Book: SF: The Japanese Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia


SF: The Japanese Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia

English Book Title

SF: The Japanese Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia


J. L. Carrozza (Contributors Patrick Galvan, Kevin Derendorf, and John LeMay)


Orochi Books





By: Nicholas Driscoll

Full disclosure right off the bat here—this book was written by a former staff member of Toho Kingdom (J. L. Carrozza), and a current staff member, Patrick Galvan, who I count as a friend, contributed an essay. Also two essays are included by Maser Patrol head and enthusiastic kaiju scholar Kevin Derendorf, who I also count as a friend. Carrozza contacted me asking me to review his book, and I was happy to do so, and bought my own copy, then read it over the last couple months. However, as always with my reviews, regardless of whether I know the people involved or not, I will strive to write as objectively as possible.

Recently, especially with the advent of Kindle books, there has been a real explosion of texts covering Japanese cinema—and to be honest I haven’t been able to keep up! From John LeMay’s wide selection of entertaining and informative titles, to well-received titles like Godzilla FAQ, to review collections like Titans of Toho, to the analyses of Peter H Brothers, to Kevin Derendorf’s Kaiju for Hipsters, to more academic collections like Japan’s Green Monsters, to the excellent biography of Ishiro Honda from Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, fans have a bewildering swath of texts to choose from. One of the more ambitious was the recent release of filmmaker J. L. Carrozza’s SF: The Japanese Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia—a book which, instead of focusing on a specific aspect of kaiju cinema (such as Godzilla movies, obscure movies, a particular filmmaker), attempts for a wider scope—somewhat similar in concept to Stuart Galbraith IV’s Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, but covering a longer slice of time, and lasering in on the sci-fi over the fantasy and horror. This is a hefty book for that, and the text has a lot to recommend it—but, as with many independently published books, it also has a number of familiar issues that negatively impact the reading experience. That being said, for fans especially, this book is well worth a purchase.

My review will first cover what the book contains, then give what I see as the strengths of the content, and then I will cover what I thought were the weaknesses. This might take a while, so let’s jump to it, kaiju kadets!  

Carrozza’s book, after an introduction covering general information about the genre, is roughly organized into eras—the Japanese eras which correspond to the contemporary reigning emperor. Thus, there is a Showa section (with its own introduction), a Heisei section (again with an introduction), and a Reiwa section (with no entries, curiously, and which sort of functions as a conclusion). Inside each section, Carrozza includes entries on individual films—selecting some for long-form reviews which include credit lists, detailed synopses, background details, analyses and criticism; and selecting others for short-form reviews, categorized as “further viewing,” which are much shorter and cover far less material. The long-form reviews tend to be in chronological order, with the short-form reviews tacked on to the ends of particular long-form reviews. The short-form reviews that are tacked on to each long-form review, then, have some kind of relation to the long-form one, though not necessarily a chronological relation. That relation can be a similar theme, or further work from the same director, etc. Carrozza also selects many actors, directors, illustrators, and other luminaries from sci-fi cinema and writes up mini-biographies for them, again spaced out roughly according to when they were most active. In addition, numerous essays are included on specific topics, delving more deeply into areas which the book might otherwise neglect (such as short films), or giving valuable background information so the reader can better appreciate and understand the era under discussion. These essays are often from guest writers. Let me just run through them here so you can get an idea of what to expect: “Early Color Films in Japan” (Patrick Galvan); “Toho’s Competition” (John LeMay); “SF on Home Video” (J. L. Carrozza); “Kaiju Invade Greater Asia” (J. L. Carrozza), “Unmade: The Films that Got Away” (J. L. Carrozza); “Creative Disasters: the Worst of the Worst” (J. L. Carrozza); “The English Dubbing Dossier” (J. L. Carrozza); “Short Subjects” (Kevin Derendorf); and “Anime and Tokusatsu Connections” (Kevin Derendorf). Finally, the book ends with a chronology covering select historical moments from the last 150 or so years, focusing on Japanese film, but including other world history moments as well.

