Back in 2019 I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the second annual Atami Kaiju Film Festival (熱海怪獣映画祭) in the resort town of Atami. Known for its beautiful seaside views and hot springs, and sometimes called the “kaiju city” according to promotional materials I read about the festival, amongst giant monster fans, Atami is most famous as the place where King Kong and Godzilla faced off in the climax of King Kong vs. Godzilla—that’s the Atami Castle that gets destroyed at the end, you see. Gappa the Triphibian Monster also has some scenes that take place in Atami, as does a particular episode of Ultraman. The festival has as its genesis a conversation with Kazunori Ito, the screenwriter of the reboot Gamera trilogy, wherein he expressed a desire to create a new sort of kaiju-centric movie event in Atami. The first festival in 2018 was very small indeed and featured only one film showing—Gamera 2: Advent of Legion, which had originally been written while Ito stayed in Atami. Things blossomed from there.
Anyway, I never wrote up my impressions of my trip back in 2019, even though I had a great time. (Well, I mostly had a great time…) I have had a couple issues that have held me back sometimes from writing up articles about my various kaiju excursions. One, I often just want to enjoy myself at these events, and writing up a long article on what I thought can feel like a lot of work. Two, I have a horrible habit of losing my notes or my pictures from some of the events I have attended. In the case of the Atami Kaiju Film Festival, I took a bunch of pictures, but I am not sure what happened to most of them, much to my chagrin. Thus this article will have a lack of interesting pics—if I find the rest later, maybe I can add some more to this article in the future.
But let’s just jump in. The Second Annual Atami Kaiju Film Festival took place on November 23 and 24 of 2019. I had only found out about the festival some few months previous when I interviewed Daisuke Sato, and I was very keen to come and see his short film, “Howl Beyond the Fog,” which was being shown at the festival. Luckily at the time I didn’t live so far from Atami, and so I booked my room.
I had a bit of a misadventure when I came to Atami, though. Upon reaching my hotel, I was told that I had somehow managed to book a room on a women-only floor of the hotel. This was my mistake—looking back on my booking, the email does say it was a female-only room. I didn’t even realize there WERE such rooms, and unfortunately, the hotel was full up and didn’t have any other openings where I could stay. Thankfully they refunded me the charge, but I was in trouble—I was lugging around my bags in an unknown city, and I didn’t have a room, and it was already evening AND raining. How could I find a room so late in the game?
I managed to find a room at Guest House Ennova and trudged across the city in the rain to get there, my phone running low on energy—and me, too, really. I arrived to find my hastily booked room was actually in a hostel, and I would not have a room to myself, but just the bottom of a bunkbed. Thus no real security… no real privacy outside of a curtain across the bed. And I hit my head on the door frame when I came in since it was so low. I was in a horrendous mood, even though the staff were really friendly and kind, even telling me that one of the founding members of the Atami Kaiju Film Festival sometimes takes a room there. I had a hard time falling asleep that night.
Festival: Day One
The next day was a full one of kaiju festivities, though, and I really had a nice time. The festival mostly took place at the International Tourism College in Atami, mostly in a big classroom, but they also had a giant wasp prop from a promotional video made for a new anime displayed on the first floor (Nebula from “Howl Beyond the Fog” appeared the next day!), and some humble merch tables in another room where super kaiju artist Yuji Kaida was sitting and selling art books! Yuji Kaida also designed the official kaiju featured on promotional materials for the festival, including t-shirts, and I ended up buying two t-shirts featuring his art—one of which he signed for me. I still haven’t worn the signed one as I don’t want the autograph to get worn off!
The lineup the first day was Ultraman episode 11 in the morning (which I missed because I didn’t check the schedule), then Shinpei Hayashiya’s God Raiga vs. King Ohga from one pm to two fifty, then the Amateur Kaiju Movie Contest selections from three to five, and in the evening a concert—Godzilla Densetsu, featuring live music at the Shizuoka Atami Center, starting at six pm.
Things got off to a bit of a rocky start with God Raiga vs. King Ohga. I found the movie very difficult to sit through. The film is a kind of parody with a ludicrous plot filled with (for me) unfunny humor and special-effects almost gave me a headache. The jokes didn’t land for me, and the already confusing story was made almost incomprehensible with no English subs. I did enjoy seeing Mark Jaramillo playing a side character, though—he was one of the best parts for me.
