Yosuke Natsuki is one of Toho Studios’ most recognizable actors, having appeared in the films of a myriad of directors, from Ishiro Honda to Akira Kurosawa. Born on February 27, 1936, Mr. Natsuki joined Toho in the late 1950s and quickly found himself in demand as a leading man and, along with his contemporary Makoto Sato, helped change the face of youth films at the studio.
Although Mr. Natsuki has starred in numerous dramas, historical pieces, and action films, he has appeared in relatively few kaiju movies. But, as the star of Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster (1964), Dogora the Space Monster (1964), and Godzilla 1985 (1984), Mr. Natsuki remains a popular actor with fans in the U.S. and Japan.
This interview covers much of Mr. Natsuki’s acting career and his memories of fellow actors and directors at Toho. While he does not remember much about his monster movies, Mr. Natsuki’s memories about his war films and historical dramas are certain to fascinate any fan of Showa-era Toho Studios. This wide-ranging interview, conducted by Brett Homenick and translated by Asako Kato, took place in Mr. Natsuki’s office in February 2013.
Brett Homenick: First, please tell me about your early life, growing up in Japan.
Yosuke Natsuki: When World War II ended, I was in the third grade. There was no food and very little clothing, so Japan as a nation was a very poor country. Of course, there was no TV, and there was no entertainment for children.
When I was in the sixth grade, it became possible for children to go see movies. Many French movies came in first, followed by American movies, so I really enjoyed watching pirate movies and Western movies. Movies were the only entertainment we could enjoy in those days. But still I didn’t have any intention to become an actor at that time. Actually, I wanted to be a pilot of a fighter plane.
BH: Growing up, what were some of your hobbies?
YN: There were neither games nor TV shows at that time! War destroyed houses and everything, but God saved me one bicycle. I was really into that bicycle, which was probably my only hobby when I was a child. That was all I had. Every Sunday, I went fishing together with my father, or enjoyed painting. My interest in bicycles developed into motorcycles, which I could go farther on, and then into cars.
BH: Please talk about your parents. What did they do for a living? Do you have any memories of your parents?
YN: My father was the owner of Hachioji Gas Company. Hachioji is located in the suburbs of Tokyo, one hour from central Tokyo. At that time, there were 30,000 people there, and there was a gas company called Hachioji Gas, of which he was the owner. That’s how he made a living.
My mother was a typical Japanese housewife who tried to raise kids and make her home very nice. So I was loved by my parents a lot.
BH: You talked about this a little bit, but how did you discover that you wanted to act and that you also could act and act successfully and be a movie star?
YN: There is a very famous artist named Jun-ichi Nakahara. He’s a painter, a very famous painter. He happened to be taken care of by my high school classmate’s grandmother when he was young. I was lucky enough to get to know Mr. Nakahara, who was very famous in those days. He introduced me to the producer of Toho, Mr. Yuhko (a.k.a. Tomoyuki) Tanaka. But, at that time, I was not very interested in becoming an actor.
Just before I graduated from college, I had a chance to see and ask Mr. Tanaka, “What’s good about being an actor?” He answered by saying, “Even if you enter a big, gigantic company, for instance, say, the company employs 10,000 people, you’re always just one out of those 10,000. But, when it comes to the movies, you can be one of the few people who produce a movie. If you’re starring, it’s you who makes the movie.” So that’s how I got interested. I thought it sounded interesting, and that I should do it for five or six years.
My high school classmate, Hoki Tokuda, became a professional singer. After she graduated from a school in Canada, she lived in L.A. and got married to (the famous writer) Henry Miller.
What is good about the movie industry, I think, is that I could share inspiration, emotion, courage, and pleasure with many people, and 50 years later, I can see my movies now, and see my works when I was young, and throughout different times in my life. So it’s fun to be in this industry. On top of that, I was lucky to get to know many different people, thanks to this industry.
I appeared in Mr. (Ishiro) Honda’s movie The H-Man (1958), which was my first movie, where I was supposed to be “surprised.” That was the only cut I appeared in this movie
BH: You talked about how you weren’t thinking about becoming an actor originally. Where did you think your career would go?
YN: Shortly before I graduated from college — my major was actually management — I wanted to move on to another college called Boei Daigakko, which is a college of defense, so that I would be a pilot. But, after I talked to Mr. Yuhko Tanaka about the movie industry, which sounded fun to me, and then showed up in the one cut in Mr. Honda’s movie, that one drop of the Nile River was becoming a large river after all.
BH: Please talk about how you formally got started at Toho Studios.
YN: After I appeared in Mr. Honda’s movie, I was recruited for a new movie, Mikkoku-sha wa dare ka (1958), where I was starring. And I got attention from the industry, and, one after another, I got offered roles, and I appeared in approximately 100 films.
BH: How did Mr. Honda choose you to have the small part in (The H-Man)? How did it come about that he cast you in that very small part?
YN: Probably because he used me as a film test at the request of Yuhko Tanaka, the producer at Toho, who introduced me to The H-Man. Mr. Tanaka is the one who chose me for a series of Toho films after that, not Mr. Honda.
BH: Were you involved in being trained as a professional actor at Toho, or was it something that they just started casting you once they saw that you could actually act? So did you need to train at all at Toho?
