Sunday, May 22, 2011

Kamen Rider 40th anniversary festival in Inuyama

Monkey Park in Inuyama, Gifu, played host to a 40th anniversary salute to Toei's blockbuster superhero franchise, Kamen Rider, on May 22.

Although it's virtually ignored in the U.S., Kamen Rider's 40th anniversary is being widely observed in Japan. For instance, at McDonald's restaurants across Japan, kids can get Kamen Rider toys with their Happy Meals (or Happy Sets, as they're called here). Not only that, but celebratory events are beginning to take place in various parts of the country. One such event took place in Inuyama, Gifu, Japan (hopefully I didn't need to mention that last part!).

A different sort of ride for the one and only Kamen Rider.

I first became aware of the Kamen Rider tribute at Inuyama's Monkey Park last month. Ever since then, I've planned to attend. Despite being a little wary of making the trip (considering how out of the way Monkey Park is from my home), I kept my plans to take part in the event. And am I glad I did!

The entrance to a virtual Kamen Rider hall of fame. Henshin!

I was surprised at how elaborate the event was. I figured we'd get a stage show and perhaps a few other goodies, but I wasn't expecting a Kamen Rider hall of fame that would put Mt. Olympus to shame!

Riders on the storm: These brave superheroes greet tokusatsu fans seeking shelter from the rainy weather outside!

You just don't see anything like this in the United States! As soon as you enter the building, these incredibly lifelike Kamen Rider statues are the first thing visitors see. Truly a sight for sore eyes!

All the motivation you'll ever need to learn to read kanji!

I shoulda studied Japanese a bit more before I came! The walls were covered with such informational posters, but sadly, I couldn't make heads or tails of them!

I got by with a little help from my friends!

Now here's a classic photo! Remember what I said about how there's nothing like this in the States? Well, multiply that by 100! Photo opportunities like this are what made this 40th-anniversary festival so memorable.

Super-deformed in more ways than one! As you can see, not all displays were so lifelike!

Now that I've described the basic setup of the event, I'll let the photos do the talking (well, for the most part!).

Move over, Superman! This is a job for some real heroes!

Now that's a keepsake! Shirts like these, commemorating the 40th anniversary, were on sale in a nearby gift shop. Naturally, I snatched one up!

Your newest henshin hero? Well, maybe not. Nice shirt, though.

Yours truly with Kamen Rider! SHOCKER, watch out!

There was even more fun to be had outside, where a meet and greet with Kamen Riders through the ages was scheduled to take place. However...

It's a madhouse! The "lineup" (more like dog pile!) to pose for a picture with the Riders was nothing short of chaotic. It was more of a zoo than Monkey Park itself!

The only criticism I can muster is that the meet and greet with the various Kamen Riders was disorganized, leaving people pushing and shoving each other to pose for picture with the guys in the costumes whose attention is being pulled in every possible direction. Surprisingly, there were no staff members organizing the lineup and controlling the flow of fans. It was a total free-for-all. Still, with a little patience (and preferably a crash helmet!), it was possible for everyone to get through the line. 

Say goodbye, folks. It's time for these Riders to ride off into the sunset.

All in all, Monkey Park's 40th anniversary celebration of Kamen Rider was a blast. Sure, traveling back and forth was a pain, but I had a lot more fun than I expected, and all the hassle was well worth it. For more information on Monkey Park, follow this link (all in Japanese).

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A salute to Ulf Georgii-Hemming

Your humble blogmeister meets the great Ulf Georgii-Hemming at his home in Tokyo.

As a lifelong fan of the movie Godzilla vs. Megalon, it was truly an honor for me to meet one of the most memorable characters from the film, none other than Ulf Georgii-Hemming. Often billed as "Wolf" Otsuki, the 76-year-old is a veteran of both the silver screen and the small screen, working as a character actor in Tokyo for decades.

Ulf stands in front of the Tokyo Sky Tree, even though he's not a huge fan of it!

Megalon is, by far, his best-known credit, but his work also includes: Kamen Rider Super-1, Rainbowman, and a regular role on Daitetsujin 17 as Professor Hessler.

Ulf in all his villainous glory in Daitetsujin 17.

