Born on December 19, 1932, in Tokyo, Shinichi Yanagisawa began his entertainment career as a jazz singer in postwar Japan but soon found himself in demand as an actor, both in front of the camera and behind the microphone as a voice talent. Mr. Yanagisawa plays the comic relief character Miyamoto in The X from Outer Space (1967), produced by Shochiku Studios. Prior to that, Mr. Yanagisawa was a star at Nikkatsu Studios before eventually making movies at all five of Japan’s major studios. In the late 1950s, Mr. Yanagisawa worked freelance at Toho Studios, appearing in the Otora-san series of comedies, which were directed by Motoyoshi Oda (Godzilla Raids Again). As a voice actor, Mr. Yanagisawa provided the voice of Ricky Ricardo in the Japanese version of I Love Lucy, as well as lending his voice to the Japanese versions of the popular American TV programs Mr. Ed and Bewitched.
Although Mr. Yanagisawa has gained popularity for his acting and jazz singing, he is most proud of his social activism, which he always placed ahead of his entertainment career. In this interview, Mr. Yanagisawa discusses his life and experiences with Brett Homenick. Many thanks to Kyoichi Watanabe for his translation work.
Brett Homenick: Tell me about your early life and childhood, growing up.
Shinichi Yanagisawa: I was a patient child. When I was very young, I got the measles. My parents got a wet compress for me. The medical liquid on the compress was a little bit expensive, so my parents put some mustard on my back instead. It was a little too strong for a young child. I was three years old, but I was patient, and I got rid of it. That was the episode which decided my life’s motto. There is a Japanese proverb that says the character of people is decided around the age of three, and their character never changes. This episode of my youth reminds me of this proverb. My motto is, “If I am patient, everything will work out.” That is my motto, and I chose it as my motto when I was three years old. This is another Japanese proverb.
BH: How did you get started in the entertainment business? Did you think you might work some other job, or were you only set on becoming an actor and musician?
SY: In 1950, it was the time of the Korean War. Just five years after World War II, there were many orphans in Japan. I noticed that they didn’t have any socks or gloves. If the weather were cold, they wouldn’t have any way to keep warm. So I decided to devote myself to volunteer work. During my volunteer work, I got some money to pay for the supplies for the people in need from singing jazz as part-time work. So that was the beginning of my entertainment life. I never had a hope of becoming a star; I just wanted to devote myself to volunteer work and social activism.
BH: Specifically about becoming an actor, did you have any professional training, or was it just something that you started without having any formal training?
SY: I never wanted to become a professional actor. To this day, I cannot read music or play the piano. Because I was doing volunteer work, I didn’t think acting could become a full-time career. All the professional work I did was to support my volunteer work. So I never got specific training. I had to go back to Aoyama Gakuin University. It is a famous university in Japan. I was absent a lot because I was a jazz singer, so I was too busy to attend. I was also singing in the Nichigeki Nippon Theater, 500 days in three years. So I was too busy to go to school. I had an agreement with my university to take a three-year leave of absence, due to my work schedule. But I had to graduate, and my three-year agreement with the university was ending, so I decided to quit the entertainment business at that time. So I announced my retirement from singing. I was getting popular as a singer, and my retirement became a big problem. Enoken (a.k.a. Kenichi Enomoto), Roppa (a.k.a. Roppa Furukawa), and Kingoro (a.k.a. Kingoro Yanagiya) were the three top comedy actors in Japan at the time, and they convinced me not to quit the entertainment life. They said, “If you quit singing jazz, please stay in the entertainment business as an actor.” They brought me to the movies and TV. So I quit the university!
Therefore I never got any formal training as an actor. I studied by myself and by watching other performers.
BH: The first studio you worked for was Nikkatsu. How did you get started at Nikkatsu, and were you under contract to Nikkatsu Studios?
SY: At that time, I was a singer. Nowadays, we see that singers can act, and actors can sing. It’s a very popular thing. But, in those days, it was a very rare case. Actors were actors, and singers were singers. That was the way things were. They were separated. Most of the people at that time considered me a jazz singer. So they wondered, if a jazz singer acts, what will become of it? Nikkatsu was one of them. So Nikkatsu called me, and there was a chance to have a contract. I was contracted first with Nikkatsu, then with Toei and Shochiku. I acted in almost 160 movies.
BH: In the early days, what were your impressions and thoughts of working at Nikkatsu in the late ‘50s?
