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2003 - The Year in Review

By Richard Cox & Bob Schneider

So here we are in 2004, the year that marks Godzilla's 50th birthday and the semicentennial celebration of the entire kaiju eiga genre. We old timers who grew up watching Godzilla movies on local UHF television stations during the '60s are no doubt feeling a bit in awe to find the Big G still alive and kicking after all these years, while newer fans can consider themselves fortunate to enter the fandom at such a propitious time in its history.

The golden anniversary buzz was already in the air throughout 2003, making it an exciting years for fans both young and old. Naturally, a new Godzilla film, another colossal fan festival, and a ton of wonderful new toys only added to the fun.

Events

Movies

December 2002 saw the release of the 26th installment in the long running Toho franchise, Godzilla x MechaGodzilla. Fans almost universally applauded the new MechaGodzilla, which effectively combines the most striking qualities of the Showa and Heisei era designs - the menacing, angular features of the '74 version with the sleeker, more contemporary styling of the '93. However, the film itself earned more measured responses, perhaps because of its brief running time of under 90 minutes and a disappointing first confrontation between the two titans that ends almost as soon as it starts. Because of a reference to the 1961 film Mothra early in the plot, some fans have even speculated Toho approached the film as little more than a setup for a bigger, more exciting sequel featuring the winged kaiju as well as the mecha monster.

That sequel, Godzilla x Mothra x MechaGodzilla: Tokyo SOS, debuted two months ago at a film festival in Japan. Though it's still a bit early to predict how well the film will fare at box offices, initial reactions look promising and fans are saying the movie delivers all the action GxMG was largely lacking.

Festivals and Shows

From Friday, July 18 to Saturday, July 20, G-Fest hit Chicago for the third year straight. Touted as "G-Fest X" to commemorate its tenth year, the festival again brought fans flocking to the Radisson Hotel from all over the country to enjoy special film screenings, cruise the dealer's room, and meet such distinguished guests as Noriaki Yuasa, Carl Craig, Yoshikazu Ishii, and Robert Scott Field. For many attendants, the highlight of the event was a surprise appearance by Director Shusuke Kaneko, who proved Japanese filmmakers appreciate their American fan base as much as the home crowd.

If you weren't fortunate enough to attend the screening of Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack at G-Fest, perhaps you managed to catch the film at a nearby theater last year. Though it wasn't given a true theatrical release, GMK turned up for a few one night engagements at scattered locations. If you missed those screenings too, maybe you'd like to arrange one of your own. Early last autumn, Sony / Tristar announced that several recent Toho films, including GMK as well as Godzilla x Megagilas and Rebirth of Mothra 3, are available for rental. All you need is a theater willing to run a screening and enough cash to rent a print and you're in business, though you'll also have to submit a letter of intent estimating the expected size of the audience, since Sony collects a percentage of the box office profits. Now any fan can coordinate a Toho film screening in his or her own neighborhood with the cooperation of a local theater. Pass the popcorn!

Speaking of neighborhood events, on Saturday, August 30th, the DaiKaijuEiga List held its first official party at the Hampton Inn in Washington, PA, a small town located about fifteen miles south of Pittsburgh. An estimated four hundred fans attended and special guests included Effects Director Koichi Kawakita, Actresses Kumi Mizuno and Megumi Odaka, Suitmation Actor Kenpachiro Satsuma, and Artist Yuji Sakai. If you doubt the validity of this report, straight from the list owner's mouth, you'll just have to attend next year's party and see for yourself.

Products

In 2003, Bandai, M-1, Marmit, and a host of other manufacturers treated collectors to one of the most varied and impressive assortments of new products in years. Whether you prefer vinyls or die casts, realistic sculpts or super deformed renderings, standard eight inch figures or candy toy miniatures, there were plenty of terrific new products to choose from last year. Let's start our tour of the Godzilla toy shelves with "the Big Three" manufacturers mentioned above then work down to some of the other players.

Bandai

The most eagerly anticipated Bandai product announced in 2002 didn't make it onto the shelves until early last year. But the Die Cast MechaGodzilla 2002, with removable back pack, opening chest compartment, and more than a dozen points of articulation, proved well worth the wait. Many collectors praised it as one of the best kaiju toys ever produced. Recognizing a good thing, Bandai recently produced a limited edition chrome plated version of the figure and unveiled a new 2003 edition retooled to reflect the subtle changes in the robot's design as seen in GxMxMG. But what really set the heads of collectors spinning was the new Die Cast MechaGodzilla '74 equipped with just such a feature. That's right, press a button hidden on the figure's chest and its head spins! The toy also can be converted to a flying configuration and the head and neck assembly can be removed from the torso - yes, now you too can twist off your mecha's top just like Godzilla does in the film. I'm predicting the Die Cast '74 will follow the lead of last year's model to become the big hit of 2004.

