Thursday, November 30, 2023

In the Company of a Showa-Era Actor!

Ryo Tamura. Photo by Brett Homenick.

This afternoon (Thursday, November 30), I had a very enjoyable time in the company of former Toho actor Ryo Tamura. Tamura-san joined Toho in 1966 and immediately started working with just about all of the studio's top directors and actors. His career is really quite something.

After the conversation, I was invited to join him and his wife for dinner, for which I was extremely grateful. I certainly wasn't expecting that level of hospitality, which made it all the more special.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Seeing 'Suspiria' in 4K!

Suspiria (1977) at the Shin Bungeiza. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Oh, [Suspiria], I'm down on my knees 
I'm begging you please to come home 
Come on home
-- Simon & Garfunkel

Tonight (Wednesday, November 29), I returned to the Shin Bungeiza theater in Ikebukuro to catch a screening of Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977) in 4K. I'd only seen the movie once before, and that was in the early days of YouTube. Yeah, my first experience with it (back in late December 2007) was watching it on the platform in 10-minute segments in low resolution. I have a buddy in Chicago who digs horror movies, and I remember talking with him about the film at length after watching it. I wasn't impressed with it at the time, but I figured seeing it in 4K on the big screen would be the best way to give it a second chance.

Thanks to the various Mill Creek 50-movie box sets, I've seen several other Dario Argento movies, and, if I'm being completely honest, I haven't liked most of them. Offhand, it's hard for me to name the ones I've seen because I almost instantly forget about them after viewing them. Circa 2008, I saw Deep Red (1975) on one of the aforementioned Mill Creek sets, and I've always considered that my favorite Argento film. Gotta catch that one again.

Suspiria merch for sale! Photo by Brett Homenick.

As for Suspiria, I was kind of tickled how similar the opening of the movie was to Evil of Dracula (1974). Both films open with a taxi ride by our out-of-towner protagonist to a creepy school run by ghouls and goblins (not to be confused with the band Goblin, who provides the score for the flick). In the late '90s, I remember hearing from more than one tokusatsu fan the old yarn about how George Lucas ripped off the story of The Magic Serpent (1966) for Star Wars (1977), so I probably shouldn't give anyone wild ideas here. I mean, some people still believe that RoboCop (1987) was a rip-off of Space Sheriff Gavan (1982-83).

Wow, did I get off-topic. That might be because I don't have much else to say about the film. Interestingly, seeing it in 4K on the big screen didn't change my opinion one iota. It's certainly a much better visual experience, and the film definitely does look amazing in general, so I'll give it credit for that. But I didn't find the story engaging, nor did I find it particularly creepy or remotely scary.

No argument here that maggots are gross, and looking at them is unpleasant, but that doesn't mean showing them in a movie automatically puts you in "master of horror" (whatever that's supposed to mean, anyway) territory. The movie isn't very well acted (which, in fairness, might be more of a problem with the voice actors who dubbed the principals), the scares aren't very scary (the fake blood looks exactly like what it is, and the stabbing in the first death scene seemed surprisingly lethargic), and the climax was a let-down (despite all the build-up, the final boss was sure defeated pretty easily).  

I did enjoy the score by Goblin and the visuals, but that was about it. I think it's fair to say that Dario Argento movies just aren't my cup of tea. I do want to see Deep Red again at some point, as I'm sure I'd have a better time with that one. (I still vividly remember the opening scene, which sure is an attention-grabber.)

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Mizuho Suzuki, 'Godzilla 1985's' Foreign Minister Emori, Passes Away at Age 96

Mizuho Suzuki.

Actor Mizuho Suzuki, best known to Godzilla fans for his role as Foreign Minister Emori in Godzilla 1985 (1984), passed away due to heart failure in Tokyo at 11:01 p.m. on November 19. He was 96. A private funeral has already been held. 

Aside from his turn in the Godzilla series, Mr. Suzuki's other notable credits include the Daiei period horror film The Snow Woman (1968), Kihachi Okamoto's Battle of Okinawa (1971), Submersion of Japan (1973), The Last Days of Planet Earth (1974), Conflagration (1975), the Toei all-star actioner The Bullet Train (1975), and Deathquake (1980). 

He was also responsible for dubbing Charlton Heston in the theatrical version of Solar Crisis (1990). On the small screen, Mr. Suzuki provided the voice for Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) in The Godfather (1972), as well as Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy, for the Nippon TV broadcasts of those films. 

Born in Manchuria on October 23, 1927, Mr. Suzuki moved to Japan after the war at the age of 18 with his father, who was a Japanese soldier, and began his acting career in 1952 when, after graduating from college, he reportedly helped establish the Mingei Theatre Company, although the theater troupe's home page does not mention Mr. Suzuki's involvement in its founding. (It should also be noted that this source only asserts that Mr. Suzuki dropped out of Kyoto University and makes no mention of his graduating from another university.)

