Kenji Sahara (born May 14, 1932) has appeared in more Godzilla films than any other actor. Mr. Sahara appeared in the original Godzilla (1954) in two small roles and went on to star in such popular titles as: King Kong vs. Godzilla, Godzilla vs. the Thing, Son of Godzilla, Destroy All Monsters, Terror of Mechagodzilla, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, and Godzilla: Final Wars. Mr. Sahara headlined many other SFX films for Toho Studios, which include: Rodan, The Mysterians, The H-Man, Atragon, and War of the Gargantuas. Moreover, Mr. Sahara is also very notable for starring as Jun Manjome in the groundbreaking television program Ultra Q for Tsuburaya Productions, which effectively started the long-running Ultra-series. In July 2009, Mr. Sahara discussed his extensive acting career with Brett Homenick in an interview translated (and transcribed) by totorom.
Brett Homenick: The first question I’d like to ask Mr. Sahara is, just to tell us a little about his early life, growing up. Basically, what was it like to be a child in Japan during those days?
Kenji Sahara: We were a family of six. I am the oldest child, and I have three younger sisters. My father was a member of the board of directors for a medical school. I think we were comparatively rich. My parents were not so strict. One of my sisters was a flight attendant, working for Japan Airlines. My sisters and I enjoyed freedom in our younger days. My father wanted me to become a lawyer. To follow his suggestion, I studied a lot and entered the law school at Chuo University. One of my high school classmates was going to the same law school, and he found that a popular magazine called Heibon would have an audition for its poster boy, “Mr. Heibon.” He had my photo and address, so he applied for it under my name. I went to the audition and was selected as a runner-up. The prize for the runner-up was an exemption from the preliminary exam for Toho New Face. So I went to Toho’s audition. I was exempted from the first part of the exam, but was screened by the judge for the later parts. I passed the exams and joined Toho as one of its 6th Annual New Face actors.
The 6th Annual New Face had Akira Takarada, Yu Fujiki, Momoko Kochi, and me. We studied acting together for 8 months. After graduating from the New Face acting school, Toho gave us small roles for their movies. We had to study how to make the movies in the actual studios. My first job was a war movie, Farewell Rabaul, in 1954. My role was a naval officer who is killed in battle in the air.
I worked with Mr. Ishiro Honda for the first time on that movie. Next, I appeared in a movie called People of Tokyo, Goodbye, also directed by Mr. Honda. It featured a very popular singer, Ms. Chiyoko Shimakura. Then I appeared in the first Godzilla. In those days, I mostly played small roles, but was learning how to act little by little.
Next question, please. (laughs)
BH: The first tokusatsu movie that you appeared in was pretty much the film that launched that genre in Japan, namely the original Godzilla. You had two small roles in that. What do you remember about shooting the original Godzilla back in 1954?
KS: Mr. Honda wanted the actors to act naturally. He let us think how we would act if unusual things happened in real life, for example, how we would react if we saw kaiju. Thanks to Mr. Honda, I was beginning to learn how I should imagine and express myself through acting. These experiences with Mr. Honda in those days have helped me to develop my acting skill throughout my career.
BH: Two years later, after you first appeared in Godzilla, you had a starring role in Rodan. Please speak about how you were cast and what you remember about shooting Rodan in 1956.
KS: The next job that Mr. Honda gave me was Rodan. Before that, I appeared in many movies. I worked with Mr. Koji Tsuruta, one of the movie stars of the era, on a movie called Jyun Ai (Die for Love). I played one of the main characters. Then Mr. Honda gave me a leading role. He said to me, “This is a real leading role. It would be difficult to portray this character, but just do it.” It was Rodan.
Toho gave me the script for Rodan, and I read it. I was surprised, as I found my character was very difficult to portray as Mr. Honda had told me. As you may remember, my character Shigeru goes into a coal mine and finds a huge egg. Then Shigeru sees the egg cracking open and a baby Rodan hatching. Shigeru gets shocked and loses all of his memories. So I had to play a character with amnesia.
I saw a movie made in America or Europe a long time ago, featuring a character with amnesia. I forgot the name of the movie, but the character was played by a very famous actor. In the movie, after he loses his memories, he meets with an unknown girl and lives with her. Then he regains his old memories. I thought he looked very normal in the movie. He did not show any symptom of amnesia. I did not think it was interesting. It was not so touching.
