Passing the Torch to a New Generation
UC Berkeley Offers Class on Japanese Monster Cinema
Author: Bob Johnson
It was a cold and rainy night as I made my way to the UC Berkeley Campus to give a talk on Japanese superheroes. Who would have thought that in a place of higher learning, a prestigious California University, that a group of 55 students would be gathering to hear a talk about Ultraman, Kamen Rider or Kidaida?
How did it all come to be? How did it all start?
Two students at the school, Matthew Horwitz and Dustin Winslow, through a program that allows students to develop and coordinate semester-long courses, got together to offer KAIJU CINEMA: AN INTRODUCTION TO JAPANESE GIANT MONSTER MOVIES.
What started out to be a humble, 35-student class soon swelled to an amazing 55 students, with another 20 or so turned away for lack of classroom space. Students gather each Thursday night to watch Japanese monster movies and discuss the finer points of oriental beasties. Papers are written and a final project of the student’s choice is due at the end of the course.
If it sounds like a dream class to anyone reading this article, it just might be for the students. But, for the student instructors, a lot of hard work and research went into the 14-week course. SciFi Japan sat down for an exclusive interview with Matt and Dustin as they explained just what it takes to put together something like this and to teach Japanese cinematic history to students on a weekly basis.
SciFi Japan: Tell us how you got into all this….
Matt Horwitz: I grew up watching ‘50s Sci Fi movies with my dad. That was sort of a pastime that we had. Among those movies, at a fairly early age, I saw GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. I also remember seeing SON OF GODZILLA fairly early on over at a neighbor’s house and really enjoying that. But, I didn’t know much about the Godzilla movies apart from their American versions until I was about 15 and my parents got me Steve Ryfle’s book Japan’s Favorite Mon-star for my birthday. Reading that book I was really amazed by the amount of respect those films were accorded by the Japanese people. Not as a whole, but by a lot of the people who were interested in film in Japan. So that made me think there was more to the films that what I had seen thus far.
From there I went on to get copies of GOJIRA ’54, RODAN, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA and I got to see some of those films in their original state. Then my interest in the films sort of lay dormant as I wasn’t actively searching for more films until recently when I decided to teach this class. From there I went back and rewatched a lot of the films and saw movies I hadn’t seen before, so it is still a developing interest for me, definitely.
Dustin Winslow: I had a much more typical Americanized view of everything. Until recently I grew up just not knowing the films very well and sort of having a view of them being silly movies, badly dubbed. Recently, when Matt approached me about teaching the class I got more into it and started watching the Japanese versions of the films and actually paying attention to them for the first time. I got a much better introduction to them over the past four months or so than before. But, that’s our secret…. the students can’t know that I only got into it about four months ago!
SFJ: You’re teaching the course as student instructors, so maybe you can tell us a little bit about that program?
Matt: The reason Dustin and I are able to teach this class is because UC Berkeley has a student organization called DECAL, which means “Democratic Education at CAL”, through which students, with a faculty sponsor, can teach a class on a subject of their choice. Usually for one or two units, sometimes for three, but no more than that. The classes are never for a major requirement. But, when students need extra units they can take those classes. It gives students a chance to teach a class on a subject that want or want to see taught.
I had taught two classes before teaching this one. I taught one on H.P. Lovecraft and one on cyberpunk. It was actually in the cyberpunk class that I mentioned to the students about teaching a course on Japanese giant monster movies and Dustin ended up being the one to volunteer to help do it.
For DECAL you have to get a sponsoring professor, you have to get a department chair to sign it, you have to get a syllabus in place, so you have to do all the normal things a regular professor would do to put together a course.
Dustin: And that’s also why this is being taught as an astronomy course because the professor we found to sponsor our course also happened to be an astronomy professor, which meant it would have to fall under his department, so that’s why we are listed as an astronomy course. Although we do try to slip some astro stuff into the class. It’s usually tangential, but always interesting!
SFJ: Well, you do have MONSTER ZERO coming up at least that has some space… (laughs). So, what resources or materials did you use to develop class?
