Good news for monster fans: Not one, not two, but three separate tokusatsu exhibitions are stomping their way through downtown Tokyo as you read these words.
While you may never have heard the word “tokusatsu,” you are likely familiar with what it is. A contraction of the Japanese words tokushu and satsuei, it means “special effects.” Although it can be used to refer to any effects-heavy production, in common usage it refers to the decidedly analog, handmade “rubber suit” effects seen in “Godzilla” movies, the “Ultraman” series, and “Power Rangers”-style shows.
Long pooh-poohed by Westerners used to higher budget fare, it’s easy to forget that Japanese tokusatsu once represented the cutting edge of special-effects technology worldwide. In fact, in the early 1970s director George Lucas reportedly visited Japan to brush up on the then-latest techniques before launching a franchise Western audiences still revere: “Star Wars.”
Computer graphics long ago supplanted the miniatures and rubber-suited actors once used to create effects for science-fiction and fantasy movies. But there’s a certain charm to the idea of tricking the eye using skillfully crafted props and camera tricks rather than computer techniques. With few chances to exercise their talents in the digital era, though, aging tokusatsu craftsmen are finding it hard to pass along their skills to the next generation. For all the monsters they’ve slayed over the years, could tokusatsu techniques be in danger of going extinct?
Not if the people behind these exhibitions have anything to say about it.
It’s the sound that first hits you, walking into the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo’s “Tokusatsu Hakubutsukan” (“Special Effects Museum”). A swirling, never-ending audio loop of lasers, monster shrieks and heroic shouts from the shows of yesteryear fills the air. Culled from the climactic scenes of ’60s and ’70s sci-fi productions, the soundscape lends a strangely intense atmosphere to the exhibition, as though a pitched battle between the Self-Defense Forces and some fearsome creature is unfolding just around the corner.
Which it is, in a matter of speaking. The biggest and boldest of the three exhibitions now showing in and around the capital, “Tokusatsu Hakubutsukan” features room upon room of carefully restored props and monster suits.
“Talented craftsmen made each and every one of these. It costs a lot of money and takes a long time to build things like this,” explains display coordinator Tomoo Haraguchi, a tokusatsu expert who restored the vast majority of the pieces on display in the show with his own hands. “That’s why tokusatsu has been replaced by CG (computer graphics). But the difference is, props actually exist. They have a physical presence that can be experienced. Data doesn’t. And it’s my hope that the people who come to the show will realize how much effort went into making these objects. To me, they’re more than movie props. They’re pieces of history. They’re art.”
The show’s centerpiece is a retro sci-fi short film produced especially for the exhibition and screened every 10 minutes in a small theater. Produced by Hideaki Anno of “Evangelion” fame, directed by special-effects master Shinji Higuchi and based upon a character from legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki’s feature “Nausicaa,” it comes with serious otaku (fanboy) credentials. The topic, of course, is a fearsome monster destroying a startlingly detailed model set of downtown Tokyo.
Featuring everything from scale-model skyscrapers to playground equipment, the nine-minute short unfolds as a homage to the climax of every kaiju eiga (giant monster movie) ever made in Japan. Unfortunately for the monolingual, it isn’t subtitled, but you’ll be able to follow the plot, such as it is, without too much trouble. That said, even being able to understand it in Japanese, I found myself wishing for a poorly synched English dub like those shows I grew up watching as a kid.
As well done as the short is, the highlight comes once the lights are back on. In an amusing twist, the entire set used in the film has been moved into the museum, and visitors are allowed to stroll amid the miniaturized cityscape. You’ll have to control your inner giant monster as no actual building-stomping is allowed, but it’s still a treat.
In comparison to Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo’s holistic approach to tokusatsu studies, The Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, laser-focuses on a single series in its “Ultraman Art!” exhibition.
For those not in the know, Ultraman is the star of a long-running series of television shows, the first of which debuted in 1967. When giant monsters threaten Japan, the heroic Shin Hayata uses the power of an alien Beta Capsule to grow to titanic proportions and fight them on their own terms. The sleek red-and-silver countenance of the titular hero is as much a part of the Japanese collective consciousness as Superman is in that of the average North American’s.
