AN EXPLOSIVE CAREER! Toho SFX Director Teruyoshi Nakano Reflects on Some of His Non-Godzilla Films!

Teruyoshi Nakano in June 2015. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Teruyoshi Nakano is one of Japan’s masters of special effects. Born in what is now Dandong, China, on October 9, 1935, Mr. Nakano joined Toho in 1959 and quickly moved up the ranks in special effects, becoming chief assistant director under Eiji Tsuburaya by 1963. In 1969, Mr. Nakano would serve as special effects director on his first film, The Crazy Cats’ Big Explosion. While Mr. Nakano would direct the special effects on every Godzilla film between Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971) and Godzilla 1985 (1984), the focus of this July 2004 interview is Mr. Nakano’s non-Godzilla work. Interviewers Brett Homenick and J. D. Lees questioned Mr. Nakano about a wide range of Mr. Nakano’s special effects film work. The interview was translated by Robert Field.

Q: One of the movies you worked on was The Secret of the Telegian (1960). This was your first tokusastu movie. Please tell me a little about working on it.

Teruyoshi Nakano: This was one of the first movies I was involved in. At the time, the acting part and the special effects part were all broken up into different units. I wasn’t the special effects director; I was an assistant director of the drama side. So I know very little about the special effects end in this movie. The preparations that I did were for the drama side. With the movies up until Gorath (1962), I would be involved in the drama, and come and go from the special effects. But I worked mostly on the drama scenes here, and know very little about the preparation of the special effects for The Secret of the Telegian.

Q: What involvement did you have in The Last War (1961), and what, if any, experiences can you relate?

TN: During this movie, too, we were split up into drama and special effects, and during the last part of it, I was included in the special effects side. A lot of the special effects I did in The Last War were the lava and the volcanoes, and I had to do a lot of research on what would be good to use for lava. We used ingots of a kind of metal that melts very easily. It was very, very hot, and since I was making lava, I almost fainted every day because of the heat.

Q: It’s unusual to use real molten metal in a special effects movie for lava, I would think. How would you have done that sort of a effect later on in your career?

TN: If you wanted to get the same result, you would use the same method even today. But one thing we did do was use a certain kind of glass, kind of a liquid glass, and add a little bit of red paint to it, and have lighting come up from under it. When we pour it out, it goes as slowly as lava down the mountain, and with the lighting from below, we can create a good effect with that. But we would use both.

During Godzilla 1985 (1984), when Godzilla falls into the lava, we used a bucket-like container and had the material in there, melted it, and had the lighting come from underneath it. We used glass at that time. In my experience, the molten metal makes a better effect.

Q: In Gorath, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka wanted a kaiju to appear in the movie. Did he want a specific creature? How did the decision to put Magma, the giant walrus, in the movie come about?

TN: Kaiju were Mr. Tanaka’s hobby! (laughs) Mr. Tanaka wanted the kaiju in, so that’s how it was decided. During the movie, because the Earth was going to get hit by Gorath, the characters in the movie wanted to use jet propulsion so that the Earth would miss getting hit. We used 200 bottles of propane gas for the effect. When we were doing this, Haruo Nakajima was inside the walrus costume (the monster Magma); he’s very strong when it comes to heat, so he can pretty much take anything.

We said to him, “Just stay in there. We’ll work it out. If there’s any problem, let us know.” He said, “I’ll be okay.” So as the propane gas is going on, and it’s getting really hot, suddenly we hear, “Get me out of here! There’s no air in here! I can’t take this anymore!” With all the propane gas in the air, the skin of the walrus costume started to peel off. We still had many scenes to shoot, and there was nobody who could repair it. So we just had to repaint it. If you look closely, you can see Magma’s color change from scene to scene.

Q: Another aspect of Gorath I wanted to touch on was the elaborate miniature sets. The sets used in this movie are considered some of the finest, most intricate ever used in a Toho movie. Could you tell us anything about the construction of the sets?

TN: Those were probably the best miniature sets that Eiji Tsuburaya put in any of his movies. We were all pleased with the sets. The designers and everyone who made the sets built so many that they had no place to put the lights and hide the cameras. It was hard for us to move around because of all the things on the sets. But these were the best sets we ever had.