By 1958, Mr. Suzuki had made the transition from the stage to the big screen, appearing in several movies for Nikkatsu. In the 1970s and '80s, he would appear in numerous tokusatsu productions at Toho, usually playing government officials, which would earn him a measure of international recognition. 

In September of this year, I reached out to Gekidan Dora, the theater company Mr. Suzuki helped found in 1972, about interviewing the actor. I never received a reply, but, given his advanced age, I wasn't too surprised. Unfortunately, it turned out that Mr. Suzuki would pass away less than two months later.

Rest in peace, Mr. Suzuki.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

THE TOKYO DOME! Home of Japanese Pro Wrestling History!

The Tokyo Dome. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Last night, I had a few hours to kill from the time I finished work until the subtitled version of Godzilla Minus One (2023) screened in Hibiya, so I thought I could popeye down to Tsuburaya Convention 2023 to take a look-see at what it had to offer. What I found was a massive line still waiting to get in (that showed very few signs of moving) and no obvious area from which to buy tickets, so I quickly abandoned that idea.

Thankfully, though, the con was being held in the shadow of the Tokyo Dome, so I decided to take a few photos of it instead. I'm not a baseball fan, but I'm familiar with it due to its history with pro wrestling -- World Championship Wrestling, in particular. For example, while I've never seen the full match, this is the venue where Tatsumi Fujinami defeated Ric Flair in March 1991 to become the new WCW champion ... or did he? 

It was my first exposure to a Dusty finish, so the decision was quickly reversed. But the angle instantly hooked me, and it made Fujinami an immediate threat to Flair's championship reign. I really wanted to see their return encounter at the inaugural SuperBrawl in May, but it was on Pay-Per-View, so that wasn't happening. WCW television showed the highlights of the Tokyo Dome match at the time, and it was even covered in the Apter mags, so it was one of the bigger developments in wrestling that year. It was pretty fun for me to see where it all happened. 

In 1992, I did see the Pay-Per-View entitled WCW Japan Supershow II, which was co-promoted with New Japan Pro-Wrestling, but I remember very little about it. (I mean, it's been more than 30 years.) It also took place at the Tokyo Dome, though WCW announcers and commentators would always refer to it as the Egg Dome, which made it sound pretty silly to my ear. The Tokyo Dome is a much more respectable name, of course. Who wants to say that he just won a championship at something called the Egg Dome?

This, naturally, just scratches the surface of pro wrestling history at the Tokyo Dome, but I just wanted to share some of my personal memories of it.  

'Godzilla Minus One' Ballyhoo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya!

Godzilla at Toho Cinemas Hibiya. Photo by Brett Homenick.

When checking out the English-subtitled version of Godzilla Minus One (2023) last night at Toho Cinemas Hibiya, I was a bit surprised to see the promotional ballyhoo was still out in full force. (Even the kaiju suit-size display seen above was brought back, which wasn't there when the movie opened.) Here's what I saw. Enjoy!

'Godzilla Minus One' (2023), Take Two

I didn't see Godzilla Minus One on this screen, but it sure would've been nice! Photo by Brett Homenick.

After seeing Godzilla Minus One (2023) on opening day, I had no plans to see it a second time. But then Toho Cinemas made me an offer I couldn't refuse: A couple of days ago, select theaters around Tokyo started showing the movie with English subtitles. It was such a unique opportunity that I just couldn't pass it up. 

So, tonight (Saturday, November 25), I went to Toho Cinemas Hibiya to see the movie again. The screen on which I saw it was one of the smaller ones, so it was hardly an IMAX experience, but it was sufficient for my needs. Anyway, I was more interested in filling in the blanks of the story than experiencing bigger and louder explosions.

So did my opinion of the film change at all?

In a word, no.

In three words, yes and no.

In six words, yes and no. But mostly no.

This time around, I didn't feel the use of Akira Ifukube's music was as bad or out of place as I originally thought. The inclusion of it during the Ginza attack was basically tolerable, but I could see why I felt it didn't work during the climax. It does feel a bit awkward there, as it seems to fly in the face of the downbeat and dour atmosphere of the rest of the movie. I suppose it's supposed to highlight the sense of teamwork and camaraderie among the volunteers who are working together to stop Godzilla, but I still think it creates some tonal issues with the rest of the film.

On the other hand, I found the overall spectacle of the CG was less impressive this time. In a lot of ways, that was to be expected. Most movies simply don't hold up on repeated viewings. Once you know what happens, there's a lot less to hold your attention. That was certainly the case here. Once you knew what was coming, there just wasn't a whole lot else there to keep you engaged.

The characters talk a lot about the war and the hardships they experienced, but we never see it. We hear about loved ones who were killed offscreen, but we know nothing about them. We never see their faces. But it's supposed to add depth to the characters that they've experienced these losses during the war. If you're going to go there, movie, then go there. We need to see that. Lines of dialogue and exposition aren't enough to invest the audience. 

