A VETERAN OF GODZILLA’S FINAL WAR! Yoshikazu Ishii Goes Behind the Scenes at Toho!

Yoshikazu Ishii in November 2016. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Yoshikazu Ishii grew up a kaiju fan in Japan and eventually got to live the dream of working on Godzilla films and directing special effects on a variety of tokusatsu projects. But how did the dream become reality? In July 2005, Brett Homenick and J. D. Lees interviewed Mr. Ishii about his fascinating journey. Translation for this interview was handled by Robert Field.

Q: Ishii-san, you are the first assistant director of special effects for (Godzilla:Final Wars (2004). That’s your current position in your career, but when did your interest in kaiju first manifest itself?

Yoshikazu Ishii: Ever since I was a child, I liked kaiju. First of all, it was more Ultraman, Ultra Seven, and things like that on TV, and that led me to Godzilla. So it was mostly things I saw on TV that first brought the interest to me as a child.

Q: Many Japanese children, especially Japanese boys, like Ultraman and Godzilla and watch them on TV. Did you feel that you wanted to pursue something along those lines as a career early on? Did you say to your friends, “I want to do this”?

YI: As a child, I was probably like any other child. I hadn’t thought about getting involved in it in any way. But I continued to like kaiju all the way through. When Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) came out, that’s when I got more of an interest to go into the world of movies. That’s when I took on more of an interest in it. But up until then, I was like any other kid, I think.

Q: At that point, then, did you take any special steps in education as far as preparing for work in films?

YI: More than any other child or any young man at my age, I loved movies, so I watched two or three a day. When I got into college, I really enjoyed Godzilla 1985 (1984) and got more of an interest in it when Biollante came out. When I was in college, I asked some people I went to school with, “Why don’t we make a movie?” It started there, and interest blossomed from there. I saw a lot of movies and knew a lot of information about different movies, and then a lot of my friends and I wanted to make a movie. That’s how my interest got sparked.

Q: Was that a kaiju movie? Of course, there are many stories about Tsuburaya-san who, as a child, experimented with different photographic techniques and so forth. Did you have any equipment like movie cameras to make projects like the ones we see at G-Fest?

YI: Mr. Tsuburaya had all the equipment and tried all that stuff, but in college, we didn’t have the equipment to do any of that. We had a movie research group at the school that we created and wanted to do, but in actuality, I was the only one who really loved movies that much.

So it more or less became a dream that didn’t come true because I was the only one who really wanted to make a movie. We didn’t make the movie at all. The movie we were thinking about making was not a kaiju movie. We wanted to make a regular movie, but we didn’t have the know-how, we didn’t have the equipment, and in the end, I was the only one who had the desire to make it, so it didn’t come to be.

Q: You got your start in the business by becoming an assistant to screenwriter Hiroshi Kashiwabara. How did that come about?

YI: I finished college and went to work in a coffee shop with one of m friends. He said, “If you’re not doing anything, come work in the coffee shop with me.” Mr. Kashiwabara would come to this coffee shop two or three times a day. I would be working when Mr. Kashiwabara came in, so it was perfect timing. He finally said to me, “If you’re interested and have nothing else to do, come work for me.” That’s how it got started.

Q: Did your becoming an assistant to Mr. Kashiwabara lead to your employment at Toho?

YI: The job he was mainly doing at the time was TV, and because Toho already had its system built — directors, assistant directors, and so forth were already built into the system. It was hard for anybody to get in from the outside. So working for Mr. Kashiwabara really had nothing to do with getting a job at Toho.

Q: What sorts of things were you doing for Mr. Kashiwabara?

YI: At the beginning, because I had no experience, I didn’t help Mr. Kashiwabara with writing the scripts. I was introduced to a lot of the locations for TV, so at the beginning, I was told to go there, watch, and learn. I would do the little things that no one does, so I became the “youngest,” whether I was older or not. I was the junior member, so I had to do everything. I would make tea, take things to people; I was mostly a gofer at the time. But since I was told to watch and learn, that’s mainly what I did.

