Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters
 August Ragone
Language: English Release: 2007
Publisher: Chronicle Books LLC Pages: 205
Genre: Non-fiction ISBN: 0811860787

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Nicholas Driscoll

Recently I received August Ragone's Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters hardcover book for my birthday, and despite several other intriguing presents including Donald Richie's A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, this was the one I was most excited about. Over the past year I have been hearing so much positive buzz about Ragone's work that my curiosity became sufficiently stimulated, but I hadn't actually gotten to peek at the pages until that celebratory day, surrounded by wrapping paper and detritus, the tome quivering in my enthusiastic paws. Frankly, the book had received so much positive press that I had begun to grow suspicious as to whether the finished publication could live up to its considerable hype. Very few books do. Ragone's Eiji Tsuburaya, however, with very few caveats, does.

Unlike so many books on Japanese fantasy films released in America, which focus more on the monsters and on the movies, Eiji Tsuburaya sets its sites in on the people, especially the person of the greatest special-effects legend in Japanese film history, Eiji Tsuburaya himself. Far from restricting itself to Tsuburaya's movie work, Ragone delves farther back, to his family history, his childhood interests, his early jobs in and outside the industry, even how he met his wife. There is ample information about his film work, too, of course, explored in loving detail, including insights about a number of his non-fantasy films, extending to his pre-Toho days with such studios as Nikkatsu and Shochiku, but with special attention given to the later monster movies the Old Man would become most loved for. The Godzilla movies receive perhaps the most attention overall amongst Tsuburaya's silver screen creations, but Ragone also includes fascinating insight on many of Toho's more obscure fantasy films such as The Three Treasures (1959) and H-Man (1958), noting particular SFX innovations and anecdotes.

Most meticulously detailed of all, however, are the processes and development of Tsuburaya Productions, which was the studio that the master started with Toho's blessing, and their many television properties, such as Ultra Q, Ultra Seven, Booska, and, of course, Ultraman, properties which have never garnered a great deal of attention in America despite their fame in the land of the rising sun. Much of the information contained in this book, then, was completely new to me, and that much more fascinating because of it. Of course, being as most of Tsuburaya's television shows are not available in America except through bootleg channels or expensive and untranslated imports, Ragone's detailed work here is rather envy-inducing. My only exposure to Ultra Q was through rentals; when I was living in Shimonoseki, I found a couple videos that compiled the monster sequences from the series and I giddily viewed them, laughing and gasping at all the stock footage, recycled monster sounds, and costumes that came directly from his movies. Ragone has further whetted my appetite for these classics through his assiduous compilation of material here, and provided enlightenment as to the agonies and triumphs of Japanese television production. It should be noted, however, that much of this information in the latter chapters of the book focuses so much on the television processes and the jobs of the writers and technicians that little is said of what exactly Tsuburaya was doing--at least until he dies.

Ragone is not the only responsible party for this smorgasbord of J-film delights. Numerous guest essays are sprinkled throughout the text, and for the most part they are a great asset to the book. Ed Godziszewski's Collaborating with the Master, ostensibly giving recognition to the many technicians and workmen who made Tsuburaya's special-effects miracles possible, is intriguing if slight on much information as to who those people actually were. Eiji's Collaborators, by Guy Mariner Tucker, displays Tucker's warm, colorful writing voice to great effect, painting sharply defined, wonderful word pictures of some of Tsuburaya's most famous cohorts, such as Ishiro Honda and Jun Fukuda, who Mariner knew personally. Gamera, Guilala, and Gappa…Oh My! is a retrospective on the Japanese monster boom from the 1960s, and comic book artist John Paul Cassidy crafts a fine summary of the J-fantasy films of the period coming from Toho's competitors, including several I wasn't aware of—although he strangely never mentions the Yokai Monsters trilogy and only briefly notes the Daimajin films. Brad Warner, Norman England, and Mark Nagata also contribute guest work with essays about working as a foreigner at Tsuburaya Studios (thus engendering violent envy with many fans, I'm sure), the Old Man's legacy after his death, and collecting the vast number of monster toys based on the special effects guru's enduring creations, respectively. Nagata gets the most space, with a vanity shot of his enormous collection, and a series of full-color spreads showcasing some notable monster toys through the years.

