Seeing Cool Japanese Movies At The Theater

Warning: I spoil the ending of Shin Godzilla in this post. If you haven't seen that movie, I highly encourage you to do so!

Theater and audience reactions are one of those fun but fleeting memories that we hold onto for as long as possible. They can provide an interesting context for a movie's very intitial reception. One thinks of James Rolfe on The Phantom Menace: "It was good for a weekend, truthfully not even that."

I've had the pleasure of seeing some pretty cool things with an audience, the biggest ones being Shin Godzilla and Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack. I thought I'd better write down some of these fun memories before I forget!

Shin Godzilla, 2016

The hype I had for this movie was deathly serious, having been a lifelong Godzilla fan. The phrase "Hideki Anno Godzilla" had me and many others salivating to see what it would be. Funimation ended up doing a special one week theatrical release for Shin Godzilla in the United States. I had to be there. I had to. October 12th, 2016. The date of destiny!

The film got an IMAX release in Japan, and so it was for us as well, in this one magical week. I'm not even sure if I'd ever been to an IMAX before, but this was the right movie for it. I remember driving in the darkness to find the Regal in a part of the city I'd never been in before. Any time I'm lost, I swear that theater must be nearby.

I was pleasantly surprised by the turnout for the movie. While not every seat was filled, I was a bit relieved that I wasn't alone either. As I took my seat, I overheard quite a bit of Japanese being spoken. I couldn't make out too much, even "a few common words from anime" might be stretching my knowledge a bit. Still, this city has a notable Japanese community, and it was cool to see that in action.

There was a younger kid, maybe 10 or so, there too with his mom. He's an important player in our story...more on him soon.

One notable thing for this showing of the movie is the on-screen text. This on-screen text describing locations and characters in the movie was actually a big part of the film. I'll explain why in a moment. Ultimately, on Funimation's Blu-Ray release, this great looking and actually important text was simply not there. It got replaced with...just subtitles. Apparently this is at Toho's insistence, but I promise you it was at this screening I saw. I wonder why Toho didn't insist then? Perhaps a textless version of the film could not be provided in time, but I only speculate.

I am certain of this, because this text is most prominent in the beginning of the movie. If you haven't seen the film, it's sort of a subtle joke and jab at government organization and the slow response times to a disaster. At first, nobody thought much of it in the theater. But, as the opening scenes went on, people started to giggle and chuckle a bit. Even I cracked a smile. Proudly, I would say, people got it!. That's why the Blu-ray situation is such a huge shame. It's really beautifully laid out on the film and looked cool own its own on the IMAX screen. I am insanely lucky I got to see it this way!

When our poor, bleeding, weird, ground-crawling Godzilla (god I love this movie) first appeared on screen, there was some audible confusion in the audience. Our ten-year old hero bellowed "That's what he looks like?!". Indeed, my young friend! Of course, I was curious as well, but I was so excited and so willing to accept whatever happened and call it "Bravo Anno".

Let me tell you, as the movie went on, that kid shut the hell up real quick.

Without detailing everything that happens in the movie, there was a sense of terror and fear and a sort of entrancement at Godzilla's power. We all gasped at "the lasers", and Godzilla in the sea of fire still sends chills down my spine. I recall an English voice (maybe that kid's mom?) saying "Oh my god!". I felt as if everyone in the room had gone dead cold, as if we were seeing some real disaster unfold.

It was great. It was just great.

Outside of these little anecdotes and genuine exclamations, we were all dead silent through 90% of the film. It was gripping, exciting, and scary all at once. And then, came the ending.

Again, if you haven't seen the movie, just skip to the Char's Counterattack section! I'm talking about the actual very ending now!

The very last shot of the film is something I will never forget seeing with everyone. Unfortunately for me, I believe I had heard a rumor of what was at the end or even seen a blurry photo. I can't quite recall, but I am happy to say it was very shocking. As the camera panned up the frozen Godzilla's tail, none of us were quite sure what we were seeing.

I swear, it was the very last second or two when we all comprehended what we saw. What it means is perhaps up to some interpretation. As everyone hit an epiphany, there was no oxygen left in the room. I'm not sure anyone let out a word, it was just hot breaths and awe. It was freaky, it made your heart sink. And then, the credits music, the classic theme, gave us all a heart attack.