In the more conventional world of vinyl, Bandai continued its Movie Monsters line with a combination of standard scale and six inch figures. New releases in the first category include the new Mothra adult and two different sculpts of the larva along with revamped versions of the previous year's Godzilla and MechaGodzilla designs. In the six inch category, Bandai is finally acknowledging the '70s films with a long awaited rendering of the '74 Godzilla. Rounding out the Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (1974) line up, Bandai is also reissuing the Godzilla Island King Seeser, a perfect companion for the new Godzilla vinyl and MechaGodzilla '74 Die Cast.

Bandai's candy toy division was equally productive last year. First out of the gate came a new set of 15 SD style sculpts, most of which are essentially miniature dioramas depicting memorable scenes from Godzilla's history. Weeks later, three different Mini Battle Sets of Hyper style figures and a 2004 Battle Field Set of similar sculpts arrived on shelves just in time for Christmas. The 10th series of High Grade capsule toys, a pair of new Polystone dioramas, a soft figure collection, and a Machine Chronicles Set featuring famous mechas are just hitting toy shops snow. Perhaps the most novel products from the candy toy division are three new Showa Dioramas. During the past few years, several manufacturers including Bandai have been producing miniature dioramas showcasing famous monsters. But there are no kaiju characters to be found in these new scenes. Instead, each model depicts the aftermath of a monster's rampage: a crumbling bedroom, a building on the verge of collapse, or a series of recognizable monster footprints. More novel still, buttons hidden on the dioramas trigger prerecorded sounds of frantic evacuation announcements or thundering footsteps. It's a pleasure to see sampled sound bytes utilized for a more creative purpose than simply making monster figures roar, as with the '90s Trendmasters toys.

Unfortunately, not all the news from Bandai was cause for celebration. In the 2002 Year in Review survey, the launch of Bandai's first line of Godzilla toys for the American market was voted both the Most Anticipated and Most Important Event of the Year. Now barely a year later, though, the dream is already over. Because of the all too common obstacle faced by Godzilla franchises in America, a lack of interest from retailers, Bandai cancelled the planned second wave of USA Creation releases and quietly withdrew from the market. Some collectors cite this unfortunate occurrence as evidence of Godzilla's diminishing popularity in the states while others blame Bandai for not promoting the product line aggressively enough. Either way, 2003 will be remembered by kaiju collectors as the end of a new era in the hobby that had hardly even begun.

M-1

Continuing the trend set in recent years, M-1's output of new sculpts in 2003 was modest in number but extremely high in quality. The most exciting news was the release of a long requested King Ghidorah sculpt, and a fine one it is, too, based on the monster's appearance in GMK. M-1 also produced a gorgeous rendering of Baragon from the same movie. Both figures were packaged with a miniature Titanosaurus figure molded in either glow or yellow vinyl. The manufacturer rounded out its 2003 Toho kaiju roster with a reissue of Bullmark's Rodan and a new sculpt of the 1974 MechaGodzilla. Outside of the Godzilla universe, M-1 produced a Mikadoroido figure to promote the release of the film on DVD and a cool Baby Guilala sculpt, another HMV exclusive.

Though kaiju figures will always be the life blood of the hobby, M-1 occasionally surprises fans with sculpts commemorating human characters like Miss Namakawa (1998) or celebrities such as Harao Nakajima (2000). Last year, M-1 produced nine inch renderings of Ultraman's well loved Fuji character along with the man who created him, Eiji Tsuburaya. This second figure certainly wasn't the first time the legendary special effects genius was immortalized in vinyl. But the M-1 comes with a truly original bonus piece: a three dimensional, whimsical sculpt based on the master's autograph and looking a bit like a snowman. Who but those clever artists at M-1 would think of making a figure out of a signature?