Q: So that’s what led to a close enough association with Mr. Kashiwabara that when he came to G-Fest in 1998 he asked you to accompany him. Is that right?

YI: There are a lot of people under Mr. Kashiwabara who would help out with the scripts, but the only one who’d go to the actual locations was me. So Mr. Kashiwabara had a lot of trust in me, and I was the only one who could go at the time. Since I was Mr. Kashiwabara’s eyes for what was going on at these different shoots, that’s probably why he asked me to come. We had this relationship where he’d ask me, “What did you see today? What did you do today?” There was a trust factor there.

Q: What was your expectation, if any, when you accompanied him to the United States? What was your reaction to what you saw at the convention?

YI: I don’t want to be rude, but coming from Japan, I knew the kind of people who loved kaiju. Sometimes, it’s people who are a little different from others that get into manga and kaiju. So my first feeling about it was that there’d probably be a number of people whose lives are built around kaiju, and that they would be a little bit strange like the ones in Japan. That’s what I was expecting to see.

Q: You decided to return to G-Fest on your own, and you met Koichi Kawakita in 2000. Was that your entry into Toho?

YI: More than just Toho, I went to work for Toho Studios because I met with Mr. Kawakita, and he became fond of me and trusted me. He pulled me in to do some work for him. So it wasn’t Toho, but Toho Studios.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about Mr. Kawakita’s character and how you two came to be associated with one another?

YI: I don’t know what Mr. Kawakita was feeling at the time, but my opinion was that in 2000, we had many famous people from Japan come to G-Fest, and there were many chaotic problems at the convention. He may have noticed that we were working hard to keep everybody happy, and though there were problems, we were able to smooth them out.

After G-Fest 2000 was over, I went back to Japan, and Mr. Kawakita called me. He said to me, “Come on over. We want to talk to you.” I was expecting that we’d have a drink and talk about things, but I actually had an interview at that time with someone else from Toho Studios. So it wasn’t just drinking; it was actually an interview. Perhaps at G-Fest 2000, with trying to keep all the Japanese guests happy, Mr. Kawakita saw something he liked in me.

Q: Well, that’s certainly a good lesson for anybody: If you’re doing your best, somebody notices and wants you to do something else. Since you grew up watching kaiju, what was going through your mind when you got the call from Mr. Kawakita to do the interview for Toho Studios?

Q: I had no idea why I’d been called at all. A lot of times, Japanese people will call up somebody they’ve met to go drinking together. That’s all I thought there was. We went to two different drinking places, which Japanese do a lot — they go to one for an hour or two, then go to another one, and usually finish at the third one and go home. When we went to the third, the other party joined us.

While we were drinking, it was very casual. It was not like a regular interview. They started asking questions about me, and at the end, I realized this was more of an interview than just drinking together. I had no idea; I hadn’t thought about what was going on. I was just wondering why he had called to go drinking together. I had nothing in my mind about kaiju. I was just wondering why he called.

In my heart, I watched all the Godzilla films from Godzilla 1985 on, and I loved Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). I thought it had the best staff that they’ve ever put together, and Mr. Kawakita’s special effects were just the best I’d ever seen. I thought there’d be nothing better than to work for him. In my heart, I hoped to be involved with Mr. Kawkita as an assistant director or something else. But in my mind, I didn’t know.

Q: After the interview, what happened next? What was the first project you worked on?

YI: I didn’t get the job right away. In fact, the producer I met with didn’t like me. He told Mr. Kawakita, “No, thank you. We don’t want him. I don’t want you to use him at all.” So for a whole year, that was it. They didn’t call me back, and they didn’t get in touch with me for a whole year. I went back to doing what I did before, and all of a sudden, Mr. Kawakita called me out of the blue again and said, “Come back.” I filmed recreations of some accidents for TV that happened on the set of Toho kaiju movies.

