Howl from Beyond the Fog: Puppetry in Storytelling

During this “Kaiju Renaissance”, we're in, many filmmakers are experimenting with the genre to great effect.

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Howl From Beyond the Fog

During this “Kaiju Renaissance”, we’re in, many filmmakers are experimenting with the genre to great effect.

In this new wave of Kaiju and giant monster media the world has been getting these past few years, one film that many fans of the genre are eagerly anticipating is LosGatos Works’ upcoming independent short film Howl from Beyond the Fog. The short film takes place in 1909 Japan, during the Meiji reformation period, as a young boy and blind woman from a small village encounter the plesiosaur-like monster Nebula, that is also blind, appears during an eerie fog.

Helmed by Daisuke Sato, the film was crowdfunded by Kickstarter and premiered at the 2nd Atami Kaiju Film Festival on November 24, 2019, with a wide release later this year in Japan. What makes this film very unique aside from its central monster Nebula (which was designed by veteran kaiju suitmaker Keizo Murase) is that the film is a mix of practical Tokusatsu effects and traditional Japanese puppet theatre known as Bunraku. This instantly sets the film apart amongst its peers and by watching the trailer the film is incredibly atmospheric with a heavy mood all throughout.

Not to mention it’s inspired by the Ray Bradbury short story The Foghorn (which also inspired the Ray Harryhausen classic The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms) which tells two lighthouse caretakers encountering a prehistoric sea monster attracted to the foghorn from their lighthouse. While I, unfortunately, wasn’t able to see it, fifteen minutes of the film was shown during 2019’s Kaiju-centric convention G-Fest with most reactions to it being very positive amongst those who saw it. But let’s explore one positive aspect this film brings into modern filmmaking, bringing Bunraku to a whole new audience.

The Magic Of Puppetry in Howl from Beyond the Fog

Howl From Beyond the Fog art by Matt Frank

Bunraku is a traditional Japanese form of puppeteering that traces all the way back to the early 17th century. Bunraku in its modern form can be traced to the 1680s were after the playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon and chanter Takemoto Gidayu established the Takemoto puppet theater in Osaka in 1684. During a performance, the show consists of three different types of performers: the Ningyōtsukai or Ningyōzukai (puppeteers), the Tayū (chanters), and shamisen musicians.

The puppets themselves are usually performed by three different puppeteers (though this is mainly for the major characters) who dress in dark clothing. Despite the complexity of these performances, many of the performers are seen as outcasts by the more wealthy upper-class, as such Bunraku became an entertainment outlet for those marginalized. And major Japanese talent were Bunraku performers such as Chikamatsu Monzaemon who is often cited as the “Japanese Shakespeare”.

The art form would continue to endear many Japanese people to this day where Bunraku companies, performers, and puppet makers have been designated “Living National Treasures” under Japan’s program for preserving its culture. Despite how much a major art form Bunraku is to Japanese culture, it has never made much of a foothold outside of the nation, especially compared to geisha or kabuki theatre. 

This is especially saddening as the west has always loved puppet entertainment. While Japanese puppeteering is seen as high art, in the west puppets have gained much more broad mass appeal across pop culture. Many such as Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Fred Rogers are beloved storytellers and entertainers in the west with how they bring their characters to life and have audiences fully engaged.

In a way, puppeteering is one of the most involved practical effects next to suitmation. Look at genre films such as Little Shop of Horrors or The Dark Crystal which are some of the best works from Frank Oz and Henson as they have both terrifying and super engaging characters that feel very much alive. Some of the most beloved pop culture icons such as Kermit the Frog or Elmo resonate with both kids and even adults, showing that this art form is not gonna die any time soon as seen with the acclaim of Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.

So back to Howl from Beyond the Fog, it seems now Bunraku can gain that mass appeal seen with western puppeteering. For one, the talent behind the film is astonishing! You have the aforementioned Keizo Murase who has a history of designing many kaiju such as several Godzilla suits, the original Mothra, many creatures in the Showa Gamera series, and many, many more monumental films in the Kaiju and Tokusatsu genre.

The film also heavily uses matte paintings (which itself is a dying art) which were painted by acclaimed artist Fuchimu Shimakura who worked on way too many films to list but let’s say it’s plenty of Toho’s Kaiju films and Gamera films. Even the director himself Daisuke Sato is no stranger to the genre as he helped work on the modeling for Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack and Ultraman Mebius. A major fan of the genre, Sato wants to bring back the style of Kaiju films from the 90s such as Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera trilogy by having traditional tokusatsu effects along with a compelling human drama. But this time he’s shaking it up with Bunraku storytelling.

Howl from Beyond the Fog and Nebula

Howl from Beyond the Fog (2019)

With the release of Howl from Beyond the Fog, fans of kaiju and monster cinema can further appreciate the art of Bunraku along with some awesome traditional man in a monster action. This “Kaiju Renaissance”, we seem to be in, many filmmakers are experimenting with the genre to great effect. We’ve been getting new and fresh films such as Shin Godzilla and Colossal as well as indie kaiju films such as the works of Shinpei Hayashiya finally getting a western release, it is a great time to be a kaiju fan.

And as I eagerly await for a potential western release of Howl from Beyond the Fog, I hope many people seeing this film understand why Bunraku is such a beloved art form for many Japanese people as it is used to tell human dramas and stories from a perspective mostly seen in live-action or traditional animation. And since Howl from Beyond the Fog’s Kickstarter campaign for its creature effects was funded 150% of its initial investment, maybe we’re seeing this appreciation already taking place.

Practical effects are something we all hold dear to our hearts and while men in monster suits and miniatures will always be impressive, let’s not disregard all forms of practical effects. One might even say puppeteering is simply suitmation for your limbs.

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