It was absolutely one of the best things I've ever gotten to take part of at the movies. I only wish that everyone got the experience that I had that day. As we all left the theater, my eyes wandered to some of the Japanese speakers. I saw a lot of slow nodding, and smiles. To me, it looked like a feeling of reverence had swept through that Japanese part of the audience. Being an American, it's a bit out of my scope today to accurately describe what Godzilla means, or may mean, to its home country and people, as if I could fully understand. All the same, I hope you get the picture here. It was exciting and magical, and I hope my account of this screening will exist for any curious Godzilla-ites.

Now, onto Gundam!

Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack, 1988

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Gundam franchise, Fathom Events did the coolest thing ever and played the 1988 classic, Char's Counterattack. It would show for one day, December 5th, 2019.

This was so unexpected to me that even recounting how I felt, I almost wrote "Fathom Events randomly decided-" because I was shocked. I thought I'd never get to see one of my favorite anime films on the big screen like this. That's the kind of stuff I only fantasize about. Seeing Char and Amuro's final battle on the big screen, hearing the music loud as hell, seeing that crispy, gorgeous cel and paint animation. I'm practically squirming right now just thinking about it!

Unlike the Shin Godzilla showing, I was surprised to see that Char's Counterattack filled every seat in the house. I'm not kidding. It was the fullest I've ever seen a theater, personally! This filled me with all kinds of emotions. When it comes to mecha anime, it's something with quite the history and community, and seeing that manifest in my physical real life took my breath away for a moment. It bordered on weird. Gundam's popularity and passionate fandom was now something far beyond an experience on my screens. Here they all were, all of us thrilled to see the movie.

So I assume, anyway. Some fans still hold debates over this film's story (so it shall be for every anniversary of this franchise, forever), but I'm a huge fan. There's very little I dislike in the film. Yes, that includes Quess Paraya.

To me, Char's Counterattack is the finale of an entire era of sci-fi and mecha anime. 1979-1988 could be said to be a sort of peak for Gundam, a nearly ten-year saga of war, humanity, and sorrow in the Universal Century. In the outside world, many fans were clamoring for an end to the Amuro and Char story. Char's Counterattack could be seen as a last hurrah for a sort of "old guard". Here's one cool article detailing some of the amazing and talented staff and names that worked on the film. There's way more to talk about than I could really cover alone, so-

Oh right, uh, the screening.

I recall there being a bit of preroll ads for some other Fathom Events, then a few of the typical Sunrise Gundam ads that you still see on YouTube. It was stuff we had seen before, I believe there were one or two Gunpla ads.

For the most part, everyone was well behaved and sat quietly in the theater. It's a little harder to imagine a 10-year old going to see Char's Counterattack on one specific day, but I suppose that wasn't impossible! When the Nu Gundam's head was revealed and the title card came up, I was practically bouncing in my seat. I wondered if there would be a cheer or holler, but there wasn't. It seems kind of inappropriate for Gundam somehow, doesn't it?

There was one scene that had some audible reception. A fairly well known and discussed scene is Gyunei talking Quess through an abandoned section of Axis. Gyunei provides both a recap of events from the original Mobile Suit Gundam and his own commentary on Char's character. Gyunei's assertion that Char is a sad man who chases young girls got a few chuckles and smiles. For what it's worth, I don't find Gyunei's analysis wrong, but if we start talking about Char we'll be here forever...

Afterwards, there was an announcement video that Fathaom Events would be showing the upcoming Hathaway's Flash film in theaters. I'm not really what happened there, because the pandemic delayed that film, and I never ended up seeing it personally. I was not keeping up as closely with Gundam as I had in the early 10's. Not for any particular reason, I was just not terribly interested in the Build subseries after Try was a bit of a disappointment. I didn't see Gundam NT either. I was kind of waiting for the next big TV series, which ended up taking quite a long time and being The Witch From Mercury, which I very much enjoyed.

So, uh, was Hathaway's Flash good? Now I wish I hadn't fallen off! But it's hard to watch everything all the time, isn't it?

Anyway, those are some of my favorite theater memories. If I think of more entertaining ones, I'll be glad to share them again in the future. Do you have any fond movie going memories yourself? I'd love to hear about it.

See you next time!