YN: There was an institute of acting within Toho; it’s an acting school. The members of the inaugural class included famous actors like Toshiro Mifune, and my class was the 10th year of that institute. It was a class of six people, four men and two women. But there was some time conflict because I had to pass my college exam. So I only attended three sessions! (laughs) I didn’t have a chance to train as an actor, to be honest. I think, however, in those days I had a momentum that is unique to young people.
Unlike stage performances, in movies, a starring actor isn’t supposed to act too much, and he or she should act their part naturally. Supporting actors can get inside a character and even act effusively in some cases, as they are all really professional. When some really important scene comes up, the face of a starring actor will be close-up. So I didn’t act much! I recently realized that starring actors shouldn’t act much.
My idea is that if an actor prepares well for the role before the shooting starts, then there is no need to act too much. A starring actor who overacts is usually not very successful. Even though natural acting is necessary, you have to interpret the role well enough so that you are full of that role. But you’re not supposed to act too much. That’s what I found out recently.
BH: I’m fascinated by the contract system at Toho. If you could, please talk about how much power the studio had in negotiating the contracts. Also, please explain the contract system at Toho and what a contract would say.
YN: When I started, the film industry was in its golden age. So I was blessed with that. When it comes to the monthly salary, usually the college graduates got, at that time, 8,000 yen per month. My initial contract with Toho Studios was 50,000 yen. I was driving an MG, a British sports car, and a motorcycle which my father gave to me. I drove to the studio every day. But, six months later, I wanted to negotiate to get another car. So I asked Toho Studios to give me a higher salary. “Shall we give you double?” Of course, yes! So I got 100,000 yen.
After that, the number of films I was starring in was on the increase, and at the same time directors required much more of the roles I was playing in their films. But I was getting paid accordingly, and my salary got higher and higher every year. My interest in cars was changing from the MG to more expensive cars, including Austin-Healey, Jaguar, Thunderbird, Mercedes, Rolls Royce, and the like. But I was happy that I was able to afford those luxury cars.
In my same age group, there’s an actor named Tatsuyoshi Ehara. He was a child star who grew up into a real star. Toho Studios thought that Mr. Ehara, Akira Takarada, and Akira Kubo were the actors who represented the nature of Toho movies, which is of high quality, entertaining, and family-oriented. But when Makoto Sato, who is Japan’s Richard Widmark — he’s a character — came in, the atmosphere of Toho movies started to change. I recently learned that when Makoto Sato and then I, Yosuke Natsuki, a sprightly young motorbike rider, joined Toho, everybody at the studio started to worry about the future course of Toho’s youth-oriented movies!
But after we started to appear in many different movies, the number of action movies was increasing versus salaryman stories or classical movies by (Toshiro) Mifune, which were traditional Toho movies. So we are the ones who created a new generation of action movies.
BH: That’s very interesting because I was going to ask you about Ankokugai no kaoyaku (a.k.a. The Big Boss, 1959). Please talk about working with (Kihachi) Okamoto as the director, and Mifune, (Yumi) Shirakawa, and (Akira) Takarada in this film.
YN: This particular movie, I don’t remember much! (laughs) Are you familiar with Kihachi Okamoto?
BH: Yes, I am.
YN: He actually clicked with Makoto Sato. So they worked together a lot. But, for some reason, the chemistry between Mr. Okamoto and me was not very good! (laughs)
BH: Really? Why not?
YN: (in English) I don’t know! (laughs) Mr. Okamoto was very good at action. When Kihachi Okamoto was an assistant director, he was very good at action. So he tried to show how to act to Makoto Sato, and Mr. Sato actually emulated exactly what he wanted. So I believe he liked him a lot. But I didn’t want to simply copy things Mr. Okamoto directed. That’s why I believe he didn’t like me much.
BH: So what was the relationship really with Sato and Okamoto? Would they socialize off-camera? How close were they?
YN: I believe they were very close, as they lived near one another. I heard they would drink together often.
I haven’t worked with Mr. Sato in a long time. Last October 14 (2012), in the city of Kitakyushu, which is a neighboring city of Saga Prefecture where Mr. Sato is from, I was invited to a film festival which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the bridge there, Wakato Ohashi Bridge. After I came back, I tried to get a hold of Mr. Sato. But I couldn’t. After that, I finally got a hold of his son, and his son said that he had been hospitalized. Then I got a call from his son on January 7, saying that he passed away on December 6. The funeral was held only by his family. So I proposed doing a commemorative gathering for him, talking to the Toho alumni, and we decided we’re going to have a party for him on March 9 (2013).
BH: How about Hawaii Midway Daikaikusen: Taiheiyo no Arashi (a.k.a. I Bombed Pearl Harbor, 1960). You worked with (Shue) Matsubayashi, the director. Please talk about what you remember filming this and working with Matsubayashi.
YN: This movie was a troublesome shoot. In Taiheiyo no Arashi, which was one film before Taiheiyo no Tsubasa (a.k.a. Attack Squadron!, 1963), all the stars of Toho appeared in this movie. The story is about World War II, triggered by Pearl Harbor. They actually built a huge aircraft carrier in the Chiba area, and 20 aircraft flew out of that ship. Mr. Mifune was the commander of that.
