Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Japanese Sci-Fi A to Z

Basically, this whole entry is Corey Bond's fault. I've known Corey for more years than I can actually remember, but never knew how hardcore into Godzilla he was. That changed with the launch of his new blog Mechagodzilla Jr. in April. He really got my attention with the entry Giant Monsters vs. Alien Invaders. Why's that? Because it is surprisingly similar to one of my own experiences.

My Fass magazine that changed my life was Star Force Vol. 2, No. 5 (October 1981). I was 9 years old, the same age Corey was when he got that copy of Space Wars. I still have the remnants of my magazine, but it's in no condition to scan. It doesn't even have a cover, and there doesn't seem to be a scan of this cover online. Heck, I can't even find a record of the magazine's existence online. It's only through the generosity of a friendly eBay seller that I got a scan from a price guide that depicts the cover and confirms not only that it exists, but that it looks exactly the way I remember.

Courtesy of Steve Dolnick, here is a small B&W photo of that cover:

This magazine had a huge impact on me. It was my introduction to the Fleischer Brothers Superman cartoons, the Superman movie serials, and Roger Corman. But it's that "Complete Guide to Japanese Sci-Fi" listed on the cover that helped make me who I am today. It is not REALLY a "complete guide," but it WAS one of my primary gateways into Japanese Sci-Fi.

I'd been fascinated by Japanese sci-fi since I first learned it existed, but it had mostly eluded me. While this particular overview stated up front that the Godzilla and Gamera movies were omitted (rats!), it did cover a plethora of movies that fired my imagination. I can't tell you how often I daydreamed about the potential wonders of the Starman movies or the obvious crazy awesomeness of VOYAGE INTO SPACE. The most enticing were the ones (always the most outlandish) that were omitted entirely from your standard film reference books that would later fall into my youthful hands. "Japanese Sci-Fi A to Z" might have been snarky and dismissive of most of the films it covered, but it was my first real ticket into a dreamland that would end up shaping my own creativity as I grew to adulthood.

It was also uncredited. I think all the articles in that magazine were. Flash forward to July 1992. I'm on the verge of turning 20 and have no idea that in just a few short years I will be knee-deep in a Japanese sci-fi fandom I don't even realize exists at that moment. I made my one and so far only stop at Dark Star Books on the trip home from visiting my relatives in Ohio. Frankly, the store experience itself (including SPACE 1999 trading cards in their original box and the store cat on the prowl) was far more memorable than most of what I bought that day. The exceptions were the first issue of the sadly short-lived Justice Society of America series that launched in 1992 and a copy of Star Warp Vol. 1, No. 2 (June 1978).

It was likely the "Japanese Sci-Fi Monsters" blurb that compelled me to page through this old mag. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be the influential "Japanese Sci-Fi A to Z" article almost exactly the way I remembered it! The main difference was that this version of it carried a byline: Tom Rogers.

I would learn in later years that Fass' various and sundry publishing imprints were very good at recycling material. So it was partially a whimsical twist of fate that placed that article in front of me at a time when I was very impressionable. That 1978 article was repurposed in 1981 (right down to the original layout) for likely no other reason than to fill up space in the back of the magazine. It was colorful even in black and white and gave the impression that there was more to the publication than simply a cheap cash-in on the STAR WARS and SUPERMAN franchises. Not really true, but maybe good enough for the lawyers.

I don't know much about Tom Rogers. His name appears in so many of the Fass mags that Corey has given the guy his own tag. My research indicates he turns up in early issues of Starlog, including Starlog Photo Guidebook: Spaceships from 1977. He also did some writing for Marvel in the late 70s/early 80s that I believe are articles rather than stories. There's also the tantalizing tidbit that he worked for The Monster Times until that fabled tabloid closed up shop. Point of fact, I think there's a link here that no one has adequately explored. I believe at least a portion of the crew from The Monster Times found their way to Fass' "Stories, Layouts & Press, Inc." division to create its numerous sci-fi magazines. There was such a proliferation that I'm pretty sure that the Moviemags site hasn't even cataloged them all.

I was discussing this entry with my compadre David McRobie a couple of days ago and mentioned how much I owed Tom Rogers, even though he came across as if the films were largely beneath him. David mentioned to me that he recalled Rogers writing a very complimentary piece on Ghidrah in The Japanese Fantasy Film Journal. Wait, what? Tom Rogers writing for the JFFJ? If you're not familiar with that fanzine, it was THE most important fanzine in the then-miniscule Japanese sci-fi fan community in the 1970s and early 1980s. Why would Tom Rogers, the man who dismissed the vast majority of the genre as "ridiculous and incredibly juvenile," be writing for that publication?

It just so happens that someone has uploaded that particular issue of JFFJ (#12) to Scribd, so everyone can read it. And there it is, just the way David described it. No snark. Just enthusiasm. As I put it to David, he was kayfabing us in that Japanese Sci-Fi A to Z article, wasn't he? Yep, sure seems that way.