From the above, I hope it’s obvious that Carrozza’s work here is impressive in its scope and ambition. There is a LOT of content here, and even with the flaws which I will cover later, I think most fans will find a lot to love in this book. Let’s cover some of those strengths now.

First, Carrozza gives a unique and valuable perspective in this book given his background as a filmmaker. He has an IMDb page detailing some of his work (such as the hour-long film Alison, loosely based on the Lewis Carrol novels), and some of his short film work (including a ten-minute filmcalled “Fungus”) can be watched on YouTube. Given that he has written and directed his own films, he has different insights and knowledge that informs his analysis. As I read the book, I got the sense that Carrozza could empathize with the creators of the films in a way—it’s kind of an intangible thing, as it is difficult for me to choose specific examples from the text, but nevertheless, the tone of the writing is noticeably from someone familiar with the actual creation of films, not just the consumption thereof. This aspect of Carrozza’s writing can be somewhat of a double-edged sword, though, as he has a tendency to use many technical terms related to filmmaking, and that can be a little confusing for the uninitiated.

In addition, some of the areas that Carrozza covers in the book are often overlooked in other books covering Japanese genre pictures. Some of the films he highlights are often completely excluded or lightly glossed over from discussions of Japanese sci-fi, such as The Face of Another (1966) or Tokyo Blackout (1987) or School in the Crosshairs (1981). I loved learning more about these often-neglected genre classics.

I also really enjoyed the coverage of the dubbing scene and the actors and companies behind their creation. Dubs are often maligned among the fandom, but I personally adore a good dub now and again, and it is fascinating to learn more about the individual actors and companies created to supply the need for English voices on films around the world. Carrozza includes an essay on the topic, the aforementioned “Dubbing Dossier,” but also slips in information on the dub actors in many of the reviews as well. The dub actors are often rather colorful people, and I couldn’t help but daydream about becoming a dub actor myself as I read about their sometimes surprising backstories.

While I am on the topic of the people behind the films, the mini-biographies of Japanese sci-fi luminaries are also a very welcome addition, as it is fascinating and sometimes even heartbreaking to learn more about the life stories concerning some of my favorite creators—such as an anecdote that Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii was once essentially jailed in a mountain lodge as punishment for skipping school as a kid. How harsh! Carrozza also includes anecdotes about Akira Takarada’s time in Manchuria during and after WWII, including how Takarada witnessed a Russian soldier raping a woman and how he himself got shot—though the way that Carrozza writes about these incidents, it sounds as if the rape and the shooting were connected. In reality, according to Takarada’s autobiography (which I am in the process of reading, by sheer coincidence), these were two separate incidents—he got shot when he was looking for his missing brother. Still, the mini-biographies do much to lend the creators of these films a sense of reality that fans can often miss when they just watch the films.

In addition to the biographies, the various articles scattered throughout the book were usually highlights for me, and the guest writers really add value to the book. As mentioned previously, Patrick Galvan provides an informative text about color films in Japan. Galvan’s writing style feels more academic than Carrozza’s, and some might find his section a bit dryer than other writers in the book, but he gives valuable context with a clear and erudite style. Prodigious author John LeMay contributes a fine article on the many SF creations from rival Japanese studios, such as the Daiei Invisible Man films and Gamera and many others. I have greatly enjoyed LeMay’s books and his enthusiastic writing style, but I have to disagree on his take on Along with Ghosts (1969), which was my favorite of the Yokai Monsters trilogy—he calls it the worst of the films! Kevin Derendorf provides two excellent essays--one on Japanese SF short films and one on connections between anime, tokusatsu TV, and movies. Derendorf is one of the most die-hard fans I have ever met, and his bubbling excitement and wide knowledge overflows on the page. The short films section I found especially interesting since I have recently had a chance to see many of the films he mentions on my trips to the Atami Kaiju Film Festival in 2019 and 2021. Of Carrozza’s essays, a favorite for me was “Kaiju Invade Greater Asia,” as I love the international kaiju scene.

