Having already attended and greatly enjoyed the Second Annual Atami Kaiju Film Festival (熱海怪獣映画祭) in 2019, I was watching with interest to see how (or even if) there would be a third in 2020. Atami itself had some kind of kaiju-related event last year, but the festival was postponed to March of 2021. Despite the fact that I am in the middle of moving, despite the fact that parts of Japan are in a state of emergency due to the coronavirus, despite the fact that I had a heart attack last year and thus am more at risk, I still decided to attend the festival.
Call it a symptom of massive nerdery, or outright foolhardiness, or just a sort of desperate attempt to grab hold of something familiar and fun in the midst of what has been one of the most challenging times in my life. I am here, and I want to make the best of it.
The Third Annual Atami Kaiju Film Festival took place from Friday, March 12, through Sunday, March 14. Everything kicked off with the return of the Godzilla Legend concert on Friday night, then continued with various showings throughout Saturday and Sunday, plus merch and guests giving talks on their films.
I arrived in Atami in the afternoon on March 12, giving me plenty of time to find my hotel before the concert (in the rain again—but at least this time I didn’t accidentally reserve a female-only room!). My ticket for this year’s Godzilla Legend concert, dubbed Godzilla Legend Atami: Absolute Defense Live Phase 2—Guardian of Paradise Concert, apparently only allowed me to watch online rather than in-person. While I could print out my other tickets, I couldn’t print out my concert ticket—I only had a link to the video.
Still, under the circumstances, I felt happy enough to stay in my hotel room and watch the video at my leisure. The show started at 6:30 in the evening with Makoto Inoue (the mastermind behind Godzilla Legend) and Kazunori Ito (scribe behind the reboot Gamera trilogy, among many other things) giving a live talk, in which they expressed their mutual admiration for the others’ work, and explained a bit about the ten year history of Godzilla Legend.
Like last year, the concert itself was composed of many songs mostly from Showa Toho films, mostly focused on the works of Akira Ifukube, interspersed with energetically delivered lines from the films themselves, as well as some members of the music groups involved wearing costumes of characters from the films. The music included works from Godzilla (1954), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), Mothra (1961), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), Atragon (1963), Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), and perhaps a few others. Highlights included a really poppy and excellent take on “Return the Sun!” from Hedorah and the Twin Fairies dancing and singing while playing the accordion! All of the music is performed with vigor and excitement by everyone involved, and the remixes add a lot of flavor to the proceedings. I would definitely pay good money for this stuff on DVD or CD.
First Day Screenings
The actual film showings started on Saturday at ten am, beginning with two colorized episodes of Ultra Q in a big classroom—the same classroom as last year, in the International Tourism College Atami, on the fifth floor. The episodes were episode 12, “I Saw a Bird,” and episode 16, “Garamon Strikes Back.” In general I am not a big fan of colorizing black and white films and TV, but the colorizing was well-done, and it was kind of fun seeing the episodes in a new light, so to speak. I think “I Saw a Bird” is one of the weaker episodes, but the mysterious ship featuring Manda’s head and the scenes of destruction from Rodan (1956) at the end are a lot of fun. For me, “Garamon Strikes Back” is a lot more entertaining overall, with a higher level of intrigue and suspense, and the introduction of the cute monster that would eventually become the benevolent Pigmon is great—here called Garamon and functioning as a remote-controlled robot menace. After the viewing, two members of the cast/crew were apparently going to come and address the audience, but they decided not to come because of the virus. Still, they recorded a ten-minute video with the two—I believe it was Hiroko Sakurai and Yasuhiko Saijo. They discussed making both of the episodes, as well as what Kenji Sahara was like, and why Ultra Q remains popular. The recording seemed to have some sound issues, though, and I was reminded once again that my Japanese listening skills need a lot of work, as I missed a lot of what they said.
Next, after a break for lunch, we started up again at 12:30, this time with a short film directed by Shinji Higuchi’s assistant director, Kazuhiro Nakagawa—he also directed Godzilla vs. Evangelion—the Real 4D, which I really enjoyed when I visited USJ a few years ago. The thirty-minute film we watched was called “The Day of the Monster” and concerned what appeared to be the corpse of a massive whale-like monster and the Japanese government’s response thereto. The government claims the monster corpse is safe and not dangerous, but the main character protests against the government’s actions and is arrested—and sure enough the monster comes back to life. There was a QA session afterwards, which was amusing—one guy asked if the short film was inspired by an episode of Ultraman Tiga that had similar themes, but the director admitted he had never seen it. Shinji Higuchi rounded out the QA session by making snarky comments that had the crowd roaring with laughter. I think he was making connections to Shin Godzilla (2016) since they have very similar themes, but apparently “The Day of the Monster” was made in 2014, so… maybe Shin was influenced by Day?
