MEMORIES OF JAPAN’S MASTER MONSTER MAKER! Keizo Murase Shares the Secrets of the World’s Greatest Kaiju!

 

Keizo Murase (with Varan) in April 2018. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Born on October 5, 1935, in Ikeda, Tokachi, Hokkaido (where his family home still is), Keizo Murase is a veteran kaiju suitmaker who began his career at Toho in 1958, leaving an indelible mark on the genre with his work on Varan the Unbelievable (1958).From there, Mr. Murase also worked on Mothra (1961), Gorath (1962), Matango (1963), Godzilla vs. the Thing (1964), Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster (1964), Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), Gamera (1965), the Daimajin series (1966), Yongary Monster from the Deep (1967), Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), The Mighty Peking Man (1977), Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), and Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), creating many of the iconic monsters from not just Japan but from all over the world. In April 2018, Mr. Murase spoke with Brett Homenick about his life and career in an interview translated by Manami Takagi (with Daisuke Sato).

Keizo Murase: At that time (during the making of Gorath), I was the first person to use FRP (fiber-reinforced plastic). One day, I showed the fake teeth (for Magma) to Eiji Tsuburaya, but he was upset and rejected it. He asked, “Why did you make such expensive teeth?” He was mad at me. Mr. Tsuburaya thought the teeth were made out of ivory. That’s why he was upset. Actually, the teeth were made with FRP.

So I explained to Mr. Tsuburaya that this was not expensive and that glass fiber is very cheap. So I was the first person who used glass fiber for teeth and other things in monster movies.

Brett Homenick: What did they use before FRP for teeth?

KM: We used steel wire netting.

BH: What kind of material did they put on top of the wire netting?

KM: We put washi paper on them. After we put on the washi paper, we’d put on some kind of fabric. It’s not like the fabric used for T-shirts; it doesn’t stretch. It’s like a curtain fabric that doesn’t stretch. So we put washi paper on the wire netting followed by the curtain fabric, which is how we made the teeth or claws of the monsters before that. The monsters would fight, of course, so sometimes their claws would break or become dislodged. Sometimes Godzilla would bite something, so his teeth would break as a result. Every time it happened, we mended the broken parts and continued shooting.

BH: I’d like to start at the very beginning. I understand you were born in Hokkaido. Please tell me about your early life.

KM: Until I turned 23 years old, I worked in the family business as a farmer. We had a horse and cows, and sometimes I had to milk the cows. My family had a farm, so we had a lot of farm equipment and machines. Sometimes the machines would break down, so my parents would try to fix them, and I would help them. So that’s why I am good at these things. After I moved to Tokyo, I was asked, “How come you’re so good with machines and fixing things?” It is because I grew up on a farm and had to fix farm equipment.

Actually, I didn’t have many difficulties in making Godzilla or Varan. But, for me, it was difficult to use new materials and new techniques, so that was the main issue for me. Developing new technology was hard because no one had done it before.

BH: Do you have any stories about the war? Did you have any hardships during the war?

KM: One day, I looked up at the sky, and I thought I saw a raven.  I told my father, “There’s a big raven in the sky!” My father replied, “There is no raven.” It was actually a Grumman. The Grumman’s carrier-based fighter aircraft (maybe an F6F Hellcat) looked like a raven. It was that type of aircraft, and it was in the sky every day. Also, B-29s from Tokyo were in the sky, too. There was one every 10 days on average. Sometimes they destroyed bridges and railway roundhouses. The war ended when I was in the 5th grade in elementary school. After the war ended, I saw some soldiers shooting at grape vines. They were probably just fooling around. It was after the war.

Even when I was in junior high school, I dreamed that anywhere I ran, I was caught by Americans. I would have this nightmare for about four or five years. In my memory, it didn’t happen every day, of course, so my experience wasn’t that bad, I think, but my nightmare was awful. In my nightmare, the soldier was driving a jeep, and it scared me. I would be trying to run away, but in the end, the soldier would catch me. This is the first time I’ve ever shared this childhood memory.

Of course, the war ended when I was a child, so I don’t remember much about the war. But I had a skin disease called atopic dermatitis. It was bad. One time, I went to a university hospital in Hokkaido, and I was asked if I knew anyone who lived in a warmer place. I said that my older brother lives in Tokyo. The doctor recommended that I go to Tokyo, which would probably help my skin. That’s why I decided to move to Tokyo. It was not for Godzilla!

