There are lots of artforms that are uniquely Japanese, but maybe my favorite is giant monster movies. No country in the world can strap on a rubber suit and destroy miniature cities better than Japan.
These monster movies, called kaijuu (怪獣) movies in Japan, are some of the most iconic in Japanese history. Besides the most famous kaijuu, Godzilla (who I have a poster of above my desk), there have been countless giant monsters that have terrorized Japanese cinema for decades.
Other places have tried to replicate the formula of success, but no country has been able to harness and combine all of the elements that make kaijuu movies great. No country, that is, except North Korea.
Former ruler of North Korea Kim Jong-il fancied himself a master film maker and critic, which meant that at one point or another, making movies was PRIORITY NUMBER ONE for all of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Among the many movies that Kim Jong-il produce, directed, and guided, was a kaijuu movie that brought together the Japanese and the North Koreans (and, unwillingly, a South Korean). The movie was called Pulgasari (불가사리 in Korean and プルガサリ in Japanese), and had all of the trademarks of a good kaijuu movie; giant monster, lots of destruction, people fleeing for their lives.
Obviously, the storyline was a little different from your average kaijuu movie so it could fit in with North Korea’s communist agenda, but at its core, Pulgasari is a movie about a reptilian monster that destroys things.
Along with Pulgasari’s director (who was kidnapped from South Korea), the North Korean film crew worked closely with Japanese filmmakers to make Pulgasari as close to the real McCoy as possible. While North Koreans normally wouldn’t be so welcoming of Japanese people into their country, Kim Jong-il made an exception for Pulgasari.
The crew who did the special effects on the 1984 Godzilla movie lent their skills to Pulgasari, and Kenpachiro Satsuma, the man in the suit in a lot of the later Godzilla movies played the monster itself.
The result? Well, watch the trailer and see for yourself:
In 1985 Pulgasari was released in North Korea which, as you might imagine, doesn’t have a huge movie-going population. The director escaped from North Korean captivity the following year, causing embarrassment to Kim Jong-il and the movie to be shelved.
For those reasons, it wasn’t until 1998 that Pulgasari was released to the outside world. First place it was screened outside of Korea? Japan, where Pulgasari has gained a cult following.
Ironically that same year, the American Godzilla movie came out. Satsuma, the guy in the rubber suit, reportedly said that he liked Pulgasari better than the American movie. Ouch. When you’ve made something worse than the North Koreans, you know you’ve messed up.
Pulgasari is an inspirational movie. Not because it’s well-made, original, or has any sort of compelling message; but because it’s probably the only movie in recorded history that had North Koreans and Japanese working side-by-side.
The end result wasn’t great, and the process was a little troubling, but when it comes to North Korea and Japan, you take what you can get.