In order to be real, they decided to have the aircraft fly from the carrier at the time when the actual fleet flew out of Japan to Pearl Harbor. But there was one aircraft which had engine trouble. So the mechanic tried to repair it, but because of some accident, he lost his finger. So all shooting was suspended. They tried to do the same thing again and again, but because of the continuous bad weather, they couldn’t shoot this scene. But, after all, we did it. During that time, I had to go to one island in Izu for location shooting. We went there, but because of the typhoon, we had to come back by ship. So we had lots of trouble during the shooting. It took well over three months.
Mr. Matsubayashi used to be a Navy officer during the war, so he wanted to warn people, the audience, that war shouldn’t be done. He always puts in a scene, a very important scene, to prohibit war. In the case of Taiheiyo no Arashi, he put in a scene at the very end, where within the sinking aircraft carrier, the commander played by Mr. Mifune and the captain of the fleet played by Mr. Jun Tazaki, were talking to each other, saying that we should never start a war like this again. That scene made this film very deep.
Of course, you know that Mr. Matsubayashi passed away, but one year before he passed away, he asked me to go see Taiheiyo no Arashi together, which was shown at a small theater in Asagaya. And we did. It was several decades after the movie was produced. But I was impressed by the movie. I am a big fan of Mr. Mifune. Mr. Mifune was still very, very impressive in that movie. When he says important lines, the camera shoots him diagonally from the back, which is usually shot from the front. So that scene was very nicely shot, and I really liked that scene. Mr. Matsubayashi said, “I know how Mr. Mifune is attractive in what camera angles.” So I think Mr. Matsubayashi loved Mr. Mifune’s acting and studied how to photograph him and which angles he should take.
Even now, my scenes are also very good. I myself was impressed by those scenes simply because I think Mr. Matsubayashi tried to get the most of me.
BH: My next movie is Dokuritsu Gurentai (a.k.a. Outlaw Outpost, 1959). This was a very early Okamoto movie. Please talk about what you remember filming this. Also, what were your initial impressions of Okamoto when you met him and his directing style. It was very different from most directors.
YN: My first impression of Mr. Okamoto was that he was a strange guy! (laughs) A weirdo! He was always wearing something black: black sunglasses, black clothing, black pants. Later on, I found out his coffee cups at home were all black.
Actually, his directing style was not for me. Mr. Okamoto’s movies are composed of fragmented cuts of about three seconds from “Action” to “Cut.” It takes six seconds in total from the start of shooting with the sound of a clapperboard through the finish of the scene, and a cut of three seconds from a six-second scene is used for the final product, which does not give an actor enough time to act.
I would prefer a long single shot like five minutes or even ten minutes, where the performance of actors involved in the scene could get more realistic and more intense.
BH: Who do you think was the most actor-friendly director? Whose directing style was best suited for actors?
YN: Hiroshi Inagaki and Yasuki Chiba. Let me talk about Mr. Chiba first. His direction was all written in the final script, which meticulously depicts every single cut. For instance, this cut should be a close-up, upper torso, or whole body shot, with some direction like the use of a crane or some other vehicle. There was absolutely no change on the set, and shooting went entirely as written. Therefore Mr. Chiba’s directing style was very favorable to new actors who were not accustomed to how shooting goes.
Mr. Inagaki, on the other hand, had a contrasting directing style. He would sit in the director’s chair placed far away from the camera, wearing a pair of black sunglasses. We couldn’t figure out how Mr. Inagaki responded to our acting at all. Which cut of a scene would be shot, when a dress rehearsal would be done, and when to get on to real shooting would be all cued in by a chief assistant director. Whether a scene is good or not was decided by him. So actors were always curious about knowing how Mr. Inagaki and his chief assistant director communicated to each other as to what decision to make. But we could never know how after all these years.
BH: My next question was about Osaka-jo Monogatari (a.k.a. Osaka Castle Story, 1961), with Inagaki, the director. Inagaki is famous for doing very big movies, and you worked with Mifune (Kyoko) Kagawa, and (Yuriko) Hoshi, many big stars. So please talk about Osaka-jo Monogatari or Inagaki in general.
YN: When it comes to Osaka-jo Monogatari, I’d like to talk a little bit about Mr. Mifune. As you know, Toshiro Mifune was the number-one star at Toho and a superstar in Japan. Nevertheless, he had never been late for shooting. He had never brought any scripts to the studio. He memorized all the lines. Despite his position, he didn’t have a chauffeur or an assistant. He would drive an old car called MG-TD 1953 model by himself every morning, sometimes with a lunch box prepared by his wife. His style penetrated into the whole studio, and all Toho actors emulated what Mr. Mifune was doing. They were never late for shooting, never brought scripts with them. This never happens in other studios.
I worked with Mr. Inagaki on many different movies. When it comes to historical films, we would go on location for a month or two for shooting. We would start shooting early in the morning and finish at five in the afternoon. After work, we went back to the hotel to drink, have dinner, and then play mahjong, which was a typical day. Since alcohol doesn’t agree with me, Mr. Inagaki might have thought that I’m not good at releasing stress and kindly suggested I bring three of my friends to play mahjong every time we had a long location shoot.
Thanks to Mr. Inagaki’s permission, I would play mahjong every night, but after this situation continued for ten days, twenty days, I started to worry about what was going on, because I was not called to play my part while other actors and staff members left for shooting every day. So one day I went to see what’s happening, and found that someone else wearing my costume was playing my part together with my scene partner. So, I asked Mr. Inagaki, “That’s my role, isn’t it? Why is this other actor playing it?” Then he replied, “A film is a magic, Yosuke. After location shooting, we will shoot close-up scenes at the studio and edit them together. So just relax and hang out with your friends.” After all, during this long location period, I spent only two days shooting my scenes, where I rode a horse and ran.