When I first moved to Tokyo, my skin healed. Then I went back to Hokkaido, and started working again on the farm. But one week later, my skin got bad again. So I started to think that I couldn’t live in Hokkaido anymore. So I decided to move to Tokyo, and I told my parents about the advice of my doctor. So I moved to Tokyo, and at first, I wasn’t doing anything. At that time, some students at Tama University (an art university) were helping to make Godzilla Raids Again (1955). But the students had to go back to university after the break. After that, there was nobody available to help work on the movies. My brother was working for Toho, and he said, “My brother is in Tokyo, and he’s not doing anything. He’s really good at making things.” So he recommended me to Toho. That’s how I started working at Toho.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: What is your brother’s name?

KM: Tsugio Murase. He’s five years older than I am.

BH: Well, let’s talk about the family because now we know that three Murase family members worked at Toho.

KM: I have two sisters. My sister (who worked for Toho) is name is Yasuko Murase. I have a younger sister, who never worked for Toho. Her name is Keiko, and she still lives in Hokkaido.

BH: What kind of work did they do?

KM: Yasuko worked for the costume department, so for war movies, she sometimes had to prepare the costumes for 30 or 40 actors playing soldiers. She also had to prepare the main characters’ costumes. At that time, the main stars would not wear their own clothes, so they made their costumes for every movie. Back then, the clothes of the main actors and actresses were handmade. Most soldiers and supporting actors would wear ready-made clothes. The top six or so actors in a movie would wear hand-made clothes. The other actors wore ready-made clothes.

Yasuko passed the test for Zengirin, and sometimes she won prizes from the association. She designed the pattern, and then sewed it and made the clothes. She was able to do it. The association was organized by Bunkacho (Agency for Cultural Affairs). It’s a prestigious prize she won. She is still in good health and makes clothes for her grandchildren.

At first, my brother worked for Shintoho as an assistant designer before joining Toho. He also worked as an assistant designer in the art department at Toho. He was recruited by Toho because the studio liked his work.

BH: Let’s talk about Varan some more. Please talk about working on your first major Toho monster, what you did, and what the experience was like.

KM: At first, I was an assistant. In addition, we also had to build the houses and farms that needed to be destroyed by the monster. But I could make the farms without looking at magazines or pictures for reference because I know how they look. The Yagi brothers used to ask me, “Are you OK without using any photos? Can you make them?” I replied, “No problem. Every day, I used to look at farms, so I can make them with no problem.”

(looking through his picture book) Sometimes when looking at old photos, I think, “This is not my work. I didn’t make this.” But I’d just forgotten it. During this time, our work was so busy. One day, a design would come in. Then shooting would start a week later. We had to make it by then. So we were always rushed. That’s why I sometimes forget what I made. I was very busy. Other times, I’d realize I made a certain monster because there’d be an older woman who worked for me in the photo. I’d think, “Oh, I remember her! I must have made this.” I’ve been very busy and am still very busy, so I can’t remember everything I’ve made. Sometimes, I don’t even remember the work I finished a month before.

When I was talking to Mr. Tsuburaya, we were eating peanuts. Of course, we had to crush the shell in order to eat the peanuts and throw the shells away. So I said to Mr. Tsuburaya, “What do you think about this shell? I think it would look good on Varan’s back.” Mr. Tsuburaya asked me, “How would you make it with peanut shells?” I replied, “Let me make a sample.” So I made a sample, and Mr. Tsuburaya thought it was very interesting. So that’s how we made the back of the Varan suit.

BH: Let’s talk about some of the other work, such as Mothra, which of course is a very well-known movie around the world. Please talk about working on Mothra and what you did working on that film.

KM: I made Mothra’s eyes and wings. The wings were made with bamboo. The (1992) Mothra’s wings were made with a glass fiber rod, but the original Mothra’s wings were made with bamboo. The bamboo we used was double-coated. The green side was outside. It was double-coated, so it was very strong. If it were glass fiber, it would be very easy to stretch. But since this was bamboo, it could not stretch. It was very tough to bend. It took three weeks to make in total. It took two weeks to make the model, and then another week to apply the fabric and put the finishing touches on it. It took just one day to paint it. The feet were made with wire netting. So they always broke or fell off. After one take, it may have lost its feet! They were very delicate, but the material was not good enough. After that, we made the feet with FRP. So the feet were much sturdier after that.

