Book: The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies Vol. 2: 1984-2014

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The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies Vol. 2


English Book Title

The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies Vol. 2: 1984-2014

Authors:

John LeMay

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ISBN:

English
Non-fiction
2016
Bicep Books
156
1541144317

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Review

By: Nicholas Driscoll

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.

For me, my tokusatsu fandom tends to lean towards the older canon of material, probably largely for nostalgic reasons. I grew up with the older films, and I have long harbored a strong affinity for the more practical effects and arguably campier storytelling from that era. That said, while I really enjoyed John LeMay's The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies Vol. 1, which covered the vast majority of those older films, I was just slightly less excited about the sequel, The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies Vol. 2: 1984-2014, just because in general my love of the newer films does not quite equal my rose-shaded fondness for the oldies. Still, LeMay's first book was quite enjoyable, so whatever minor misgivings I might have had, I was still quite excited to read the sequel and learn more fascinating trivia about my favorite movie genre. Now that I have finished reading both books, the second mostly holds up quite well to the first, albeit with many of the same issues and about one hundred fewer pages than the last volume.

The basic idea of both of LeMay's books is to present (in as comprehensive a fashion as possible) all the Japanese giant monster films from a given era, retell their stories, give background details, a critical evaluation of sorts, and reams of trivia at the end of each individual entry for each individual film. The entries for this book are quite diverse. LeMay covers many, many kaiju films in this book, including all of the Godzilla films from The Return of Godzilla (1984) on, including the two American films (though not Japan's 2016 reboot Godzilla Resurgence), as well as the four Gamera films, the Mothra trilogy, and quite the collection of lesser-known kaiju films, including Yamato Takeru (1994), Big Man Japan (2007), Deep Sea Monster Reigo vs. Battleship Yamato (2008), and even two short films about giant monsters—Negadon the Monster from Mars (2005) and Gehara the Dark and Long-Haired Monster (2009), several Ultraman movies, and more. Like in the previous volume, LeMay also reviews a Korean giant monster movie due to the involvement of Japanese special effects staff—in this case the controversial Pulgasari (1985), a film whose backstory is actually much more interesting (and harrowing!) than the film itself. I especially enjoyed reading about these often-overlooked monster films just because of their overlooked status—though even in LeMay's book, the trivia and information about many of these movies tends to be less than for the established genre flicks.

For both books in the series so far, LeMay also has an introductory essay giving an overview of the time period in Japanese cinema history, as well as sources in the back (albeit without citations in the text of the book itself), and an essay from one of his kaiju-loving colleagues—the first book with noted tokusatsu fan-fic author Neil Reibe, and the second with an afterword by Xenorama mastermind David McRobie. (McRobie's little essay feels more like a prologue to me than an afterward, but I digress.)

The biggest immediate difference in the second "Big Book" is the "bigness". The first book, though technically covering fewer years, has 280 pages, while the second volume only has 156—this despite the fact that both books are priced the same. One reason for this disparity in content is the bare fact that kaiju films went through a renaissance in the 1960s especially (a period covered in the first book), giving the world a great number and variety of giant monster films that the Heisei period (the period covered in the second book) does not match. Further, LeMay included many more "bonus reviews" in the first volume—reviews for movies which do not technically feature giant monsters, but which had some sci-fi or horror elements and the author felt inclined to review for whatever idiosyncratic reason. I liked the bonus reviews even if they were a bit off-topic, and reviews for such films as Matango (1963) and even the Toho Vampire Trilogy of the 1970s helped bulk up the text and were fun to read anyway. In the second volume, LeMay only includes one "bonus review", for Gunhed (1989). LeMay claims that there were simply fewer special-effects films from Toho (and presumably the other studios) from the 80s on—which I am not sure is really true. Following the pattern of the first book, for example, reviews of the popular-in-Japan Haunted School series would have been a great inclusion, as well as perhaps some of the many sci-fi manga adaptations like the 20th Century Boys trilogy, or some of Keita Amemiya's distinctive and influential monster films, especially the Zeiram franchise, or the memorable Moon Over Tao: Makaraga (1997). While LeMay dismisses the Super Sentai films as being from a distinct sub-genre, I would have loved to see reviews of those films, which I personally would count as giant monster films—moreso than, say, Demeking the Sea Monster (2009), which gets a review here. LeMay does include quite a few entries on the Ultraman films, but here, too, his criteria for including some of the Ultraman films and not others is confusing—he claims that Ultraman X from 2016 was only 73 minutes and thus not feature length, so he decided not to include it—and yet he includes short film reviews in this book, and frankly some older kaiju films are also very short, such as the American version of Rodan (1956), which clocks in at only 70 minutes. Some yokai-themed movies also have legitimate giant monsters, such as the 2006 The Great Yokai War, and the second live-action Kitaro movie. If LeMay can include Princess from the Moon (1987), I personally don't see why some of these other films could not be included as well, perhaps in an updated version. Given that LeMay covers an animated short film, I see no real reason not to include animated films as well, given that they are movies, and many do feature giant monsters. Perhaps a separate volume—The Big Book of Animated Japanese Giant Monster Movies perhaps—could cover those neglected films.

Pretty much all of my quibbles from the first book are still present in the second as well, but those quibbles are well-documented in my previous review. In addition to those criticisms, because of how the Heisei Godzilla films are within a closely shared chronology, some of the trivia spills over from one movie to the next, which can be a little bit repetitive. Occasionally, too, I wanted just a bit more detail in the trivia items. For example, when LeMay states that the 1998 American Godzilla film's soundtrack was quite popular, I wanted to know what he meant. Was it a big seller? If so, was it one of the top albums of the year? Or was it just popular among kaiju fans? The cover I think is a bit of an improvement over the first book, with monsters that (at least to me) look like that might appear in a Japanese tokusatsu film, though again the art looks a bit sketchy and doesn't reproduce well as a thumbnail on Amazon.

Despite the shorter length, LeMay's second kaiju book is a great joy for kaiju fans to read. His prose style is quite readable and enthusiastic, and LeMay is quite knowledgeable as well. I learned quite a bit reading this book, and even if I didn't always agree with LeMay's views on particular films, if anything, the fact that he enjoyed movies that I hated (such as the aforementioned Gunhed) made the process of reading the book more fun because it stays so positive. Now, the actual prose still has quite a few grammatical/usage errors, but I tend to over-notice such flaws anyway given the fact I am an English teacher.

While the title of the book might be a bit of a misnomer for the second volume, nevertheless, LeMay's kaiju tome is great fun to read, despite the flaws. Like the last book, I would prefer clearer citations, as well as clearer separation between critique and background detail, but still both of LeMay's monster books were big entertainment for me!