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Tokusatsu Special Effects Museum

Andrew Osmond visits Hideaki Anno’s exhibition of effects cinema

Tokusatsu Special Effects Museum

“Why did we love such images so much? I think our hearts were deeply moved by the grown-ups’ earnest efforts working at the sets that dwelled deep behind the images … the various appealing qualities of a visual world not made of three-dimensional images using digital data in virtual space, but that of real tangible objects in physical space, with real light and atmosphere, captured through the optical lens…”

So Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno writes in his introduction to the ‘Tokusatsu’ effects exhibition, now running at Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art. To give the exhibition’s full name, it’s “Museum Director Hideaki Anno’s Tokusatsu Special Effects Museum: Craftmanship of Showa and Heisei Eras Seen Through Miniatures.” Anno’s name is the big draw – Japan’s best-known ubergeek has adored Tokusatsu movies and shows since childhood, and is now defending their heritage. However, the festival is also of interest to fans of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, who were involved in the planning and production of the exhibit.

Tokusatsu means “special filming” and the word is used to refer to a range of Japanese movies and TV shows that use physical, material effects, be they a miniature spaceship flying on wires, or an actor in a Godzilla suit stomping through a model Tokyo. While they may only be on screen for brief shots, these effects are anything but ephemeral for fans. According to the exhibition notes, Anno was concerned that “miniatures and props of great cultural value are being scattered or lost.” Interviewed by the Daily Yomiuri newspaper, Anno explained that, even in Japan, physical effects are being replaced by CGI, pushing the art of Tokusatsu into decline. The purpose of the exhibition is to collect together as many miniatures as possible, and to add to the tradition, by making a new monster film.

Japan’s monster movies are the best known Tokusatsu titles outside Japan, but the exhibit reminds us that miniatures were used in other kinds of films. Along with the rocket ships and monster suits, you’ll find a locomotive from the 1963 war film Siege of Fort Bismarck, and a huge submarine from the 1973 disaster epic The Sinking of Japan. Given their age, it’s understandable that many of these props have a used, weathered look that only adds to their appeal.

On the fantasy side, you soon come across a huge snarling Mechagodzilla costume from 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla, followed by an equally fearsome Gamera turtle hung up like a gong. As for the mecha… Well, you get the feeling that the Japanese love vehicles with bloody big drills on them (driven home by Gainax’s anime Gurren Lagann!), such as the “Polar Borer” from 1977’s The Last Dinosaur.

You’ll find Tokyo Towers both intact and broken – one stands in the middle of a molten wasteland Tokyo, dangling mid-topple like it’s about to brain us all. There are gorgeously beautiful reconstructions of genteel Japanese houses and impersonal power pylons, begging for a giant lizard to trample them. Keep an eye on the walls, too; as well as vibrant poster art advertising monster mash-ups, there are meticulous vessel blueprints, concept art and dynamic paintings to enjoy.

As well as the movies, Tokusatsu takes in a strand of “hero” TV shows that began with Ultraman, created by Godzilla effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya, a legend to rank with Ray Harryhausen or Gerry Anderson. Foreigners may be struck by the painstakingly restored props from the 1968 TV show Mighty Jack, a creation of the Tsubuyara studio, which Anno loved as a grade-schooler. The eponymous Mighty Jack is a yellow-tipped battleship that doubles as a submarine and a superplane; its debt to Gerry Anderson is obvious, but it also shares the DNA of American mecha like S.H.I.E.L.D’s Helicarriers, which played a star role in Avengers Assemble.

The Ultraman franchise is represented through a whole room full of flying model superheroes, plus their customised planes, masks and costumes, all decked out in Superman reds. The Ultramen lead on into a wider family of TV heroes, among them the masks of pre-Ranger costumed fighters like Mirrorman (1971), Triple Fighter (1972), and the robot Janborg A (1973). By far the most striking mask is that of 1972’s Lionmaru, about a samurai-era ninja warrior who turns into a lion-man. His mask is frankly awesome, even if the screen execution was “frankly ridiculous” (in the authoritative judgement of the Dorama Encyclopedia).

The centre-piece of the exhibit is of special interest to anime fans. Famously, Anno earned his anime stripes by realising the “God Warrior” monster at the end of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. This was a nightmare giant with a triangular head, tusked maw and enough explosive fire to make Godzilla look like a damp candle. Now it returns, in an eight-minute film called Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo. It’s effectively a Miyazaki prequel (complete with Ghibli’s Totoro logo!) which shows what Nausicaa’s “seven days of fire” was really like. Anno was involved in the new film, although its director was co-curator and Gainax co-founder Shinji Higuchi, best known for reviving the Gamera monster-turtle franchise in the 1990s.

The film is a weird but impressive experience, with many deliberately stylised (or “bad”) effects shots and no real human characters, just anonymous human crowds, often frozen like toy figurines as they await obliteration. Like the film’s ancestor, the first Godzilla, what’s most impressive about Giant God Warrior is less the Cthulhu-like monster (though it’s cool enough) but the destruction it wreaks. Offices burst in goopy gouts of lava; city districts flame in lovely lines of fireworks.

After watching the film, we get the How They Did It lowdown, a 15-minute making-of video. The ingenuity on display is awesome; wreaths of cotton wool are turned into glowing mushroom clouds, and the filmmakers cackle in little-boy delight as they play back the detonations of model buildings. For the God Warrior itself, blue-screen was used, but not as you’d expect. The monster was a man-sized puppet, but rather than having a human actor inside it, it was driven by blue-suited puppeteers tagging behind, who moved it with rods. The Tokusatsu ethos rings proud: Screw motion capture, we make real monsters here.

The exhibits increase in size towards the end. An Aladdin’s cave warehouse carries a mass of props, including a truly titanic submarine from Shinji Higuchi’s 2005 film Lorelei. Another large section pays tribute to Godzilla, including Eiji Tsubuyara’s drawings for the film and the actual “Oxygen Destroyer” weapon. There are giant forced-perspective model landscapes, video montages of six decades of tokusatsu cinema and the piece de resistance – a scaled-down city centre you can walk through at Godzilla height, glowering contemptuously at civilisation. Tremble, puny humans… Hear me roar!

“TOKUSATSU–Special Effects Museum” runs until October 8 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo in Koto Ward. It is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. It is closed on Mondays and also on particular dates: check in advance. The nearest stations are Kiyosumi-Shirakawa on the Hanzomon line (exit B2) and Kiyosumi-Shirakawa on the Oedo line, taking about 10-15 minutes to walk to the museum from either.

Admission: 1400 yen for adults, 900 yen for students, 400 yen for primary school students and free to anyone younger!

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