Body of the Prey is a low-budget science fiction thriller that was produced in Japan in the late 1960s, but only recently has it received much attention in the West. Having been released on home video and/or written about under several different titles (such as The Revenge of Dr. X, Venus Flytrap, and The Devil Garden), research on the making of the movie has proven difficult. Over the years, however, many of the gaps have been filled in. Directed by Norman Thomson, with a script at least partially written by Edward D. Wood, Jr. (of Plan 9 from Outer Space infamy), and starring former MGM contract player James Craig, the film still poses many unanswered questions. Thus far, no member of the cast has ever been interviewed since the movie ceased production – until now.
Atsuko Rome (née Atsuko Yamamoto) was born in Tokyo. In the early stages of World War II, her parents’ Tokyo home was destroyed. As a result, her family lived on the beach about an hour away in Oiso, Kanagawa Prefecture. After the war ended, her parents bought another house in Tokyo. In the 1940s, she studied piano under Iva Toguri, a.k.a. Tokyo Rose, during her childhood. She learned English and even a little French at a young age at Toyo Eiwa Jogakuin in Roppongi. She would remain in Tokyo until she moved to the United States in the 1960s.
Her husband, Air Force Lt. Col. Bernard Melvin Rome (whom she married in 1963 in Tokyo), brought the audition for Body of the Prey to her attention, saying that if she was interested, she should try out for it. Prior to her casting in the film, she had performed classical ballet.
Around the same time that Body of the Prey was filmed, Ms. Rome auditioned for and was accepted to join the dance team of the Stardusters, a large jazz orchestra founded by Hiroshi Watanabe. She began training to become a dancer with the group, practicing jazz dance. Unfortunately, the act went bankrupt before she could begin performing.
Since completing the film, Ms. Rome worked as a fashion adviser for about 20 years with Chanel in the U.S., but has recently retired. In July 2018, Atsuko Rome answered Brett Homenick’s questions about her starring role in Body of the Prey.
Atsuko Rome: When I auditioned for this movie, I had to be able to swim, drive, and speak some English. It was lucky (for me). I got in.
BH: I read a comment that you had made in an old newspaper article for Stars and Stripes. I believe you had said that you weren’t interested in pursuing acting. So why did you decide to audition for this movie?
AR: Well, that comment was after I’d finished the movie. I didn’t have that before this. That comment you read was already in or finished. It was something new. For instance, I did modeling – things like that – in Tokyo. I also did it because an artist (Genichiro Inokuma) recommended me. I like something new. I like to learn anything. So if some opportunity comes, I just go with the flow. If it’s something new and interesting, then I go.
So this was more like modeling. I was introduced. “Why don’t you try?” It was the Tokyo Fashion Model Club. Then it was a large modeling company. They had an all-day test. The newspapers were involved and everything. So I went in. Just lucky, I got in. Then training started. I try things that come to me. I wasn’t saying, “Oh, I’d like to try the movie world.” It just happened that something came up. I liked it, then I said, “I will try.” Then they chose me. I did, and I enjoyed. So this is why I was in that movie.
We traveled for the scenery – Hakone, Shimoda, those places. Later on, we had the Sanno Hotel, which is in Akasaka. That was the opening for that movie. They had a huge party in the hotel. Around that time, I think the movie Sayonara was made before ours. My brother came to the party and said, “You did better than that leading lady in Sayonara!” (laughs) So it was fun. Japanese movie actor Ryo Ikebe came to the party. It was very nice.
BH: Did they ever explain to you why specifically they chose you over anybody else who auditioned?
AR: They didn’t tell me the details too much. I was just fit – I could swim. Every summer, we went to the beach. So I could swim. I could drive – things like that. Of course, I had trouble in that scene because I had to drive a sports car. It was not easy for me then because I wasn’t used to driving a gear shift. They didn’t tell me the details. But they had some Chinese and some Japanese people.
BH: After that, what happened next? Were you fitted for costumes? Was there anything like that before shooting started?
AR: Yes, of course. For the kimono, I used my own. They prepared (my other costumes). It was not a huge production. Young people got together. Mr. Thomson was a writer. I think he had a lot of paperbacks. One I heard was “Kill Me in Shinjuku,” and so forth. I never read his books. I think this group production was more like a hobby. I don’t know the detail of things like that. But that was a group of people working for government, retired people from the U.S. military. Those people, I think, invested in it. Then they invited James Craig as the main person from the U.S.
BH: Let’s talk about the director, Norman Thomson, for a moment. What are your memories of him, and how was he as a director? How would he direct you in scenes?
