Fragment #24: The Invention of Godzilla

[In this extract from his book Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, August Ragone describes the development of the eponymous monster for the original Japanese Gojira (1954), better known to international audiences as Godzilla.]

“They … wanted the film to reverberate with current geopolitical, national, and social concerns, as well as evoking the spectre of the Tokyo Fire Raids and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They agreed they should approach the film in earnest, treating it as they would any serious, real-life subject, rather than as a ‘monster movie’. The monster’s attack on Tokyo could be seen as an incarnation of war itself, and [executive producer, Iwao] Mori thought the creature should carry the physical scars of H-bomb tests.

Originally, [Eiji] Tsuburaya wanted to bring the nuclear nightmare to life using stop-motion effects, as King Kong had been made. When asked how long it would take to produce such effects, Tsuburaya told Mori it would take seven years to shoot all of the effects required by the screenplay, based on the current staff and infrastructure at Toho. Of course this was out of the question – the film had to be in theatres by the end of the year. Tsuburaya decided that his department’s considerable expertise in miniature building and visual effects photography could accommodate working with a live actor in a monster costume instead of using stop-motion techniques. Mori and Tanaka agreed and gave him the green light to proceed with planning and construction.

Planning was a painstaking process. To ensure that things would run smoothly, [director Ishiro] Honda and [writer Takeo Murata] would present scene ideas to Tsuburaya, who would tell them whether his team could pull them off. (More often than not, he told them he could.) Problematic scenes or shots were rooted out during the extensive storyboarding process, helping prevent costly mistakes during shooting.

[…] To design the creature, Kayama suggested popular mangaka (comic book artist) Wasuke Abe, who had illustrated several of Kayama’s juvenile adventure stories and worked for numerous publishers and in many genres. Abe’s most famous work was Kenya Boy (Shonen Keniya), written by his brother, whose pen name was Shoji Yamagawa. The story, about an orphaned Japanese youth lost in Africa, was more Lost World than Tarzan, set in a land alive with prehistoric creatures. When Abe conferred with the Godzilla staff, he brought with him the current edition of Kenya Boy, which featured an encounter with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. This would prove to have a decisive influence on the production design of Godzilla. While Abe’s designs were ultimately rejected – they were more abstract and humanoid than animal, and the beast’s head was rendered like a mushroom cloud – he was retained to help draw the hundreds of storyboards required for the film.

Tanaka, Tsuburaya, and Honda decided to focus on an original dinosaur of their own design. Inspired by a Life magazine pictorial on prehistoric times featuring paintings by Rudolph Zallinger and by the celebrated Czech dinosaur artist Zdenek Burian, production designer Akira Watanabe combined attributes of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Iguanodon, and added the plates of the Stegosaurus. To bring Watanabe’s drawings to life, Tsuburaya contacted his old colleague from The War at Sea From Hawaii to Malaya, Teizo Toshimitsu. Toshimitsu took Watanabe’s drawings and began to render the creature in clay. After experimenting with scaly, warty, and alligator-skin textures, the staff agreed on the alligator version.

Toshimitsu and the staff of the visual-effects department began construction of a Godzilla suit for an actor to wear. The first version of the suit was built over a cloth-and-wire frame and layered with hot rubber, which was melted in a steel drum and applied in layers over the frame. This resulted in a heavy and immobile costume in which the actor could barely move, and so it was scrapped.

A second suit, while still incredibly heavy at 220 pounds, allowed more freedom of movement, and became the final costume. The first suit was cut into two sections and used for scenes requiring only a partial shot of the monster, and Toshimitsu also created a smaller-scale, mechanical, hand-operated puppet that could spray a stream of mist from its maw, to simulate the creature’s nuclear breath in close-ups. A young actor and stuntman, Haruo Nakajima, was given the part of Godzilla (a role he would play a number of times in a long career that found him frequently cast as a monster), alternating with fellow thespian Katsumi Tezuka, which allowed production to continue when Nakajima needed relief from the physicality demanding part.

[…] The first day of shooting miniature photography involved Godzilla’s destruction of the National Diet Building, Japan’s Parliament, which was built in 1/33 scale so that Godzilla would appear to tower over the structure. They decided to let Tezuka play the scene, Nakajima later recalled, but he fell flat and hit his jaw square on the miniature set, ruining the shot and necessitating retakes, this time with Nakajima in tight close-ups because Tsuburaya did not have time to rebuild the set.

