Look, I realize that’s probably the worst review title I’ve ever cooked up, but when your review style is “R-rated, kaiju-obsessed Gene Shalit” things like this happen.
Also, I came up with the review title before actually watching Howl From Beyond the Fog! Now that I’ve seen it, I can say with certainty that the review title is an amazingly bad fit. Now that it’s there though, I can’t think of a better one. ANYWAYS
I helped Kickstart this bad boy! Keizo Murase, the designer of the original Varan suit (and special effects whiz for The H-Man, Mighty Peking Man, and more) was tapped to create Howl’s GORGEOUS monster suit. Frankly that was enough to get some buck-a-roos from me, but Howl’s also an ambitious short film that takes place in rural Japan in 1909–a refreshing change of scenery from the usual modern day city smash-em-ups.
ALSO IT’S A PUPPET MOVIE?!
How does that work? Does it work? Read on my babies!
Here, have some trailers!
The trailers don’t lie gang! This is a haunting, atmospheric little fable that takes classic kaiju thriller story beats and marries them with the eerie mood and structure of a traditional Japanese ghost story. Director/writer/producer Daisuke Sato points to the Daimajin trilogy as one of their biggest inspirations, and that’s an easy connection to see. But the setting, mood, tone and handcrafted nature of the miniatures and puppets also made me think of Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992 and 1964’s Kwaidan. Spooky but beautiful films where theatrical artificiality is a front-and-center artistic choice that enhances the haunting, dreamlike atmosphere.
Drac ’92 is divisive and has its problems but I love it anyway. Kwaidan on the other hand is goddamn breathtaking and everybody should see it. HOICHI!
This review is going to be structured a little differently than my usual horseshit. It’s a short film, so this (probably) won’t be 5,000+ words long. Maybe more importantly, outside of Keizo Murase, the cast and crew are all unknowns for me–Howl by design is an incredibly small indie production, so IMDB, Wikipedia and my other usual sources don’t really have much data on this bad boy. Fortunately, the disc itself comes with a little over 20 minutes of behind the scenes footage, and the tier I Kickstarted included a fun little digital making-of booklet too. There aren’t exactly a lot of kaiju puppet films out there, so seeing how the proverbial sausage is made is pretty dope:
All right, before I dissect this whole dealie here’s a quick spoiler-free review:
I’ve seen a lot of kaiju content, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything quite like Howl From Beyond the Fog. For the vast majority of its snappy runtime this is a very good thing. However with a production this small and ambitious there naturally are some occasional technical issues. These intermittent flubs briefly pulled me out of the otherwise haunting, almost hypnotic experience. If you’re looking for a thoughtful, artsy giant monster story with a heapin’ helpin’ of classic Japanese ghost story goodness, you’ve found that incredibly specific thing, bud!
All right that’s it, I’m spoiling everything from here on out. Click away if you don’t want to hear about how Batman fights Predator in the last five minutes.
The movie opens with a couple of goobers trying to push their cart across a rickety rope bridge shrouded in moody, eerie fog. It’s our first taste of the puppet-powered proceedings, and they wisely picked a pretty impressive setpiece to kick things off.
The misty gloom is super evocative, but it does make it tough to get good screengrabs. This first sequence has a beautiful cliffside set, the impressively articulated villagers+cart puppet, and OH YEAH A BIG FUCKING ALBINO LOCH NESS MONSTER
Yes of COURSE Nebula (our titular Howler) shows up and wrecks these guys’ shit to hell and back. It’s wonderful! And even though I failed to get a good screenshot of the action, it all plays out in motion clearly enough. OH YEAH THIS IS ALSO WHEN I REALIZED THIS IS A PUPPET MOVIE.
So somehow I either didn’t realize or didn’t remember that Howl is a puppet film. I have to assume that my scrambled brain interpreted any references to puppets as being strictly a part of miniature effects shots and not the entire movie. It doesn’t help that some of the puppets look pretty fucking lifelike in stills:
So this was shocking for me, not gonna lie. Shocking, but also incredibly intriguing. As you’ll see throughout the review, some of the puppets (like Takiri up above) look great, some look less-than great, and the rest fall somewhere in between. Of course film puppetry got me thinking about Jim Henson (especially his later non-Muppet projects like The Dark Crystal and his underrated The Storyteller TV series) as well as stop motion studio Laika–in particular their gorgeous swords-songs-n-sorcery epic Kubo and the Two Strings.
So with my headspace recalibrated for puppets I excitedly dove back into Howl. After the Bridgepocalypse prologue, we meet our protagonist, Eiji. Eiji, like so many young men in fiction, is a quiet, morose and timid dude. He’s trainbound from the city to his rural, ancestral home to attend the funeral of his estranged twin brother.