So, to play a character with amnesia, I went to see a doctor and asked him what a patient with amnesia really looked like. He said someone with amnesia looked very normal. I thought it would not be interesting if I acted normally for a character with amnesia. I thought my eyes should lose focus when I played the character. I looked away and lost focus. When your eyes lose focus, people would say you are out of your mind. So I tried to act that way. I tried to lose focus on everything in the studio while shooting Rodan. I always walked oddly in the studio. There were buckets on the floor. We used them as ashtrays. I did not see them when I walked, so I always kicked them over. (laughs)
BH: The next film I would like to cover is The H-Man. This was your third consecutive tokusatsu starring role. And your costar, for the third time in a row, was Miss Yumi Shirakawa. Please talk a little bit about working with Ms. Shirakawa, what she was like off the set, how you two related, and basically what Toho’s plan was for the image that you and Miss Shirakawa, as costars, what they wanted to project.
KS: The first tokusatsu movie that I worked with Ms. Shirakawa on was Rodan. Before that, however, we worked together for a movie called Shain Burai. As you pointed out, we worked on three tokusatsu movies in a row: Rodan, The Mysterians, and The H-Man. She played the role of my girlfriend in those movies. I think Toho wanted to show Ms. Shirakawa and myself in the movies as a pair. She first got into the entertainment business as a promotion girl for Morinaga, a major confectionery company. She was selected as “Miss Morinaga.” Then one of the producers at Toho found her and hired her as an actress.
We worked together on four consecutive movies: Shain Burai, Rodan, The Mysterians, and The H-Man. You may remember a scene in Rodan where Ms. Shirakawa hugged me near the official residence of the coal mine. When we filmed that scene, she could not act very well. Her acting was OK for other scenes, but it was not too long after her debut as an actress, so it was not easy for her to act in a love scene. She could not make a coquettish movement. Mr. Honda stopped filming and came to us. He said to Ms. Shirakawa, “No, no, no. You need empathy.” Then he told me, “Ken-bo, you just stand there.” Ken-bo was my nickname. Mr. Honda suddenly hugged me, shouting, “Ahhhh.” It was so coquettish. (laughs) Ms. Shirakawa burst into laughter, as Mr. Honda’s acting was so good, I mean, very womanly. Mr. Honda got angry over it and told her, “Don’t laugh, Ms. Shirakawa. You do it yourself.” Ms. Shirakawa just realized that she had to act according to Mr. Honda’s guidance, and she did it. The next take was a good one. (laughs)
BH: You are also very well-known, aside from your leading-man roles, for playing villains. You played villains in Kaitei Gunkan (Atragon), Gezora, Ganime, Kameba (Yog, Monster from Space), and Matango (Attack of the Mushroom People). What is your impression about playing villains versus leading men?
KS: We have an expression in Japanese, “Nimaime,” for a handsome hero role. Such a role is not so interesting and appealing to me. On the other hand, a villain role usually has a deeper character showing his past between the lines. Mr. Honda would always tell me that an actor has to understand such a deep character of his role and express it through acting and, if you can do it, your acting ability can be improved. So I played not only leading roles, but also rather small supporting roles. Mr. Honda always gave me very interesting roles, even though (sometimes) they were small roles.
BH: One of your best, most memorable villains, probably in the United States, was that of Mr. Torahata in Mothra vs. Godzilla (Godzilla vs. the Thing) in 1964. I would just be interested to know what sort of stories and memories you have about making that film and what you remember about it.
KS: As you may be aware, usually tokusatsu movies do not have a scene with someone bleeding because they do not like to show it to small children in the audience. In the scenario for Mothra vs. Godzilla, however, there was a brief direction saying, “Torahata bleeds a little.” When I got the role of Torahata, I immediately understood this character was really greedy and living solely for money. So I wanted to show his greed as much as I could through my acting. For the fighting scene with Mr. Yoshibumi Tajima, I asked the makeup staff to put a lot of blood on my face, although the scenario said “a little.” As you may remember, Torahata tried to take all the money with his face full of blood while Godzilla was approaching. Then he was killed by Godzilla. When we finished filming that sequence, Mr. Tajima said to me, “Oh, you wasted your handsome face!” (laughs)
BH: We’ve talked about your leading roles and some of your leading villain roles, but you’re also notable for accepting many smaller roles, such as in Mothra, Gorath, and Frankenstein vs. Baragon (Frankenstein Conquers the World). These are very small roles where you appear for maybe just a few seconds. What was it like to take these small roles, and why did you, a leading man and a proven star in Japan, why did you accept these small roles?