The punishing role would bruise and scar both men. Stuffed into the stifling suit, roasting alive under the studio lights, they suffered from heat exhaustion and blackouts, and found themselves breathing fumes from burning rags soaked in kerosene, used to give the impression that Tokyo was ablaze. More than a cup of sweat was poured out of the suit after each scene was shot, and Nakajima ended up losing twenty pounds during the course of the production. On one of his rare days off, Nakajima received word that Tezuka and several crew members had nearly been electrocuted when a live wire fell into the indoor pool set. While using live actors was less time-consuming than tackling stop-motion animation, it was far from an easy shortcut, and involved long, arduous hours, often all-nighters.”

Spectacular Attractions Podcast #6

Gojira (Ishirō Honda, 1954)

This week’s podcast is about Ishirō Honda’s seminal 1954 monster movie, complete with sound effects and excerpts from Akira Ifukube’s superb score. Better known by the English title Godzilla, the film shows you what happens when a dormant dinosaur is woken form a deep sleep by atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific and gets out his grumpy by stomping on Japan’s biggest cities. This podcast focuses on the particular kinds of special effects used to depict these events, namely the man-in-a-monster-suit aesthetic, which allows an actor to lay waste to a miniature set. Following Philip Brophy’s argument that this technique is a historically Japanese approach, it seems that the rubber suit, rather than being a deficient or inadequate attempt at the illusion of scale, endows the monster with a specific vision of destructive force that allows us to identify more directly with the monster instead of dismissing it as something irreconcilably other.

DOWNLOAD: Spectacular Attractions Podcast #6

[Find more Spectacular Attractions podcasts here, or subscribe via iTunes here. Read the original post here.]

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More Old Posts…

I’m still away from the usual work routine (and embroiled in a different one), so Spectacular Attractions is still on a bit of a hiatus. To tide you over, because you clearly have nothing better to do (don’t argue – you’re here aren’t you?), I’ve prepared a few weeks’ worth of Picture of the Week (I hope youenjoy the galleries of delightful, garish posters I’ve handpicked for your entertainment) and another set of posts you may have missed from the early days of my blogging experiences. Sometimes, old pieces get buried in the ever-rolling blogosphere, but you can always browse the index if you get the chance to play catch-up.

Metaphors are Attacking Tokyo!: A short(ish) piece on the use of allegory in Ishiro Honda’s seminal monster movie, analysing the special effects and monster suits that seem to convey so much meaning to so many viewers and critics. Is it really just as simple as “Godzilla = Atomic Threat”?

Precious: The racial politics of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire are calibrated to get a strong reaction from just about everybody, and for various reasons. Is it just button-pushing issue-of-week posturing, or a truly radical portrayal of race, class and America’s education system?

Vengeance is Mine: Propelled by the grim fascination of watching a ruthless serial killer going about his business, Shohei Imamura’s brutal drama is just as concerned with the legacy of pain and shame he leaves behind for his family to deal with, as demonstrated in this analysis of the film’s closing sequence.

Begone Dull Care: Norman McLaren Randomised: I’ve always enjoyed writing the “Randomised” series of posts, and some of them have been seen by thousands of visitors to the site. Others have gone largely unnoticed, such as this attempt to randomise the frenetic abstract stylings of Norman McLaren’s exhilarating jazz masterpiece.

Elephant: Alan Clarke’s violent series of dispassionate kills is one of the most pummelling, thrilling and extraordinary cinematic experiences you can have. All the violence, none of the context. Relentless, unforgettable.

Pantomiming Chaplin’s CIty Lights: A beauteous highpoint of 20th-century popular culture, City Lights is filled with marvellous physical dexterity, and this article analyses some of the mannerisms, gestures and slapstickery that help to pull off this amazing cinematic feat.

Ohayô / Good Morning: An Introduction to Yasujiro Ozu: If you’ve never seen a film by Yasujiro Ozu, you might need a bit of steering towards a few ideas that will make them easier to understand and cross-reference. This article was written as a digest of some thinking about some of Ozu’s films for some of my second-year students who were encountering him for the first time.

