10 May 2012

Takashi Iitsuka’s Super Organic Battle Action Adventure

The young filmmaker Takashi Iitsuka (飯塚貴士, b. 1985) wowed Nippon Connection 2012 with the international premiere of his short film Encounters (エンカウンターズ, 2011).  The half hour action adventure action figure drama has previously screened at festivals in Japan such as the Sendai Short Film Festival and the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Encounters uses neither stop motion animation nor any CG effects.  It is purely old school live action puppet action – a technique which Iizuka has christened “Super Organic Battle Action.”  Using handmade action figures and monster puppets, Iizuka carefully manipulates the characters either by hand or fishing wire.  The result is a loving send up of the great monster movies of Ishirō Honda (Godzilla, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla).  The campiness of the film and the use of marionette effects recalls the “supermarionation” techniques employed in the UK cult classic Thunderbirds (Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, 1965-6).

The story centers on two buddies, Max and John, who have taken a trip to the countryside to help Max get his mind off his girlfriend troubles. Just as the countryside and a chance encounter with a friendly stray dog named Kifune seem to be lifting Max’s spirits, a furry super-monster crashes into the scene and has a confrontation with some armed forces.  The story then spirals into a pastiche plot line that throws in all the elements typical in a Japanese scifi action adventure: a mad scientist, fear of robots, love and friendship conquering all, and so on.

Talking to Iitsuka at Nippon Connection, I discovered that he did indeed play alone with action figures a lot as a kid.  He was an only child and did not have the means to buy too many toys.  He had a hero figure in Ultraman but lacked monsters – a problem he remedied by creating his own monsters using PET bottles.  His aim with Encounters was to transfer the fun and spontaneity of such child’s play into the film. 

His eyes lit up with delight when I mentioned the Thunderbirds and he added that he was also a big fan of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-8), a dark scifi “supermarionation” also by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson.  In terms of action films, in addition to being inspired by the Ultraman franchise, Iitsuka is also a big fan of The Delta Force movies starring Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin.  This would explain his choice of Waffen Film Studio for the name of his one man production company.  “Waffen” is German for “weapons”. 

All levels of production were done by Iizuka himself: cinematography, editing, sound, music, set building, costumes and special effects.  He made about 5 or 6 sets and manipulated the figures either marionette-style using fishing wire (which you can cheesily still see in some frames) or by hand (but without the hands being seen).  For one sequence, for example, he built the set on top of the bathtub so that he could manipulate the figures from underneath.  Some of the figures and sets were made using materials that he already had but others were built with supplies from the hobby shop.  Some of the most interesting designs were done using papercraft and based on photographs Iitsuka took himself. 

Iitsuka even does all the voices including a falsetto for Max’s girlfriend in a flashback sequence.  The subtitles are kind of odd – at times very inspired – as when a wordy curse in Japanese is translated to English simply as “Jesus!”  At other times the English subs are awkward and badly spelled  –  but that just adds to the fun. The subtitles, which were done by Naoki Suzuki of the Sendai Short Film Festival, complement the kitschiness of the film and the quirkiness of the Japanese dialogue.   Iitsuka designed the dialogue as a spoof of the unusual Japanese dub s done on Hanna-Barbera cartoons like Shazzan (1967-9) and The Fantastic Four (1967-9) when they were first imported to Japan.

See opening to Japanese dub of Shazzan here, and The Fantastic Four here:

The film was shot on a Sony Video Z5J and edited using Abobe Software, Premiere, Aftereffects, etc.  Iitsuka told me that he hopes that people will get a message of hope from the film.  He is working on his next Super Organic Battle Action Adventure and was planning to explore German hobby shops for materials after the festival.  An art school grad, Iitsuka has a natural eye for framing - doubtless honed by years of TV watching.  The concept could easily have turned out completely schlocky, but I found the result brilliant.  I hope that Iitsuka’s Encounters obtains the cult following that it deserves, and I look forward to seeing where his imagination takes him to next.  
Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012
You can follow Iitsuka on Twitter (JP only)
A 20 minute cut of the film is available on imdb (JP/EN)