Although Ulf improvised on the set of Daitetsujin 17, very little of his improvisations were allowed to remain in the finished programs.

But who is Ulf Georgii-Hemming? In G-FAN #89 (fall 2009), I interviewed him about his life and career, and in describing his background, Ulf reported:
I was born as a son to a Swedish architect, Gösta Georgii-Hemming, and a Japanese pianist, Toako Otsuki, (they married in Berlin, 1931) in Tokyo in 1934 and naturally got a Swedish nationality. But when Gösta was stopped in Stockholm under the Nazi invasion of European countries, I was forced to stay in Japan with my elder sister Fujiko and my mother. Then when I became 20 years old in Japan, I lost my Swedish nationality automatically because I had not entered Sweden even once. Besides, my parents split up by the end of the war and, in 1970, the divorce was legally confirmed. After having been a stateless person, I decided to get a Japanese nationality in the 1970s.

Tokyo shenanigans! You just know these two are up to no good!

Ulf is truly a larger-than-life character, a warm and generous man who absolutely loves life. This side of him was in evidence when I spent the day with him during Golden Week in Tokyo. On top of being a wonderful host and a great traveling companion, he showed me so much generosity, buying me dinner and a couple of souvenirs. He's certainly nothing like the Seatopian agent I watched growing up!

It's the Sky Tree again! However, as you can tell, Ulf doesn't seem to mind it so much in this shot.

I would certainly say that Ulf is an unsung hero of the genre. Perhaps this blog post will begin to change that. I certainly hope so. And maybe Ulf could turn up at a future G-FEST. I know an event like that would be a natural for him!

That's a wrap! Ulf and I dine on uncooked ocean dwellers to cap off a fun night. Photo by Yuri Nikaido.

You've seen the photos; now watch Ulf Georgii-Hemming in action! Below are some videos recorded from the day I hung out with him. Now isn't he the coolest?!

Shelley Sweeney: 2007 and 2011

Yours truly sandwiched between G-FEST XIV's guests of honor in 2007, Rhodes Reason and Shelley Sweeney.

It's hard to believe that I first spoke to Shelley Sweeney in late 2005. When she came to America to film a movie called I Am Nipponjin (co-starring with Kamen Rider superstar Hiroshi Fujioka), we conducted an interview for G-FAN magazine about her acting credits in the Godzilla series, most notably as Catherine Berger in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993). The interview turned out so well, and so much interest was drummed up, that Shelley was formally invited by J.D. Lees and me to attend G-FEST XIV in 2007.

Shelley and I stand in front of the Rainforest Cafe in Chicago after officially wrapping up our convention duties at G-FEST.

Shelley became one of our most popular guests at one of the smoothest-run G-FESTs in history. Handling herself with the utmost professionalism, Shelley signed autographs and posed for pictures all weekend, treating every fan who approached her respectfully.

When G-FEST wrapped, I didn't realize it would be nearly four years before I would see Shelley again, but that's exactly what would happen.

With no one around, sometimes you have to do your own photography! Shelley and I pose in front of the Statue of Liberty replica in Odaiba.

After moving to Japan in March 2011, visiting Tokyo became my biggest priority. As I'm not much of a sightseer, my main area of interest was visiting old friends (and making new ones!) while in the city. One of the first people I asked was Shelley, who was happy to meet me again.

Follow the Rainbow Bridge! Shelley and I relax after crossing the walkway from Odaiba.

When we made plans, Shelley suggested crossing the Rainbow Bridge, which sounded great to me. Providing a scenic view of Tokyo Bay, I knew it would be a great experience. Of course, for me, it's not so much about the activity but the company with whom you do the activity.

Kampai! With our journey behind us, we enjoyed drinks at a nearby Becker's.

With our walk in the history books, we finished our conversation at a Becker's inside the nearest train station. It was a fun morning, and the next time I'm in Tokyo (which hopefully won't be too long from now!), I hope to see Shelley again.

Oh, and if the still photos aren't enough, here's some video of our trek. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

I love Tokyo!

Surprise! A Takarada fan (the woman to the left of Akira Takarada) was shocked to see a superstar of Japanese cinema walking right in front of her. Naturally, pictures were taken!

