Sunday, December 31, 2023

DEEP DIVE: Siskel, Ebert, and Godzilla

Roger Ebert reviews Godzilla 1985 (1984). 

In 1996, I started watching Siskel & Ebert, the movie review program with the nation's leading film critics. I liked movies, and they were guys who talked about movies. It didn't take long for me to consider the show indispensable, and I soon found myself enjoying learning as much as I could about these two critics, almost as much as I enjoyed watching the movies they reviewed.

Naturally, as a lifelong Godzilla fan, I became intrigued about their opinions about the genre. In the mid- and late '90s, gathering that kind of information wasn't easy, and it took years (and even decades) to learn the things contained in this blog post.

And that's today's topic: What did Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert think of the various Asian monster movies they watched? I've compiled as much as I could about their comments regarding Japanese (and Hong Kong) monster movies and other tokusatsu productions in an effort to be as comprehensive as possible. 

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert outside of the Pickwick Theatre in Park Ridge, IL.

The pair's connection to the more obscure aspects of kaiju eiga is actually quite fascinating. In fact, the intro to the Tribune Media version of their show (called At the Movies) from 1982 through 1986 was shot at the Pickwick Theatre in Park Ridge, Illinois, which later became infamous for its summer screenings of low-quality tokusatsu DVDs. While that may not a direct connection to the genre by any means, it's certainly worth mentioning here.

A still from King Kong Escapes (1967) as seen during the introduction of Opening Soon at a Theater Near You

If we want to find all their  references to Godzilla and other kaiju, it turns out that we have to go back at least to the very first show that Siskel and Ebert ever hosted. That show was the November 1975 episode of Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, which was shown on the PBS affiliate WTTW Chicago. In the intro, stills from both King Kong Escapes (1967) and Destroy All Monsters (1968) are included in the opening montage that mostly features images from classic Hollywood films.

A still from Destroy All Monsters (1968) as seen during the introduction of Opening Soon at a Theater Near You.

By early 1976 (when the pair reviewed Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver), both stills remained in the intro. By the end of the year, however, only the frame from King Kong Escapes was still included.

In early 1977, when naming A*P*E (1976) one of the worst movies of the year on the program, Siskel quipped:

You know, they said this picture shouldn't be confused with King Kong. Hell, it shouldn't be confused with Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster!

Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971) will come up a lot later on. But let's skip ahead to Ebert's written review of Godzilla 1985 (1984). In his column, Ebert opens with:
The "good bad movie" is by now an accepted item of cultural history, and we are all familiar with the theory that a movie can be so bad that it's good. Just consider "Infra-Man."
You'd better believe that Infra-Man (1975) will come up a lot later on, too. Anyhow, in his review, Ebert lays out his manifold criticisms of Godzilla 1985:
Examples: Dialogue; Is so consistently bad that the entire screenplay could be submitted as an example. My favorite moment occurs when the hero and heroine are clutching each other on a top floor of a skyscraper being torn apart by Godzilla and the professor leaps into the shot, says "What has happened here?" and leaps out again without waiting for an answer.

I don't know about you, but I'd take Ebert's criticisms much more seriously if he stuck to pointing out things that actually happen in the movie. He continues: 

Lip-synching: Especially in the opening shots, there seems to be a subtle effort to exaggerate the bad coordination between what we see and what we hear. All lip-synch is a little off, of course, but this movie seems to be going for condescending laughs from knowledgable filmgoers.
Here, Ebert complains about the lip sync in Godzilla 1985 but didn't seem too bothered by the lack of it in GoodFellas (1990), Ebert's pick for the best film of its year. The Scorsese picture even had the luxury of being filmed in the same language, so I'm not exactly sure what the excuse is there.

Seeing GoodFellas in 4K on the big screen recently was a revelation in that I realized for the first time how out of sync much of the actors' lip movements were with their ADRed dialogue. That's because Ebert (and like-minded critics) don't give two flips about lip sync except to the extent that they can use it as a bludgeon against foreign-language genre movies from Asia. 

In the conclusion of his G85 review, Ebert writes:
There have been a lot of Godzilla adventures since the original one in 1956 (my favorite is "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster"), but this is the first one made by Toho, the studio that launched the series.
I'm starting to think Ebert has literally never heard of any other Godzilla film than Smog Monster. (See the examples at the bottom of this blog post for reference.) But let's table that for a moment.

The bizarre, nonsensical claim in the above quote is much more bonkers than anything in Infra-Man. This is the "first" Godzilla movie made by Toho, the same studio that also just so happened to "launch" the series? What am I even reading here? 

Godzilla 1985 was also reviewed on Siskel and Ebert's TV show At the Movies at the time of its theatrical release. Siskel opens his review by stating:
And I was really looking forward to this one. I thought, Oh, what great timing, bringing back Godzilla, that radioactive dinosaur, who was so much goofy fun when he stomped on people and buildings. I love the sound it makes when he stomps -- BOOM! And it's a big, big sound; a whole city is falling over with every step. He also was a reminder, of course, of the horrors of nuclear war; that's how he was created. Well, so much for those great, high expectations because -- and I can't believe I'm saying this -- Godzilla 1985 is dull. And it's only funny when it's completely inept, which sadly is only part of the time, because most of the time it's just dull. 
After showing clips from the film, Siskel proceeds to criticize the movie in general, and the Raymond Burr performance in particular, for their lack of "fun" and comments that the movie needs a What's Up, Tiger Lily?-style comedic dub from Woody Allen. Ebert then responded by saying he was expecting "camp" and to laugh at the picture.

