MAKING GODZILLA FLY! An Interview with Godzilla Director Yoshimitsu Banno!

Photo © Brett Homenick.

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.

Brett Homenick: The first question for Mr. Banno is, How did you get started in the film business?

Yoshimitsu Banno: In my high school days, I did some plays in theaters, and I established one team of drama performance, but it was very difficult to live 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, The Lower Depths, The Bad Sleep Well, and The Hidden Fortress. The Hidden Fortress was the first Cinemascope movie Kurosawa adopted. He showed a very tall guy and a small guy next to each other, and George Lucas said he imitated the image Akira Kurosawa made of the contrast of height.

Anyway, after that, I established an underwater filming team. I do scuba diving. For 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! But Toho asked me to be the director of the planning section, and I changed my course to them.

Damon Foster: I was surprised to read that Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster had what was considered a low budget because it supposedly had less prominent actors. I saw Toshio Shiba in Shiruba Kamen, Silver Mask. He was also in the pilot episode of the Mirrorman 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 movie in cooperation with Eiji Tsuburaya. In 1970, the people who went to the theaters in Japan decreased very much. So Mr. Tanaka said, “If you make a movie, you have two points possible. 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. This was a big event, the biggest event ever done because 60 million people visited there. He produced the Mitsubishi Pavilion, and I assisted the pavilion’s work. That was the last work of Eiji Tsuburaya. They made a storm scene and a volcanic eruption scene for it. 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 keep the budget down. One was, don’t use the very famous, expensive staff. Usually, the Godzilla series is filmed by the drama section and the special effects section, two teams. They have about 50 or 70 staff members. But I organized only one team of almost 40 members. Because Tsuburaya died, the director of special effects was Teruyoshi Nakano. But producer Tanaka said, “Tsuburaya is the only director of special effects. Nakano is only the technical assistant.” So I directed the movie with one team, using the photographer of SFX side, who also filmed the drama part, too.

In that time, Toshio Shiba had no reputation. He was very young. I forgot about him. About 20 years ago, I was the producer of a two-hour TV program about an earthquake in Tokyo, 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: In the beginning, when the first Godzilla movie was planned, everyone said, “Oh, no one could make such a film.” Godzilla’s name comes from gorilla and also from kujira (Japanese for whale). Only one person, Vice President Iwao Mori, was keen on it, and other directors didn’t like the plan.

But Tanaka and Tsuburaya made a model of it and studied it for almost one year. 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 big message for civilization. After that, there were several good pictures, Mothra, Rodan, and many science fiction films. At the time, Tanaka asked me to think about the theme of the new Godzilla movie, and because of the air pollution and things like that, I asked him if it was okay to make a pollution monster. He said okay because the government also said environmental movies are very important.

But the mayor of Fuji City belonged to the Social Party. A man in the PR section said, “Let us have an interview with the mayor,” in the beginning. But the inference is so big that the pressure from the top came down. So he had to use his power and courage, and I tried to film in the location in Fuji City, but we had to hurry because we could have been stopped! (laughs) There were such stories behind it. There was a lot of politics involved.

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: The most important thing for Godzilla would be his eyes in this case, so he wanted to protect them, but he didn’t make it with the one eye. I think you’re thinking a little too much about it! (laughs) He was trying to protect his other eye at the same time. I don’t think it’s a blooper.

I forgot to say one thing. Toshio Shiba is killed by Hedorah. I think it’s a totally different style of the Godzilla series. I intentionally did it. A lot of people dying easily; that is the environmental problem. Pollution is getting bigger and bigger.

BH: The person who co-wrote the screenplay is Takeshi Kimura, otherwise known as Kaoru Mabuchi. He’s one of the most interesting people who’s ever worked on the Godzilla series. I 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 they brought to me was basically junk. It was no good 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.” Gradually, 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 was very energetic. He was a Communist for quite a while. So during school and everything else, they’d have the songs that they sing, and they got very emotional. During those times, Mr. Tanaka would have him run errands; he’d be more of a gofer than anything else because he was hard to deal with. When he turned 40 years old, he quit Communism, and they brought him to Tokyo, and he was a lot easier to work with. That’s when they started to give more work to him.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

DF: Here’s another question that I gotta ask. 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: You’re onto this one! (laughs) In fact, Mr. Nakajima and I were thinking the same thing on the set, and I told him, “Please do it for me.” We purposefully went for the Ultraman pose.

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 would fight with Mr. Kimura an awful lot. He became very diligent in what he was doing, but more of the environment and other themes were more of my idea. The go-go club in the movie was actually based on a gay bar in Chicago that we came to study. That’s what we used as the model for the go-go club in the movie. But everything that has to do with the environment, a lot of the influences in the movie, 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 was a very little fish that looks like a tadpole that we used at the beginning. But we added some special effects to it. It turned out better than we thought it would. As it grows bigger, as we’re taking the shots, it naturally did better than what we expected. It’s kind of half and half. We used a real fish at the beginning, and we threw in a little special effects to put them together.

