"Beyond Godzilla" Highlights Lesser-Known Japanese Sci-Fi/Fantasy Films

Featured Critic; New York City, New York
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"Beyond Godzilla: Alternative Futures and Fantasies in Japanese Cinema," a film series screening at Japan Society from March 24 through April 8, looks at the long history of Japanese tokusatsu eiga, or special effects films. On the heels of Shin Godzilla, the latest entry in the long running franchise, sweeping the Japan Academy Awards, this series goes beyond that huge shadow-casting series of films to look at lesser known examples of Japanese science fiction and fantasy films.

The series is curated by Variety and Japan Times critic and author Mark Schilling, who brings to New York a modified version of the program he presented at last year's Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy. It's a fascinating selection of films spanning from the 50s through the 90s, and it shows how filmmakers used the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and kaiju eiga to explore sociopolitical issues and national trauma.

Schilling, in addition to curating the series, will also give a lecture on March 25, 5pm, that is free for ticketholders. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit Japan Society's website. In the gallery below are some notable selections in the series.

THE H-MAN (Ishiro Honda, 1958)

The opening night film, this is the first of two films in the series by Honda, the director of the original Godzilla, which was a well-made, often haunting and somber, and definitely non-campy film (unlike some later franchise entries) that tapped into national fears engendered by the nuclear bombs that hit Japan less than a decade earlier.

The H-Man, on the other hand, which Honda made four years after Godzilla, is so cheesy it should be served with wine and crackers. Especially in its re-edited, English-dubbed version, with the dialog as stilted and awkwardly delivered as you'd expect, all that's missing are the Mystery Science Theater crew providing snarky commentary in the margins.

The film is an unstable mix of genres: a noirish crime thriller, a monster horror flick, and a speculative sci-fi film. The "H-Man" is a creature formed from a radioactive, green and viscous substance that sort of looks like melted Jell-O. This substance liquefies humans and also becomes a green, glowing, ghost-like creature. For some reason, its central location is in and around a Tokyo nightclub; maybe the H-Man is a fan of torch singers and dancing girls. A scientist studying the effects of radioactive substances on humans and animals works with the police to identify and defeat the H-Man.

The H-Man very obviously taps into nuclear anxieties, which lends a serious, if ponderous, undertow to the film's sillier elements. It concludes with a nicely staged showdown between the H-Man and the Japanese military, using fire as their main weapon. Even if the film's overall quality is well below Honda's classic Godzilla, in the presence of a receptive and appreciative audience, it will no doubt make for fun viewing on the big screen.

(Mar. 24, 7pm)

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