Thursday, July 4, 2024

Actor Makoto Akatsuka, Who Appeared in the Ultraman and Kamen Rider Series, Passes Away at Age 73

Makoto Akatsuka in November 2022. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Film and television actor Makoto Akatsuka passed away on July 4 at a hospital in Ibaraki Prefecture of esophageal cancer. He was 73.

Mr. Akatsuka, who was born on March 19, 1951, began his professional film career in 1967 with Toho, playing youthful character in a variety of productions. He plays Sangoro in the film Double Suicide (1969), Mamoru Watanabe in Wet Sand in August (1971), Chuji Saito in Yoji Yamada's The Village (1975), the grandson in the Tora-san film Tora's Pure Love (1976), a chimpira in The Yellow Handkerchief (1977), Otomatsu Kawase in Nomugi Pass (1979), Makoto in Tora-san Goes North (1987), a policeman in Tora-san Makes Excuses (1992), and Yazaki in the Oscar-nominated The Twilight Samurai (2002).

On television, he appears uncredited in episode 12 of Ultraman Ace (1972-73), episode 11 of Jekyll and Hyde (1973) as a toy factory worker, Fight! Dragon (1974) as Kojiro Musashi, the all-star TV movie Tokyo Earthquake Magnitude 8.1 (1980) as Hiroshi Sakaki, episode 28 of Kamen Rider Black (1987-88) as Tsunekichi Koyama, and Kamen Rider Black RX (1988-89) as the recurring character Shunkichi Sahara.

I met Mr. Akatsuka only once in November 2022. It was after a stage performance in Daikanyama, Tokyo. I approached him after the show to introduce myself and mentioned my interest in tokusatsu productions, specifically mentioning Ultraman Ace. He was very kind, and I enjoyed meeting him.

His acting resume was impressive enough that I did consider reaching out to him for an interview, but, given his recent health issues, it probably wasn't very likely, anyway. I'm sure he had many fascinating stories to tell.

Rest in peace, Mr. Akatsuka.

Friday, June 28, 2024

SAYONARA TILL WE MEET AGAIN! A Star Sister Comments on Her History with Godzilla!

Photo © Yvonne Keeley Paay.

One of the most unusual (and unexpected) aspects of The Return of Godzilla (a.k.a. the Japanese version of Godzilla 1985) is its inclusion of the pop song "Godzilla: Love Theme" during the film's closing credits. The song can be heard here:

The love theme was performed by The Star Sisters, a Netherlands-based trio of pop singers who began to achieve international fame in the early 1980s. 

A few years ago, I reached out to one of The Star Sisters, Yvonne Keeley Paay, regarding a possible interview about her involvement with "Godzilla: Love Theme" and Toho in general. On May 16, 2020, I received this reply from Ms. Paay (which has been edited for clarity and is quoted with permission):

There is not a lot to tell. We were asked to sing the track. The tape was sent to Holland. We had the same producer, Jaap Eggermont, who had done our album. We sang it, and it was sent back to Japan. I think it did something in the chart, but I'm not sure. We were invited to come over, but our schedule was so full at the time that we didn't have the time to go to Tokyo for 2 days! I'm glad it is available on YouTube. It's a rare recording.

Years went by, and I decided to reach out again to see if we could do a full-length interview on the topic. Ms. Paay responded on June 28 and reiterated that there just isn't much to say about the process but did add this bit of information (which is also quoted with permission):

It was [number] 1 on the chart I think for one week in Japan, and we didn't have the time to go there.

And there you have it. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Hong Kong Voice Actor Ted Thomas on 'Hawaii Five-O'

Ted Thomas on Hawaii Five-O.

While most of us Asian film fans know Ted Thomas as the voice of Bruce Lee and Godzilla, more people have actually seen the legendary Hong Kong voice actor on Hawaii Five-O season 9 episode 1 ("Nine Dragons") as a film lab employee visited by Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) and Danny Williams (James MacArthur). 

Ted Thomas (center) with series star Jack Lord (right).

The feature-length season premiere, which aired on September 30, 1976, largely takes place in Hong Kong where Det. McGarrett does battle with his archnemesis Wo Fat. 