Twentynine Palms: Did I hate Bruno Dumont’s erotic, vicious, rapey road movie? Even after writing this piece about it, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps you can help me decide….

Picture of the Week #34: Twenty Monster Movie Posters

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This week, your pictorial reward is a bunch of monster-themed posters from my collection of poster JPEGs. Next week, you can look forward to sexy-themed (to use the scientific term) posters for your delectation, followed by comic and heroic posters. The week after that, I’m open to suggestions for a theme – I have quite a lot of posters to display, and not enough picture-of-the-week spaces to put them in. I hope you enjoy the scenery of these garish, trashy marvels. Check on the slideshow above, or browse below for larger views of any of the pics.

Bunch of Art

Data- The Goonies

It’s time to decorate this blog with some colourful pictures to take us into the weekend. The HeyUGuys movie blog drew my attention to the Crazy 4 Cult gallery of artworks inspired by cult films, some of them, including The Goonies (see above), perhaps not deserving of the love and care lavished upon them. There’s a disproportionate fondness for Tim Burton and The Wizard of Oz, but you’re bound to find something you think is cool. I especially like this one, in which Dorothy is definitely not in Kansas anymore:

Dorothy Who

And who wouldn’t want a Big Lebowski doll?

Big Lebowski

Finally, I have to include one of Spectacular Attractions‘ favourite characters:


One & Other: But is I Art?


As the time for my own turn on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square approaches, I’ll add the occasional post on the subject here. You can catch up with all of my updates with this link.

Announcing the first day of the Antony Gormley’s One & Other, which, for the unaware, puts members of the public atop the Fourth Plinth for an hour each, 24 hours a day for 100 days, Sky News asked the headline question: “Is it art, or just a highbrow Big Brother?” It’s a tired refrain by now. The question of whether or not something is art is such a blind alley: what it really seems to ask is “what is art?” or worse, “why isn’t it speaking directly to me?” That there is disagreement over whether something is a worthwhile piece of art should never be a surprise. It should probably be a requirement.

I don’t know if Sky News ever communicates with Sky Arts, but if One & Other is a “highbrow Big Brother” (i.e. highbrow because none of the participants have been manouevred into positions where there’s an increased chance that they’ll punch or shag each other), then Sky must bear some of the responsibility. What started out as a intervention by the ordinary into the ceremonial, dragging and dropping people from their habitual environment into the most public of spaces, has been turned into rolling news to be examined from every angle, tweeted about and photographed. Their weekly round-up of the “best of the plinth” suggests an attempt to turn it into a competition, with each plinther compelled to be more entertaining or eye-catching than the last.

Although I’ve dipped into the live feed from the Plinth and found it occasionally compelling, even when “nothing” (slang term for moments where people stop dancing or shouting through a megaphone) is happening, it has raised the question for me of where the “space” of the plinth is. Is it a spontaneous relationship between the material reality of the plinth and the people passing by, an ephemeral, unrepeatable performance or a hypermediated spectacle that can be paused, rewound, re-examined and catalogued? I can’t help feeling that the physical space of the plinth is affected by its parallel existence in multiple “virtual” spaces around the world, though this doesn’t have to be a negative effect. This morning I enjoyed Michelle, who took a very contemplative approach. To many observers, I suppose she “did nothing” or “just stood there”, for the hour, but she seemed to be having a serene, private moment in front of all those cameras. And surely that’s fascination enough, right?

Having said all that, the sight of Gerald dressed in a Godzilla suit playing swingball and stomping on a cardboard Houses of Parliament at 8am made me smile for almost a full hour. I think it was the mixture of personal, self-absorbed enjoyment and focus on the chance to play around, and the awareness of a very public spectacle that made it completely charming. If you have to ask whether or not its art, then please adjust your definition of art.

King Kong Escapes Again…

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King Kong Escapes Poster

[More Kong action can be found in this post: King Kong Randomised.]