KS: Mr. Honda always thought about me as if I were his real son. He gave me a lot of different roles, as he wanted me to learn to mature as an actor. I played some small roles, but they were impressive. Mr. Honda told me that, even for a small role, you could portray his character deeply and learn the structure of drama. His suggestions helped me to improve my acting skill. I believe that is why I could appear in more Godzilla movies than any other actor.
BH: Another one of your most popular roles, and it is a leading man role, is Sanda vs. Gaira (War of the Gargantuas). It is very popular in the United States and probably even more so here than in Japan. What sort of memories could you share of making this very popular film?
KS: I appeared in a movie called None But the Brave, produced by Frank Sinatra. Mr. Tatsuya Mihashi played the leading role from the Japanese side, and I played one of the officers of the Japanese army. We filmed the movie partially on location in Hawaii. After Hawaii, we went to Hollywood and filmed at Warner Bros. Studios. When I was working in Hawaii, I got the offer for Ultra Q. Mr. Honda and Mr. Tsuburaya came to Hawaii. Mr. Honda said to me, “Tsuburaya Productions will make their own TV movie. It cannot be failed. So I want you to join them and work with them.” Mr. Tsuburaya asked me to help them, too. I accepted the offer and worked on Ultra Q. It was very tough to work on Ultra Q. After completing Ultra Q, Mr. Honda gave me the leading role for Sanda vs. Gaira. He gave me the role as a reward for helping Ultra Q.
For Sanda vs. Gaira, Mr. Russ Tamblyn came to Japan from the United States. He brought his wife to Japan then. He played a doctor from America, and I played a Japanese doctor. And Ms. Kumi Mizuno appeared in the movie with us, too. As I could not speak English very well, I could not help Mr. Tamblyn during the production. I still feel sorry I could not help him. As he was with his wife, after shooting the scenes of the day, he immediately returned to his hotel from the studio. However, I heard that he was quite interested in Ms. Mizuno. (laughs) He was trying to make a pass at her. (laughs) It made me feel uneasy. (laughs) I thought he should have learnt Japanese to discuss such a complicated matter with her. (laughs)
BH: Your next Godzilla movie, after completing Sanda vs. Gaira, was Son of Godzilla, which had an island setting and featured an ensemble cast with many of Toho’s biggest stars. How did you get cast in that film? And please share some stories about filming that movie.
KS: Minya appeared in this movie for the first time. I think it has a juvenile taste in addition to the traditional Godzilla story. It seemed Toho chose me as I had appeared in Mr. Eiji Tsuburaya’s Ultra Q. We went on location in Guam for this movie, and we did shooting in studios, too. We could enjoy the fresh air and beautiful scenery in Guam. However, for an actor, there is no difference between working on location and in studios. We do the same thing either on location or in studios.
BH: The director of that film was Mr. Jun Fukuda. What was he like to work with? You spoke a lot about Mr. Honda, but what were your impressions of Mr. Fukuda?
KS: I worked with Mr. Fukuda for a couple of movies before Son of Godzilla. He made the movies strictly based on the script. Meanwhile, Mr. Honda read between the lines in the script to have psychological descriptions in his movies. If you compare the two directors, I would say Mr. Fukuda was someone like an honor student, and Mr. Honda was like a craftsman.
BH: One of my favorite villain roles that Mr. Sahara played was in Gezora, Ganime, Kameba, released in America as Yog, Monster from Space. Can you give us a few words about playing that role and making that film?
KS: In order to portray someone like that, you have to express his physiological aspects. So you need to act with an acting plan made in your head. I think I could do that for this role, and it worked well.
BH: You have talked about Ultra Q a little bit, but you also guest-starred in Ultra Seven, Mighty Jack, and Ultraman 80. What was it like to appear in these television programs in guest roles? Just share some of your experiences making them.
KS: Some people say acting for movies is different from acting for TV, but I do not think it is true. The size of the screen is different, but acting is not. No matter how large the screen is, you have to act sincerely and express the character’s physiological aspects. I did my best both for movies and TV dramas. The family of Mr. Eiji Tsuburaya has given me the chance to work for those TV dramas. I believe they liked my work on Ultra Q, and that is why they have continuously given me the chance.
BH: Throughout your career, who was your favorite costar?
KS: Mr. Akihiko Hirata was my very best friend. I am very sorry he passed away too early. I still miss him.