Ted Thomas' appearance on the show lasts just over a minute, and he's only in one scene. But it was a lot of fun discovering his cameo by accident. It's amazing who turns up when you watch old TV shows!

UPDATE (6/19): Voice actor Peter Boczar adds this interesting tidbit:
It also appears to be shot in one of the dubbing studios we used.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Simon Pegg, Cultural Appropriation, and Godzilla

"Thanks, Hollywood!" sez the Hotel Gracery's Godzilla head in April 2015. Photo by Brett Homenick.

If you're reading this, then you're more than likely aware of the recent brouhaha surrounding Simon Pegg and his recent comments regarding Godzilla Minus One (2023), the American-produced MonsterVerse movies, and cultural appropriation. Of course, this isn't a political blog, and it's going to stay that way, but I can't address this topic without reflecting a bit on that particular social issue. However, the thrust of this blog post is a response to certain folks who seemingly know nothing about Japan or Godzilla yet feel compelled to speak on their behalf.

Before we begin, I just have to ask: Should we consider that Toho itself has made King Kong, Frankenstein, and Hammer-inspired vampire movies? Would these be examples of cultural appropriation? If not, why not? Should writer-director Kazuki Omori get publicly chided for introducing elements borrowed from Hollywood blockbusters into the Godzilla series? More to the point, how about that recent Godzilla flick that ripped off Steven Spielberg movies so shamelessly that the director of said flick thought that Spielberg would get angry with him over it? Where's the outrage? Why hasn't anyone called in the Twitter Mob yet?

I lived in Japan for 13 years and in Tokyo proper for 10. During that time, I talked to a lot of Japanese people -- both in and out of the film industry -- and became quite familiar with their way of thinking. I also personally saw the dramatic change that the Godzilla franchise underwent in Japan as it happened in real time in the mid-2010s. But let's circle back to the beginning.

When I first moved to Japan in 2011, Godzilla was nowhere to be found. Unless you knew what collectible shops happened to carry Godzilla items, or you knew which promoters or organizations hosted tokusatsu-themed events for die-hard fans, you were about as likely to find something Godzilla-related in Japan as you are to walk down Hollywood Boulevard today and find a whole bunch of Night Gallery memorabilia. 

But one incident in particular changed all that for good -- the release of Legendary Pictures' Godzilla in 2014. Say what you will about that film -- and I have very little positive to say about it -- but it put Godzilla back on the map as an international property that could draw hundreds of millions of dollars at the worldwide box office and even earn a bit of critical praise along the way. (It also had the added benefit of giving a hungry Bryan Cranston enough scenery to chew to satiate his appetite until his Oscar-nominated performance in Trumbo the following year.)

In the wake of the film's release, Godzilla suddenly became a priority for Toho again -- a new, massive Godzilla mural was painted on the side of a studio wall, the Godzilla head was erected in the terrace of Shinjuku's recently-opened Hotel Gracery, and more Godzilla-related events and exhibitions started to pop up all over the place. Shin Godzilla (2016), a big-budget, homegrown Godzilla outing, was also released. The Godzilla Store opened its doors shortly thereafter. None of this existed, or was even thought possible, before 2014.

The ongoing success of the international franchise ensured that Takashi Yamazaki could make his VFX-laden Godzilla the Ride short film and -- yes, you guessed it -- Godzilla Minus One. If the MonsterVerse films were examples of cultural appropriation, Toho certainly wasn't seeing any downside.

If it isn't clear yet, I should point out that Godzilla as a character and franchise had zero cultural relevance in Japan by the time I'd arrived in the country. (Of course, I'd been hearing the same from others who'd traveled or lived in Japan since at least the early 2000s, but for our purposes I'll stick to what I saw firsthand.) 

TV-oriented tokusatsu franchises like Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, and Ultraman were all the rage with children, and Godzilla simply didn't exist for them. Adults too paid little attention to the King of the Monsters, with only the hardcore otaku types turning out for events or buying any merchandise. Is it even possible to "appropriate" that which is culturally irrelevant?

OK, now I have to ask a fairly obvious question to anyone who is complaining about the alleged cultural appropriation here: Have you talked to a Japanese person? 

