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On Mutants, Monsters and Mushroom Clouds – Apocalypse Then: American and Japanese Atomic Cinema, 1951-1967 by Mike Bogue

War of the Colossal Beast

War of the Colossal Beast (1958)

A Book Review by Matthew Fullerton.

Apocalypse Then (McFarland, 2017) is an informative and entertaining examination, and comparison, of science fiction films from the U.S. and Japan with both indirect and direct ties to the “nuclear threat,” such as testing, accidents, fallout, radiation, and war. The author Mike Bogue, an American community college professor and regular contributor to monster magazines, has chosen the years 1951 to 1967 because movies associated with the “nuclear genie” peaked during this period. Since Bogue’s baby-boomer childhood was rife with late-night TV creature-features and trips to the cinema to see monster movies, the analysis frequently displays both passion and humour, with the author sharing personal memories, anecdotes and nostalgia while discussing and synopsizing the featured films.

Apocalypse Then is organized into three parts. The first, “Mutants”, begins with an analysis of American “humanoid mutant movies” and culminates in chapter 4 with a comparing and contrasting of American and Japanese movies. Fans of Ed Wood and Roger Corman productions will enjoy Part I as it features 1955’s Bride of the Monster and Day the World Ended. Three Bert I. Gordon classics – The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), The Cyclops (1957) and War of the Colossal Beast (1958) – also appear. But, Bogue reserves perhaps his strongest praise for Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), which he describes as “one of the best science fiction films […] of any decade” (44) and he often surprises with his accolades, such as B-movie stalwart Beverly Garland’s “shot in the arm” (60) performance in The Alligator People (1959, Roy Del Ruth), a film Bogue finds well-written and directed. A cursory glance at Part I of Apocalypse Then, however, might indicate that it leans too heavily on American movies: only one of the four chapters is dedicated to the cinema of Japan and only two Japanese films are analysed in detail as opposed to the twenty-six American ones. Fortunately, Bogue explains the reason for this imbalance in Part I. He attributes the lack of “humanoid mutant movies” to the fact that Japan was a small nation with “only a handful of film companies” (87).

978-1-4766-6841-3-1But, fans of Japanese sci-fi and kaiju films, particularly those of the great director Ishiro Honda, will not be disappointed with Part II on atomic age monster movies, whose second chapter – “Walking H-Bombs” – analyses both the original Godzilla (1954) and its Americanized version, and some dozen other kaiju films, including Rodan (1956) and Mothra (1961). Stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen fans will enjoy reading about The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, Eugene Lourie), the first movie to have a prehistoric monster – the Rhedosaurus – awakened by a nuclear explosion, and It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955, Robert Gordon) in Part II’s chapter on American monsters. The fifties alien invasion film Killers from Space (1954, W. Lee Wilder) Bogue considers unique because it is “the first [alien invasion film] [..] to use giant monsters to conquer the Earth” (123). He also admires it as a “period peace” since its narrative reflects many fifties Cold War issues, such as espionage and national security, with the aliens representing the Soviets. Also, in Part II, Bogue discusses, and praises, two American giant insect movies, Them! (1954, Gordon Douglas) – “unequivocally […] the finest big bug movie ever made” (127) – and “top-rank fun” (138) and Tarantula (1955, Jack Arnold), Universal-International’s response to Warner Bros.’s highly successful Them! But, it’s not just the blockbuster classics that get noticed in Apocalypse Then’s Part II. Of the “sleeper” The Monster That Challenged the World (1957, Arnold Laven), about a giant caterpillar-esque creature – “one of the best mechanical props” (151) of fifties sci-fi cinema – Bogue notes the parallels to Jaws, such as the screaming girl being pulled under. He goes on to describe it as “Grade-B moviemaking at its best” (152).

