Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters – Book Review
Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects director responsible for the classic Toho monster movies, is a figure of major importance in the history of Japanese fantasy films. Inspired by the stop-motion special effects of Willis O’Brien (e.g. 1933’s KING KONG), Tsuburaya yearned to create his own movie monster, and he finally got his chance when producer Tomoyuki Tanaka asked him to handle the special effects for GOJIRA (1954, released in the U.S. as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTER). The success of that film led to a literal tidle wave of sci-fi extravaganzas: RODAN, THE MYSTERIANS, MOTHRA, MATANGO. Although Tsuburaya’s work was in some ways less technically sophisticated than his idol O’Brien’s (working on smaller budgets, Tsuburaya had to utilize men in suits rather than animated puppets), the Japanese effects director nevertheless made his mark, establishing a recognizable style that was always entertaining if not completely convincing. In particular, the suit-mation approach allowed for the creation of larger miniatures, which could be spectacularly destroyed in slow-motion, yielding a level of on-screen mayhem impossible to achieve with the more expensive – and much slower – stop-motion process.
Tsuburaya’s life and career are the subject of Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, which carries the lengthy subtitle Defending the Earth with Ultraman, Godzilla and Friends in the Golden Age of Japanese Science Fiction Film. This is an impressively extensive coffee table book, loaded with countless colorful photographs of monster mayhem and behind-the-scenes wizardry. Fans will find it a delight just to leaf through it, and even hardcore collectors are likely to find more on view here than ever met they eye before.
Author August Ragone does fine job of capturing the Tsuburaya story, from his early life and start in the film industry, through his work providing miniatures for Japanese battle movies during World War II, into the movie monsters that made him famous, and through the television productions (e.g., ULTRA-Q, ULTRA-7) that took once-frightening sci-fi monstrosities and turned them into kiddie fodder. The main narrative is occasionally interrupted by sidebar articles (some written by other experts in the field, such as Norman Englund and Ed Godziszewski), which provide different perspectives on Tsuburaya and his work.
Ragone delivers the information with all the enthusiasm of a devoted fan – an enthusiasm that (far from being annoying) sweeps the reader along like a boat in the rapids. Unfortunately, the book is thinly sourced and short on first-hand interviews; it frequently reads as if Ragone had simply read all the existing material on the subject, collated it, and summarized it. Consequently, you will not find the “you are there” perspective of, for example, Stuart Galbraith IV’s Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo.
Also, you will not learn much that is new about Tsuburaya’s movie magic. Ragone tends to wax understandably enthusiastic about “beautiful matte paintings” and “exquisitely detailed miniatures,” but there is little specific detail about how the special effects were achieved. When he does get descriptive, his prose can be confusing, as when he writes that the destruction of a bridge in RODAN “could only be shot once because of the precise timing required.” This seems to state the matter backwards: precise timing was required because the complicated action, filmed from multiple angles, needed to be captured in a single take.
Ragone never comes to grips with the gradual decline of Tsuburaya’s work; in fact, he barely even acknowledges it. As feature film budgets shrank, fewer miniatures were built and destroyed, and fewer composite shots were used to combine miniatures, monsters, and live-action. On top of this, Tsuburaya began to anthropomorphize his monsters, turning them into comical clowns instead of fearsome behemoths. (Think of the three-way monster conversation in GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER or Godzilla’s victory dance in MONSTER ZERO.) This kind of hijinx remains popular with fans, but it lowers the films down to a level of colorful camp that is notably inferior to the early black-and-white nightmare of GOJIRA.
What we are left with feels a bit like an authorized biography, with all the warts carefully air-brushed out. Nevertheless, the book remains enjoyably readable from start to finish. Fans of Japanese giant monsters will undoubtedly want to purchase it. The illustrations alone are worth the price, but once readers start to peruse the text, they will find themselves serenaded by a kindred spirit who captures the wild-eyed childish devotion born of many hours in front of the television set, watching wonderfully weird movies and television shows that ignorant unbelievers thoughtlessly dismiss. In adulthood, it is easy to forget that enthusiastic joy, but Ragone brings it back to life, like a bolt of lightening reviving a long-dormant Godzilla.