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Plastic, fantastic and heavy-duty

A Japanese Giant Monsters Festival salutes two sturdy rubber-suited big shots: Godzilla and Ultraman.

June 19, 2005|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Moviegoers demand the most sophisticated of special effects in the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but when it comes to Japanese monster movies, the opposite has long been true.

Since his film debut 51 years ago, Godzilla, a.k.a. the "king of the monsters," has been played by a man in a rubber suit. Ditto the gigantic superhero Ultraman, who has been keeping Japan from being mashed by monsters since 1966.

Both remain fixtures in Japanese theaters, lumbering with fresh installments into the new century.

"They are still doing models and suits and things," says comic book illustrator and "Godzilla" expert Keith Aiken. "They are considered a tradition. They don't abandon those, but they try to mix in more animatronics, and the suits will have some mechanical features built in."

Though the appeal of "Godzilla" movies has waned in Japan in recent years, the Japanese kaiju (giant monster) genre is alive and well in the U.S. Last year, the American Cinematheque celebrated the monster's 50th birthday with a weeklong movie tribute. The retrospective was so popular that the Cinematheque is bringing back the "unstoppable titan of terror" and his friends with a Japanese Giant Monsters Festival.

The program kicks off Friday at the Egyptian Theatre with "Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla" and "Terror of Mechagodzilla." It also features the L.A. premiere of "Ultraman the Next," the rarely seen "Matango," "King Kong vs. Godzilla" and the latest Godzilla movie, "Godzilla: Final Wars."

Aiken, who helped program the festival, says Godzilla, and Japanese monster movies in general, have remained popular for many reasons. "They have made so many of them, there is a kind of familiarity. The original film is very serious and basically a metaphor for [the horrors of] nuclear war. And it is played completely straight.

"As the series evolved, it started getting popular with kids, so they tended to lighten him. Four or five films into the series he developed a personality. He has this tough-guy swagger, but he's also filled with a sense of humor."

Over the decades, Godzilla has gone from villain to hero and back to bad guy. "People find he's more fun when he's destroying things," says Aiken.

Toho, the studio that has been making Godzilla films since 1954, put the monster on hiatus after 2004's "Godzilla: Final Wars." Aiken believes there will be more down the line, "but in Japan, the last few films haven't been doing that well at the box office. Toho has been doing a Godzilla or monster film every single year since 1991. I think it has kind of hit the saturation point. They had a similar problem in the '70s, and they took an eight-year break."

Ultraman's popularity hasn't waned since his introduction to Japanese audiences in a TV series in 1966. "It is a huge thing all over Asia," says Brad Warner, who heads the Los Angeles office of Tsuburaya Productions, the company that makes Ultraman. "He is like Mickey Mouse. There are a lot of fans here because it was shown on a lot of UHF stations in the 1970s."

Besides bringing out various Ultraman TV programs, Tsuburaya has produced an Ultraman movie every year since 1996.

"Basically, the format of every Ultraman movie is pretty much the same: A giant monster shows up, and he's knocking over buildings, and the Earth people try to defend themselves," says Warner. "Everything they try fails, and then Ultraman appears and he kills the monster. Ultraman's big weakness is that he can only remain Ultraman in the Earth's atmosphere for three minutes at a time. He flies off into space when his time is up."

The latest Ultraman movie is darker and more adult than usual, Warner says. "The lead character has a family and is a really fully developed character. The special effects have been taken a lot further.

"There are still guys in suits, but the flying sequences are done in CG."

*

'Japanese Giant Monsters Festival'

Where: American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, and the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica

When: Friday through Sunday, June 29, July 1 through 3 at the Egyptian; July 1 through 3 at the Aero

Price: $6 to $9

Contact: (323) 466-FILM or www.americancinematheque.com

Schedule

Friday: "Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla," "Terror of Mechagodzilla," 7:30 p.m.

Saturday: "Ultraman and More: Rarities From Tsuburaya Productions!," 5 p.m.; "Ultraman the Next," 8 p.m.

Sunday: "King Kong Escapes," "Godzilla vs. Megalon," 5 p.m.

June 29: "Matango," "The H-Man," 7:30 p.m.

July 1-3: "Godzilla: Final Wars," various times

July 1 (at Aero): "Ebirah, Horror of the Deep," "King Kong vs. Godzilla," 7:30 p.m.

July 2 (at Aero): "Godzilla Tokyo S.O.S.," 6:30 p.m.; "Ultraman the Next," 9 p.m.

July 3: "Son of Godzilla," 5 p.m.

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