IN THE GRASP OF GAIRA! An Interview with Toho Actress Wakako Tanabe!

Wakako Tanabe holding a set photo of her scene in Mothra vs. Godzilla. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Wakako Tanabe, born on January 7, 1941, began her acting career at Toho Studios in the early 1960s. During her career, she appeared in small but memorable roles in a number of the studio’s monster films. Ms. Tanabe plays Torahata’s companion while he speaks to Kumayama on the phone in Godzilla vs. The Thing (a.k.a. Mothra vs. Godzilla, 1964), Gaira’s unfortunate victim at Haneda Airport in War of the Gargantuas (1966), as well as a Kilaak in Destroy All Monsters (1968). Her other tokusatsu credits include: The Lost World of Sinbad (1963), Ironfinger (1965), episode 19 of Ultra Q (1966), episode 45 of Ultra Seven (1967-68), episode 21 of Fight! Mighty Jack (1968), episode 8 of Operation: Mystery! (1968-69), Konto 55: Space Adventure (1969), and episode 12 of Horror Theater Unbalance (1973). In August 2018, she spoke to Brett Homenick about her career as a Toho actress in this interview translated by Yasushi Okuyama.

Brett Homenick: Please tell me about your early life, growing up in Japan.

Wakako Tanabe: I was born in Manchuria, China. I was born in China at the time of the events in The Last Emperor. My father worked in the Japanese government. The government sent my father to China. We eventually came back to Japan.

BH: What kind of work was he doing?

WT: I don’t know very well, but he was the Japanese government official. He did paperwork. He was involved in communication between Japan and China when Japan controlled China. I was only three years old when I came to Japan. I don’t remember much else.

BH: Please tell us some of your early childhood memories. As a child, what were your hobbies?

WT: I started playing tennis when I was 12 years old. In high school, I once participated in the National Athletic Meet. For more than 60 years, I have played tennis. I also liked movies and revues. I lived in Kobe, so I was near the Takarazuka Revue Theater. Once a week, my father took me to the Takarazuka Revue Theater. I enjoyed the Takarazuka Revue performances.

BH: What were your impressions of Japan after the war? Was it difficult?

WT: After the war, in 1945, I was four years old. I was living in Kobe at that time. My father still worked for the Japanese government. So our family had a lot of canned foods. I didn’t have many bad experiences during the war. After the war, life wasn’t much different for us, either. It was a peaceful time for Japan after the war.

In Okinawa, there were many bad situations during the war. One out of five people died there during the war. In elementary school, our teacher told us about what happened in Okinawa.

Sometimes, I go to Okinawa. And I’m surprised there are still many military bases there. Ishigaki Island is a very small island near Okinawa. It’s a very good place that I enjoy visiting.

BH: How did you get started as an actress?

WT: I liked singing, dancing, and Takarazuka Revue, so I wanted to go to the Takarazuka Music School for Takarazuka Revue. But my father objected because I had not yet graduated from high school. At that time, many stars of Takarazuka Revue went to the Takarazuka Music School after junior high school. If students attended the Takarazuka Music School after high school, they could not become stars. So I gave up on joining Takarazuka Revue.

I also liked movies, so I was interested in acting in movies. So I chose to become a film actress instead of joining Takarazuka Revue. Then I came to Tokyo after living in Kobe. I stayed at Hisaya Morishige’s house. I knew Mr. Morishige. Mr. Morishige was an announcer for NHK in Manchuria before being an actor. Mr. Morishige and my father became friends in Manchuria because their birthplace (the Kansai region) was the same. So I was able to stay at Mr. Morishige’s house for one year when I moved to Tokyo. After high school, I enrolled at Toho Entertainment School. This was before joining the New Face program at Toho.

I went to Toho Entertainment School for one and a half years. One year after joining Toho Entertainment School, I tried to become a Toho New Face. So I tested for it. I passed half a year later. Then I quit Toho Entertainment School. After that, I joined Toho as a New Face. My classmates were Masanari Nihei and Bin Furuya. While taking the test for Toho New Face, I did some test shots with different hairstyles and from different angles. They checked me from the front and the back. I didn’t understand why they wanted to test me in so many different ways for these camera tests. After that, I understood the process. They wanted to see how I looked with a katsura (jidai geki wig) for period pieces.

BH: Do you have any earlier memories of Mr. Nihei or Mr. Furuya at the school? What were they like back then?

WT: At that time, I was 18 years old. Mr. Nihei was also 18. But Mr. Furuya was only 16. He was very young and cute. We had a lot of fun together. It was like being in high school.

BH: One of your earliest movies was The Merciless Trap (1961), with director Jun Fukuda. Can you tell us anything about working on this movie?

