The Greater Asian Japanese Monster Invasion
The giant monster and tokusatsu (SFX film and television) boom didn’t just hit Japan. Its neighbors observed the success of such films both in their native Japan and abroad in their own countries. Many decided to try their hands at Japanese-style productions. Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, even the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea; all attempted monster movies of their own with varying levels of success. Often, they solicited the aid of Japanese technicians who were more than happy to lend their expertise. These productions tended to lack the polish of Japan’s films. Yet they have a unique quality: combining Japanese technical skill with the native aesthetics of many of these countries.
Japan’s cinematic influence on the rest of East Asia stretches back to the Imperial years and World War II. The Japanese brought cruelty and oppression to the Asian countries they conquered. They also brought better cinematic technology. In the interest of producing propaganda to deflate the local resistance, they modernized the industries of countries like China, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia.
By the mid 1960s, Japanese special effects and monster films were at peak popularity. In Japan, nearly every studio produced a monster film in 1967 and monsters swarmed the airwaves. The first fellow East Asian country to cash on the Japanese monster boom would be South Korea. The Korean peninsula is one of Japan’s closest neighbors and biggest international rivals. Greater Korea was brutally occupied by the Japanese from 1910 until 1945. After that, anti-Japanese sentiment was so bitter that Japanese media of any sort was banned in both Koreas. In South Korea, the ban was not relaxed until 1998. It is still illegal to air Japanese music and shows on the radio and television. Regardless, the South Korean film industry was impressed with Japan’s monster boom. They made a pair of monster films in the same vein. The summer of ’67 begat two Korean kaiju: Space Monster Wang Mag Wi and Yongary, Monster From the Deep.
Released first in June and produced by Seki Productions, Wang Mag Wi is a mysterious and sought after film. Shot in black and white, it concerns a giant alien monster sent by helmet-wearing space people to destroy Earth. The creature is first seen human-sized, kept in a cell by the aliens. It also features a young couple, an air force pilot (Nam Kung-won) and his bride-to-be (Kim Hye-kyeong), whose wedding is ruined by the beast. The creature, King Kong-style, spirits the bride away. Also involved is a vagrant boy who hides inside the monster’s head. The monster is depicted tokusatsu style with a man in a suit and miniatures, though no Japanese technicians were involved. In general, the FX work is pretty unpolished and well below the quality of any Japanese productions. Space Monster Wang Mag Wi was directed by Kwon Hyeok-jin. It has been little seen except at film festival screenings courtesy of the Korean Film Archive. Due to its rights issues, the KOFA is unable to release the film publicly.
The better known Yongary, Monster From the Deep came next in August, directed by veteran Kim Ki-duk (1934–2017). For this film, its studio, Keukdong, consulted Japanese technicians from Daiei and Toei. Yongary was a Godzilla-style monster woken by a nuclear test in the Middle East. The monster emerges in Korea from underground and wreaks havoc in Seoul. Ala Godzilla, Yongary is killed by a chemical compound from a young scientist (Oh Yeong-il). As in the Gamera films, there’s an irksome young boy (Kwang Ho Lee) who takes a liking to the monster. The special effects were supervised by Kenichi Nakagawa. Masao Yagi, who built the original Gamera suit, constructed Yongary. The Korean staff were given a crash course on how to do Japanese style special effects. The picture is a pretty awful one with some oddly disturbing moments, like showing Yongary bleeding from its rectum as it dies. Still, it made good box office in Korea. Yongary, Monster From the Deep was exported internationally, released in Japan by Toei. In the United States, it came to television in an English dubbed version courtesy of American International Pictures. The original Korean version is lost. All that remains of it is an incomplete print running only 48 minutes at the Korean Film Archive.
The greater Chinese island nation of Taiwan also made a fair share of kaiju-style pictures, though with a fantasy bent. Unlike China and Korea, Taiwan has a more favorable view of Japan. Also occupied by the Japanese for decades, China’s former leader Chiang Kai-shek turned the country into a haven for the last of the Kuomintang in 1949. Strategically, Chiang’s regime turned negative public opinion away from Japan towards Mao’s communist China. The Japanese became allies in the struggle against communism. Taiwanese cinema was in turn aimed at promoting the ideal of reclaiming the Mainland from the communists.