One of the things most directors would do when taking different shots, the close- ups and long shots as well, especially with the miniatures, usually what they do is build the whole set of miniatures, take a long shot first, and then move in with the closer shots. Mr. Tsuburaya took pieces of the set, put it up, then took all the different angles and close-up shots together, build the next piece, build the next piece, etc., and then he’d take the long shots.

It’s common sense to do it the other way, but Mr. Tsuburaya did it his own way, and it turned out better than we ever could have imagined. That was Mr. Tsuburaya’s genius. When you build the whole thing and then take the shot, the background is fuzzy, so you really can’t see it. But the way that we shot this one, as we took the short shots, you can see that everything is detailed well, and in the long shots, even though it’s far away, you can still see all the different details. It’s totally different from what it would have been had we shot it the other way.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

Q: Let’s move on to Matango (1963). This is certainly one of the most interesting movies Toho has ever produced. I’d like you to talk about your contributions to the movie.

TN: At this time, I was very involved in the special effects. I was in the ascendance of my career, so I was giving 120%. With the makeup effects, we had some problems making it work. Ishiro Honda said that since Kumi Mizuno is a good-looking lady, why not make her beautiful instead of ugly after she eats the mushrooms. Whether he did that because he was being kind or because he liked her as a person, I don’t know. But we liked that idea, and that’s what we did. We made Ms. Mizuno beautiful instead of ugly.

In the movie, the script called for mushrooms that would grow and pop out of the ground, and we were wondering how we were going to do that well. We had heard somewhere that there was a petroleum product that, when mixed together with a liquid, expands. It was polystyrene. We found a company who made this product and got it. There were two liquids that we put together, which expanded. We used that to make the mushrooms blow up.

With the polystyrene, the first idea that we came up with for the mushrooms was that we could use it to make many of them. So instead of making a few mushrooms, we could make a whole garden of them with polystyrene. We used polystyrene as a shortcut for many things we wanted to do from then on. For cemeteries, up until then, we made the different headstones individually, stuck them in, and painted them the right color. But with polystyrene, we could put them in place and have them pop up in different ways.

We used it to make mountains and different backgrounds for our scenery. It became a shortcut to do things that previously had taken a long time to make. We’ve used it ever since. Because polystyrene is something you tend to throw away, Toho was probably the first in the world to use it for special effects. Even now they use it for putting in packages, making toys, and many other things, and it was from Toho’s special effects that that started.

Q: Let’s talk about Atragon (1963). Once again, Tomoyuki Tanaka wanted a kaiju, Manda, to appear in this movie. Did Mr. Tanaka want a serpentine kaiju to appear in the movie, or was that left up to the special effects department to figure out?

TN: Somewhere in the back of Mr. Tanaka’s mind, he was always thinking about kaiju. Sometimes he’d see a scene in a movie and say, “This could use a kaiju,” and he’d bring up things like serpents and walruses and say, “You guys make this kaiju.” Mr. Tanaka told us what he wanted.

Q: What role, if any, did you play in the construction of Atragon (a.k.a. the Gohten)?

TN: It was the idea of Mr. Tsuburaya to make the Gohten. The drill on the Gohten was my idea. We talked about what to put on the submarine, and I came up with suggestions for additions to it. That’s how the drill got on it. We couldn’t get the drill to rotate the way we wanted. We had a hard time with that.

From Attack Squadron! (1963) on, I was the chief (assistant) director. What that means is that even if a producer comes in and says he wants something done, a chief (assistant) director can say no, we can’t do that. This also meant there’d usually be no back and forth between the film director and me because I was trusted in that position. They’d leave final decisions to me. Being chief (assistant) director is like being general manager of a company. I was pretty much in charge from that point on, and trusted by Mr. Honda and Mr. Tsuburaya. They would go with my decisions.

Atragon was supposed to be a New Year’s movie that came out during that holiday. We decided to make this movie at the beginning of October. Something that usually took three months to do, we filmed the entire movie in less than four weeks — three weeks and a few days. When Mr. Tsuburaya brought the idea of the movie to me, he asked me, “Tell me honestly, do you think we can put this project together?” Under other circumstances, I would have said no. But I looked into his eyes, and his eyes told me that he really wanted to do the movie. So I said, “Okay, let’s go for it!” Then we got the go-ahead to make it, and we put it together.