Marmit

Marmit continued to churn out impressive new sculpts in two popular and on-going product lines simultaneously. New Para Babies delivered (babies, delivered - get it?) since December 2002 include a second Monster Zero version of Rodan, Minya, Kumonga, several Hedorah sculpts, and a set of Kamakirases (Kamakari?) in three different poses. As always, the Big G himself got top honors and was represented by four new figures based on different suit variations. Most unique among these is the Hedo-Goji model, sculpted in the monster's one-time-only flying pose and paired with an alternate, matching scale version of Hedorah. And speaking of flying poses, Marmit is also carrying on the tradition of oddball Para Baby releases that don't match the product line's usual figure-plus-bonus-piece format by releasing the King Ghidorah Play Set. It features a new sculpt of the three headed menace captured in a novel airborne posture, along with an A Cycle light ray truck and a small chunk of cityscape. But perhaps the most charming Para Baby addition of the year was the Miss Namakawa and Planet X Controller figures, which are being sold together along with a miniature sculpt showing Godzilla doing his famous shie. This Seijin X set has been much more warmly received by fans than its conceptual predecessor, a pair of identical Mothra Fairy Twins Marmit debuted late in 2002. The latest Para Baby release, a rendering of Gigan that comes with a smaller version in flying pose, began shipping recently.

New Monster Heaven sculpts were less numerous but arguably even higher in quality than the Para Babies. 2003 releases included several Godzilla suit variations, Angilas, and both '74 and 2002 versions of MechaGodzilla. The latter is available in no less than four different variations, with or without attached back pack and with the absolute zero cannon chest compartment open or closed. Up next for Marmit fans are Para Baby Angilas '72 and Megalon models and a Monster Heaven Baragon.

Other Manufacturers

After eager fans waited for what seemed like an eternity, Super 7 magazine finally shipped out its first issue exclusive figures last year. The Club Daikaiju / M-1 Gorgo mama and baby exclusives, molded in peach vinyl and painted blue and green respectively, arrived first, near the end of the winter. The Bear Model Glow Hedorah met with some delays and the ordering deadline was subsequently extended. As a result, the figure was finally delivered in two varieties: readers who ordered prior to the original deadline received figures sporting the advertised bright green, red, and gold highlights, while those who ordered after the deadline were shipped versions painted in a slightly more subdued color scheme. All three exclusives were well received by the fandom, prompting the publishers to offer another Super 7 exclusive in the second issue. This figure, a translucent gray Bear Model Godzilla '54 with silver highlights, has already been delivered, much to the delight of collectors. Meanwhile, Bear Model has been keeping busy with a string of brand new sculpts, including representations of Varan, Minya, Angilas, the Mothra larva, and '67 and '73 Godzilla suit variations.

In the last Year in Review article, I noted that 2002 could be called "the Year of the Smog Monster," since M-1, Marmit, Bear Model, and X-Plus all produced new Hedorah sculpts. Perhaps inspired by this trend, Orion produced a limited edition Godzilla and Hedorah Box Set, which was available only through a special lottery. The set features miniature representations of Hedorah in just about every imaginable stage and pose, as well as a novel sculpt of Godzilla in his notorious flying posture. But Orion's hottest item in 2003 was a set of ten High Grade-like miniatures depicting various monsters from the Gamera series and other Japanese monster films. The set features a few rarely seen characters, including Guilala and a weird creature resembling a cross between a bull and a Triceratops that nobody seems able to identify. The series was available in both painted and crystal versions. Late in November, Orion announced a second series of kaiju miniatures scheduled for release this month.

If 2002 was "the Year of the Smog Monster," perhaps 2003 could be considered "the Year of the Bugs."A pair of long neglected kaiju characters, Kamakiras and Kumonga, finally received some overdue attention when Marusan released new sculpts of the monsters nearly simultaneously with Marmit's Para Baby renderings. Marusan also released three new Godzilla suit variations and an Angilas sculpt that some folks are calling the manufacturer's most detailed work to date.

Bandai's low end product division Banpresto scored big two years in a row with some notably high quality DX Godzilla sculpts crafted by the gifted Yuji Sakai and sold for a song as arcade crane machine prizes. After remaining out of sight for most of the year, Banpresto announced new 2004 Godzilla and MechaGodzilla sculpts, albeit in a slightly smaller 7 inch scale, scheduled for release soon. Helping fill the void in Banpresto's absence, Sega followed up its 2002 Gamera 3 figure with a new twelve inch tall rendering of the'65 version of the tusked turtle. The manufacturer also produced six inch sculpts of Guiron, Gyaos, and Space Gyaos, all carded and ready to be scooped up in arcade game cranes.