Eiji settles in at his mom’s place and isn’t there long before he stumbles upon a blind, beautiful weirdo hiding out in the attic. She’s Eiji’s secret cousin Takiri!
Takiri, like Eiji, is a wistful, distant sadsack. She’s excited to meet her cousin, but ominously intones that “Mom will be mad if she knows you found me.” Holy shit, why Takiri?!
SO THIS WAS SUPER FUCKING CONFUSING ON MY FIRST VIEWING. I spent the whole time trying to figure out what the hell she was talking about. Is she a ghost or did she fall under some kind of curse or… something??… thematically and tonally it could have made sense, but for the pure nuts and bolts of the story her being a ghost would have been irrelevant at best and complete nonsense at worst. On a repeat viewing it clicked that this is just a goofed up subtitle. It should have read “Because I’m supposed to be dead” or “Because I’m not supposed to be alive” or something like that–it’ll make sense by the end of the film.
That night, Takiri wanders out of her hidey-hole and walks into the woods and by the lake. Restless Eiji secretly follows her at a distance and witnesses her communing with Nebula!
Eiji awakes late the next day to the sound of a quiet but agitated conversation downstairs. Eiji’s Mom brushes off the unwelcome visitors, a gaggle of douche-canoes that are trying to get her to sell off a plot of land she owns. She tells them that the land is sacred and inhabited by a revered spirit, so they can just go ahead and huff farts for all she cares. Even in a short film you can and fucking SHOULD make time for set up and pay off!
Eiji wanders down shortly after and asks Mom about Takiri. It takes some prying and Eiji gets some “you better not blab about this you little fucker” (paraphrased!), but Mom finally spills her guts. Mom’s sister was a bit of a wild child who got kicked out of the house and then knocked up… and then killed herself four years ago. Mom’s kind of a judgy dick about the whole thing, then tops it with “[Takiri] was supposed to be dead.” Then on top of all that there’s the whole, “it’s our shameful secret so don’t fuckin’ tell all your dumb little buddies down at the liquor store about it, got it??”
Eiji has a much more fun conversation with Takiri upstairs, and she agrees to bring Eiji out to meet Nebula face to face that night. Those three shitheads from earlier have plans too though:
Also, I’m pretty sure the elder turd blossom up there is a fun, cheeky caricature of Keizo Murase:
The character’s a villain for sure, but he is by far the wisest of the assfaces AND one of the best-looking puppets in the whole show, with tons of character and personality.
Takiri and Eiji don’t know anything about the nefarious dingleberries, so they walk out into the lake. Shortly after wading into the water, Nebula majestically emerges from the fog to meet them, then Takiri steps behind Eiji and covers his eyes. Eiji reaches out and touches Nebby, and in that moment he understands. He experiences the ghostly creature just like Takiri does and knows that he’s a peaceful, sovereign being, not a savage monster. Also like Takiri, Nebula is blind! It’s an interesting parallel that makes their connection even more meaningful. All in all it’s a beautiful moment… that gets spoiled the next day by the aforementioned fart knockers.
I’d say that’s one of the weaker shots of the puppets, coincidentally. The Eiji puppet (on the right) looks good from plenty of angles and lit in a variety of different ways, but brightly-lit and shot straight-on like that isn’t quite as convincing. The leader of the baddies on the left is consistently the worst-looking puppet in the flick.
I get the look they were going for with this dude’s face and hairstyle, but he mostly ends up looking like a bald doll wearing a hilariously bad wig. I think I’m going to head canon that, actually. Like Silver Age Lex Luthor, his villainy springs from hair envy.
The secret real motive of baldness-based insecurity aside, the goons grab Takiri and Eiji, exclaiming that “She’s the reason our town’s in trouble!” And they plan to fix that by fucking drowning her in the lake as a blood sacrifice
Since Eiji and Takiri have all the muscle and fighting spirit of a leaky Tupperware half-full of cold SpaghettiOs, they’re not really able to stop these dickheads. The baddies effortlessly huck Takiri into the deep, still waters of the lake. When she helplessly hits the water, we jump into her mind. She can’t see, so we experience her thoughts and memories in beautiful abstraction:
It’s a beautiful way to tell a tale that starts sweet and turns gruesome and bitter. Takiri was born with cloudy, lifeless eyes that made her a pariah in their small, superstitious community. Takiri’s Mom, desperate (insanely so?) to change this cut them out. It’s not stated outright, but it’s easy to connect the threads and assume that Takiri’s Mom offed herself after realizing the dark madness of her actions.
After this evocative flashback, Takiri washes ashore! SO DOES A FRIEND
NEBULA FUCKING KNOWS, GANG. The whole short has been quietly and effectively building this potent but unnamable feeling that there’s more to Nebula than “Japanese Loch Ness Monster.” If his ghostly visage gliding eerily and silently into and out of the fog didn’t drive that home, if his life-changing and life-affirming encounters with Takiri and Eiji didn’t make that clear, then the fact that he saves Takiri and INSTANTLY turns on the shitheads might!
