A LOOK BACK ON THE GODZILLA SERIES! Toho SFX Director Teruyoshi Nakano Reflects on His Godzilla Film Work!

Teruyoshi Nakano in June 2017. 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. Mr. Nakano would direct the special effects on every Godzilla film between Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971) and Godzilla 1985 (1984). In July 2004, Brett Homenick and Mark Rainey interviewed Mr. Nakano about his work on the Godzilla series, beginning with his work as an assistant special effects director. Translation was provided by Robert Field.

(Note: Due to a recording error, a large chunk of the interview is missing, so Mr. Nakano’s answers regarding Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), and Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975) are not included in this transcript.)

Brett Homenick: (How did you get started in the film business? Also, what happened on the set that really stood out as being a fun moment?)

Teruyoshi Nakano: I first got into Toho in 1959. Before I came to Toho, I knew nothing  of Godzilla. I had never seen something so funny-looking before. (laughs) In my first interview with Toho, they asked me if I had ever seen Godzilla, and I said, “I don’t even know who he is.” So they got very upset with me. (laughs) The first I learned of Godzilla was when I started working for Toho, so it’s interesting to me. I didn’t enter Toho to shoot Godzilla movies. I got into Toho because I felt I was going to do something really big with movies and win an Academy Award. (laughs)

I didn’t know who Eiji Tsuburaya was, either. The system for becoming a director and assistant director was a little different in Japan from America. In America, the assistant director is independent; a lot of them do their own work. But in Japan, it’s not that way. In Japan, the system is, to go up the ladder, you have to do all these different things, and you have to study. You have to be an assistant director before you could become a director. I first worked on a war movie (Submarine I-57 Will Not Surrender, 1959) with Mr. Tsuburaya. At the time, most movies were black and white, and Mr. Tsuburaya wanted to make a color movie, so we had all these blue backgrounds to work with. Even though it was a black and white movie, he was using all these color backgrounds; it was very interesting. It was my first involvement with special effects.

When I was first interviewed, I didn’t know Godzilla, I didn’t know Mr. Tsuburaya. They were going to put me with Mr. Tsuburaya, and I said, “I don’t know him.” They were very confused about what to do with me. Mr. Tsuburaya was very diligent, but hard to work with, so most of the assistant directors didn’t want to work with him. So in that way, it was good for me. Because I didn’t know anything about him, they said, “We’re going to put you with Mr. Tsuburaya.” (laughs) Gorath was the first movie on which I worked as assistant special effects director with Mr. Tsuburaya. After that, I did some work with Akira Kurosawa and some other directors as well.

I worked on King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962, one of my first big movies. Because I knew very little about Mr. Tsuburaya and Godzilla, with this big movie coming up, I decided it was time for me to learn something about them. I went to work to learn more about Mr. Tsuburaya and Godzilla, and I put a lot of effort into this movie. Shinichi Sekizawa, the screenwriter, included a lot of slapstick, and it was more of a comedy than anything else. Up until then, Godzilla was very serious and very scary, so this was a new adventure for us.

This was the first time I really had an interest in Godzilla because he was very scary before, but if you change the suit, the look of the face, you could make him funny or scarier. You could do a lot of things, so I myself became interested in Godzilla. My first contact with Godzilla was in King Kong vs. Godzilla, and having heard of Godzilla through the grapevine, his being scary, and having him doing slapstick as well, that was very interesting to me. That was my first interesting experience and memory.

Mark Rainey: When I saw Godzilla for the first time, he was a very scary monster, and over the years he made the transition to hero. Since you were there for much of that history, how did it feel to you working first with a very dark, very scary monster? Did you enjoy that aspect more or the lighthearted actions?

TN: I don’t hate or like the scary Godzilla or the good Godzilla, but one thing that’s still impressed in my mind is that the first movie was about nuclear war, so most of the adults watched it and were very scared by Godzilla because of his nuclear activity. And from the nuclear war themes, all of a sudden, all these little toys came out. So we can’t talk about nuclear warfare with all these little kids sleeping with their toys and having lunchboxes with Godzilla on them. (laughs) Because of this, a scary Godzilla isn’t right. Since Godzilla was a superstar, and superstars can adjust to anything, we made Godzilla funnier, a character that children and adults alike would enjoy very much.