X-Plus added '55 and '84 suit variations of Godzilla, Angilas, and a flying King Ghidorah to its chess piece series and impressed Gamera fans with beautiful new Irys and '95 Gyaos sculpts and a stunning rendering of Legion that measures well over a foot in length.

New Manufacturers

One of the most talked about products in 2002 was a set of 30 figural bottle caps produced by Yutaka, one of Bandai's many corporate subdivisions. Last year, a company called Jun Planning, reportedly a Popy division, finally followed up with a new collection of bottle caps, though unfortunately, the product line evidently had lost most of its fizz during the two year hiatus. Perhaps the problem was redundancy. Though Jun Planning wisely cut back the number of pieces by ten, there still weren't enough remaining monster stars to support twenty new sculpts. Rather than reusing any of the characters featured in the first set, the manufacturer resorted to padding out the count with multiple variations of several sculpts - the 2002 Godzilla was issued in standard color or dark blue, for example, and a pair of Mysterian figures were painted with red, yellow, or blue costumes. The good news is that fans on a tight budget can collect a "complete" set of fifteen different sculpts and save a few bucks by skipping the variations.

A new manufacturer called Konami earned mention in last year's review for releasing the Beast Shooters line, a series of miniature SD style figures on wheels that are propelled by a spring loaded launching mechanism. Last year, the company continued to promote its philosophy that kaiju figures are more fun if they move fast. Along with two new Shooter sets featuring such kaiju stars as Gigan, Rodan, and Space Godzilla, Konami debuted the new Dash Battle series. These are similar to the Beast Shooters except that the toys are now self propelled by means of tiny motors that draw power from a recharging base. So far, the series consists of five standard models and a special limited edition bright orange Burning Godzilla. A Battle Field play base is also available. It's wonderful to see a manufacturer producing toys designed to be played with, not merely displayed on a collector's shelf.

DVDs

Say what you will about video bootleggers, but there's nothing like a little illegal competition to shake up an industry. Thanks to the proliferation of recordable DVD media, high quality copies of subtitled Japanese films became widely available to fans in the western world for the first time in 2002. Perhaps encouraged by this development, legitimate distributors began releasing Asian films on DVD with the features fans had been requesting for years. ADV led the charge with a box set of the classic Daiei Daimajin films presented in glorious widescreen and with Japanese soundtracks in tact. Last spring, the distributor followed up with the long awaited release of the '90s Gamera trilogy on DVD, with both English dubbed and subtitled Japanese soundtracks on the same discs. Though the three DVDs were released separately over a period of several months, the first title was available in a specially packaged edition designed to hold all three discs, creating a sort of do-it-yourself box set. ADV has since released Daiei's three Yokai films on Japanese language DVDs. But more exciting still, last autumn Sony announced that three recent Toho films, Godzilla x Megagilas, Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: All Out Attack, and Godzilla x MechaGodzilla, would make their heavily anticipated western debuts on DVD, with both English dubbed and original Japanese soundtracks on each disc. It seems American distributors are finally recognizing what the bootleggers knew from the start: giving film fans what they want makes sound business sense.

Trends

Though fans are willing to tolerate or even endorse bootleg DVDs and videos, possibly because so few legitimate releases of Japanese films are available outside of Asia, the effect of unlicensed vinyl figures and other collectibles on the market is considerably more troubling. In fact, no other topic sparked as much discussion and controversy in 2003 as bootlegging.

Bootlegs

Knock-offs, copies, bootlegs - call them what you will, these unlicensed products illegally produced and distributed by unscrupulous individuals are nothing new. In fact, bootlegs in one form or another have been a part of the hobby almost as long as the hobby itself has existed. Why, then, does the issue of bootlegging continue to be such a timely concern today?

I can think of three good reasons. First, the number of knock-offs being produced is rapidly increasing and second, the bootlegs are becoming more and more visible and accessible, thanks largely to on-line auction services like eBay, another controversial issue that warrants separate discussion. The bootleg crisis seemed to reach epidemic proportions last year, with knock-offs sometimes accounting for as much as 30 percent of the eBay listings in certain categories. Finally, the large number of unlicensed products that are only a mouse click away from shoppers also greatly increases the risk of fraud. These days, even seasoned collectors must check their facts carefully and be prepared to ask plenty of questions to distinguish authentic items from worthless copies. Naturally, fans who are new to the hobby are especially vulnerable.

