Thursday, July 19, 2012

G-FEST 2012 Survivor Report

I don’t think it’s any secret to anyone who knows me that I’m a fan of the giant radioactive lizard known as Godzilla. He/she/it was my gateway drug into the wonderful world of monster movies and by association, the horror and sci-fi genres. So, it might seem surprising that I had never attended a G-FEST convention, even though they have traditionally occurred right in my Chicago backyard. I chalk it up to lack of time, funds, and well, wondering what exactly they would have to offer other than a bunch of “impressive but out of my price range” model kits and toys.

According to the G-FEST website, “G-FEST is the largest regular gathering of Godzilla and Japanese monster fans in the world, a family-oriented convention which caters to a wide variety of interests within the kaiju eiga (giant monster movies) genre.” It goes on to state that the convention features Q & A sessions with Japanese kaiju filmmakers, discussions on various films and subgenres, art and costume contests, gaming, screenings of new and classic kaiju movies, and West’s largest kaiju-oriented dealers room, plus lots of fun and camaraderie.

G-FEST is the brainchild of Canadian high school teacher and kaiju enthusiast J.D. Lees, who is also the publisher and editor of G-FAN magazine. G-FAN, now approaching its 100th issue, is devoted to coverage of Godzilla and other Japanese monsters, as well as new and collectible product information, exhibition and convention coverage of events in both Japan and North America, interviews with kaiju filmmakers and performers, plus fan art/fiction and more. Since launching in 1992, G-FAN has enjoyed an enviable degree of success, thanks to the industry of its many contributors and supporters.

The G-FAN Online website has recaps of the previous G-FESTs dating back to 2005, with full listings of the films screened, panel discussions held and special guests feted. (There is not a lot of online photographic evidence present of the fests themselves – a little unfortunate for those coming late to the party, although perhaps these retrospectives are given fuller attention in print form.) Prior to 2005, we are only given a few lines detailing the guests, venue location and films screened, but it still paints a picture of a longtime lovefest held between North American fans and the stomping machine from the East, and how one man’s vision (and a lot of likeminded, big-hearted, kaiju-knowledgeable folks) have helped bring hundreds of people together for a common purpose for nearly two decades.

On Friday, July 13, my inaugural G-FEST adventure began. Accompanied by the inimitable Coye Vega (who may not be as versed in the G-verse, but he loves him some Jet Jaguar and Hedorah aka The Smog Monster as much as anyone), we arrived just as the dealer rooms were opening up, and spent the first couple hours reeling in awe at the breadth of the Japanese entertainment market and the variety of available merchandise.

(Over the course of the weekend, I would also be joined by fellow Monster Kids Dan Kiggins, Bryan Schuessler, Matt Carr aka Putrid, and Chris & Lori Kuchta, although I was surprised not to see more of the Chicago horror crew in attendance.)

While I have seen all of the Toho Godzilla films multiple times (most recently during my Feb 2011 tour through the series), I am not as familiar with the abundance of Japanese television shows and superheroes. Godman? Greenman? Kamen Riders? Super Sentai? Hell, I’m only on a passing acquaintance with Ultraman, and he’s one of the biggest J-icons in the world. I was suddenly feeling a little out of my league, a feeling only enhanced after I was schooled by a seven-year-old about Baragon’s suit being used to create several different monsters on the Ultraman show. “And to be clear, we’re talking about Toho’s Baragon, not Daiei Studios’ Barugon from Gamera vs. Barugon or War of the Monsters as it was known in its U.S. release.” Um, okay kid. This was going to be an educational weekend, it seemed.

After dallying in the dealer’s room, I headed off to a panel headed by kaiju scholar Kevin Horn, celebrating the underrated (to the point of my not having heard of it) 1962 sci-fi flick Gorath, or Calamity Star Gorath as it was originally titled. The story of a runaway star on a collision course with Earth sounds like a wing-ding of a tale, similar to 1951’s When Worlds Collide, and it was interesting to learn that a giant walrus monster (Maguma, for those keeping score) was subsequently cut out of the American release, even though one might have supposed that a giant monster would be a selling point. Huh. Horn proved congenial and knowledgeable, and when he didn’t know something, usually there was someone in the room who did. It’s that kind of place.

