Writer-director Yoshimitsu Banno helmed the controversial and environmentally aware Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster in 1971 and served as assistant director on the 1974 disaster film The Last Days of Planet Earth (a.k.a. Prophecies of Nostradamus). Oriental Cinema editor Damon Foster and Brett Homenick interviewed Mr. Banno in July 2005 about his work on both these memorable Toho films. Note: Mr. Banno speaks English, so some of his answers were delivered in that language, while Robert Field translated the other replies.
UPDATE (August 2021): The following transcript features improved and updated translations by Yusuke Sasaki from the original recording of the interview. Some details have been clarified from the previous translation, while others have been brought to light for the first time. Additionally, unpublished manuscripts written by Mr. Banno in both Japanese and English were used to flesh out other details.
Brett Homenick: How did you get started in the film business?
Yoshimitsu Banno: In my high school days, I did some plays in the theater, and I established one team of drama performance, but it is very difficult to [make a living in] the theater world. I had a chance to be employed by the Toho Company, one of the biggest companies in Japan for motion pictures. I was very lucky that, in my younger days, I could work as an assistant director of Akira Kurosawa on four programs: Throne of Blood (1957), The Lower Depths (1957), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), and The Hidden Fortress (1958). The Hidden Fortress was the first Cinemascope [shooting style] Kurosawa adopted. He showed a very tall guy and a small guy [standing next to each other to show the contrast], and George Lucas said that he imitated the image Akira Kurosawa [used to show] the contrast of height.
Anyway, after that, I established an underwater filming team. I do scuba diving. [For] about four years, I visited many places, including Baja California to film gray whales, sea otters, and sharks. About 25 years ago, I played with a baby whale, grabbing the tail. The mother whale got angry and flipped her tail at the cameraman [who got taken to] the hospital! It was about 8 [that] Toho asked me to be the director of the planning section, so I changed my course to [becoming a] producer.
Damon Foster: I was surprised to read that Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971) had what was considered a low budget because it had supposedly less prominent actors. I saw Toshio Shiba in Silver Mask (1971-72). He was also in the pilot episode of the Mirrorman (1971-72) TV show, which the pilot never actually aired. So to me he was a big star, and to me he was the leading man in the film, and you killed him off! That kind of surprised me as a kid; I guess that just proves that environmental destruction can kill even the leading man in the film. So what was it like to work with Toshio Shiba?
YB: I worked under the big producer named Tomoyuki Tanaka, who made the first Godzilla (1954) in cooperation with Eiji Tsuburaya. In 1970, the people who were going to the theaters in Japan decreased very much. So Mr. Tanaka said, “If you [make] a movie, you have two [things that you can do]. One is, you could get big money. The other is, you can make what you like to make.” He said the audience is decreasing, so there is no chance to do both things.
At the time, they held an exposition in Osaka in 1970 [Expo ‘70]. This was a big event, the biggest event ever done because 60 million people visited there. He produced the Mitsubishi Pavilion. Do you know the Mitsubishi Group? I assisted the pavilion’s work. That was the last work of Eiji Tsuburaya. [We] made the storm scene and the volcanic eruption scene for [the pavillion]. I filmed the volcanic eruption scene in Hawaii. They got a big reputation. At the time, Tanaka said, “You can think about [making] the new Godzilla [movie].”
The budget was limited, but I thought there were two ways to minimize the budget. One was not to hire the very famous, expensive staff. Usually, the Godzilla series is filmed by the drama section and the SFX section, two teams. They have about 50 or 70 staff [members]. But I organized only one team of almost 40 members. Because Tsuburaya had died, the second director of SFX was Teruyoshi Nakano. But producer Tanaka said, “Tsuburaya is the only director of SFX, so Nakano is the technical assistant.” So I directed [the movie with] one team, using the cameraman of SFX side, and he also filmed the drama part.
In that time, Toshio Shiba had no reputation. He was very young, and I forgot about him. About 20 years ago, I was the producer of a two-hour TV program about an earthquake in Tokyo [1979’s Tokyo Earthquake M8], and there was a convention introducing the program at the Imperial Hotel. Toshio Shiba came to me, and I forgot who he was! (laughs) He became a bigger star at the time.