Instead of taking the two sections like we usually did, we made three different sections. I took one, Mr. Tsuburaya took another, and Toho brought in another special effects director who’d worked for the studio before for the third. We broke it up into three sections. What we would normally do in a day, we would do in an hour! We ended up getting the movie done in less than four weeks. This was the first time I had ever seen Mr. Tsuburaya cry! (laughs) When it was all over, we started bawling. We said to each other, “This was the most amazing thing we’ve ever done.” I never saw Mr. Tsuburaya cry again.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

Q: This is personally one question I’m very interested in. In The Lost World of Sinbad (1963), there’s a scene in which Jun Tazaki’s character throws a sai at a chicken. It looks like the chicken gets killed. What happened to the chicken? (laughs)

TN: Off the top of my head, I can’t remember anything about the chicken or what happened to it. I don’t remember if the chicken died.

About The Lost World of Sinbad, Ichiro Arishima plays a wizard who turns into a fly in the movie. So every day before we started shooting, we’d go to the kitchen near where we were shooting in the studio, and we’d try to find flies! (laughs) Every morning, I’d go there with an adhesive strip and try to catch flies. When I did that, everyone wondered what I was doing. (laughs) I had such a bad time with it, I don’t even want to look at flies anymore. (laughs)

There’s a scene where Hideyo Amamoto, playing a witch, jumps up high and then drops down. To do that shot, we built a platform that was about two meters high from which Mr. Amamoto would jump. Since Mr. Amamoto was concerned about the height of the platform, I jumped off it to show him that there was no danger. But Mr. Amamoto was still concerned about it. So I said to him, “I just did it; you can do it!” But for his safety, we placed a mat below the platform. Mr. Amamoto went to jump off, but he landed the wrong way and broke his leg. He had to go to the hospital for a few days. I got into a lot of trouble because I broke the leg of one of the actors! (laughs) Mr. Amamoto had really skinny legs. (laughs)

We also made Kumi Mizuno faint in one of the scenes in The War of the Gargantuas (1966). There’s a scene in that movie where she’s hanging off a cliff. She’s very, very scared of heights. In all the movies she’s ever made, she never got in an airplane. Even though the rest of the cast and crew will go somewhere by airplane, she would take a train to get to the location. Even if it’s a foot off the ground, she doesn’t like it. Because I was really good friends with her, she agreed to do the scene. She wasn’t that far off the ground, but she thought there was no way she could do it. I got mad at her and said, “Come on! You can do this. You’ll never get another acting job if you don’t do this.” I forced her to do it, and she got up on it.

When she grabbed a hold of the branch, I pulled the platform out from under her. She hung there and then fainted. She was still hanging on, but she fainted. We called out to her, but she was already out. She fainted right there on the spot. The shot we used in the movie cuts off a second before she faints. She had a very good expression, so we used it. She could have gotten an Academy Award for that face!

Q: That’s actually a very good segue. I understand that War of the Gargantuas is considered horrifying in Japan. But I’ve read that Ishiro Honda found it rather boring. What did you think about it?

TN: I also don’t think it’s that fun to watch. As a director, I watch it in that way. The tempo of the story is very slow, the acting parts are very slow, and the costumes aren’t done that well. We’d put the makeup on the suit actors’ faces, and their eyes would be in the wrong place. Their costumes were not in good shape. If it had a faster pace, it would have been better. I didn’t like the movie, either.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

Q: What did you think about Russ Tamblyn? Do you have any stories about him?

TN: I remember very little about him. I know that he was a great dancer, but that’s all I remember about him.

Q: Let’s talk about King Kong Escapes (1967). Could you explain why the Kong suit looks so different in this movie from how it looked in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)?

TN: You’ve looked very carefully at those two movies. (laughs) You really paid close attention. The biggest difference is that because a gorilla has really long arms, but a human doesn’t, a lot of times we used sticks inside the arms that would connect to their fingers and then have the fingers at the end of the suit. That’s how we did it before.

