Book Review: In Print
Reviewed by Marc Savlov, Fri., July 2, 2010
Killer Kaiju Monsters: Strange Beasts of Japanese Filmby Ivan Vartanian
Collins Design, 144 pp., $27.99
How to explain the enduring, apocalyptic allure of Japanese monster, or kaiju, movies? Seriously: grown men in rubber suits stomping on miniature Tokyos; Devo-helmeted aliens from Planet X utilizing triple-headed, golden dragon cat's-paws for global domination; and token Anglo Nick Adams (or Russ Tamblyn or Raymond Burr)? What was once viewed in the West as a kiddie matinee anomaly has become, in the 56 years since the release of Ishiro Honda's Godzilla, a globally recognized cultural signifier, or, more to the point, an icon/brand/culture unto itself.
At first glance, Killer Kaiju Monsters feels like something of an anomaly, too. It's not big enough to be a geeky coffeetable book, nor does it pack the informational/contextual wallop of William Tsutsui's award-winning 2004 tome, Godzilla on My Mind. What it does manage to be, however, is both ridiculously fun and the perfect primer for kids or adults curious about (or already smitten by) kaiju eiga, or "giant monsters." Vartanian knows his kaiju, big-time, and after a quick but thorough essay that touches on everything from the Chinese characters that make up the word "kaiju" to the story of Eiji Tsuburaya, the man behind Godzilla's effects and the creator of the Ultraman television series, he turns over the rest of the book to a gosh-wow series of interactive chapters on various aspects of kaiju, each one by a different writer/artist. How interactive? Keisuke Saka's cut 'n' fold kaiju paper model (thoughtfully printed as a heavy-stock, blank-backed foldout) is the coolest bit of book design I've seen in ages, and it includes a brief essay on the 17th century Chinese origin of the art form of mechanized puppetry, or karakuri. That's awesome enough for me to recommend Killer Kaiju Monsters to anyone under the age of 80, but Vartanian trumps even that by also including a multipage, transparent dissection of an original kaiju creation by artist Mark Nagata. It's like one of those old health-class overlays of the body visible but with more eyeballs and a multichambered stomach. Gosh-wow, indeed!
Killer Kaiju Monsters positively overflows with full-page artwork (original and otherwise), pithy essays on all things eiga, and generous amounts of J-pop-inflected ultracool. Not everyone gets Godzilla and his seemingly endless and often ill-designed progeny (see Nick Adams: WTF?!), but that's hardly a prerequisite to appreciating Vartanian's book. It also bears noting that a quick look at the recent work of, for example, Spike Jonze, reveals an indie-film culture that has taken these selfsame strange beasts of Japanese film to heart: Both the lovesick robots of "I'm Here" and the digitally enhanced Ameri-kaiju of Where the Wild Things Are owe subtle osmotic debts to Tsubaraya and the film studios Toho, Toei, Daiei, home of the original, kid-friendly wild things.