This is as good a time as any to point out that as an eight-year veteran of attending horror cons (admittedly a drop in the bucket for some), I’ve noticed that over time, these gatherings have become much more about the celebrities (and shelling out cash for autographs) than they are about actual communing with likeminded folks. I mean, yes, there are still the late night drunken bacchanals, but the internet has broken down a lot of walls; one doesn’t feel quite as alone in the wastelands of geekdom as they might have 20, or even 10 years ago. However, at this convention, at these panels, it was all about the movies and, more importantly, sharing knowledge about them, sharing personal experiences regarding them, and it did my nerd heart good. As mentioned above, I’m actually learning things, gaining information previously unbeknownst to me, not something I can say about every other convention.

Afterwards, I headed back upstairs to the Godzilla Raids Again (aka Gigantis, the Fire Monster) panel, headed up by Lewis Austin and John Schuermann. Here I was a little more up to speed, having seen both the Japanese (1955) and U.S. (1959) versions and listened to the commentaries on the Classic Media DVD, so I wasn’t feeling quite as in the dark. Still, it was a lively conversation with people pointing out the deficits of a quickly produced follow-up to the original 1954 blockbuster…as well as the still-enjoyable elements of watching two suit-mation monsters kicking the crap out of each other.

Unfortunately, my day had to come to an abrupt end due to previously scheduled evening engagements (i.e. I needed to go to work), so I missed the official opening ceremonies, amateur videos, the Pickwick Theater’s screening of Godzilla, King of the Monsters introduced by noted film historian Richard Pusateri, and other geekery. But I returned again bright and (very) early Saturday morning to continue with the fun. Whilst waiting for the morning session to begin, I witnessed one of the crowd scenes being shot by the intrepid Dojo Studios (more on them later). Volunteer G-Fans had shown up by the score to flee imaginary giant monsters attacking and the excitement and enthusiasm in the air was palpable. Being stomped by an enormous foot is right up there on the bucket list with being chainsawed by Leatherface or macheted by Mr. Voorhees; it appears I’m not alone in this.

As noted above, G-FEST is very much a family-oriented affair, and the Saturday 9am panels were directed toward the younger enthusiasts. Festival organizer J.D. Lees himself was on hand to teach kids where some of their favorite monster’s names originated from. (Did you know that Hedorah more or less translates to “puke-dragon?” Me neither.)

I stepped out of Tom Tvrdik’s coloring technique class

and Tim Bean’s Ultraman toys lecture in order to sit in on the Akira Takarada panel (next paragraph), but made it back down in time for Mark Matzke’s awesomely spirited whirlwind tour through all 28 G-Films in 30 minutes. Not only did he pull off this impressive feat of series synopsizing, but peppered factoids and trivia throughout, as well as fielding a few unsolicited questions from the short-pants set.

Akira Takarada (or Takarada-san, as he was affectionately referred to throughout the weekend’s proceedings), is one of the biggest stars in the kaiju firmament. His screen debut as heroic Coast Guard diver/salvage expert Hideto Ogata in the original Gojira launched a career that has stretched nearly six decades, and he has never begrudged his role as “Godzilla’s classmate.” In fact, he appeared in five more Godzilla films, as well as several other Toho classics such as King Kong Escapes and Latitude Zero. Special guest Robert Scott Field (himself a member of the Godzilla family, having played Android M-11 in 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah) served as an amiable interpreter for Takarada-san throughout the panel, during which the venerable septuagenarian actor described his experiences in post WWII Japan and becoming an actor despite personal hardship. A warm, wonderful and welcome presence to launch the central day of festivities.

One of Takarada’s newest best friends is G-FAN contributor Brett Homenick, an American who relocated to Japan in 2011 (just after the tsunami disaster, brave soul) ostensibly to teach English, but mostly to geek out among the faithful in their home stomping grounds. Following Takarada’s Q&A session, Homenick regaled the ballroom crowd with slides and stories of various kaiju-related locations and meeting numerous celebrities who were by all accounts pleasantly surprised at his level of fandom. Kid’s got moxie and the never-say-die attitude of a true aficionado; he definitely made a fan outa me.