In my earlier post, about King Kong vs Godzilla, I pondered what the appeal of Japanese movies in which big monsters beat the living cack out of each might be to their devotees. You know, apart from the obvious: monsters fighting, metaphors scrapping to gain the semic upperhand or hold the ideological fort, can hardly be less than entertaining. Which is not to say that fans of kaiju eiga are undiscerning, more that different criteria of quality apply. Cult films, those which attract loyal adherents and completists who arguably adopt alternative critical frameworks of appreciation, tend to feature tend to feature hermetically sealed, aesthetically consistent environments. It is this opportunity to spend time in a familiar diegetic space that makes them attractive for repeat viewings rather than customary adherence to traditions of quality. As I’m fond of noting, Toho monster movies create a parallel world of lovingly crafted miniature sets, a place where global events and political struggles are dwarfed by the more pressing concern of massive lizards, moths and robots blundering around through wafer-thin cityscapes, a more colourful visualisation of cities rendered pathetically vulnerable when uncontrollable weapons are deployed.


Madame Piranha (Mie Hama) and Doctor Hu (Eisei Amamoto)

In the Toho King Kongs, which borrow and rework RKO’s best known character, the big gorilla is, as Godzilla sometimes becomes, a heroic figure fighting for the good of Japan and humanity. In this one, a Chinese-Japanese alliance (actually, the villains never discuss their nationality, but there are strong hints: the main villain is a Fu Manchu-style master criminal called, gloriously, Doctor Hu) aims to take over the world.  Doctor Hu builds a giant robot version of King Kong to do his bidding. This Kong is going to help him mine a mysterious, world-conquering “Element X”, which he will sell to the Japanese, represented by the mysterious Madame Piranha, played like a Jackie-O supervillain by Mie Hama, still most famous to non-Japanese audiences for her role as Bond Girl Kissy Suzuki in You Only Live Twice (and perhaps also for being the first Asian woman to pose for Playboy). With inexplicably fast costume changes, she makes an alluring, if unlikely  supervillain (you get the impression that all of her commandments would be fashion-based), timidly representing “a certain country”; though it’s never named as Japan, she changes her plans as soon as the mayhem she casuses threatens Tokyo. When it becomes clear that Robokong can’t dig up Element X because the magnetic forces interfere with his circuitry (don’t they have regular equipment for mining stuff?), Doctor Hu decides that controlling the mind of Kong, using a cute blonde as bait, will be a better strategy.

The robot King Kong prepares to go digging.

The robot King Kong prepares to go digging.

Like King Kong vs Godzilla, Escapes selectively restages scenes from the 1933 original, this time the scene where Kong fights a Tyrannosaurus Rex while “the girl” (this time played by Linda Miller, looking not unlike Naomi Watts) is stuck in a tree. It even repeats the jaw-snapping killing blow, and ends with a flight up a tall tower (though here Kong battles his robotic alter ego rather than the local military).

Linda Miller in King Kong Escapes

Linda Miller in King Kong Escapes

King Kong punches out a dinosaur.

But unlike the earlier film, Escapes is a more fully integrated Japanese-American co-production, so there are none of the clumsy inserts of media commentators to explain events for external observers. Instead, there’s an American research team, led by Commander Carl Nelson, played by Rhodes Reason. Stop a moment and think about that. The lead actor is called Rhodes Reason. They don’t name ’em like they used to. The research team plans to study Kong in his natural habitat (rather than, for example, drugging and dragging him back to New York to star in his own hit show), and a struggle ensues for the soul of the big ape. In my previous post about King Kong Escapes, I offered an excerpt from Vincent Canby’s 1968 review, which I’ll reproduce here to save you clicking back and forth:

The Toho moviemakers are quite good in building miniature sets, but much of the process photography—matching the miniatures with the full-scale shots—is just bad. The English language dialogue that comes out of the mouths of the Japanese actors could well be Urdu, and the plotting is hopelessly primitive, although it is littered with found symbols, most of which have to do with a (perhaps Hiroshima-inspired) national death wish. Really unforgivable, however, is what has been done to King Kong himself. The great, dignified, 80-foot ape-hero of the 1934 Hollywood classic has been turned into a spineless, grovelling Uncle Tom in the community of prehistoric beasts. At the direction of the simpering blonde heroine, he destroys the world domination plans of some Chinese Communist agents, pining all the while for a love that—for quite obvious reasons—cannot be.