An early post-war Japanese/Taiwanese co-production was a film called Feng Shen Bang (1969), roughly translating to List of the Gods. It is a wuxia (Chinese swordplay flick) with strong fantasy elements. Feng Shen Bang was co-directed by none other than Tatsuya Yamanouchi (Grand Duel in Magic or The Magic Serpent). Like Grand Duel, it features a giant dragon. The special effects were handled by Equis Productions’ Masao Yagi and Akira Suzuki. Other notable early Taiwanese wuxia/monster/fantasy films include Young Flying Hero (1970) and Tsu Hong Wu (1971). Tsu Hong Wu, or Founding of the Ming Dynasty, was directed by Hsu Ta-Chun. It features a giant white ape, a red haired giant and a dragon, all executed tokusatsu style. The special effects technician for this film was none other than Koichi Takano of Tsuburaya Pro. Takano (1935–2008) was well known for his work on the Ultraman franchise. He would go on to work on more Taiwanese productions including The Devil From the Bottom of the Sea (1974). Special effects footage from Tsu Hong Wu and The Devil was re-used in a later Taiwanese fantasy film, The Fairy and the Devil (1982).
In Thailand, a producer named Sompote Saengduenchai began making his own tokusatsu-style films at his company, Chaiyo. Sompote (1941-) had actually met and been mentored by Tsuburaya himself while visiting Japan. He spent some time on the sets of King Kong vs. Godzilla and Son of Godzilla. Chaiyo’s first film was Tah Tien (1973). Tah Tien was based on Thai folklore and featured a pair of giants named Yak Wat Jaeng and Yak Wat Pho. Tah Tien was a tremendous success at the Thai box office. This led to Chaiyo and Tsuburaya Pro collaborating on two Thai-Japanese co-productions.
The first was Jumborg Ace and Giant (1974). This teamed Yak Wat Jaeng from Tah Tien with Tsuburaya’s own superhero Jumborg Ace. They battled their enemies Jum Killer and Yak Wat Pho. The film was co-directed by Sompote and Shohei Tojo. Tojo is credited exclusively in Japanese prints. Tojo (1939-) was a prolific director who specialized in television tokusatsu shows. He started at Tsuburaya and went on to direct a lot of Toei shows. In particular, Tojo helmed numerous Metal Hero and Super Sentai episodes. Jumborg Ace and Giant would be exported in Taiwan with new actors as Mars Men. It did good enough business in Thailand and Japan to warrant another collaboration between Tsuburaya and Chaiyo.
That film, far better known, is Hanuman vs. 7 Ultraman (1974), or The 6 Ultra Brothers vs. the Monster Army. In this film, a gaggle of kaiju including Gomora from Ultraman and Dustpan from Mirrorman are awakened by a failed rocket test. They lay siege to Thailand. All that stands in their way is the Hindu monkey god Hanuman and all the current Ultramen. The Ultra Brothers and Hanuman (quite brutally) battle the monsters. As with Jumborg Ace and Giant, Shohei Tojo co-directed. Thai prints exclusively name Sompote as director whereas Japanese prints credit Tojo. For both, it is likely Sompote shot the actor footage while Tojo handled the tokusatsu material. The special effects were handled by Kazuo Sagawa. Sagawa later worked on The Last Dinosaur (1977), another international Tsuburaya co-production.
The Thai cut of Hanuman vs. 7 Ultraman is a lot longer at around 103 minutes whereas the Japanese version is only 79. The Japanese version, not released until 1979, is far more palatable. Hanuman would be back in 1975’s Hanuman and the Five Riders and 1984’s The Noble War. The former used Kamen Rider footage completely without Toei’s permission. Hanuman vs. 7 Ultraman was re-released in Thailand in 1984 as Hanuman vs. 11 Ultraman. This version used unauthorized footage from the compilation film Ultraman Zoffy. It was localized for the US in 1985 as Space Warriors 2000. Space Warriors 2000, produced by Dick Randall, is possibly the worst Americanization of an Asian film in cinema history.