Other areas of the book I enjoyed to a lesser extent include sections covering the military vehicles and equipment that appear in individual movies (though sometimes these sections can seem a bit long), and the extensive exploration of how the movies were edited for American release and for the Champion Festival releases. These sections, too, I sometimes felt were overly detailed, since they often involved lists of cut scenes with little comment or analysis as to why the cuts were done, but I can imagine these sections must have been very time-consuming to document, and may be very useful for further analysis of the films themselves in future.

Now I want to jump into the negatives in the text. Again, I am not writing this section to be a bully or a meanie, but I think it is important to give a balanced view, and I just want to be honest here. I come from the perspective of a passionate fan of the genre, but also as a writer (I have written novels, dozens and dozens of articles on TK, short stories, plays, essays, etc), and as a teacher (I have a creative writing degree, an English literature degree, a masters in applied linguistics, and several years’ experience teaching writing). Let’s get into this.

First, the title—SF: the Japanese Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia—is misleading. For example, there is no mention in the title that the book only covers live-action films. Carrozza is planning a follow-up covering the world of Japanese SF animated films, but still, simply including “live-action” in the title or as a sub-title would have been helpful. Next, the word “encyclopedia” tends to imply several aspects that are actually lacking from his text: a strictly informational tone, a comprehensive breadth, and organization by alphabet. Carrozza’s encyclopedia is none of those things. He includes his opinion and reviews the movies he is covering—even including an essay on which films he thinks are the worst. The book is not comprehensive and doesn’t try to be, and many Japanese science-fiction films are mentioned but not given entries. For example, the book does not have any reviews of the copious science fiction films based on tokusatsu television programs (Ultraman, Super Sentai, Masked Rider, etc). At first I thought Carrozza was also going to exclude live-action adaptations of manga and anime since he skips most of those as well (movies like AjinGachamanTerraFormarsThe Drifting Classroom, the live-action Patlabor films, the Parasyte films, Assassination Classroom, and many others). These exclusions are never really explained, and are even more confusing given that the book contains an article by Derendorf which reads like a call to action for fans to respect and value the interconnecting worlds of tokusatsu, anime, and film. Even outside of those movies, Carrozza mostly skims over the Showa Gamera movies, and excludes coverage of other areas—the Tokyo Shock movies, for example. The organization of the book can be somewhat confusing as well, since it is only loosely chronological where many will expect the book to be alphabetical. Given all of the above, I think the book would be better if it called itself a critical filmography ala Galbraith and Kalat, but perhaps I am nitpicking.

I think another way to address the above would be to include a bit more explanation of what the goals of the book are in the introduction. Carrozza includes a brief paragraph explaining some of his parameters, such as how he decided to include only live-action films, only theatrical films, and no television shows. From this, I wondered if he might mean that he was deliberately excluding movies based on tokusatsu films as well (even though they were theatrically released) because they are tied to the shows, but if so, that reason isn’t clearly expressed. Also, his book includes a review of Mikadroid (1991), which was straight-to-video, and reviews of Alita: Battle Angel (2020) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), which are not even Japanese films. I think, ultimately, if he wants to include these movies, he should at least explain why, and perhaps also include a section delineating his definition of what he includes in “science-fiction” just to set up audience expectations. Some might argue that any number of the films he includes might better fit into the “fantasy” category, after all, and given the copious crossover between fantasy and sci-fi, more attention to defining the limits of the book would go a long way to making the text feel more thoughtful and understandable.

