With the next Atami Kaiju Film Festival (熱海怪獣映画祭) around the corner (Saturday, October 22, and Sunday, October 23), and currently a new kaiju design contest associated with the festival continuing until the end of the month, now seems a decent time to look back on my experiences at the Fourth Annual Atami Kaiju Film Festival from last year. I have now attended the festival three times, and I had some of my best (and worst) memories yet in my third outing. For those who are unfamiliar with the festival, you may want to check out my previous articles on the second and third festivals. Basically, the Atami Kaiju Film Festival is a small festival centered on kaiju films specifically that is put on in the seaside resort city of Atami each year, usually in November, usually over about three days. It was originally conceived by Heisei Gamera scribe Kazunori Ito, who has been a fixture of the festival up to this point (though it sounds like he is going to be shifting away a bit as his job is changing locations).

Last year, the festival took place from Sunday, November 21, to Tuesday, November 23. In the past, when I have attended at least, the festival might have an early Friday night start and stretch into Monday, which worked well for my schedule, but last year Tuesday, November 23, was a holiday, so I think that’s why they changed the schedule. I was really bummed, though. Despite the national holiday, I still needed to work, so I could only attend on Sunday and Monday, and even then, I would have to leave early on Monday given that I live so far away from Atami, and work started the next morning.

On Saturday, I had a real adventure finding my hotel. The accommodation I booked was farther away from the venue than when I attended in the past, and also when I tried to find the place in the evening when I arrived, I found myself lost in the surrounding greenery. A befuddled local gave me directions when I stumbled into her yard. Eventually I made it to the hotel, and I thought they would have a restaurant or a nearby convenience store where I could grab something to eat… but they didn’t! The lady at the desk was kind enough to pick up some sushi for me from a relatively nearby restaurant, though, and the view from my room of the ocean was really spectacular. Unfortunately, the next morning, I had to take a train to the venue for the festival, and given the convoluted terrain, I ended up missing my departure, and the infrequency of trains had me waiting a long time—forcing me to miss the showings of a colorized episode of Ultra Q and an episode of Ultraman.

Memories of the Fourth Annual Atami Kaiju Film Festival

I had the chance to attend two films the first day—Nezura 1964 (2020), and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999). The first, Nezura 1964, is an approximately hour-long comedic retelling of the canceled film that led to the creation of the original Showa Gamera series. Fans will already know, but basically, back in the mid-sixties, Daiei was making a film about giant marauding rats attacking Japan, and opted to use real rats juxtaposed against miniatures—a method which led to much grief, drama, and the eventual cancellation of the project. I love that Nezura 1964’s director Hiroto Yokokawa opted to retell that bizarre tale in his movie, though the results were only sporadically amusing. The sequences depicting the filming of the rats on the miniatures reminded me very much of giant-rabbit film Night of the Lepus, and I desperately wanted to ask Yokokawa if he had been inspired by that movie (he was on the scene and interacted with fans), but I was too shy and lost my chance. A live interview was also conducted with Yokokawa, including some discussion of his origins as a director. In that discussion, Yokokawa revealed that he had also directed a number of amateur films in high school that featured science-fiction and comedic themes, and we were treated to his amateur film debut that (if I am remembering correctly) was a take-off on Planet of the Apes and other Western science fiction films. Given that the film was made by teenagers, naturally the result was very low-budget and extremely absurd—but I was surprised at just how long it was! Yokokawa filled the tale with action, crazy science-fiction concepts, and brazen humor, and while the film was overly lengthy, it was a great chance for fans to see his otherwise inaccessible early work.

Next was Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999). Of course, I had seen Gamera 3 a number of times in the past, but never on the big screen (or at least the marginally bigger screen of the film festival), so it was great to revisit the movie here. Much more exciting for fans, I think, was that aforementioned scriptwriter Yasunori Ito, as well as director Shusuke Kaneko, and special effects director Shinji Higuchi were in attendance. The three took the stage for a lively conversation, which eventually led to questions from the audience.

Kazunori Ito, Shinji Higuchi, and Shusuke Kaneko share the stage for questions and answers after a viewing of Gamera 3

Kazunori Ito, Shinji Higuchi, and Shusuke Kaneko share the stage for questions and answers after a viewing of Gamera 3

Audience questions touched on many of the common burning questions related to the film, such as the cliffhanger ending of Gamera 3, and a question about the extreme way in which Gamera had killed innocents within the film (that one really had Higuchi laughing, and they reminisced about how they had perhaps taken the scene too far). In the lobby, I was happy to get Ito’s autograph and a picture with him, too—much better than just sharing the restroom with him as I had the first year I attended.

Posing with Kazunori Ito, screenwriter of the Gamera trilogy

Posing with Kazunori Ito, screenwriter of the Gamera trilogy

The festival this year had grown in some significant ways, and most exciting for me was that there was now a room for artists to share their wares, as well as a room with games and merch—including a demo station where I got to try an early build of kaiju fighter Gigabash. (I even snagged a free pin featuring the yeti character Woolley.) In the artists’ room, there was a Nezura 1964 table set up, as well as art prints and DVDs of independent productions, etc. Kaiju artist and suitmation performer Ninsai Kato was also taking commissions and selling her art and manga, so I commissioned her to do a drawing of my kaiju Jram, and eagerly bought up a copy of each available issue of her comic, Vajrah. I was excited to read her comic issues that evening, and had a chance to give her my impressions directly the next day when I picked up my commissioned artwork.