In the mid ‘70s, Chinese film mogul Run Run Shaw also became interested in producing tokusatsu-style productions. Shaw (1907–2014), along with his older brother Runme (1901–1985), owned the monolithic Hong Kong studio Shaw Brothers. The sound of Shaw Brothers’ logo fanfare was well known in Hong Kong. Like Toho, Shaw Brothers owned their own line of theaters and had a distinctive house style. One could tell that a film of theirs was “Another Shaw Production” just by watching it. At their peak in the mid 70s, they were putting out dozens of films a year. They were best known for their stagey yet polished martial arts films which were popular internationally. Yet they produced films in every genre from romantic comedy to horror. In total, over a thousand pictures were put out by Shaw Brothers over the decades.
The Shaw or Shao family was long in the movie business. Run Run’s older brothers had started theater and film production businesses in Shanghai in the silent era. Runme and Run Run started their own film production arms in Malaysia and Singapore. After the war, they rebuilt their business with gold and jewelry they had buried in their backyard. In 1957, Run Run and Runme started Shaw Brothers studios. They built a movie factory of sorts on 46 acres of land in Clearwater Bay. By 1961, they were the largest scale film production outlet in the world.
When looking to technologically modernize his company, Run Run Shaw turned not to Hollywood but to former adversary Japan. Veteran Japanese cinematographer Tadashi Nishimoto acted as technical consultant in the early 1960s. Nishimoto (1921–1997) had worked for Shin Toho including for horror director Nobuo Nakagawa. He convinced Run Run Shaw to adopt Cinemascope and Eastman color as standard like Japan’s industry had done. Additionally, he spent years in Hong Kong, shooting many of Shaw Brothers’ early classics under the Chinese name “Ho Lan-Shan”. He trained the Chinese crew on sophisticated cinematography techniques. The films shot by Nishimoto included Yueh Feng’s Madame White Snake (1962), Li Han-Hsiang’s The Love Eterne (1963) and King Hu’s Come Drink With Me (1966). Yukio Miyake (1934-) or “Kung Mu To” was another Japanese cinematographer who shot many of kung fu director Chang Cheh’s films. Run Run Shaw also employed Japanese directors for some of his productions. These included prolific director Umetsugu Inoue, along with Koji Shima and Akinori Matsuo. The Shaws even structured the way their studio was run off the “Big Five” in Japan, particularly Toho. The actors, directors, writers and technical craftspeople were exclusively contracted to Shaw Brothers.
By the mid 70s, Japanese superhero shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider were popular on Hong Kong airwaves. The Shaws decided to make a similar Chinese superhero. The project became The Super Infra-Man, first released in August of 1975. Shaw Brothers brought Japanese designer and sculptor Michio Mikami, from Equis Productions, on board. Mikami (1935-), started his career with Tsuburaya on Rodan in 1956. Eventually, he ended up at Daiei where he helped design monsters from the Gamera films including Gyaos and Zigra. Going freelance, he also worked on Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell and The Green Slime (both 1968). By the 70s, Mikami was chief designer for Toei’s Kamen Rider franchise. Afterwards, he would supervise the production design on Message From Space (1978). He was a pivotal force and supervising director on Go Nagai’s Supermarionation-style show X-Bomber or Starfleet (1980–81). Mikami designed Infra-Man himself along with many of the film’s monsters. He had some creative differences with the Chinese crew whom he felt weren’t doing a good job building the suits and sets.