BH: In King Kong vs. Godzilla, some stop-motion animation, especially with respect to the octopus, was used in that film. Stop-motion obviously isn’t Toho’s forte — then or now. Could you say a few words about the use of stop-motion, and what it was like working with the octopus?

TN: Mr. Tsuburaya wanted to use stop-motion for quite a long time, and he finally got to the point where he said, “I’m finally going to use it.” So that’s why it’s used in the movie. He took a lot of his first footage in 16-mm film, and then he’d take it apart and study it a lot so that he could do stop-motion better. He took the whole thing apart and put it back together. It wasn’t their forte. Instead of using little Godzillas, they thought they could use big Godzillas for stop-motion to create a different appearance and a lot of different effects, so they were very excited about stop-motion.

Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, before he was famous for his Godzilla movies, was planning to do a movie in Indonesia (In the Shadow of Honor), and after the planning started, the project fell through, and that’s when they decided to go with the first Godzilla movie instead. Since the movie with Indonesia didn’t go through, Mr. Tanaka got together with Mr. Tsuburaya, and they talked about what they could do for a good movie. As they talked about it, they were thinking about what kind of a movie they could make that the whole world would enjoy — something with special effects. They brought up with idea of using King Kong because he was world-famous, and they decided that that’s what they should do for a movie. They were thinking about what kind of a monster they would use to take on King Kong. They were thinking of a lot of things, and finally Mr. Tsuburaya came up with a great big octopus, the first monster they thought of. Mr. Tsuburaya wanted to use stop-motion for this octopus.

As they were going through the different kaiju that they were going to use, and talking about the octopus, someone just happened to have the materials on this Godzilla creature, so they became interested in that. So they decided that since they had some material on it already, let’s put it in our hands and take a look at it. They liked it and decided to go ahead with it. That’s how Godzilla was born. They were only going to give Godzilla a small part in the film. They were still thinking about this big octopus. Little Godzilla, big octopus is what they were thinking of. They were thinking about doing a detailed shoot of all this stuff, and it would take a long time, but Toho and Mr. Tanaka wanted it done in a year. They said no, if you want detail, it’s going to take seven or eight years to put together. So that’s when they first came up with the idea of a suit, using characters like this to get the picture done quicker.

Even though they decided to go with King Kong against Godzilla, for some reason, Mr. Tsuburaya couldn’t get it out of his head to use this big octopus. He kept thinking about how they could put the octopus in the movie. He was more diligent in filming the octopus than he was with King Kong and Godzilla. (laughs) Octopuses are not very good actors; they never listen to what you say. Mr. Tsuburaya was the first one to try to get an octopus to act. I thought sometime in the future, since octopuses are hard to work with, we’d figure out a way to make it easy to train these octopuses to act. So if someone wanted to make a movie with octopuses after King Kong vs. Godzilla, it would be easy for him.

We threw the octopus on the table and poked him with a stick, threw water on him, and blew air on him, but it wouldn’t move. No matter how hard we did it, it just wouldn’t move. We even tried to use cigarettes. (laughs) We lost all hope. Anything we did to get the octopus to move wouldn’t work. Some of the staff members had this lighting they were going to use, and they put a pin filter on one, and as the pin filter shot a beam of light at the octopus, it started moving. Anyone who wants to work with or eat an octopus, put it on a table, hit it with a beam of light, watch it move, and then eat it! (laughs) Of course, these octopuses had to be alive. We had to buy 50 or 60 of them from different shops. As we were using them for different shots, we would use one octopus and be finished with it, then we’d eat it! We ate 30 or 40 of them and didn’t like them so much anymore. (laughs) These octopuses were really expensive, and because we had to use so many of them since the producer was very stingy, we would cook the octopuses in different ways, and we didn’t like octopuses anymore. Even now I don’t like octopuses much!

Photo © Brett Homenick.

MR: Over the years, not only did Godzilla’s character change, but the movies started having a lot more fire and explosions in them. I imagine it took meticulous planning to set the explosives. Did the unexpected happen on film with all that fire going on?

TN: I’m Mr. Explosion, of course. (laughs) It’s not a Godzilla film, but during The Last Days of Planet Earth, we planned to use a lot of explosions, and I burned up one of the stages at Toho. (laughs) The fire just got bigger, bigger, and bigger!