After we came back from locations, we started to shoot the close-up scenes at Toho Studios. There were scenes where Koshiro Matsumoto, who used to be known as Somegoro Ichikawa (he assumed his father’s name), and I were supposed to fight. Mr. Inagaki told me to put on Ichikawa’s costume, and the other way around. They filmed from a distance, so the audience wouldn’t know who they were. Only in the close-up scenes did we wear our own costumes. Then they edited them into the movie, and Mr. Inagaki asked me in a playful voice, “Can you tell which is you?” I couldn’t! That’s one of the fun things he did during the shooting. Mr. Inagaki was a fun director. During long shoots, he did that kind of mischievous thing a lot.
I appeared in Mr. Inagaki’s movies a lot. Every time I went somewhere in Japan outside of Tokyo, I was asked to bring three of my good friends.
BH: And Toho would pay for them?
YN: (in English) Yes, yes! (laughs) Everything!
BH: My next movie is kind of interesting because, in America at least, many people compare Inagaki to (Akira) Kurosawa. You were in Yojimbo (1961). So please talk about Yojimbo and working with Kurosawa.
YN: Mr. Inagaki’s works and Mr. Kurosawa’s works are both masterpieces. But the sets are as different as paradise and hell! Mr. Kurosawa is always in an angry mood. Only when he looks at Mr. Mifune does he smile. Other than that, he’s always angry. Mr. Kurosawa requires all the actors to be dressed up and made up and do dress rehearsals every single day with lighting and everything, but he doesn’t shoot. But every single day he repeated it. I was young, and I was kind of green, so I asked Mr. Kurosawa, “Why don’t you shoot? We are all ready.” He didn’t answer!
There’s a scene in Yojimbo when Mr. Mifune is entering a deserted town where he comes across yakuza mobsters, and the wind is blowing very heavily, and fallen leaves are blowing all over. Everybody was ready for shooting, but Mr. Kurosawa said, “Stop.” He picked up one leaf, and said, “This leaf didn’t match the others.” So Mr. Kurosawa went away, and everything was canceled. These leaves didn’t come from that tree. So a staff member went all the way to Nagano, located north of Tokyo, to find the right leaves for that tree in the studio!
A very old actor, Ikio Sawamura, was striking the bell all day long. The bell was hung in a very high place, so he had to climb up there, and every time we had a rehearsal, he had to go up there and strike the bell. Mr. Kurosawa repeatedly tested those scenes. One day Mr. Sawamura asked Mr. Kurosawa, “How many times should I hit the bell?” Then the director replied, “You have to keep hitting the bell until I say cut.” He rang the bell all day long until the bar got broken! If you closely watch that scene, after he hits it three times, it pans out. That’s how we perceived Mr. Kurosawa.
BH: My next question is about (Salaryman) Chushingura (1960). It’s another big film with many, many stars. So what do you remember about (it)?
YN: They usually put two films for one show, a costly feature film and an all-star movie like (Hisaya) Morishige’s comedies, especially for New Year’s Day and Obon, to draw a bigger audience.
I personally enjoyed every single day because I appeared in both the big movies and the salaryman movies at the same time. Mr. Inagaki, Mr. Kurosawa, and Mr. Honda were making movies in a very serious manner, but Mr. Matsubayashi is kind of a funny guy. Many comedians appeared in his salaryman series, like Keiju Kobayashi, Frankie Sakai, Norihei Miki, and Daisuke Kato. They can do whatever they want, so it’s very funny.
The director, Mr. Matsubayashi, persuaded the staff members never to laugh. So they have to try not to laugh until the director says cut. But he hardly says cut! So the comedians were doing whatever they wanted, and naturally it was so funny, and everyone wanted to burst into laughter, but they couldn’t. That lasted and lasted, and at the very end, Mr. Matsubayashi said cut, and everybody started to laugh, and it lasted about 30 minutes! (in English) So, every day, we enjoyed (it) so much!
BH: Which is your favorite Inagaki film? Would it be Osaka-jo Monogatari or another one?
YN: Yato kaze no naka o hashiru (a.k.a. Bandits on the Wind, 1961) and Gen to fudomyo-o (a.k.a. Gen and Acala, 1961).
BH: Did you work with Setsuko Hara?
YN: (in English) Yes.
BH: What was she like? She’s a very, very big star, so what was your impression?
YN: Very attractive. I had little chance to talk to her, but she was an elegant lady.
BH: Another war film with Mr. Matsubayashi is Taiheiyo no Tsubasa (a.k.a. Attack Squadron!). Once again, you worked with Mr. Matsubayashi on another war film. So please talk about what you remember from making this film.
YN: I watched the DVD a couple of days ago. This movie also rejects war. I was impressed by the scene where Makoto Sato got shot and couldn’t see. His subordinate, played by Kiyoshi Atsumi, guided him to land safely. That scene with Makoto Sato is very, very impressive. But there’s one funny scene, which I didn’t really appreciate, where Yuzo Kayama flew his fighter despite his boss’ objection. His fighter was a cutting-edge combat fighter after a Zero fighter, and he was aimed at by an American aircraft. At the very last moment, a Japanese fighter came to help him, but the pilot was Mr. Mifune, for some reason. Mr. Mifune was supposed to be the top of the top-ranking officials. Why was he flying the fighter at this point in time? I didn’t really like that scene.