While high camp, The Super Infra-Man is a ferociously entertaining film. It combines colorful Japanese-style monster theatrics with kinetic Chinese action and martial arts mayhem. Its director was then 33 year old Hua Shan (1942-), who later specialized in martial arts and crime thrillers. Danny Lee plays the lead, a young scientist named Lei Mai. Lee, or Lee Sau-yin (1952-), was a prolific actor at Shaw Brothers who started in Chang Cheh’s The Water Margin (1972). He would be known for his role in John Woo’s The Killer (1989). In Infra-Man, Princess Elizibub (Terry Liu) begins to attack Earth with her monsters. Lee’s Lei Mai is transformed Kamen Rider-style into the titular character by Professor Liu (veteran kung fu baddie Wang Hsieh). Once transformed, Infra-Man leaps into action. He takes on creature after creature in one off-the-wall sequence after another. Like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, he has numerous superweapons at his disposal. They are handy in destroying the various H.R. Pufnstuf-like creatures he battles. Infra-Man also stars young actress Yuan Man-Tzu (1957-) and Bruce Le (1950-). Le became famous for being something of a Bruce Lee impersonator. He starred in a string of “Bruceploitation” films after the iconic martial artist’s death. Infra-Man’s DP was none other than Tadashi Nishimoto, who had recently shot The Way of the Dragon (1972) for Bruce Lee himself. The Super Infra-Man flopped badly in Hong Kong but was exported internationally. It was released stateside by Joseph Brenner in 1976 as Infra-Man with a English dub by Titan Productions.
In 1976, the Taiwanese studio Dominic Pictures produced an interesting tokusatsu-style film called War God. Unlike prior films of this sort, this had a contemporary setting and sci-fi elements. The Taiwanese government objected to Taipei being destroyed in a film. They feared it would make Taiwan look weak to the communists. So the setting of the film’s urban destruction was changed to Hong Kong. War God concerns an invasion by Martian aliens who look like albino bugs. After laying waste to Hong Kong with their spaceship, they grow to gigantic size and stomp through the metropolis. A statue of Chinese folk hero Guan Yu comes to life, Majin-style, and battles the giant aliens. Directed by Chan Hung-Man, the special effects were once again handled by Koichi Takano. They’re about on par with Japanese television, but War God has a distinctive weirdness that makes it pretty appealing. It has to be seen to be believed.
Also in 1976 came the U.S./South Korean co-production A*P*E. Produced by Taiwanese entrepreneur T.K. Yang, the film was intended to cash in on Dino De Laurentiis’ production of King Kong. Badly shot in 3-D and atrociously directed by American Paul Leder, A*P*E is a premiere cinematic abomination. The film’s budget was only $23,000 and looks like it. A*P*E has rock bottom production values that make Ed Wood look like Stanley Kubrick. The special effects by Park Kwang Nam are among the worst in film history. The ape suit is awful; about on par with one you’d rent for a 70s costume party. A*P*E also tries to shamelessly cash in on Jaws as the ape battles a (live) shark early on. It features a mixed American and Korean cast headed by Joanna Kerns as the blonde Fay Wray style ingenue. She later became known for her role on TV’s Growing Pains. The truly terrible A*P*E managed to beat De Laurentiis’ Kong in Korean and American theaters by several months. The Blob’s Jack H. Harris distributed it with the tagline/legal disclaimer “Not to be confused with King Kong”.
Shaw Brothers put out a King Kong cash-in of their own in mid 1977: The Mighty Peking Man. The Shaw Brothers wanted to make an outright Kong film but were unable to get the rights. The film was directed by Ho Meng-Hua. Ho (1923–2009) was one of the most prolific and interesting directors employed at Shaw Brothers. His previous work includes The Lady Hermit (1971) with Cheng Pei-pei and the original The Flying Guillotine (1974). The depiction of the latter’s title weapon, invented by Qing emperor Yongzheng to kill Han rebels, became iconic in Chinese popular culture. Ho was hired for The Mighty Peking Man as he had proved he could handle special effects laden films with the Black Magic series and The Oily Maniac (1976). Once again Shaw Brothers brought in talent from Japan to lend expertise. The special effects work was handled by none other than Sadamasa Arikawa, Tsuburaya’s cameraman and the former head of Toho’s FX division. For The Mighty Peking Man, other Toho employees accompanied him to Hong Kong. Koichi Kawakita assisted him and Mototaka Tomioka was special effects cinematographer. The Peking Man suit was constructed by Keizo Murase and bests Toho’s Kong suits. Murase (1933-) built many monsters for Toho and Daiei including Varan, Baragon in Frankenstein Conquers the World and Titanosaurus in Terror of Mechagodzilla.