Ebert repeats his assertion that the dubbing was intentionally bad as an in-joke, to which Siskel responds, "In the beginning," which I can only presume means that Siskel didn't think the dub was that bad overall. Siskel then says that the badness of G85 made him appreciate the 1976 King Kong remake more and that this flick is just "trash." Ebert then says this movie made him respect Infra-Man and Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973). (By the end of this blog post, you'll get quite tired of hearing those two titles -- trust me.)

In their "Worst of 1985" episode of At the Movies, Ebert lays out some ground rules and asserts that only major and ambitious productions will receive a drubbing at their hands, as opposed to cheap kung fu actioners and other such low-budget fare. When Ebert picks Godzilla 1985 as one of his choices, Siskel pushes back slightly -- not out of respect for the film, of course, but because it may violate their rule of not going after the cheap stuff. Ebert defends his selection by referring to the film as "a big-budget, grade-B exploitation movie," and that "it cost a lot of money," before calling it a "special effects extravaganza." Has he suddenly had a change of heart? Well, no.
EBERT: This movie was real bad.

SISKEL: It was real bad. I still think it had to be low-budget because what does Godzilla get paid, number one. And, two, what does Raymond Burr get paid? 

EBERT: Well, actually, though, Godzilla probably cost a lot because of all those special effects. 
After Ebert repeats some nonsense about Godzilla's supposedly changing size throughout the movie, their discussion continues:
SISKEL: What they should have done, I think, is make a parody of Godzilla, but Toho Studios, I mean, they weren't going to fool around. Or at least make him scary. 

EBERT: [Do you have] a horrible suspicion that maybe they thought this was a parody?

SISKEL: No, I have a horrible suspicion that they didn't think it was a parody and didn't want it to be a parody because they think Godzilla is too precious to be parodied.

EBERT: (laughs)  

SISKEL: That's more worse [sic] -- think about it! 

So one of the critics thought the movie was too pathetic to lampoon while the other thought it was expensive enough to rip apart mercilessly. Pick your poison, I guess.

Mention should be made that, after all this trashing, the poster for Godzilla 1985 somehow made it into Ebert's office during the 1986-99 intro on the Buena Vista Television version of their program. While I couldn't find a clear view of it on any of the uploaded videos of the intro I watched, you can see the poster much more clearly in this short video of another Roger Ebert review of the movie.  

Many years later, Siskel and Ebert would take a crack at the Gamera series, and the results would actually be more positive -- to a point. In his 1997 written review of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995), Ebert explains:

"Gamera: Guardian of the Universe'' is precisely the kind of movie that I enjoy, despite all rational reasoning. How, you may ask, can I possibly prefer this Japanese monster film about a jet-powered turtle to a megabudget solemnity like "Air Force One"? It has laughable acting, a ludicrous plot, second-rate special effects and dialogue such as, "Someday, I'll show you around monster-free Tokyo!'' The answer, I think, is that "Gamera'' is more fun.

Ebert continues:

Then, if they continue to grow older and wiser, they complete the circle and return to "Gamera'' again, realizing that while both movies are preposterous, the turtle movie has the charm of utter goofiness--and, in an age of flawless special effects, it is somehow more fun to watch flawed ones.

In the above quote, Ebert describes how imaginary moviegoers evolve in their sophistication when it comes to appreciating the quality of films and continues to compare Gamera with Air Force One (1997) in his diatribe. Both films are ridiculous, Ebert avers, but the ridiculousness of Gamera is more entertaining. 

Speaking of, I vividly remember one of the reviews quoted in the newspaper ads for Air Force One, which went something like: "Glenn Close is number one as number two," which, as toilet humor goes, sure beats the kind that Ebert used elsewhere in his Gamera review (which I won't get into here, but feel free to check it out for yourself if that's your thing).

Ebert continues:

"Gamera'' is not a good movie but it is a good moviegoing experience.


Gamera has starred in nine films in 32 years, but has never attained the stardom of Godzilla, perhaps because of speciesism, which prejudices us to prefer dinosaurs to turtles.

He closes with:

Studying the film's press kit, I discover that Ayako Fujitani is Steven Seagal's daughter, and I punch my fist into the air and cry, "Yesssss!''

Gamera: Guardian of the Universe was also reviewed on Siskel & Ebert. In his television review, Ebert quips:

She's played here by Ayako Fujitani, the daughter of movie star Steven Seagal, and, just like her dad, she only appears in the most intelligent screenplays.

Ebert goes on to praise the movie for what he considers its goofier aspects and recommends it for the nostalgic feelings it gave him for those old Japanese monster movies he used to like (?) in his younger days. Then Gene responds:

Well, I think that all of the criticisms you leveled against it are absolutely accurate, and so what I would do is, get one of the good ones, get one of the Godzilla pictures, and rent that and put that on. And then you could recommend that because that will be more entertaining than this. 

Siskel concludes by saying he loves the idea of a giant, atomic-powered turtle and wants to see a good movie about one but that this one ain't it. 

Godzilla (1998) gets covered next, which, lest we forget, features the infamous Mayor Ebert character (played by Michael Lerner) and his assistant Gene. How did the critics react to their getting parodied in the movie at the time? Let's find out.

In his Movie Answer Man column from May 17, 1998, in response to a reader's question about the Mayor Ebert character in Godzilla, Ebert jokingly replies:

I am deeply honored to be working with Mr. Godzilla in his first major Hollywood film.

In his written review of Godzilla (1998), Ebert writes: 

The makers of the film, director Roland Emmerich and writer Dean Devlin, follow the timeless outlines of many other movies about Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, Gamera and their radioactive kin. There are ominous attacks on ships at sea, alarming blips on radar screens, and a scientist who speculates that nuclear tests may have spawned a mutant creature.

Later on, he continues:

One must carefully repress intelligent thought while watching such a film. The movie makes no sense at all except as a careless pastiche of its betters (and, yes, the Japanese Godzilla movies are, in their way, better--if only because they embrace dreck instead of condescending to it). You have to absorb such a film, not consider it. But my brain rebelled, and insisted on applying logic where it was not welcome.