BH: What was Kayama like? What was he personally like away from the set?
YN: He is one year younger. I worked with Mr. Kayama, but I didn’t have a chance to talk with him closely.
BH: Another war film you worked on, Chintao yosai bakugeki meirei (a.k.a. Siege of Fort Bismarck, 1963), with Kengo Furusawa (as director). So please talk about working with Furusawa and working on another war film with him.
YN: I made my debut in Mikkoku-sha wa dare ka. Because it was my debut film, I had no idea what was happening on the set. All I could do was show up at 9:00 sharp at Toho Studios by motorbike. I commuted by motorbike. I was guided to go to the costume department and then makeup and then the studio. I was instructed by the director, “When you enter from that door, Ms. Yumi Shirakawa, your older sister, will be here and will say a line to you. When you hear her, you have to say this line. And then go out of the door this way.” That’s the direction given by the director, but the assistant director, Kengo Furusawa, said, “No, no, no. That’s not the way. You have to come out this way.” He would always say something opposite or different.
So there were often some conflicting things, and I didn’t know what to do and asked the director what I should do. Then the director said I should follow his instruction. As a result, Mr. Furusawa, the chief assistant director, didn’t show up the next day because of the conflict. During the day, he was there in the studio, but he was in the prop room, striking something with hammers. (laughs) Everybody was wondering, saying, “Why didn’t you come?” “Because I don’t agree with the director.” He didn’t come after all. But, in every scene in every film, he’d say something opposite.
But Kengo Furusawa’s way of directing is more real than the director. For instance, when I played a criminal who killed a policeman, I had to escape, and we used a Toho building. I had to climb the staircase to the roof of the building. There’s an elevator machine room on top of that. So I had to climb over there. I rehearsed the scene five times from the beginning, so I was exhausted by the time they did the shoot. But that’s what Mr. Furusawa wanted. When I was hiding in the trunk of a car, when I was confined in there, nobody can see me in there. So usually I would be let out of the trunk first, and then they shoot the car escaping and driving away. But Mr. Furusawa wanted me in the trunk during that scene. After I got out, I was exhausted. He wanted that type of realism.
BH: Which film was that, when you were in the trunk?
YN: It was Mikkoku-sha wa dare ka, my debut movie. As I mentioned before, Kihachi Okamoto, the director, dressed all in black all the time. On the other hand, Kengo Furusawa was always in all white all the time! Originally I thought he was a little weird, but when I was starring in my debut movie, there was a chase scene. I was chased by police, and I had to jump into the river, which runs through Toho Studios. There was a dirty river and drainage there. Before they shot this scene, Kengo Furusawa was instructed by the director to do the test scene. He was always in white clothing, so he was hesitant, but he actually did it. After that, I believed in him, and we became very close.
I appeared in many of Mr. Furusawa’s movies. He made lots of Crazy Cats (a comedy group) films. I very often worked together with Makoto Sato in his films. Every time I did NG (no-good) scenes, Mr. Furusawa scolded Makoto Sato instead of me. I would volunteer by saying that it was my fault, but Mr. Furusawa would say, “No, it was Mr. Sato’s fault. Because his acting is no good, you can’t respond to him properly. It is definitely his fault.”
Pale-san was his nickname. Mr. Furusawa used to be in the army, and he was a parachute trooper. There was a very famous incident in Palembang (a city in Indonesia), which was a battlefield. The Japanese army landed in Palembang by parachute. He was one of those troopers. The Japanese occupied (Indonesia) during World War II, so Palembang is the name of the city there. He proudly talked about it all the time, so everyone started to call him Pale-san. Later on, however, everybody learned that Mr. Furusawa didn’t actually land in Palembang by parachute. All the staff members of Toho would say, “Pale-san didn’t land in Palembang!” That’s why he’s called Pale-san.
BH: How did he actually get there? Was he actually there?
YN: (in English) Maybe! Not sure! (laughs) He’s an enthusiast for making movies, so he requires all the actors to be into it with real spirit and soul. If there’s soul in it, you can do anything. That’s the way he thought.
There are many intriguing stories about Mr. Furusawa. One episode is like this. One day he handed over a cut segmentation and a storyboard he printed out to all the actors and staff members one by one, saying, “Today I will shoot exactly as directed. So please follow them.” But I found some of the directions were not very natural and said to Mr. Furusawa, “This scene is a little difficult to act if I follow the direction. How about doing this way?” Then he said flatly, “No! Do as the direction says!” But I still had a hard time acting that scene, so I did it the way I thought natural and asked him if he liked my scene after shooting. Then he responded in a very soft voice, “Yeah, that is better, although it went well last night when I asked my wife to act.” This disclosed to everybody that he did his homework last night when he was storyboarding every single scene while his wife was trying to act for him to see if it was good. The whole studio was full of laughter!
BH: I also wanted to backtrack a little bit and ask you if, when you first joined Toho, if there was a sempai or someone who advised you and took you under his wing. Was there someone — an actor, maybe a director, or producer who was a mentor to you?