Next, the Amateur Kaiju Movie Contest selections were inspiring and awesome and a big highlight for me. The short films were from a contest, and while unfortunately there wasn’t time to show all the contestants, the ones I got to see were very fun. “Machine Ninja” was a 15-minute action-fest featuring a ninja battling a human-sized cyclops. “The Headless Monster from the Long Night of Spiritual Darkness” was an innovative and creepy thirty-minute film that featured elements of a mystery mixed with giant monster madness, as well as a ghost to spice things up even further. It was quite possibly my favorite of the lot. “Dragonzaura Battle Zone” was also something new and exciting, featuring quirky visuals created from paper cutouts and “analog” special effects as the defense force faces off against a monster. Really fun, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome given its only three minutes long. Next was “Vividman V,” which was apparently the fourth in a series, and which you can find on YouTube. It has some pretty impressive special-effects and costumes, and a bit of a parodic feel. Finally, Kiyotaka Taguchi (prolific Ultraman director—seriously, he has done a LOT) provided the final two shorts—”Female Soldier 701” and “UNFIX.” I don’t remember “Female Soldier 701” very well except that it has a giant attractive woman fighting, and I seem to remember a small bit of fan service and great special effects. It’s only five minutes long, but I recently picked up the Blu-Ray with English subs, so I can write more about this one later. The final video was “UNFIX,” which is a YouTube series, ongoing, featuring a special forces group fighting against aliens (?) invading and apparently taking the form of human beings. These alien beings, when revealed, generally look like anthropomorphized animals. “UNFIX” was shown again at the third annual Atami Kaiju Film Festival with additional episodes, so it is fresh in my mind. It features a quirky tone and some occasional impressive effects shots, though both times I watched it, I admit I was confused about what was going on.
I didn’t have time to properly nab dinner before the concert started, as I had to find the venue, get my ticket scanned, and find my seat within just an hour after the short films concluded. The concert, again, was one of the absolute highlights of the weekend. The Godzilla Densetsu music was originally recorded as an album, remixing old Godzilla soundtrack favorites with new instrumentation and energy. The concert was astonishingly fun—the musicians were somewhat older, but super energetic to a man (and a woman), and before each song (most of which were Akira Ifukube standards), the head singer would often introduce the next number with quotations from the movies. Of course music from King Kong vs. Godzilla was included, complete with dancing attractive women. The big conclusion was one of the most famous Godzilla military marches, repeated over and over with ever increasing speed and frenzy. Shinji Higuchi also made an appearance to announce that the filming for Shin Ultraman had finished (I actually didn’t understand what he was saying, and ended up finding out from August Ragone’s post online), and he handed out flyers to another tokusatsu-related concert coming up soon as we left. The only downside of the concert for me was that I was sitting on a cushion on the floor, which was super uncomfortable for my American bones, but the Japanese in the audience didn’t seem to mind at all.
Festival: Day Two
The next day from ten am was Daisuke Sato and Keizo Murase’s “Howl Beyond the Fog,” followed by talk about the making of the film. I had seen pics of the short film, as well as short trailers, and I had even interviewed Daisuke Sato before the film was finished. Honestly I was still a little skeptical that the film would turn out well, but I was really blown away when I finally got to sit through the completed movie. The music, the cinematography, the gorgeous puppets, the heart-breaking story—everything came together to create an incredible sense of mood and power. I absolutely loved it, and finding out about some of the influences and challenges in making the film afterwards made the movie even better.
Next, after lunch, was an episode of Ultraman—“The Rascal from Outer Space,” which was apparently filmed in Atami. I enjoyed it, but at that point I had not seen much of the original series. Having sat through all the episodes last year, now I think I have a much better vantage point for enjoying the show. Ito gave a talk about the episode as well, but I would be lying if I said I remembered anything he said.
Somewhere in here we also got to watch the short video made to promote the Island of Giant Insects anime. The promo video was live-action and featured the giant wasp that was sitting at the entrance of the college when I came in. I have read the first volume of the manga upon which Island of Giant Insects (the anime) is based, and it is… pretty extreme, combining violence and sexuality in some very graphic ways. It looks like the anime and even the promotional video had a similar mindset. The director of the promotional video talked about filming and doing things like flying the drone between the legs of one of the actresses, and he made jokes about how he shouldn’t be talking about such things in front of the youngsters in the audience.
We wrapped things up with a viewing of King Kong vs. Godzilla—of course the Japanese version. They encouraged everyone to actively watch—comment, laugh, make quotations, and cheer. They reserved the front section for the loud comments and banter (Shinji Higuchi had some kind of noisemakers and was really into it), and if you wanted a quieter viewing experience you could sit in the back. I sat near Yuji Kaida and his wife. Now, I had seen the Japanese version before, but I am MUCH more familiar with the American version, which was the first Godzilla movie I ever saw. I was quoting the American version every chance I could get, but I was kind of disappointed that the Japanese audience wasn’t getting into the film more—they weren’t anywhere near as rowdy as the audiences at G-Fest. At the end they took a picture of us all together, and we are all posing like Godzilla, and you can see the pic on the Atami Kaiju Film Festival Facebook page—I am in there on the right, wearing a green cap. Well, it’s a little hard to miss me, since I was the only white boy in the crowd.
Basically the Atami Kaiju Film Festival is a ton of fun—small and intimate, but filled with passionate fans who love giant monsters and with hugely influential kaiju creators. While watching movies in a classroom is a bit of a letdown to be honest, the small-town vibe is precious, and the experience is unique and exciting, with the chance to watch some films that are hard to see anywhere else. I am here sitting in my hotel room in Atami right now gearing up to enjoy the third festival, which was postponed to March of 2021—hopefully this time I can preserve my photos of the event!