So, does this criticism stand up? Well, yes I guess:  except that Kong is hardly “spineless” in this case. He battles against the odds to kick the cogs out of his robot nemesis, risking his own life for his girl. He doesn’t give a flying feck about the geopolitical wranglings going on around him. It’s all about the blonde. The same blondeness has been restricting Kong’s decision-making capacities in all his incarnations:

Fay Wray in King Kong (1933)Jessica Lange in King Kong (1976)Evelyne Kraft in The Mighty Peking ManNaomi Watts in King Kong
Fay Wray in King Kong (1933), Jessica Lange in King Kong (1976), Evelyne Kraft in The Mighty Peking Man (1977), Naomi Watts in King Kong (2005)

Perhaps the consistency of Kong’s desire across so many films indicates how the character is used as a dumb vessel for an agglomerated set of signifiers pertaining to the spectator’s desire as previsualised by the films’ producers (it’s not that fanciers of non-blonde alternatives don’t exist, just that they show up as a smaller piece of the demographic pie-chart when these things are calculated), and that desire is not just sexual but acquisitive. Guys, Kong is you in your dumbstruck, amorous consumer guise – he sees it, he wants it, he’ll hang onto it regardless of what happens around him.

King Kong battles his robot self.

King Kong battles his robot self.

But this film isn’t all about the monsters. They’re proxy warriors moved into position (Kong Kong vs Godzilla did this quite literally by dropping Kong into the battle zone with giant balloons) as mascots for broader human concerns, be they environmental, political or supervillainous. It might be grandiose to suggest that, in the final showdown between Kong and Mechakong, the film constructs a dialectic between reality and simulation, organic and synthetic. In that sense, we’re on comfortable science fiction territory, with the machine’s emotionless brute force and efficiency finally overpowered by the real ape’s lustful persistence and exercise of free will. Or, as free as a horny giant gorilla can get.

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Show Me the Monkey: King Kong vs Godzilla


[See also Metaphors are Attacking Tokyo!]

A while ago I promised a post about King Kong Escapes. Then I got distracted. To recap: in order to test my very vivid memory of a Japanese King Kong film that may or may not have been King Kong Escapes, I ordered a couple of DVDs and pledged to cross-reference the films against my fallible, fragmentary brain library: had I remembered it correctly? If so, I would have to take some time to marvel at the power of the mind to record faithfully a set of images that were hardly essential for survival. Actually, it turned out that the film that had been rattling in my head for a quarter of a century was a) not actually King Kong Escapes but King Kong vs Godzilla and b) not as well remembered as I’d thought. In fact, though it was exactly how I’d remembered it, only the last shot of the film was truly embedded in my long-term memory. Still, it’s always a good time to watch two monsters havin’ a fight, so here are some notes on it anyway. I’ll add a follow up post about King Kong Escapes in the next week or so. I promise.

The DVD I got hold of for a couple of quid was actually the English language version, which has plenty of extra expository scenes for non-Japanese viewers for whom the concept of squabbling monsters needs a lot of explaining. Honestly, I’ve seen enough alien invasion films to have a high tolerance, even some affection, for the “let’s-go-to-the-flowchart-for-this” moments, in which a bespectacled, whitecoated (but still hunky) scientist explains what the threat is and how many millions of people are probably going to die screaming. But this is ridiculous:


It eventually feels like these cutaways to a studio far from the action are some kind of running sports commentary on the unfolding disaster. They are way too cozy and reassuring, and they keep cutting into the action to pass comment on it. I understand that the film wraps up its monster attacks in news reportage to give it an immediate sense that this might really be going on somewhere, but the sheer amount of it, pointing at maps and globes, just let’s you know that it’s happening far, far away. The first Gojira threw in this media motif much more efficiently – during one of the attacks, the big lizard knocks down a communications tower while a reporter with a camera crew keeps up a running commentary until the last moment before death. But King Kong vs Godzilla, reaches a sublime state of patronising obviousness around about the time an expert is brought in to explain what the monster is using a children’s book of dinosaurs. Wonderful:


This isn’t really a remake of RKO’s 1933 King Kong, but it repeats a lot of its plot. There’s a visit by explorers to a remote island where they try to get footage of a legendary monster to boost their TV ratings. There are blacked up actors (this time Japanese actors) performing “ethnic” dances, which look a little West Side Story to me.