The film concerns an expedition into India headed by explorer Johnny (Danny Lee again). Johnny has a depressed death wish because his girlfriend left him for his brother. They discover the titular Peking Man, a giant Kong-like Yeti. Johnny also finds a girl named Samantha (late Swiss actress Evelyn Kraft). Samantha is a female Tarzan of sorts who has been living in the jungle since her parents died in a plane crash. Johnny is love-struck by this blond beauty and naturally brings Peking Man and Samantha back to Hong Kong. Ala King Kong, Peking Man gets loose and goes on the rampage. He climbs Hong Kong’s Jardine House before being killed by the British army as Samantha dies in the crossfire. Prolific Chinese actor Ku Feng (1930-) also appears in the film as the sleazebag promoter responsible for Peking Man’s rampage. He played both mentors and villains in numerous martial arts films. An amusing anecdote is that Ho’s Chinese crew were miserable during the location shooting in India. They hated the food and barely ate until they could find a Chinese restaurant. At that point, director Ho remarked, he’d never seen his crew eat so much. Brit Ted Thomas appears as the head of the military in the finale. Thomas (1929-) was better known for providing his voice to untold thousands of Hong Kong recorded English dubs. Amusingly, in the English version of The Mighty Peking Man, his voice is dubbed over.
The Mighty Peking Man is one of the best East Asian pseudo-tokusatsu movies. It is marred only by mondo-style animal cruelty and a love montage that looks like a parody of such a scene by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Its Japanese-made special effects are quite decent. The budget was one of the biggest in Hong Kong film history at over a million U.S. dollars. Arikawa and company definitely took the film’s King Kong-inspired material to heart. The Shaws and director Ho had some conflict with the Japanese FX team. They were frustrated that Arikawa’s crew were taking a long time to finish the special effects sequences. The Shaws wanted to get the film out before Di Laurentiis’ King Kong was released in Hong Kong. Due to visa problems with the Japanese FX crew, the release of Peking Man was delayed until August of 1977. It was released into the US in 1979 as Goliathon by World Northal. Northal distributed a good amount of the Shaws’ kung fu fare to grindhouses.
On the subject of Arikawa, an interesting Taiwanese/Japanese co-production is War of the Wizards (1978). A fantasy wuxia film with sci-fi elements, it involves a scroll that grants wishes from space. It features several monsters including a giant phoenix. The film’s lavish special effects work and some co-direction were also done by Sadamasa Arikawa and shot by Mototaka Tomioka. The villainess, an evil goddess named Flower Fox, is played by Betty Pei-Tei. Pei-Tei had a chilling turn as a brothel keeper in Chu Yuan’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972), made for Shaw Brothers. American actor Richard Kiel (The Spy Who Loved Me) appears as her henchman. War of the Wizards was released in the U.S. in 1983 by 21st Century Film Corporation.
Sompote Saengduenchai’s Chaiyo, meanwhile, continued to produce films. Thailand’s own local kaiju film of sorts was Crocodile (1978). It was actually a Korean co-production with Han Jin Enterprises and co-directed by Lee Won-Se. Kazuo Sagawa of Tsuburaya Productions also acted as advisor for the special effects sequences. Paying homage to both Godzilla and Jaws, Crocodile concerns a radiation spawned giant crocodile wreaking havoc in Asia. The wives and daughter of main characters Tony (Nard Poowanai) and John (Min Oo) are eaten by the monster. As in Jaws, they head out to sea to hunt it down and kill it, along with a Quint-like Japanese fisherman named Tanaka (Kirk Warren). Crocodile has some vicious on-screen animal abuse that will turn off many viewers. The American Humane Association has condemned the film. The Thai cut and U.S. version are almost different movies with the former having better editing. The 100 minute Thai version of Crocodile is a pretty decent monster on the loose film for what it is. The 90 minute American version, supervised by Dick Randall, is quite haphazardly assembled. It was released in the U.S. in 1981 by Herman Cohen’s Cobra Media. Other Chaiyo monster films not mentioned include Phra Rod Meree (1981) and Magic Lizard (1985).