BH: Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster was certainly the most different Godzilla made up to that time. I wanted to ask you what your vision of Godzilla was going into this movie.
YB: I heard that, in the beginning, when the first Godzilla movie was planned, everyone said, “Oh, no one could make such a film. No one knows about it.” Godzilla’s name comes from “gorilla” and also from kujira [the Japanese word for “whale”]. Only one person, Vice President Iwao Mori, had a very keen sense, and other directors were [rejecting] the plan.
This movie was very meaningful for civilization in that the Bikini nuclear tests were inferred as the birth of Godzilla. Godzilla was sleeping in the deep sea, and, because of the atomic bomb, he came up. It had a very deep message for civilization. After that, there were several good features — Mothra (1961), Rodan (1956), and many science fiction [films].
But I think [Hedorah contains] the second message [of the Godzilla series], the environmental problem. It is the 1th program of the Godzilla [series]. At the time, Tanaka asked me to think about the theme of the new Godzilla movie, so, at that time, [there were problems like] air pollution and things like that. I asked him, “Is it OK to make a pollution monster?” He said OK because the government also said the environmental problem is very important.
But the mayor of Fuji City belonged to the Socialist Party. A man in [Toho’s] PR section said, “Let us have an interview with the mayor,” in the beginning. But the influence was so big [that] the pressure from the top came down. So I tried to film in the location in Fuji City [quickly], because we may have been stopped! (laughs) There were such stories behind it.
DF: For years, I’ve wondered: I can’t tell if I’ve spotted a blooper in the film or not. There’s a scene where Hedorah fires a splat of sludge at Godzilla, and Godzilla takes his right hand and covers his eye. I think he’s protecting that eye. But, in the very next shot of him, [the other] hand is up, and [the right] eye is damaged. Is that an error in the film, or am I misinterpreting it?
YB: Of course, Godzilla’s eyes are a key factor in fighting Hedorah. However, I think fans have just overreacted to Godzilla’s action rather than its being a mistake. If [there was a mistake], we would have shot the scene again.
I forgot to say one thing. Toshio Shiba is killed by Hedorah. I think it was a totally different style of making the Godzilla series. I intentionally did it. A lot of people dying easily — that is the powerful and fearsome phenomenon of the environmental problem, and pollution is getting bigger and bigger.
BH: The person who co-wrote the screenplay is Takeshi Kimura, otherwise known as Kaoru Mabuchi. He’s certainly one of the most interesting people who’s ever worked on the Godzilla series. I just wanted to know about your working relationship with Mr. Kimura, writing the screenplay.
YB: At the beginning, Mr. Kimura was brought in by Mr. Tanaka. He had done a lot of scriptwriting for a number of SFX films. For this script, what he brought to me was basically unworthy. It was terrible at the beginning. So I rewrote the whole thing. I said to him, “You’re not really getting sincere about this. You’re not working hard to make this thing work.” As we worked together, and, as I rewrote it for him, Mr. Kimura gradually got onboard and started writing better things. Up to that point, he hadn’t been very successful. So our working experience at the beginning wasn’t very good, but it got better as Mr. Kimura got onboard and decided that this was going to be something worthwhile.
Mr. Kimura’s real name was Kaoru Mabuchi. [Takeshi] Kimura was his pen name. When he was in university in Osaka, he belonged to an acting troupe. At that time, he was the liaison for the other members of the acting troupe. Mr. Tanaka was the one who asked Mr. Kimura to contact him. Mr. Kimura was Mr. Tanaka’s [university] senior by two years. When Mr. Kimura turned 40 years old and resigned as a member of the Communist Party, he came to Tokyo and lived with Mr. Tanaka. After that, Mr. Tanaka and Mr. Kimura had a good relationship.
DF: When I saw the movie as a kid, full of other kids in the theater, there’s a scene where Hedorah fires a beam, and Godzilla attempts to deflect the beam or catch it; I’m not sure. Was Haruo Nakajima thinking of Ultraman because all the kids in the audience yelled, “Ultraman!” [when Godzilla makes the Ultraman gesture]. Was that something we read into it, or was it a deliberate in-joke?