AR: To me, he was a very easygoing person. In the scenes, he didn’t really give me a hard time at all. We worked together very smoothly. I think the director talked really well and prepared. “You have to do this.” They made the schedule for me. I had to naturally memorize the things. (laughs) It was not easy for me. But that’s the way we did. Everything went very smoothly. Several times, of course, we had to check the movie. That I went to. Everything went so smoothly.
BH: What about James Craig? What are your memories of working alongside him?
AR: James Craig was a Hollywood actor. He was in Westerns. He looked very close to Clark Gable. That’s what I heard, but he didn’t get big. But he was a good-looking man. He looked good then. I watched a lot of American and French movies. My mother took me to French movies. As an actor, I think he was pretty good. I don’t know how Mr. Thomson brought him. But he came directly from Hollywood.
Mr. Craig had more experience in the movie world. I lived in Tokyo, so I was separated most of the time. Personally, he was a very easygoing person. There were some things because of weather. On the set, sometimes I had trouble, or he had trouble. (laughs) In the water scene, we had to use an aquarium in Shimoda. It was a quite large circle aquarium. It was under the water, so the aquarium had about 200 fish swimming around. We had to use the diving gear, so we had trouble using that diving gear. Oh, he had trouble that time. That kind of trouble we had. Every day, something happened.
At the beach, sometimes the wave was so high. (laughs) I had to wear a bikini, and sometimes because of the waves, I had trouble. My bikini came off! But it was not in the picture. All kinds of fun memories. I think when I had trouble, sometimes people were annoyed because it was getting dark. Everything went very well. I just remember he was a very kind man. He did what he did. I don’t have any complaints, just good memories.
BH: When you say that you had trouble with the scuba gear, what do you mean by that? What kind of trouble?
AR: I didn’t (have trouble). He started gagging in the water. I don’t know that he had experience of using the tank. I don’t know what was the problem, but we had to retake three, four, five times. Then, of course, because of the pressure of the water in the aquarium, and the tank is quite large, the pressure is very high. He had trouble. I didn’t have trouble. I learned diving with gear.
I got bitten by a fish, but no, I didn’t have trouble.
In the aquarium, because there were 200 different kinds of fish were swimming around. You go to the bottom of the tank, and then release the gear, and then I had to swim around because the scene was under the water. While I was swimming around, one of the fish – or something – bit me. I remember that! (laughs) I had to go down. A ladder was there, so I had to go all the way down. At the bottom, you just let the gear go, then I had to swim under the water, searching for the medicine.
BH: Do you remember anything about the hunchback?
AR: I don’t. I forgot his name. I think he was an actor from somewhere. I don’t know at all.
BH: Do you remember who was in the monster suit? Was that a crew member? Was that a professional suit actor?
AR: Most of those scenes were taken in Hakone. One of them was the Gora Hotel. He was in the greenhouse. I don’t remember if he was American or Japanese. I assume Japanese, but I really don’t know.
BH: Where was the greenhouse?
AR: It belonged to the hotel. I think that was the Gora Hotel. I think it’s still there, but it was one of the old hotels. It’s a nice location. The greenhouse was attached to the hotel.
When we were driving to the house, that scene was taken in Hakone.
BH: Do you remember around what time of year the movie was shot?
AR: As far as I remember, it was spring or autumn – not hot summer, not wintertime. If there was snow, I would have had a memory of that.
BH: How long was the shoot? Was it three weeks, a month?
AR: More than a month, I think. A couple of months, shooting. I remember I went to see the rushes a couple of times. But the period of making the movie was at least a couple of months.
BH: During that time, were you constantly working? Was it consistent? What was the process like during those months?
AR: Not every day. Sometimes, we had to go in Tokyo, like the first scene at the airport. It was not a 9-to-5 job at all. Just go to the airport and the airport scene. We took the airport scene, and that was it. Then on a different day, we had to go to that restaurant for the first meeting. That was Gajoen in Meguro. Gajoen is still there. I think that scene was taken at the Gajoen. I had to change into a kimono.
Naturally, when we went to a place to film, we prepared the costumes. I guess it was a few hours here and there. After that Gajoen scene, I think we had to move to Hakone. So we traveled to Hakone, then Shimoda, the beach around Shimoda, and then back to Tokyo. I don’t remember very well, but then we had to go to Karuizawa.
BH: So when you filmed all of – let’s say – the scenes Hakone, did you do all your scenes at one time, or did you have to go back to a place like Hakone?
