The Japan Times Reviews “Master of Miniatures”

The review is entitled “Of monsters and men: Godzilla’s stable master:”

Jim Shepard’s “Master of Miniatures” is a masterful miniature, a small container filled with substantial events and substantial pleasures. Based on the life of Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects man who made it possible for us to enjoy Godzilla destroying Tokyo, it’s the story of that destruction, the seismic destruction of Tokyo in 1923, the aerial destruction of Tokyo in World War II, the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and also the destruction that those catastrophes wreak on Tsuburaya’s marriage.

The novel begins with the disaster of Tsuburaya’s marriage. Having forgotten Tanabata, the Star Festival, the one day of the year the two stars, Altair and Vega — the two lovers — can come together, he wonders, “at which he was more adept: hurting Masano inadvertently or intentionally.”

The Tsuburayas, we learn, had, once during their long-distance courtship, identified with the star-lovers. The day the lovers come together had been special for them. The brief period of togetherness the couple enjoyed, however, has ended. Now, after the death of their daughter “they each put in longer days, he in his innovations and his wife in her grieving.”

Tsuburaya’s innovations are, of course, in the realm of special effects, the ingenuity that made Godzilla — the monster and the movie — as powerful as they were. We learn, among the many other interesting things Shepard squeezes into a mere fifty pages, that the Godzilla-suit worn by the actor who towered over the 1/25th scale Tokyo weighed 100 kilos and thus, for scenes that would show only the top or bottom half of the monster, only half the suit was worn. We learn that the planes that menaced Godzilla to so little effect were filmed hanging upside down, and that the film was then inverted in order to conceal the wires because “no one noticed them below the aircraft instead of above.”

That Shepard is able to enrich his novella with such information and that the knowledge he shares is always essential, never arbitrarily dumped, is a marker of his skill.

As we learn in accurate detail about the various catastrophes that accompany the creator of the destruction of Tokyo through life, we notice that he’s never quite present for them. On the day of the 1923 earthquake, for example, he was meant to have met his father from whom he had been estranged after running away to Tokyo to pursue a career in the movies. Tsuburaya is unable to make that rendezvous, a missed opportunity that increases in significance when his father, after ordering Tsuburaya from his hospital room, dies of the injuries sustained in the quake and its aftermath.

This is an example of how Shepard is able to use a catastrophe such as the Tokyo quake not as sensationalistic filler, but as an element of his novella’s design. The ever-widening schism between Tsuburaya and his wife, for example, also appears to stem from his never quite being there, even after his daughter dies. He always retreats into his work: the meticulous creation of destruction.

The smaller a work is the less baggy it can be. To be a success it must succeed at sentence, rather than paragraph or chapter, level. When Shepard writes not that an interviewer was aggressive, but rather that he “asked each of his questions as if jabbing a tied dog with a stick,” we see that he understands this.

Shepard has created a text rich with sentences as carefully wrought, and luminous with details that radiate well beyond the covers of this deceptively small book, a miniature that is anything but.

The full review can be found here.

“The Ecstatic History of Jim Shepard”


Stephen Aubry of Electric Literature reviews “Master of Miniatures.”

As fans of Jim Shepard’s long career know, there is nothing the man loves more than film and atomic bombs. Happily, Shepard’s new novella, Master of Miniatures combines these two preoccupations into a new and refreshing reiteration of his classic thematic concerns. Although Shepard’s tale of Eiji Tsuburaya, the Japanese special-effects wizard responsible for creating Gojira—the kaiju known more commonly to Western audiences as Godzilla— brings to mind much of his other works, particularly Nosferatu, his 2005 novel about famed director F. W. Murnau and “The Zero-Meter Diving Team,” the deeply-felt account of the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster from Shepard’s 2007 collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, this novella stands on its own as a thoughtful commentary about fallouts both nuclear and domestic.

Much of Jim Shepard’s best fiction depends on a sort of historical pillaging, guided by Shepard’s sharp instincts for selecting the most successful and thematically resonant tidbits of a historical moment. There is frequently a palpable glee to Shepard’s narrative tangents, as if he is just as excited for his reader to discover the thematic harmonics in his stories as he was to discover them in the footnotes of a reference book. But Shepard’s fiction is not about history; his characters are not historical figures (even when they are historical figures.) The secret to Shepard’s historical forays is not how he handles facts, but how he conjures startling imagery and private epiphanies, expanding and enriching our shared history through a hyper-mimetic blurring of the line between fiction and cultural memory. In Master of Miniatures Shepard has transformed a milestone of the atomic age into what Werner Herzog has termed “ecstatic truth,” a sort of documentary history that emphasizes sublime emotional accuracy over the historical factual—what Herzog calls “a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.”

So while nuclear anxiety figures heavily in the mind of Gojira and his Japanese creators, Shepard shrewdly underplays the actual bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead, the impressionistic centerpiece of Master of Miniatures is the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, a disaster no less deadly for being overshadowed by the nuclear destruction that came to Japan twenty-two years later. For few modern readers will be surprised by descriptions of the mushroom clouds that rose over Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the imagery of the atomic bomb is too present in our collective unconscious and history textbooks to be truly uncanny anymore. By comparison, Shepard’s description of a tornado “so wide it seemed to cover the horizon…spinning and shot through with fire” razing Tokyo in the aftermath of the Great Kantō earthquake feels like a terrifying revelation.