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. 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, separated from the ordinary ones. Everyone loves 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 those who use Japanese instruments. I found one person, Katsutoshi Nagasawa, a very splendid composer. But he had no experience working in movies, so the manager of the music said, “It is very dangerous to try him.” So I chose Riichiro Manabe. He’s pretty good, but he’s very self-minded, and the theme song wasn’t 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’re not supposed to feel any emotion for the actors because if you do, they won’t do what you want them to do. I care about them, but we had little animals that were caught in the sludge, so I told them, “You should take it because this is what we need for this movie.” He did it whether he liked it or not. Mr. Nakajima didn’t say whether he had fun or not when he got done with the scene! (laughs)

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 what he thought of the film as 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. He came in to think about doing retakes for things that he thought weren’t done well, but the thing I thought was good about Mr. Tanaka as he was in his hospital bed, as he was talking to Mr. Honda, Honda would tell him what he thought we should retake, and 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 very little budget, and so we made a few extra scenes. But I asked Mr. Honda to tell Mr. Tanaka that we wanted to add something, but he didn’t want to retake anything, so I actually asked him to tell Mr. Tanaka this is what we wanted.

DF: Here’s a question you’ve probably been asked more than once: How did you come up with the idea to have Godzilla fly?

YB: Basically, Godzilla tried to take Hedorah out many, 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 go grab Hedorah. As Mr. Tanaka was in the hospital, we were worried that he might not like it that Godzilla was flying. So we made others scenes of Godzilla’s running and catching Hedorah. The person who was in charge in place of Mr. Tanaka at the time liked the idea of Godzilla’s flying, so he gave me the okay and told Mr. Tanaka it looks really good, and we finished the movie without Mr. Tanaka‘s knowing about 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.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: That question serves as a good segue for 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. I’d also like to know if anyone in Toho defended 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 didn’t blow up, but he said, “Well, I guess there’s no way we change that.” That was his reaction. So I got the feeling that Mr. Tanaka didn’t like what was going on in the movie. But a lot of the staff members really liked the speed and a lot of the changes, so in a sense, they backed me up.

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. So the timing’s good! (laughs)

Before Mr. Tanaka went into the hospital, while we were filming the go-go scenes, the dancers had fish heads in the scene, and 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 more of an idea than anything else. I had very simply written out a few pages about doing a movie in Africa. But more than that, they had a big expo in Okinawa at the time, and I wrote an entire script of the monsters in Okinawa. 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. More than Africa, the one in Okinawa was the big script I had written. The story I wrote was more along the lines of E.T. I wrote it many years ago, so I had the idea first! (laughs) Someday, I hope this movie becomes a reality. It’s a similar story to E.T., but I had the idea first!

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: I don’t know if it was 50/50, but during that era, there were certain movies that if you put too much money into them, people would avoid them. At the time, a lot of people ignored Godzilla, especially this movie, because they thought there was too much money involved in some parts of it and that Godzilla was just a freak of nature. When it came out, we ignored the bad reviews. There was one critic who came out and said, “This is a great movie.” It was from that one critic who said it was good that other people started looking at it that way and reexamined their opinions. So 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 the facial close-ups of Akira Yamauchi have no bubbles, so I can 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. Everything else was me in those scenes. I am a scuba diver. 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 did the whole thing. 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 wasn’t done in a tank. 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. What was it like working on this other environmentally aware film?

YB: I was an assistant or 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 scene of the movie shows children wounded very much, and it shocked many people, so it’s not on DVD yet. The director of Evangelion said to me when I met him that the script of The Last Days of Planet Earth was very well done. It has the same theme of the pollution.

BH: As  I understand it, you directed the scenes that were filmed in New Guinea. Do you have any interesting stories about filming the movie in New Guinea?

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 as well. One thing fun about that was that he’d brag to all his friends in New Guinea that he was in the movie, so 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. So it was a little family-oriented there at the end and a lot of fun.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Tomoyuki Tanaka also produced this movie, and I wanted to know his 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 Hedorah movie. But there were a lot of documentaries and other things I was included in. There were no bad feelings between us in that sense, so he asked me to help out with this movie. Especially with many of the expos they had in Japan, I did a lot of work on those and was asked to help out, so I 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’s 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. So Toho put a self-imposed ban on it and will not have anything 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?

YB: Before they started making the movie, I had lunch with Ryuhei Kitamura. At that time, he told me Hedorah was his favorite monster. So you’d think Hedorah would be in it a lot more. I thought there was too much Varan (possibly Gigan – BH) in the movie, and it would have been better with more Hedorah. 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 the people scenes. 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 I’ve ever talked to has 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 or if there‘s any influence from it. But it is possible that there are monsters out there who have been influenced by Hedorah.

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 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: With everybody I’ve ever worked with, there are some good points and bad points. Mr. Nakano was an understudy of Mr. Tsuburaya, so he had the ability and all the skills needed for this project. He had a lot of his own ideas, so we had some problems during the making of the movie, but we worked them all out. With the new movie I’m doing now, there’s another man that Mr. Inoue has introduced to me who also has the same kind of abilities. He’s a good man as well. I’m looking forward to it. 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 a star, so they used him as much as possible to better his abilities.

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