Arama They Didn't

10:30 pm - 09/06/2012

Live-Action Tokusatsu: Ultraman and Godzilla

This is a four-part series on film and TV dramas featuring live-action "tokusatsu" special effects and superheroes.

Part 1: In the Realm of Ultra-cool, Ultraman Reigns Supreme

Just about anything goes in Tokyo's high energy and fashionable Shibuya district. Even so, pedestrians on the main Koen-dori thoroughfare did a double-take.

There, sauntering down the street were bug-eyed superhero Ultraman, decked out from head to toe in his trademark rubber suit, and his archenemy Alien Baltan, looking for all the world like an overgrown cockroach striding upright on two legs.

These characters from the ubiquitous "Ultraman" superhero franchise--Japan's 1960s answer to Superman--were on their way to a live broadcast from a studio run by satellite broadcaster Wowow Inc.

(op note: here's a nice, english dubbed compilation of some ultraman highlights for those unfamiliar with this classic show)

Actor Susumu Kurobe, who played the role of Hayata, the human form of Ultraman in the first installment of the franchise, also turned up with director Toshihiro Iijima.

"The current popularity of the TV series is more shocking than it was when it first aired," Kurobe said.

"Ultra Q," "Ultraman" and "Ultra Seven" aired from 1966 to 1968 and chalked up audience ratings of 20 to 30 percent each, which was phenomenal for the time.

"Ultra Q" is a science fiction TV series featuring "kaiju" monsters. It spawned the "Ultraman" gigantic superhero franchise.

The series was produced by Tsuburaya Productions Co. and Tokyo Broadcasting System Inc. (TBS), the predecessor of Tokyo Broadcasting System Holdings Inc.

Kids went wild. It was the first time for them to watch monsters on TV at home. Previously, Godzilla and other fiendish characters could only be seen on the big screen.

Cast and production members from the old shows are now much in demand for TV specials and cultural events.

For example, actress Hiroko Sakurai, who played a heroine in "Ultra Q" and "Ultraman" and is now 66 years old, gave a talk July 8 at the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama.

She then joined a round-table discussion July 31 in Shibuya that was filmed as a bonus video clip for a DVD.

On Aug. 11, she made a guest appearance at an Ultraman-themed concert held in Tokyo's sizzling Roppongi entertainment district.

Sakurai also appeared Aug. 19 at the Miyagi International Hero Summit held in Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture.

The renewed popularity of TV shows spawned 45 years ago also depends to a large extent on the adults who watched them as children. Many have attained senior corporate positions that allow them to give the green lights to company projects that try to recapture the past and nostalgia.

The Tokusatsu--Special Effects Exhibition, which features live-action special effects involving miniature landscapes and puppetry, is currently running at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. The exhibition is the brainchild of Hideaki Anno, creator of anime "Neon Genesis Evangelion." He was born in 1960.

Tsuburaya Productions, which will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding next year, is also actively reviving the old titles.

Starting last year, it released a full-color version of "Ultra Q." In collaboration with Wowow, the company is also releasing high-definition remastered versions of "Ultraman" and "Ultra Seven."

However, the studio is struggling to capitalize on the surging popularity of the old shows to create new series with all the latest special effects.

One of the more recent franchises, starting with the 1996 "Ultraman Tiga," dubbed "Heisei Ultraman series" because it aired in the current Heisei Era that began in 1989, consistently drew low audience ratings. There have been no shows featuring a new Ultraman since 2007.

The fact that Tsuburaya Productions has been taken over by a number of companies over the years may have been a factor.

The studio faltered with its production policies, especially the switch from budget-consuming "tokusatsu" live-action special effects with scaled-down models to full-CG productions.

Feature films have also fared badly.

"Ultraman Saga," the latest feature adaptation of the long-running series released this spring, grossed a paltry 530 million yen ($6.75 million) at the box office.

The figure pales in comparison to the feature film series "Kamen Rider," another popular superhero TV and film franchise in Japan, that makes at least 1 billion yen with each release.

The "Ultraman" series seems to be caught up in a vicious cycle. It is losing name recognition with audiences because no new shows are being made.

