Philadelphia native Elise Richter moved to Japan in the 1950s with her family, but she could not have guessed that the experience would have led to a career in the movies. While she appeared in numerous films for various studios, Ms. Richter’s best remembered role is that of Sylvia in Battle in Outer Space (1959), a colorful, action-packed space opera produced by Toho Studios. In 2014, Ms. Richter recounted her memories of Battle in Outer Space, as well as life in Japan, with Brett Homenick.
Brett Homenick: First, please tell me a little bit about your background, where you grew up, where you were born, and just tell me some information about all that.
Elise Richter: I was born in Philadelphia. My father was a newspaperman, so we moved around a lot. Then we moved to Chicago and various other places within the state. There was this call for a managing editor for Stars and Stripes, and my father answered it, then we let for Japan. I was there off and on for about 10 years.
BH: What age were you when you moved over there?
ER: I was 18.
BH: So, before you reached 18, tell me about your hobbies, growing up.
ER: Art, ice-skating, that kind of thing. Mostly art.
BH: Did you actually paint pictures? What did you do?
ER: Yeah, I went to the Chicago Art Institute, and I studied there and did some paintings.
BH: When you actually found out that you’d be moving to Japan, what was your reaction?
ER: Oh, I was thrilled. I was the one that pushed my father to take the job. I was so excited! (laughs) I mean, it was a wonderful experience! Of course, it’s quite a bit different. I’ve been back to Japan since I left there, and while I went there, it was pretty poor, a lot of bombed-out areas still. There were still those charming little cobblestone streets where you could go in and find these wonderful little restaurants, and things like that. Also, at the time, you couldn’t go to Takashimaya to buy clothes. You had to go in there, and they would have books. You would pick out what you wanted, and they would measure you and then make it for you.
Most of the women were wearing kimono and geta (traditional sandal-like footwear), but I didn’t see much of that when I went back! It was a very charming, wonderful time in my life.
BH: What were your initial reactions when you got off the plane and started to adjust to life there? Was it easy or difficult for you to adjust?
ER: I thought it was really easy. It was exciting to me, to be there, to learn, to explore. It was wonderful. We initially moved into a Japanese-style house in Meguro. It was right in the community. It was a wonderful experience. It was a tatami, and beds were traditional. I don’t know how they are now, but that’s how we lived.
BH: When you initially moved there, did you go into acting immediately, or what sort of work did you go for?
ER: I went to Sophia University. I didn’t even think of the possibility of working yet. I guess the local theater group was putting on Our Town, and I had no desire to do any of it. I was very, very, very shy! I thought that would be a good way to get over my shyness because it was always inhibiting me. So I tried out, and lo and behold I got the job. So I was Emily in Our Town.
(On) opening night there was some Japanese producer there. I don’t remember his name, but he said, “We’d like to have you in this movie.” That’s how it started. I had a weekly TV show, which I was just the girl in the background. There was a famous Japanese singer. I was the girl behind him, dancing around, and making some pretty poorly pronounced Japanese phrases and conversation. I can’t remember which came first. Maybe Battle in Outer Space was the first one, but there were about five or six movies, maybe seven, that I was in.
BH: How did you get cast in Battle in Outer Space?
ER: The producer asked me to be in it. He went to the play. Then I did some modeling. At that time, my brother was a Fulbright, and he was in Shikoku. I went down to visit him one weekend, and they had never seen a foreign woman. You’re walking through the town, you’d hear someone say, “The foreigner’s coming,” and then you’d hear an echo down the street! (laughs) A little old lady came up to me and kind of pushed me on my breast and said, “Is that real?” (laughs) So it was an adventure!
BH: When you were cast, do you remember any of the preproduction and the sort of things that were going on before the movie actually started shooting?
ER: Not really. All I did was go in for clothing for the movie, for the outer space suits. They padded my hips so I would look heavier.
BH: Why did they do that?
ER: Well, I’m not sure. My supposition was that they thought that foreigners had bigger hips, and they should have bigger hips. So the skirt I wore in the movie was slightly padded. That’s a guess. I didn’t even ask why (they) were doing this; I just went along with the program.
BH: Was the script that you received in English, or was it totally Japanese?
ER: It was in English.
BH: When it comes to working with director (Ishiro) Honda, do you have any memories of working with him?
ER: I only have fond memories. I remember what he looks like. I remember he was a very gentle person and very nice to work with. That’s all I remember.