Years later, relations between Tsuburaya and Chaiyo would disintegrate. Sompote proved himself to be quite the crook. In the mid 90s, he began to claim he owned the international rights to the Ultraman franchise. He cited that he had helped Eiji Tsuburaya invent Ultraman when looking at Thai statues as inspiration. Sompote also claimed Tsuburaya’s late son Noboru had gifted him the rights. He even went as far as to forge the Tsuburaya family’s hanko seal on an obviously fake contract. Sompote became a controversial figure and litigation lasted for years. It was finally settled in 2018, when a Los Angeles court sided in favor of Tsuburaya Pro. Sompote was thus forced to relinquish rights to the Ultraman franchise.
Speaking of litigation, in 1980, the Hong Kong company First Films, best known for producing The Master of the Flying Guillotine (1975), announced a kaiju production of their own. The film was to be called Star Godzilla. First Films even took out an entire ad in Variety. Star Godzilla was to be directed by Hsu Futien and star Joey Fang and Charles Woo. The Variety ad poster not only featured a Godzilla-like creature, but also Anguirus and King Kong-like monsters and flying saucers. It would have no doubt been an off the wall Hong Kong monster bash akin to Infra-Man. Unfortunately, production was halted abruptly and nothing was heard of it again. For years, Western fans believed that the film might have actually been produced. The truth is there is no evidence of its existence beyond the Variety ad. First Films flaunting their unauthorized use of a heavily trademarked character in the industry’s biggest trade magazine was not the smartest move. A stern phone call from Toho’s legal reps to Hong Kong likely put an end to Star Godzilla.
King of Snake is another Taiwanese production from 1984. Directed by Hsu Yu-Lung, it concerns an obnoxious little girl named Ting-ting (Tracy Su). Ting-ting finds a snake she makes her pet and names “Mosler”. Mosler, having eaten a chemical called R19, gets bigger and bigger. It grows to giant size and rampages through the countryside before being killed by the army. King of Snake is a strange film. It seems unsure of whether it wants to be a children’s film about a little girl and her monster or a thriller with political intrigue and violent shoot-outs. It also features Danny Lee, this time as a scientist responsible for creating the monster. There’s unauthorized stock footage from Mothra. The finale also shamelessly uses Morricone’s ending theme from Once Upon a Time in the West. The special effects were handled by another Japanese technician: Gozo Matsui. Matsui (1934–2001) was a cinematographer and FX technician on many Taiwanese films. The effects work is about Japanese television quality with Mosler executed as a puppet. The execution is very mixed but the urban destruction at the end of the film is a little better. The best looking shots have Mosler wrapped around a tall building fending off jets. The puppet was later sent to Japan and used in Kinji Fukasaku’s Legend of the Eight Samurai (1983) by FX director Nobuo Yajima.
Several years later, in 1987, Joseph Lai’s IFD bought the rights to King of Snake. He and director Godfrey Ho created Thunder of Gigantic Serpent from it. Lai and Ho (1948-) were known in the Hong Kong film scene for their low quality but profitable business model. They would buy up obscure East Asian films from Taiwan, the Philippines or South Korea. Ho then shot wrap around scenes with Western actors like Richard Harrison. Lai and Ho as a result could make several films for the time and price of one. Thunder of Gigantic Serpent follows this formula exactly. Footage from King of Snake is intercut with material shot by Ho featuring actors Pierre Kirby and Edowan Bersma. Despite IFD’s dubious pedigree, in some ways Thunder of Gigantic Serpent is more palatable than King of Snake. It has more tasteful music choices and improved pacing, though both versions are pretty awful.
