Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Bringing Godzilla Down to Size (2008) Review

Bringing Godzilla Down to Size: The Art of Japanese Special Effects poster
The men inside the rubber suit; Three generations of Godzilla costume actors: Tsutomu Kitagawa, Haruo Nakajima, Kenpachiro Satsuma in Bringing Godzilla Down to Size
Akira Takarada in Bringing Godzilla Down to Size




Director: Norman England
Stars: Yasuyuki Inoue, Akira Takarada, Tsutomu Kitagawa, Haruo Nakajima, Kenpachiro Satsuma
Genre: Movie Documentary

This is the story of people who work extremely hard to create something only to see it be destroyed. They build, with painstaking detail, miniature cities, only to see them crushed by a man in a rubber suit. That's the purpose that their creations serve and when they see their buildings and models get destroyed they surely experience both sadness and happiness all at once. They only hope that the destruction of their models goes well and the director is satisfied and their are no mishaps, or else they'll have to spend days, or even weeks, building them again. This is the story of the crew of special effects makers behind the fantastical Godzilla franchise.

This documentary mostly focuses on the special effects department behind the Godzilla films, all the way from the Showa era to the Heisei and Millennium eras. Focus is especially put on Eiji Tsuburaya, who is best remembered as special effects director on the early Godzilla films and as the creator of the Ultraman series, and on Yasuyuki Inoue, who worked under Tsuburaya on many of the early Godzilla productions and had a career that lasted up until the late 80s (he died a few years after this documentary was made, whereas Tsuburaya died in 1970). 

While stop-motion animation dominated monster movies that needed more than make-up in the West, Eiji Tsuburaya, noted for his stunning special effects and realistic modelwork,  pioneered a new method of making things look bigger than they are in 1954's Gojira; a method known as suitmation (a kind way of saying man in a rubber suit). To this day suitmation remains a very Japanese method, with few films from other countries utilizing suitmation. So much so that suitmation has become, as this documentary points out, a Japanese tradition and something that is now not only part of their films but their culture as well. 

There is a threat to this tradition though: Computer Generated Imagery. Will CGI render suitmation obsolete? Can the tradition of suitmation continue without falling behind in terms of film quality? It's a worry that many Japanese special effects makers have today. There's also the question of what looks better: CGI or suitmation. Is CGI a cheap way of doing something and does it hold any less merit than the detailed models and costume designs or even stop-motion? As one special effects creator in the film suggests, there should be a combination of analog and computer generated effects, each complimenting each other and forming into a unique look that can't be achieved by using either separately.

The film also focuses on the men that wear the suits in the Godzilla films; the men whose faces we never see but movements we can't forget. It's definitely interesting to hear these "suit actors'" stories. They definitely deserve more credit for what they do, as we learn in the documentary their jobs are extremely hard and they risk injury and even death far more often than you may think. They also show us that there is a certain art to playing a giant reptile; all three of the Godzilla costume actors have different monster styles and different methods of playing the big G.

It's directed by Norman England, who subscribers of the Godzilla fanzine G-Fan may be familiar with from some wonderful articles he's written for the mag over the years (writer Steve Ryfle has done work for the magazine as well, and is also the author of the fabulous book on Godzilla Japan's Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of "The Big G".). The production values are pretty low and the film obviously didn't have much of a budget behind it; many of the post-production effects look very silly and amateurish, but the documentary gets the job done when it comes to interesting information and the people it focuses on, and that's what really matters.

This short documentary (just over an hour long) is, in my opinion, required viewing for any Godzilla fan, or even kaiju eiga fans in general. Especially if you're interested in special effects work. It's interesting, insightful, and entertaining. Give it a watch.

3.5/5 stars
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