SY: In 1958, I was divorced. It was very complicated, but I believed in my motto, so I remained silent about it. But the people blamed me for the divorce, so there was a lot of blame on me. As a result, Nikkatsu decided not to use me in any more movies, so I had to quit Nikkatsu. I didn’t have a good impression of Nikkatsu. I believe silence is golden, so I didn’t complain. I was an expected actor of the next generation, and I acted in a few movies, then I quit because of the divorce.
BH: You worked with Shohei Imamura, the (famous) director. Mr. Imamura is well known in America for making some very good films. You worked on films like Nishi Ginza Ekimae (a.k.a. Nishi Ginza Station, 1958), Hateshinaki Yokubo (a.k.a. Endless Desire, 1958), and Nusumareta Yokujo (a.k.a. Stolen Desire, 1958) — all with director Imamura. Please talk about working with Mr. Imamura as a director, how would he direct you, and what were your impressions of Mr. Imamura?
SY: About Nishi Ginza Ekimae, it’s not such a good story, but during the shooting of the movie, there was some location shooting. In Japan, the film stock used for movies was very expensive at that time and even now. So Mr. Imamura didn’t want to waste too much film. He didn’t want to spend any money on film. So there was an episode during filming on the beach in which I was in the ocean. The weather would sometimes change, for instance, from sunny to cloudy, but the shooting must go on. The director did not want to waste the film. So I had to stay in the water the whole time. It was very freezing, so I got sick. My voice dubbing work became very difficult after that because I caught a cold, and my voice changed.
BH: That brings up another question about dubbing. You worked on I Love Lucy, Mr. Ed, and Bewitched – very famous American TV shows. How did you become involved with the voice acting?
SY: Dubbing actors nowadays are really in heaven. But, 50 years ago, it was hell! Back then, the scripts were ready the day of the recording. So we didn’t get the scripts until the day we recorded. We couldn’t rehearse, so it was hard work for us.
I chose to become a voice actor because I have a clear voice for recording. In I Love Lucy, Lucy’s husband (Ricky Ricardo) is Latin, so for many of the punch lines he’d speak Spanish. But, in those days in Japan, interpreters couldn’t translate Spanish, so I would ad lib the lines. That was hell!
BH: Was there any attempt to make it sound Spanish, or was it totally Japanese?
SY: There was no attempt.
BH: After Nikkatsu, you made some movies for Toho.
SY: I was never under contract with Toho; I was freelance.
BH: You made a movie called Otora-san no Kokyubi (1958), directed by Motoyoshi Oda. (This is part of the Otora-san series of comedies director Oda made at Toho in the late 1950s.)
SY: Did you ever hear of the Newsweek article? Newsweek praised Otora-san. I played Cho-san (a.k.a. Imocho), a street vendor selling sweet potatoes. That was the character I played in the movies.
BH: This was in a Newsweek article? Did Newsweek magazine write something about you?
SY: It was an article about the movies.
BH: Do you remember working with director Motoyoshi Oda?
SY: The movie was based on the comic called Masura o Hashutsufukai. It was based on this comic. In the movie, it was about a muscular man who worked housekeeping jobs, doing things like cleaning floors and babysitting, which were usually thought to be jobs for women.
Since this was the time of the mass production of movies, I actually don’t have any memories of him.
BH: At Toho, you worked with many stars such as Ichiro Arishima and Reiko Dan. Do you have any memories of the Toho stars from that time?
SY: Actually, I don’t have so many memories of them because there were no meetings before movies would shoot. We would go to the studio, film our scenes, and say goodbye. That’s all. That was the age of mass production of the movies, so everyone was very busy.
BH: During your time at Toho, as a freelance actor, could you describe what it was like for you to work at the studio?
SY: Nothing much! Do you know the movie called The Magic Hour (2008)? It was one of my latest movies. It had been 50 years since I worked for Toho Studios when I made this movie. In The Magic Hour, my character was very important in the movie.
BH: After your freelance work, you went to Shochiku where you stayed for many years and worked in many films. So please talk about what it was like to work for Shochiku, and why did you join Shochiku after all?
SY: I had no agent, and I never sold myself to any kind of production. But Shochiku called me and made me an offer.
BH: You have worked for, under contract or not, Nikkatsu, Shochiku, Toho, Toei … and Daiei?
SY: I made one movie for Daiei in the Nikkatsu era.
BH: You worked for all the five major studios at (this) time. What was your impression of the five studios? Which was best, which was not so good? (laughs)
SY: There were good points and bad points for all of them. There was no number one or number two. There will always be good points and bad points.
BH: Do you have a personal favorite?