Two other guest essays perhaps deserve special mention, as they were written by Japanese—Toho's vice president Shogo Tomiyama, and Eiji Tsuburaya's son Akira. Sensitive readers will realize that English was not the authors' original language, and that Japanese essays are written from a different writing philosophy than what Americans have been taught in school. That being said, it is still worth looking at the essays from a critical standpoint. Tomiyama's essay, This is how Godzilla was Born, is easily the weaker of the two, being fairly disjointed and unfocused. Tomiyama writes about how he met such Toho heavies as Ishiro Honda, Tomoyuki Tanaka, and Akira Ifukube, but doesn't include anything enlightening about any of them. What he writes about Honda on page 148 is especially odd: "I first met Ishiro Honda, director of most of Eiji Tsuburaya's monster films, while working on the publicity for Akira Kurosawa's film Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior, 1980), on which Mr. Honda served as an uncredited assistant and consultant. After that I met him numerous times at Toho during the making of the Godzilla films of the 1970s." It is hard to know what Tomiyama intended here at all, especially since Honda only directed one of the '70s Godzilla films and, according to the biographical matter at the end of the essay (which isn't very reliable, noting that Tomiyama produced eleven G-films since 1999), Tomiyama didn't start working at Toho until 1975—the year the last Godzilla film in the original series was released in Japan. (It should be noted, however, that Tomiyama almost certainly wouldn't have written the mini-biography material.) Tomiyama writes considerably more about Eiji Tsuburaya and the legend of Godzilla, but since he never actually met the special effects maestro, it is frustrating that Tomiyama never references where he got his information about the Old Man. Still, despite these and other problems, the essay includes a few fascinating insights, such as a description of how Tsuburaya filmed scenes of fighter jets upside down so as to mask the wires—yet even here it remains difficult to know how far to trust the text because of the other errors.

Akira Tsuburaya's essay, Working at the Family Store, is more successful, adopting a simple, straightforward description of some of his experiences working at Tsuburaya Studios, including some delightful anecdotes (such as how he had to supply director Nakagawa with cigarettes whenever Nakagawa struck a certain pose). Although the essay arguably suffers slightly from transition problems, a flubbed sentence, and an abrupt conclusion, it's really enjoyable to get a glimpse of what it was like to grow up under Eiji Tsuburaya's considerable shadow. Brad Warner, Norman England, and Mark Nagata fill out the guest work with essays about working as a foreigner at Tsuburaya Studios (thus engendering violent envy with many fans, I'm sure), the Old Man's legacy after his death, and collecting the vast number of monster toys based on the special effects guru's enduring creations, respectively. Nagata gets the most space, with a vanity shot of his enormous collection, and a series of full-color spreads showcasing some notable monster toys through the years.

Oh, and did I fail to mention how gorgeous this book is? Ragone's book easily takes the award for most visually appealing English language tome on Japanese fantasy films that I have ever seen, with its abundant b-&-w and color photographs on very nice, thick paper--often displayed on wonderful two-page spreads so fans can drool over every detail. Many, many of the shots are behind-the-scenes, showcasing the diminutive Tsuburaya instructing monsters on proper destruction technique, technicians working around buildings, or lighthearted group shots and poses with the monsters and celebrities together. Even more so than the design work in The Official Godzilla Compendium, Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters is hugely enjoyable just to leaf through the pages, writing notwithstanding, with such highlights as an early shot of the Ghidorah costume in which the legendary monster possesses rainbow-colored wings, a shot of a refurbished King Kong suit used in Ultra Q, and a very early photograph of Tsuburaya's mother, among numerous others. Visually, the book is a glorious success, with some of the most high-quality reproductions of these images available, but the book is not without its faults. So far as I'm concerned, the hopelessly ugly and blurry Thai poster for Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966) doesn't in any way rate a two-page spread (pg. 146, 147), and I would have preferred that Ragone provide the source of Kenyon Shannon's dinosaur illustrations (pg. 44) instead of just noting who drew them. There is also a poster for the original Godzilla (1954) (pg. 35) that is also advertising a line of milk caramels, which isn't clear unless you can read katakana, but Ragone doesn't mention the candy at all, leaving the centralized yellow box of sweets featured on the poster a mystery to most American readers. (As a side note, there is a building in the background that features a large silver globe with the name of the candy wrapped around it in red-colored Japanese kanji and katakana, and that design element would eventually be recreated on the cover of Steve Ryfle's Japan's Favorite Mon-Star--complete with the name of the candy, absolutely severed from its original context!)