Matt: Well, I knew from the start that I was going to use Steve Ryfle’s book being that that was one of the few books on the subject that I had been exposed to at that time. I had hoped from the start to use a lot of the fan magazine materials, but I was unable to find hard copies of a lot of them. It was only at the end that I started incorporating a lot of that stuff and I’ll get to that in a minute.
I started out checking out a few books from the Berkeley library. They had a pretty good selection. They have Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo, they have the William Tsutsui book Godzilla on My Mind plus a few other books. I had one or two books of my own. I spent winter break reading over them and I ended up photocopying a lot of articles I wanted to use.
The way it works is the place I used to get the reader done, I’ve gotten readers made at before and they really don’t care about copyrights, So you can take any material you want to them and they’ll make a reader for you, really with no questions asked. I think some of the larger companies that deal with the university more require copyrights, but this one is pretty lax. But I decided to go about it the right way, so I emailed everyone first and all the people involved with the smaller publishing companies wrote back within a couple of days and said “Yeah you can go ahead and use our stuff”. In two cases, even after they told us they were pretty sure we could use it, they forwarded the emails on to the authors of the books and they both wrote back personally and said they were fine with my using it. But the larger publishing companies would write back and say we’d have to pay a fee for use of the material, per page, per copy. Originally we thought we would have about 35 students in the class and it would have come out to about $100, but we actually ended up having 55 so it would have cost more.
So, pretty much at the last minute, we yanked a lot of the material and ended up replacing it with some archived articles from John Roberto’s History Vortex website, or Kaijufan website which is part of History Vortex. I emailed him and he said I could use whatever I wanted and that was great because they have a whole lot of older articles from issues of fan magazines that I probably would not have been able to get if I had to go for the hard copies like Japanese Fantasy Film Journal and G-Fan. I was able to get some pretty good articles from those.
As for the movies, some of the movies have been released by major studios on DVD in America, like GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH, GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE. But a lot of the movies we had to use from other sources. One way or another we’ve managed to get a lot of the movies.
Dustin: It’s been rather difficult to get some of the movies, but now that we’ve gotten them, we’re showing mostly Japanese versions with English subtitles, which is what we wanted to do originally and that’s also why it’s been such trouble trying to find them here in America.
SFJ: How did you choose the movies and what films are you showing?
Matt: Well, we wanted to show GODZILLA ’54 because you can’t really have a survey class like this without showing that. It is the one that all the other films sprang from. We also wanted to show one non-Godzilla Toho film to show what Toho had done for the genre, so we showed RODAN. After that we wanted to show two sixties Godzilla movies, one from the beginning and one from the end to show how they films had changed from the beginning of the decade to the end of the decade as the studios declined and less and less money was spent on the films. But we had to compromise because we didn’t have enough room in the class so we showed MONSTER ZERO instead since it falls right in the middle, 1965, and is probably a good example for that.
We also wanted to show two sixties films, not by Toho, so we picked a Gamera movie, either GAMERA VS. GYAOS or GAMERA VS. VIRAS and X FROM OUTER SPACE since it looks silly enough or campy enough that people will probably enjoy it. Then for the seventies we picked GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH because it is just such a crazy film that we wanted people to have some exposure to it. It is also so very different from the other Godzilla movies that we were able to find a lot of material on it for the reader, like from Tokyoscope, Patrick Macias’ book.
For the eighties we were going to show GODZILLA 1985 but we decided to show a Korean film, PULGASARY, because we felt it had a really good backstory behind it but it also exposed people to something different from the Japanese films we’ve shown in the class.
Dustin: It gives a good contrast in that sense. To give students an idea of the differences between Japanese films and something else.
Matt: And then for the nineties, we wanted to show a Godzilla film, but at the same time, we didn’t want to make this a Godzilla class. Godzilla is the cornerstone of the class. We have Godzilla films from the 50s, 60s, 70s and then we end it with GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, but we didn’t want the entire class to be about Godzilla. But it is also important to include it because you can always use Godzilla as an indicator species to judge the health of the genre and the film industry in Japan for each decade. So, for the nineties we ended up choosing GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE because I think it is actually better than most of the nineties Godzilla films anyway. And then we end with FINAL WARS, because that’s a good way to cap off the class and you start with a Godzilla movie and end with a Godzilla movie and they also fall exactly 50 years apart.