YN: Actually, in Toho culture, there’s no seniority system like in typical Japanese companies. All staff members, all actors, old and young, are all gentlemen. But the interesting thing is that there were two big stars: Ryo Ikebe and Toshiro Mifune. They were very opposite from each other in the sense that Mr. Mifune, as I mentioned before, would never be late, memorized all the lines, would never bring any scripts. Ryo Ikebe, on the other hand, would say he would show up at 9:00, but would usually show up in the afternoon. He never memorized anything. They were two big stars. In other words, the young actors loved Mr. Mifune. He was the mentor and the ultimate goal for young actors. All the young actors came to see the filming of his scenes.
Well before I became an actor, there’s a famous story. In the film titled Ginrei no Hate (1947), which is a story about climbers, there were two leading actors in the film. During the shooting, all the staff members, the actors and everybody, carried very heavy equipment while climbing up the mountains. Mr. Mifune was the head honcho, and he was carrying the heaviest things by himself, and walking at the front of the group. In this movie, both Mr. Mifune and Ryo Ikebe starred in the film. Mr. Ikebe didn’t carry anything. So Mr. Mifune said, “Why don’t you carry something like the rest of us?” Mr. Ikebe said, “While you were in the war, you were just one of the soldiers. I was a high-ranking official.” So that’s why.
BH: Another film that you worked on is Chi to Diamonds (a.k.a. Blood and Diamonds, 1964). Jun Fukuda was the director. Do you remember Fukuda?
YN: In Mr. Fukuda’s debut film, I starred. But I can’t remember the title! (laughs) When a chief assistant director was promoted to director, I (usually) starred in his debut movie. (looks over his filmography for Chi to Diamonds) I don’t remember (this film)! (laughs)
BH: In general, what do you recall about Fukuda?
YN: He was a nervous type. He lost his temper very easily. I worked with him a lot. Jun Fukuda, Kengo Furusawa, and Eizo Sugawa were the chief assistant directors I promoted to director! (laughs) They wanted to use me because there was some potential for something new, I think.
BH: Let’s talk about Uchu Daikaiju Dogora (a.k.a. Dogora the Space Monster, 1964). You worked with Honda on this, and you co-starred with Dan Yuma (or Robert Dunham). So what do you remember about Dogora, particularly Honda and Dan Yuma?
YN: (in English) Gentleman. (Mr. Honda) never shouts. He was always a gentleman, unlike others. I was never instructed to do this or that by Mr. Honda. Robert Dunham was not an actor. He was a car person. He was a racer and would drive a Hino Contessa in car races. Due to the contract with Toho, I was prohibited from doing any car races on motorbikes. I had just bought a Porsche 356C when I worked with Dan Yuma. We went to Shimoda, Izu, for location shooting. I just bought the Porsche 356C, so after dinner, I drove the Porsche on highways. And Dan Yuma drove a Hino Contessa. So both of us actually raced along the highways, the Porsche against the race car. As an actor, I thought he was an amateur. But he understood some Japanese. There were very few foreigners at that time, so the director probably didn’t require much.
BH: You also starred with (Hiroshi) Koizumi and (Akihiko) Hirata and Yoko Fujiyama. So please talk about working with Koizumi, Fujiyama, and some of the other co-stars.
YN: (Mr. Koizumi’s) role was always that of a gentleman, and his nature is that of a gentleman. Mr. Hirata is elite. Mr. Hirata is a gentleman, too, and his background is unique. He went to the Japanese version of West Point. After he was released, he entered the University of Tokyo. After graduation, he went to either Mitsui & Co. or Mitsubishi Corporation, both blue-chip general trading houses. I don’t remember which one, but he was an elite salaryman. He was smart and very good-looking and a gentleman as well.
After movies, I made my TV debut in Seishun Towa Nanda (a.k.a. Is This Youth?, 1965), which was one of the biggest hits on TV. My co-star was Yoko Fujiyama, but I didn’t remember we played together in the film! (laughs) So I said, “How do you do?” Then she went, “I co-starred with you in some movies in the past.” It was kind of embarrassing! (laughs)
I didn’t realize that I played the role intended for Mr. Hirata, Professor Hayashida, in Godzilla (1984). Only when the Godzilla fans came to Japan (for G-TOUR 2011) did I find out. If I had known that, I probably couldn’t have done that role. There could have been a lot of pressure on me because of Mr. Hirata, but I didn’t know that, so I was lucky to play that role.
I watched Godzilla (1984) the day before yesterday for this meeting. I enjoyed it. In 1985, I started to go to Africa for the Paris-Dakar Rally. I did that for eight years. I didn’t work during that time. I was racing in the desert. At that time, the movie industry in Japan was declining. On the other hand, TV was going up. But I didn’t realize it because I was in the rough!
BH: One of your biggest kaiju movies was San Daikaiju: Chikyu Saidai no Kessen (a.k.a. Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster, 1964). You were Detective Shindo in that (film). So please talk about what you remember about working on (Ghidrah), which is a very popular kaiju movie.
YN: (searches his filmography, doesn’t remember the movie) I appeared in seven movies in 1964!
BH: From that movie, two actors who are very well known are (Akiko) Wakabayashi and (Takashi) Shimura…
YN: Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Shimura are always in the kaiju movies. The Peanuts! I now remember! (laughs) I remember Dogora more.