BH: Nothing about his directing style or anything like that?
ER: No, from my recall, and I may be wrong, I don’t remember much direction at all, other than, “You go here, and you sit there, and you say this,” that kind of thing.
(In) this movie about a Dutch nurse who was in a Japanese prison camp (Shizuka nari akatsuki no senjo, 1959), he (Haku Komori) was a very proactive director. When it came to this very emotional scene in the courtroom, he said to me, “You play it any way you feel like it should be played,” which everybody said, “Oh, that was really a compliment, to let you decide how you played it.” So I guess he was nice to work with, too! (laughs)
BH: Getting back to Battle in Outer Space, obviously you don’t remember much about Honda’s direction, do you remember the translator who was used on set? Do you remember anything about him?
ER: Bill Ross. I tried to look him up, but I couldn’t find him. We had some wild parties in Japan! (laughs) I like him a lot. He was a nice guy. (He and his wife) Michie were so tight and so close. They’d been married forever. He was awful close with my family.
BH: So he was actually on set, doing all the translating.
ER: Yes, he and Michie.
BH: Do you have any memories about Bill Ross being on the set, dealing with either yourself or any of the other foreigners who were on hand?
ER: Nothing that would jump out. He was just there. He and Michie translated and told us what the director wanted. He was (the) communication between the foreigners and the Japanese staff.
BH: How about some of the Japanese cast, such as Kyoko Anzai, Ryo Ikebe, Yoshio Tsuchiya? Do you remember anything about those folks?
ER: I remember how they looked, but I don’t have any distinct memory of how they were.
BH: I see. How about some of the foreign talent, such as Len Stanford, Harold Conway, or Johnny Yusuf?
ER: Yusuf I knew. Actually, he was my agent. The others I knew, but I don’t recall. Leonard Walsh was in the film, too. I think he went back to the States, but he spoke beautiful Japanese, fluent Japanese. He was just amazing.
BH: Even aside from the film, in terms of working with Yusuf – he turns up in a lot of Japanese films, as I’m sure you’d imagine.
ER: Now this is just speculation and what I recall, (but) I thought he was a White Russian who came into Japan. That’s what my recollection is. I remember asking him how did he ever get to Japan, and I think that was the story.
BH: Certainly there are a lot of interesting sets. There’s the Moon set and all the conference rooms, many interesting sets. What do you remember filming on these elaborate sets?
ER: It was all new to me. The reality of seeing it as a set as opposed to being there is quite different. As you know, making films is kind of boring at times – most of the time, actually. You’re just sitting around, waiting. I don’t have much, really, to comment about that. They were pretty awesome sets for the time, but there was no mistaking what reality was and what wasn’t. (laughs)
BH: Did you do any location shooting? Did you go anywhere to film any of the scenes on location?
ER: I don’t recall that we did. We may have. Mind you, I haven’t thought about this for over 50 years, so it’s been a long, long time. So I don’t recall that, but certainly on other films there were a lot of different locations.
BH: In general, going to work at Toho Studios, what do you remember about going to work there, being in the commissary, dealing with some of the other talent?
ER: I remember I was given a dressing room. Mind you, it wasn’t that far off from the war. I remember opening up the door and looking up, and there was this Japanese flag flying. I thought, “Now we’re partners, we’re friends; what about all the lives that were lost on both sides? What a stupid thing war is.” That’s all. That’s what I remember vividly, opening the door and seeing this Japanese flag flying.
The Japanese actors and actresses that I worked with were all very, very kind to me. We would talk in my broken Japanese, and they would try their English. They were just a very nice group of people to work with. I was probably considered just a weird person, a weird foreigner, but I would say they were very positive feelings.
BH: Do you remember the timetable of filming?
ER: It must have been ’58, even ’59, because they made it so fast. (laughs) I didn’t realize I was there that long ago. I don’t remember what months they were, but I think it wasn’t the rainy season; it wasn’t the real hot summer season, so it must have been one or two of the others. But I can remember that Yusuf would call me and tell me when I was needed on the set, and then a car would pick me up, and I would go to the studio.
Then you’d go in the makeup room, and they’d put on the makeup. For other films, I wore different wigs, but for Battle in Outer Space there wasn’t much to be done except put on makeup and go to the dressmakers, and they would fit me for the clothes I was to wear that day. Then you just sat around until you were called, and depending on how long the takes took, it could be hours, or it could be minutes. But it was not the exciting, glamorous job that one thinks of making movies.