YB: I asked him to do it!
BH: This interview wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t talk about some of the more psychedelic aspects of the movie. There are a lot of early ‘70s influences and a lot of strange imagery that I think set apart this movie from the rest and make it very interesting and very entertaining. I’d like to ask you where a lot of those ideas came from — if you were really into the hippie generation at the time, or if that was Mr. Kimura’s idea. Where did those ideas and that imagery come from?
YB: Most of the ideas for this movie came from me. I discussed it with Mr. Kimura many times. He became very diligent in what he was doing, but more of the environment and other themes were more of my idea. The nightclub in the movie was actually based on [a go-go club called Mugen] in Akasaka, [whose psychedelic lighting techniques were] based on a gay bar in Chicago. That’s what we used as the model for the nightclub in the movie. But everything that has to do with the environment were things that were happening at the time.
DF: In the laboratory scene where Akira Yamauchi has the [aquarium in which] the tadpole is swimming around, I cannot tell if that’s a real tadpole of an amphibian that I can’t identify, or if that’s a really well-done prop.
YB: There is a scene in which two Hedorah tadpoles put their heads together and unify. The idea of this fusion came from a fish [pond loach] living in the river. When we were shooting the scene in which the two Hedorah tadpoles unify, we put rubber on the heads of the fish. We shot the scene by having the pair of the fish touch heads. When they did that, we used special effects to complete the scene of their fusion. Generally, it costs money to make such a scene. However, we could reduce costs by using the idea of attaching rubber to the heads of the fish.
BH: Another aspect of the film I wanted to touch on was the musical score. It was composed by a man named Riichiro Manabe, who did only one other Godzilla film, Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973). While he’s not very popular, I happen to enjoy his music quite a bit. I was always curious to know how his involvement in the film came about. Did you find this composer and request him to [score] the film?
YB: I tried to make a totally different movie, separate from the ordinary ones. Everyone loves [Akira] Ifukube, and I know Ifukube; he worked for the Mitsubishi Pavilion in the expo, too. But I did research on the composers in Japan, especially using Japanese instruments. I found one person, Katsutoshi Nagasawa, a very splendid composer. But he had no experience of working in movies, so the manager of the music said, “It is very dangerous to try him.” So I chose Riichiro Manabe. He was pretty good, but he was very soft-minded, so the [music] was not powerful. So I said to him, “Please make much more courage and power in making the music.”
DF: What was Haruo Nakajima’s reaction to rolling around in the stomach-churning mud bath scene?
YB: You cannot make a film if you sympathize with the suits actors and other things used in the movie. When we had small animals that were crying in the sludge, people said, “This is too harsh!” But I told them, “You should make the scene because this is what we need for this movie.” I was just dedicated to making the film, even though it was very severe for the suits actors and others.
BH: I’ve read that you sought Ishiro Honda’s advice during the making of the film for advice on a special effects sequence. I was wondering what advice did Mr. Honda give, and did he give any indication about what he thought about the film while it was being made?
YB: During the making of the film, Mr. Tanaka got very sick, and so they asked Mr. Honda to come in and look at the almost complete project. But Mr. Tanaka would say, “No, we don’t need any retakes. If there’s something you need to add, then let’s go for that.” We only had 35 days to make the film, and we had very little budget, so we shot a few extra scenes. But I asked Mr. Honda to tell Mr. Tanaka that we wanted to add some scenes, but Mr. Tanaka didn’t want us to retake anything.
DF: Here’s a question you’ve probably had asked more than once: How did you come up with the idea to have Godzilla fly?
YB: Godzilla tried to take Hedorah out many times, and he wasn’t able to do it. He couldn’t kill him. So, as Hedorah would fly and get away, if he were to walk as Godzilla usually walks, there’s no way he’d be able to keep up with him. So we made the scene where Godzilla flies to grab Hedorah. As Mr. Tanaka was in the hospital, we made other scenes of Godzilla’s running and catching Hedorah and decided to use those scenes if Mr. Tanaka rejected the idea of having Godzilla fly. The person who was in charge in place of Mr. Tanaka at the time [Toho executive director Kazuo Baba] liked the idea of Godzilla’s flying, so he gave me the OK for it.