For the eyes, Mr. Tsuburaya ordered me to make them sad-looking. The newer Mothra’s eyes were very mechanical. But for the first one, I was ordered to make the eyes sad-looking due to the nature of the story. The first Mothra’s eyes were totally handmade, so it’s completely different from the newer one. It was made by machines. With the first Mothra, I tried to express a sad feeling in the eyes, or it looks a little bit like tears in the eyes. That’s how I tried to express it.

There is a big difference between the eyes of the first Mothra and new Mothra. The first one is sad-looking and all handmade.

BH: When did they start using molds at Toho?

KM: With the 1984 Godzilla. At first, only head would be sculpted. For the first Godzilla, (Teizo) Toshimitsu sculpted its head.

BH: What involvement did you have in making the Godzilla suits? Which suits did you work on, and what did you do with the suits?

KM: Godzilla’s skin was too heavy and hard to move. The Yagi brothers made the inner model (the white base of the suit), the head was made by Mr. Toshimitsu, and I made the skin. For the skin, some part-time workers, mainly married women, they peeled the fabric sponge (foam rubber) and stuck it on the suit. They did it one-by-one. The sizes of the pieces were random in order to make the skin look realistic. I designed the look of the skin and decided which pieces of the skin would go where, so the part-time workers applied the skin to the suit according to my design.

At first, the hands, feet, and everything were made by the Yagi brothers from wire netting. After that, my job was to make the skin, design the order, and how to put it on the suit.

BH: Was King Kong vs. Godzilla the first one?

KM: Yes, it was.

BH: Which was the last one?

KM: The last one was in 1964, so Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster. I also made Godzilla’s tail. Two tails would be made. One tail was just for destroying buildings. So it was different from the one on the suit. There was wood in the tail, so a crane would pull it and swing it around to destroy the buildings. I built two tails for each movie. One tail was to destroy the buildings, and the other was for the suit. When Godzilla destroys a city with his feet, Haruo Nakajima is really in the suit, using his feet to crush the buildings. But the tail was different.

BH: Let’s talk about King Ghidorah. Other than Godzilla, it’s probably the most popular design of any monster. Please talk about your involvement in making King Ghidorah.

KM: I made King Ghidorah’s necks. I made them the same way I made Godzilla’s tail. The inner model was made by the Yagi brothers out of wire netting. I also painted the suit.

There are many rumors about King Ghidorah’s color! I only remember gold. (Black was the base color.)

BH: But it was always intended to be gold.

KM: While making the suit, the latex became very sticky, so we put baby powder on it. After that, perhaps it looked blue due how to the baby powder reflected light. But it was not the final stage. It still needed to be painted gold.

We never painted it blue. The SFX scripter (Keiko Suzuki) once said there was a blue King Ghidorah. She must have been in the studio and seen King Ghidorah before it was finished. But the suit was not finished. When I was at Mr. Nakajima’s book publishing party, I told her there was never a blue King Ghidorah. But she insisted that she saw it. So I explained it was not finished when she saw it. Even though she wrote that King Ghidorah was gold in the script, she said there was a blue King Ghidorah. So everybody got confused.

The skin was too heavy, so at first the suit actor was not able to move. So some of King Ghidorah’s body parts were moved with piano wire, so many staff members had to operate the piano wire at the same time. The piano wire had to be on in three places on the head in order to move it: the back of the head, the forehead, and the top of the back. To move the head side-to-side the head, piano wire was attached to the left and right cheeks. At first, Mr. Nakajima tried to wear the suit, but it was too heavy, and he couldn’t do it. It was Fumio Nakashiro’s idea to manipulate King Ghidorah with wires. It took 10 people to make King Ghidorah move. Mr. Nakashiro was the chief assistant director of practical effects, and it was his idea and design in terms of how to move King Ghidorah. Under Mr. Nakashiro was Sho Ogawa, a practical effects assistant. There were about 10 people working under Mr. Ogawa.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Let’s talk about making the suit for Baragon from Frankenstein Conquers the World.

