Saturday, November 29, 2014

Gekko Kamen (Japan, 1958)

Depending as it does on formula, cult genre cinema tends to walk a tightrope between nagging predictability and cozy reliability. Gekko Kamen falls squarely on the latter side of that dichotomy, generously presenting us with one expected trope after another as if they were old friends. Present are the kidnapped scientist with a comely and available daughter, the villain in a skull mask with wave after wave of expendable minions, trap doors, ticking time bombs, and, at the center of it all, a righteous costumed hero. Gekko Kamen is also kind enough to reel all of this out with no small amount of gloomy B movie style, so that adults like myself can describe it with words like “noirish” and “chiaroscuro” to quell our uneasiness over enjoying a film with a theme song hollered by a chorus of enthusiastic Japanese children.

Gekko Kamen—known to us gaijin as Moonlight Mask--took a route to the screen that is the reverse of most super heroes, in that he made his debut on Television before making the move to comics, all via the efforts of his creator, writer Kohan Kowauchi. It should also be said that calling him a “superhero” requires some qualification, as, like Turkey’s Iron Claw, he is a masked do-gooder whose super power is shooting people. Essentially, he is a masked detective in the style of Batman or the Green Hornet. Having just returned from Tokyo, I might also add that his costume incorporates elements that are readily available to most urban Japanese—by which I refer to a surgical mask and sunglasses. This raises the possibility that he is the first hipster germophobe superhero, but I will leave that discussion to writers with a keener investigative sense than mine.

Interestingly, Toei Studios’ series of Gekko Kamen theatrical films were produced at roughly the same time as the television series, which was produced by the advertising agency Shenkosha throughout most of 1958 and 1959 and featured a different actor, Ose Koichi, in the title role. In the six films, it is Toei regular Fumitake Omura who stands front and center in the double role of Gekko Kamen and the man most likely to be his alter ego, Juro Iwai, a young private eye. The films never make explicit the connection between Juro and Gekko Kamen, preferring to keep the hero’s origins mysterious, although it could be argued that the narrative utility of Juro’s presence would otherwise be equally mysterious.

Gekko Kamen, the first of the films, sees our hero come up against Dokura Kamen, aka Skull Mask, whom attentive readers will recognize as the aforementioned skull-masked villain. Skull Mask enjoys support from an army of henchmen wearing eyeball emblazoned black hoods that welcome happy associations with the costumes worn by the aliens in Warning from Space. Because Gekko Kamen has more style than money, Skull Mask and his crew are often seen commuting from one evil assignation to another in a station wagon. Once they have succeeded in killing, assaulting, or kidnapping enough by-all-appearances innocent scientists, it is time for Gekko Kamen to make the scene, appearing out of nowhere to a combination of eerie theremin music and the ghostly intonation of his theme song—which I like to think he himself is singing.

Seeing as most of his action scenes involve a ruthless handiness with a pair of pistols, Gekko Kamen is a figure whose heroic stature depends more on presence than deed. And, to this end, director Tsuneo Kobayashi, cinematographer Ichiro Hoshijima, and composer Hirooki Ogawa do him no small service, surrounding him with creepy atmosphere both visual and aural. As a figure who moves with the shadows and announces himself with a sinister laugh, they establish him as a classic pulp hero in the tradition of The Shadow and The Spider, not to mention his kamishibai-born brethren Ogon Batto, aka Golden Bat.

Gekko Kamen, like his contemporary Super Giant, is among Japan’s first film superheroes, and as such boasts a number of appurtenances that would become standard issue for many tokusatsu heroes to come. Like Kamen Rider, Kikaider and a host of others, he roars into battle on a spiffy custom motorcycle. He also has a pair of comic relief sidekicks—a whiny overweight guy and a tomboyish girl in glasses and pigtails—who are mainly there to act scared and be threatened by the bad guys. Finally, in a tradition that has survived up to the Sentai serials of today, all of his major action set pieces involve him fighting an army of costumed goons as smoke bombs go off on all sides.

If Gekko Kamen’s predictability sounds like it would be trying, please keep in mind that it is with films like it that many of these tropes started. Also rest assured that it doles them out with a speed and enthusiasm matched by Toei’s also wonderful Golden Bat, a film whose pacing suggests a script transcribed from the fevered imaginings of an eight-year-old boy jacked up on sugary breakfast cereals. Also please note that this last is not a comparison that I make lightly, as Golden Bat is a film that is very close to my heart.

I bought my copy of Gekko Kamen at the Toei Studios theme park in Kyoto because I thought it would be wrong to leave Japan without purchasing at least one exorbitantly priced DVD. Once I got home and immediately found that I missed being surrounded by Asian people speaking a language I mostly couldn’t understand, I threw it on and quickly became transfixed. True, I have reviewed many films like it before, but that is because it is exactly the kind of spirited pulp entertainment that this blog was designed for. Fun, fast, and phantasmagorical, it has the power, at least for the moment, to make children of us all.


Ben said...

Somewhat coincidentally, I attended a screening of this very Gekko Kamen film at the Laputa theatre in Asagaya when I was in Tokyo last January.

It was a really nice experience - we were the youngest people in attendance by quite some distance, and I assume most of the audience were retirees reliving their youth. It was also of course very much the kind of film where my inability to follow most of the dialogue didn't distract from my enjoyment at all - the universal language of bad guys going "HA HA HA, PRO-FESSOR" conquers all.

I too was overjoyed at the sight of Skull Mask and his gang cruising around in a station wagon, and I love how Gekko Kamen seems to have been created by taking all the distinctive attributes of a prior costumed pulp heroes adn combining them into one character (mask, turban, sunglasses, cape, pistols, motorcycle...).

He is super-cool, clearly, even if the child-friendly nature of the film did tend to make him rather ineffectual when it comes to the actual evil-fighting stuff, in marked contrast to his Turkish cousins. (How long does he spend blazing away with those guns without ever actually hitting anything, etc?)

Also, I didn't know Toei had a theme-park in Kyoto - that's definitely on the list for my next visit! Given the kind of Toei films I usually end up watching, I dread to think what kind of attractions they might have there, but... 3 seconds thought of course reminds me of their wider presence as a massive entertainment conglomerate whose remit stretches far beyond the production of insane '70s exploitation films, so, there ya go.

Apologies for the monster comment anyway, and glad to hear you had a good time in Japan!

Todd said...

No apologies necessary, Ben. I appreciate your comments.The Toei park definitely has its share of cheesy attractions, but it also has a nice selection of props, posters and costumes. Also, the Animation Museum there features giant statues of Grandizer and Mazinger. How cool is that?