Tokusatsu - Special Effects Museum

Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo

published in Madblogs, Madman Entertainment, Melbourne, February 2013

Curator Anno Hideaki’s “Tokusatsu - Special Effects Museum Craftsmanship of Showa and Heisei Eras Seen Through Miniatures” @ Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, July 7th – October 8th, 2012. This museum exhibition has a mouthful of a title. But that’s because it’s a veritable feast, impossible to digest in the one visit, let alone many. To translate the title: it’s an exhibition of all sorts of props, artefacts and pre-production sketches and designs of the mecha and costumes from over 50 years of tokusatsu Japanese movies.

Tokusatsu is often translated as ‘special effects’. But what gets lost in that translation is how utterly different the Japanese idea of ‘special effects’ in cinema is from the more familiar American/English-speaking cinema. How might I simply and crucially describe this difference? ‘Special effects’ in US cinema is based on an excitingly convincing depiction of some phantasmagorical event, situation or being on the movie screen. Think of Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation in the original King Kong or Ray Harryhausen’s advances in the craft with Jason And The Argonauts. Also think of the amazing production design of sci-fi spectacles like Forbidden Planet or This Island Earth. And while you’re at it, don’t forget the Jack P. Pierce legacy of make-up in the Universal cycle of monster movies from Frankenstein to The Wolf Man or Budd Westmore’s creations for films like The Creature From The Black Lagoon. From the 30s through to the end of the 50s, there are heaps of amazing Hollywood productions which exude that kind of theatrical, plastic charm. It might look dated now, but in its day, it looked amazingly new and uncharted.

Japanese movie equivalents – notably, the kaiju eiga or monster movies unleashed by Godzilla and his numerous friends and foes – have usually been viewed by the west as cheap, tacky, Z-Grade ‘man-in-rubber-suit’ movies. English-speaking audiences might still love Godzilla and his brethren, but often in a ‘it’s-so-bad-it’s-good’ way, as if there’s something lacking, failing or even laughable at their attempts to be convincing. But tokusatsu is not about being convincing at all: it’s about deliberately presenting something toy-like or model-like within an obviously artificial diorama, in order to celebrate the artistry and craft of making these fake worlds come to life. In Japan, it’s so obvious that a movie is completely fake, that the phenomenon of tokusatsu developed more like a form of cinematic theatre, where identifying and appreciating the props, models and costumes were the main thrill in watching the movie.

I’m not making this up: read any interview with the original Japanese artisans from Ishiro Honda onwards. More so: listen carefully when Hideaki Anno extols the virtue of the art form of which he is most passionate. While his infamous creation Neon Genesis Evangelion redefined the visual language and audiovisual form of animated science fiction with a stunning approach to imagining how the mechanics of a future world could be depicted, his perceptual training in how to achieve that comes from the decades he immersed himself in the history of tokusatsu – those ‘man-in-rubber-suit’ movies. Now one might argue that it’s pure conjecture to draw a line between the artificial plasticity of Godzilla, Mothra, Gamera and Ultraman and the amazing power of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s mecha and suit designs and motion dynamics. But this exhibition at the Museum Of Contemporary Art in Tokyo (MOT, from July to October this year) confirms such intentions. Mounted and presented by Anno as a primary proposal to advocate the preservation of these artefacts for future generations, he has utilised the high-art setting of MOT to contextualise the artistry and distinctiveness of the amassed props, designs and costumes. Anno’s opening statement makes this all crystal clear:

“As children we grew up watching tokusatsu and anime programs. We were immediately riveted to the sci-fi images and worlds they portrayed. They put us in awe, and made us feel such suspense and excitement. (…) I think our hearts were deeply moved by the grown-ups’ earnest efforts working at the sets that dwelled deep behind the images. (…) The emotions and sensations from those cherished moments have lead us to become who we are today.”

The exhibition occupies two floors (this is a seriously large-scale exhibition typical of MOT’s presentations) and moves through its sections like a narrative. The first room is devoted to a breathtaking array of model spacecraft and vehicles from the cycle of Toho sci-fi movies from Mothra (1961) through to Tidal Wave (1973). Laid out on waist-high plinths, one could closely study the beauty of these fibreglass models and their accompanying draft designs. It’s a strange sensation – especially if you know the movies well (which clearly was the case with the 200,000-plus Japanese who visited the exhibition): when you look at these models, it’s like you’re suddenly transported into their world, into the fabrication of their settings and dioramas. Japanese tokusatsu and anime pundits always talk about this sensation of being transported into the world of their design and construction, and that feeling was potent throughout the exhibition.

The second room concentrated on the famous Tsuburaya cycle of Ultraman TV series from the mid 60s to the mid 70s. Admittedly cheaper in production value than the Toho and Daiei studio movies from the same time, the Tsuburaya television productions left an indelible mark on the TV generation of its time (check out Hotoshi Matsumoto’s Big Man Japan to see how warped things can get). The costumes and models are outrageous, yet still exude a palpable feel of craftsmanship and loving care for detail. The next section of the exhibition is split into two parts: one devoted to the 90s cycle of Toho reboots of the Godzilla cycle, the other to the original late 50 and early 60s cycle of films. Artefacts from each are on display – not only the central suits and props, but also lots of incidental components, like fake electricity poles, shop facades and street scenes. Some of those banal props really did take on the strange aura of works of art – exactly what Anno was intending to generate for the exhibitions’ visitors. The 50s era of props was couched within a reconstruction of the actual studio workshop of Toho where the original craft of tokusatsu was developed. That’s such a wonderfully self-reflexive thing about Japanese aesthetics: in this case, constructing a fake replica of the original workshop which created all the fake replicas of objects and buildings which appeared in those Toho films.

Then just as you’re thinking how great all this history is, and how fantastic its ‘old world charm’ is at exciting the imagination through its visual craftsmanship, you’re then ushered into a medium-sized theatrette to see the latest animated short from Studio Ghibli: The God Warrior Descends On Tokyo, directed by Anno with special effects by Higuchi Shinji (two key figures form the original Gainax company). I cannot describe how incredible this short is. I could have sworn that sections of it employed advanced generative CGI for some of its complex rendered dynamics – but when you leave the theatrette, you move into a room where there is a video playing which shows how each and every moment in the short is completely based on utilising tokusatsu craftsmanship: miniatures, models, props, suspended components, forced perspective, manipulated scale, camera lens tricks, etc. Following this, you move through each and every prop used in the film, so you can study in detail the artisty involved in its fabrication. It culminates in a huge room which has all the Shinjuku set re-assembled so you actually walk through it, surveying the gorgeously destryoed buildings around you as you tread like a giant through the diorama.

At this point, the thrust of the exhibition becomes clear: Anno and his comrades make a great argument for the legacy of the tokusatsu originators from the 50s and 60s, and that Anno and company are testament to how they are carrying on that tradition. Hopefully Studio Ghibli will be releasing the short in some form soon. It reboots the God Warrior advance imagineered in Hayao Miyazaki’s original Nausicaa animation, but here has them completely raze Shinjuku to the ground in a chilling orchestration of annihilation. The audience was completely hushed by this spectacle, especially considering the resonance it struck with post-3/11 feelings across Japan. In its own complex way, it served as a silent therapy which seems to connect to how Japanese culture has such strong bonds with devastation. The mantra always heard is how Japan must survive, reconstruct and continue living. Maybe that’s at the heart of those sci-fi images Anno was so entranced by. It certainly rings loud and clear in his work, and in the way in which he presented his take on the tokusatsu legacy.

Text © Philip Brophy 2015. Images © MOT