The next short film was directed by legendary special effects director Koichi Kawakita—Gunbot, also from 2014. This version of the film was only 27 minutes long. It was about the crew of the titular Gunbot as they fight against an alien in a giant red robot with sickle-like hands and huge zappy cannons on its shoulders. While the acting is sometimes pretty weak, the special effects (explosions, costumes, military vehicles) look good, with dramatic camera angles and tons of action. I love how Gunbot gets trashed early on—one of his arms gets sliced off! There are also some exciting scenes with the human cast shooting the enemy robot. Delightful film—I wish it had more distribution.
After these two films, we watched a trailer for Atami Monster, which seems to be an offbeat movie that may or may not feature a giant monster. The main actress and director came up on stage and posed with the poster, but didn’t give much of an explanation of the film. The movie was actually screened at the festival, but was at a separate location, and I missed it.
We had another break, and then it was the return of the Amateur Kaiju Film Selections. This event had the most people in the crowd—I was kind of shocked at how many more people suddenly showed up for the selection screenings. Still, just like last year, the selections were just tons of fun to watch.
The first film we watched was “Prefectural Musashino Magic High School Popular Club Dragon Hunting Story.” If it isn’t obvious from the title, this was a comedy film, featuring a magic school and a trio of ridiculous wizards in training. The ostensible main character frequently blows up the school while chasing girls, and he teams up with two other boys (one of whom seems to be a mute with an indestructible body) to fight an Asian-style flying dragon. If I understood correctly, defeating the dragon would mean graduating. Absolute insanity ensues—my favorite scene was when the mute is launched into the air as a human missile against the dragon. Special effects are… not sophisticated, but they are memorable, and everything moves fast. The director came up on stage afterwards and made lots of funny commentary. Apparently he was the same director who created the short about the headless monster from last year.
The next short film was “New Momotraman 2019,” another comedy, this time featuring a one-man cast. Basically giant monsters or heroes or something show up in the city, people flee, the hero wins or something, but it’s all completely ridiculous, with the one actor/director/screenwriter editing himself as most of the cast, dressing up as fleeing women, etc.
Next was “Burning Beast Barigyura,” a short about a small group of friends who find a purple meteorite that unleashes a massive monster, Barigyura, on the city. The purple meteorite also seems to possess one of the friends. The monster rampages while the friends battle amongst themselves to smash the meteorite, which they eventually do, vanquishing the monster. However, the movie ends with what appear to be dozens and dozens more purple meteorites falling to the earth! Again, after the conclusion, the director came on stage to talk about the production, which he made with college friends, and they made jokes about the dangers of using the pyrotechnics in the film. For me, this film had some cool scenes of destruction, and I liked the monster design, but I still wanted a bit more from the plot.
The last short film was “Little,” and for a change of pace, all the main characters here are female. The main character finds a small reptilian creature that looks like a friendly Godzilla and adopts it secretly. She and her two female friends are part of a class studying giant monster attacks—perhaps it is a history class. Lots of callbacks for fans, such as a giant monster that appears in 1954, etc. The friends eventually find out about the baby Godzilla-alike, which is named Little. When they take Little to the park, he escapes. Later a giant monster attacks the city, and at first the main character thinks its Little. However, Little (now a giant kaiju as well) shows up to save her, and powers up its nuclear breath by charging up its maple-leaf shaped backplates, then blasts the other monster (Gankiryuu) to bits. The movie has an easter egg after the credits where the heroes see Little one last time and wish him well. The director came on stage, they asked him about his cute cast, and he is showed that he is planning to make a sequel or spinoff focusing on Gankiryuu with a promotional image. I didn’t really like this film much—I didn’t like the characters, and Little is WAY too derivative of Godzilla. I had major flashbacks to the atrocious Roller Gator as well, though thankfully Little never raps or makes snarky remarks. I will say, though, that Gankiryuu (the monster) looks pretty dang cool, and is shot with a lot of menace and gravitas.
Finally, Kiyotaka Taguchi showed his YouTube show UNFIX again, like last year, with a couple additional episodes. Basically its about a special force fighting against aliens who have infiltrated the earth. In one episode, a chameleon-headed drunk is escorted from a restaurant. In another the military group infiltrates an area with many armed aliens. In another the cast is practicing stretches in a hallway for some reason. In the last episode, we see a giant monster, and the heroes communicate through video phones or something. It’s quirky and weird stuff, but I liked the giant monster.