And Kong is a badass pugilist. But in a departure from the original film, he first appears as the protector of the village that worships him – in an unfeasably awesome sequence, a giant octopus invades the island, bringing the big gorilla to the rescue. It’s all done with some elaborate, if obvious compositing of elements, but the use of real live octopi in miniature sets is genuinely weird and creepy. Apparently, effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya ate one of them for dinner after the shoot. There’s a similar story about Ray Harryhausen eating the crabs he used on Mysterious Island. Any more anecdotes about film-makers eating their cast? I’ll start a collection.


The final showdown comes when the authorities engineer a brawl between the two monsters in the hope that they’ll kill each other. Kong is gassed, hung up on wires from helicoptors and puppeteered into Godzilla’s stomping ground like a mad monkey marionette. So, it’s not the logical conclusion of an enmity between two sworn foes, but a manufactured clash between two properties, and the setup mirrors the extra-diegetic audience’s own attraction to the film – the promise of seeing the fabrication of a spectacular battle between gargantuan warriors.


And fight they do, tustling in open ground then along the coastline of Japan, and best of all knocking the crap out of each other over Atami Castle.


Personally, I don’t really mind that these are “bad” special effects. By “bad” I mean that they don’t  fit with certain expected codes of realism whereby, for instance, giant creatures will move slowly to suggest their scale. But what is the expected response to these films? Without wishing to take a judgemental or relativist stance on the worth of these things, it’s hard not to find it all a bit silly if you come with a realist frame of mind. The monsters face off like bullies in a playground, like petulant slapstick pugilists, waving arms and stomping feet, all the kinds of gestures that break the illusion of their enormous scale and weight. With a slacker’s instinct for the countercultural potential of the imperfect, imprecise or inexpert in all forms of art, many Western viewers have embraced the Japanese monster film as a site of camp or outsider amusement. For myself, I’ve always had a thing for miniature sets, so the attraction for me is seeing them get trashed. Whether it’s high art or “low” culture, two things can usually soften my critical faculties and make me warm to a film – knowing that diligent attention has been paid to its construction by people who love their craft regardless of its commercial outcomes, and a willingness to give all of that craft to the spectator rather than hoarding it in some sollipsistically indulgent manner. What could illustrate this better than a film where a series of cityscapes are carefully built, then vigorously stomped all over for your viewing pleasure? They love making it. But they love you enough to destroy it for your amusement.


The final shot of Kong swimming away is one of those that, for some reason I’ll probably never explain, has stayed in my head, dislodged from its narrative context, for more than a couple of decades. So many of these monster movies seem to end with a wide shot of an open sea, showing us the vast unknown space where hidden monsters (i.e. giant natural metaphors for nature’s wrath) lurk waiting to threaten the land, but suggesting some literal kind of open ending. Perhaps it stayed with me because it didn’t close things off. King swam away to the horizon and roamed free in my imagination for evermore. Awww.


King Kong Escapes

King Kong Escapes

A little while ago I posted about Polish film posters, idiosyncratic reductions of films into deceptively simple iconography. They often changed the tone that the advertisers might have wanted to convey. While searching for something else, I just stumbled across this Polish poster for 1968’s King Kong Escapes! (released in its native Japan as King Kong no Gyakushū) at an excellent website, Wrong Side of the Art. It’s a sinister, imposing beauty, miles away from the bright monster squabbles of the film itself and other posters. Check out the US release poster, with its rash promises of gargantuan spectacle, reassuring you that there will be a fight between a big ape and his robot clone (in case you were worried). It’s like a Wrestlemania poster, but with more believable characters – the draw for the potential audience is in finding out who wins the battle:

King Kong Escapes US Poster 1968

This from the New York Times review from 11th July 1968:

The Toho moviemakers are quite good in building miniature sets, but much of the process photography—matching the miniatures with the full-scale shots—is just bad. The English language dialogue that comes out of the mouths of the Japanese actors could well be Urdu, and the plotting is hopelessly primitive, although it is littered with found symbols, most of which have to do with a (perhaps Hiroshima-inspired) national death wish.

