Japan's Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of "The Big G"
 Steve Ryfle, Jay Ghee
Language: English Release: 1998
Publisher: ECW Press Pages: 374
Genre: Non-fiction ISBN: 1550223488

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Nicholas Driscoll

Japan's Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of "The Big G" by Steve Ryfle, one of the most-respected American authorities on all things Godzilla, is easily the most comprehensive book on its subject matter that I have read, and is unsurprisingly one of the acknowledged media sources cited on Toho Kingdom's credits page. There's a good reason for this; Mon-Star is a carefully-researched, extremely detailed, clearly and competently written example of movie reportage, with a great big dose of authorial opinion thrown in to color the prose.

The scope of Mon-Star covers all the Godzilla films through the big-budget American remake in 1998, as well as fleshed-out essays on canceled Godzilla projects conceived on both sides of the Pacific; some of these essays were written by Jay Ghee, whose prose style compliments Ryfle's well. Ryfle also includes chapters on Godzilla as he appeared in Zone Fighter and the Hanna-Barbera cartoons; information about various Godzilla-inspired music, interviews and personnel files with important kaiju figures such as Akira Ifukube, Haruo Nakajima, Raymond Burr, Robert Dunham, and an eclectic collection of odd trivia, such as theater promotions, movie trailer quotes, and cut scenes. Explanations of the special effects processes that the Japanese utilize are nicely detailed without becoming bogged down in details, and Ryfle acquits himself equally well when describing American SFX. His commentary on the music of the movies is especially astute—an area in which I am acutely aware of my limitations. Another excellent section actually covers the much-maligned and overlooked actors and companies that provided the dubbing of the English versions for Godzilla's many movie adventures, and it is great to finally get a look at some of the faces and the hard work that went into crafting the sounds that became inseparable from the G-experience for many American fans. Furthermore, when it comes to such well-known nuggets of Godzilla lore as the origin of the monster's name, Ryfle doesn't just parrot the common explanations, but digs much deeper, dissecting the origins of the origin story itself. It is this level of detail that I especially appreciated, and one could go on and on lauding the breadth and depth of the work.

However, this is not to say that Mon-Star doesn't have its weaknesses—although, much like Godzilla himself, none of the flaws are completely fatal. One minor bother might be said to come from the work's very comprehensiveness—as a fan already familiar with all the movies, at times I grew tired of his descriptions of the battles that the Japanese giants took part in, and sometimes what he finds important to note in certain films is surprising; most striking to me was his derision of the puppet work used in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) while giving the hilariously awful puppets in King Kong. vs. Godzilla (1962) nary a word, although this is largely a matter of taste.

Also, a weakness more or less inherent in any unauthorized book, Mon-Star has relatively few photos and pictures (a majority of the movies have no accompanying pics), which would hardly be worth mentioning except for the book's size. Mon-Star is a large book (10.6 by 8 inches), and thus about the size one might put out on the coffee table. The format invites and rather implies illustrative content, and when it is absent (as it is from the great majority of pages), the design becomes bogged down with huge chunks of text. Ryfle tries to offset this problem with frequent sidebars and boxes, but only partially succeeds.

Some might take exception to Ryfle's strong opinions, which are a large part of the book, including his personal reviews of all the Godzilla films covered, but I welcome them because he is very informed and meticulous. Ryfle's favoritism towards the Japanese filmmakers over the Americans is fairly obvious throughout, but he does balance his views. When considering the extensive and often stupid editing and new material added to Godzilla films prior to their American release, Ryfle is understandably incensed, but nevertheless occasionally notes areas where the American edits improve on the original. Ryfle's animus peaks with TriStar's GODZILLA (1998), which he dissects and shreds at length, even going so far as to describe the Japanese release of the American film with a clever but tactless metaphor (pg. 346): "America dropped another bomb on Japan." While I would never argue that the American Godzilla film is good filmmaking, I find the ubiquitous vitriolic denunciations of the movie tiresome, especially considering the arguably equally awful directions Toho took with the series on multiple occasions. (It should be mentioned, then, that Ryfle doesn't spare the more infamous Godzilla films, either—Godzilla vs. Megalon and Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla both rate lower on his star scale, even if the character of his prose describing the American Godzilla film seems harsher.)  It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that whenever Ryfle brings up non-Godzilla-related American films, minor but noticeable factual errors are often in tow, much in contrast to his Godzilla reporting. A couple examples: Ryfle calls the original King Kong movie's sequel Son of King Kong (the title is actually The Son of Kong), and labels the dinosaur antagonist from The Valley of Gwangi a tyrannosaur when it was actually an allosaurus.

Oddly enough, despite Ryfle's clear love and understanding of Japanese cinema, he shows much less knowledge of Japanese religion and culture. When describing stock footage inserted into the American version of Godzilla Raids Again (1955) on page 73, Ryfle writes "there's yet more stock film of Japanese neon signs, geisha girls, and nightclub acts; some of this was probably culled from old war newsreels, as swastikas or some other sort of religious symbols appear to have been (rather sloppily) masked from the frame." Ryfle was apparently unaware of the Buddhist manji symbol that looks like an inverted swastika, but which is used throughout Japan to this day to indicate locations of Buddhist temples. Sensitive American censors might have edited the symbol out of any footage they found, but said stock film would hardly have to be wartime to include the symbols. Even stranger, Ryfle points out on page 196 that Godzilla. vs. Mechagodzilla's King Caesar "looks like komainu statues that guard Shinto shrines," which is both true and accurate, but overlooks the more obvious connection between King Caesar and the real source of his name and design: Okinawan shisa statues, which, along with the komainu statues, were derived from leonine statues from China.

Finally, Ryfle shows something of a chauvinistic streak, finding it necessary to describe Mie Hama's Playboy photo (taking special note of her "fanny") and bemoaning the very brief release of Night of the Seagull (1968) in America, presumably because then fewer folks could get a load of Hama's nude scenes therein. Ryfle also excitedly proclaims that popular Toho temptress Kumi Mizuno takes a bath onscreen in Gorath (1962), as if her most notable contribution to that film was her unclothed body.

These faults, however, are minor considering the overall quality and quantity of material in the book. As far as single-volume informational books covering all aspects of Godzilla movie trivia large and small, Japan's Favorite Mon-Star is top notch in America. Definitely recommended for serious Godzilla fans. If only Ryfle would issue an updated version with better cover art and information about the Millennium series.