Fantasia 2020: Monster Seafood Wars

It is a really good time to be a tokusatsu fan right now. With Godzilla’s triumphant return to the big screen both in the West and in Japan, there’s a renewed interest in all things tokusatsu in the West that has led to extensive and impressive releases of not only multiple classic Godzilla films but also superhero franchises like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, many of which were seeing their first ever legal release stateside.
This is a marked change from felt like the dark ages for tokusatsu fans like myself, the period between 2004 and 2014 where there were no new Godzilla movies (though there was one Gamera flick) and the adventures of Ultraman, Kamen Rider, and the Super Sentai had no official releases, so they had to be watched using…other methods.

The aforementioned properties are supremely popular examples of tokusatsu, a Japanese art form that takes practical effects to their highest level, literally building worlds to be populated by impossible beasts battle in a cityscape wrestling ring as people flee and real estate goes up in flames.
Beyond these, though, there are countless films and series being created by artists dedicated to this traditional cinematic artform that plays by its own rules, and perhaps no filmmaker is creatively flourishing with those rules, and his own, more than Minoru Kawasaki, a reputation he further cements with his latest feature (showing at Fantasia International Film Festival) Monster Seafood Wars.

Taking inspiration from tokusatsu wizard Eiji Tsuburaya’s original giant octopus concept for Godzilla, Monster Seafood Wars employs a documentary style to tell the story of Yuta Tanuma (Keisuke Ueda of Kamen Rider Wizard fame), a disgraced young scientist obsessed with kaiju who’s involved in a biking accident on his annual trip to the local shrine with an offering of seafood, which mysteriously goes missing. It doesn’t take long to relocate his missing squid, octopus, and crab, though, because they soon reappear on their own, only they have turned into towering terrors thanks to Yuta’s Setupp X growth formula, and they want to wreck havoc.

Yuta joins the Seafood Monster Attack Team despite having to contend with his rival Hikoma (Yuya Asato) and childhood crush Nana (Ayano Yoshida Christie) as teammates. They put their lives on the line to combat the kaiju codenamed Takolla, Ikalla, and Kanilla, but also discover that though the taste of victory seems to elude them in this war, these monsters are plenty tasty!

Minoru Kawasaki has a proven propensity and talent for mixing his affection for the tradition of tokusatsu (which is increasingly rare due to the advent of often inferior CGI effects) and charming comedy that sways between heartfelt, sardonic, and slapstick and manages to do so with far more limited funds and distribution support of say Godzilla films or Ultraman programs. I would point to the Ultraman tribute/parody Outerman and the pro wrestler vehicle Daikaiju Mono as exceptional examples of Kawasaki’s brand of lighthearted irreverence. There are moments of this throughout Monster Seafood Wars, but it seems that this new film does not manage to punch above its weight quite like his other features have.

Of course, for many, the main event of a kaiju film are the kaiju themselves. The creature designs are very nicely done and have a low budget charisma to them. Their battle sequences share that charisma and are tightly shot. It’s fun, sufficiently explosive, and often downright logic defying, which harkens back to the fundamentals of tokusatsu in the 70s, where things never made much sense, but as long as things were still fun, sense just didn’t matter. The genre moved away from that in the 80s and beyond, so it’s nice to see that independent filmmakers of the form still hold the charm of that vintage close to their hearts.

Now, while the kaiju look great, we don’t see them very often during the 84 minute runtime. They show up, battle, then disappear for a stretch before reappearing for another short fight. This doesn’t necessarily make a bad kaiju movie, as many great ones have limited screen time for the monsters, like the classic Godzilla movie, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (or Invasion of Astro-Monster as it’s known in Japan). The responsibility of moving the picture along in this case, though, falls to the human plots, and this is where I believe this film may fumble the most.

The love triangle between Yuta, Hikoma, and Nana is really well done. It seemed to me that Kawasaki was having a little fun with how this romantic dynamic typically plays out in many anime series—the unassuming everyman (who is perhaps the “cuter” or more unthreatening of the two suitors) struggles with his well put together, stoic rival for the heart of the strong, level headed female lead. Yuta, Hikoma, and Nana represent each of these archetypes respectively, and have good chemistry together, especially the two rivals. Yuya Asato plays Hikoma as deeply serious and intimidating, with a mean streak he takes out on Yuta, who is made a perfect foil by Keisuke Ueda, who plays up the disgraced scientist’s eccentricity and determination to prove his worth.

Unfortunately, the film does not solely focus on this dynamic in between the action sequences when, perhaps, it should have. The big joke of the film comes about halfway through when pieces of the seafood monsters that were found lopped off after fights are cooked (because why not?), and it is discovered that these beasts are quite delicious. It causes a tremendous stir in the nation, with every restaurant in Japan adding monster meat to the menu for eager and hungry consumers. It took this author some time to figure out why exactly Kawasaki was spending so much time on this gag, and even now, I’m still at a bit of a loss.

The only thing I can think of is that the audience is supposed to be laughing at gourmet cooking shows and the trend of foodies online with their “gastrological travelogues” (whatever the fuck that term is supposed to mean) to enjoy and promote these extravagant meals while there are far more important things going on in the world. I mean, these people are eating kaiju! While said kaiju are still out in the world causing mayhem! But, no, by all means let’s talk about how yummy they are.
It’s a joke that Kawasaki loves, one that is less scornful than it is mocking with a whimsical twist. The issue, though, is that it doesn’t seem to work in this film as it has in the past. The joke considerably overstays its welcome, causing the entire second act to feel a tad pointless and bloated, weighing the film down like we’ve all just eaten a big helping of kaiju meat ramen. The wheels turn until the film returns to the amusing love triangle and monster madness.

Despite the overuse of this joke, it can’t be oversaid how original it is. You’re unlikely to find subject manner of this kind in the more popular tokusatsu properties, which are more concerned with either selling merchandise or being politically and socially serious (i.e. Shin Godzilla). Minoru Kawasaki takes chances in his films and wears his toku-inspirations on his sleeve.
The same is true of Monster Seafood Wars, and it makes for a mostly entertaining experience that will delight and satisfy tokusatsu fans, especially those who have enjoyed the renaissance the genre is enjoying today and are now looking to dig deeper into the films underneath the standards and discover concepts that are fresh and exciting.

Played as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival 2020

Jesse Berberich | Twitter: @JesseBerberich

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