As the movies progressed, we used a lot more explosions, and the reason is that when you use one, people get excited about it, but when you use three or four, they get even more excited. We thought that to get more people excited about our movies, we should use more explosions. That’s why the number of them increased.

Now that we’re talking about explosions, I want to talk about gunpowder, explo- sives, etc. Anybody here can learn to make explosives. A matchstick creates a controlled explosion, as does an exploding building in a movie. We use the same kind of explosives for the little things and the big things. Depending on how many ingredients you use and the way you control them, you can determine how big the explosion becomes. You can put gunpowder in a fire extinguisher and make a big explosion. Those of you who don’t have a fire extinguisher can use a thermos. But be careful, it’ll take out at least one house. (laughs) If a thermos is not your style, you can use a glass jar. If you like to drink bourbon, when you finish the bottle, there’s another use for it. You can put gunpowder in the bottle, put a little sand or rocks on top of it, and you can take out at least a sofa. (laughs) But it’s better to use explosives in movies. Please don’t try this at home.

What we would do in the films is cover explosives with plaster of Paris or other material, and depending on how big we wanted it, we could control it. It was very convenient work for me because if you have a little creativity, you can pretty much make a bomb out of anything. Since I worked in movies, a lot of people get excited about what I did for a living, so I was very happy to do what I did.

BH: They don’t call you Mr. Explosion for nothing! Let’s move on to Nick Adams because I understand you have a few interesting stories to tell about him, and he’s one of the most recognizable actors who’s appeared in a Godzilla movie. Could you share some of your stories about Nick Adams?

TN: Nick Adams really loved Japan. He talked about it a lot, and he loved being there. He loved a certain bean called natto, and as you pull them out of the ground, they look like cob webs — these silk-like strings come off. It’s not that good-tasting, but he liked it a lot. I thought it was very funny. Working with other Americans, they’d always bring out toast, milk, etc., but Nick Adams would say, “I don’t want toast; I want natto.” They would reply, “What? You eat natto? I can’t believe that!” That was very interesting, and I remember it well.

We were very good friends, and beginning with the natto situation, and his visiting Japan so much, if he were alive, Nick would probably be here today to visit me because we were really good friends. In Frankenstein Conquers the World, there’s a small creek Nick crosses in one scene, and it’s a cut scene, but in that take, for some reason, he stepped on a rock in the river the wrong way, he slipped on it, fell back, and hit his back. It knocked him out, and he was out for three or four days. Because he loved Japan so much, he forgave us for that.

There’s another thing that Nick Adams is famous for besides movies. Everyone in Japan knows about this, but probably no one in America knows. There’s a certain weed that grows in Japan that people use for an aphrodisiac, and Nick Adams tried to take two trunkfuls home with him. (laughs) They caught him in Customs in America. They really had a field day in the media in Japan with him.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

MR: By the time you became special effects director, you started work on Godzilla vs. Hedorah. It was something of a different Godzilla film that was both scary and funny in many places. I’ve heard that you felt guilty about making such a grim Godzilla film. Can you tell us something about your thoughts on working on Godzilla vs. Hedorah?

TN: I had a very different feeling about this movie when we made it. I didn’t think about getting an Academy Award for this one. (laughs) The critics were split 50/50 on the movie. They either hated or really liked it. So I was very interested by that result. About ten years ago, the New York Times listed the ten worst films of all time, and Godzilla vs. Hedorah made the list. It was fourth. (laughs) There was also a magazine that specialized in kaiju, and it praised the movie. It was the first time I was hated and loved at the same time for one movie.

BH: Now let’s talk about Godzilla vs. Gigan. Gigan is one of the more interesting kaiju to appear in a Godzilla film. Why don’t you say a few words about Gigan and the movie in general.

TN: Usually, Toho has a lot of artists who come up with ideas to make kaiju, but this was the first time they had a designer from outside the company develop a monster. The designer’s name was Takayoshi Mizuki, and one of the reasons we created Gigan was because we didn’t want to do the same old thing over and over again. We needed new blood in it, and that’s why we had Mr. Mizuki come in.

In the drama of the Godzilla series, we have to make a monster who’s stronger than Godzilla, or else the movie is really not worth making. It has to be a very strong monster from any angle you look at it, or else Godzilla won’t become a superstar. He can’t beat a weakling, so his opponent has to be strong. Trying to knock Gigan down was very hard for Godzilla to do, and so after he got that done, it made him a superstar.