Regarding the Mayor Ebert character, Ebert notes that he fully expected to get stomped on by the King of the Monsters and then muses:

Now that I've inspired a character in a Godzilla movie, all I really still desire is for several Ingmar Bergman characters to sit in a circle and read my reviews to one another in hushed tones.

But, wait, there's more:

There is a way to make material like "Godzilla" work. It can be campy fun, like the recent "Gamera: Guardian Of The Universe." Or hallucinatory, like "Infra-Man." Or awesome, like "Jurassic Park." Or it can tap a certain elemental dread, like the original "King Kong" (1933). But all of those approaches demand a certain sympathy with the material, a zest that rises to the occasion.

In his television review on Siskel & Ebert, Ebert states, "[T]he monster itself lacks the majesty and mystery of the earlier movie Godzillas, even though they were in schlock films." Siskel panned the movie for its lack of terror, which he named a staple of giant monster movies. While not saying anything specifically about the Japanese versions of Godzilla, Siskel does complain that the inclusion of Mayor Ebert and his assistant Gene was "petty." 

Several months later on Siskel & Ebert, Siskel named Godzilla as one of the worst films of 1998, making it his selection in the category "Special Effects That Weren't That Special." Siskel criticized the flick for being devoid of thrills while not mentioning anything about the Japanese editions. 

In the same episode, Ebert adds, "Even though the Japanese Godzilla films were way down on the scale when it came to cleverness with special effects, nevertheless their special effects were good enough that in those movies Godzilla had a personality. Godzilla was the star of those movies, and in this new Godzilla he was basically just this impersonal, uninteresting, giant lizard that seemed to cause most of its damage by accident, waving its tail around."  

Oh, boy. Now we get to the section that will likely ruffle the most feathers. Too late to turn back now, so let's get it over with.

In 2004, Ebert reviewed the original, uncut release of Godzilla (1954), which was celebrating its 50th anniversary. Ebert opens his review:
Regaled for 50 years by the stupendous idiocy of the American version of "Godzilla," audiences can now see the original Japanese version, which is equally idiotic, but, properly decoded, was the "Fahrenheit 9/11" of its time. Both films come after fearsome attacks on their nations, embody urgent warnings, and even incorporate similar dialogue, such as "The report is of such dire importance it must not be made public." Is that from 1954 Tokyo or 2004 Washington?
The comparison to Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) always baffled me, but perhaps director Michael Moore was inspired by the dead rabbit in Ishiro Honda's Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) for the infamous "pets or meat" scene in Roger & Me (1989). 

Ebert continues:
In these days of flawless special effects, Godzilla and the city he destroys are equally crude. Godzilla at times looks uncannily like a man in a lizard suit, stomping on cardboard sets, as indeed he was, and did. Other scenes show him as a stuffed, awkward animatronic model. This was not state of the art even at the time; "King Kong" (1933) was much more convincing.
I've never quite understood the argument by Kong or Harryhausen fanatics that stop-motion animation is more "state of the art" than suit-acting. I mean, would they also argue that, for example, Jack the Giant Killer (1962), with its stop-motion effects, is superior to Alien (1979) or Predator (1987), both of which utilize a guy in a suit? Whatever you may think about the type of SFX that brought the original King Kong and Godzilla to life, I think it would be very hard to argue that the former film had better miniature effects than the latter.

Critics of the Godzilla series usually argue that the man in the suit always looks like a man in the suit, but the fact that Kong and every other stop-motion creation by O'Brien and Harryhausen look like animated puppets is never a point of criticism, which I find bemusing. Sure, it's probably more time-consuming and painstaking than putting on a suit and going to town, but the effect is no more realistic just because it's time-consuming. The miniature cityscapes featured in tokusatsu productions are some of the most detailed and intricate you will find in any film, yet they are always laughed off as "cardboard sets," sight unseen. What happened to their appreciation of time-consuming and painstaking artistry? 

Enough of that tangent. Our heroic critic continues further:
When Dr. Serizawa demonstrates the Oxygen Destroyer to the fiancee of his son, the superweapon is somewhat anticlimactic. He drops a pill into a tank of tropical fish, the tank lights up, he shouts "stand back!," the fiancee screams, and the fish go belly up. Yeah, that'll stop Godzilla in his tracks.
And it does! Ebert sums up his review thus:
This is a bad movie, but it has earned its place in history, and the enduring popularity of Godzilla and other monsters shows that it struck a chord.
Yeah, I don't know, either, guys. I'll admit that I do find G54 a bit overpraised and overcited these days, but this is a review by an old dude set in his ways who will only see this genre one way -- cheesy, goofy fun that has nothing to say through its badly-dubbed lips.  

A few months after Ebert published his newspaper review, there was a response to it in one of the Godzilla fan rags that used Ebert's health issues (that a couple of years later would rob him of his voice) to explain why he didn't like the movie. I thought that was disgusting then, and I still do. Disagree with Roger all you want -- and I certainly do -- but to suggest that only an unhealthy individual could find fault with the original Godzilla is beyond the pale.

As mentioned at the very beginning of this blog post, Hong Kong monster movies also got their moment in the Sun from Chicagoland's greatest film reviewers. Here's how it all started.

In his review of Infra-Man, Ebert writes:

And so we're off and running, in the best movie of its kind since Invasion of the Bee Girls. I'm a pushover for monster movies anyway, but Infra-Man has it all: Horrendous octopus men, a gigantic beetle man with three eyes who sprays his victims with sticky cocoons, savage robots with coiled spring necks that can extend ten feet, a venomous little critter that looks like a hairy mutant footstool, elaborately staged karate fights, underground throne rooms, damsels in distress, exploding volcanoes, and a whip-cracking villainess named Princess Dragon Mom (Philip Wylie, please note).