Next up was a big deal for most attendees, but being as how I’ve only seen a few episodes of the show, the seismic wave that rocked G-FEST when the original Ultraman himself, Bin Furuya, took the stage didn’t register on quite the same personal level. Nevertheless, it was genuinely moving to see this kaiju legend look out affectionately at his Western fan base and thank them over and over for their undying love toward a late ’60s TV superhero, a legacy that has not ebbed one degree in 45 years. With earlier roles in 1964’s Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster (and, ironically enough, an uncredited role in Gorath), Furuya also appeared as Amagi in the Ultraman follow-up, Ultra 7 and reprised his most famous role for the 1979 films, Ultraman and Ultraman: Monster Big Battle.

Back downstairs, it was time for Kevin Horn to hold 50th anniversary kaiju kourt again, discussing 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla. Still the largest grossing Japanese film of all time (in adjusted dollars) in its home country, this crowd-pleaser has as nearly a storied past as its 1954 predecessor in terms of alterations made for its American release, with trims, scene-swapping and ridiculously dubbed dialogue. (And that’s not even touching on the long-rumored “Japanese” ending where Godzilla emerges victorious, a falsehood reputedly started by none other than Famous Monsters of Filmland editor, Forrest Ackerman.) As before, Horn is a lively moderator, although the panel soon turns into a barely reined-in geekout, with participants discussing any and all Godzilla films that come to mind, including an unfortunate detour into the universally abhorred 1998 Tri-Star version. Even so, things were never dull and often illuminative.

Speaking of illumination, the following panel had John Schuermann back again to discuss the use of Tohoscope, revealing just how much of these movies we had grown up missing on TV pan n’ scan versions. However, being the A/V expert that he is in his “normal” life, Schuermann also effectively demonstrated how the widescreen format still suffers in the home theater environment. Most “widescreen” flat screen TVs match the 1:85:1 (or the 16x9) ratio. However, when one considers that most blockbusters are shot in 2:39:1, this means that those pesky black bars are still present when watching “big movies” at home. This also results in approximately 25% of the pixels not being engaged, resulting in a darker picture. Schuermann’s solution? A DVD projector, which stretches the picture vertically to utilize all the pixels, then employing an anamorphic lens to stretch the image horizontally to reach the proper aspect ratio. Granted, this is an expensive set-up, but the difference is substantial, resulting in a picture image that is up to 80% larger. Yep, nearly twice as big. Think about that, then remember that you learned it via a Godzilla convention.

While still trying to wrap my head around the above data (and contemplating which bank to rob in order to finance my home theater aspirations), I stumbled next door for the hilarious Dave Fuentes (of Terror From Beyond the Daves) and his panel on the relationship between TV horror hosts and Godzilla.

Again, most of us old(er) timers first experienced the Big G on the boob tube, usually under the guiding hand of a local TV horror host. Fuentes proceeded to unspool a terrific collection of clips from various schockmeisters from across the country, ranging from the nationally syndicated (Elvira, Joe Bob Briggs) to hometown favorites Sammy Terry (Indianapolis) and Chicago’s own Svengoolie (Rich Koz, who put in a brief appearance before dashing off). The latter’s parody song “This Movie isn’t Japanese” (ribbing the 1998 Matthew Broderick flick to the tune of The Vapors’ “I Think I’m Turning Japanese”) is still running through my head...

It was then time for an intriguing session entitled “Horror in G-films,” a discussion about how these seemingly benign kiddie flicks managed to seep their way into our subconscious with some surprisingly potent imagery. One thing that became increasingly apparent as the panel went on was how subjective it all was: at what age one had seen the particular film, under what circumstances, what intangible personal fears it tapped into, etc. Everyone in the room had a certain film or memory that resonated to this day, and panel leaders Martin Arlt (editor of the ridiculously good fanzine Mad Scientist), superfan Mike Sutton, John Schuermann (again) and in a surprise visit, German filmmaker Jörg Buttgereit (more on him in a sec) kept the conversation moving along, discussing these irrational fears in a surprisingly rational fashion.