Some readers will probably take umbrage with the choices Carrozza makes for which films to highlight with his long-form reviews over the short-form ones. This I think is a minor issue, but one that again might benefit with a bit of an explanation in the introduction as well. Is he choosing movies based on his own taste? On their impact upon the genre? Because of their critical reception? For example, I always favored Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)  over Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), and the former introduces Ghidorah and is the turning point for Godzilla’s heroic career, but Carrozza includes a full review of the latter instead. He includes a full long-form review of all three Shusuke Kaneko Gamera movies as well, and while I love those movies, I couldn’t help but wonder why. (GMK gets a mini-review, which I don’t mind, but some might find surprising—Carrozza tells me he will include a full review in an update on the text.) This issue may also extend to which creators he covers in the mini-biographies. While Carrozza includes a lot of obvious choices (Honda, Tsuburaya, Kaneko, Higuchi, etc), he also includes an occasional mini-biography on a person who only worked on one or two genre films (Toshio Masuda, Shue Matsubayashi, Kobo Abe, Kihachi Okamoto). As I was reading these biographies, I found myself thinking they were interesting, but I wasn’t sure why they were included—nor why the only biography of a woman was for Kumi Mizuno. I guess if you want to only include one woman of Japanese sci-fi films, it should be her, but there must be other actresses who deserved recognition, such as Megumi Odaka, or Mie Hama, or even Ayako Fujitani or Yuko Moriyama. I mean, shucks, why not Yukiko Takayama—the first female kaiju screenwriter for film?

Also, as per usual with MANY self-published books, Carrozza’s has a lot of writing issues. There are misspellings, misplaced punctuation, added capitalizations (such as words where he pressed the shift button too long so that two letters were capitalized instead of one), even at least one spacing error. A lot of these errors I noticed in the credits sections of the long-form reviews, which I always read over carefully for thoroughness—for some reason, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995) gets a HUGE and exhausting credits section, by the way. There were even occasional sentences that were so poorly written as to be nigh indecipherable, though very rare. Carrozza uses “it” to refer to Godzilla, which can also lead to confusion—such as in this sentence: “It returns to set Japan strait when it becomes so proud it disrupts the world’s balance.” The first “it” refers to Godzilla, but the next two both refer to Japan, yet the sentence is confusing upon the first read. There were a number of times when I would find paragraphs with no clear topic sentence—they just felt like “let’s cram everything into one paragraph” sections. (I criticized Peter H Brothers’ Ishiro Honda book for this same issue, and I believe I saw it in LeMay’s books sometimes as well.) Carrozza’s essays and articles also often don’t really have a proper concluding paragraph—I noticed this especially in his biographies, as they just suddenly end with no proper wrap-up. I felt like the book itself also left me hanging. There is a sort of concluding section about the Reiwa era, but strangely, that part doesn’t discuss any of the Japanese science fiction films released in the Reiwa era (such as The Promised Neverland). To me at least, the Reiwa section felt like a let down after what was overall a very impressive book.

There are a number of other niggling details and individual assertions that sometimes bugged me personally. Sometimes I found Carrozza’s text repetitive. In a number of entries, it seemed like he was obsessively pointing out all the films that Shinji Higuchi and Hideaki Anno were fans of for some reason (as if their praise was why he was including the reviews). Or Carrozza claims that Anno doesn’t care about the fans, and then a few paragraphs later writes about how Anno was in deep depression because of the reception of one of his Evangelion films. For me, the timeline in the back was confusing sometimes, as he listed animated sci-fi films that were never mentioned in the text there, or sometimes he didn’t include enough detail (I didn’t know who Hirobumi Ito was) and highlighted things like Trump’s election as a historical event of particular note (the heck?). Or certain words he favored maybe a little too much (palatable, problematic), or a tendency to use certain phrases like “this movie is everything that movie was not”—an assertion that, by itself, doesn’t mean very much. Shin Godzilla (2016) may be very different from, say, 2014’s Godzilla film, but just saying they are different isn’t very interesting or insightful.

Nevertheless, all of the above are small bothers. And really, at the end of the day, what Carrozza has accomplished with SF is very, very impressive. Some might criticize the book for an overreliance on English-language materials only, but for what he has put together, the amount of material, the numerous fascinating articles, the unique filmmaker’s perspective, the dedication to bringing lesser-known films to light, all these things made a big impression on me, and I have to offer the author a lot of respect for what he managed to create. The book needed a lot more love and care in the editorial room, but even as a rough-hewn gem, it’s a great book, and I understand the author is already working hard at adding many more reviews and features and cleaning up the prose for a big update in the near future. Either way, if you are interested in Japanese science-fiction cinema beyond just Godzilla, this is a great resource and well worth your time.