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.
With bulky man-in-suit robots throwing down against all variety of monsters to the accompaniment of a pep squad of AV girls in metallic knickers undulating to deafening JPop, the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku is Japan throwing down a challenge to the rest of the world. "You think we're crazy?", it seems to be saying. "Well, you don't know crazy."
Because I am a blogger who likes to keep his readers aware of his movements, I want to let you all know that, starting tomorrow, I am off to Japan for a couple of weeks. Barring I get thrown in jail for punching a Harajuku girl, I will be back after the Thanksgiving holiday. Until then, I am trusting you to look after this blog by yourselves and to behave like adults. Don't have one of those wild 80s movie parties where someone drives a car into the swimming pool and your algebra teacher jumps out of the cake. I want to find it just as I left it.
Seriously, though, other than scheduled posts like Friday's Best Pop Song, it is unlikely that I will be posting anything new during my absence. Anything is possible, however, and, in the best of circumstances, I might at least update with some relevant photos of my trip, such as my eagerly anticipated visit to the Thunderbirds Café. But it is just as likely that, once there, I will just say "fuck it" and blow off doing any writing of any kind.
In any case, don't assume that, because you have not heard from me, it is because I have succumbed to Ebola and been reduced to a cobwebbed skeleton slumped pathetically over a keyboard. Rather, rest assured in the knowledge that I am visiting a foreign country where I am most likely bellowing in English at people who have neither the desire nor the ability to understand me about where is the Godzilla statue. See you when I get back.
Our tweet-along to Casus Kiran, aka Turkish Spy Smasher, this past Tuesday may not have been the most well attended of the Monthly Movie Shout Downs, but it was nonetheless a smashing success. Why? Because I said so!
Judge for yourself from the below linked transcript:
Turkey, where the men are men, the women are armed, and the air is thick with a heady musk of testosterone and motorcycle exhaust. This is a nation that, throughout the 60s, created an action cinema unlike any other, of which Yilmaz Atadeniz's Casus Kiran, aka Turkish Spy Smasher, is a particularly rollicking example. Join the proud men and women of the Shout Down Crew tonight as we tweet along to this ADD addled tour de force. The fun starts at 6pm PT, sharp, when YOU will log in to Twitter, fire up the movie using the link below and, using the hashtag #4DKMSD, join the lively conversation that this rowdy, rough edged masterpiece will no doubt inspire.
Be forewarned, however, that, because film preservation is a pastime deemed too effete by a nation whose men and women have so much spy smashing to do, Casus Kiran looks like it has spent the last 47 years marinating in a rancid pond. That is just the way these movies look, and trying to ascertain what is going on in them while viewing them through a curtain of filth and decay is just part of the process of watching them. You'll get used to it.
Now with Pop Offensive out of the way, the next monthly social media-based pseudo-event coming down the pike to send angry ripples throughout the internet is, of course, the 4DK Monthly Movie Shout Down. This time we will be setting our sights on Casus Kiran, known to the less worldly cult film obsessives among us as "Turkish Spy Smasher". Those yet to be indoctrinated into the world of Turkish pulp cinema--with all of it's furious action, gratuitous belly dancing, and ruinous print quality--are in for a treat. Here's a preview.
The fun starts at 6pm PT on Tuesday, November the 11th. Just sign in to Twitter and start the film with the link provided here on this blog, and then--using the hashtag #4DKMSD--join in on the commentary that, in this case, will not only be running, but running, leaping and punching like a vengeful Turkish superhero. See the official Shout Down site for further details.
This last may have been the least offensive Pop Offensive ever, what with a narrowly avoided explanation of the term "Bunga" and our mealy-mouthed cultural sensitivity around the issue of Southeastern Europe/The Balkans/Former Yugoslavia/whatever-the-fuck-you-want-to-call-it. Musically, however, we took no prisoners. This night's mix was a driving collection of world pop, be it of the Japanese Idol variety, good old American power pop, Euro dance, or whatever Jeff Heyman and I could find to give you a happy feeling in your shoes. Hey, we even featured a pretty broad survey of great tunes past and present from... well, for the sake of sparing peoples feelers, let's just call it Narnia.
To hear it for yourself, simply head to 9th Floor Radio's Pop Offensive Archive, where the episode has just been made available for both streaming and download.
Personally, on the subject of Jeff and my uncharacteristic reticence, I prefer to see it as just another baby step on this fledgling show/podcast's road to maturity--and something that is now less likely to happen again. Ours, after all, is a very lighthearted cultural conversation--it's about pop music, for god's sake--and to have it derailed by political correctness... well, that really would be offensive.
The various peoples of the world may not agree on everything, but one thing they all share is an inability to resist a head-bopping beat and a catchy chorus. That, at least, is the premise of POP OFFENSIVE, the monthly radio show I co-host with my pal Jeff Heyman over at Peralta College's 9th Floor Radio. People of Earth, bring us your pops Canto, Italo and Swe, your Pop Ye Ye and Ye Ye Girls, your Northern Soul and your beats both freak and Mersey. We will play it all! And if you do not, by the time it's over, find yourself foot stomping along... well, all I can say is rest in peace.
Our next show--which will be Pop Offensive #7, believe it or not--can be streamed live from the 9th Floor site this Wednesday, November 5th, starting at 7 pm PT. During that time, you can tweet us your over-shares, hygiene tips and Tourettes-inspired explosions of word confetti at @PopOffRadio. Afterward, you can stream or download the episode from the Pop Offensive Archives, where it will be interred, ghoul-like, only to rise again and again. Come!