Q: After that, can you give us a brief list and some comments on some of the projects you’ve done for Toho since then?

YI: The same producer was always there, but Mr. Kawakita was always there for me. He would say, “Mr. Ishii’s okay. He can handle this.” But the producer didn’t trust that at all. So I was given jobs that I had to finish in one day. I was told, “We want you to shoot this in one day.” Then the next day, I had to edit the whole thing and make it a finished product. But by the third day, after they had seen what I had done, everybody on the staff trusted me. I was hurting there at the beginning, but everyone started to trust me. It worked out.

From there, I gained the trust of the producer and the staff, and so I started in the DVD extras where I would write the scenarios and plan what we would do. I handled the whole thing.

Q: You had a lot of research to do, and you went through the old prop rooms at Toho for the DVDs. Can you tell us some of the interesting things you turned up at Toho?

YI: Having been raised on the kaiju movies, I thought this was a choice job because you get to see a lot of the history of Toho with the different props. But I became sad very quickly because they had thrown most of the props away that they used in the movies. The other thing was that they didn’t give me a lot of time to do it. Mr. Kawakita was the main character in this whole thing, but he was doing different jobs at the same time. I was sad because I wanted to do a good job, but Mr. Kawakita wasn’t there a lot, but I was more sad because most of the props weren’t there and mostly were thrown away.

Q: It’s not simply because there was no space for storing things that aren’t useful, is it?

YI: Yes, that’s the only reason. They don’t have a use for them anymore, and they don’t have a place to put them, so they wanted to throw them away. Even worse than that is that they threw away a lot of the machines and props Mr. Tsuburaya used. Those would be something worth keeping, but they didn’t think it was worth keeping, so they chucked them out.

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about filming the extra for the Godzilla against Mechagodzilla (2002) where you flew to Moscow?

YI: I was doing a different job from what I was doing with Mr. Kawakita. I was doing a movie called Killers. The producer of this movie (not the same producer as before), out of the blue came up to me and asked, “Do you have a passport?” I asked why, and he said, “I want you to go to Moscow.” I did have a passport, so I ended up going to Moscow.

When I said I had a passport, the producer handed me two cameras and said, “Take off.” I took the music people and a few others with me. It wasn’t just the cameras; I had to take the scores for 150 different people with me as well. I had two cameras and the 150 scores with me, so I couldn’t take any footage of the trip to Moscow because I had to carry all this stuff.

Q: What was your impression of Michiru Oshima, and what did you think of the score she wrote? What did you think of her personally?

YI: We didn’t have a very good introduction because the first time I met her was at the airport when we were heading to Moscow. We were together for three days, and we were there to do work, so we just said hi to each other and took off. But when we got there, I found out she really was a professional. In Japan, she would have been conducting the whole thing, but she wanted the musicians in Moscow to feel they were the most important element, so she was more of an adviser, standing back and letting the people in Moscow handle it.

When they started the music, she would listen and tell them when they hit the wrong notes and what needed to be improved. She went through the whole thing very quickly, and I could see she really was a professional. Even for a famous director, there are probably not many people who get an experience like this, with 150 very professional musicians and Ms. Oshima, who’s also very professional. It was one of the best experiences I could have had, and I was overwhelmed by the whole sound of the orchestra.

Q: Do you have any idea how she was chosen as a composer? Isn’t it a little unusual that they would have turned to a woman to do this?

YI: It probably is a rare case that they would give the job to a woman. I don’t know the exact details of it, but there were a number of composers they were thinking of, and they decided on her among the composers. That’s all I know.

Q: Was she Mr. Tezuka’s personal choice?

YI: Yes, she was.

Q: Speaking of Mr. Tezuka, did you have any interaction with him, and what did you think of him?

YI: Mr. Tezuka also went to Moscow with me, and we were together for three days. When we came back, we had to meet a number of times. He was also very professional. When he says, “We’re getting ready to work,” they just got into the mode of being a professional and took care of everything. One thing I do remember that we talked about was G-Fest. After the Moscow trip, the subject came up. I said, “Someday, if it’s possible, I’d like you to come.” That’s one thing we talked about.