“Ultraman” is also notable for being the first show to spark a toy craze; decades before the similar “Pokemon” fad, Japanese kids begged their parents for figures of the heroes and monsters of “Ultraman.” The series has continued in fits and starts to this very day, more than 40 years later. Aired in the United States and other countries, it enjoys a popular reputation abroad as well.
The “Ultraman Art!” exhibition is a one-stop shop for information about how the series was made. It features original concept art, props (complete with scuffing and damage from hard days’ filming), and even monster-costume-fitting dioramas. Ever wondered how those suits were made? Chicken wire wrapped around an actor’s body created the foundation. You learn something new every day.
One of the highlights of the show comes at the very end, with a display featuring a close up of Ultraman flying through the clouds. The setup shows how a relatively simple arrangement of models, cotton batting and a cloud backdrop results in a captivating trompe l’oeil when seen through the camera lens.
Curious as to what makes Godzilla tick? The “Otomo Shoji no Daizukai Ten” (“Shoji Otomo Diagram Exhibition,” which is tucked away in the charming Yayoi Museum in the backstreets of Tokyo’s Nezu district, is your chance to find out.
You’ll be forgiven for not knowing his name, but Shoji Otomo singlehandedly changed how monster movies were viewed in Japan. Dubbed the kaiju hakase (monster professor), his attempts to quantify the inner workings of imaginary things made him an otaku pioneer.
Toiling as the editor of the kids’ manga weekly Shonen Magazine in the late ’60s, he hit on the idea of commissioning cutaway views that revealed the mysterious inner workings of giant monsters. Although not an artist himself, he conducted the research, prepared obsessive rough sketches and suggested the page layouts for the magazine’s freelance illustrators.
Otomo’s efforts to bring a certain degree of reality to the monster world earned him legions of fans in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Most notable among them was Crown Prince Naruhito, who famously used his very first allowance to procure Otomo’s “Kaiju Zukan” — “A Giant Monster Field Guide.” (It’s somewhat reassuring to know that a text like this sits on the bookshelves of the Imperial Household — you know, just in case.)
Unfortunately, Otomo passed away in his prime, collapsing from an unexpected prescription-drug reaction at the age of 36 in 1973. The legacy he left behind lives on, though, inspiring legions of young fans and industry professionals to take monsters more seriously. His detailed explanations of the inner workings of strange beasts, futuristic vehicles and fantastic secret bases formed a cornerstone of the otaku culture that would eventually take Japan by storm.
The Yayoi Museum collaborated with Otomo’s mother, Ai Shishimoto, who is still going strong at the age of 102, to prepare the exhibition. (In fact, one of the more touching aspects of the show is a small photo, off in a corner, of Otomo’s bedroom in her home, left all but untouched for close to 40 years.) The show features two floors jam-packed with original sketches, vintage books, photographs and expanded views of the finalized page layouts from the magazines. If there’s any downside, it’s that the materials are entirely in Japanese, but there’s plenty to appreciate visually.
“The era of handmade tokusatsu is essentially over,” Haraguchi says. “But that doesn’t mean it will never come back.” Whatever the case, these shows are a step toward preserving some of the building blocks of postwar Japan’s pop-culture aesthetic — and a lot of fun to boot. Or should that be claw?
“Tokusatsu Hakubutsukan” (“Special Effects Museum”) runs through Oct. 8 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo in Koto-ku (¥1,400 for adults, ¥900 for children; closed Mon., except holidays;  5245-4111). For more information, visit www.mot-art-museum.jp. “Ultraman Art!” runs through Sept. 2 at The Museum of Modern Art, Saitama (¥1,100 for adults, ¥880 for students; closed Mon., except holidays;  824-0111). For more information, visit www.momas.jp/3.htm. “Otomo Shoji no Daizukai Ten” (“Shoji Otomo Diagram Exhibition”) runs through Sept. 30 at the Yayoi Art Musem in Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo (¥900 for adults, ¥800 for children; closed Mon., except holidays;  5689-0462). For more information, visit www.yayoi-yumeji-museum.jp.