Eiji Tsuburaya’s Death and the Changing Face of Kaiju Films

On January 25th in 1970, the landscape of kaiju films changed forever. Eiji Tsuburaya had started work on a new television series by this point, a horror anthology show known as The Unbalance Zone. The show was, naturally, inspired by The Twilight Zone. The show would eventually air in 1973. Eiji Tsuburaya had started working with his Toho team again, taking a break from preliminary work on the show to create a special showcase that would air at Expo ‘70. He planned to travel the Naruto Whirlpools. The Naruto Whirlpools are a regular natural whirlpool that forms in the Naruto Strait, a channel between Naruto in Tokushima and Awaji Island in Hyōgo. At their seasonal peak the water can reach speeds of 12 mph, although they’re typically only about 8 mph. It’s still the fourth fastest strait in the world.

Eiji Tsuburaya had been diagnosed with angina prior to this expedition, and his doctor had cautioned him against the strain of travel and work. His pain worsened on the trip and he went back to Toho. He refused to stay in a hospital and was ordered to rest as much as possible at home. He cancelled his involvement in upcoming Toho projects. On November 30th, 1969 (five days after Yukio Mishima’s attempted coup and subsequent suicide), Tsuburaya’s son took over his father’s duties at Tsuburaya productions. In December, Tsuburaya, feeling improved, returned to the location work for the Expo Pavilion. He completed the work and set up in their summer villa. Here he started working on some writing and began planning a few projects. The one he seemed most excited about was a film about Japan’s early aviators. He worked on this story every day. He planned to return to Tokyo on January 26th and start the project. On the evening of the 25th, Eiji Tsuburaya’s wife found him dead in his study, having suffered a heart attack at the age of sixty-eight.

Five days after his death, Eiji Tsuburaya was posthumously given the Fourth Class Medal of the Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Emperor, in honour of his contributions to the Japanese film industry. Five hundred people, including many Japanese film luminaries, attended a second funeral service held on Toho’s lots.

Despite not having been actively involved in Toho’s output of late, Eiji Tsuburaya’s passing would mark the end of a kaiju era. The Showa era had yet to end, and there were to be more kaiju films released before that day came, but the creative landscape had completely changed. The last few films from the Showa era feel incredibly different in the wake of Eiji Tsuburaya’s passing.

The first Toho kaiju film after Eiji Tsuburaya’s death was directed by Ishirō Honda. Space Amoeba, also known as Yog, The Monster From Space, was released in August of 1970. It would be Ishirō Honda’s penultimate monster movie.

The story feels in some ways like a desperate grasping for trends. The movie is set in the South Pacific, and features space probes, and a number of monsters, including one suspiciously reminiscent of Daiei’s now popular Gamera. The movie’s chief villain is Yog, a space being made of pure energy who hitches a ride to earth on a returning space probe. Once the probe lands in the South Pacific it begins to possess animals and people. The movie’s three kaiju aren’t particularly original. All three of them are basically enlarged and unaltered animals. One is a giant cuttlefish, which doesn’t resemble anything Toho had done before, but does resemble Daiei’s Viras. The next monster to appear is a giant stone crab. Toho of course had already made one crustaceous daikaiju, and this one doesn’t differentiate itself in any notable way. The last monster is a giant, angular, snapping turtle. The much pointier shell does a little to dissuade the obvious Gamera comparisons, but not much to mark the kaiju as an interesting piece of monster design.

Which is indicative of the film as a whole. There’s nothing wrong about it, it’s a perfectly serviceable kaiju film, but it’s an uninspired entry into the genre’s pantheon, coming at a time when the kaiju genre was enduring a rocky transition. The proud bastions of the genre were moving on, and Toho needed to find new filmmakers to reinvigorate their films.

One of the more questionable Gamera films was Gamera vs. Barugon – the second Gamera movie ever made and the first to feature an opposing kaiju. It was also the first Gamera movie that wasn’t directed by Noriaki Yuasa. Knowing this makes Gamera vs. Giger seem a little like Noriaki Yuasa’s take on Barugon. Maybe that was his thought process going into this movie.

This movie with eighteen million titles. The Japanese spelling of the movie’s villain is Jaiga. But the movie is known as Gamera vs. Jiger, Monsters Invade Expo ’70, War of the Monsters, Gamera vs. Monster X, and Gamera vs. Giger.

Gamera vs. Giger feels like it has some of the same DNA as Gamera vs. Barugon. The movie also starts with workers overseas collecting a tribal relic. A tribal relic called The Devil’s Whistle. The first third of Barugon was built around the same thing. Crooks collecting a tribal relic. Noriaki Yuasa knows what we actually want to see though, and relegates the whole thing to a solitary scene. A solitary scene that, unlike Barugon, has Gamera in it. These workers are collecting an ancient statue from Wester Island. They are trying to move the statue when Gamera shows up, seemingly upset with their actions. They shoot at him until he flies off.

So the workers successfully start taking the statue to the Expo when Jiger emerges from under where the statue was. Gamera and she have a quick tussle. Which is actually a well-crafted kaiju fight. Jaiga shoots quills into Gamera’s legs so he can’t retract them, then traps him on his back. Then Giger flies off.