Text and photos by Brett Homenick
Although many Godzilla fans from the U.S. have visited and toured Tokyo over the years, I think I can safely say that no one has had the Tokyo experience that I've had. Many fans are accompanied to the Land of the Rising Sun by friends, others meet up with Japan-based buddies during their trek, and still others do the whole trip by themselves. While seeing Tokyo is fun, no matter how you do it, I was privileged to be taken around Tokyo by the biggest star in the Godzilla series.

The visual definition of "self-explanatory." Akira Takarada poses with the Godzilla statue in Hibiya.

As you can imagine, I had been planning a trip to Tokyo ever since I moved to Japan in late March. For someone who has never visited this fabled metropolis, it certainly was an exciting proposition. But I wanted to do it right or not at all. I had to make sure enough pieces would be in place before purchasing my shinkansen (bullet train) tickets. (A roundtrip visit to Tokyo on the shinkansen can add up to about $300 from my town, so you can see why I took care to ensure a smooth and fun vacation!) Once everything was in place, I turned my attention to Japan's capital city!

With Yoshimitsu Banno, after our fine Japanese dinner.

I arrived on May 3 and spent the evening with Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster director Yoshimitsu Banno. He took me to a Japanese restaurant and shared many stories about his career. We also talked about movies, including his admiration for Stanley Kubrick and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The conversation eventually turned to the deleted French plantation scene from Apocalypse Now. (Talk about obscure!) We were two movie buffs, shooting the breeze on our favorite films, from both the East and the West. Suffice it to say, it was a lot of fun.

Yours truly with the Godzilla statue. After wanting to see it for years, I finally accomplished that mission.

The next day began as I did some DVD-shopping around Akihabara. I found a DVD set of an old tokusatsu series called Space G-Men for very cheap (about 1,500 yen). For a deal like that, why not take a chance?!

I was picked up from my hotel at 1:00 p.m. by Mr. Takarada. It was an unexpected (but certainly pleasant!) surprise to find out that he would be my tour guide for the day, taking me to various places around Tokyo. He was, without a doubt, a master monster tour guide.

Mr. Takarada and I pose with the Godzilla statue.

The first order of business was to see the Godzilla statue in Hibiya. Mr. Takarada drove us there, but, as it was in the middle of Golden Week, parking proved to be difficult. Undaunted, Mr. Takarada pulled into the Imperial Hotel parking area at the front of the hotel and said a few words to an attendant directing traffic. Within moments, the attendant removed a couple of cones from an otherwise empty parking space and pointed the way for Mr. Takarada to park there! That's clout, baby!

The Godzilla statue was an incredible sight to behold. Seeing it for the first time with the star of the first film (among several of its sequels) made the experience that much more exciting.

Mr. Takarada poses with his hand print and signature in Hibiya's answer to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

While pretty much all Godzilla fans are aware of the Godzilla statue in Hibiya, they likely aren't as knowledgeable of the "Walk of Fame" that also decorates the very same square as the statue. It should come as no surprise that Mr. Takarada has his own entry in the "Walk of Fame." Fortunately for me, my "tour guide" pointed it out to me!

G-fans, take note! Your trip to Hibiya isn't complete without giving a virtual high-five to Mr. Takarada!

After taking in the Godzilla statue, it was time to eat! Thankfully, there was an American-style restaurant right around the corner that suited my needs.

Mr. Takarada and I are about to enjoy some burgers at The Beat Diner.

Please follow this link for more on The Beat Diner.

Mr. Takarada and I pose in front of the Wako Department Store in Ginza, an iconic location from the original Godzilla movie.

With our bellies full, the two of us headed out to explore neighboring Ginza. Given this was Golden Week, some of the streets were closed down, which made walking a bit easier for pedestrians. Mr. Takarada pointed out many of the notable buildings to me, including the Wako Department Store above.

It was also during this walk that Mr. Takarada was recognized the most. A good number of the people who recognized him were too shy to approach him (and instead stopped in their tracks and stared at him, mouths agape). Others, however, were a bit more adventurous and asked for photos with him, for which he was happy to oblige. I snapped all such pictures for Mr. Takarada's hometown fan base.

