Imagine, a time before Crunchyroll, Amazon, or Netflix, when you couldn't instantly summon any movie or TV show, from anywhere in the world, for instant playback on your big-screen TV or iPhone. A time before pirated torrent files scattered across the internet turned discovery and fandom into a multicultural scavenger hunt and inadvertent education in foreign languages and shoddy computer code.
Scary, right? Actually, it made learning about foreign monster movies, tokusatsu shows, and anime all the more exciting.
Back in the '70s and '80s, impressionable kids discovered gems from Japan almost by accident, at least at first. Cheap local independent movie theaters filled double features with imported (dubbed-over) movies, and local TV channels bought foreign monster flicks because they had to show something late at night, and got stuck with the kaiju movies as add-ons when buying more premium programming. Eventually, fourth-generation VHS tapes of pirated shows, many of which required live translation, got passed around at early conventions and shown during board game battles, enthralling a captive audience. August Ragone, the best-selling author and authority on all things kaiju and tokusatsu, remembers those times with great fondness.
"One of my earliest memories is Mothra, the 1961 Toho film, that was on local television. Somehow, I was sucked in," Ragone says in the latest episode of The Fandom Files. "It was just a matter of timing, and, then, genuine child obsession. Some kids will get into baseball really hard and know all the stats. I was the kid who learned all the monster stats. 'Godzilla is 50 meters high. He weighs 20,000 metric tons.' Godzilla. That was me when I was a kid."
Ragone became truly obsessed, watching as many kaiju movies and Ultraman episodes as he could, visiting theaters and staying up all night to watch them over and over. And while the thrill of those programs came from the rubber suit monsters, the intrigue was in the people working to stop their terror. Even though he grew up in San Francisco, at that time, Japan still felt like a mysterious land, with no internet or cable TV to bridge the massive gulf of the Pacific Ocean. Just a generation removed from World War II, there was still a lingering wariness between the United States and Japan, as well, which made Ragone even more excited to learn everything he could about the land of Godzilla.
"There were things going on with the human characters in these films that I wanted to know more about, in this place called Japan," he recalls, noting that the dubbing and editing of the movies in America undersold their political and social context. "I started branching out and exhausting the school library and my local public library of any books I could get my hands on about Japan and Japanese history. ... Then, also, we had the advantage of having a Japantown here in San Francisco. I was already in crazy Japanese monster sci-fi superhero mode, but as soon as I discovered Japantown, which had bookstores and toy stores, then it was all over. My life was completely shattered, and I had no chance of making anything out of myself after that."
He's joking about making something of his life; Ragone's book about Eiji Tsubaraya, the father of the Japanese special effects industry (and the guy who invented the rubber-suited monster), is a best-seller, and he's been tapped as an expert for DVD release books, TV shows, documentaries, and more. As he explains in the podcast, he taught himself Japanese and lived in Tokyo for a number of years, giving him a depth of knowledge and context that few fans can boast.
Ragone is best known for kaiju and tokusatsu expertise, but he can also be given credit for helping to further along the anime boom in the United States. He worked with some of the initial anime fan clubs and magazines in the U.S., and was in the rooms when some of the first translations were broadcast at conventions.
"A lot of it in the early days, when you'd go to a convention, they were hip to Japanese anime," he said. "The San Diego Comic-Con was huge on that. You could sit in the video room and watch Japanese anime with no subtitles. We had to watch fussy third-gen copies with no subtitles."
And often, Ragone was the one providing the contraband material.
"I used to drag a VCR and a television to some local conventions and go, 'Hey, can I set this up and show this really cool stuff?' They go, 'What is it?' I answer, 'It's Japanese animation,'" he says, laughing at how lo-fi the scene was back then. "They go like, 'Okay. Just set it up right over there,' at the corner of a dealers' room. Then you would get people coming around and sitting on the floor just watching the stuff. It was very grassroots when it started."
Ragone talks more about his early adventures with kaiju, anime, and time in Japan in this episode of The Fandom Files.
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