Now, on to Mr. Buttgereit. I had long been aware of the seeming dichotomy between this bad boy director of German gore films (Nekromantik and its sequel, Schramm, Der Todesking, etc.) and his love for all things big and stompy (he provides commentary for many German DVD kaiju releases). I guess this info didn’t shock me as much as it apparently does others – I love splatter, but I was raised on the monster mash and it seems that Buttgereit, five years my senior, emerged from the same monster kid DNA. Anyway, after the panel, I approached the inordinately tall (he’s gotta be 6’3 or better) blond Teuton and we chatted all-too-briefly before I had to dash off to work (again, sigh).

Jörg had been in town for the prior weekend’s Days of the Dead convention, then up to Plainfield, WI to research a musical he was doing on serial killer Ed Gein. As we yammered, I was surprised that more G-fans weren’t clamoring to meet him. I was apparently one of the few on site who knew of his seamier cinematic double life and he winked, asking to “keep it on the down-low, don’t want to freak these parents out.” Your secret’s safe with me, Jörg. (I’ll be touching base with him via his website in the near future, of that you can be sure.)

Leaving early on Saturday night was even more tragic than Friday, since it meant that I would be missing out on the costume contest (you KNOW there was some good stuff there) and a late night screening of 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destroyah (or Destroyer or Destoroyah, depending on how you want to spell it), the only G-film to ever bring an legitimate tear to my eye. But duty called, so off I went. Even so, I was feeling legitimately geeked out – if that would have been all the weekend had in store, it would have been fine.

But wait, there was more.

While I couldn’t rouse myself in time to sit in on Bin Furuya’s 10am Sunday morning panel, I did manage to visit with the good folks at Dojo Studios who were in the process of tearing down their elaborate set for this year’s fan film, “Mecha-GFantis vs. GFantis.”

These intrepid souls, headed by Paul Gavins, Richard St. Andrews, the aptly named Rick Baker and their various progeny, not only assist in the shooting of the film (an annual event for the past few years) but also teach filmmaking workshops to future kaiju masters throughout the weekend. Yes, you too can build your own monster suit, miniature cities for stomping and cranes to fly cameras and creatures around. Trust me, I was salivating at the thought, and will likely be showing up first in line next year to participate.

While I was in the company of Mssrs. Gavins and St. Andrews, someone burst in, saying, “You guys gotta get down to the screening room! They’re showing that giant werewolf thing!” While this had no immediate impact on my synapses, it certainly provoked a strong reaction from those around me, along the lines of them nearly throwing me out of the ballroom-cum-studio in order to lock up and get downstairs. I followed, realizing that anything that had fans of this order this excited was probably worth checking out. Along the way, I learned the backstory:

Back in the early ’80s, there was a group of independent Japanese filmmakers, headed up by director Shizuo Nakajima, who wanted to make their own kaiju movie. The difference is that these folks either worked at or had friends who worked at (wait for it) Toho Studios. As a result, they were able to gain access to materials and designs not usually made available to the general public. Case in point, they were able to make an incredibly detailed reproduction of the 1962 Godzilla suit (as used in KKvG) as well as an impressive giant werewolf costume who would serve as the big G’s opponent. The rumored film is known by several names, Godzilla vs. the Wolfman, Legend of the Superbeast, Godzilla vs. the Giant Wolf Beast, Legendary Giant Beast Wolfman vs. Godzilla, etc., but no real evidence of it has ever surfaced. Only some poster art and one production shot have kept the mystery alive…

Until now.

You see, L.A.-based ultrafan Mark Jaramillo has been chasing this particular myth for 13 years. Earlier in 2012, he made contact with Nakajima. The news? There definitely was a Godzilla vs. Wolfman feature – extensive footage was shot, as well as stock footage utilized to increase the scope and production value. It was apparently never completed, but there’s a lot of existing video footage still in the director’s possession. The bigger news? We at G-FEST XIX were going to be the first Western audiences to see it, because Nakajima had sent Jaramillo a sampling.

