Two Years of Tokatsi Theater
Two Years of Tokusatsu Theater!
By Hal C F Astell
As an intrepid explorer into the darkest and most obscure corners of Cinematic Hell, I've experienced some truly trippy films, trust me. Possibly the trippiest film I've ever seen on the big screen was the wildly insane Ninjascope: The Magic World of Ninjas, presented at the late and lamented Royale in Mesa back in 2011.
A feature length re-editing of the first four episodes of Masked Ninja Red Shadow, a Japanese TV show from the sixties, it was the simple fight between the forces of good and evil that you might expect, merely with invisibility teleportation, giant toads and more cliffhangers than could comfortably be counted to spice it all up. To make it even more special, I arrived at the Royale that night with my family from England in tow, all of whom were reeling from their first encounter with 110 degree Mesa heat. To this day, they're not convinced they even saw a movie, merely experienced a mass hallucination.
They were here on holiday and soon went home, of course, but I've been able to enjoy a lot more Eastern weirdness since, because Ninjascope was only the first of many salvos in my favourite ongoing valley film series, Tokusatsu Theater.
That name is sourced from a Japanese term meaning 'special filming', usually used to describe anything that includes giants robots, monsters, superheroes and their ilk. It celebrates its second anniversary at 10.00pm on Friday, 9th August at its current home, FilmBar in downtown Phoenix. It promises to be just as insane, as host Damon Foster will bring back more Japanese superheroes but add masked wrestlers into the mix for good measure.
Foster is a real local character, whose passion for this sort of material is obvious even to those who've just met him. He's been happily immersed in Asian, especially Japanese, weirdness since he was a small child growing up in San Francisco. Tokusatsu Tuesdays, as this series was known at the Royale, was his first venture into live presentation, but he's been introducing the eager to Asian culture for years through his essential zine, Oriental Cinema, which had enough of a reach that I bought the first issue at a Japanese mall in London. That was decades before I moved to Arizona and met Damon for the first time at Chandler Cinemas, to which he brought an amazing collection of posters in support of the screening of Inframan, an outrageous 1975 superhero movie from Hong Kong that's one of his favourite films.
Foster's knowledge is unparalleled and the material he has access to isn't far behind, built out of decades of tape trading. More years ago than I'm sure he'd care to count, he swapped videocassettes with contacts in the far East. They'd send him TV shows featuring giant monsters and superheroes; he'd send back episodes of Monty Python. Everybody won!
The tape trading circuit is how he ended up with three juvenile Korean comedies from the early eighties starring Shim Hyung-rae. He describes the humour as awful, really hard to endure stuff, but around it was every sort of magic in the Asian cinematic toolbox: dinosaurs, vampires, aliens, kung fu, giant monsters, costumed superheroes, kung fu monks, you name it. So Foster cut out the crap, re-edited all the cool bits to make a vague sort of sense and wrote new dialogue to explain it. Then he brought in friends to provide the voices. The result, Shaolin vs Frankenstein, was my first experience at voice acting and I'll be eternally grateful to Damon for giving me the opportunity to be part of such a gloriously insane project.
If that sounds like your cup of sake, Tokusatsu Theater may well be your new favourite place to be once a month. He alternates months between film and TV. One will be a two hour chunk of Japanese television goodness, often celebrating the anniversary of an important show. The next will be a bizarre movie, with short supporting material to fill out the slot. You won't ever be shortchanged on material at one of Foster's shows.
When the Royale closed, he realised that he'd caught the presentation bug and didn't want to stop putting his programs together, even without a venue to present them in. His fans felt likewise, so one provided his front room as a new theater and the rest brought pizza. Damon brought his material and introduced it to a hardcore, if small, audience. When the opportunity arose to move the show to FilmBar, he leapt at it and it's blazed the trail for other strange monthly film series there since.
I haven't missed many shows, so there's a lot of great material from which to struggle in an attempt to pick my favourites. Certainly, seeing the awesome hopping vampire comedy, Mr Vampire, on the big screen is one. October's show will return to that franchise with a screening of Mr Vampire 3. There was the Korean caveman movie called Tyranno's Claw, which avoided dialogue in favour of grunts. The Golden Bat was a glorious sixties superhero movie with Sonny Chiba. Thunder of Gigantic Serpent was as awesome as its name suggests, featuring a young girl and her enormous snake.
As you can guess from those examples, I tend to prefer the film months to the TV months, but I've found that many of the wildly paced Japanese television shows profiled have become old friends too. Foster has covered all the key titles, including Ultraman and Kamen Rider, but it's the lesser known titles that I've enjoyed the most. You may not have heard of shows like Space Sheriff Gavan and its sequel, Space Sheriff Sharivan, but they're just as enjoyable, if not more so, than the better known titles.
To me, half of the joy is in the familiar, the outrageous rubber suit designs, the gloriously implausible Japanese logic and the delightfully cute Japanese girls playing mini-skirted alien villains. The other half is in the discovery, as Foster introduces us to yet another show we never even knew existed, with just the right amount of detail to provide us with its background.
I'm looking forward to next month's anniversary show, which promises to deliver on both fronts. In addition to Kamen Rider, a regular at Tokusatsu Theater shows, Foster will be introducing us to Aztec Kaiser and Goggle V. I hope that to celebrate his second anniversary, the fans fill the FilmBar theatre to show their gratitude for two years worth of material that's nigh on impossible to see anywhere else. See you there!
Hal C F Astell writes reviews of films from the 1900s to the 2010s at Apocalypse Later, with a focus on what most critics don't cover. He is the author of two books, Huh? An A-Z of Why Classic American Bad Movies Were Made and Velvet Glove Cast in Iron: The Films of Tura Satana. Both are available at Amazon.