Really unforgivable, however, is what has been done to King Kong himself. The great, dignified, 80-foot ape-hero of the 1934 Hollywood classic has been turned into a spineless, grovelling Uncle Tom in the community of prehistoric beasts. At the direction of the simpering blonde heroine, he destroys the world domination plans of some Chinese Communist agents, pining all the while for a love that—for quite obvious reasons—cannot be.

I haven’t seen King Kong Escapes since I was maybe eight years old, and even that recollection is a hazy one: how am I supposed to remember which big-ape smackdown I was enthralled by after all these years? But the Polish poster speaks to my memory of it, with Kong as a pathetic figure hunched over from the pain and stress of being a big monster in a little-people world, instead of the second poster’s depiction of a prize-fighting badass. But this may be a product of my fallible memory, or a willful reconstruction of the film in my mind that makes it seem like it resembled the poster I admire more. Movie posters are usually designed to pre-fabricate the film n our minds, to incite expctations or hide deficiencies or show unresolved events which, it is promised, will be resolved during the film itself (who will win that fight, for instance?). But, like other forms of merchandise and publicity material, they might also help us to (mis-)remember a film, or to rebuild gaps in the narrative with our own imagination or preferred interpretation. There’s only one way to test the reliability or otherwise of my recollections – I’ve just ordered DVDs of King Kong vs Godzilla and King Kong Escapes. I’ll treat myself to a kaiju eiga double bill over the Easter break, and report back to readers of Spectacular Attractions in due course.

Polish Film Posters


Just had to post quickly, while wading through a pile of marking (I’m easily distracted), to draw your attention to an amazing set of Polish film posters at Wellmedicated. This was posted last year, and I noticed it while browsing through the wonderful collection of cinematic arcana at Popcorn and Sticky Floors. Everyone loves Polish film posters, right? They represent an artistic, idiosyncratic approach to the job of making an immediately recognisable summary of a film’s major themes in a single image. They contrast nicely with the usual approach that crams in as many famous faces and sexy bodies into a single frame as possible. But there’s something deliciously perverse about them, as if the artists have gone off piste and produced their own subversive readings of the films that might work against the tone of the original marketing drive. How else might we explain the dark dual image of this bit of publicity for Paul Hogan’s amiable and inconsequential Crocodile Dundee 2:

And in which parallel universe does Weekend at Bernie’s deserve such a beautifully macabre ad campaign:


During the communist era (1945-1989), distributors would commission graphic designers to produce eye-catching images instead of using the posters sent by the foreign distributors. One commentator on the Wellmedicated site notes that film posters were not monitored by the authorities, and artists often smuggled in political commentary, which might explain the prevalence of fragmented, masked or otherwise brutalised faces.


I could fill up a lot of space with these things, but if you want to see more, there are larger galleries here and here. The Outland Institute has a quiz that asks you to guess the film from the poster. As well as an excellent essay here, there’s an article about posters at Write on Film, whose author cites an online article by Anna Husarska which appears now to have been removed, so hopefully it’s OK if I reproduce it third hand, since it explains why the posters developed in this form:

“It was the result of a particularly felicitous combination of factors. First, the totalitarian state with unlimited funds at its disposal turned out to be a very good patron. Second, given the general shortages of everything from toilet paper to washing machines, posters weren’t really about advertising, they were art for art’s sake. Third, the primitive state of printing techniques precluded any easy, conventional use of photographs, so the artists were obliged to be more creative. The isolation from the artistic currents in the West was an advantage, too: Polish artists had to follow their own, original path. And because in Poland there was no art market to speak of (art dealers were considered ‘rotten bourgeois’), poster-making offered one of the few opportunities for artists and designers to practice their profession.”

I’m especially drawn to the monster stuff, which seems to be very appropriate for these scratchy, mischievous pictures. The rudimentary simplicity of Critters is well matched by this bit of minimalism, followed by a rather cute and plaintive Son of Godzilla:



If the poster is the first point of contact you get with a film, preparing you for its tone and content, theme and attitude,  are these designs doing that job, or are they paving the way for counter-readings of the film? Does the poster above want you to find a horrific morbidity in Weekend at Bernie’s, and thus come to interpret the sad and sinister sense of waste that lies at the core of such cynically manufactured trash, or is it just setting you up for the big disappointment that comes from the realisation that something has been mis-sold to you?