SY: I have many favorites. I can’t choose. It’s very hard for me. In the Shochiku era, I liked the serious movies, like Goben no Tsubaki (a.k.a. The Scarlet Camellia, 1965), Kinokawa (a.k.a. The Kino River, 1966), Yukiguni (a.k.a. Snow Country, 1969). Comedy movies like Iroboke yokoboke Monogatari and Senjo no Yarodomo were also my favorites. Since I have done more than 160 movies, I can’t remember them all!
BH: Let’s talk about Goben no Tsubaki, with Eiji Okada as one of the stars. (It was) directed by Yoshitaro Nomura. Please talk about that film and what you remember.
SY: In that movie, I was in the trial scenes. I was the prosecutor or some sort of police official. I would talk with a runny nose. It worked for the scenes. The scriptwriter praised my acting choice for doing that. So I remembered that. The writer said it was nice acting. It was not written in the script. It was a serious movie and a serious scene. In fact, in the real world, we see regular people as policemen, so this reflects reality. (My character) was not like Humphrey Bogart; it was like Peter Falk! (laughs)
BH: Another movie at Shochiku, Kono Sora no Aru Kagiri (1964), with Minoru Chiaki, directed by Hideo Sakurai. Do you have any memories of this film?
SY: There was a location scene where I was lying on an asphalt road. Mr. Chiaki walked up to me and said, “It’s cold, isn’t it?” So Mr. Chiaki brought me a cup of sake. So I thanked him.
BH: Now I’d like to ask you about your most famous movie worldwide, which is Uchu Daikaiju Girara (a.k.a. The X from Outer Space, 1967).
SY: There are nicer movies I’ve made! (laughs) Shochiku was very bad at kaiju movies.
BH: In this film, there were Eiji Okada, Shunya Wazaki, Itoko Harada, and Peggy Neal. In the film, you share many scenes with Peggy Neal.
SY: She was an amateur and not an actress at all. She was not such a good actress! (laughs) As you know, Eiji Okada was a very nice actor. He picked me up from my home in Tokyo and drove me to Shochiku Studios in Ofuna. So he was a nice kind of person.
BH: Do you remember, Kazui Nihonmatsu, the director?
SY: Not so bad, but not so good! As you watch the movie, you can tell he’s so-so!
BH: What was the reaction among the cast, like Mr. Okada, about making something a little silly? They’re used to more serious dramas, but this is like a children’s movie.
SY: It is different from the American entertainment world. Actors couldn’t resist the roles offered by Shochiku. So we would do what they asked. So Mr. Okada and I didn’t care about the reaction. The motto of actors was to do what the filmmakers want us to do and do the best we could at it.
BH: How about Ochiba to Kuchizuke (1969) with the Village Singers. Hiroshi Fujioka was the main star of this film, who went on to do Kamen Rider.
SY: Mr. Fujioka was a New Face. I didn’t have much contact with him at that time.
BH: Tell me more about your interest in social welfare and activism.
SY: I convinced Shochiku Studios to bring Guilala to an orphanage. I worked hard on it, and it finally happened. (shows a photo) This was me with Prime Minister Suzuki in 1981. (shows a paper signed by many children) This is my favorite award I’ve received. I got it about 50 years ago. I started my activities in 1950. In this 1981 photo, I was the representative of volunteer activities, and there were many important people in politics here. I also met the Japanese emperor, who at the time was the prince. Because it is rude to take a photo from the back of the emperor, it was taken from behind me! So my activities have gotten a lot of recognition.
BH: Would you like to talk about your jazz musician career at all?
SY: I started my career as a professional jazz singer in 1952. That year was my debut year, but the following year, 1953, there was a sort of fight between the record companies like Columbia, Victor, and King – the top three record labels in Japan. But my motto came into play: If I’m patient, things will go well. So I decided not to join any of these record companies and to resist their offers. I felt that if I joined a specific company, it would create bad feelings with the other two record labels.
That was a big topic among people in the jazz world back then. I was in my 20s, so people were surprised that such a young man would resist these big offers. So it became a big topic. Some people thought I was a little strange, but that was fine with me.
BH: What are your activities nowadays?
SY: I perform in a jazz band (the Shinichi Yanagisawa All-Stars). I also have a talk show. There are two actors in it. One of them is me, and the other is a comedian named Hadaka Samuzora. We talk about current topics. We will be talking about the current problems with the Asahi Shimbun. It’s about 70% serious, and the rest is comedy. On the third Tuesdays of even-numbered months, my band has a show in the HUB Asakusa. It’s a regular gig. I sing and play drums. I’ve been doing it for 24 years.
Special thanks to Kyoichi Watanabe for all his assistance.