In the first place, Gigan is an animal, and in nature, most animals, to scare either their prey or their hunter, will make themselves look bigger than they are before they attack or are attacked. Like a cat or a lion whose fur stands on end, Gigan is the same way. The way we designed Gigan was that he looks skinny from the front, but if you look at him from the side, he’s really wide. That was the idea: to make the side view look massive. If you look at the Bandai Gigan figure, you can see this for yourself. You want to leave it in your home sideways because he looks better that way. (laughs) We shot him from the side in much of the movie. The skin and color of Gigan are a lot different from any kaiju that were done before. In a nature magazine from England, it was reported that mammoths who are thought of as very grayish were actually a lot more colorful in different parts of the world. We wanted to make a beautiful monster.

In Japan, the reason kimonos are so bulky is that they have twelve different layers that they put on, and it’s basically the front part of Gigan that gives the impression of a kimono — it makes him more massive-looking in the front. It has the same effect a kimono has. When we made Gigan’s chest area, we had kimonos in mind. Most people who want to look tougher would put on many layers of clothing and stick their chests out. Even a cook who thinks he’s the best will wear a taller hat than everyone else. That’s what we wanted to do with Gigan.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

One part we had a hard time producing was the saw in the front. Right around it, the colors change, and it was hard to keep the consistency the same in the suit when we were making the colors around the saw. The next time you watch a movie with Gigan in it, please pay special attention to the area around the saw. It looks big and tough because that’s where we paid special attention. You probably have to see it on the big screen to appreciate it. On DVD, you sometimes miss important details. Gigan looks very good in the small details.

I’d like to talk about the way Godzilla and Gigan fought. Usually when people and animals fight, they try to protect their face and neck area by throwing up their arms as a shield. If you put your arms up, they eventually come back down to the side of the body. After Godzilla fights, his arms go back down to a position where they’re bent at the elbows and sticking out. That’s why his arms are like that, to protect himself. With Godzilla’ s arms in that position, it’s easy for him to protect himself.

MR: (What can you tell us about your work on The Return of Godzilla?)

TN: One problem we had was that up until that time, there was nothing really bigger than Godzilla. The buildings and the airplanes were smaller than Godzilla. But these days, because we have these big tankers and other things that are five or ten times larger than Godzilla, it’s easier to work with now. When you look at the size of these tankers and buildings that are a lot bigger than Godzilla, you think that these buildings and tankers are a lot stronger than Godzilla, and there’s no way he could win. In the old days when everything was smaller, Godzilla was the toughest-looking thing around, but as the world got bigger, Godzilla stayed the same size. So he looks smaller, and it was hard for us to believe that people could think that Godzilla could knock down these buildings or take out these tankers that were ten times bigger than he was. During that era, he seemed a lot smaller and weaker than he was, and that’s one of the big problems we had with working on the movie. The hardest thing we had to do was to create a Godzilla that looked bigger, like in the old days, and as strong as he was in the old days.

Up until then, a lot of people considered Godzilla like a god, or they weren’t sure he was even alive, so at that time, we decided to make him a living creature, and that would give him a lot more drama, and the weakness would become his strength. So we took him in a dramatic area — when he was sad, everybody would feel for him, so even though he wasn’t human, he was more like an animal that everyone could feel for and get involved in the drama with. That was the new era we fell into. A strong, scary Godzilla is not the only Godzilla there is anymore. He’s like an American man — he used to be pretty tough, but now he’s kind of wimpy. (laughs) It’s okay for them to cry nowadays, and Godzilla’s the same.

MR: Okay, I think we’ll open this up for some audience questions now.

Q: What grading criteria do you use for rating a good movie, and what are your favorite and least favorite monsters and movies?

TN: My favorite movie is The Third Man (a 1949 film starring Orson Welles). I really enjoy that film and the sound of it. Up until then, everything used an orchestra, but they used one instrument. I learned a lot from that because up until then, orchestras brought all the drama to the movies, and now they were able to do that with one instrument. I was really enthralled with that. Having a good idea, not putting a lot of money into it, is what makes a good movie. As for kaiju I like or hate, I don’t like kaiju very much. But if I were to say one I like the best, it would be Mechagodzilla.

Q: How do you feel about today’s CG effects, and if you apply those to a traditional Godzilla movie, would it take away the charm?