The dickheads are packing rifles, but the shells just bounce off Nebula’s scarred, scaly, moon-white hide. They might as well be shooting popguns–the sounds and gunsmoke VFX do a great job of making them seem especially pitiful. Wiggy and co. sprint back into town, and Nebula’s never too far behind! By the time they make it back to the village, night is falling, allowing the Nebster to pay homage to one of the best shots from 2014’s Godzilla:
PLUS we get a monster+power lines shot that immediately made me think of some of the spookier images from Shin Godzilla:
Nebula LEVELS shit in his pursuit of the murderous goons. And this brings up another interesting observation. The miniature sets look pretty damn good throughout–but for the most part they don’t crumble and fall apart in that satisfying kaiju movie way. Oh sure they break, but… well, check out these screenshots from the blooper reel:
The minis are built to look good, but not necessarily built to come crashing down satisfyingly. In the 90s when dumbasses would sneer at suitmation the phrase “cardboard buildings” was almost always in there somewhere. Most suitmation productions worth their salt feature painstakingly constructed minis designed to fall apart in a way that mimics what a full-sized structure would do. Howl on the other hand does have buildings that react like stiff, sturdy cardboard. In their defense, Daisuke and co. seem to be aware of this and cut around the weaker destruction shots. The Howl crew are damn talented puppetmasters and miniaturists, but this vital detail leads me to think they don’t have expertise in the incredibly specific world of kaiju miniatures.
Takiri and Eiji aren’t far behind Nebula, journeying through his apocalyptic wake. They reach home and find Eiji’s Mom half-buried in the wreckage of the house. On death’s door, Eiji’s Mom apologizes to Takiri, admits she was jealous of her free-wheeling sister all these years, and that keeping Takiri locked in the attic was a misguided attempt to protect her.
With her last breath, Eiji’s Mom implores the two of them to just fucking bail. Pretty solid little redemption arc! They recognize it as sound advice, but they get back on Nebula’s trail, desperate to try and stop the rampaging creature. Somebody else beats them to the punch (at least temporarily), creating an iconic little moment that manages to top the spectacular bridge prologue:
It’s whimsical and beautiful but practical and grounded. It’s 1909 in Japan, hell yeah they have access to fireworks! Nebula’s an ancient lake monster and maybe some kind of unknowable spirit that freely floats between the worlds of the living and the dead–his big ass never seen fireworks before! PLUS it’s a nice breather in between the chase/city smashing action and the final spectacular confrontation. Plus-plus-plus it’s just a great visual! It’s one of those little sequences that sticks with you and basically justifies the existence of the entire movie. But by design, it can’t last! The fireworks were a diversion by Wig Mac and his little pud whacker buddies! With the Nebster mesmerized, they fire another set of fireworks mortars at HIM!
The badniks are camped out on a big stone bridge, firing away at Nebula. But they’re firing mortar fireworks, not machine guns… When they stop to reload, Nebula returns the fuckin’ favor!
Takiri and Eiji saw it all, powerless to stop Nebula or the ill-fated gaggle of jerks. After a night of revelations and horror, the sun rises on a beautiful new day. Nebula stalks back off to his watery home and Takiri and Eiji are finally free to find a new home of their own.
And that’s it! Well actually, there’s one more thing, lemme see here:
Whomp there it is! Howl From Beyond the Fog is short and sweet, eerie and ethereal. While not literally a Japanese ghost story, it has that potent mix of awe, wonder, mystery and dread that makes them so special. A puppet kaiju short was always going to be a bit of gamble, and it doesn’t work perfectly. It absolutely gets enough right to be worth it though. I doubt puppet protagonists will be the next big thing in kaiju films and TV, but it’s a fascinating and worthwhile experiment. I know I’ll be keeping an eye on Daisuke Sato and his fledgling studio, Los Gatos Works, to see what they cook up next.
Speaking of next, and returning to that Laika/Kubo and the Two Strings tangent from earlier: I would love to see some kind of feature-length, bigger budget adaptation of this. That’s not to shit on what we got–Howl’s a beautiful little creation. But the production budget raised on Kickstarter was just under $12,000. I did not miss any zeroes, gang. If a budget less than half the price of a sensible new car can create this, just imagine what a couple million could bust out! Or what a slightly bigger studio could do with this moody little kaiju ghost story! A studio like Laika, for instance!
It would be a shift from live puppetry to stop-motion animation, but I think it would be a match made in movie heaven. Is such a collaboration likely? Probably not, but it’s fun to imagine. It’s more likely that Howl, like Nebula himself, will quietly drift back into the foggy realm of ghosts, dreams, and half-forgotten memories.