Since it made it hard for the suit actor to pick things up and grab things, all we did was shorten the arms of the suit so that the actor could grab things using his own hand. It gave it a totally different look. It’s close to the length of a human arm instead of a gorilla’s arm. I want you to look even closer at King Kong vs. Godzilla. When Kong is walking and moving around, you’ll notice that the length of his arms is different.

Q: Can you tell us a little about Mechanikong?

TN: The biggest problem that we had was that the rights for King Kong were tied up with an American company. We had to get the opinion of the copyright holder on Mechanikong. They thought it was a great idea to include a mechanical King Kong in the movie. The American company said that it would think of a good design for us, but we didn’t like it. If we originally designed it ourselves, we probably would have gotten a better one. What we had to do, since the American side gave us a design, was mix what they gave us with what we had so that we would make something similar to what they designed. But it would have been better to design it first and then tell the American company that we were going to do this.

Q: Please tell us a little about designing Gezora, Ganime, and Kameba in Yog Monster from Space (1970).

TN: We made a mistake in naming those kaiju! (laughs) One reason that this movie was not successful was because no one liked their names. Since Gezora is a big squid, it would have been better to call him “Geso” because that’s what people say when they order squid. (laughs) But then everyone would think you’re ordering squid. So the names of the kaiju were bad. The name Ganime didn’t fit. It was just a crab; it wasn’t strong-looking. It just didn’t fit, and I didn’t like it.

Q: Was there any thought in the back of your mind to make Kameba Toho’s version of Gamera?

TN: Not at all. We usually made original kaiju. We thought that by making things people know huge, they’d be scary. We thought the three kaiju in Yog would be very scary, but they weren’t. The one in particular that isn’t scary at all is Gezora, the squid. No one even liked it. The names of these kaiju in Japanese are lousy. The names don’t fit, and the kaiju just aren’t scary. Maybe if we named them differently, the movie would have been better. It was the names that killed the three kaiju. That’s why the movie wasn’t a hit.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

Q: I just want to jump ahead because we’re running out of time. I wanted to make sure I got this question in. I wanted to ask you about working on Pulgasari (1985). I wanted to know if Kim Jong-II, who’s now in charge of North Korea and is supposedly a big kaiju fan, was involved in the production or was on the set at all.

TN: More than a kaiju fan, he’s a movie fan. He’s got about 2,000 35-mm movies from all over the world. I went to where he keeps these movies, and he showed me around. It was like a big auditorium full of movies. He’s got private rooms as well, and since I was asked to come over, I was able to stay in a room that was twice as big as this hotel floor. He would have a big comfortable chair to sit in and watch his movies. During the time I was there, I was allowed to sit in that chair. I felt very honored. Having 2,000 different movies, he must have had a lot of fun every day. (laughs) He’s very knowledgeable about movies all over the world. Those 2,000 he has come from different countries all over the world. He’s not really a kaiju fan; he’s a movie fan. But he did know a lot about kaiju.

All the movies they made in North Korea were more or less for propaganda — get back to work. vote for me, etc. So when people in North Korea thought about movies, they always stepped back because they never thought of movies as being any fun. Kim Jong-Il thought that there was something they could do to bring the people a little more entertainment. Kaiju and kung fu movies were popular, so when we were there making Pulgasari, a team from Hong Kong was there filming a kung fu movie for North Korea. To bring some entertainment to the country, they brought kaiju filmmakers from Toho and kung fu filmmakers from Hong Kong. We got to film anywhere we wanted in North Korea.

Q: I understand that the director of Pulgasari fled North Korea during the filming of the movie. Do you know anything about that?

TN: Yes, he did flee the country. He wasn’t from North Korea. The government in North Korea knew of his talents and pulled him into the country and wouldn’t let him get away. But because they wanted to bring entertainment back to the country, they gave him free rein to get in touch with Toho, and that’s where we first heard about the movie — not from the North Korean government but from the director himself. The director had developed a plan along the way about how to escape the country. So he kept going to other countries like Japan to figure out the best way to escape. He lives in Los Angeles now. His wife is a famous actress, and they got away together.


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