Sunday, January 06, 2008

Fave Books of 2007, Part Two

Continuing my completely subjective overview of books I loved in 2007...

Eiji, King of the Monsters!

There's been some terrific books in English about the entire Toho daikaiju eiga universe, with Gojira/Godzilla still the mon-star fueling the phenomenon, but Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters: Defending the Earth with Ultraman and Godzilla by August Ragone is the first comprehensive biography of the man who essentially invented the genre by building the monsters (and the cities they stomped into dust).

Ragone's lavishly illustrated book (nifty, generous design by Stripe's Jon Sueda and Gail Swanlund) is comprised of many voices -- Ragone includes chapters by Ed Godziszewski, Guy Mariner Tucker, John Paul Cassidy, Shogo Tomiyama, Brad Warner, Norman England, Mark Nagata and Eiji's third son Akira Tsuburaya -- all dedicated to detailing the life, times and accomplishments of the great Japanese special effects artist who created an alternative universe generations around the world still love to visit.

The "unrealistic" nature of Tsuburaya's effects has never been an issue for most of us who love these films: as Ragone notes, the realism of Tsuburaya's miniature effects for the WW2 films he worked on (a major part of Tsuburaya's filmography that remains unseen here, for obvious reasons) fooled the U.S. military: "...After the war, the American occupation forces mistook Tsuburaya's surprisingly realistic" effects footage from Hawai Mare Okikaisen/The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (1942) "for the genuine article, and some of it actually ended up in documentaries about Pearl Harbor" (pg. 28). Only one of Tsuburaya's war films played stateside -- because me dad is such a war movie buff, I did catch an afternoon TV broadcast of Hawai Midouei Daikaikusen Taiheiyo-no Arashi/Tempest Over the Pacific: The Air Battles of Hawaii and Midway/I Bombed Pearl Harbor (1960/1962) as a teenager, and Dad dragged me to Jack Smight's Midway (1976) when that was in theaters, which enhanced its effects with clips of Tsuburaya's from 16 years earlier! Proof, then, that the 'never-never-monsterland' surrealism of Tsuburaya's daikaiju eiga epics were as much a result and realization of his vision as an artist as they were the result of budgetary studio concerns (a lifelong fan of Willis O'Brien's King Kong ,1933, Tsuburaya would have dearly loved to create his monsters with similar stop-motion puppetry, but this producers deemed that impossible, so Tsuburaya invented the monster-suit technology that brought Gojira to life).

If you're not a fan of the Godzilla films, consider the man-in-suit monsters American studio technicians had created up to then (the dragon in the original Flash Gordon serial, Ellis Burman's giant lizard construct for one of the Jungle Jim movies and the shambling dinosaurs and sloth of Unknown Island, 1949, etc.), and the whole of Hollywood gorilla effects (all men-in-suits, natch) as the fairest comparative yardstick for what Tsuburaya accomplished in 1954-55 and after. Via Ragone's book, one can clearly chart the progression and evolution of Tsuburaya's work.

As with Mario Bava's career, to consider Tsuburaya's monster/sf films sans the context of his entire to career is to miss half the story; Ragone provides that context. Like Bava, Tsuburaya established himself as one of Japan's most inventive cinematographers, beginning as an assistant cameraman in 1919 before becoming famous in the industry for almost three decades (!) for his innovative cinematography and in-camera effects; among the many films he shot was Teinosuke Kinugasa's experimental Kurruta Ippegji/A Page of Madness (1926). He was with Toho Studios as its special effects maestro from the inception of the studio in 1937. Thus, one can clearly see how the incredibly believable war film effects led to the most 'realistic' (and my personal favorite) of all the daikaiju eiga (Radan/Rodan The Flying Monster, 1957), and the changes that followed. Tsuburaya's own artistic path fueled the birth of the more fantastic, stylized transmutations -- via the contemporary fairytale of Daikaiju Mosura/Mothra (1961) -- and the perfect synthesis of the two in Mosura tai Gojira/Godzilla vs. the Thing/Godzilla vs. Mothra (1963). Thereafter, the monster universe deliberately became a more stylized cinematic universe, forging the superheroics of the TV series Ultra Q (1966) and Ultraman (1966) and more flamboyant fantasy creations which then spilled over into the Toho daikaiju eiga. Ragone charts the gestation, birth and run of these influential Tsuburaya TV creations with aplomb, never losing track of the feature films and other Tsuburaya productions (ever hear of Kaiju Buusuka/Booska the Friendly Monster? No? You will!) in the chronology.