In 1968, "Kaiki Daisakusen" (aka "Operation: Mystery!"), a sci-fi TV series without superheroes, started airing in 1968 after "Ultra Seven" finished its run.

"The project came into being because we were looking for something different and new from the 'Ultra' (series)," producer Yoji Hashimoto said. "I think today's creators don't have that challenging spirit."

Some say it is essential to keep the "Ultra" tradition alive. On the other hand, tokusatsu works are more likely to wow today's audiences if the creators come up with innovative ideas and weave them with stories from the past to offer a new genre.

Part 2: Toys an essential spinoff to ensure steady stream of revenue

Tokyo-based Toei Co., which pioneered martial arts dramas in which the characters transform themselves, produces "Go-Busters" and "Kamen Rider Fourze," the only "tokusatsu" superhero shows still airing on a regular basis.

Both are the latest offerings from the "Super Sentai" and the "Kamen Rider" series.

Toei has been churning out tokusatsu TV shows since "Captain Ultra" made its debut in 1967.

Explaining the company's 45-year history in the genre, Toei's senior managing director, Takeyuki Suzuki, said: "It's because we have a business model in which royalties from toy sales are plowed back into production funds."

For example, a toy belt modeled after the one worn by Kamen Rider Fourze, which the protagonist uses to transform himself into a masked crusader, is a hot-selling item. Priced at 6,825 yen ($87), sales are expected to reach 800,000 units.

And then there are all sorts of "Astroswitch" gadgets that can be inserted into the belt. Sales of these products have already topped 30 million units.

Each year, the market is flooded with 6,000 related items--books, fashion accessories and so on--aimed at children.

To bolster the appeal of the toys, Toei spends seven or so months to develop character settings and designs for the action hero. After a show airs, a new robot is introduced at three-month intervals.

"Strength," "coolness" and "sense of excitement" are the defining features of these products.

A toy belt from "Kamen Rider OOO" (pronounced Ohs) can look cool to children when it is added with a single action that makes the buckle tilt in a diagonal way with a clanking sound, according to Toei.

Since 2000, the company has enlisted some really cool actors, among them Joe Odagiri, Hiro Mizushima and Jun Kaname.

In popular lingo, they are "ikemen," meaning they have super cool looks.

These installments have been dubbed the Heisei Kamen Rider series because they began airing in current imperial Heisei Era that began in 1989. The studio wanted actors who "look cooler" than the fathers of the children who watch the shows.

The company also realized it would have more luck promoting the toys if the shows drew good viewer ratings from the children's mothers. After all, it is the mothers who hold the purse strings.

When it comes to feature film adaptations, Toei's policy is to release films on a regular basis to earn steady revenue, according to Suzuki.

The company used to release a feature film only in summer. But now, it produces five or six features each year.

The crossover between the Kamen Rider and the Super Sentai superhero franchises means that each feature film series generates box office earnings in the range of 1 billion yen ($12.7 million).

For Toei, which has struggled to find box office success with other live-action flicks, the tokusatsu films and TV shows are its mainstay revenue source.

The bottom line is all about whether the profits from toy sales and other merchandise can cover pricey the production costs for tokusatsu special effects, such as miniature sets and costumes.

As it happens, Kamen Rider production costs are relatively low because the superheroes fight life-size "enemies." The Super Sentai series on which the U.S.-produced "Power Rangers" is based features giant robots and monsters through the combined use of tokusatsu and computer-generated imagery.

Technological innovations since the 1990s have allowed Toei to scrap a lot of the painstaking work associated with creating model sets.

"To be honest, it is a bit of a luxury being able to create miniature sets and props because it requires so many staff members and hours and hours to shoot scenes," Suzuki said. "But creating scenes that appear to really exist is what gives tokusatsu that special something. And that is very important."

Tokusatsu director Hiroshi Butsuda put it this way: "Think of when children are having fun crashing toy blocks. I think scenes where miniature towns are destroyed will always attract people."