In North Korea, the despotic Kim Jong Il also wanted to get his film industry’s feet wet with a kaiju production. Kim was a longtime Godzilla fan. Years prior, he had kidnapped South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife actress Choi Eun-hee. Kim forced them to make propaganda films for his regime. Inspired by the success of Toho’s The Return of Godzilla, Kim had much of that film’s staff brought to North Korea. He tricked them into coming; making them think the shoot was in China. The film that resulted, made in 1985 and directed by Shin, was called Pulgasari. It was based on the Korean myth of the Bulgasari, a tapir-like monster that ravenously devours iron. The special effects were supervised by none other than Teruyoshi Nakano, with camerawork by Kenichi Eguchi. Pulgasari was designed by Ultraman monster creator Yoshio Suzuki and its suit was made by modeling veteran Nobuyuki Yasumaru.
The plot, similar to Majin, revolves around oppressed farmers in 14th century Korea. The farmer’s tools are confisticated by a cruel governor (Pong-ilk Pak). An imprisoned elderly farmer, as he is starved to death, makes a doll of the Pulgasari out of rice. When his daughter (Chang Son Hui) cuts herself while sewing, it comes to life. Starting off doll-sized, it devours metal, getting bigger. It becomes child-sized (played by Minilla actor Masao Fukuzawa/Little Man Machan). It then becomes human-sized and then gigantic (played by Godzilla actor Kenpachiro Satsuma). With Pulgasari’s help, the farmers overthrow the governor, raising the ire of the King (Yong-hok Pak). Eventually, Pulgasari destroys the King’s palace, winning a victory for the farmers. Yet Pulgasari’s hunger for iron is insatiable and it devours the farmers’ tools.
Pulgasari is actually kind of a good movie. It has solid production values for a film made in a country with prison camps and mass starvation. Nakano’s FX work is quite good, on par with what he was doing in Japan at the time. The Japanese FX team’s contribution elevates the movie with a good suit and quality miniatures. Its communist propaganda themes are definitely evident. The farmers’ struggle is clearly meant to represent the proletariat vs. the elites. It’s said Pulgasari itself represents unchecked capitalism, first helping the farmers and then turning on and consuming them. Pulgasari was Shin Sang-ok’s final North Korean film. Shortly after the production of Pulgasari, Shin and his wife escaped Kim’s clutches. At a film festival in Austria they were able to take refuge in the American embassy. Amusingly enough, Shin would later remake Pulgasari in the U.S. as Galgameth (1996). Galgameth moves the setting to medieval Europe and gives the story a more child friendly tone. In Japan, Pulgasari was not released until 1998 to capitalize on Tristar’s Godzilla.
One of the last films of this type was director and former comedian Shim Hyung Rae’s Yongary remake. Yonggary was also intended as something of a cash-in to Tristar’s Godzilla. It was the most expensive film made in South Korea up to that time and was hyped at the Cannes Film Festival. It even starred Hollywood actor Harrison Young (Saving Private Ryan). Originally, an elaborate suit was built but it was replaced with CGI for most shots. Yonggary opened in Korea in 1999 and Shim, not happy with the film, gave it extensive reshoots. He replaced even more of its practical FX with CG. It was re-released in 2001 and in the U.S. as Reptilian. Overall, it was well received in its native Korea but skewered abroad. Director Shim would later make another Korean kaiju film with a mostly Western cast: D-War (2007).
Since then, there have been a handful of monster and science fiction movies made outside Japan. The most prestigious is certainly Oscar golden boy Bong Joon-Ho’s superb The Host (2006). The Japanese influence has lessened and most of these films are done with CGI. Yet it’s clear Japan’s special effects and kaiju boom was more influential than many give credit. It inspired Japan’s neighbors, all former wartime adversaries, to produce similar films. Politics and national grudges were put aside as Japanese technicians were often consulted and brought to work on these productions.
J.L. Carrozza (1986-) is the author of the upcoming book SF: The Japanese Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia (2021). This article is excerpted and edited from a chapter in that book. Carrozza has written for such publications as Asian Cult Cinema, Monster Attack Team and Otaku USA.