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Preserving a classic Japanese art form: tokusatsu magic

by Roland Kelts

Our monster is scaly, spiky, reptilian — a cross between a dinosaur and an irradiated insect that shrieks like an angry bird. Our hero is lean, faintly muscular in a rubbery skintight suit with inscrutable praying-mantis eyes. They face one another, stomping left to right like sumo wrestlers, posing karate-style. The humans below clasp their hands in hope, their city fragile as cardboard.

When the battle begins, the urban landscape — a meticulously detailed scaled-down model — is in flames, its buildings easily smashed and tossed through the air. A few lasers and fireballs fly, but in short order monster and hero grapple, engaging in hand-to-hand combat, tumbling into one another, grabbing body parts and twisting, turning, punching. It’s mano-a-mano — and it’s thrilling.

Before anime and manga became Japan’s calling cards overseas, Japanese monster movies and TV shows were the face of its popular culture. I was a 6-year-old living with my Japanese grandparents in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, when I got hooked on the “Ultraman” series. I usually watched it with my grandfather. They didn’t have an air conditioner at the time, so we both sat in our underwear on the tatami. After the monster and Ultraman grappled, we did, too.

Only later would I realize that the human physicality of the fights and the easily crushable model cities were essential to the appeal of the show, engaging my imagination actively in the fantasy. Tokusatsu, a Japanese term usually translated as “special effects” moviemaking, denotes the unique craft behind the Japanese monster movie and TV phenomenon. Other nations produced sci-fi epics and monster movies, of course, but no one did so with the style, élan and sometimes comic absurdity of Japan.

The original “Godzilla” movie, featuring special effects by Eiji Tsubaraya, is largely credited with establishing the tokusatsu look and style in 1954, distinguishing it from American science-fiction movies, which were dominant at the time. Now, nearly 60 years later, the tokusatsu tradition is dying.

“The technique of tokusatsu is about to become extinct,” says Hideki Anno, one of Japan’s most revered and accomplished anime directors and the creator of the “Evangelion” franchise. “I beg you to help us save it. It is the technique that helped create anime.”

Anno and his colleague, director Tomoo Haraguchi, released an urgent report late last month in connection with the government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs. Tokusatsu is not just special effects, they argue, it’s a cultural treasure.

As most fans now know, what is called “anime” outside of Japan is not just animation, and Japanese pop culture itself is not simply a mirror of Western entertainment. The former is a hybrid creation shaped by the sensibilities of a centuries-old nation. Enriched and emboldened by Western influences, yes, but still uniquely Japanese.

“Disney created the template for American animation,” says Ryusuke Hikawa, a critic and scholar of anime, manga and tokusatsu. “In the same way, (special-effects studio) Tsubaraya created the template for the Japanese movie business. It was their use of cheap but craftsman-like approaches to movie-making that made tokusatsu unique.”

The motivation behind Anno’s plea is obvious. A culture of creativity in Japan is being threatened by advances in digital production (specifically, CGI, which costs less in the long run and requires less labor, skill and craftsmanship), domestic diffidence (most Japanese have little appreciation of the global appeal of their homespun creativity) — and a declining birthrate. Anno and Haraguchi had a meeting last year during which they realized neither of them had kids, and no one is teaching, learning or inheriting the craft.

“A lot of the creative work on set design was outsourced to small mom-and-pop shops,” says manga translator and author Daniel Kanemitsu. “Those shop owners are dying now — they’re very old. And no one knows how to do what they did.”

Last year, three tokusatsu exhibitions were hosted around Tokyo, meant to inspire an appreciation of the aesthetic and craftsmanship behind Japanese monster and sci-fi films and shows. The centerpiece, director Anno’s “Tokusatsu — Special Effects Museum,” is now touring the country, and is currently at The Museum of Art, Ehime, in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture until June 23. On Nov. 8, it will open at Niigata Prefectural Musuem of Modern Art in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture.

The response to last summer’s Tokyo shows was overwhelming (I couldn’t get into one of them because of the crowds), but the inspiration behind them is dire.

“Just as Japan gave away its most valuable IP (intellectual property) in the form of ukiyo-e, anime and manga,” says Kanimitsu, “without appreciating their value at home, it is now killing tokusatsu without teaching a new generation the value of its own art.”

Hikawa believes that the tokusatsu industry has been hindered by two major movements in film — the international success of “Star Wars,” a sci-fi B movie that became an international sensation and created a new template for audience expectations, and the advent of CGI techniques, which supplanted monozukuri (handmade craftsmanship), with digital wizardy.

“But despite the success of CGI,” he tells me, “we’ve learned that children prefer the physicality of tokusatsu to digital imagery, especially when it comes to toys. CGI series are cheap to make and get lots of viewers, but they don’t sell toys. I think kids still want to buy toys that they can touch and feel.”

I asked my friend Matt Alt, author of several books on the relationship between Japanese pop and traditional culture, to define the essence of tokusatsu and explain why it should be saved in the 21st century.

“Japanese creators are more comfortable with abstraction,” he says. “Tokusatsu take a huge page from Japanese traditional arts like kabuki. Nobody would stand up and say in a kabuki performance, ‘This isn’t real.’ The entire (tokusatsu) concept of putting a guy in a suit has direct roots in kabuki theater, where giant monsters were actors in costumes.

“The situations in anime and tokusatsu couldn’t exist in real life. Just like woodblock prints utilize a 2-D portrayal of perspective that differs from the more ‘realistic’ forced perspective of Western art, yet are still considered masterpieces of illustration. It’s not about trying to compete with the realistic special effects in the West. It’s about feeling.”

To generations of artists and fans, losing that feeling and the creativity behind it to DVD box sets and YouTube clips would be a monstrosity.

For more information on Hideaki Anno’s “Tokusatsu — Special Effects Museum” visit www.ntv.co.jp/tokusatsu. Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a Visiting Scholar at Keio University.

  • Starviking

    Star Wars ‘B-grade’? With a budget of millions and actors like Alec Guinness? I don’t think so!