SFJ: What is your favorite film and why? Whether it is included in the class or not…
Dustin: Of the films I’ve seen so far, of course I haven’t seen nearly as many as Matt has, I’ve actually enjoyed the recent Gamera film, GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE. Why? Because I think I can’t really relate to the older films nearly as much as a lot of people can. Just that the technology is too old and that sort of thing. So, I’ve been liking the newer films a lot more. It seemed like the nineties Godzilla films didn’t seem to have a lot of thought put into them as far as I’m concerned and FINAL WARS is very entertaining, but it doesn’t have a lot more than that. So, I think GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE is a good mix of the technological aspects and movie quality. Just being a good overall movie.
Matt: That’s a hard one. I like a lot of kaiju movies for very different reasons. I like the original GODZILLA because it is a very somber film. It has a message and it’s well acted and was a very revolutionary film. I actually have to say though, that my favorite kaiju film, probably because I have the best memories associated with it, is GAMERA VS. GUIRON (laughs) I really like that film! It is so silly and it is also really child-like and there is a real sort of boyhood innocence to it that makes it fun and appealing to watch. So, for shear entertainment value I really like that movie.
I also really like GHIDRAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER and I like GODZILLA ’84 a lot. I watched it for the first time in Japanese a couple months ago and I was really surprised how good of a film it actually was. How different it was from all the other Godzilla movies that had come out in the thirty years before it, except for the first one.
I like a wide variety of the films for completely different reasons.
SFJ: What are the homework and tests like for the class?
Dustin: Homework and tests….tests? We have tests? Actually we don’t have any tests or exams. Basically, the class has to be based on a pass/fail so, since it has to be so simple in the grading, we’ve actually just simplified it as much as we can and we have everything based on absences. If they exceed three absences, the fail. We have other ways to make up for that, but we are saying they have to show up the whole time and also the readings. If you miss a reading it counts as half an absence. So essentially they have to do readings, usually around 20-30 pages a week. It’s pretty light and they email us a half page of what they think about the readings. Has to be an intelligent response, not a briefing.
We aren’t really looking for them to be tested and that sort of thing. If they come to class and watch the films and do the readings and it is very apparent that they do that, then we’re perfectly fine with passing them.
Matt: It’s hard to judge based on participation and so forth because it is such a big class. In the past, when I’ve taught classes that were smaller you can start to pick out people a little more easily who are always raising their hands versus people who aren’t and you can start to point to people who aren’t raising their hands and make them talk. It’s a little harder for this class, but we aren’t going to fail someone as long as they do the work.
Actually, one of the ways we allow people to make up for missed assignments, but not missed class meetings, and this has actually solved our problem of not having enough weeks to put all the films in, is we are arranging film screenings. We have a lot of movies that we wanted to show or ones we might think are not good for the class but are fun to watch, like I wanted to show BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and I wanted to show THEM because I know RODAN derives some things from that. I also ended up buying a lot of these movies and we only ended up showing a few of them so I might as well take advantage of that and show a few more. But, if people show up to that and write a one-page response paper on that, then they can get out of half an absence that they have marked on their record.
We figure it is a good way to help round-out the course and give people a chance to not fail because it’s not good to have a grad school transcript and it says you failed our class (laughs).
Dustin: Yeah, we don’t want to fail people, so we give them as much chances as we can.
Matt: Although I did tell the class that if anyone answered their cell phone…because I don’t like when cell phones go off in class, but I can put up with it. Actually, in another class I had, while someone was giving their final project presentation, his cell phone went off and he picked it up and started talking. I was like, “Get off your phone! That is so rude!”
Dustin: So that is an automatic fail.
Matt: Yeah, so I told everyone if their cell phone goes off in the middle of the movie and they started talking on it, I just fail them. I would just throw them out of the class.
SFJ: So no MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER audience participation during the films?
Matt: There is occasional laughter. But, we’re actually going to show a MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER movie as part of the film screenings. We’re going to show GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, which is an excellent episode.