We are told how Japan lost everything during the war, but what we are shown is that Japan is quick to get back on its feel, and, by about the halfway point, Ginza looks like a pretty happenin' place. So which is it? If we're being totally honest, the title should really be "Godzilla 0.5" or higher.

On a related note, one of the characters delivers a speech about the importance of humanity, but this was again something I wanted to feel, not hear. We don't see the consequences of Godzilla's attacks in any detail. When a character is killed, it feels more like the deletion of computer-generated pixels rather than the loss of a human life. Ishiro Honda conveyed more about humanity with a single shot of a Geiger counter than that dude with the wacky-scientist haircut possibly could with 200 pages of exposition. 

I suppose my biggest takeaway from my second viewing was just how boring the climax is. There's no tension to the proceedings, as it's all a foregone conclusion that the whole thing will work on the first try. (I mean, we're way too close to the end credits for the characters to start kicking rocks back to the drawing board.) 

The method of defeating Godzilla is also pretty underwhelming. I don't know why director Takashi Yamazaki insisted on implementing a (relatively speaking) real-world solution to the problem of a living, breathing amusement park ride attacking the city. I mean, Godzilla can instantaneously regenerate any damaged body parts and can fire a beam that blows up entire districts in a single go, but it's a bridge too far to create a sci-fi superweapon like the Oxygen Destroyer? Anything beats a droning lecture on Freon gas.

Overall, I still wouldn't say the movie is bad, but I do think it's mediocre. The movie lacks memorable (and even sympathetic) characters. I can't say I was rooting for any of the characters to succeed. At best, I was indifferent to them. At worst, I genuinely didn't like them. If anything, I wanted Godzilla to prevail, but he couldn't even catch that rickety old fishing boat he was chasing for five minutes, so he deserved to get his head blown apart. Serves him right for being so lame.

With all that said, it seems inevitable that this is what's in store for Godzilla's future: Every few years, another "mad genius" director will come out with another Godzilla remake, reboot, or regurgitation, and American fans will ChatGPT out a bunch of hyper-enthusiastic essays, comparing it to Godzilla (1954) sight unseen. I'd rather vote for Kayoco Anne Patterson for president. 

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Paying Respects to the Actor Behind 'Ultraman's' Ito

A young mangaka, Akiko Fukushima, and Bin Furuya. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Yesterday (Thursday, November 23), I was able to join a unique event held in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, celebrating the life of the actor Masanari Nihei. Billed as a "garden party," this event was actually held at Nihei-san's home where his family still lives. It was an incredible opportunity and one I couldn't pass up.

Akiko Fukushima with a shikishi board featuring a drawing of her late husband. Photo by Brett Homenick.

For those of you not in the know, Nihei-san got his big break in 1966 when Ultraman (1966-67) was launched on Japanese television. Playing Science Patrol member Ito (Ide in the Japanese version), he would ultimately become one of the most recognizable characters in the Ultra-franchise.

With Bin Furuya.

After arriving at Kamakura Station, I took a taxi directly to the Nihei home. The taxi ride was a bit longer than I expected, and the route back to the station was -- shall we say -- a bit less than clear to me. Thankfully, though, I left the event with the group, so I could find my way back with no issues whatsoever.

On hand for the festivities were his widow Akiko Fukushima and one of their two daughters, Kazuka. Fukushima-san, a professional photographer, married Nihei-san in 1972, and they stayed married until his passing on August 21, 2021. The pair prepared and served food and drinks to the guests in backyard of their home.

The view of the Pacific Ocean from a point near the Nihei home. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Bin Furuya, the legendary suit actor who portrayed the original Ultraman, as well as Amagi in the follow-up series Ultra Seven (1967-68), was the guest of honor. He was a fellow Toho New Face with Nihei-san in the same class. So, suffice it to say, their history together dates back much further than Ultraman

Another view of the Pacific Ocean with Mount Fuji in the distance. Photo by Brett Homenick.

A young female mangaka was in attendance, and she gave Nihei-san's widow a wonderful drawing of her late husband on a shikishi board (which you can see in photo that's second from the top of this blog post). 

Bin Furuya studies a toy of his alter ego. Photo by Brett Homenick.

As the event was winding down, our group headed to the nearby cemetery to pay our respects to Nihei-san at his grave. While there, we were mesmerized by the view of the ocean from a particular viewing spot from which you could also see Mount Fuji in the distance. What a sight it was!

I took a lot of photos at the garden party, so I'll just let them speak for themselves. There's really not much else to say -- we were there to hang out and have fun. 

I guess I should add that we all got a souvenir for attending -- a commemorative mini poster (about a fraction of the size of an average sheet of paper) on glossy stock with the aforementioned mangaka's rendering of Nihei-san and Furura-san on it, signed by Furuya-san himself. It's quite a cool keepsake!