Beyond Godzilla: Blue Christmas and Gamera

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‘Burû Kurisumasu’ (1978, Kihachi Okamoto)

by Jaime Grijalba.

The Beyond Godzilla series that played at New York’s Japan Society was maybe among the most interesting events that has happened in the repertoire scene in the past few weeks, if only because of the exclusive nature and the rarity of most of the films that played. Maybe the most notable was the inclusion of ‘Tômei ningen’ (1954), directed by Motoyoshi Oda, and which was subtitled to English for the first time since its original Japan-only release the same year that ‘Gojira’ (1954) came out. In fact, I was so surprised (and grateful to the press people at Japan Society who were willing and kind enough to send me all the materials so I could see all the films from the comfort of my home in Chile) with that particular film that I featured it as my particular recommendation at the Brooklyn Magazine blurb that I wrote for its showing April 1st, which you can read here. Here’s more or less what I wrote:

“Released a month after Ishirō Honda’s Gojira (arguably the first Japanese sci-fi film), Invisible Man also features a political metaphor: it begins with the post-war Japanese government admitting that they created soldiers who became invisible but were assumed dead. Taking advantage of that secret, a bunch of criminals take on the features of invisible men known to the public (big trenchcoats, scarfs and dark glasses) to steal money and instill fear. The last (real) surviving invisible soldier has left war behind and now lives his life as a clown (the makeup both covers his deformity and renders him visible), but it’s he, the man of tradition, who must come forward to stop the criminals who’ve assumed American features and behaviors. While certainly a reactionary film, Invisible Man is also fun— its 70 minutes go quickly and leaving you wanting more from the characters, including a cute blind girl who’s lost her father, a wide-eyed reporter who acts more like a detective (another jab of social commentary from this seemingly inoffensive genre picture), and a mob boss with a kink for lashing women.”

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‘Tômei ningen’ (1954, Motoyoshi Oda)

So, with the final screenings coming tomorrow, April 8th, I decided to take a brief look at the two films that will play. First, the Kihachi Okamoto feature ‘Burû Kurisumasu’ (1978), which plays at 4PM this Saturday. It’s a science fiction film from a veteran filmmaker, which seems to not be so interested in sci-fi as much as he’s interested in making a political allegory that must’ve felt blunt and pretty unnecessary at time of release, but that now more than ever, in a time where intolerance and hatred for the ‘different’ has surged with enormous strength, it feels completely contemporary and urgent. At times it feels like the Japanese precedent of a similarly constructed American misunderstood masterpiece that also has predicted our present, ‘Southland Tales’ (2006) directed by Richard Kelly, though the Japanese film doesn’t have the fixation for a particular brand or kind of pop culture, while it simply goes towards a painterly description of the fascination and style of pop bands and music, which seems particularly nostalgic considering the year of release, as it seems to look back a lot onto what the craze of The Beatles was, but here related to a band with a song called ‘Blue Christmas’ that is somewhat connected to the fact that people all over the world are suddenly having blue blood instead of red, specially if they were exposed to what they believe are UFOs. So, while this is certainly a more dry apocalyptic politically charged film, with so many references to investigations of aliens (the Blue Book is mentioned twice), it’s a movie where we never see any aliens nor space ships, just the consequences of their apparent presence. It’s endearing in the way that it weaves two perspectives together in a long narrative, which is used to present the entire idea of what the film is about, each one dividing the film in two, as if they were mirrored. First, a journalist tries to find out what’s behind the blue blood and if these people are suddenly aliens that could be dangerous; and later, a Special Task Force soldier that is in charge of rounding up the people with blue blood, until he falls in love with one of them. Once the film knows it can’t go any further with its inherent metaphor of what the Holocaust was, it puts a bummer of an ending that can’t feel any more fit to this narrative.

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Gamera 3: Jashin kakusei (1999, Shusuke Kaneko)

Later into the afternoon, at 7PM, you’ll be able to watch ‘Gamera 3: Jashin kakusei’, the third film of the revamped Gamera franchise which started with ‘Gamera daikaijû kuchu kessen’ (1995) and continued with ‘Gamera 2: Region shurai’ (1996), and the one that will play in a remastered DCP tomorrow is certainly the best of the three, although they honestly can’t hold a candle to the campy fun that were the original films from the 60’s and beyond. These over-serious films have a wonderful sense of what could make a giant turtle scary, and specially this last one is incredible in its inventive use of special effects, which allows to have humans and monsters in the same frame, using either the King Kong effect of retro-projection, carefully planned CGI, and overall a good sense of framing, with use of shots looking from down on up, and backwards. It’s important to piece these two living entities together, because it feels like the film that has more connections between humans and monsters, as the girl from the first film that could communicate with Gamera has lost her connection, and now is struggling hard to find a way to tell the rest that her friend is up to good and no bad, specially when the strange alien creature Iris finally appears, which in a way is fed by the grudge of a young woman whose parents died in the first Gamera appearance. It is through that grief and hatred that the monster is a worthy adversary to Gamera, maybe the only true strong adversary that he’s ever encountered, giving the giant turtle a lot to do, and shedding some of his own blood in the way. While interesting in how it uses destruction of environment and cities as a way of saying that you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, in a way the film does acknowledge the pain that comes along with the destruction, while not as strongly as in the grief scenes of ‘Gojira’ (1954), the movie focuses on the military that see Gamera more like a threat than something they must defend or help in its struggle with the strange-looking Iris. While some relationships might seem strained, they ultimately work into giving this film a grimmer outlook towards the usual goodness that accompanied Gamera films in the early years. In the end, this Gamera might be ‘bad-ass’, but it’s not lovable as the creature from the children’s films of the 60’s and 70’s. But, if you’re going to see a Gamera film, you might as well see the best one in the modern trilogy.

So, that’s that, hope that you go and enjoy these films if you can, and I again say thank you to Japan Society for trusting me with the films for me to write about them, it’s been a pleasure and I hope I can do it again.

Here’s a list of the other non-mentioned films that played and what I wrote about them on Letterboxd:

· ‘Bijo to ekitai ningen’ (1958) https://letterboxd.com/jaimegrijalba/film/the-h-man/1/

· Ido zero daisakusen (1969) https://letterboxd.com/jaimegrijalba/film/latitude-zero/

· ‘Nerawareta gakuen’ (1981) https://letterboxd.com/jaimegrijalba/film/school-in-the-crosshairs/

· Densô ningen (1960) https://letterboxd.com/jaimegrijalba/film/the-secret-of-the-telegian/

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