BH: One of your other colleagues at Toho, who was another leading man, was Mr. Akira Takarada. What was he like off the set? Did you two spend some time together? Did you hang out a lot? What was he like to hang out with?
KS: He was my classmate at Toho New Face acting school. We studied together for 8 months. In one of the lessons, we studied a book called Uirouri. You can train your tongue to speak and pronounce smoothly with this book. Everybody at the class did the homework, but only Takarada and I did not. We were too young. The teacher became really angry at us. He said, “You two go to the open-air set and do the practice of your tongues for one hour!” So we went outside and did the practice for one hour. (laughs)
BH: Another one of your costars, and this person is a legendary actor who’s appeared in Kurosawa movies, is Mr. Takashi Shimura. What was he like, and how did he relate to you, because there was a bit of a generational gap, and he was quite older than you. So what was it like to work with Mr. Shimura?
KS: I believe you have seen Mr. Shimura in Seven Samurai. I first worked with him for the movie Shain Burai. He played the president of a company. I played the role of a businessman working for him. Another company’s president, played by Mr. Ken Uehara, tries to take over my company, and he also takes away my girlfriend from me. And my character takes revenge on him. That was the story of the movie. I talked with Mr. Shimura a lot during the production of this movie. Sometime later, when I got married, I sent an invitation to Mr. Shimura for my wedding. It was a tradition for Toho actors to send invitations for weddings to other actors. Mr. Shimura, together with Mr. Toshiro Mifune, came to my wedding party. They had never been to anyone’s wedding before. Especially for Mr. Shimura, it was really rare for them to attend a party. The management people at Toho were very surprised and asked me, “Why did Mr. Shimura come to your wedding?” I am still very thankful to him.
BH: I understand that Mr. Sahara is very active on a new Web site called IshiroHonda.com. He’s a contributor to this Web site, and he would like to say a few words about it.
KS: When Mr. Honda’s son started the Web page, I was assigned to be a member of the executive committee for it. My first job was to ask my fellow actors, who appeared in Mr. Honda’s movies, to write some comments on Mr. Honda for the Web page. I gave those comments to the webmaster and suggested that they should post two comments per month so that they could update the Web page monthly. But it seemed they were a bit too enthusiastic. They posted all the comments at once. (laughs) Mr. Honda’s son is now writing a biography of his father and wanted me to collect comments from the actors again for that. As everybody was very busy, and it would take a long time to get the comments one by one, I suggested having a roundtable discussion with all the actors getting together. We had Mr. Hiroshi Koizumi, Mr. Akira Kubo, Mr. Akira Takarada, Mr. Yosuke Natsuki, Ms. Yumi Shirakawa, and Ms. Kumi Mizuno for the roundtable discussion. We will have the transcript of the discussion on the book.
(Questions from the audience)
Q: Do you have a favorite role of all the movies you’ve done and, if so, why?
KS: I still like Senzo Koyama in Matango the best. I think it was my best work, as I could thoroughly portray his character. Before shooting, I carefully made my acting plan, how to portray Koyama. I put scar tissue near my temple and wore sunglasses, one of the lenses with a darker color. But I thought it was still too difficult for me to portray his disgusting character, so I decided to pull out one of my front teeth. Now I think I could have cut it rather than pull it out completely. I went to see a dentist, however, and asked him to pull out the tooth. It was a good tooth. You have to remember it is not easy to live without one of your front teeth. (laughs) When Koyama grins, you can see one of his teeth is missing. I think it worked very well. I like that role the best.
Q: What is your favorite movie? Of the films you’ve done, which was the most enjoyable?
KS: I have many favorite movies, but, as I just said, I really like Matango. I think it was something like a once-in-a-lifetime performance for me. I am very satisfied with my work on that movie. And I like Shain Burai, too. During the shooting, I was scolded by the director of the movie, as he was not satisfied with my acting. I made a lot of effort to satisfy him. There was a scene where my character was very drunk, and someone gave me a glass of water. I was supposed to gulp down the water. I drank the water, but the director did not like it. We repeated a lot of takes, but he was not satisfied. He said to me, “Can’t you do it in a different way?” I think I drank almost a gallon of water. The mere sight of the glass of water gave me cold shivers. Finally, I drank the water in desperation, and then the director liked it. I learnt that you have to corner yourself that way if you want to act naturally. I worked on that movie for 50 days. It was very tough for me, but I learnt a lot from it. I am still thankful to the director because he had the patience to work with me.
