“Tokusatsu Museum” at MOT 特撮博物館 於 東京都現代美術館

exhibition poster 展覧会のポスター

The Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT) now has a temporary exhibition running since Tuesday 8 July until 8 October 2012. This exhibition entitled Director, Hideaki Anno’s “TOKUSATSU” Special Effects Museum-Craftsmanship of Showa & Heisei eras seen through miniatures is in collaboration with the celebrated Studio Ghibli, famous for many loved animated films such as My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies and Princess Mononoke, and director Anno Hideaki (庵野秀明), best known for Neon Genesis Evangelion. This is the 10th collaboration between Studio Ghibli and MOT since 2003. Being a fan of both Studio Ghibli works as well as Evangelion, I went to have a look this morning.

This exhibition showcases the Japanese film genre known as Tokusatsu (特撮). The word means special effects and that’s basically what these films are about as they are meant to thrill audiences with action packed scenes often involving actors in rubber suits playing giant monsters and heroes fighting it out on miniature city sets. Godzilla and Ultraman are perhaps the best known of these to the West. Anno pays homage to these films as he takes the visitor first through some of the earlier films with both original and recreated props. Miniature science fiction vehicles and building, sketches and rubber suits and masks from Ultraman as well as other series that perhaps did not make it beyond Japan are on display.

Here are links to the museum’s information in English and Japanese.

Warning: Below are some spoilers to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Neon Genesis Evangelion and the exclusive film shown at the exhibition. Scroll down to the next bold caption for the rest of this post without spoilers.

The exhibition then moves on to an exclusive film shown only to visitors to the exhibition. One of Anno’s earliest works was with Studio Ghibli when he animated the Kyoshinheiki (巨神兵器 aka “God Soldier”) scene from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. For those who have only seen the animated version of Nausicaä, the connection to Evangelion might not be apparent. However, a look at the manga version of Nausicaä reveals an uncanny resemblance between the Kyoshinheiki and Eva units. The Kyoshinheiki depicted in the exclusive film drives this home even further. It’s as if the Kyoshinheiki are Eva but without the armor and a nuclear blast beam built into the mouth. It even has “wings of light” similar to those depicted on Eva Unit 1 in End of Evangelion as well as a lance similar to the Spear of Longinus.

The short film, produced by Studio Ghibli and directed by Anno, depicts the “Seven Days of Fire” alluded to in Nausicaä, the apocalyptic event that eventually lead to the world of Nausicaä. It specifically illustrates the destruction of modern day Tokyo, a familiar theme in Japanese films (to which then the world of Nausicaä is a post-apocalyptic version of our world) . The Kyoshinheiki descends on Tokyo. Unsuspecting citizens have no idea what is about to happen and indeed many stop to take photos with their mobile phone cameras (perhaps a swipe at contemporary culture). The narrator, who sounds a lot like Rei Ayanami from Evangelion, describes the events until Day Four of the Seven Days of Fire, after which conditions for human life is next to impossible and the narrator has presumably perished.

The film is made with analogue methods. Most of the time the visuals are so compelling I thought I was watching CG. However, there are constant reminders that this is Tokusatsu in all of its imperfect glory (especially the obviously fake dog yapping at the sight of a several hundred meters tall Kyoshinheiki). The film also has inconsistencies, most notably the scale of the Kyoshinheiki seems to go from a few kilometers tall when it is first seen hovering over Tokyo to only several hundred meters tall when stomping around its neighborhoods. Despite its dark tone, perhaps the darkest for Studio Ghibli not counting Grave of the Fireflies, overall the sense I got was that the film is about having fun getting special effects to work.

Indeed, after the film finishes, the rest of the exhibition focuses on Tokusatsu methods and shows how most of the shots in the exclusive film were made. Anno and his crew can be seen in videos really enjoying themselves as they get miniatures to blow up while the high speed cameras capture the desired effects.

Conclusion (spoilers finished)
Two things struck me during this exhibition.

The first was that the work involved with Tokusatsu, indeed with film making in general, is not too unlike the work in architecture. That work is to sell an idea of what the world could be like. To be sure, an architect has to produce a design that is, technically speaking, internally consistent as any contradictions will not go down well when the building is under construction (though that does happen more often than architects would like). However, when making presentation material to either explain to the client or other audience, “tricks” are inevitably employed to economize on what needs to be done to complete the presentation. If one designs a building, then that building should be presented with its context (though not always required). This means only modeling just enough, plus perhaps a bit more, for what the camera can see. Foreground buildings will get more detail than middle ground buildings. Background buildings might not have much detail if any at all. The real difference is that, depending on the desired effect or audience, the architect might get away with presenting the context with more abstraction. A filmmaker will usually desire to achieve suspension of disbelief.

Visually speaking, this has always been problematic until recently. Nevertheless, the degree of effort made in Tokusatsu can be incredible with highly intricate details present in the miniature models used. This includes representing everyday decay such as rusting corrugated sheet metal used to make a roof on an illegal extension. In order for suspension of disbelief to be achieved visually, the audience has to e convinced it is at least a depiction of an actual city. That includes its ugliness like electric and telephone cables strung up everywhere, loud commercial signboards, decrepit construction and perhaps some garbage. In contrast, architects usually sell aspiration, which means imperfections need not be present in the visual material.

The second noteworthy thing is that, like the Metabolism Exhibition of several months ago, the Tokusatsu exhibition shows many design ideas from the post-War “boom” period of Japan. This period coincided with what might be considered a period of normalization in Europe, which also follows a struggle to recover from devastating warfare. In terms of art and architecture, this was the period of late Modernism.

What really emotionally stood out is the sense of unbridled optimism that the designers, and perhaps the general public of industrialized countries (the West and Japan), felt in the heyday of Tokusatsu. The colonization of space was considered inevitable. Most problems could be overcame by a few brave people with the right technological tools. In the case of architecture, new building and city typologies were supposed to relieve us of squalid cramped traditional cities. In science fiction, the monster of the week could be beaten with a new weapon or other technological trick that the brilliant professor developed recently. Mankind was also often depicted as eventually uniting under one global government without today’s fear that it would be oppressive towards local culture and necessities or a big bloated uncontrollable bureaucracy.

Today the mood is definitely more cautious if not at times downright pessimistic. Technology marches on of course. While space travel is still the preserve of only a fortunate (and brave) few, which now includes those wealthy enough to buy their way up, today we have previously unimagined communication (perhaps social) phenomenon partly thanks to (relatively) cheap and cheerful artificial satellites.

Nevertheless, mankind’s relationship to technology is not necessarily any longer as the master. Blade Runner, The Terminator, The Matrix and even Nausicaä, a parable of environmental mismanagement, coincides with the rise of Post-Modern thoughts (which I have to caution cannot be as neatly defined as Modernism). The message now seems to be that whatever technology mankind comes up with, ultimately it does not change the fact that mankind is what it is with all of its strife, hypocrisy, greed, betrayal, moral-weaknesses, inconsistencies, inner-strength, loyalty, heroics, redemption and bliss.

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