Editor's note: This wraps up a four-part series on film and TV dramas featuring live-action "tokusatsu" special effects and superheroes.
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Digital technology may have dealt a devastating blow to a fading art of filmmaking: the creation of miniature landscapes that are the hallmark of a Japanese genre where superheroes and monsters stomp across the screen.
Paying homage to this fading skill--where computer graphics have replaced painstaking miniatures done by hand--the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo near the Kiba Koen park in the capital's Koto Ward has mounted "Tokusatsu--Special Effects Exhibition."
Some 500 items are on display, including miniature models of robots and gadgets used in live-action "tokusatsu" films and TV shows. A live-action short titled "Kyoshinhei Tokyo ni Arawaru" (God Warrior Appears in Tokyo) produced without computer generated imagery is also being screened.
The God Warrior is a bio-engineered giant from the "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" manga series that wreaks havoc on humanity.
Hideaki Anno, an anime director best known for the "Evangelion" anime series, was responsible for a sequence featuring the giant in an anime adaptation.
Gripped by a sense of crisis, Anno spearheaded efforts to stage the exhibition.
"During the past 10 years, an increasing number of miniature landscape sets have been lost or spoiled. If we don't take action now, these valuable cultural assets will be lost forever," Anno explained. "My ideal is to open a permanent museum, but this exhibition is the first step."
Back in the day, it was common practice to scrap model sets used in tokusatsu productions once filming was over. The props and other stuff often went into storage at film companies to be used again, were taken home by the modelers or collected by model enthusiasts.
The monster suits that inspired fear in audiences and other special costumes made from latex have deteriorated over the years. Many of the items on display were restored from the originals.
But it is not just models and costumes that aficionados of the genre are trying to preserve.
Toita Industries Inc., a Tokyo-based sheet-metal processing company, has produced metal props for tokusatsu since the 1940s when Kozo Toita, the father of current president Yukio Toita, headed the company.
"I heard that my dad created a subway train used in the first of the 'Godzilla' film series. It was apparently made of lead so that it could be easily squashed when Godzilla stood on it," Toita recalled.
"I myself can't remember how many Tokyo Towers I have made," Toita said with a laugh. "Our business has dwindled due to the widespread use of plastics. I hope there will be more creators who stick to the glitter of metal like (film director) Kon Ichikawa."
In its heyday, 90 percent of Toita Industries' operations revolved around films and TV shows. Now the figure is about 20 percent, Toita said.
Tokusatsu Kenkyujo is a rarity in the business. The company has regular work coming in for tokukatsu productions in the "Kamen Rider" and "Super Sentai" superhero series.
Tokusatsu Kenkyujo head Hiroshi Butsuda is passing on the company's special effects skills for the next generation in a "learn-by-watching-on-site" approach.
"My training includes having staff members attend editing sessions to show them which scenes are included and which ones are cut," Butsuda said.
"With current CG technology, we can get a 100 out of 100 points for the images if we allocate enough budget and time," said art director Toshio Miike, who worked for the "Kyoshinhei Tokyo ni Arawaru" short. "But with miniature tokusatsu special effects, it is possible to produce imagery beyond our expectations that is worth more than 100 points."
Special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano says: "In tokusatsu productions, there are front line workers whose craftsmanship are godlike. I think that staff members who control Godzilla are living national treasures just like masters of 'ningyo joruri' (Japanese traditional puppet theater)."
If nothing else, tokusatsu techniques are a unique cultural contribution from Japan. This forgotten aspect of art deserves to be preserved.
(This article was written by Noriki Ishitobi and Tetsuo Iwamoto.)
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