While the prose of the book is almost as laudable as the visual elements, with an erudite, authoritative voice, there are niggling problems here and there which, alone, are hardly worth mentioning, but together become distracting. On page 70, Ragone writes "Another stop-motion sequence involved a giant octopus that attacks the natives on Farou Island. For this, a rubber prop and four live animals were employed." While it is true that some stop-motion animation was used for part of this sequence, the way that Ragone writes the passage, it sounds like Tsuburaya animated the rubber prop and the live octopuses, even though those sequences were live action. For the animation itself, presumably an articulated model was put to use—I don't believe the slimy rubber prop that King Kong wrestles with would have been suitable for animation work. More galling is his description of the Ultraman foe, Zaragas, on pages 127 and 128. Here, Ragone goes to great lengths to describe the original concept for the monster that was eventually abandoned, and then assures us that "The final creation, however, was much more interesting." But Ragone completely fails to detail what that final version was, instead going on to say, "It was this level of team creativity and individual ingenuity that has given Ultraman and his monster foes their undeniable and timeless magnetism." This section provides a "before" without the required "after," and completely and utterly fails to illustrate the Tsuburaya Production team's doubtlessly impressive ingenuity. A similarly vague example can be found on page 153, wherein Ragone is describing an early concept for a show called Ultra Eye that would eventually evolve into the popular Ultra Seven. Here, Ragone notes that there was to be a kind canine beast in the program, to be modeled after Hachiko, the Japanese Akita dog which in real life was famed for his legendary loyalty to his master. However, Ragone doesn't explain who Hachiko was, not even so briefly as I have done here, so people less familiar with Japanese popular culture will probably be scratching their heads.

It might be worth noting, very briefly, that Ragone also arguably exaggerates Tsuburaya's accomplishments a little, claiming that the original Godzilla film "established Toho as the world's premier visual effects facility" (pg. 44), that the American version was "the greatest of the 'monster-on-the-loose' spectacles of the period" (pg. 46), and that Ultra Q influenced the success of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits in Japan (pg. 133). I believe it's difficult to argue that Toho's special-effects work could have been considered the best in the world in 1954, especially when taking into account The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms from 1953 and the phenomenal effects in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), which was released in America the same year as Godzilla's Japanese debut. To justify the assertion that the Americanized Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) is the best giant monster flick of the period is easier, but one still must take into account the aforementioned Beast film, Toho's own Rodan (1956) (which I prefer to the Americanized Godzilla), as well as the excellent Them!--although it's possible Ragone doesn't consider Them! in the same precise genre. Nevertheless, for me, it is difficult to accept a sweeping, unequivocal statement such as that one without some further qualification or explanation, despite my love of the Big G. Ultra Q, meanwhile, definitely influenced the success of The Outer Limits in Japan, but, if Ragone's information is correct, The Twilight Zone had already finished airing in Japan by the time Ultra Q was released, so it's hard to see how Tsuburaya's show influenced the Rod Serling classic's reception in the land of Nippon. Obviously Ragone's book comes from a slanted perspective due to his great love of the Old Man's work and Japanese cinema in general, so it's hardly surprising to find statements like these--indeed, it would be hard to imagine a manuscript written with this much dedication and affection without such opinions. In a sense, it feels like a very minor backlash against the mocking, dismissive tone so often found in many English-language books when discussing Japanese fantasy films. To Ragone's credit, he is much more even-handed than the stop-motion worshipping position taken by Robert Marrero in Giant Monster Movies, or even Donald F. Glut's much-better The Dinosaur Scrapbook, who actually separates his three chapters on dinosaur movies into those with stop-motion, those without (labeled "The Dinosaur Impersonators"), and the Japanese.

I also feel compelled to comment on one other passage before I wrap up this review of Ragone's fantastic book, mostly because I took note of a similar passage in Japan's Favorite Mon-Star, and I think Ragone's text bears some clarification as well. Ragone writes that the American version of Godzilla Raids Again contains footage from wartime propaganda films, including "a clip of a stage performance in which one can see a swastika (a traditional religious symbol in Japan) on a flag, poorly obscured by a censor's dot" (pg. 47). It is true that the Buddhist manji, which Ragone is referring to here, was derived from the swastika, a symbol that has existed for thousands of years and had nothing to do with the Nazis until they adopted it for their purposes, but I remain skeptical that this clip came from a propaganda film, even with Ragone's persuasive evidence. What I would prefer is a citation giving what films the clips came from, which would be much more useful than generically attributing them to nebulous propaganda productions.

Despite such slight reservations, rarely have I been as enthusiastic about a Japanese fantasy film book as I am about Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters. Ragone's book coalesces into an explosive tour-de-force of vivid prose, beautiful visual design, profuse and colossal photography, far-reaching and meticulous research, and overall quality. One could nitpick for days about various minor quibbles, but it hardly dents the triumph that Ragone and his associates have accomplished with this fine piece of non-fiction reportage. Finally, the master Eiji Tsuburaya receives his due in English, and English-speaking Japanese film fans everywhere receive a joyous gift and a rare treat. If only the book had retained its original length; according to one of Ragone's talks at G-Fest XV, the manuscript was originally much longer before the publishers insisted it be trimmed down to approximately 50,000 words. Still, I highly recommend this book to all lovers of Japanese fantasy film. Ragone has proved to be a master of monster books.