Of Monsters And Men. Robots, Too.

With Guillermo Del Toro’s fantastic Pacific Rim (seriously, go see it in the biggest, loudest 3D-capable theater you can) hitting the screens this weekend, it’s time to take a look back at some of the best kaiju (Japanese for "giant monster") action available for your home video consumption.


The granddaddy of all kaiju is, of course, Godzilla, who’s been seen in incarnations both scary (the original 1956 Godzilla, available from the Criterion Collection), silly (1971’s Godzilla Versus The Smog Monster) and sad (the 1998 Roland Emmerich remake). Godzilla’s kissin’ cousin Gamera is a close number-two— see articles here, here and here. Down the list we get the flying Rodan, the twin terrors of War Of The Gargantuas, the awe-inspiring Ghidorah The Three-Headed-Monster and, uh, Minilla (aka “Minya”), who is, yes, the featured star of Son Of Godzilla. There are dozens of great monsters in this subgenre— even King Kong has been transformed into an Asian monster (if in principle and not in name all the time)— see King Kong Versus Godzilla or the ridiculous and fun The Mighty Peking Man, newly available on DVD as a “Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures Present” triple-bill along with the Blaxploitation gem Detroit 9000 and the cult classic Switchblade Sisters.


But the wildest and craziest kaiju can be found in Japanese television from the 1960s. The two most successful exports are Ultraman (1966-1967) and Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot (aka Giant Robo), which followed from 1967-1968. Both shows were dubbed and shown extensively on American syndicated television in the 1970s, often sandwiched between blocks of Godzilla and Gamera movies. Of the two, Ultraman is the more action-packed and adult-oriented; Johnny Sokko is more of a kids’ fantasy. But they both showcase incredible creatures and wild fight sequences— whereas the Godzilla films eventually evolved into monster-versus-monster melees, both Ultraman and the Giant Robo (aka “Flying Robot”) and the ones squaring off against creatures as Godzilla-esque as “Gomora” (who looks like a cross between Gamera villains Baragon and Gyaos) and as surreal as “Nucleon,” which looks like a giant cubist polyhedron, complete with missile- and laser-shooting tubes that stick out of its body. The strangest is most likely Ultraman ally “Pigmon,” a sad-eyed, child-like creature who looks like a creepy reject from McDonaldland who manages to be killed in the series not once, but twice.


Ultraman deals with Shin Hayata (Susumu Korobe), a deputy captain in the global police force, Science Special Search Party (SSSP).  Shin’s plane collides with the “Travel Sphere” containing Ultraman, a red-and-silver creature whose body melds with that of Shin. When Shin depresses a button on the “beta capsule” Ultraman has given him, he suddenly transforms into the giant, sleek alien/robot-like being and spends most of any given episode beating the hell out of his kaiju opponents and protecting the SSSP and mankind as a whole while keeping his human identity secret. The catch is that Shin can only remain in Ultraman form for no more than five minutes at a time lest he completely deplete his energy— which includes the ability to shoot energy from his hands. There’s no real throughline tying individual episodes together, but after the original series’ run, there were a vast number of sequels and spin-offs (36 at last count), including Ultra Seven, The Return Of Ultraman and even this year’s compilation show Ultraman Restuden, as well as a popular Super Ninetendo video game in 1991. There have been a number of bootleg Ultraman videos, but the only legitimate full-series release comes from budget DVD company Mill Creek. The picture quality is fair enough and it’s good that this comes in both Japanese-language and dubbed versions. The rub, however, is that, as the show progresses, the Japanese subtitles get out of sync with the picture. Still, at this bargain price-point, it’s a good deal, even if the bizarre DVD packaging — paper sleeves in a plastic holder inside the thick keepcase — leaves a lot to be desired.  Also be on the look out for Infra-Man (aka Super Infra-Man), a 1975 Hong Kong feature that, while full of kaiju even weirder than what we’ve seen before, feels like a surreal knockoff of the Ultraman series, complete with the transformation of a soldier into the giant “bionic kung fu superhero” Infra-Man. A good DVD — from a slightly-sped up PAL transfer — is available from Image Entertainment.


Shout Factory has recently released the complete Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot, in which little boy Johnny Sokko (Mitsunobu Kaneko), along with pal Jerry Mano (Akio Ito) comes across a bizarre massive robot with Egyptian features inside the lab of the evil “Gargoyle Gang.” The Gargoyle Gang, led by the tentacled, blue-skulled Emperor Guillotine and henchmen like the silver-skinned Doctor Over, is plotting to destroy the world and it’s up to Johnny, Jerry and “Giant Robo” — all of whom are brought in by the global peacekeeping organization, “Unicorn” — to save the day. All Johnny has to do is voice-activate Giant Robo and, upon hearing his voice, he rescues the helpless and does battle with Emperor Guillotine’s creatures, including the giant eyeball “Opticon” and the literally two-faced “Double Head.” Unlike Ultraman, we at least get real motivation on the part of the Gargoyle Gang and the series comes to a close with Emperor Guillotine foiled once and for all.  Shout’s four-DVD set contains all 26 episodes and, despite some rough opening credits, the picture quality is exemplary. The discs, however, only contain the English dubs created by distributor American-International Pictures— which explains why the credits indicate that the show, obviously Japanese in origin, was written and directed by one Reuben Guberman! Also enclosed is an excellent history of the series by Japanese sci-fi authority August Ragone and an interview with Johnny Sokko himself, the late Mistunobu Kaneko (who died in a car accident in 1997).


If you haven’t gotten your fill of mecha/robot action this weekend, go straight to Ultraman, Super Infra-Man or Johnny Sokko & His Flying Robot for instant gratification.


You can purchase Ultraman from Amazon.

You can purchase Super Infra-Man from Amazon.

You can purchase Mighty Peking Man from Amazon.

You can purchase Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon.


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