We posed for pictures, and then I went back to my hotel. While I definitely enjoyed myself, I also was excited to get back to my hotel. The college was COLD, and I wasn’t wearing enough layers, so almost throughout the entire day I was squirming and rubbing my hands together and trying to just get warm!
On the third day, I wore an additional layer of clothing and arrived early for the first showing of the day—Ultraman Orb the Movie (2017). I had never seen any of the Orb series, let alone the movie, but I basically wanted to watch everything I could at the festival, so I got a ticket to this showing as well. Over the last few years I have slowly been catching up a little bit on Ultraman through manga and the DVD/Blu-Ray releases, so I could at least get some of the references throughout the movie. I thought it was a very enjoyable, fast-moving story with lively characters and dynamic action scenes, as well as a movie with something to enjoy for old and new fans alike. The premise of Ultraman Orb has to do with a new Ultraman who uses a device to borrow the powers of other Ultramen and use them when he transforms, so there are tons of callbacks to previous heroes—and at one point he even uses the villainous Ultraman Belial’s powers! My main beef with the movie was just that I think it relies too heavily on the action, with characters appearing out of nowhere to help, and constantly powering up to defeat opponents. I wish there was a bit more thought put into the fights so that they would resonate more deeply on a storytelling level. Before the movie started, the MC asked the children not to yell out encouraging words for Ultraman (the movie basically asks for them at one point), and to just cheer him on strongly in their hearts—presumably this was a way to avoid spreading germs, but I thought it was a sweet touch. Also, at the end, one of the actors showed up unexpectedly—Takaya Aoyagi, who performed as the mysterious Jugglus Juggler in the series and film. He shared some of his experiences on the stage with the director, Kiyotaka Taguchi, and I was privileged to get their autographs afterwards!
The second viewing of the day was easily the most moving film of the weekend, at least for me. Titled roughly “Eighty-Five-Year-Old Kaiju Boy goes to Izumo,” it was a documentary about the life of kaiju legend Keizo Murase and his quest to direct his first and last movie, Brush of the God. The documentary gives a brief overview of his long kaiju career before focusing on the trials and tribulations surrounding his attempts to create Brush of the God, an original story featuring the Orochi from legend and first conceived while Murase was working on The Mighty Peking Man in Hong Kong back in the 70s! Murase and his team had to face many challenges, such as a Kickstarter that didn’t reach its goal and other obstacles. Still, in the face of all the difficulties, Murase and his team forged ahead, creating props with what money they had, and eventually (if I understood correctly) securing the funds needed for their project, which is now scheduled for a planned 2022 release! Keizo Murase included a special message about the release at the end of the documentary, and Daisuke Sato (who I interviewed for Toho Kingdom a couple years ago) was on hand with the producer to talk about the project. I am really happy for them, and with the teaser for the film released, I can say, it looks fantastic!
I should say, the title of the documentary mentions Izumo because in the film Murase gets a chance to visit Izumo, the place where the story of Orochi originally took place. There are some awesome scenes in the doc where Murase meets theatrical artists who create amazing Orochi costumes, and they share about their experiences creating monsters with each other.
The final film of the festival was King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), and I stayed to watch it again this year. Unlike last year, they did not encourage the audience to comment and cheer, but instead asked us to applaud and gave free light sticks to everyone so we could cheer on our chosen monster in the fight without spreading germs. The audience mostly used the light sticks to accentuate the tribal music, however, rather than for the fight scenes. When the Atami Castle appears near the end of the movie, the audience broke into applause several times. There was an ending talk from Makoto Inoue (from the concert) and a director, but I missed his name. Then we were done, and I saw the beautiful Atami Castle in person from the window of the college. It was a beautiful way to end the trip.
Personally, I had a wonderful time at the Third Annual Atami Kaiju Film Festival. It was great meeting some of the minds behind current kaiju films and TV and having the chance to see so many films, short and feature-length, rare and famous, on a big screen. Yes, I wish the chairs were a bit more comfortable and the heat was a bit better, and I wish there had been some kinds of social activities so fans could get to know each other—like a kaiju workshop, for example. But the festival is just getting started, and there is a lot to enjoy. I hope it continues for many years to come—and with any luck I can be a small part of the festivities!
In closing, I was also interviewed while at the convention, and they asked me to answer in English! I also had the chance to help them translate some promotional material, which was pretty neat.
— 【公式】熱海怪獣映画祭 Atami kaiju film festival (@atamikaiju1027) March 14, 2021