The sculpture of the giant monster rat from Nezura 1964

The sculpture of the giant monster rat from Nezura 1964

Monday I was determined to get to the movie festival venue on time. Gappa the Triphibian Monster (1967) was starting at 10:00, and I really wanted to see it given I hadn’t seen the film in decades. The reason they showed Gappa was because the movie prominently features Atami in some of the monster attack sequences—it’s the same reason King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) has been featured at the festival twice now. The castle that the two title monsters in the latter film destroy is Atami Castle (not Osaka Castle as I used to think as a kid). On Saturday before going to my hotel I walked up to Atami Castle, but just missed my chance to go inside. What is really interesting about Atami Castle is that it is NOT a castle with a long history and was instead built as a tourist attraction in modern times—which is reflected in how the castle has a very commercialistic flair which is apparent even when approaching from the outside, since it advertises such things as trick art and the like rather than historical exhibits. In other words, it’s a very appropriate castle to get destroyed in King Kong vs. Godzilla given that film’s themes about the excesses of capitalism and commercialism gone wild.

Back to my story, even though I left the hotel with a ten-minute lead, I still managed to just miss my train, which again underscores just how confusing the street layout in Atami can be, the frustrating untrustworthiness of Google sometimes, and generally my bad luck. I managed to arrive at the venue maybe ten to fifteen minutes into the movie, which I really enjoyed seeing again. It had been such a long time since I had seen the show, and getting to watch the film in the city where much of the action took place made the experience much more satisfying and visceral. The child actor from Gappa, Masanori Machida, also made a stage appearance and live interview, and he was very friendly and jovial.

In between showings, I retrieved my art from Ninsai Kato, as well as picked up some artbooks and prints and a DVD of a random independent tokusatsu production which I still haven’t checked out. But my real bright memory from the art room was the truly unique Ultra-Kaiju artwork put together on a table display. At first I thought they were just pretty impressive kaiju busts, but upon closer inspection, each Ultra-Kaiju sculpture was actually hiding a secret inside. The creations of Ushimaru_m78 (you can find him on Twitter, often with the hashtag lifewithkaiju) are wonderful; each kaiju bust is actually some kind of absurd practical appliance. Alien Metron, for example, opens up (mimicking how he was sliced in half by Ultraseven) to reveal a vanity mirror and make-up storage space. Bullton, meanwhile, looks like a nigh perfect recreation of the monstrous threat, but is actually a flower vase. Another kaiju was a hand sanitizer dispenser, another crushed plastic bottles, another made coffee. Ushimaru_m78’s display was so incredibly fun. I am really glad I could meet him and try out his ludicrously amusing inventions!

Check out these amazing Ultra Kaiiju busts that are actually common goods, like a vanity mirror or a coffee machine

Check out these amazing Ultra Kaiiju busts that are actually common goods, like a vanity mirror or a coffee machine

The last event I had a chance to attend was the first few of the short films that the festival features every year. As in past years, the shorts varied greatly in style and execution, from young girls taking care of a baby kaiju, to a horrific and astonishing CGI kaiju horror flick. Unfortunately, I had to check out before the films were finished, but I LOVE the short films. They are often really creative and crazy, and I hope I can watch all of them this year.

Posing with Yoshikazu Ishii and the costume for the monster in Yuzo the Biggest Battle in Tokyo

Posing with Yoshikazu Ishii and the costume for the monster in Yuzo the Biggest Battle in Tokyo

While I was frustrated about some aspects of the Fourth Annual Atami Kaiju Film Festival, most of the irritations were more to do with my poor choice in hotels and the fact I had to work rather than the movies and shows on tap at the festival itself. I was excited to see the activities and things to do and buy had grown from the previous year, and the addition of so many people selling their art, books, and fan-made movies made me giddy. The Atami Kaiju Film Festival was a real blast this past year, too, and I can’t wait to attend the next one in October.

For those who are interested, I will just mention again that the festival will be taking place on October 22 and 23rd in Atami—this time at a new location. While previous festivals have taken place at the Atami International Tourism College, this time the festivities are moving to the Atami Geigi Kenban. The Atami Geigi Kenban was first built in 1954 (an appropriate year) and has been used to host dance performances, especially flower dances. Other aspects of the festival, outside of the film viewing, are set to transpire in Shinsui Park—perhaps the vendors, the artists, and the like will be set up there, with food stalls and such. Travel may still be difficult at this point, but if you can’t go to the festival itself, you can still take part in the New Kaiju Design contest. Each year for the past several festivals the organizers have put on a new kaiju design contest. This year’s theme is Atami—the city where the festival takes place. Interested participants should send an email to shinkaiju at atamikaiju.jp with the following information:

  1. The name of your new kaiju
  2. Background details, such as the kaiju’s abilities, its unique attributes, personality, favorite foods, and so on.
  3. Your name—and if you prefer, you can include a penname as well if you don’t want your real name given out.
  4. Age
  5. Address
  6. Phone number

There are a number of additional rules. The art itself can be done by hand, in which case you can send a picture taken from your phone. If you created the art via digital methods, you can send the result in jpeg, or tiff formats. Other formats are not allowed. Your original monster should not infringe any copyrights or feature monsters already in other media, nor defame a real person. If you don’t include the above information in the six data points, you will be disqualified. All submissions must be sent in by August 31st at noon Japan time, and winners will be announced at the beginning of October. There will be a display of the contestants with winners highlighted at the festival as well. Some of the works sent in during the previous three contests have been really impressive! For more information, see the website for the contest (in Japanese): http://atamikaiju.jp/oekaki2022/?fbclid=IwAR3D8tZe_2zr4uITmzkpPgxaX2NcSUqwIDoUbdJPVyt1-rqonQ1TVnoPgnA

Thank you for reading!