WT: In the first scene (opening credits), I had a bloody death. In the next scene, I was in a coffin. It was my first time to enter one. I didn’t like being in the coffin. It was uncomfortable to act as a dead person in there. A lot of crew members were standing nearby, and they were men – no women, except for the scripter. They said me if you entered the coffin, you could live a long time. It is said in Japan that actors and actresses who act as dead people will have long lives. It is also said that if you act as a deceased person in a portrait, you will live long.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: In general, what do you remember about Mr. Fukuda?

WT: I remember working with him on the Young Guy series. He didn’t say very much to me. He cast me in movies many times and often sent me scripts. I’m very thankful to Mr. Fukuda.

By the way, I learned to play the drums from Yuzo Kayama because I had to play the drums for a scene in a Young Guy movie.

BH: How about Yearning with (director) Mikio Naruse?

WT: I was probably the last actress who saw Mr. Naruse before he died. I went to the hospital one week before he died. Mr. (Tsugonobu) Kotani at that time was in France. Mr. Kotani asked me to visit Mr. Naruse in the hospital in his place. It was a small hospital. His room was on the second floor. So I went to the second floor. He was in bed with being hooked in a drip. His wife wasn’t in the room at the time, so Mr. Naruse was by himself. He said that his wife would be returning to the room soon. I didn’t think it was good for his health for me to stay long, so I said goodbye. But then he followed me downstairs. I bowed to him. He didn’t say goodbye, but he saw me off as I left the hospital. I thought he would quickly go back to his room because I had to remove the hospital’s slippers and put on my shoes, but he stayed and watched me leave.

Mr. Naruse really respected actors and actresses, so he never gave them much direction. But if it was different from his vision, he would try to direct the actors through the assistant director. But he would not give the direction himself. His direction was very gentle. It would be like, “This is a little different from my vision.” But this would only be through the first assistant director. Anyway, his film sets were very quiet.

Director Kengo Furusawa was the opposite. He was very loud and very direct with his actors. (He would shout, “That’s different!” at his actors.) Mr. Furusawa was a very fast director. Everything was fast with him. So he could direct many scenes in a day.  That is good for comedies, which Mr. Furusawa directed. But Mr. Naruse directed quiet movies.

BH: How about The Lost World of Sinbad (1963)?

WT: (Director) Senkichi Taniguchi was a manly man and had a great heart. Mr. Taniguchi was about the same age as Mr. Kurosawa and Mr. Honda. Mr. Kurosawa was the senior. Mr. Kurosawa directed many jidai geki. Mr. Honda directed special effects films. Mr. Taniguchi directed many contemporary stories and action movies. His movies were mostly for men. Mr. Fukuda was a disciple of Mr. Taniguchi. They directed the same type of films.

BH: What did you think of Mr. Taniguchi as a director? How would he direct?

WT: His film sets were very friendly. Mr. Taniguchi’s staff was very warm.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Next, we’ll talk about Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964).  Obviously, it’s a very short scene, but do you remember much about Kenji Sahara or director Ishiro Honda during this time or any other time?

WT: Kenji Sahara was my senior. He was very kind. He also gave me advice to act naturally. It means that you do not act in an exaggerated way just because it is a special effects film. Mr. Honda was a very quiet person, like Mr. Naruse. But Mr. Naruse was the quietest director, so Mr. Honda was the second quietest. Mr. Honda didn’t direct his actors very much.

I suddenly remember! I was scared of Kon Ichikawa. He often got angry at his assistant directors.

When I would wear kimono for jidai geki, I couldn’t drink water because I couldn’t use the toilet while I was wearing one. They took about 30 minutes to put on. There were many layers to those kimonos. It was very difficult to do jidai geki. I had riding lessons in Chitose-Funabashi. I had to learn how to ride a horse. I rode Toshiro Mifune’s own horses. I fed the horses sugar cubes.

BH: Let’s talk about another Honda movie, War of the Gargantuas (1966). This is maybe your best known scene in many movies. Talk about filming that scene.

WT: (laughs) That scene was shot in one day. The crane used for Gaira’s hand was very high. I don’t remember how high his arm was, but it touched the ceiling of Studio 9. Because it was a special effects scene, the staff that filmed the scene was the special effects group, like Mr. Tsuburaya and Mr. Nakano. Mr. Honda was not involved. Mr. Honda only filmed scenes that did not involve special effects. So because there were special effects involved, Mr. Tsuburaya’s team shot this scene. The office scene (without Gaira’s hand) was shot by Mr. Honda on a different day.