Q: Suitmaker Shinichi Wakasa also went on that trip to Moscow, didn’t he?

YI: Yes, he also went, but he did not go as a member of the group. He wanted to hear real music, so he paid for his own ticket and just went along. His being a big name in the industry, you could not ask him to help out with the group because they’re not paying him, and he went on his own dime. He just went along to hear the music. During the whole production, he was taken to shoots, but the crew would have to work as carefully as possible so that Mr. Wakasa would not be in any of the scenes we shot. We couldn’t tell him to move out of the shot, so we just had to film around him.

Q: Did your association with Mr. Tezuka at that time lead to your working on Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003)?

YI: The system was already in place at Toho, so they used the same people for the same jobs. It was hard for an outsider to get in. So I had nothing to do with Tokyo S.O.S. I shot the making of Tokyo S.O.S.

Q: How did you leap to becoming assistant director of special effects on Godzilla: Final Wars?

YI: Toho had a lot of projects in 2004. The studio had Final Wars and two other movies it was working on. Four groups, two and two, worked on Final Wars, and they didn’t have enough people to take care of things. When I was doing the making of Tokyo S.O.S., I worked with the assistant director of S.O.S. and knew him a little bit. So when Final Wars came up, and they were short of people, the assistant director called me because I had the reputation of knowing about kaiju. They knew I had made the recreations of accidents on the sets of kaiju films, so they all thought I knew a lot about kaiju.

Q: What specifically does being an assistant director of special effects entail?

YI: The assistant director is like a gofer in a sense. You have to do everything. The biggest thing we have to do is, when we get the script, we have to decide while we discuss it with the director which parts of the script will be used for special effects, which will be used for the actors, which sets can be used for both, will they be used at the same time or different times, will we put the sets away for a while and bring them back out, will we use the sky at certain times for different shots, will we have to take it outside, and things like that.

When it comes to the kaiju, we make sure we have the people making them, but after they’re made, we decide if we will put an actor inside the suit or have it manipulated by wires. That’s mostly what I decide while communicating with the director. But we have to do everything. When we put the whole thing together and get the project moving, I get to decide who gets to do this, and who gets to do that. It’s kind of like the team captain.

We cut up the script into the scenes and then we have a group meeting with everybody where we discuss what we have and what we’re going to do. We work with the people who do CGI and discuss where it will get put in, where to put the actors in. We discuss where we shoot and how we shoot, and we decide everything as soon as possible and how long it will take to do.

From there, for every scene we do, I have to think about what we did yesterday, if there’s something we have to do tomorrow or today, and everything else. For anything that’s very important, I will definitely be there. But for some scenes, I have to go away from the set to do something else and will leave it in someone else’s capable hands. These scenes, though, are usually not as important as other scenes. Timing-wise, I try to make it like that. For every important scene, I will always be there for every cut.

Q: Were there any sequences of the movie you particularly enjoyed working on or that satisfied a longstanding dream you may have had about working in kaiju eiga?

YI: When I finally got the script to the movie, and it had the Godzilla logo on it, and everything in it was about Godzilla, when I started reading it, I said, “It’s finally come true.” I didn’t believe it until I had the script in my hands. The whole movie was top secret, too. Since it’s the last movie, it was very much a secret, so they trusted me with the script. After reading the script, we started putting together the storyboards, and we started to figure out how the director wanted to make the movie. I could see how the movie was coming together in the director’s mind with the storyboards. I said to myself, “This is the real thing. It’s really coming into shape now.” Before it was even made, I could see the vision of what it was going to be like.

On the one hand, I was very happy because I could see the vision in my mind, but the staff of 100 that I was in charge of was used to doing this kind of work, so they would throw suggestions at me, and it sounded like code. I wasn’t used to the jargon they used. I started getting really worried about the whole thing, and I wondered if I was up to the job. I thought I understood what to do, but 100 people were telling me in code what I should do. So I was a little worried at the same time.