KM: Frankenstein’s forehead is like a flattop, and at first we tried to put it on the actor’s head, but it wouldn’t stay on. So we had to use glue to attach it, so the actor had an allergic reaction to it because it was a chemical glue.

This was around the time I left Toho. It was my final work at Toho. At the time, Tsuburaya Productions recycled Godzilla and other monster suits for their TV series. At that time, I knew I was going to quit, and that Mr. Tsuburaya was going to leave, too.

BH: Why did you quit Toho?

KM: Because Mr. Tsuburaya was going to leave. If Mr. Tsuburaya isn’t there, Godzilla would disappear, too. Mr. Tsuburaya nurtured me and my ideas.

BH: Next, please talk about going to Daiei Studios, and particularly Gamera.

KM: When I was still at Toho, I started working on Gamera. So, after I finished my work at Toho, I went to (Masao) Yagi’s home and worked on Gamera as a part-time job. We built the Gamera suit the same way we built Godzilla’s; we followed the same procedure. First, the suit was made by wire netting, and the same procedure followed after that.

BH: What ideas did you bring to Gamera?

KM: My job was to make Gamera’s skin, and my issue was to make light. At the time, it was made with latex. For the shell, we put burlap on top of the wire netting. The skin was made with latex, so it was soft. But latex was not strong enough for the shell. So, to make it stronger, we used burlap for it. The skin was latex.

BH: Did you work on Daimajin?

KM: I worked on the second and third Daimajin movies. The first Daimajin was made by Ryosaku Takayama. It was very heavy. For the second Daimajin, I worked with The Exproduction to make it light. So I also made Daimajin’s armor lighter. I made the second and third Daimajin. There was a fourth Daimajin, too. I made the Daimajin for the last scene of the third movie (Wrath of Daimajin, 1966) in which it disappears in snow. That was my idea. We used a mosquito net and a car antenna in the center, and when Daimajin fades away, we turned on a big fan, so the antenna would automatically fall down. The powder we used for snow would blow, and Daimajin would collapse. The SFX director, (Yoshiyuki) Kuroda, was shooting the last scene. We did it in one take, and he approved it. It was perfect, and he admired the scene.

Mr. Kuroda and I thought about how to make the final scene. We tested many ideas, but we finally decided on a plan. We tried it, and it was successful in only one take.

BH: Yongary

KM: I was the supervisor of the suit, and then sent it to Korea. My assistant, Yukio Fujisaki, went to Korea and supervised on the set. But I did not go to Korea. I just built it and sent it there.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Titanosaurus…

KM: When my son was in elementary school, he helped me make Titanosaurus. Mothra was very well-known as a beautiful kaiju, but Titanosaurus was very bright and shiny. It attracted people’s attention because it was very beautiful.

I didn’t go to the set of this movie (Terror of Mechagodzilla). People sometimes ask me how I made such a long and strong neck. There was a stainless steel, meter-long ruler inside the neck.

BH: My last question is about Mighty Peking Man. If there any interesting memories or any interesting stories about this (movie), please tell me.

KM: At first, they were trying to do a remake of King Kong in Hong Kong, but they were not able to get the rights. So they came up with idea of using the Peking Man instead of King Kong. The story was very similar to King Kong.  

In the beginning, five staff members from Daiei were working on the movie. We didn’t have enough time, and things were so rushed because we had to work in such a short time. Before the movie was completed, the Daiei staff’s visas expired, so everybody had to leave Hong Kong. After that, I asked my colleagues at Toho for help, so eight staff members from Toho started working on this movie. So it was hard. Together, we were able to complete the movie. I organized and coordinated the Japanese staff in Hong Kong.

There was a stuntman, and he was supposed to be on fire and fall off a building. But that stuntman refused to do the stunt. The studio was supposed to insure the stuntman, but they didn’t. So the shooting stopped for a week. Everybody was worried because our visas would expire in one week. So I said, “Okay, I made it, so I will do it.” So I became a stuntman! I was lit on fire and jumped off the building. I was six meters high. I had two spare suits, so I could try three times. I put some gunpowder in the air for the scene where the helicopter was attacking the Peking Man. On the ground, there was a mattress when I jumped.

This movie would not have been able to be completed without my effort, so everybody from the director on down was worried about this scene. So I said, “I know this suit very well, so I guess I am the only one who can do it.” Then I did it.

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