DF: So I guess this missing footage of Godzilla’s walking has never been salvaged and won’t appear on any DVD extras?
YB: You will not see it on any DVD. I don’t think it’s around anymore. No one’s ever seen it except me and my staff. It ended up on the cutting room floor.
BH: That question serves as a good segue to my next one. It’s a famous story that Tomoyuki Tanaka, as you have already said, was in the hospital during the making of this movie, and that when he saw the movie, he got furious at Godzilla’s character changes and did not let you direct another Godzilla movie. I wanted to know your reaction to Mr. Tanaka’s reaction to the movie and if anyone in Toho tried to defend either you or the film to Mr. Tanaka.
YB: When Mr. Tanaka saw the completed movie, it wasn’t that he got overly mad about it. He directly said to me “I do not want you to change the character [of Godzilla].” Some staff in the studio thought he was not pleasant. However, Mr. Tanaka talked with the staff in the studio before production started. I handed in the script of Hedorah, and Mr. Tanaka said, “Just stick to the idea of the script and continue to make the film. We will edit parts of the movie if necessary.”
I made all the preparations for the next Hedorah movie, but it never came to be, and Mr. Tanaka’s reaction is probably part of the reason. Mr. Tanaka died a few years ago, and I found a book on movies which said that Mr. Tanaka was very upset over the movie and that there was no way he’d ever let me make another movie. I read it a year after Mr. Tanaka died, so, if Mr. Tanaka were alive, he probably wouldn’t let me make this next movie [“Godzilla 3-D”].
Before Mr. Tanaka went to the hospital, during the shooting of the nightclub scenes, Mr. Tanaka came to look at it, but he said nothing and went home! (laughs) In the back of Mr. Tanaka’s mind, he was probably thinking, “If I let Mr. Banno make another movie, it’d probably be very dangerous what he decides to make! So I‘m not going to let him make anything else!” (laughs)
BH: You did touch on the proposed follow-up movie to take place in Africa. I was wondering if you could tell us anything about that movie, about what you planned for the sequel.
YB: Concerning the movie in Africa, it was an idea rather than anything else. I had very simply written out a few pages about doing a movie in Africa. But, more than that, there was a big exposition in Okinawa at the time [Expo ‘75]. A long time ago, 4,000 meters under the sea around Okinawa, there was a war [with the creatures living underwater]. However, we do not want to have another war with them. With that idea about Okinawa, I wrote an entire script with monsters in Okinawa [called “Godzilla vs. Gejira,” in which the monster Gejira would have been a large crown-of-thorns starfish]. It was very well-done, but Mr. Tanaka said that it was going to take too much money to make, so it never came to be. The story I wrote was more along the lines of E.T. Someday, I hope this movie becomes a reality.
BH: Teruyoshi Nakano [has] said that the critics in Japan, when this movie was released, were split 50/50. The critics either hated it or loved it. What did you think of the critical reaction in Japan at the time?
YB: At that time, the Yomiuri Shimbun [newspaper] was the only one that praised the Godzilla movie. The others ignored it. At the time, a lot of critics ignored it when the first Godzilla was released, because, if the movie earned a good reputation, other popular movies would not have kept their reputation, and it was thought that Godzilla was just a strange monster.
When it came out, many critics ignored Godzilla to protect their reputations as critics. However, Yukio Mishima said, “This is true cinema.” Once Mishima praised Godzilla, the Godzilla movie was released in America and got popular. Many people in America said, “This is a great movie.” To my mind, it was that one critic’s review who started the critical change in perception.
DF: For the scuba-diving scenes, I noticed that the facial close-ups of Akira Yamauchi had no bubbles, so I could tell he wasn’t really underwater. Then I read you yourself were his double in the scuba scene. I read elsewhere you also directed underwater. What is the truth there? What is your background with scuba and underwater photography?
YB: There were only three scenes that were taken with Mr. Yamauchi. [Because Mr. Banno is a scuba diver, he mostly appeared in the diving scenes himself.] The main reason I did that was because it’s very hard to communicate underwater. So I would tell the cameraman what was going to happen, and I asked Mr. Yamauchi to follow what I say. Mr. Yamauchi only appeared in the close-ups. One reason I cast Mr. Yamauchi is because he’s similar to my size and build. I wanted an actor who was close to my size and height. It worked out well that way. I did most of the underwater scenes myself.
