I have a great respect for people who both love Japanese film and feel compelled to translate that love into something that can be shared with others. Blogs such as this one are an open invitation to the casual filmgoer to explore beyond their boundaries, and the old-fashioned 'zine will always have a place in my heart (konnichiwa, G-Fan mag!). But in terms of legitimizing an underappreciated genre of film, nothing beats a proper book, especially if it is well-researched, well-written, well-designed, and on shelves in bookstores and libraries. And while I'd stop just short of claiming August Ragone's "Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters: Defending the Earth with Ultraman, Godzilla, and Friends in the Golden Age of Japanese Science Fiction Film" (whew) was the kaiju equivalent of a book as essential as Jasper Sharp's "Behind the Pink Curtain", I would say that… Actually, that's exactly what I should be saying. Ragone doesn't have Sharp's eye for contextual political historicity beyond the usual 'Gojira-as-atomic-bomb' stuff, but in terms of passion for the subject, detail in production notes, and anecdotes from filmmakers and such, "Master of Monsters" is right there on the top shelf of J-film volumes. Ragone didn't write this for academics, but neither did he aim too low: This is a book for those of us who first met Godzilla at the drive-in or on Saturday-morning TV, and developed into adults with a love of sci-fi cinema. As a guileless friend put it, "This book is like all the best DVD extras you've ever seen crammed into 200 pages." Er, yeah—something like that!
The book follows the basic trajectory of the filmmaker's life, from a childhood fascination with aircraft and flying (as a boy, Tsuburaya won modelmaking contests; as a young man he became a pilot) to a chance meeting that steered him into the movie business (Tsuburaya, out drinking with friends, popped out to the loo just before a brawl broke out and impressed an onlooker with his "levelheadedness") to his work with Toho and the founding of his independent production company. Ragone manages to engross the reader in the early years to an uncanny degree. My fear before cracking the book was that I'd be hurriedly skimming everything just to get to the giant robots and extraterrestrial invaders, but no such selective reading was necessary. At least partial credit goes to the subject of the book here: Tsuburaya never abandoned his childlike love of building models, so everything builds upon that. The biographical info is relevant from page one.
Tsuburaya the man was no doubt adept at taking care of his business concerns, but Tsuburaya the SPX whiz saved his passion for projects that delighted the boy within. His greatest professional enthusiasm stemmed not from films that were commercially popular or huge moneymakers, but rather those that A) delighted children, or B) allowed him to build more elaborate models. Godzilla's transformation from atomic allegory to dancing, pro-wrestling defender of Japan may rankle J-film purists, but Tsuburaya seems to have been pleased that children enjoyed his work. And only an otaku-like passion for model-building can explain Tsuburaya's excitement over comparative dreck "Frankenstein Vs. Baragon". From the text, explaining Tsuburaya's excitement: "The monsters in the story were to be much smaller than usual, allowing [Tsuburaya's] team to build miniature sets and models at a much larger scale than for the Godzilla films, greatly increasing the detail of the miniatures and the illusion of reality." But of course!
STRIPE studio's Jon Sueda and Gail Swanlund designed "Master of Monsters" for San Francisco publisher Chronicle Books, and they've crafted something easily navigable and fun. Some of their choices skirt around the edge of designerly fuss—bright yellow pages with black text might differentiate those sidebar essays, but good lord!—but the subject matter demands a strong point of view, and the book has some small touches that are just wonderful. If anything, Ragone and STRIPE restrained themselves by not filling every square inch of space with photos and sketches of kaiju ephemera. There are many large images, but very few full-bleed pages owing to one aspect of the design: a red fore-edge with "EIJI TSUBURAYA" in white relief, making the book instantly identifiable even if the spine is facing away from you. It's purely decorative, but it's the kind of detailed work that can only come from a publisher that believes in the project. There's even a section at the back profiling an avid collector of Tsuburaya-related toys and figures, with several pages of photos.
August Ragone's "Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters" hits the sweet spot between fanboy exuberance and authoritative biography dead center. It's as fun as a book about Ultraman's creator needs to be, but without skimping on the research and detail that mark the book as the definitive volume on the subject. To Ragone's credit he shares the spotlight with a number of other writers who contribute essays on related subjects (Ishiro Honda, "Gappa the Triphibian Monster" and other "Gojira"-inspired tomfoolery, etc.), which rounds the book out into a history of all things rubber-suited. The book is chock full of photos, including the kinds of behind-the-scenes production pics that will cause nerdgasms in any kaiju aficionado. Simply put, there's no better English-language book for Godzilla or Ultraman fans, and no better personal history of the man who brought them both to life.
Note: Ragone's blog will keep you abreast of the author's many sponsored film events and personal appearances, as well as kaiju news in general. San Francisco-area readers should check out his co-presentation of the 'Kaiju Shakedown!' event "Tokyoscope: War of the Giant Monsters", a mini-film fest at the excellent Viz Cinema in early May.