It makes sense. For someone who was knocking Japanese sci-fi, Rogers seemed to both know an awful lot about it and write about it a lot. Plus, he worked for The Monster Times, which had pushed Godzilla harder than any other American monster mag. While it's certainly possible Tom Rogers was completely sincere in every article, I suspect he had an affection for the genre that he was subtly trying to get across. I know his descriptions fired my kiddie imagination and made me desperately want to see those movies, no matter how bad the writer said they were. Plus, as David said (to extend the pro wrestling analogy), he was playing a heel in one territory (the Fass magazines) and a face in another (JFFJ). He was writing to his audience and giving them what they expected.

Y'know, I can respect that. Freelance writing is no easy job. If writing about something I loved meant that I had to trash it to earn my check, I'd do it. But I would do it in the way Tom Rogers did, lavishly illustrated and colorfully spelled out in enough detail to let people decide for themselves.

As for the article itself, it's a decent overview of the genre as it stood in mid-1978. There are 27 films discussed in all, and while in no way exhaustive, it's not a bad record of what had been released. The Godzilla and Gamera films up to that point (15 and 7, respectively) are left out just as promised. RODAN and MOTHRA presumably are missing for the same reason. Those kaiju films that fall more properly under fantasy (the Majin movies and THE MAGIC SERPENT) are omitted. There's also the apparently conscious decision to leave out TIDAL WAVE, since that was considered more "disaster movie" than sci-fi. And there's nothing for films that hadn't gotten widespread American release yet (THE WAR IN SPACE, THE LEGEND OF DINOSAURS) or ones that didn't get released in this country at all. Well, that last is debatable, but we'll get to that shortly.

As near as I can tell, the major omissions from this article (from a 1978 perspective) are HALF HUMAN, VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE, and TERROR BENEATH THE SEA. I dunno, maybe they were in the manuscript and got edited for space. Still, it was a lot harder to keep tabs on all these things in the mid-70s than it is today, so Rogers might have missed them. Or hey, maybe like people on the Internet are always saying, he "forgot" them. In any event, I think only missing those three and maybe an obscurity like VENUS FLYTRAP is pretty good for 1978.

There's also an anomaly in this article, and it is perhaps the biggest "clue" that Tom Rogers was more knowledgeable than he was letting on to his readership. One of the films listed is called THE FINAL WAR. This is almost certainly THE LAST WAR, a Toho-produced WWIII drama that was part of the same distribution deal as GORATH and THE HUMAN VAPOR. The review isn't very specific, so it's hard to say for sure.

The trouble is, there WAS a Japanese science-fiction movie called THE FINAL WAR! While it apparently did play in the U.S., it's an open question as to how much distribution it got. IMDB lists Medallion as its TV distributor, but that sounds like someone might be confusing it with THE LAST WAR. The theatrical distributor was supposedly Sam Lake Enterprises, which dealt primarily in sexploitation films. I have no idea why they would have picked up THE FINAL WAR, if in fact they did.

So did Tom Rogers mean THE FINAL WAR or THE LAST WAR? Until we find him to ask him, I don't know. Certainly, it seems like THE LAST WAR is more likely, but it's not out of the question he might have seen THE FINAL WAR. But even if he didn't, how could he make this kind of mistake? Remember JFFJ? If Tom Rogers was familiar enough with Japanese sci-fi to write for (and presumably, subscribe to) that fanzine, he probably would have been aware of the two movies even if the general (fan) public wasn't. Ironically, it's the kind of confusion that crops up when you have too much knowledge.

Tom Rogers was blessed with such a common name that I can't be sure if this Tom Rogers is him or not. He seems like the most likely candidate, but who knows? What I do know is that, wherever he is, I want to thank Tom Rogers for introducing me to the world of Japanese sci-fi. Whether he hated those movies or secretly loved them, he kindled within me the desire to discover them and experience their wonders for myself. Considering all that has come since then, I don't think that's a debt I can ever fully repay.

For your edification and amusement, here are scans of the article from the original(?) Star Warp printing:

BONUS: When this article was reprinted in Star Force in 1981, something was needed to replace that portion of a Star Trek article on the final page. The solution was to paste over a picture of Maren Jensen as Athena from BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. This was a fascinating design choice, since a) there was no caption b) there was no Galactica content in the mag and c) Galactica had been off the air for over a year. Why this picture? Maybe because it fit the space? Maybe because Maren Jensen was hot? At any rate, this is the best version of it I could find.

Oh, one more thing, and I'll wrap this up. If you are a seller on eBay or Amazon Marketplace and have a reasonably-priced copy of Star Force Vol. 2, No. 5 for sale, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. I would really like a complete copy of this piece of my personal history. Thank you.


Chad said...

That was an awesome read. Isn't it amazing how things like this not only stick with you but shape you?

August Ragone said...

I had all of those, too... Would love to replace them one day, just for old times sake!

Corey Bond said...

Glad to know I can still be a bad influence on people.

I had to order a copy of that Space Wars magazine off eBay in order to scan the color insert. Apparently young me found some other use for the color pictures and removed that section decades ago. Sadly it took adult me a while to even notice it was missing, especially considering the giant "AND OUR FANTASTIC JUMBO COLOR SECTION" blurb across the bottom of the front cover.

Corey Bond said...

And for the record that IS an awesome picture of Maren Jensen. I always thought Athena was really underutilized in the original BSG.