In the same room where kaiju fan extraordinaire Jeff Horne had been programming awesome TV and film offerings all weekend long, lights were dimmed, breath was held, and for the next three minutes, we all became children once again as we watched a giant white werewolf do battle with the big green stomping machine. Granted, this was just a fan film, and an incomplete one at that, but for those of us who have seen all the G-flicks and Zone Fighter eps, this was a brand new Godzilla film, and darn it, it looked pretty good. It was a magic moment for the hundred or so folks lucky enough to have crowded into the screening room (or who had been fortunate enough to bump into Jaramillo earlier in the weekend when he was providing private viewings via his iPad. Kudos to J.D. for allowing the footage to be screened to the festival at large).

I saw several folks with their iPhones and cameras pointed at the video screen (if I’d been thinking, I probably would have too), but surprisingly, the recorded footage has not yet emerged on YouTube as expected. Or maybe it has and has been pulled off at the request of Lees and/or Jaramillo, I don’t know. Bottom line, I’m glad I was there, and I’ll definitely be there next year to see if they make good on their intention to bring Nakajima over to screen all existing footage in its entirety for the G-FEST crowd.

From there, it was pretty much Sunday convention wind-down mode. I visited the exhibit halls where the various art contests – both drawing and sculptures – had taken place, bearing witness to some very impressive work within every skill level and medium.

Stopped by the game room, where there were kaiju-themed video and board games, with stick jockeys of all ages huffing and muttering under their breath.

Took another spin around the dealer room to see if I could be tempted to part with any of my favorite American dollars (no luck – being suddenly unemployed sharpens one’s financial disciplines), though the array of t-shirts, figures, toys, literature, models, and bric-a-brac remained just as dizzying and dazzling as before. As with any Sunday, those who have been there the entire time have started to recognize familiar faces, shared a conversation or a memory from earlier in the show, exchanged an email address or two. The circle grows wider…

However, there were still delights in store. G-Tour 2011, a pilgrimage of 35 G-FANs from around the globe to Tokyo in August 2011, staged an encore panel and we were able to share the photos and memories of several of the weary travelers. In addition to an actual tour of Toho Studios – touching props and meeting the stars of numerous stars of these beloved films – the group also toured Japan, visiting many cultural touchstones and locations significant to kaiju fandom. This was only the second G-Tour ever, the first being in 2004, but one can only hope there will be others…and soon. Many thanks to Skip Peel, Steve Pazenski, Tim Bean, Mike Sutton and Frank Pratl for their generosity and recollections (J.D. Lees’ day-by-day journal of the odyssey can be found in G-FAN #97). You have sparked an idea that just might have to come to fruition someday…

Finally, it was time to wrap up the proceedings, which in G-FEST terms can only mean one thing: Kaiju Konfessions. According to the program, this is “the traditional farewell to G-FEST, headed by the indefatigable Stan Hyde.” Assuming that Mr. Hyde had as long a weekend as I, he certainly earned that hyperbolic title as he tirelessly led sing-a-long versions to dozens of ditties from or inspired by these grand, goofy films we have come to love and assembled to celebrate.

In enthusiastic, off-key fashion, the still substantial crowd warbled the Mothra song (“Mo-sur-raaaaa-ah! Mo-sur-raaaaaa-ah!”), oozed to The Green Slime theme, got environmentally conscious with Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster’s “Save the Earth,” kicked it Danish style with “Tivoli Nights” from Reptilicus, gyrated to Gamera’s great green groove, and took it home with a call and response version of Blue Oyster Cult’s eponymous “Godzilla.”

And that, my friends, was that. Not much more to say except eternal thanks to all the folks involved in making G-FEST XIX the amazing hit that it was. Special shout out to J.D. Lees, without whom none of this would be possible – looking forward to more mayhem in the future. I was a Godzilla enthusiast before, but now it feels like I’m a real deal G-FAN.


  1. Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed my presentation of the elusive Wolfman vs Godzilla film. I plan to have more to show next year including Godzilla vs Seadora and Gamera 4: Truth.

  2. I felt like I was there and dind't want it to end. Thank to for the wonderful report!

  3. Nice write up. I've never been to G-Fest, sounds great. Dude, how did you miss out on Ultraman when you were a kid?

  4. Believe it or not, Tom, I've *still* never seen any Ultraman. Basically, if it was on TV, I didn't see it thanks to strict Mama AC. Got the first season at home on DVD now, though. Have to pop that in someday soon.