It's difficult to measure how much damage bootlegs are doing to the market, but one thing is certain: as knock-offs become more prevalent, the damage can only become worse. Club Daikaiju's Jim Cirronella cited the proliferation of bootlegs as one of the key reasons there was no new release in the Club D / M-1 Great Monsters of the Movies series last year. How long before other manufacturers start deciding it isn't worth investing money and effort to develop new products that will only end up being copied and sold for someone else's quick profit?

eBay

As mentioned above, one area where bootlegs have made an especially big impact is eBay. The service specifically forbids the sale of unlicensed products, but far from discouraging bootleg auctions, this policy has ironically only encouraged deceptive ones. Posting an auction for an openly acknowledged unlicensed product is risky business, which gives sellers more incentive to misrepresent bootlegs as authentic, licensed items. Even when such cases are reported to eBay, the sellers know they can easily avoid any significant penalty by simply claiming they were unaware the items were fake.

Unfortunately, other types of dishonest behavior are also commonplace on eBay. One list member reported winning an auction at an exceptionally good closing price only to find the seller then refused to honor the bid. Apparently the seller in question did some research and belatedly decided his merchandise was worth considerably more than he had initially estimated. eBay is supposed to enforce its policies governing fair play, but when a dispute like this does occur, the buyer and seller are all too often left to settle the difference on their own.

Aside from occasional cases of misuse and abuse, though, eBay is affecting the fandom in more innocent but perhaps far more profound ways. During the past several years, more and more long time dealerships have either closed their retail arms, as in the case of Club Daikaiju, or scaled back their operations to a dramatically reduced level, as with Showcase Collectibles, which advertised no new products on its website during the all important Christmas rush season. There can no longer be any doubt that the market for Godzilla toys in North America is changing and eBay is one of the most likely causes. It's difficult for any dealer to compete with thousands of private sellers all over the country who can reach millions of potential buyers at such low cost. Of course complaining about the situation accomplishes nothing and, for that matter, the changes aren't necessarily for the worse. But as collectors, we'll have to adjust to the new dynamics in the market and expect a few bumps and bruises along the way. As Charles Darwin might have said, the individuals who best learn to adapt are the ones who will survive and benefit in the end.

Looking Ahead

Considering the threat of bootlegs and the rapidly changing marketplace, it's no surprise some pessimists continue to predict nothing but doom and gloom for the fandom's future. But for those of us who prefer taking a more positive view, there's much to look forward to, especially during this golden anniversary year. Toho Studios has already announced plans for a new film, tentatively titled "The Godzilla," scheduled for production this year. Judging from comments made by Producer Shogo Tomiyamai, who suggested the plot may feature no less than ten classic kaiju characters culled from various eras of Toho's history, the new film sounds like it may indeed be the Godzilla movie of a lifetime.

But there's more ahead for G fans than a promising new movie. During the weekend of July 10 next summer, Chicago will again be overrun by hordes of enthusiastic kaiju fans when G-Fest XI comes to town. The event has been moved from the Radisson to the larger Holiday Inn O'Hare International Hotel in anticipation of an even bigger crowd than at last year's festival. And even though J.D. Lees and his associates at Daikaiju Enterprises manage to bring Mohammed (Godzilla) to the mountain (America) every year for another festival, next summer they'll also be taking the mountain to Mohammed. On Saturday, July 31, G-Tour '04 will leave American shores for an eleven day excursion to Godzilla's homeland. The fully guided tour will hit several Japanese cities and give lucky westerners a chance to see many of the famous landmarks destroyed by the big guy (Godzilla, not Lees) during his checkered career.

So here we are in 2004. It's been a long, crazy ride through 50 years of Godzilla film history. But I'd like to believe those first 50 years were only the beginning of a tradition that will continue for many decades to come. Just imagine all the great toys and wonderful memories we'll have collected by the time we reach Godzilla's 100th birthday in 2054.

The Survey

Throughout December, Club Tokyo again asked visitors to voice their opinions about everything from favorite kaiju collectibles to worst fandom trends by taking our annual on-line survey. Only products released after November 2002 and before December of last year were eligible candidates in most categories since, due to shipping delays, collectors in the western world don't get an opportunity to examine many brand new products until the next year. The voting results in each survey category are briefly summarized on the following pages.

-Bob
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