When you’re doing a film, you may be doing the end part of the film first or second; there’s no sequence in filming. In other words, they could start filming in the middle or at the end. Then, the last day, you might be filming the first part. So you have no sense of continuity.
BH: Do you remember if there was a premiere of the film at all, or do you remember what you thought of it when you saw it?
ER: Yes, there was. We were invited up onstage to talk. (laughs) That was embarrassing! There was a guy that was asking questions, and it was in some big theater in Tokyo. Some (actors) that had a role were asked to come onstage and talk about the movie and what their experiences were. Well, the guy talked really too fast for me, and I hadn’t been there very long, so my Japanese was pretty poor. So I just smiled and said, “I’m sorry!” (laughs) And that was okay. (laughs) I was able to say a few things and answer a few of his questions, but then it got too complex. (When) I didn’t understand his question, I just said, “I’m sorry,” and kind of giggled, and that was it.
BH: Overall, what did you think of the film and the experience making it?
ER: Well, I thought it was great fun! I loved it. I didn’t think the film was very good, nor any of the ones I was in, but it was fun. It was an interesting time in my life.
BH: Another film I know you did was Jan Arima no shugeki (1959), directed by Daisuke Ito.
ER: I love that film. I remember that I was the half-breed of this very well-known samurai lord. I don’t remember what he was, but he was the lord of the area, and I was his daughter by a Caucasian woman. I had to wear a Japanese wig and kimono, and I just thought that was great play time. I loved it. I liked the star of that film, and I can’t remember his name. He was a pretty well-known actor, very distinguished-looking.
I loved getting dressed up in kimono and walking a certain way and taking on mannerisms that were not typically mine. Oh, it was great fun. I kind of had a crush on my father, so that was great fun.
There was another one. (He was) a very famous Japanese guy. He was a young stud that was supposed to be very popular. They had an article that I was crazy in love with him, and I didn’t even know him. I was in a film with him, but I didn’t know him at all. I remember going on the subway, and these girls would come up and ask me for my autograph and say, “Do you really love this (actor)?” It was funny; they were giggling, like, “Oh, there’s that girl that says she’s in love with so-and-so!”
BH: Getting back to the film, do you remember Daisuke Ito and his directing style at all?
ER: I think he was, from my point of view, pretty non-directive. He just knew what he wanted and said what he wanted, and I think most people performed as he wanted them to. I didn’t see any conflicts at all between the actors and the director, but then I might not have been privy to that, either.
BH: Another film that you worked on was Speed Agers (1960), directed by Morihei Magatani. Ken Utsui was the star, and it was made at Shintoho, as opposed to Toho.
ER: I don’t even remember that one.
BH: Do you have any other memories of any other films or TV programs that you worked on that we haven’t already covered?
ER: There was one TV special about, I think, the Colonial U.S., and they were all on antebellum customs and everything. I was in that. Then the weekly show that I had. I think there were a couple of guest appearances, but I don’t remember where they were or what for.
BH: On the subject of modeling, do you recall or have any interesting stories about your modeling experiences or where your pictures appeared?
ER: Well, one I’m very sorry I did. It was a cigarette ad. Anyway, there were various cosmetic companies. (laughs) I remember Jerry Ito said, “You ought to dye your hair blonde. Then you’d get work all the time!”
BH: Please talk about what happened after that in Japan and what brought you back to the States.
ER: I enjoyed what I was doing while I was there, but I just didn’t think I had any future there. What was I to do there? When I was there, it was very poor. I just never imagined it to be like it is now. I know there was one gal who had a television program running weekly and stayed on and became quite well known in Japan. She was in a television series. Anyway, I just didn’t think I had a future there. I wanted to go back to school. Tokyo was fine for a little while, but I left and went back to university.
BH: How long were you in Japan altogether?
ER: Off and on, it was about 10 years. I’d come back, and then I’d go back.
BH: So, by the end of the sixties, you were back in the States full-time.
BH: What did you go on to do when you came back to the States?
ER: I went to undergraduate University of Illinois, and then I went to Berkeley graduate school. I became a psychiatric social worker, but I’ve had about 20 different professions between that time and this time. So I’ve had a lot of different job changes.
BH: Now, how do you look back at your time in Japan?
ER: Oh, very fondly. In some ways, I’m sorry I didn’t stay. But it was something that I had to do at the time. I really enjoyed it, and I have a great deal of respect for the Japanese.