In 1994, a handful of contributors to G-Fan, the Godzilla fanzine edited and published by J.D. Lees, gathered in a hotel near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to talk about all things kaiju. They also discussed plans for creating what remains the world’s one and only convention dedicated exclusively to kaiju eiga, the giant monster movies of Japan. Originally known as G-CON, the event grew in popularity so that after three years of success, the convention was able to attract Godzilla suit actors Ken Satsuma and Haruo Nakajima as special guests. From 1999 to 2000, the convention moved to California, but it was decided by the organizers that a central location was more desirable to give fans from all over the country more opportunity to attend. Since 2001, G-Fest has returned to its Chicago roots, although it has changed hotels several times to meet space demands as attendance has expanded. Now based out of the Crowne Plaza O’Hare, a location that does a smashing job of making sure everything runs smoothly for the weekend, G-Fest continues to grow year by year.
Although I had known about G-Fest for years, the first opportunity I had to attend was in 2014, just after the release of the American Godzilla from Legendary Pictures. Because of renewed stateside interest in kaiju, attendance that year broke all previous records. It has slowed down slightly since then, but this year the epic success of Shin Godzilla (2016), the newest installment from Japan, boosted attendance once more.
This year, the special guests included Shinji Higuchi (co-director/special effects director for Shin Godzilla, as well as SPFX director on the Heisei Gamera trilogy, founding member of anime studio Gainax, and a list of other amazing credits too numerous to list here), Michiru Oshima (score composer for Godzilla X Megaguirus, Godzilla X Mechagodzilla, and Godzilla, Mothra, Mechagodzilla, Tokyo S.O.S., and the first and only woman to ever compose music for kaiju), Yuji Kaida (designer and illustrator of everything from Godzilla to Macross to Transformers — if you like monsters and robots, you’ve seen Kaida’s work), and Ryuki Kitaoka (suit actor for multiple Ultraman series, including Tiga, Gaia, and the Heisei UltraSeven, as well as Godzilla: Final Wars and other films).
I passed on autographs this year as the lines were enormous (especially for Higuchi, who was available for limited singings on Saturday only) and there were too many panels I didn’t want to miss. The panels are one of two highlights every year for me. I love listening to the Japanese guests talk about their careers and experiences working on these movies that have formed such a huge part of my life. Since these movies rarely come out in the States with any kind of commentary tracks or behind the scenes features that aren’t just American archivists listing trivia (which I love, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the same as hearing it from the filmmakers themselves), this is really the only opportunity American fans have to hear this kind of information first hand.
An added bonus this year was the screening of Shin Godzilla with Shinji Higuchi speaking to the audience beforehand. He was excited to watch it with the G-Fest group because Japanese audiences are very stoic and polite, so it’s difficult to gauge their reactions. American audiences, on the other hand, go wild for things they love. It’s gratifying for Higuchi-san to see how much we enjoyed his movie. It’s a very divisive film amongst Godzilla fandom, but I absolutely love Shin Godzilla which was my favorite movie of 2016. Also, that dude really loves Chicago pizza. He kept saying he needed to make another Godzilla movie so he could come back and have more Chicago-style deep dish.
So what’s the other highlight, you might be asking? The dealer room. I have some friends who attend Flashback Weekend in the fall, which is a horror convention in the same hotel. The way they tell it, the entirety of Flashback takes place in the room G-Fest uses for its toy store. Hundreds of square feet of wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling monster toys of every shape and size and variant paint job you can imagine. Truly, it is vinyl Valhalla, and it’s amazing that I manage to get out of there every year without having to declare bankruptcy.
Another big draw each year is the costume parade. This year there were so many entrants they had to split it up over two nights, with Friday dedicated to younger fans, and Saturday featuring the older and more seasoned suit builders. Costumes range from the unacceptably lazy (seriously, you have to try harder than buying an inflatable Halloween costume off Amazon, people), to the jaw-dropping. This year was the debut of Krystopher Baioa’s “Fusion Godzilla”, a suit 14 months and thousands of dollars in the making. The pictures and videos online are amazing enough, but even they don’t do it justice. It’s hard to believe this suit was made by a guy in his garage. This thing is literally good enough to be used on screen.
Getting to see rare shorts and unreleased films from Japan that aren’t even available online is always a treat. Every year, the inexhaustible kaiju archivist Mark Jaramillo brings a bevy of clips, trailers, short films, and occasionally features that were either thought lost, or are just so obscure that nobody outside of him and the filmmakers had ever heard of them. The lucky few to get a seat in the screening room before it fills up are among the tiny number of people to ever get to see some of these films, as most of them will likely never see the light of day on an official release of any kind. This year, Kiyotaka Taguchi, director of several episodes in all three of the latest Ultraman series, brought two of his newest short films that haven’t even seen wide release in Japan yet.
Wrapping things up, the final event every year is “Kaiju Konfessions”, led with gusto by the indefatigable Stan Hyde. This is an hour-long sing-and-dance-along to a variety of songs both about giant monsters and some taken from the films themselves. The kids love this one. I’m not much for singing and dancing (as this is a family event, me being drunk enough to think it was a good idea would be frowned upon), but I enjoy watching them playing air guitar to Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla” and bowing down to King Caesar during “Mirabe’s Prayer” from Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.
I’ve made some great friends through attending this convention for just four years and hope to make many more in the years to come. It’s a wonderful place for fans of all ages. The atmosphere is one of warmth and family, even among strangers, as the love of big rubber monsters punching each other through model buildings brings everyone together. If kaiju are your bag, if you have a kid who loves Godzilla, or if you’re just bumming around Chicago next summer looking for something different to do, check out G-Fest. You might even see me presenting a panel!
Contributed by Bryan Clark