In the screening room at the studio, two or three days after shooting a scene, the cast and crew could watch it. When Mr. Nakajima as Gaira spat me out, a lot of the people in the room laughed. Someone said, “Wakako, you are tasteless, aren’t you?!” Because I was very thin, I didn’t have a lot of meat for Gaira, only bones! So Mr. Nakajima spat out my bones. I remember that.

BH: How was it to work with the big hand?

WT: I was just scared of it because it was so high.

BH: How were you connected to it? Were you tied to it?

WT: I was tied to it by a belt.

BH: Next, I’d like to talk about Destroy All Monsters.

WT: I don’t remember it.

BH: How about Ironfinger (1965)?

WT: I don’t remember it.

BH: Do you remember doing the Ultra Q photo? Ultra Seven?

WT: I don’t remember those, either.

BH: How about You Can Succeed, Too (1964)?

WT: In my scene, I threw something at a window to break it. During rehearsals, I did it successfully. But during filming, the glass wouldn’t break! So I did it two times, but it still didn’t break. That’s all I remember!

BH: One other (topic) I have a question about is Konto 55.

WT: I acted in a scene where I was pregnant. Kin-chan (Kinichi Hagimoto, one half of the comedy duo Konto 55) was a taxi driver in the scene. He drove me to the hospital. His on-camera part had ended, but I was still being filmed. When I was being filmed, he tried making me laugh from off-camera! He made a humorous face. He played a prank on me, but other actors at Toho never did during filming in those days. Although he was already a celebrity, he was very friendly.

BH: About Toho contracts, how often were they negotiated? Were there any issues with negotiating contracts?

WT: First, there was no renegotiating at Toho unless you changed your class. (For example, going from B-class to A-class.) Otherwise, there was no renegotiating. The contract would remain the same. If an actor wanted to quit Toho, he or she could simply quit.

At that time, there were some different methods of joining Toho Studios. For example, there was the New Face program. There were also auditions for each of the different films, as well as scouting for new talent by the studio. The contracts were another method.

The studios would scout for new talent in magazines. I think Yosuke Natsuki and Nami Tamura were scouted this way. They would look at fashion models in magazines.

BH: How did Toho change from the beginning up until the end?

WT: Toho couldn’t pay its employees anymore because the number of movies had decreased. The studio paid severance pay to the employees it released from their contracts. Before the end of the contract system, Toho did not offer severance pay to employees who left. But when Toho had to let go of many of its employees, the studio offered severance pay. I got married and quit Toho before the studio offered severance pay!

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: I’d like to mention some names, and then in one word or one sentence, mention the first thing you think of.

WT: Smile (about myself).

BH: Yosuke Natsuki.

WT: Equality. He and Toshiro Mifune treated everybody equally.

BH: Toshiro Mifune.

WT: Samurai.

BH: Akira Takarada.

WT: Strong. I just remembered: about Masumi Okada (he was about the same age as Mr. Takarada), he always gave a red rose to actresses he worked with.

BH: Kumi Mizuno.

WT: Not feminine.

BH: Yumi Shirakawa.

WT: Looks cool, but is really friendly.

BH: Shue Matsubayashi.

WT: Gassho (praying hands). He liked women. He had dinner with many female friends. After he died, I saw his son. He treated me to yakiniku dinner. I told his son about how he treated me to dinner. His son was surprised. At home, Mr. Matsubayashi ate vegetables, but never meat. Mr. Matsubayashi was a priest at a Buddhist temple. The temple was in the family, and his ancestors were all priests. Priests don’t eat meat. But he would take me out for meat dinners. His son was surprised to hear that!

BH: Hisaya Morishige.

WT: Great actor. Mr. Mifune was a great star, but Mr. Morishige was a great actor.

BH: Yasuhiko Saijo.

WT: (laughs) Ultra Q.

BH: Yoshio Tsuchiya.

WT: Spanish guitar. Mr. Tsuchiya, another actress, and I were on the bullet train going to a movie location in Osaka. During a stop at Odawara Station, Mr. Tsuchiya left the train to buy some tea. Outside the train, we saw him dancing through the train window! Then the door closed, but he continued to dance! So he had to catch the next train. He had a good personality.

BH: Hideyo Amamoto.

WT: Wow! (laughs) Spaceman.

BH: Mie Hama.

WT: 007.

BH: Yuriko Hoshi.

WT: Laughter. Her nickname was “Ogera.” It’s based on the Japanese word “gera-gera warau,” which means “ to laugh loudly.”

BH: Akihiko Hirata.

WT: Gentleman.

BH: Who were your best friends at Toho? Who did you get along with the most?

WT: Bin Furuya and Masanari Nihei. We are about the same age. We’ve been friends for 60 years. Next year will be the 60th anniversary. We are planning the 60th anniversary party.

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