Army (1974), should also have reviews, not to mention the fully Japanese production Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968), which featured at least one kaiju-sized yokai antagonist at the end. Nevertheless, LeMay's book has an impressive breadth of content regardless, and maybe these other films could be added in a future update.
After a lengthy introduction detailing much about the history of kaiju cinema, LeMay transitions to individual entries about the films themselves. Each of the analyzed films following a set formula, starting with alternate titles the film has received around the world (or at least the ones LeMay finds interesting or funny); release date and staff and runtime; the story of the film (usually short, including spoilers); background details; the "final word" (one or two sentence critical summation); and finally the trivia section (various scrumptious factoids set out in no particular order). LeMay has done quite a bit of research from websites, monster movie magazines and fanzines, and books—though he does not consistently cite his sources, which I found frustrating. Still, I enjoyed this format, and each entry is long enough to savor, but not so obsessive with details and discussion and nitpicks and criticisms that I got bored (unlike some of my book reviews…). The trivia and background sections will doubtless garner the most interest, and there were a lot of factoids I either never knew or had forgotten, and reading was like gorging myself on kaiju candies—I didn't want to stop. Inevitably, though, some entries (often the Toho ones) receive a lot more trivia and background information than others simply due to the voluminous materials available about these films. Still, to learn anything about the background of films like Daigoro vs. Goliath (1972) is heartwarming to this toku otaku's heart, and to see the often-neglected Gamera films and even Gappa and Guilala getting some much-needed attention in a Western publication is terribly satisfying.
Nevertheless, as much as I enjoyed the book, the format of each entry was often inconsistent or a little confusing. A small issue is that the story summaries are sometimes fairly long and detailed (King Kong Escapes (1967)), and other times very short—usually for films LeMay seems less fond of, like Yongary, Monster from the Deep (1967)—more about that film in a moment. Often the background section for a particular film includes a lot of fun little facts that might as easily have been put in the trivia section, so it wasn't always clear how LeMay was organizing his entries. This minor problem extends to LeMay's critiques of the films, as sometimes the background section also includes LeMay's critique as well (for example, his review of The Vampire Doll (1970)). Usually his "final word" is a succinct review of the film—but not always. LeMay's "final word" on Gamera vs. Zigra (1971) is more background details with no critique, and all of the criticisms LeMay lays before the film are in the "background" section. One other unrelated quibble: in his entry on Yongary, Monster from the Deep (1967), LeMay seems to misunderstand the film, and never mentions the ammonia compound that kills the monster in the end (shudder). Inevitably, too, the book has a lot of grammatical/punctuation/usage errors, at least in the copy I bought in early August of 2016, but in correspondence the author has assured me that he has fixed many or all of the errors, so the current version on Amazon should be better than the one I am reviewing here.
Unfortunately, as with most unofficial books, this one does not have any images from the movies due to copyright, and the front cover by Shane Olive depicts a King Kong-like beast in battle with an aquatic dinosaurian kaiju—beasts that do not appear in any of the actual films. To be honest, I am not wild about the cover image, which looks a bit rough in execution, and which looks more like a Western kaiju or dinosaur film rather than representing kaiju films very well.
Still, it's hard to be too critical of The Big Book of Japanese Monster Movies Vol. 1 because the book is so entertaining to read, and it is such a relief for me to read a kaiju book that isn't just another slapdash set of supposedly funny reviews. It's also a great honor that I was actually cited in the book (and a reminder to be careful how I report stuff on TK—we revised a too-vague factoid in the trivia section about the Baragon from Destroy All Monsters (1968) because of the citation in LeMay's book, which is slightly innacurate). I really enjoyed LeMay's first tokusatsu tome, and I am definitely looking forward to reading the sequel, which is already on sale!