Mr. Shimura was an old, well-seasoned actor, and he was always in Mr. Kurosawa’s movies. That’s the impression I have. But, looking back, he must have been younger than I am now. He didn’t talk much, but he was a nice older man. Toho wanted Akiko Wakabayashi to be a real star until she appeared in the 007 movie (You Only Live Twice, 1967). She was talented, but she was not a huge star. There were not many actresses at Toho at that time: Reiko Dan, Yuriko Hoshi…
BH: Kumi Mizuno, Mie Hama, Yumi Shirakawa…
YN: Yumi Shirakawa and Yoko Tsukasa are good stars, very good actresses. Actors and actresses didn’t have a chance to chat with each other because everything was divided into male and female sections. So, when we’d go somewhere else, we’d reserve different planes, different trains. Then we’d just meet each other at the site.
There was an agreement among the five film studios (Toho, Toei, Nikkatsu, Daiei, and Shochiku) that they wouldn’t lend their actors and actresses to other studios. We didn’t have a chance to get to know the actresses, unfortunately. But, every year, there was a baseball game. Only in this annual baseball game would we actually see in person other actresses from other studios. In reality, we didn’t have a chance to meet and talk with the actresses.
BH: So there’d be a baseball game that was played by all the studios?
BH: Every year?
YN: Yes. It was fun.
BH: When the contract system ended at Toho in 1970, I believe, please talk about when you left Toho and when your contract ended, and please talk about the end of your being contracted at Toho.
YN: The film industry had been declining at that time, so nobody wanted to enter into a contract. But, before the system ended, I went to Mifune Productions.
BH: I see. What year?
YN: (searches filmography)
BH: When I talked to Kumi Mizuno, she left Toho in, I think, 1966. I noticed that you left Toho, too. Is there a reason that some of the stars left Toho? Were they not satisfied with the roles, or did they want more freedom?
YN: I probably left around the same time. After the five-company agreement ended, everybody was kind of free, but still everybody thinks that the grass is greener on the other side. Many actors were not satisfied with their contracts, so they left. If the industry were improving, there would be room for negotiation, so they could have stayed. But, at that time, there was no improvement in the industry, so people left. I probably left in 1966.
BH: Why did you decide to join Mifune Productions?
YN: I had an actor-friend named Shinsuke Achiha. (Shinsuke Achiha is best known in America as Ultra Garrison member Soga from Ultra Seven, 1967-68.) He was not a major star, but when I was asked to take care of this young actor, I was starring in Seishun Towa Nanda, one of the biggest hits on TV. So Mr. Achiha was cast as the captain of a baseball team at the school. This was a high school story. But, every three months, they replaced all the students to keep it fresh. So he had to graduate from the role in three months, but he wanted to be there. He asked the director to have him drop out, but the offer was declined! He was actually out, and he was not placed with any roles after that. He attributed that to his management company, and he kept saying that because he was not blessed with good managers, he was a struggling actor.
So he wanted to be a manager after all. He asked Raita Ryu and me to be our manager. At that time, I came across Mr. Mifune, who suggested I join Mifune Productions and work together with them. Then I talked to Mr. Ryu and Mr. Achiha about Mr. Mifune’s offer, and the three of us decided to go to Mifune Productions. I really respected Mr. Mifune.
In those days, Alain Delon, a French actor who was very popular in Japan, was represented in Japan by Mifune Productions. But, while I was with Mifune Productions, there were many problems! Mr. Achiha, Junichi Tanaka, and maybe Mr. Ryu, too, wanted to make another production company for actors. Apparently, there was a conflict of interest between the production department and the actors department. I kind of agreed to their idea, and the next day I went to Mr. Mifune and asked his opinion because he’s an actor as well as CEO of Mifune Productions. He said he never heard that plan, and he was shocked to hear it.
So Mr. Achiha, Mr. Tanaka, and Mr. Ryu wanted to make their own production company, separate from Mifune Productions, because Mifune Productions had just arranged for Alain Delon to appear in a clothing commercial for D’Urban which made a big profit. So, I think with that money, they wanted to make another production company. And they did after all. But a new young actress, Keiko Takeshita, who is very famous now, stayed together with me at Mifune Productions. The new company was called Actors Promotion. They enjoyed (success for) some period but ultimately disappeared, and Mr. Achiha committed suicide (in 2007).
BH: Certainly G-Men ’75 was a big hit. Talk about the impact that G-Men ’75 had on television at the time.
YN: At first, Toho wanted to produce Taiyo ni Hoero! for TV, and they wanted to use Yujiro Ishihara (a popular leading actor from Nikkatsu Studios) as the new star. I was starring in Tokyo Bypass Directive (1968-70). Taiyo ni Hoero! was a police drama based on the Tokyo Bypass story, although the title was different, and the producer probably thought that if he would use me as the lead role in the new series, it would make no difference.
At that time, there was an offer for G-Men ’75 at Toei to me, but I never appeared in anything other than the films and TV programs of Toho and Mifune Productions. So I was wondering what to do. Toei said that a series of shows they had produced were not very successful, so this time they wanted to make G-Men ’75 a big hit with me. I accepted this offer because Mr. Yu Fujiki, whom I’ve known for a long time, would also appear in this show. I wanted to co-star with him.