Q: Now that Final Wars has caused all this controversy about whether it’s a good film or a bad film, what did you think of the film when you first read the script?

YI: When I first read the script, I was a little worried about it. I thought it was something like the Champion Matsuri movies where Godzilla was a good guy. I was worried they changed the character of Godzilla too severely. I also thought the story line was a little weak. I was a little worried about it at the beginning.

Q: Why do you think it didn’t do well? They spent more money on it than on Tokyo S.O.S., but about the same number of people went to see it.

YI: I think the main reason not many people came to see it is, from 2000 on, it’s pretty much the same type of movie that had come out. Showing the same thing to people, they just got tired of it. So most people probably thought this movie was the same as the previous ones. Even though the budget was much bigger, people thought it was the same thing they had already seen.

Q: Of course, it wasn’t the same thing, but are you saying, by that time, it was too late, that the series had run its course, at least for the foreseeable future?

YI: For advertising the movie, they used the main character, Masahiro Matsuoka, who is in the talent agency called Johnny’s, which is very big in Japan. They handle all the teen idols. Mr. Matsuoka is a singer by trade, and he’s in a band called TOKIO. They used him in the advertising and aimed it toward young people. But I asked my younger friends, and they told me they didn’t want to see Final Wars. As they advertised it as a movie for young people, the older generation who liked Godzilla saw it as a movie for younger people and decided not to see it. I don’t know exactly what happened, but it seems there was a misunderstanding between the older and the younger generations, and that’s why not many people saw this movie.

Q: Well, director Ryuhei Kitamura certainly did want to attract a younger audience. On the subject of Mr. Kitamura, what was he like as a director, and what did he think of the Godzilla series?

YI: Mr. Kitamura didn’t think the movies from 2000 on were any good, and he thought they were all the same movie. That’s why he wanted to make such a different movie. So he was thinking about a lot of action, a lot of speed, and a very big difference from the more recent Godzilla movies. But the advertising didn’t work because we didn’t attract the audience we wanted.

Q: Do you have any favorites in the series that inspired you? What were the highlights of the series for you?

YI: I don’t look at a movie just from a special effects point of view. I like to see the whole picture. The special effects, the acting — I like to look at everything. My favorite Godzilla movie is Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. I think it was the best made Godzilla movie and had a great balance. The next one is Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000). I like that one, too.

Q: What in particular is it about those two films that make them stand out?

YI: Balancing the drama and the kaiju scenes in both movies was very well done.

Q: One thing about the special effects of Final Wars I particularly enjoyed was the scope. The cities, for example, all looked different and very convincing to me. What went into the construction of these sets?

YI: Something like Mt. Fuji would be a lot easier to make than Shanghai because there you have a lot of laundry hanging out on lines and so forth that takes a lot longer to make. We would take our time making the sets because we had to go more into detail, so we would make Mt. Fuji first. But one of the problems we’d run into is whether the kaiju would be ready at that time because we could get Mt. Fuji done faster. Other problems would be if we would have the okay to go ahead with a certain type of explosion, if everyone was ready to do that, etc.

It was very difficult because we had to work on the timing. We also had to create a wave in the sense that if we had a lot of cuts for one day filming the Mt. Fuji scenes or something else, the next day, if again we had to do a lot of takes, and we’d take another one the same way, everyone would get tired very quickly.

So on a day that was very  difficult, the next day we’d try to make it easier and try to give ourselves a little more time to relax and even take time off as much as possible. Working with the sets, we’d put more time into the more difficult ones, and we’d try to prepare them while we were shooting something else, but we had to work with the actors and everything else, so the timing was the most important thing.

Q: Is Godzilla gone for good? What do you see for the future of Godzilla since Final Wars didn’t have the success Toho hoped it would?

YI: In my opinion, Godzilla will return.

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