These may be the only words of genuine praise Ebert has written about a live-action Asian monster movie:

The movie even looks good: It's a classy, slick production by the Shaw Brothers, the Hong Kong kung fu kings. When they stop making movies like Infra-Man, a little light will go out of the world.

On their TV show Sneak Previews, the pair hosted a special episode called "Take 2: Guilty Pleasures" (1979). On this episode, Ebert quipped:

Infra-Man was produced by Hong Kong's leading sultans of schlock: two brothers named Run Run Shaw and Runme Shaw, and this time they really outran themselves.

Well, at least he didn't say something truly silly like "the Korean Infra-Man."

Infra-Man would be brought up again by Ebert in the "Guilty Pleasures" episode aired on Siskel & Ebert in 1987. Interestingly, the pair would have this exchange on the show:

SISKEL: Actually, I think there was a film similar to it called Ultraman. But, anyway...

EBERT: A rip-off, probably.

SISKEL: No, no, I think that one came first.

Siskel goes on to point out that he enjoys the pose Infra-Man makes when he fires his beam. The results leave a lot to be desired.

Gene Siskel imitates Infra-Man's pose (and doesn't get it quite right).

In his 1999 review of Mighty Peking Man (1977), Ebert writes:

"Mighty Peking Man," made in 1977, is being re-released by Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Pictures, and we can only imagine young QT behind the counter of that legendary video store of his youth, watching this on the monitor and realizing he'd struck gold.

Actually, I think Tarantino jockeyed the desk at the video store, dreaming about the throngs of backyard moviemakers who would artistically handwave in front of tens of people at local "film festivals" as they enthusiastically described themselves as "Tarantino types."

Ebert finishes his newspaper MPM review thus:

I am awarding "Mighty Peking Man" three stars, for general goofiness and a certain level of insane genius, but I cannot in good conscience rate it higher than "Infra-Man." So, in answer to those correspondents who ask if I have ever changed a rating on a movie: Yes, "Infra-Man" moves up to three stars.

Ebert also reviewed MPM on his TV program in early 1999 with Harry Knowles as his guest co-host (following the sudden death of Gene Siskel). The review doesn't contain any interesting comments that are worth quoting, other than Ebert repeats his view that sometimes "bad" special effects are more fun to watch than good ones and that he also really likes Infra-Man, which was made by the same studio.

Gotta admit here that I never quite understood the generally positive reaction to Mighty Peking Man, whether it was being promoted as a camp classic (as Ebert does here) or as a legitimately good movie in the Asian monster movie fan press (which I find even more bizarre). For sheer entertainment value, I've always considered A*P*E the superior choice. But to each his own.

With all that out of the way, all that's left is the miscellany. Mostly, it's a collection of irrelevant references to Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and Infra-Man in reviews where they kind of don't belong. But it's worth a look, so here we go.

In his review of Battle of the Amazons (1973), Ebert writes:

No movie in the last 20 years has been dubbed more ineptly. No, not even "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster."

That was the first documented reference to Smog Monster that I could find. But the movie comes up again in Ebert's review of Tidal Wave (1975), which of course was just the Americanization of Submersion of Japan (1973). Ebert opens with:

Bad movies are really getting awful these days. It seems like only yesterday we were savoring bombs like "The Vengeance of She" and "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" movies so terrible they achieved a sort of greatness.

Ebert continues:

I was hoping 'Tidal Wave" would be a movie like that. When the publicity photographs arrived in the mail a few weeks ago, I was heartened by the sight of the staples holding together the cardboard skyscrapers: Here was a movie with real lack of promise!

Remember what I said a moment ago about Toho's miniature work? Anyway, here, Ebert raises the ire of every Godzilla message board troll who takes it upon himself to police the overall fandom's opinion about who really won at the end of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962):

It even looked like a good bet to outflank "King Kong vs. Godzilla." (What happened in that one, as I recall, is that King Kong lost and is currently trying to promote a bout with the Smog Monster, to establish himself as a contender once again.)

Next, Ebert proves you don't need a guy in a rubber suit in order to trash tokusatsu tactics:

But "Tidal Wave" let me down. It is purely and simply a wretched failure, a feeble attempt to paste together inept special effects (filmed in Japan) and Lorne Greene (filmed in America to his everlasting regret, I'll bet).

Ebert was as fit as a fiddle at the time he wrote that, so we can't blame his opinion on any illness. Now let's get back to Smog Monster references.

In his review of God Told Me To (1976), Ebert writes:

Not since "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" had a press release promised so much.

In his review of Slithis (1978), we get a Roger Ebert double whammy when he offers:

I did, however, enter the theater, hoping for one of those great bad movies like “Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster” or the immortal “Infra-Man.” I was disappointed.

Wow, a Smog Monster and Infra-Man reference in the same review! I guess Christmas came a bit early for readers of the Chicago Sun-Times. Let's skip ahead a view years to Rog's newspaper review of The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), in which Ebert writes:

The film's structure is weird. I thought it was over, and then it began again, with a San Diego sequence in which Spielberg seemed to be trying to upstage the upcoming "Godzilla'' movie. The monster-stepping-on-cars sequences in the current Japanese import "Gamera: Guardian of the Universe'' are more entertaining.

I remember reading the above review in real time and thinking how interesting it was seeing Ebert essentially side with Godzilla and Gamera over Spielberg's latest offering. Out of context, it may seem somewhat impressive. In context, however, I think we all know how things really are.