DF: Were the dead swan and the old diver’s helmet shot in a tank?
YB: That scene was actually filmed in the ocean. We took that stuff out to the ocean, planted it, and shot the scene. It was shot about 20 meters deep in the ocean. We actually put all the garbage there. (laughs)
DF: For five years, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster was probably the most powerful Japanese science fiction movie I ever saw. That was until about the age of 14 when I saw The Last Days of Planet Earth (1974). What was it like working on this other environmentally aware film?
YB: I was the coordinating director on this movie. Toshio Masuda directed the movie, and Mr. Tanaka was the producer. But I co-wrote the script, and the theme of the movie is that Nostradamus’s prophecies come true in 1999 when the Earth is destroyed. It [also] concerned the pollution problem. The last sequence of the movie shows the children wounded very much, and [they] don’t like to show that sequence to many people, so it’s not on DVD yet. Everyone would like to look at it. Director [Hideaki] Anno — have you seen Evangelion? When I met him, he said the script of The Last Days of Planet Earth was very well-done. It has the same theme of the pollution, too.
BH: As I understand it, you directed the scenes that were filmed in New Guinea. Do you have any interesting stories to tell about that experience in New Guinea filming the movie?
YB: I did do all the scenes in New Guinea. We had six people who went together, assistants and other people, and we used a person from New Guinea as one of the drivers in the movie. One thing fun about that was that he would tell all his friends in New Guinea that he was in a movie that was related to the story of the assassination of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in New Guinea. At that time [pre-World War II], New Guinea was colonized by Germany, and the local people were [treated like] slaves. Then it became like a family, and the family kept growing while we were there, because he would tell his friends who’d get interested, and more and more people would come.
BH: Tomoyuki Tanaka also produced this movie, [so] I wanted to know Mr. Tanaka’s reaction to The Last Days of Planet Earth.
YB: Mr. Tanaka asked me to get onboard and help out with this movie. Mr. Tanaka did about 250 different movies, and, after the Hedorah experience, he didn’t want me to make another [such] movie. But there were a lot of documentaries and other things I was included in. There were no bad feelings between us, so he asked me to help out with this movie.
I worked on the expos that were in Osaka, Okinawa, and Yokohama. I also did a lot of documentaries. After reading in the book that Mr. Tanaka would never let me make another movie, I’m kind of thankful that it was like that because I got to do a number of things. It wasn’t just kaiju, I got to do expos, documentaries, and other projects. So I’m kind of happy about that because I had a lot of good experiences.
BH: This is a movie that is essentially banned in Japan. As I understand it, that came about because some protest groups, just after the movie was released, rallied against it because they didn’t agree with the portrayal of nuclear war survivors as mutants. Toho basically put a self-imposed ban on this movie and will have nothing to do with it anymore. What do you think about this self-imposed ban on the movie by Toho?
YB: I think they should stop closing their eyes and see what’s in reality. I’m disappointed that there was a ban put on it, but it’s not something you should close your eyes to. Toho shouldn’t close their eyes to it; they should show it. It’s reality.
BH: At this point, we’ll open it up to the audience.
Q: What did you think of Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)?
YB: Last May, I had lunch with Ryuhei Kitamura. At that time, he told me Hedorah was his favorite monster. However, he thought a movie in which only Hedorah appears would bore the audience, so he had the idea to use 11 kaiju, including Varan [possibly Gigan], in the movie. But there were so many monsters coming at once that there was no message. The director is more famous for action films, and that’s why there’s a lot of action in it. I wish there was more of Hedorah in the film.
Q: In elementary school, on Fox, there used to be this anime show called Digimon. There was this one episode where a giant Digimon made of sludge attacked a disco just like Hedorah. I noticed in a lot of shows like Digimon and Pokemon, there have been homages or knockoffs of kaiju. I don’t think anyone that I’ve talked to has ever picked up on that. What do you think?