Dustin: So during the class, and I was somewhat concerned about this at the beginning, there are occasional chuckles and that sort of thing at something that is absolutely absurd because that does happen in the movies, or bad acting by today’s standards, that sort of thing. There are some chuckles and stuff, but we try to discourage that. We don’t want people making comments and that sort of thing. That wouldn’t be academic.
Matt: Well, we don’t really want people making comments, but we don’t discourage people from chuckling because some of the special effects are kind of cheesy. But it’s fun and it makes it fun for the people. I think that was actually a big thing for this class; finding that balance between wanting to joke about the films, but also wanting to show them in a serious light. You can’t joke about all the films. You can’t really laugh too much at the original GODZILLA. I told the class people were crying when they came out of that film when it originally showed.
Dustin: But at the same time, if you watch all of the films and never laugh, you’re really missing a lot of it as well.
Matt: You’re missing a lot of the enjoyment. These movies were made to be enjoyed. They’re made for shear entertainment.
SFJ: One thing we were thinking of doing at Godzillafest in San Francisco, but didn’t get to, was to do a midnight showing of the US remake of GODZILLA and letting people come in and do a whole MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER thing and just rip it apart.
Matt: Now that would be entertaining!
Dustin: So, final projects…Those are just entirely open-ended. We want them to first submit a proposal for it. Towards the end of the class everyone has to do a final project so they submit their proposals to us. We look them over. Pretty much we’ll probably say OK to just about anything except for papers. We want something creative and something related to the course material. Create something, a play, a skit, draw something depending on what their talents are. A movie…whatever they want to do and then we bring them in and present them at the final class. So, if someone wanted to re-dub one of the movies, that would be incredible. That would just be amazing.
We’ll probably have them working in medium size groups in this class because we want them to all be presented in one class period. 55 projects is a lot to present, so we’ll have them work in groups of five or eight or so.
Matt: I was actually thinking about that as we were talking. Oh man, we have a lot more people than we were banking on, so how are we going to do this?
SFJ: So, do you have any other plans to teach classes after this?
Dustin: Well, this course in particular I know I won’t be teaching next semester at least. Just busy with other things.
Matt: And I’m graduating…
Dustin: So we’ll probably try to pass it on to another group of students who are probably taking it now. We’d like the course to continue on. As for other courses; he’s graduating, and one reason I did this to begin with is because I want to pursue teaching as a career. So, I may teach some other classes like an actual astronomy class. But as far as classes like this one, probably not, unless I teach this particular course again.
Matt: Something I was throwing around with one of my students last week was the possibility of teaching a Tokusatsu TV class. Doing ULTRAMAN and ZONE FIGHTER and so forth. We’re actually showing a couple episodes in this class; an episode of ZONE FIGHTER and an episode of ULTRA SEVEN. But you could do a whole class on it, I think. There is definitely enough material. But if you wanted to maintain the concept of the originals it might be hard getting all the subtitled copies. But that would be the main challenge, I think.
SFJ: So, if you could send your students away having learned just one thing from this class, what would that be?
Dustin: We’ll probably have totally different answers on this. But from where I came into this course, I was coming in with a lot of preconceptions about what Godzilla was, about what Japanese kaiju cinema was all about. And I think what I would like is for people to sort of break down that pre-conception and sort of see these movies as actual movies as what the directors actually intended instead of just having the Americanized view of these as just badly dubbed, ridiculous movies.
Matt: I sort of want the same thing as Dustin. I think a lot of my friends, if they came in the room and saw me watching AZUMI, they’d probably think they were really cool. But if they came in the room and I was watching GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, by the same director of AZUMI and came out not too long after that film, they’d probably laugh at it and walk out.
I think it is because people have a pre-conception about what a Godzilla movie is going to contain and about its relative merit compared to other films and so I’d like to get people to be able to judge these films on their own, individual merit rather than judging them based on their impressions of what Godzilla movies are.
Also, more broadly, I’d like people to be able to appreciate these films and enjoy watching them. I think if people come out of this class knowing a little bit more about them and maybe being able to enjoy them on their own.