Chances are you haven't, but I have, and you might be surprised how they feel. To illustrate this point, let's switch from Godzilla to Japan's other cinematic heavyweight -- Akira Kurosawa. When I was teaching in Japan, one of my students was named Takashi (though he didn't carry a plastic toy with him everywhere he went). He was a businessman fluent in English who also often worked with Japan's national government on a variety of projects. I enjoyed speaking with him and getting his perspective on a myriad of topics. 

In 2019, we were talking about movies, and I decided to show him what the BBC had recently named as the best foreign-language film of all time, thinking he would get a kick out of it or perhaps even feel a bit of pride. When he saw Seven Samurai (1954) listed in the top spot, his reaction was (as close as I can come to an exact quote all these years later), "What?! But they're not even elite samurai!"

Despite what you may think, that's not surprising for a culture in which even Toshiro Mifune, often hailed as Japan's greatest actor (by those outside Japan), is largely forgotten (while Mifune's contemporaries Ken Takakura and Kiyoshi Atsumi still enjoy a modicum of cultural relevance). Maybe Hollywood ought to step in and make a Mifune biopic in order to bring him back to worldwide prominence, but, after reading all this nonsense about the MonsterVerse, I think we know how that would go down.

Western interpretations of Japanese cinema can be a lot of fun to read, and they can add new perspectives to movies that the filmmakers likely never even considered. But it's probably fair to say that Godzilla is still more culturally relevant in America even today than it is in Japan (which was certainly true prior to 2015). If you're relying on Western interpretations by Americans who only know Japan through the movies to explain how the Japanese relate to anything, you're missing some much-needed context.

A day or so before Shin Godzilla came out, I happened to walk past a group of businessmen at a restaurant who were talking (and laughing!) about the film's upcoming release. After it came out, an adolescent student of mine, who enjoyed the film, told me he liked seeing the familiar Tokyo locations in the context of a monster movie. Takashi, whom I mentioned above, also liked Shin but mostly as a criticism of the bureaucratic nature of the national government, which was a topic in which he was particularly interested. These are just a few anecdotes, but you'll note the lack of World War II symbolism. Honestly, I never encountered a single Japanese person who related to Godzilla as anything other than a movie monster. (But that's Western over-analysis of Godzilla '54 for you.)

Overall, I think it's great for people to be influenced by other cultures. Japan has loved Hollywood movies for decades, so good luck trying to get Japanese filmmakers not to be inspired by American movies. I have no idea where the notion that cultures must remain completely separate from each other came from, but let's help it find its way to the nearest circular file where it belongs.

Just to be clear, I'm not "calling out" anyone in particular. While Pegg's MonsterVerse comments were the driving force that motivated me to write this post, it can apply just as easily to anyone who buys up every Criterion release of a Japanese movie and therefore thinks he/she is an expert on all things Japanese. Sometimes it helps to know the things you don't know.

Friday, June 14, 2024

Director Alex Cox Announces His Last Film

Photo © Alex Cox.

Film director Alex Cox, the brains behind the '80s classics Repo Man (1984), Sid and Nancy (1986), and Walker (1987), has launched a crowdfunding effort in order to finance what the director has described as his "last hurrah."

The movie in question will be an adaptation of Dead Souls. What is Dead Souls, you ask? Here's Alex Cox himself to fill you in:

My "last movie" is a Western version of Nicolai Gogol's "Dead Souls". This is a great book, full of irony, mystery and meaning. I plan to shoot in two locations – Almería, Spain, and Tucson, Arizona. 

More details are contained on the project's Kickstarter page, so, if you're intrigued by the premise and/or are interested in being a part of film history, check it out and send some support his way.  

Readers of this blog ought to know that Alex Cox is a genuine fan of Japanese cinema and has even made a documentary about Akira Kurosawa. A few years ago, I interviewed Mr. Cox about that documentary (as well as 2017's Tombstone Rashomon, his Kurosawa-inspired Western). 

I look forward to seeing Dead Souls once it's finished. If you have a few bucks to spare, please consider making a pledge to Alex Cox's swan song.

Actress Yoshiko Kuga, Wife of Akihiko Hirata, Passes Away at 93

Yoshiko Kuga, wife of Toho actor Akihiko Hirata, passed away due to aspiration pneumonia on June 9 at the age of 93. She herself would go on to appear in the Godzilla series after her husband passed away, playing the chief cabinet secretary in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989).