YB: I’ve never seen this Digimon episode, so I don’t know if it’s a knockoff of Hedorah or not.
Q: You’re making a 3-D movie, and Tanaka said you’d never work in Godzilla again. But you are. So what do you have to say?
YB: It’s all in the hands of God! (laughs)
Q: There used to be a commercial on American television that almost looked like it was an outtake from this movie. They had smokestacks and pollution on the water and a Native American crying. I was wondering if any environmental groups had ever acknowledged the message you sent in this film, and if they had ever asked you to do any work for them with a pro-environmental message.
YB: Unlike Americans, the Japanese are not much into the environment. While the message I put in Smog Monster did get out, there were not a lot of environmental groups in Japan. I’ve never been asked to help out in making commercials with any groups that deal with the environment. On the other hand, I have gone around putting out the message that we should take care of the environment.
For one of the documentaries I did on beached whales, the U.N. called me up, and I was supposed to go to Johannesburg to do it, and they were going to give me fifteen minutes. It ended up being about thirteen minutes, and, because of a schedule change, I was not personally able to go to do it, but I received a certificate from the U.N., saying that they liked the message I was putting out.
Q: Can you tell us about working with Mr. Nakano, please?
YB: As I said, with everybody I’ve ever worked with, there are some good points and bad points. Mr. Nakano was an apprentice of Mr. Tsuburaya, so he had the ability and the skills needed for this project. Since he was an apprentice of Mr. Tsuburaya, he had a lot of his own ideas, but he was persistent with those ideas. Mr. [Koichi] Kawakita was more flexible than Mr. Nakano. So we sometimes struggled to make the movie, but we worked them all out.
With the new movie I’m doing now, there’s another man that Mr. [Yasuyuki] Inoue has introduced to me who also has the same kind of abilities. It was a working atmosphere, and we were able to get a lot of things done. Whether he’s a good man or a bad man, I don’t know, but he had the abilities of what he wanted to do, and Mr. Tanaka wanted him to become [successful], so they used him as much as possible to better his abilities.
One thing I told Mr. Nakano to be careful because we are professionals. That was about the image of the completed film. There is a flashback in the climax of movie. When we make a film, the director needs to imagine how the film will be. During the editing of the scenes, directors should have the overall image of the movie because the overall image has a huge impact on the quality of the movie. However, Mr. Nakano did not have the ability to edit scenes with the overall image, so I scolded him one time.
Movies like Mr. Kurosawa’s are of high quality because he was good at editing based on the image of the whole story. So the quality of a movie depends on how much the director can clearly imagine the whole story and edit it with the overall image.
Q: Who designed Hedorah, and did you have any input on designing him?
YB: I came up with transformations of Hedorah, the shape of its eyes, and the shape of its body. It was Mr. Inoue who designed the basic concept of Hedorah together with me. So we worked together on it.
Q: My question relates to the scene in the nightclub where one of the characters has the vision of the people with the fish heads. I was just wondering if it was your intention to imply that the character was under the influence of narcotics.
YB: It had nothing to do with drugs at all. I thought about [it as a] the vision of the future. Because the environment was getting worse and worse, it was more the influence from that. So it wasn’t drugs that did it to him; it was the environment that gave him that vision. I didn’t have that intention [to depict drug use].
I don’t remember exactly what was going on in the world at that time, but it might have been right after Woodstock when this movie came out. So maybe that’s why some people think that way.
Q: One of the most curious scenes for me was the one in which right at the end where Godzilla has to pluck out Hedorah’s eyes. I’m just wondering where the genesis for that idea came from.
YB: The environment is very delicate, but it’s also very scary at the same time. Godzilla did pluck out Hedorah’s eyes, and they dissolved, but then he came back to life again. The environment is a scary thing because pollution is a scary thing and because pollution is that strong. You have to destroy it completely, or it will come back again. That was the image we had when we made this. Hedorah’s eyes are very important, and, after plucking them out, you’d think it would be over, but he got up and flew away, and Godzilla had to destroy him and bring him back to the dirt. But that’s what you have to do to protect the environment.
There is a book by Rachel Carson called Silent Spring. The book is about the pesticide issue in America, and I was influenced by that book in making this movie.