By de-emphasizing the atomic bomb, Shepard makes this story Tsuburaya’s, stripping Gojira of his semiotic weight and finding a second, smaller way of reading one of the most well-known movie monsters: as its father’s child. As Godjira clumsily plows his way through Tokyo in his burdensome low-tech suit, it’s difficult not to think of Tsuburaya and his inexpertly-carried emotional baggage. Shepard excels at writing cold sequestered men who find themselves adrift despite enormous reserves of talent and insight. In this sense, Tsuburaya does not disappoint; Shepard elevates his perfectionism and work ethic to the level of monstrosity. From the opening scene of the novella where Tsuburaya realizes it is the day of the Star Festival— his suffering wife’s favorite holiday—and pretends that he has forgotten so that he can go to work anyway, it is clear what sort of man he is.

But Tsuburaya slowly peels himself like an onion, layer after layer of guilt and regret gathering at his feet: the pain of his perfectionism, a father who disowned him, a dead son, an estranged marriage, and a second son who wants to make all the same mistakes he has. Somehow, Shepard has made us sympathetic towards his monster and the relationship between Tsuburaya and his monster only continues to blur as the story progresses. When Shepard writes:

The face itself is changing through the context of what we’ve seen him go through. By the time the movie ends he’s like a hero whose departure we regret.

The reader must pause for a moment, unsure whether Shepard is gesturing towards Tsuburaya or the rubbery mutant dinosaur he’s birthed.

But as a lonely Tsuburaya broods on an empty train platform at the close of Master of Miniatures, we are reminded that this is not the end of either the man or his monstrous children. The image of Mothra, Tsuburaya’s next monster, is already forming in his mind. These are the truths we know: Life goes on; the monster will always return for a sequel. But it is with a surprising amount of dismay that we also realize that life is actually nothing more than a never-ending series of sequels for our hero, each one more harrowing than the last.


Buy the book here.

“The Truest Book Ever Written About Godzilla”

Check out Bookslut’s review of “Master of Miniatures,” which the reviewer considers to be Jim’s best book yet.  Michael Schaub of Bookslut also chose the book as one of his 16 favorite books of 2010.   Here’s a [longish] excerpt of the review:

Not long after that, I read this book, a novella by Jim Shepard (Love and Hydrogen, Project X). I waited a few days and read it again. Master of Miniatures is short, and it’s understated, and it gets Godzilla, but it also gets his father — or one of his fathers, Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects director who made Gojira what it was (and who later created Ultraman). Shepard’s Tsuburaya is lonely. He is wrapped up in work, becoming increasingly estranged from his wife, unable to be anything like a normal father to his sons. His own father burned Tsuburaya’s hands as a child as punishment for bad grades; he tortures himself with memories like that one. But:

…Tsuburaya also remembered him taking them on the hottest days for shaved ice, with grape, strawberry, or lemon syrup… He remembered insect festivals in the evenings when the autumn grasses bloomed and the singing insects they’d gathered in their tiny cages were, at an agreed-upon stroke, all freed, and how they waited — himself, his grandmother, Ichiro, and his father — for that moment when the cicadas would get their bearings, puzzle out their freedom, and let loose their rejoicing in song.

So he moves on. He goes to work; he hires his son to work with him, over the strong and heartfelt objections of his wife, still grieving deeply for her daughter, who died, as a baby, in her sleep. He abandons her on the day of the Star Festival, “one of his wife’s favorites, and was beginning to wonder at which he was more adept: hurting Masano inadvertently or intentionally.” Instead, he goes to work. He constructs a city in miniature. He helps design an icon: “Of course it would have a Tyrannosaur’s head, but an Iguanodon’s body seemed an easier fit for a stuntman’s requirements… And Honda added a Stegosaur’s back plates along the spine to ensure their creature would appear distinct from any recorded species.” He makes it move. He creates a monster.

This is a book about Eiji Tsuburaya that might also be — accidentally, perhaps — the truest book ever written about Godzilla. He’s barely there, of course — there’s the costume, and there’s Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka, the stuntmen who wore the 220-pound outfit. But he’s there in Tsuburaya — lonely but not alone, confused, misunderstood by even himself, resigned, victimized by the recent war, gutted by loss. They do what they have to do. It’s self-defense. It’s work.

It’s nearly impossible to know what to say about Master of Miniatures, which departs so radically from Shepard’s early work, it doesn’t exactly feel like the work of the same author. That’s not to say it’s any less brilliant; this is probably his best work, along with his chilling 2004 school shooting novel, Project X. If there’s a theme, it’s this: Jim Shepard writes about alienation, about unbelonging, than pretty much anyone else in America today. It’s maybe that feeling that my brother understood. He belonged to us, but he hated belonging to anything else. I think.

Read the full review here. Buy the book here.

Master of Miniatures Available Now!

Thank you all for being so patient  – I am happy to say that Jim’s new novella, entitled “Master of Miniatures” will be available on January 21 is available now to pre-order

Here are some reviews:

A perfect embodiment of mid-20th-century anxiety, Master of Miniatures touches on hubris and nuclear testing, lunatic perfectionism and fire-tornadoes and the schisms wrought by grief and silence. In Jim Shepard’s deft and darkly brilliant tale about the master behind a legendary film, the complexities of creating a monster and shooting special effects resonate exactly with one man’s inner life. No one writes like Shepard, quietly layering loss over loss–and no one orchestrates catastrophe better.–Andrea Barrett

As in Nosferatu, with its smartly imagined life of the German film director F. W. Murnau, here Shepard considers the Japanese special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya and his cinematic inventions for the science-fiction movie we know as Godzilla. And like many of Shepard’s stories, Master of Miniatures limns the intense and alienated world of a focused expert obsessed with his field of endeavor, at a cost to his marriage and children. For Japanese survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the fifties, America itself seemed king of the monsters, to be looked at with fear and awe. This is a poignant and important story that seems to me a summation and condensation of many themes that have preoccupied Shepard before. Like a diamond held aloft, each turn of this tale in his deft hand flashes still more light.–Ron Hansen

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We’ll be featuring more reviews this coming week!