TN: I think if they use CGI well, they could keep the image of Godzilla from the old days and make it even a better movie. If they had a good mixture of technology and ideas, it could go very well. The hard thing about it is the way to use it. You can destroy the image of Godzilla if you use it the wrong way. Because it’s very simple to use these days, I think people use it too much. It’s not a very positive direction because there’s not a lot of heart that goes into it. I would like people to think about CGI and digital effects before they use them and try to use them in a good way and not too much.

Q: What do you think about the Millennium series, and what would you like to see in Godzilla: Final Wars?

TN: Godzilla is now fifty years old, and things have become the opposite of what they were since he was born. At the beginning, Godzilla was used for peace; he was used as a force to tell people to think more about having peace fifty years ago. About the Millennium series, I don’t have much thought about it except that it deals with the current times, and I think in that way it was okay. For the last movie, I’m hoping it will have an impact where it will make people think about what’s going on in the world today and hopefully, in a way, bring back peace as it did fifty years ago.

Q: What do you think about the contribution of music in terms of bringing out emotion in movies?

TN: Like CGI, I think they’re using too much music nowadays. I think they should put in a little music to give the scene an accent that makes it really good, but I think they’re using too much nowadays. If you use it the right way, it is very, very powerful. I hope with the movies these days, they think about the music they use and how they use it. If you have the perfect scene, you don’t even need music; it’s perfect as is. If you can create the best visual, the best way to do it is to put in a little bit of music, that makes the perfect balance.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

Q: What do you think of TriStar’s 1998 remake of Godzilla, and how many people in Japan were disgusted by it? (laughs)

TN: It’s a very difficult question. (laughs) I think the techniques they used in it were very good. If you think of it as entertainment, it’s good. But if you think of it as Godzilla, it’s not. It’s just a dinosaur that’s running around New York. I wanted to make a Godzilla like this at one time. With Godzilla’s new abilities, TriStar could not have used the Godzilla of old for the remake. They couldn’t take the original Godzilla and make him run fast. But since Godzilla has been slow-moving all his life, the only thing left to change is his speed. So they’d probably have to make use of speed to make a different movie, a new version. The fans of Godzilla in Japan were like the fans in America; they didn’t like the movie in that sense. But the people who don’t care about Godzilla either way enjoyed it as entertainment. It’s like Godzilla vs. Hedorah; it’s a different thing they tried. As entertainment, it was good.

Q: In Mothra vs. Godzilla in 1964, what did they do to make the army tanks and the high-tension electrical wires melt?

TN: We used a paste that would dissolve as Godzilla breathed fire. A lot of it was made out of candy so that it could melt easily. We used a lot of different material, but anything that would dissolve or melt easily with heat, we would use.

Q: How did you create King Seesar?

TN: In Okinawa, they have dragons and other beasts hanging from places, and they’re basically good-luck charms to keep lightning away, fire away, and other things. In Okinawa, they have this dog that looks like King Seesar, and that’s where it originally came from.

Q: I have two questions about the octopus in Frankenstein Conquers the World. First, what was the decision to put him in since he seemed to pop in there at the end? Also, were you and Mr. Tsuburaya pleased with the performance of the puppet as opposed to a real octopus?

TN: We tried to put him in a lot more scenes, but everything we tried didn’t work, so that’s why he appeared so briefly. I didn’t think the octopus needed to be in the movie at all. The other problem we had with it was that we had Frankenstein who’s human and the octopus. We put plastic around the tentacles, but it would always stick, and every time we tried to move it, the results were harsh. I didn’t like its being in there at all, but Mr. Tsuburaya wanted it in. We also call octopuses devilfish. Frankenstein is not the devil, but he has some characteristics like that, and it seems Mr. Tsuburaya wanted to have a devilish devilfish opponent for Frankenstein.

Q: What problems, if any, did you have with the puppet Mothra in Mothra vs. Godzilla?

TN: In this movie, Godzilla was the bad guy. His eyes were also redone for this movie, too — they’re scarier than they usually are. But for the fans in Japan, it was the most popular design. Because Godzilla was so scary-looking in this movie, we wanted to make a weaker, cuter Mothra. We had the hardest time with the movement of the puppets. Other than that, there weren’t many problems, just trying to make Mothra look cute. Mothra looks like a piece of marble cake. The Japanese kids liked it because it really did look delicious. (laughs)

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