While we're on the subject, in his Movie Answer Man column from June 15, 1997, Ebert responds to a reader's question about whether the scene featuring evacuating Japanese businessmen in The Lost World: Jurassic Park might have been a bit racist:

I laughed, too. Spielberg is obviously basing an affectionate in-joke on the Japanese monster movie genre, and no racism was intended or should be found. By the way, your financee should know that fans of Japanese monster movies think they're better than "Lost World."

Oh, hey, look! Gamera's back in Ebert's review of Armageddon (1998):

After meteors turn an entire street into a flaming wasteland, the woman complains, "I want to go shopping!" I hope in Japan that line is redubbed as "Nothing can save us but Gamera!"

Below is a grab bag of Infra-Man references. In his review of The Manitou (1978), Ebert closes his review with:

What's interesting is that “The Manitou” finds it necessary to claim a factual basis for itself, at the end of easily the least plausible thriller since, oh, “Infra-Man.”

In Ebert's review of Flash Gordon (1980), he opens with:

Not since "Infra-Man" has a movie opened with a development more ominous than the crisis facing Earth at the beginning of "Flash Gordon."

In his Swamp Thing (1982) review, Ebert comments:

This is one of those movies like "Infra-Man" or "Invasion of the Bee Girls": an off-the-wall, eccentric, peculiar movie fueled by the demented obsessions of its makers.

In Ebert's review of If Looks Could Kill (1991), he writes:

I'm so accustomed to the badness of the movies in the spy-spoof genre that it took me a while to realize that William Dear and Darren Star, the director and writer, were sincerely trying to go over the top - that like the makers of such films as "In Like Flint," "Invasion of the Bee Girls" and the immortal "Infra-Man," they indeed had an unholy light glinting in their eye, and were making a subversive film rather than following a formula. 

In his review of Mars Attacks! (1996), he writes:

Ed Wood himself could have told us what's wrong with this movie: The makers felt superior to the material. To be funny, even schlock has to believe in itself. Go to a video store and look for “Infra-Man” or “Invasion of the Bee Girls,” and you will find movies that lack stars and big budgets and fancy special effects, but are funny and fun in a way that Burton's megaproduction never really understands.

Last (and certainly least), Ebert received this message from one of his readers in his November 4, 2001, Movie Answer Man column:

Forget the theory that "K-Pax" was borrowed from the Argentinean film :"Man Facing Southeast." The idea of a psychiatrist examining a patient who claims to be an alien dates back even further. "Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster" (1964) stars Akiko Wakabayashi as the princess of Salgina. Upon hearing a mysterious voice, she gains prophetic powers and claims to be a Martian (Venusian in the Japanese version). She is taken to a psychiatrist played by the late, great Takashi Shimura, who comes to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with her, but he refuses to accept the notion that she is an alien. (Brett Homenick, Spring Valley CA)

To which the man himself replied:

Takashi Shimura starred in "Ikiru," "The Seven Samurai," "Hidden Fortress" and "Kwaidan," four of the greatest films of all time. I have to go with his diagnosis.

And that's a wrap.

I'm sure many will be quick to cry racism, but I think that charge misses the mark. Ebert was quick to praise many other Japanese movies as superior works of art. His "blind spot" seems pretty much limited to movies with guys in monster suits, which, in fairness, probably do appear quite silly to most normies. 

I'm sure there are things I missed, but this is about as complete as I could make it. If you've made it this far, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Ending the Year on the Right Note!

Yoshiro Uchida. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Earlier tonight (Tuesday, December 26), I attended the last chanson performance by Yoshiro Uchida to be held this year. As always, I arrived late due to my work schedule (gotta make a living, after all), but I was able to catch more than half the show.

In between sets, after seeing that I had finished my drink, Uchida-san offered to get me another one. He asked what I wanted, so I said ginger ale. Uchida-san was a bit surprised by my response (since it wasn't an alcoholic beverage) and asked, "Plain?" I told him yes. Afterward, he joked to a couple of Japanese ladies sitting near me about his English ability.

Speaking of those young ladies, it was their first time at the venue, and we struck up a conversation. One of the women told me about her trip to New York City a couple of years after 9/11. The other lady told me about her trip through Europe around the same time. We made a bit of small talk, and it was interesting getting to know them.

One of Uchida-san's fans gave him flowers for his recent birthday. After the show, I asked him when his birthday was, to which he replied it was December 14. So I wished him a belated happy birthday, as well as a happy New Year. (It was a milestone birthday, too, as Uchida-san turned 70.)

The evening's other singer snapped the above photos of Uchida-san and me together. He asked what my name was, and, when I told him, he commented that it was difficult to pronounce. (He's not the first Japanese to say so!) 

And that's a wrap! I've had a lot of fun seeing Uchida-san perform chanson throughout the year, and I look forward to seeing more of his shows next year.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Trouble with Toy Dispensers

A toy dispenser in Toho Cinemas Shinjuku with lots of Toho kaiju goodness inside. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Earlier today, I briefly stopped by Toho Cinemas Shinjuku with the hope that I might find the toy dispenser I'd recently heard about that offers four different Toho kaiju, of which I was particularly interested in Sanda and Gaira from The War of the Gargantuas (1966). But, hey, Godzilla and Gigan aren't half bad, either. In any case, I was in luck because there it was!

Well, it didn't take me long to realize that I didn't have enough change on hand, so I went ahead and bought a small trinket (in this case, a Godzilla-themed magnet) in order to make more change. The cashier gave me exactly what I needed -- a 500-yen coin! Or so I thought.

While I had the exact amount of change I needed, I found out real quick that the machine didn't accept 500-yen coins. No way was I going to make change again when I already had a pocketful of it. Much like Jumpin' Jeff Farmer, I don't like it when things aren't going my way, so I metaphorically threw up my hands and gave up. Oh, well. Maybe next time.

Ultraman Jack Celebrates the Year That Was 2023!

