Book: Apocalypse Then: American and Japanese Atomic Cinema, 1951-1967

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Apocalypse Then: American and Japanese Atomic Cinema, 1951-1967


English Book Title

Apocalypse Then: American and Japanese Atomic Cinema, 1951-1967

Authors:

Mike Bogue

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Pages:
ISBN:

English
Non-fiction
2017
McFarland
316
1476668418

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Review

By: Nicholas Driscoll

I have a habit of checking Amazon for new books related to Godzilla, especially on Kindle because then I don’t have to pay for international shipping fees given that I live in Japan (I am looking at you, Godzilla FAQ. WHY don’t you have a Kindle version?) I had noticed Apocalypse Then several times before I finally one-clicked it into my Kindle App, coaxed to click by the clever title and the promise of a new angle when analyzing monster flicks. Like Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski’s recent (and great) book on Ishiro Honda, Mike Bogue’s book on atomic cinema does not limit itself to monsters and extreme sci-fi scenarios, and that is one of the book’s strengths. Bogue’s book promises to take a look at how American and Japanese cinema process and portray the nuclear threat through the medium of film in different ways, and in order to dig into this theory, Bogue provides a huge collection of movie reviews and several essays examining those nuclear fears and the ways in which they are made manifest in movies.

First, let me give a bit of an overview of the contents (as always). Bogue separates the content into three rough overarching categories for the nuclear threat movies of the 1950s and 1960s: Mutants, covering mutated humanoid monsters; Monsters, featuring enormous monsters embiggened by radiation; and Mushroom Clouds, exploring more realistic, (usually) speculative films about the nuclear threat. Each of these three sections has a part covering American films within the category, then Japanese films in the same category, and then an essay analyzing the differences of the films in each genre as expressed within the cultural milieu of its origins, with speculation about why the differences exist in how the nuclear threat was expressed in their respective country’s films.

While Bogue gives lengthy coverage to the films from both sides, there are many more American movies that feature mutants, monsters, and monster clouds, and thus the American films get the more thorough treatment. I was glad to see significant coverage given to the American side—and Bogue is wide ranging in his treatment, even going so far as to cover films like Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm (1951) because the film contains radioactive coveralls which give Pa Kettle magical powers. Given that I have long loved the science-fiction and monster films of the 1950s and 1960s from America as well, I was excited to learn more about quite a number of sci-fi flicks I was unfamiliar with, not to mention some of the more grounded apocalyptic films like On the Beach (1959) and This is Not a Test (1962). Of course, many Japanese films are also covered, including classics like the original Godzilla (1954) and Rodan (1956), but also several Daiei films and more realistic films which often are overlooked in genre books, such as The Last War (1961).

The entries for each of the films read like slightly peculiar movie reviews. Bogue evaluates the quality of each film from his perspective, and includes numerous quotations from contemporary reviews (with quite a number of quotations coming from Castle of Frankenstein), which give some valuable context from that time. However, Bogue’s personal reviews are often snarky and jokey, which does not mesh well with the more academic feel of the purpose of this book. While I enjoy a good snarky review on occasion, this book isn’t really sold as a review book, and snide reviews of old genre films have already saturated the market. Bogue’s jokey tone also sometimes turns surprisingly harsh, as he calls several female characters “slutbucket,” which felt out of tune with the otherwise friendly and bemused feel of most of the book. Bogue also includes comments on the way in which radioactivity is presented in each film with the reviews. The individual essays at the end of each section, also, can feel a little bit repetitive as they can feel like summaries of the reviews.

Which is not to say that Bogue does not provide some interesting analysis of the nuclear attitudes of the USA vs. Japan, as he certainly does. The book explores how American films and Japanese films explore the nuclear threat, whether nuclear power can have positive effects, the viewpoint on the military and on scientists, and more. Bogue focuses mostly on the content of the films themselves, with relatively little outside material, but when discussing the American side, Bogue can also pull on his personal experiences. Sometimes I was not very satisfied with the scholarship of these sections, however, because to really understand the movies well, context and culture are so important, and Bogue’s exploration of those aspects is somewhat shallow in my opinion.

Quick word on the cover: I love it! It takes the look of a classic monster poster and combines pics of many old monsters like the Rhedosaurus, the giant octopus from It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) and War of the Colossal Beast (1955), though the complete lack of Japanese monsters is a disappointment. Presumably copyright restrictions meant that the Japanese beasties couldn’t make an appearance.

I could continue to nitpick at little details that bugged me. I was never quite sure why the cutoff for the films included was 1967, for example, given that more nuclear-themed movies surely continued to be released after that date. Still, for the most part I found Apocalypse Then to be a highly enjoyable read, and many fans will come away impressed with the breadth of the content and the friendly prose. However, the book really felt like a self-published book to me—I thought it was self-published, and was surprised when I double-checked and found it was published through McFarlane, which also released the excellent Kalat Godzilla book. I can’t give my full and enthusiastic endorsement to the book given some of the issues with tone and a somewhat unprofessional feel, but I did have a positive experience with the text, and I hope Bogue continues writing!