Saturday, March 12, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Tokyoscope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion

Tokyoscope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion

Author: Patrick Macias

Publisher: Cadence Books/Viz Media

240 pages

ISBN: 1569316813

Published: 2001

Reviewed by Eric Evans

Fans of Japanese film, and Japanese genre film in particular, want to fill in gaps in their viewing experience. The steps toward doing so are well-worn: Find a region-free DVD player. Find reputable and affordable online shops catering to your needs (or if you’re lucky enough to live in a city with a sizeable Japanese community, a video rental shop). Learn enough conversational Japanese that you can squeak by while watching the many, many unsubtitled DVDs you’ll want to see. Perhaps most importantly, read books which will guide you through the rich history of Japanese film. Volumes like Donald Richie’s “Japanese Cinema” and “The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film” are ideal places to start in that both provide critical context and feature movies which are essential viewing across a broad span of styles and genres. These books are like a detailed world atlas, and will chart your larger journey through the wilds of filmic history. More thematically focused volumes like Jasper Sharp’s “Behind the Pink Curtain”, Mark Schilling’s “No Borders, No Limits”, and August Ragone’s “Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters” follow, and though quite different from one another, each is an exhaustive, exhilarating celebration of its chosen subject. These are the Time Out city guides of Japanese film, taking you deep into the sidestreets and alleyways of the specific genre with the authority and deft eye of the local. It’s between these two extremes that many other books fall, books which serve as a stepping stone from the former to the latter. Patrick Macias’ “Tokyoscope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion” is such a book. Sort of.

Tonally, it’s an unconventional book. There are chapters on a variety of subjects such as daikaiju, pinky violence, horror, etc., but though most chapters introduces a handful of notable films in the genre, any might also contain a 2-page manga, a list of top kills (points if you read that and immediately thought “Chiba!”), or an interview. And what interviews! For example, the “Shogun Assassin” chapter consists solely of a candid chat between Robert Houston (director, screenwriter) and David Weisman (producer/screenwriter), the two men responsible for the dynamic dubbed coagulation of the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films, and they dish dirt on the film's history with abandon. Macias offers practically no context for the interview and no formal coverage or summary of the films in the series, just jumps right in to the back and forth and leaves it at that. As a presumably big fan of Japanese cult film writing a book on the subject, he seemingly takes for granted that the reader will also be familiar with the grindhouse classic under discussion. This presumption is at the core of “Tokyoscope”, and is a source of both strength and weakness.

In theory, this is a strength in that the knowledgable reader is spared slogging through familiar summaries. The absence of such a summary or overview to that "Shogun Assassin" interview was notable. For example, Schilling (unnecessarily) apologizes to readers of his excellent Nikkatsu crime book “No Borders” for describing the plots of some films more than once, citing the necessity of doing so for the “majority of readers” who might dip in here and there to find a title of interest. Macias prefers the frank and conversational tone of the blogger (before there were norms for such a tone, notably) and the result is a book that functions very much like having a film freak friend sitting next to you on a sofa, revving you up for the next DVD he’s about to play. Which is not to say Macias isn’t an expert on these films, but rather that he prefers the personal tone to the scholarly. That translates into a particularly easy and engaging read, punctuated by a real-world practicality in the form of VHS/DVD release info at the bottom of each individual film review. And though some—many!—of those titles are long out of print, it’s enormously helpful for the type of reader who dog-ears pages and seeks out titles that sound intriguing. The book doesn’t attempt to be comprehensive, but rather give a loose overview of available titles (both good and bad) in each genre. There are notable omissions (where is Zatoichi?), and a decade of DVD releases in the wake of the book’s publishing underscores what it doesn’t cover, but it’s a fun and at times illuminating read. The lack of summaries and explanation is a weakness because much of the audience for this book would seem to be people curious about the world of Japanese genre film, and would surely benefit from the context and insight Macias could provide. There’s a wealth of good stuff in here, it just takes a bit of digging to know what to look for, then find it.

The book’s significant flaw is it’s appearance, which might be described as schizophrenically ugly—a perfect storm of bad decisions. It is profusely overdesigned by Izumi Evers and features spastic illustrations by Happy Ujihashi. Such things are a matter of taste, but visually, “Tokyoscope” is hideous: it’s one of those rare books that is hard to read due to the typographic and layout choices made, and the illustrations are on par with the sharpie-on-typing-paper doodles found in any high school. At a distance the technicolor soup of the cover is eye-catching and differentiates it from other volumes, but up close it’s sloppy—not art-sloppy in the manner of Stephen Sprouse or Gary Panter, just plain unattractive. Interior illustrations don’t accentuate the subject matter, but seem like an elaborate in-joke on the part of the creative team. The book’s layout is presumably meant to play off the unpredictable and in-your-face tone of many of the subject films, but comes across as a garbled mess. The 5-page table of contents is a pile of intentionally mismatched novelty fonts smattered with images here and there (practically unnavigable when its only job is to serve as navigation), and the main body is split between a clear, basic template for film reviews and extended chunks of white-on-black text with a typeface too slight to hold its own when printed against a wall of black on this paper stock, resulting in just enough bleed that entire pages of text are difficult to read. Every typographic choice is wrong. There are blown-up photos using a Ben-Day dot effect, illustrations, playful little blood-spatter factoids, text laid over text, odd margins, absurd text wrapping… Each of these choices would work well on its own, but smashed together it’s all just too much. The subject matter is already diverse and frenetic by nature, so trying to reflect that freneticism in the design is the worst kind of overkill.

Patrick Macias’ “Tokyoscope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion” is one of those volumes that fans of genre movies should seek out and devour. Inexplicably out of print since 2001, it shows up here and there at used bookshops and on eBay, and will reward your winning bid with insight and trivia you will not find elsewhere. Let’s just hope that if Cadence Books (a division of Viz Media) go into a 2nd, revised and expanded edition—and they should!—they retool the design top to bottom and produce a package which showcases, rather than torpedoes, the content.

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