Kaiju Sakaba in Shimbashi. Photo by Brett Homenick.
Last night (Friday, December 22), I attended another end-of-the-year party, but this time it was at Kaiju Sakaba near Shimbashi Station. It'd been a long time since I last went to Kaiju Sakaba, which made it a bit more special as a location. 

Photo by Brett Homenick.

I'd forgotten about the Roman Holiday-inspired Jamila display that lights up and roars when you put your hand in it. It's something the staff basically forces you to put your hand in before you enter. 

Gomora is ready to party! Photo by Brett Homenick.

The guest of honor was suit actor Eiichi Kikuchi. Kikuchi-san is principally known as Ultraman Jack's suit actor in Return of Ultraman (1971-72). He also donned the Ultra Seven suit in Ultra Seven (1967-68) for two episodes (14 and 15) and tussles with Sean Connery in the classic James Bond thriller You Only Live Twice (1967).

Photo by Brett Homenick.

It was a lot of fun to see Kikuchi-san again. His clothing style that evening suggested that of a cowboy. In fact, he was wearing a belt buckle that read something along the lines of, "In Dixie, we don't call 911." I asked Kikuchi-san where he bought his belt, and, interestingly enough, he said he got it in Japan!

Eiichi Kikuchi and an old friend. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Underneath his flannel shirt, however, was a T-shirt he wore in honor of Jiro Dan, the late actor who played Hideki Go, Ultraman Jack's human alter ego in Return of Ultraman, who passed away in March of this year. 

Photo by Brett Homenick.

Here are some memories from the evening: At one point during the evening, I made the Specium Ray pose, but Kikuchi-san corrected the position of my arms, pointing out that it would have obscured the Color Timer. Well, folks, that's why he's Ultraman!

Photo by Brett Homenick.

Another fun memory was when Kikuchi-san (whom I had the privilege of sitting almost directly across from during the evening) was coming back to his seat. He put his hand on my shoulder as he passed my chair, which was a lovely thing for him to do. 

Photo by Brett Homenick.

Also on hand was former Toho SFX crew member and tokusatsu book author Masahiko Shiraishi, who worked primarily on the Heisei series, starting with Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) and culminating with Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). 

It'd been a while since I last saw Shiraishi-san, and our conversation covered such topics as MGM musicals (Shiraishi-san loves them!) and Fred Astaire movies (he loves those, too!). 

During the evening, I asked Shiraishi-san if he considers Chofu (the home of Daiei and Nikkatsu) or Seijo (the home of Toho) to be Japan's equivalent of Hollywood. He selected neither of those options and went with Kyoto instead. A very fascinating and unexpected answer! I hadn't considered Kyoto a possibility before, but, at least in the context of its Showa-era heyday, it ought to be in the running.

Masahiko Shiraishi. Photo by Brett Homenick.

There were other familiar faces on hand, such as Yutaka Arai, who has worked as an SFX director on independent kaiju eiga. It was great to say hello to several folks I hadn't seen in a while.

What a wonderful end-of-the-year celebration this was. Everyone was in the holiday spirit and had a fun time. I'm glad I went and, as always, can't wait to do it again!

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Another End-of-the-Year Gathering in Tokyo!

Kyoko Ifukube. Photo by Brett Homenick.

This afternoon (Tuesday, December 19), I had an end-of-the-year lunch with Akira Ifukube's daughter, Kyoko, and two of her friends. We met near my work and went to have a steak lunch (which, by the way, was really good!). After that, we had coffee at Starbucks down the street until it was time for me to go back to work. Overall, we hung out for about two and a half hours. 

It probably won't surprise you that the talk about Godzilla and other such topics was very brief, and we mostly talked about everyday topics, like cooking. These end-of-the-year get-togethers are pretty common in Japan, so December tends to be a busy month for the people here. Suffice it to say, it was a fun afternoon with a lot of laughs. Can't wait to do it again!

Monday, December 18, 2023

Seeing 'Videodrome' in 4K!

Videodrome (1983) at the Shin Bungeiza. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Tonight (Monday, December 18), I went to the Shin Bungeiza theater in Ikebukuro to catch a screening of Videodrome (1983) in 4K. Now here's a movie I never expected to see in a theater, so the opportunity was just too good to pass up. (I should also point out that it was billed as the director's cut, though I don't know how it's different from the theatrical release.)

I can't say I'm a huge fan of director David Cronenberg's work, but I do admire some of his films. Taking a look at his filmography, I've also seen Scanners (1981), The Fly (1986), A History of Violence (2005), Eastern Promises (2007), and Cosmopolis (2012). Other than Cosmopolis (which I only saw for George Touliatos' role as a barber toward the end of the movie), I enjoyed all these films to some extent, but Videodrome has always been my favorite of his.

Godzilla guards the soda machine against marauding kaiju. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Interestingly, when I saw the title Maps to the Stars (2014) in his filmography, it seemed strikingly familiar to me, but I can't remember if I actually saw it or not, which probably doesn't say a whole lot for the movie. 

Prior to this screening, I'd probably seen Videodrome three times before -- all of which were on DVD. I believe the last time was circa 2013 when I was still living in Nakatsugawa, Gifu Prefecture. While the film has all the typical scenes of "body horror" that you'd expect from Cronenberg, I've always felt this movie never went too far with it, which is one reason I'm partial to it. (Thankfully, no scenes of Brundlefly vomiting on his food can be found here.)

Photo by Brett Homenick.

As for the film, James Woods is effective as a sleazebag TV executive who stays just sympathetic enough for the audience to care about. Moreover, I was surprised at how small Deborah Harry's role was (it's almost an extended cameo), though she likewise does a good job with the material she's given. Rick Baker's FX hold up quite well, too. I could go on and on, but I really don't have anything negative to say about the movie at all. The whole thing just works.