AR: The scenes in Hakone – the driving and the greenhouse – were done at the same time, not 10 days here and 10 days there. The mountainside in the driving scene was in Hakone, so we had to stay in Hakone for a few days, I’m pretty sure. Then, I think since it’s the same direction, we went to Shimoda. We didn’t go back and forth. We stayed in that area and finished the job. Then we went back to Tokyo. Then some other time, we started to go to Karuizawa.
BH: Did you serve any other position on this movie? Were you a translator? Did you make any arrangements, or were you just an actress on this movie?
AR: Just an actress.
BH: No one knows who was the cinematographer on the movie. Would you happen to remember who the cameraman or the cinematographer was on the movie?
AR: I’m sorry, I don’t remember.
Norm Thomson was not a military man. He was a civil engineer, I think. I think he worked for the government, but not in the military. He was interested in writing at that time in the ‘60s.
I don’t talk too much about it, but sometimes some of my friends say, “Oh, you were in a movie.” I say, “It was a long time ago.” “Where’s the movie?” I used to say, “Well, maybe in a drawer in Hollywood somewhere.”
Today, everything is rush, rush, rush. But in Tokyo around that time, it was a lot more relaxed. To me, it was a very interesting time. I still have those friends from my young age. I still go back to Tokyo and see my friends.
BH: When you were making the movie, what was the movie being called?
AR: Body of the Prey, I think.
BH: Do you have any memories of some of the location shots? Any interesting memories from those location shoots?
AR: They chose the places and didn’t have any problems, I don’t think. We actors had problems. I couldn’t say things right, and because of me, they had to retake five or six times. This kind of thing. I don’t remember any so-called trouble.
When James Craig made a mistake, he felt so bad. When he made a mistake, he was angry at himself, I’m sure. But when I made a mistake, I was frustrated. Then everybody (said), “It’s getting dark.” We had to finish the film at a certain time because the scene had to be early evening. Every time I memorized things, I came to a certain point I make a mistake.
I wasn’t driving a lot then. They prepared a sports car. It’s a short distance that I had to drive, and then I had to talk. (laughs) I had trouble, I think, memorizing or pronunciation or whatever. I came to the same spot, and I couldn’t say it. “Cut!” (laughs) I think, really, it was four or five times. James Craig did it before me, but now I’m doing it, so he was frustrated, and of course everybody else. But finally I did it, so it was OK.
BH: There is a longstanding rumor that Toei Studios was somehow involved in making this movie. Do you remember if Toei had any involvement?
AR: I don’t remember.
BH: Did the movie have any sort of release in Japan that you’re aware of?
AR: I don’t know.
BH: You talked about the party. Could you talk about that a little more? Did Ryo Ikebe show up at this party for this movie?
AR: Of course it was a party for this movie. It was a big party at the Sanno Hotel. I wish I had the picture, but I don’t. I remember Ryo Ikebe was there, and I took a picture with him. I remember it was a big party.
BH: What did you think of the movie when you saw it for the first time?
AR: It was interesting. I thought it was nice. But nowadays, if you see it, everything is slow. (laughs)
Before that, there was an advertisement on TV in Tokyo. One camera was called Petri Camera. I was again in a bikini! I was on TV. Talking about the bikini, I remember that now. Petri Camera was on TV. I wore a bikini. My mother said, “Oh, is this you?” I said, “Yes, that’s me!” It was so brave to put a bikini on TV. Nowadays, it’s nothing, but things like that I did. I was modeling for a while. My leg was used for a big company called Renown. They produced stockings, undergarments, and clothing. My leg was in subway stations – big pictures of my leg for a stocking advertisement.
BH: What are some of the things you’ve done after the movie?
AR: I studied a little more. As a job, I did a little bit of modeling here, too, just about clothing, things like that. I did freelancing and hair modeling – things like that. My children were little, so I didn’t do too many things. But I worked for an American cosmetic company. I did training for that company. Naturally, because it was a cosmetic company, I did makeup artistry, also. I worked for the company, and then I did freelancing. I did a lot of cosmetic work.
In Japan, Shiseido is one of the big, oldest cosmetic companies in the world. They issued their own magazine. I was in the magazine several times for the history of bathing suits and fragrance – things like that. So I had experience with cosmetic companies. Also, I worked for the oldest company in the United States (Frances Denney). It no longer exists, but their fragrance name (Interlude) is still here. I did training. I did a lot of freelancing.
I started teaching Japanese language at Berlitz and community college. For 15 years, I was teaching. I worked until two years ago. I was a fashion adviser.