Jiger/Giger/Jaiga/Monster X’s design might be one of the weaker parts of the film. She’s not great. She feels like a reimagining of the quadrupedal, horned, reptilian Barugon. So she’s also quadrupedal, horned, and reptilian. Except she goes right past chameleon and starts to look like a space-age triceratops. She has a shield like a triceratops, and whatever she’s using to propel herself through the air is behind it. She has a plethora of scattered horns and a tail with a retractable stinger. She can shoot quills from her head and possesses a subsonic blast that basically looks like a non-rainbow version of Barugon’s blast and acts like a heat ray. She also has some sort of seemingly telekinetic ability that only extends to drawing objects to her.

Gamera eventually uses his tail to flip himself onto his back and fly after Monster X. Jiger, for some reason, is looking for the statue that stood above her. Which, naturally, now resides at the World Expo. The statue seems to be emitting some sort of sound that was causing temporary illness in the workers who were tasked with taking it to the Expo. By the way, this is the same real world Expo prominently featured in Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, and the same one Eiji Tsuburaya was filming for before his death.

Gamera shows up and they fight in front of the Expo and this film’s necessary two plucky child protagonists. As always there’s a Japanese kid and an American kid. The Japanese kid’s Dad is working on assembling tiny child-sized submarines for the Expo. These are the exact same props used in Gamera vs. the Space Monster Viras. Gamera and Jiger fight. Jiger draws Gamera towards her using her telekinesis then traps him and stabs him with her tail. Gamera stumbles to the river in pain and slowly his head and limbs freeze over. It’s not actually ice, but the similarities to Gamera vs. Barugon, a movie where Gamera spends most of the runtime either absent or frozen, makes it seem like a visual reference to it. Giger then grabs the statue and tosses it into the ocean.

Scientists take some x-rays of Gamera and discover something horrifying. Monster X laid an egg inside of Gamera. The scientists discuss this and display a video featuring the surprisingly gruesome dissection of an elephant’s trunk. It’s a jarring scene that was cut from American copies of the film. It’s upsetting even. More horror movie than kaiju movie. Clearly Gamera needs to be operated upon though, heaven forbid there be more than one Jiger running around.

So of course here is where the conveniently located child-sized submarines come in handy. Our plucky child protagonists go on a mission to save Gamera from the parasitic larvae inside of him. Basically giving the daikaiju film a Fantastic Voyage inspired interlude, which serves a fairly clever combination of science fiction tropes. The small budget means the movie can’t actually present us with Gamera’s unique anatomy in any particular detail however, so in the end the execution of the good idea suffers a little bit.

As the children start wandering around where the larva is meant to be, they are suddenly pursued by a tiny Giger. Or rather the same suit in a differently scaled set. Slightly different power set though. The baby can sneeze sticky goo. The children eventually accidentally kill the baby with the feedback coming off of their walkie-talkies. The scientists scramble with this new information realizing that because Jiger uses subsonic sound, supersonic sound must be her kryptonite. So that explains the statue called the Devil’s Whistle, which made a supersonic sound when the wind passed through it, thus keeping Jiger trapped underground.

So a collection of subsonic speakers are built and prepared and the city’s power grid is connected to the catatonic Gamera in the hopes of besting the once chthonic monster. The kids have to do this via submarine. As Monster X/Giger/Jaiga/Jiger approaches the World Fair Expo, the speakers are prepped. She shows up and the speakers blast, holding her in place. It’s paralyzing her, but it’s not killing her, just preventing the deathly beast from moving. They start zapping Gamera until the power goes out and he wakes up, attacking the now mobile Jaiga.

The two monsters have a fairly brutal fight intercut with all sorts of shots of the general populace believing in Gamera’s ability to keep the Expo safe. Because Gamera is nothing if not a big goofy cartoon character keeping Japan safe at the request of children at this point. Jiger tries everything she’s got. Quills and rays and fighting. Gamera shrugs it off and routinely smashes her into the ground until she starts to seem stunned. Gamera flies off to the ocean to collect the Devil’s Whistle. Gamera comes back and Jiger starts stabbing at him with her tail. Gamera smashes the statue into it until the stinger pops right out. Gamera flies off with the statue knowing that Monster X will chase him. And she does, which allows Gamera to lure her farther away.

Then the giant turtle whips around and hurls the statue at Jiger, spearing her in the head. Once again interjecting cartoony content with jarring violence, now a trademark of the Gamera series.

These two films together make up the beginning of the Showa era’s final stretch. Only two more Gamera films would be made during the Showa period, and five more Godzilla movies would serve as Toho’s outro. Both Yog the Monster from Space and Gamera vs. Giger are perfectly serviceable kaiju films. Yog the Monster from Space feels uninspired and rote, while Gamera vs. Giger feels livelier, but more constrained by Daiei’s dwindling budget and looming bankruptcy. Both companies had come to a crossroad. Toho’s best creators were gone or going, and they needed a new roster of minds with unique forward thinking ideas for the kaiju genre. Daiei was faced with much the same dilemma, but as a whole was starting to slide into what were possibly their financial twilight years. Both companies were at a crossroad, but only one would make it out smoothly.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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