By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON
If you’ve ever used Google.com, you may have encountered something called the Google Doodle. Google will, on random days that coincide with a luminary’s birthday or a holiday, change the look of the normal, bare-bones Google search page in honor of whatever it’s celebrating.
On July 7, the Google Doodle honored none other than Eiji Tsuburaya, Japan’s godfather of tokusatsu or live-action special effects, on what would have been his 114th birthday. If you’ve ever watched a classic Godzilla/Gojira movie (classic, as in ones with a man in a rubber costume, not a computer-generated Big G) or Ultraman show, then you know of Tsuburaya’s legacy, even if you’re unfamiliar with his name. This is not, for what it’s worth, the first time I’ve written about Tsuburaya.
Back in May 2008, I wrote about a then-new book on Tsuburaya titled “Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters: Defending the Earth With Ultraman, Godzilla and Friends in the Golden Age of Japanese Science Fiction Film” by August Ragone. (Turns out author Ragone is still keeping Tsuburaya’s legacy alive, but more on that later.)
Anyway, this particular Google Doodle is an interactive animation that features Tsuburaya as a cartoon character and it tests your abilities to direct short movie sequences involving various kaiju and an Ultraman-like character. Even though July 7 is now in the past, you can revisit the Google Doogle by going to https://g.co/doodle/7ykn4e and see for yourself.
Tsuburaya’s legacy got even more exposure in July via the streaming channel Shout Factory TV, which launched in February. That there is a Shout Factory TV streaming channel is great news by itself. This L.A.-based company has for years had a knack for curating great but forgotten music, TV shows and movies on CD, DVD and Blu-Ray. It’s a great addition to the lineup of streaming channels (but it’s not available for Apple TV devices) for cord-cutters.
Unlike Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, Shout Factory TV is free, but the programs contain commercials; for a nominal fee, you can watch a particular show commercial-free. It’s an interesting business model that I hope works, so Shout Factory TV can continue.
In previous columns I’ve written about the cord-cutting phenomenon, i.e., using over-the-air digital TV for local TV channels while keeping your cable company’s broadband but dumping the pricey pay TV packages. Then, to watch something that’s not over-the-air, you use your broadband connection with streaming devices from Roku or Apple, or a Chromecast HDMI stick or Amazon Fire TV Stick in conjunction with services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Crackle et al.
This past Saturday, Shout Factory TV held an all-day kaiju marathon, featuring a bunch of Gojira movies, back to back, hosted by the aforementioned August Ragone. Unfortunately, I found out about it Sunday! So, while I didn’t get to watch any of the marathon in progress, I can still see any of the movies that were part of the marathon when I have the time and inclination.
But I was equally pleased to learn that July was the month a couple of Tsuburaya-related classic TV series made it onto Shout Factory TV: “Ultra Q” and “Ultra Seven.” Both are shows that I’d read about and seen photos of but never watched in their original form, as they came out in the 1960s in Japan.
Turns out “Ultra Q” was the predecessor of sorts to all the Ultraman TV shows that followed. Shot in black and white, my take on it is that it was kind of like “The Twilight Zone” in that it didn’t have a set cast and each episode told a fantastical story — but was filled with Tsuburaya’s weird monsters. On Shout Factory TV, the dialogue is in Japanese, not dubbed, and has subtitles in English.
“Ultra Seven,” meantime, is Tsuburaya’s follow-up to “Ultraman.” It came out a few years after “Ultra Q” and is in color. Its audio is also in Japanese, with English subtitles. From what I’ve read, many aficionados of the “Ultra” shows found the stories in “Ultra Seven” to be more nuanced than the stories in the original “Ultraman” shows. Just for my own edification, I’m hoping to watch a few more of these shows whenever I get the time.
(While not related to Tsuburaya directly, there are also a couple of Japanese giant robot anime shows on Shout Factory TV in addition to the Gojira and Ultra shows, such as “Gaiking” and “Danguard Ace,” as well as the sci-fi toon “Starzinger.”)
Whether this was all coincidental or planned, I find it interesting that Google and Shout Factory TV each chose to remember Eiji Tsuburaya at around the same time. Not a bad way to be remembered on one’s 114th birthday.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at George@NikkeiNation.com. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2015 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.