Bogue wraps up Part II with a comparison of American and Japanese monster films from the fifties and sixties aptly entitled “Honda vs. Harryhausen”. In it, he reaches conclusions on differences in the use of metaphors to represent the nuclear threat’s scope and significance, and mortality. As an example of this last one, Bogue observes how in Japanese films, children are often in danger and die off-screen, suggesting that the nuclear threat is all-encompassing and that there is nothing Japan, and the World, can do to protect itself. In American films, on the other hand, the heroes are more often able to defend children and succeed at it. All of this is linked to Bogue’s overarching idea that in Japanese movies, the nuclear threat endangers the entire Earth, while in American movies, the nuclear threat is frequently localized. American films, according to Bogue, tend to hold out hope of putting the “nuclear genie back in the bottle” (3) while their Japanese counterparts do not hold up such hope, instead resigning themselves to the fact that the nuclear threat, though perhaps temporarily contained, will always be there.

Part III, “Mushroom Clouds”, focuses on what Bogue calls “more serious nuclear threat” movies, namely those whose antagonist is a non-metaphorical nuclear threat. Two more Roger Corman films – Teenage Cave Man (1958) and The Last Woman on Earth (1960) – are featured here. The latter’s script, written by legendary screenwriter Robert Towne when he was only twenty-five years old, Bogue considers “surprisingly well-written” (234). The Creation of the Humanoids (1962,  Wesley E. Barry), a movie Bogue finds the strangest in Apocalypse Then, is intriguing (though I’ve never seen it) because its scenario, as Bogue presents it, comes across to me as the prototype to Blade Runner. With the Harry Belafonte-starring The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959, Ranald MacDougall), however, Bogue dedicates too much time poking holes in the plot and, consequently, he spoils the ending. The chapter dedicated to American nuclear threat movies ends with a discussion of the oft studied and praised Dr. Strangelove (1964, Stanley Kubrick) and Fail-Safe (1964, Sidney Lumet). The Japanese chapter features four films, including Ishiro Honda’s Earth Defense Force (1957), which, like many of Honda’s movies, appeals for international cooperation in the face of a common threat, and the elusive The Final War (1960, Shigeaki Hidaka). Bogue’s decision to include The Final War, despite its obvious nuclear threat theme, left me scratching my head: as Bogue himself acknowledges, The Final War in its entirety is nearly impossible to track down, yet he dedicates four pages of Apocalypse Then to discussing it regardless of not having seen the whole film.

Apocalypse Then is synopsis-heavy, but Bogue renders it entertaining by blending funny bits of nostalgia and interesting memories and anecdotes attesting to the impact of these movies on his adolescence. When discussing Bert I. Gordon’s The Amazing Colossal Man, for instance, he shares a parallel to his own family history, in particular the story of an uncle who, as a soldier in the fifties, was forced to walk through a highly radioactive area only to experience a complete personality change after his service, much like the film’s anti-hero Glenn Manning. Apocalypse Then is also rich in fascinating movie trivia, such as the makers of the aforementioned Tarantula relying on sixty different actual tarantulas, or the amusing way in which director Roger Corman decided on the name of his film Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). In addition, Bogue does a fine job of including both contemporaneous and later reviews of several featured films, which often demonstrate an evolution in their appreciation over time. But perhaps the book’s greatest asset is its final chapter – “Aftermath vs. the End” – a succinct yet informative synthesis of Bogue’s ideas on, and comparison of, American and Japanese nuclear threat films. Though more scholarly in nature than other sections, it is still accessible to a diverse audience of cinephiles.

It is no surprise that McFarland, a company renowned for its eclectic-with-a-twist-of-esotericism books, would publish Apocalypse Then, and it does a nice job of packaging and editing such a unique study (this critic only found one minor problem in a single sentence). Apocalypse Then is aptly illustrated with black-and-white stills and the cover, a collage of colorized scenes from several of the featured films, by artist Todd Tennant (Godzilla 94 and American Kaiju), is a wonderful touch.

Matthew Fullerton is an educator and part-time academic (Dalhousie University) in Nova Scotia, Canada. He researches and writes about the cinemas of Tunisia and Japan, two countries in which he used to live, work and study.

Read also:

Lars-Martin Sorenson’s Censorship of Japanese Films during the U.S. Occupation of Japan: The Cases of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa

The Myths and a Master: Pacific Rim

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