Toei realizes its cannot rely solely on traditional photographic techniques. On the other hand, the shows would lose their charm if they were produced only with superficial "tokusatsu" special effects.

This requires a delicate balance, which is the hallmark of the Toei productions and the key to having a successful business model.

Part 3: Miniature sets offer a new take on reality

For film buffs of the monster/disaster genre, Godzilla is without equal, a made-in-Japan copycat version of King Kong with a uniquely Japanese twist.

Hollywood has finally caught on.

A new adaption of the Godzilla saga is now in the works. It is being produced by Legendary Pictures Inc., a blossoming production company responsible for recent blockbusters "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Clash of the Titans."

The last U.S. version of Godzilla, titled the very same, came out it 1998. It was directed by Roland Emmerich and featured well-known actors. But it was regarded as a box office flop. Critics said the monster looked like a giant lizard created with computer-generated imagery. Put simply, it was nothing like the Japanese original that put fear into audiences way back in 1954.

Details of the new Godzilla movie have yet to be unveiled, but the buzz around town is that the monster will be faithful to the Japanese version, which gave birth to the Japanese "kaiju tokusatsu" genre featuring "tokusatsu" live-action special effects and miniature sets.

The father of tokusatsu techniques was Eiji Tsuburaya, who served as special effects director at major film studio Toho Co. The tokusatsu giant made his name by creating miniature models used in war movies. He was later dubbed the "god" of monster flicks.

Teruyoshi Nakano, a special effects director whose works include the disaster epic "Nihon Chinbotsu" (Japan Sinks), was stunned when he saw the scaled-down model of an Antarctic research base created by Tsuburaya for the production of sci-fi movie "Yosei Gorasu" ("Gorath").

It was in 1962, shortly after Nakano landed a job at Toho.

"It was a film set built using the entire stage. The floor space covered 1,600 square meters," Nakano recalled. "To start with, each building was created in perfect detail before filming it close-up. Eventually, the entire set was photographed in a long shot."

"When you create buildings that merge into the background, each one in perfect detail, the picture produces a special richness even though the work that went into it cannot be seen with the naked eye. I keenly felt that tokusatsu was all about devotion."

Staff members who learned from the master carried Tsuburaya's inspiration into other Toho-produced tokukatsu films.

The studio became known for two genre movies making full use of miniature sets: kaiju monster movies represented by "Godzilla" and war films released on or around Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II.

Toho stopped making war movies when the new millennium dawned. It hasn't produced a monster movie since "Godzilla: Final Wars" in 2004.

Toho says it has no plans to resurrect monster films.

As a result, many companies in the business of manufacturing miniature sets switched to other lines.

Founded 38 years ago, Marbling Fine Arts Co. is one of the few miniature manufacturing companies still operating. Because business in Japan has dwindled, the company is looking to make inroads overseas.

"Our aim is Hollywood Godzilla," said the company's president, Norihiko Iwasaki.

"Our rivals are Industrial Light & Magic and other distinguished visual effects companies based in the United States and New Zealand, so the hurdle is extremely difficult to overcome," he said. "But we are pitching our hopes on a rumor that this time around, it will likely be a 'Godzilla' movie that pays homage to Japanese tokusatsu."

The company is currently working on landscapes with scaled-down sets built as small as possible, Iwasaki said.

"Tokusatsu special effects in Japan's monster films had an aspect of stylized beauty in some way. Whether or not we can be competitive in Hollywood depends on how much we can create reality, not stylized beauty."

Demand for miniature manufacturing mirrors a decline in the number of tokusatsu films being produced.

The battle to preserve the legacy left by Eiji Tsurubaya and carve out new opportunities overseas is being fought with gusto.

Part 4: 'Tokusatsu' special effects a unique cultural legacy

Digital technology may have dealt a devastating blow to a fading art of filmmaking: the creation of miniature landscapes that are the hallmark of a Japanese genre where superheroes and monsters stomp across the screen.

Paying homage to this fading skill--where computer graphics have replaced painstaking miniatures done by hand--the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo near the Kiba Koen park in the capital's Koto Ward has mounted "Tokusatsu--Special Effects Exhibition."