Q: What was it like working with Frank Sinatra on None But the Brave?
KS: Mr. Mihashi shared the scenes with Mr. Sinatra face-to-face, but I was one of the ensemble cast around him. I would like to tell you about the first day of the shooting. We went out to the beach in Kauai Island for location shooting. A DC-3 of the U.S. Army crashed on the beach, and the soldiers evacuated it. The plot of the movie goes like that. The shooting was scheduled to start at 9 a.m., so we Japanese cast and staff got there by 8:30 a.m. to get prepared for the shooting. Mr. Sinatra, however, did not appear at 9. I heard that the American entertainers were generally very punctual, but Mr. Sinatra did not come. Then I heard the roar of a helicopter. It was coming down on the beach. As soon as the helicopter touched the ground, the door opened, and Mr. Sinatra came out saying, “Ohayo!” (“Good morning!”) (laughs) That was our first encounter with Frank Sinatra.
During the weekend, he brought a table from somewhere for us and put some drinks on it. Then he said to us, “See you next Monday.” After shooting on location in Kauai, we went to Hollywood and worked at Warner Bros. Studios. When we were about to finish shooting, Mr. Sinatra told us he wanted to invite all of the Japanese staff and cast to Las Vegas. A producer at Toho working with us contacted Toho Japan and asked if we could go to Las Vegas with Mr. Sinatra. The answer was, “No way.” (laughs) Toho Japan thought it was too dangerous. (laughs)
Q: I was wondering if there is a museum that exists where one could see original Toho props and costumes. Does anything like that exist?
KS: I did not hear that Toho has actually opened a museum. I think they will make one in the future. Now they only have one Godzilla statue at the entrance of the studio.
Q: As an actor, what was it that you looked for (in) a director, what kind of qualities? And, also, can you speak about some techniques directors used to positively enhance your performance?
KS: I do not think an actor is in a position to comment on the methods of directing. I would say, however, there are three types of directors. Someone making movies strictly based on the script, someone trying to express the feelings between the lines on the script, and someone making movies very quickly. Personally, I like the second type. The movies directed by such directors have a better quality of acting.
Q: I would like to go back to Matango for a moment. That’s a very dark and creepy movie, and a lot of that is due to the set design, particularly the decaying old ship where the characters take shelter. What was it like working on those sets?
KS: The set actually looked very old and dirty. The set designers put spider webs on it. They also put a lot of moisture on it. So the whole set was really smelly. It was creepy. Maybe they made such a horrible set in order to have us actors feel creepy.
Q: What was it like working with Haruo Nakajima, and off set did you get a chance to hang out with him or talk to him personally in all the movies that you worked with him in?
KS: Mr. Nakajima was the second suit actor for Godzilla. The first suit actor was someone called Mr. Tezuka. I think Mr. Nakajima studied a lot and researched to portray Godzilla. I believe his suit-acting worked very well with our acting. So we actors were always thankful to him.
Q: How does it feel having been in the first and last Godzilla movies (Godzilla and Godzilla: Final Wars)?
KS: When I got the script for Final Wars, I trembled with excitement. I found that my character was named Hachiro Jinguji. That is the pen name of Mr. Tomoyuki Tanaka, who was the creator and producer of all those Toho tokusatsu movies. I was really happy only with the fact that I was given that name for my role. My role, Dr. Jinguji, finds the mummified remains of Gigan in the offshore sea of Hokkaido and tries to unravel the mystery. Then the aliens try to kill him. That is the story. The director of the movie, Ryuhei Kitamura, is well-known for wire action. So I requested that I get blown away with the wire when the aliens kill my character. But he said, “I cannot do that. It is too unusual for the doctor to get blown away.” He ended up with the idea that Dr. Jinguji faces Gigan, and the sound effect only suggests he gets killed. Now I think Dr. Jinguji can appear in the next Godzilla movie again when Toho makes it in the future. When they decide to make the next Godzilla movie, I would like to ask the producer to revive Dr. Jinguji because he was not killed in Final Wars.
Q: Your parents wanted you to be a lawyer; you became an actor. Were they happy? (laughs)
KS: When I participated in the audition for Toho New Face, my parents said to me, “You cannot make it. You will be eliminated somewhere during the audition.” But I passed all the screenings at the audition. As I did it of my own will, my parents just told me to go on my way. They could not help saying “OK” to me.