I also got a kick out of seeing the late Michael Lennick's onscreen credit at the end, too. In fact, I remember buying the Criterion release of the film in early 2007 after I interviewed him about his work on Virus (1980) simply because I knew he worked on the film (meaning Videodrome, not Virus). 

Photo by Brett Homenick.

One other thing that really stood out to me was that the early '80s look and vibe of the film added to its creepiness. I guess it's a bit hard to put into words, but, had it been shot just a few years later, I think it would have lost something intangible. It's a movie that was definitely made at the right time. 

All in all, it was a great evening at the movies. I really enjoyed this one and give it a full-throated recommendation. 

Godzilla Sighted in Ikebukuro!

A Mandarake Nayuta advertisement in Ikebukuro Station. Photo by Brett Homenick.

While passing through Ikebukuro Station earlier tonight, I saw something quite unusual -- an ad for Mandarake Nayuta! I've never seen an advertisement like this in the station before. In fact, I didn't even know there was a Mandarake shop nearby! Gotta love these surprises you find in this city.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

An End-of-the-Year Tokusatsu Gathering!

Eiichi Asada (left) and Kazuya Konaka hold a poster for Konaka-san's film Single8 (2023). Photo by Brett Homenick.

Last night (Saturday, December 16), I attended an end-of-the-year party with two special guests: Eiichi Asada and director Kazuya Konaka. Konaka-san had his new film Single8 (2023) screened, but I missed it due to my work schedule. Maybe someday!

Despite being an end-of-the-year party, the proceedings were pretty typical. Actually, the most memorable moment for me was when one of my Japanese friends, whom I've known for years, asked me what I thought of Godzilla Minus One (2023). Well, technically, I asked him first, but, before answering, he asked me what I thought of it. When I said I didn't think it was very good, he smiled and shook my hand. It turns out he had the same issues with the film that I did and couldn't understand why it's so successful.

Eiichi Asada. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Overall, we both agreed that the visuals were good but that the script was the film's major weakness. With a few tweaks, I do think the movie could have been great. It's just a shame that the story has more than its share of flaws.

As mentioned earlier, one of the guests of honor was director Kazuya Konaka  Konaka-san helmed episodes of Ultraman Dyna (1997-98), Ultraman Cosmos (2001-02), Ultraman Nexus (2004-05), Ultraman Mebius (2006-07), Ultraseven X (2007), Ultraman Ginga S (2014), and Ultraman Orb: The Origin Saga (2016-17). 

Konaka-san also directed the feature films: Ultraman Zearth 2 (1997), Ultraman Tiga and Ultraman Dyna (1998), Ultraman Gaia: The Battle in Hyperspace (1999), Ultraman: The Next (2004), Mirrorman Reflex (2006), and Ultraman Mebius and Ultra Brothers (2006). 

I didn't get to speak with Konaka-san very much (despite sitting across from him for a good portion of the evening) due to my lack of familiarity with his work. But it was interesting listening to him answering the questions of others at the table who were much more familiar with his movies and TV shows.

That said, I had a lot of fun with Asada-san, as usual. After I had arrived late and sat down in the audience, Asada-san spotted me and greeted me from his table where he was signing autographs. One funny moment was when I was saying something about the Soviet submarine scene in Godzilla 1985 (1984), but Asada-san couldn't understand my use of the word "Russian" with a Japanese accent. It wasn't until I said the word in English that Asada-san finally understood what I was saying! 

At the end of the evening, a couple of attendees handed Asada-san their business cards, and, since comedy comes in threes, I handed Asada-san what I explained was an invisible business card. As you can see, I like making silly jokes a lot more than I'm sure people like hearing them. (I really should get new business cards made, though.) Also, as Asada-san was about ready to leave, we posed for the two photos above. 

All in all, it was a fun evening, and I hope to do it again next year!

Kenpachiro Satsuma, the Heisei-Era Godzilla Suit Actor, Passes Away at 76

Kenpachiro Satsuma in November 2015. Photo by Brett Homenick.

It was announced via social media that Kenpachiro Satsuma, the actor inside the Godzilla suit from 1984 to 1995, passed away on December 16 at 10:49 a.m. due to interstitial pneumonia. He was 76.

Kenpachiro Satsuma in March 2017. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Satsuma-san had been a fixture of fan conventions for decades, going back to G-CON '96, which was organized by the late John Rocco Roberto. Mr. Roberto and his associates brought Godzilla suit actors Haruo Nakajima and Ken Satsuma to America for the first time that summer in an event many others have tried to duplicate but never could. 

Kenpachiro Satsuma wearing a Pulgasari T-shirt in November 2015. Photo by Brett Homenick.

That event (as well as Mr. Roberto's other endeavors) were well before my time, which is something I've always regretted missing. Luckily, I was able to meet Satsuma-san several times over the years in Japan. 

With Kenpachiro Satsuma in November 2015.

I first met him in October 2012 at Super Festival, at which he was participating in a Q&A with fellow Godzilla suit actors Nakajima and Tsutomu Kitagawa about their suit-acting days.

Kenpachiro Satsuma in November 2015. Photo by Brett Homenick.

The meeting was very brief, but I do remember saying sugoi (which is roughly the equivalent of "Wow!" or "Awesome!") about something, to which Satsuma-san quickly responded with the more masculine-sounding sugei. Gotta be as manly as possible around Godzilla. I found that quite amusing.

Tsutomu Kitagawa, Kenpachiro Satsuma, and Haruo Nakajima in October 2012. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Right before a similar event in October 2014, I happened to bump into Satsuma-san on the Chuo-Sobu Line on the way to the venue. He and I (as well as a mutual friend) ended up walking to the event together. 