Some 500 items are on display, including miniature models of robots and gadgets used in live-action "tokusatsu" films and TV shows. A live-action short titled "Kyoshinhei Tokyo ni Arawaru" (God Warrior Appears in Tokyo) produced without computer generated imagery is also being screened.

The God Warrior is a bio-engineered giant from the "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" manga series that wreaks havoc on humanity.

Hideaki Anno, an anime director best known for the "Evangelion" anime series, was responsible for a sequence featuring the giant in an anime adaptation.

Gripped by a sense of crisis, Anno spearheaded efforts to stage the exhibition.

"During the past 10 years, an increasing number of miniature landscape sets have been lost or spoiled. If we don't take action now, these valuable cultural assets will be lost forever," Anno explained. "My ideal is to open a permanent museum, but this exhibition is the first step."

Back in the day, it was common practice to scrap model sets used in tokusatsu productions once filming was over. The props and other stuff often went into storage at film companies to be used again, were taken home by the modelers or collected by model enthusiasts.

The monster suits that inspired fear in audiences and other special costumes made from latex have deteriorated over the years. Many of the items on display were restored from the originals.

But it is not just models and costumes that aficionados of the genre are trying to preserve.

Toita Industries Inc., a Tokyo-based sheet-metal processing company, has produced metal props for tokusatsu since the 1940s when Kozo Toita, the father of current president Yukio Toita, headed the company.

"I heard that my dad created a subway train used in the first of the 'Godzilla' film series. It was apparently made of lead so that it could be easily squashed when Godzilla stood on it," Toita recalled.

"I myself can't remember how many Tokyo Towers I have made," Toita said with a laugh. "Our business has dwindled due to the widespread use of plastics. I hope there will be more creators who stick to the glitter of metal like (film director) Kon Ichikawa."

In its heyday, 90 percent of Toita Industries' operations revolved around films and TV shows. Now the figure is about 20 percent, Toita said.

Tokusatsu Kenkyujo is a rarity in the business. The company has regular work coming in for tokukatsu productions in the "Kamen Rider" and "Super Sentai" superhero series.

Tokusatsu Kenkyujo head Hiroshi Butsuda is passing on the company's special effects skills for the next generation in a "learn-by-watching-on-site" approach.

"My training includes having staff members attend editing sessions to show them which scenes are included and which ones are cut," Butsuda said.

"With current CG technology, we can get a 100 out of 100 points for the images if we allocate enough budget and time," said art director Toshio Miike, who worked for the "Kyoshinhei Tokyo ni Arawaru" short. "But with miniature tokusatsu special effects, it is possible to produce imagery beyond our expectations that is worth more than 100 points."

Special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano says: "In tokusatsu productions, there are front line workers whose craftsmanship are godlike. I think that staff members who control Godzilla are living national treasures just like masters of 'ningyo joruri' (Japanese traditional puppet theater)."

If nothing else, tokusatsu techniques are a unique cultural contribution from Japan. This forgotten aspect of art deserves to be preserved.

(This article was written by Noriki Ishitobi and Tetsuo Iwamoto.)

Sources: ajw [1] [2] [3] [4] and funbob62

so, ultraman vs. godzilla- who would win??? op is a super ultrman fangirl, so imma say ultraman... he's got awesome laser beams~!
eureeka 7th-Sep-2012 03:36 am (UTC)
Love it. Great article, OP.
asaphira_sachi 7th-Sep-2012 04:34 am (UTC)
Ultraman FTW :D~
aisasami 7th-Sep-2012 05:20 am (UTC)
I went to this exhibit during my summer vacation. It was aaaaaaaaaamazing. I wish there was more late Showa-era/Heisei-era toku (like, Super Sentai was not included).

The best part was the end where you could take pictures of the model "set" they used for Anno's short film. Like this:

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

My family <3s Toku. My dad grew up with the English-dubbed Ultraman and I had Power Rangers. Can't wait for the new Gavan movie.

11alejandra11 8th-Sep-2012 01:15 am (UTC)
Soy la unica que le esta viendo el "paquete" a la langosta????
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