On November 4, 1979, my friend Keiko was fortunate enough to meet both Akihiko Hirata and Yoshiko Kuga at a signing event at a shopping mall. Ms. Kuga's signature is on the left, and Mr. Hirata's is on the right. Suffice it to say, it's an incredible keepsake.

RIP, Ms. Kuga.

Monday, June 3, 2024

Monsterpalooza 2024

With Megumi Odaka.

On Sunday, June 2, I attended the last day of the L.A.-area convention Monsterpalooza. The main draw for me was to visit Heisei Godzilla series star Megumi Odaka (who played Miki Saegusa in six consecutive films), but I was curious to see what other surprises I might be able to find.

My friend Jacob flew in from Kansas for the event, too, so we roomed together not far from the convention center. We walked around a bit and even did a bit of shopping (we found a dealer who was selling back issues of Filmfax magazine for $2, as well as DVDs for $5 and Blu-rays for $10) before heading over to Megumi Odaka's table.

While Jacob and I were hanging out near her table, Odaka-san's husband Akihiro-san came out from behind the table to greet me and brought me over to see Odaka-san. After that, Odaka-san spoke about the things she'd been doing in L.A. (such as seeing a Dodgers game) and talking about her interactions with the fans. She said she could pick up on some of the English words they would use and then would do her best to respond in English.  

Michael Myers politely waits in line to use the ATM. Photo by Brett Homenick.

I picked out a photo from Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) for her to sign, about which she pointed out that she was 17 years old at the time. We then posed for the above pics.

Discussing Blu-rizzles with WetMovie1.

While Jacob and I were waiting in line at the ATM (where we spied Michael Myers just ahead of us), I noticed YouTuber WetMovie1 hanging out just outside the convention center.

I actually started watching his videos when I was living in Japan circa 2013, and, while I haven't been following his channel in the last couple of years, I certainly had fun watching him "hoard up" (his words, not mine) on DVDs and Blu-rizzles (his word, not mine, though I have since used it more than once).

We had a quick chat during which I told him about watching his videos in Japan. After returning home, I've watched a few of his more recent videos, and they're a lot of fun, too!

Jacob, Scott, and yours truly.

By happenstance, I ran into a fellow Godzilla fan named Scott, whom I used to see on the convention circuit prior to moving to Japan. Scott, Jacob, and I spent quite a bit of time catching up on things and swapping stories. As it's been said before, hanging out is what it's all about.

Yours truly with a lovely orchid.

While we were chatting, I noticed Akihiro-san passing by, so I greeted him as he was making his way to the next room. Naturally, Odaka-san followed closely behind him, and she greeted me, too.

She was carrying a potted orchid, said it was a present, and gave it to me. Suffice it to say, I was quite flattered, and I ended up carrying the orchid with me for the rest of the convention. (I still have it, by the way.)

"Isn't it rich? Are we a pair?"

Later on, Jacob and I returned to Odaka-san's table for another round of autographs. This time, I purchased a card set and had her sign the photo of her on the Princess from the Moon (1987) set in costume as Akeno. It's a cool keepsake.

With Donal Logue (center).

The only other guest we met was totally unexpected. Jacob wanted to meet Donal Logue due to his work on the Gotham (2014-19) TV series. I must confess that I didn't recognize his name, so Jacob pulled up his filmography on his phone. 

When I realized that he played Ken Narlow in Zodiac (2007), I immediately wanted to meet him, too. (Zodiac is one of my favorite movies, and Ken Narlow is one of the many memorable characters in the film.)

We were extremely lucky that Donal Logue turned out to be a cool, down-to-earth guy who was happy to talk shop with us. He shared a great story about the filming of the scene in Riverside in which Mark Ruffalo confronts Robert Downey Jr. and the insane number of takes director David Fincher insisted on doing.

It wasn't until after we left his table that I remembered his character's advice to Jake Gyllenhaal ("Get creative") was something I adopted as a mantra when I lived in Japan and needed to problem-solve in order to achieve my goals. How cool is that? 

I had way more fun at Monsterpalooza than I expected. It was great to see some old friends and meet some great new people. Let's do it again!