Hurricane Ryu and Kenpachiro Satsuma at a memorial event for Koichi Kawakita at Toho Studios in February 2015. Photo by Brett Homenick.

About a month later, in November 2014, I called Satsuma-san on his cell phone and asked him if he'd like to get together with a Japanese friend of mine and me at a cafe. He agreed, and we ended up meeting in Shibuya. I remember buying Satsuma-san a pricy omiyage for his trouble. 

Tsutomu Kitagawa, Haruo Nakajima, and Kenpachiro Satsuma in October 2014. Photo by Brett Homenick.

While I couldn't have predicted it at the time, we ended up having quite a candid discussion with Satsuma-san about a variety of topics. Suffice it to say, it was all rather eye-opening. 

Kenpachiro Satsuma at the ticket gate at Nakano Station in October 2014. Photo by Brett Homenick.

That has to be my favorite time in Satsuma-san's company. We ate at a cafe that was right next to Toho Cinemas Shibuya, which I thought that would make a perfect backdrop for some photos.

With Kenpachiro Satsuma in November 2014.

I would continue to see Satsuma-san at a variety of events in 2015. He was one of the guests at a celebration at Toho Studios honoring the memory of SFX director Koichi Kawakita, who had recently passed away. That same year, Satsuma-san also appeared at a couple of events with a limited number of participants at a restaurant in Kichijoji, Tokyo. 

Kenpachiro Satsuma in July 2020. Photo by Brett Homenick.

At the first one, which was held in July, I arrived late due to my work schedule, but Satsuma-san invited me to sit next to him, which was quite an honor. 

Kenpachiro Satsuma in March 2017. Photo by Brett Homenick.

At the second one, held in September, Satsuma-san showed me a piece of paper with English written phonetically in katakana that he used for introductions at American conventions in the past.

Kenpachiro Satsuma on the Chuo-Sobu Line in October 2014. Photo by Brett Homenick.

I helped Satsuma-san read it, and, while some of it was a little difficult to make out at first, we were able to figure out what it all meant. My favorite part of the introduction was his saying that Godzilla survives on nuclear fuel and that for him it is like eating a hamburger. Funny stuff!

Director Takao Okawara and Kenpachiro Satsuma in March 2017. Photo by Brett Homenick.

These days, I can't remember which of the two events it was, but Satsuma-san confided in me at one of them that (to the best of my recollection all these years later) he was interviewed by a reporter for his role as Godzilla in Godzilla 1985 (1984). 

Kenpachiro Satsuma and Hurricane Ryu in July 2020. Photo by Brett Homenick.

About 10 years later, he ran into the same reporter, who by this time had become some kind of high-ranking individual at the publication. Seeing as how Satsuma-san was still a suit actor at the time and hadn't "moved up" in his career, he felt a bit of pressure when he found out about that.

SFX director Teruyoshi Nakano and Kenpachiro Satsuma in November 2015. Photo by Brett Homenick.

I thought that was rather surprising, considering that the role from which he hadn't yet graduated was the same role that earned him international fame and acclaim, and I'm sure nobody outside of Japan had ever heard of the reporter in question.

Kenpachiro Satsuma in October 2014. Photo by Brett Homenick.

But it just goes to show that, as much as we may revere a person and honor his accomplishments, he may not see himself the same way when he looks in the mirror.

Tsutomu Kitagawa, Haruo Nakajima, and Kenpachiro Satsuma in October 2014. Photo by Brett Homenick.

After 2015, Satsuma-san would become a bit more scarce at gatherings in Tokyo. He turned up at one in March 2017 with Heisei-era director Takao Okawara for a screening of Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992). Another time, he shared the stage with director Kazuki Omori and actress Megumi Odaka at a Tokusatsu DNA event in December 2018. 

Kenpachiro Satsuma in March 2017. Photo by Brett Homenick.

The last time I would ever see Satsuma-san was in July 2020. It was at a screening for Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993), which he attended with Hurricane Ryu. Satsuma-san was noticeably frail but still affable as always. 

In between Kenpachiro Satsuma and Hurricane Ryu in July 2020.

There, he talked about the difficulty of acting as Hedorah in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971), how much he liked playing Gigan, and some of the challenges filming Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995).

With Isao Zushi, Hurricane Ryu, and Kenpachiro Satsuma in July 2020.

After the event, a group of us went to the izakaya that was owned and operated by Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) suit actor Isao Zushi. It was an incredibly rare opportunity to hang out with these two Godzilla suit actors at the same time. 

Kenpachiro Satsuma and Isao Zushi in July 2020. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Following that event, it seemed nobody could get a hold of Satsuma-san. I know I tried a few times but got no reply. Phone calls went unanswered, and text messages went unread.

Kenpachiro Satsuma in March 2017. Photo by Brett Homenick.

A suit actor who has done appearances at conventions with Satsuma-san in the past recently told me that he hadn't heard from Satsuma-san in a long time, either, and was very worried about him. Everyone I'd spoken to in the last couple of years about Satsuma-san had a similar response.

Tsutomu Kitagawa, Kenpachiro Satsuma, and Haruo Nakajima in October 2012. Photo by Brett Homenick

As a result, I can't say the news is shocking. It's incredibly sad, but I've been expecting it for a while. Satsuma-san was a very kind gentleman, and I wish I'd gotten to know him better. In the last few years, I really wanted to interview him, which I actually kind of avoided in my early years living in Japan.

With Kenpachiro Satsuma in October 2014.

I mean, Satsuma-san had been interviewed so many times by so many different people, what could have been left to say? At least that was my reasoning back then, but, as time went on, I gradually realized just how much there was left for him to say. I wish he could have said it.

With Kenpachiro Satsuma in March 2017.

Rest in peace, Satsuma-san. Thank you very much for stomping your way into my life. Your place in film history is assured.