At one point, I came across a poster hanging on a wall that depicted several iconic scenes from various American movie classics. I asked Mr. Takarada which movies he knew. I was floored that he recognized most movies (including Roman Holiday, Forrest Gump [more on that later!], The Untouchables, and others). As I recall, the only one he didn't recognize was Ghost (1990), but hey, who could blame him?

The two travelers stand in front of the Diet Building, a memorable location from many kaiju films.

While on our way to Tokyo Dome City for dinner, the Diet Building came into view. I was caught off-guard and asked if we could pull over for some pictures. The above photo should tell you what happened next.

When worlds collide: Yoshimitsu Banno and Akira Takarada meet for the very first time.

We decided to eat dinner at Tokyo Dome City's Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurant (which, as I'm sure you know, is inspired by the Oscar-winning movie Forrest Gump). A special guest would join our meal, none other than Yoshimitsu Banno, who himself was very excited to meet Mr. Takarada. (Who wouldn't be?)

After devouring the spawn of Ebirah, we posed for an obligatory photo.

At the dinner, the conversation turned to movies again, mostly focusing on the Japanese movie industry, everyone from Kihachi Okamoto to Senkichi Taniguchi. I'm still pinching myself after being in the presence of such film history!
It was truly a great time, but like all good things, it came to an end. I can't wait to go back to Tokyo. With so much more to explore, and so many more people to meet, I'll be kept busy for a long time!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

They got The Beat, and we got to eat!

Akira Takarada and your humble blogmeister sit down to enjoy lunch at Tokyo's The Beat Diner.

The Beat Diner is a new eating establishment (created in 2009, according to the restaurant) that serves some great American food with an American rock-and-roll ambiance. So guess what? I loved it!

Mon dieu! Now those are hamburgers!

Yes, those hamburgers are gigantic! Not only that, they're quite juicy, so be prepared. Keep your cameras, shirt sleeves, and anything else you value a safe distance away. I can't count how many (admittedly thin) napkins I needed to use in my attempts to keep myself clean. (For context, however, I did eat two of their burgers.)

As I mentioned earlier, the theme of the restaurant is classic rock, both from the U.S. and U.K. One of the restaurant walls is adorned with many '60s- and '70s-era rock album covers. In Japan, for this foreigner, it's a sight for sore eyes!

Rock music is played constantly in the restaurant. Mr. Takarada, who ate with me, is unfamiliar with most of the bands whose work was heard in The Beat. Only in retrospect did my conversation with him about The Doobie Brothers seem a little surreal!

After enjoying our meal, Mr. Takarada was asked to sign a shikishi board for the restaurant. He is unquestionably the most popular guy who's ever eaten here! Mr. Takarada, of course, was happy to oblige.

The finished product.

The shikishi board, in the hands of the restaurant staff!

Yours truly with the staff of the restaurant. Hopefully, they weren't too surprised to find an American visitor treating them with respect!

Meeting his fans: Mr. Takarada wows 'em wherever he goes!

The Beat Diner is located under the shinkansen tracks (which sometimes can be a little disruptive) virtually in between Hibiya and Ginza. For Godzilla fans, it's right around the corner from the Godzilla statue in Hibiya, a perfect location for any traveling G-fan. If you ever get your fill of noodles and eel while in Japan, give The Beat Diner a try!

UPDATE (5/19): Here's some video footage recorded inside the restaurant, capturing the mood of the afternoon.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Yoshimitsu Banno on 100 Years of Ishiro Honda

It's May 7 here in Japan, making today Ishiro Honda's 100th anniversary. Mr. Honda, of course, was the director of such kaiju eiga classics as Godzilla (1954), Rodan (1956), Mothra (1961), Godzilla vs. the Thing (1964), and many others.

On May 3, 2011, director Yoshimitsu Banno (Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) recorded a few words of celebration for this landmark occasion. You may watch Mr. Banno's message by following the link below.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tokyo: Third pictures

Brett with Ulf Georgii-Hemming (a.k.a. Wolf Otsuki), the bearded Seatopian agent from Godzilla vs. Megalon. The Tokyo Sky Tree is in the background.

The third and final day of my Tokyo trip has come to a close. Here are just a few of the photos taken!

I got to meet all sorts of interesting people!

Ulf pays his respects.

With Shelley Sweeney at Becker's.

Under Rainbow Bridge with Shelley Sweeney.