Toei had been using Mr. Fujiki because his color was different from Toei’s. He was more like a Toho type. He wasn’t a leading actor; he was more of a supporting actor. But I was comfortable with him being there, and I liked the concept of the show, and the producer’s enthusiasm made me accept G-Men ’75.
BH: The next thing (I’d like) to talk about is Godzilla ’84. Of course, it’s a big feature film, and directed by (Koji) Hashimoto. Please talk about working with Mr. Hashimoto and what you remember filming Godzilla ’84.
YN: I didn’t know that Mr. Hashimoto was a director. If I remember correctly, he was in the production department. He was a serious man. I watched Godzilla, and I thought it was good. But I think if Mr. Honda would have directed it, it could have been a totally different film, an interesting one. Mr. Hashimoto made this movie only, but I wanted him to make more movies.
And then I went to Africa for rally racing, so I don’t really know what was happening around that time.
BH: What about Ken Tanaka, Shin Takuma, and Yasuko Sawaguchi?
YN: Ken Tanaka and Shin Takuma had been actors at that time, so they were good actors. But this was Yasuko Sawaguchi’s second film. So she was a new actress, not as good as she is now.
BH: Do you have any other memories, anything that stands out during the filming?
YN: All the actors at Toho are so serious and diligent, so there are no funny stories. They are very well educated and very well behaved and gentlemen. So it’s not worth mentioning. It’s been over 50 years since I’ve entered the movie industry. I’ve seen many different people. I’m very happy to be an actor because I’ve been doing this all my life.
BH: One of your more recent films was Guilala (a.k.a. Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit, 2008), with (Minoru) Kawasaki.
YN: (laughs) All of a sudden, he showed up at my office, asking me to appear in the film. I asked him what the story was about, and he said, “It’s called Guilala.” I declined the offer. Then we had a year-end party, and he showed up. (laughs) He was seated next to me. “Please, please!” He said that Susumu Kurobe and Bin Furuya miss me, and I read the script. “No, thank you.” He came here every single day. So I did it after all.
In the movie, prime ministers from all over the world discuss how to battle Guilala. It’s a summit. There were a lot of foreign actors. Those actors live in Japan. They are amateur actors. It caused some problems after all. There’s a big conference room in Gotemba. It’s a beautiful conference hall. The foreign actors looked like the actual heads of state! They were lookalike actors. I presumed that it would take time, probably, because they were amateur actors. However, I found them very good; they had quality techniques I’ve never seen before. The person who played Mitterand was an Iranian who doesn’t speak French at all. As a French voice actor was speaking for Mitterand, the Iranian actor was lip-synching to him. This technique was new to me and very impressive. I really enjoyed being part of this movie since I did my very best, although the level of the movie is kind of low and naturally ended up an okay movie! There was neither SFX nor computer graphics because it was low-budget.
BH: Takeshi Kitano did the voice of Take-Majin.
YN: (laughs) When Toho makes a movie, they can employ all the Self-Defense Forces equipment, like submarines and helicopters and aircraft. But, with a low-budget movie, it’s hard, so you can tell.
BH: In conclusion, would you have any final comments for your fans? Would you like to say what you’re working on now?
YN: I feel that there’s something wrong with the entertainment industry in Japan. Only comedians who look like amateurs become very popular for some reason. They sing a song and appear in big-budget movies and TV shows. I feel there is something wrong, so my friends and I want to correct the orbit of the entertainment business to a deeper, more serious one. I feel it’s a mission I have.
A few years ago, I was offered to appear in a Korean film, Seducing Mr. Robin (a.k.a. Seducing Mr. Perfect, 2006), and I went to South Korea. I was so impressed by the high level of the crew. The cameramen and lighting crew all learned in Hollywood how to make films. Their quality is much higher than the Japanese, and there’s no comparison.
As far as the movie industry is concerned, we used to do this level of work in Japan, too, but in Korea the Confucius thought is still there. So the seniority system is still there. I was one of the oldest actors. My role was the Japanese automobile company president, and I was standing so that the suit I was wearing wouldn’t get any wrinkles. So I was standing all the time while waiting for my scenes. When I stood, all the other crew members stood, too. I asked them, “Why don’t you sit?” They answered, “Because you’re standing.” Once I had a seat, everybody sat down! I also asked them, “Why don’t you guys smoke?” They answered, “Because you’re not smoking.” So when I smoked, everybody did, too. All the Japanese studios used to have that kind of tradition, but there are no such manners anymore. So I was impressed by the fact that they still abide by those rules, and also the quality of techniques learned in Hollywood by the young cameramen and lighting people. I was impressed by the Korean film industry.
I was invited to appear in two Filipino movies. I’ve heard of how a movie star was treated in the good old days, but a similar custom still remains in Philippines, and I was treated like an old-time star, e.g., at the same time the director says “Cut,” a chair, a table, an ashtray, a parasol, coffee, and sometimes a masseur come to me. When shooting is ready, an assistant director comes to pick me up and drive to the location. Soon after I arrive there, the director says “Now we’ll be shooting,” without any rehearsal. I learned a stand-in for my role already rehearsed before my arrival. So I asked my stand-in to perform my role for my reference and then acted before the camera. It was an unusual system, but I enjoyed shooting in the Philippines in their way. I highly recommend that young actors go abroad like I did, including Hollywood.