For me, much as I loved and love the very different fantasy creations of O'Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Jim Danforth and their peers, when I played 'monster' with my Leggos, plastic armies, Hamilton's Invaders and Flintstone blocks, it was Tsuburaya's eye-popping spectacles I was replaying with that built-in movie projector in my little kid brainpan.

If you are a fan -- like me! -- you don't need any further explanation.
But believe you me, you do need this book!

Illuminating Zdeněk Burian

Like the Eiji Tsuburaya biography, Zdeněk Burian by Vladimir Prokop was a gift from P.A. this holiday season, and I'm in his debt for that thoughtful recognition of my deep love of Burian's work; like The Flock, this was actually published before 2007 (copyright 2005), but I didn't see it before this year, so here it be.

Zdeněk Burian's illustrations for the English translations of paleontology texts like Life Before Man by Z. V. Spinar, Prehistoric Animals and Age of Monsters: Prehistoric and Legendary by Dr. Josef Augusta, Dawn of Man by Josef Wolf and other key books fundamentally changed how many of us "saw" the past, placing Burian in that rarified breed of artist; his impact on my own humble cartooning efforts (like Tyrant) cannot be overstated. For me, Burian joins Charles Knight and Rudolph Zallinger to constitute the primary 'holy trinity' of paleontological reconstructive art. He's among my all-time favorite painters, too, and Prokop offers a rich showcase for Burian's work and interests beyond the paleontological and anthropological art he's best known for stateside -- and that, more than anything, is what makes this one of my favorite books of this or any year.

Zdeněk Burian
is likely a new name to many of you, so
  • here's a great site to introduce you to his work --
  • -- but Prokop's book does it better, even if it is primarily in Czech (there is a comprehensive English language resume on pp. 222-223); no worries, this is jam-packed with Burian's art from all genres, most of it previously unavailable to the most avid American devotees, and Burian's art needs no translation. Just open your eyes. Available from Bud Plant, folks!

    Free Lunch: The Betrayal of American "Free Market" Capitalism

    This is the last book I read in 2007, and among the most informative and infuriating! If you want to understand how corporate socialism works, read Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill) by David Cay Johnston.

    In this remarkable book, Johnston reveals, among other things, how our relentless "lower taxes" and free-market advocate President George W. Bush built 2/3 of his fortune on higher sales taxes for Texans -- not the market, not capitalism, but by fleecing taxpayers. There's far more Bush hanky-panky from his governorship that's essential to know, but Johnston's book goes far, far beyond that. This isn't a Bush-bash tome, it's a "wake up, smell the pig trough" alarm.

    Free Lunch is a revelatory investigative dissection of the past three decades of U.S. Government funding big business via a fundamental shift in Federal laws enriching the rich in more ways than you, private citizen, can imagine. That this dynasty emerged directly from the very "free market" evangelists (predominantly Republicans, who launched this unprecedented subsidizing of corporate socialism during President Reagan's term in office) who rhetorically champion capitalism, while actively subverting truly competitive free market economy every step of the way (and profiteered from that process every step of the way) is no surprise to this reader -- but my God, the scale of it is mind-boggling.

    Deregulation has been a primary tool in this momentous seachange which has so utterly drained local governments (state, county, town) while funding the expansion of big-box business. Most rigorous of all is Johnston's cartography of hidden subsidies like "tax increment subsidies" (e.g., the big-box retailer pockets the sales tax you pay!), rigged markets, alarming consumer protection erosion, "special advantages," tax breaks and local government paying millions for the usurping of local businesses, the funneling of gains from American economic growth to those at the top via federal government policies, etc. It is staggering.

    Johnston's primary point: There is no "deregulation," only new rules of regulation -- and all those new regulations have resulted in the calculated, absolutely deliberate reconfiguration of the US economy to an unstated new paradigm enriching the rich at the expense of every citizen not in that top income bracket -- a federal policy of fiscal vampirism. Johnston makes sense of the increasingly obvious and consequential schism between the nation's apparent wealth, and the dwindling resources of the middle class and local principalities.

    Must reading, and a major wake-up call for all.

  • This book got in just under year's end; here's Johnston's interview on Fresh Air to whet your appetite (and raise your blood pressure).

  • Next installment: More great books, including choice oldies I found in 2007!

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