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, explosives, 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?]

UPDATE (August 2021): The following portion of the transcript features improved and updated translations by Yusuke Sasaki from the original recording of the interview. Some details have been clarified from the previous translation, while others have been brought to light for the first time.

TN: Fifty years ago, Godzilla was born, and there was a problem that we struggled a lot to solve. There were fewer things bigger than Godzilla. In Japan, the buildings were smaller than Godzilla. Around the world, airplanes and vessels were the same size as or smaller than Godzilla. But, these days, we have 50,000-ton tankers, and those tankers are six or seven times larger than Godzilla. Godzilla obviously cannot defeat tankers of such size.

Also, buildings have gotten bigger. The height of these buildings has become 300 or 400 meters, which is also six or seven times bigger than Godzilla. When Godzilla tries to knock down them, people wonder whether Godzilla can actually knock down them. In the current world, there are many things that are bigger and stronger than Godzilla.  At that time, he seemed much smaller and weaker than he was in the past. That was one of the big problems we faced when we were working on the movie. The hardest thing we had to do was to make Godzilla look bigger, and as strong as he was in the old days.

In the past, there had been a lot of debate whether Godzilla is like a god or a living creature. Then, when we made the film, we decided to make him a living creature. We tried to show the melancholy aspect of Godzilla. So, being strong and scary are not only  the features of Godzilla. He’s like an American man who is thought to be pretty strong, but it is not true.

MR: OK, 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 (1949), British movie. I really enjoy that film and the sound of the zither [on the soundtrack]. Up until then, an orchestra had been used for the music in movies. However, the music of this movie was created by a zither, and it made a sensational sound. To make a good movie, having a good idea is important. Whether the movie is good or not depends on the director’s idea. As for kaiju I like or hate, I don’t like kaiju very much. But, if I were to name my favorite one, 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 CGI makes movies much better rather than making them worse. The hard thing about CGI is the way to use it.  Since it is very convenient and easy  to use these days, people use it too much. As CGI is used too much, it is not a positive thing for movies.  I think you need to get used to the latest digital technology, and you should not use the technology 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 50 years old, but the current status of the world has completely changed. In the beginning, the first Godzilla was an icon that warned about the use of nuclear weapons. We tried to send a message to people to think more about peace.

Regarding the Millennium series, Godzilla is now an idol, so we cannot make the films the way we used to make them. I think it is necessary to make films that meet the expectations of the people, and the story of movies should match the era. The final Godzilla movie that we will make should give people an opportunity to think what Godzilla should be.

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

TN: Like CGI, I think it depends on the way it is used. If you use music with appropriate timing, it would be effective. However, I think music is used too much in movies nowadays. So the visuals in movies are very good, and the visuals can still be sensational without any music. If you watch such a movie, you can be impressed, even though there is no music to go with the visuals in the movie. I think, in order to get the best visual, it would be better to put in a little music to make the movie more attractive.

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?

TN: It is a very difficult question to answer. As an entertainment, it is a good movie. But, if you see it as a Godzilla movie, it has various problems. I think the techniques and the way they told the story in the movie were first-class. Honestly, I wanted to make a Godzilla like this at one time. As we made Godzilla many times, we found that we could not come up with new ideas with Godzilla’s slow speed. The only thing left for Godzilla was to improve his speed. However, if we changed Godzilla’s speed to quicker one, it would no longer be the Godzilla that he was. Some of the Godzilla fans in Japan were disappointed, as well as the fans in America. Like Godzilla vs. Hedorah, there are pros and cons. As entertainment, I think it is a masterpiece.

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

TN: Actually, we used various types of techniques. One of the techniques was a glue made from resin. Also, we used candy. In addition to these materials, we used lead because it can be dissolved by heat. By using these materials that are melted by heat, we enabled Godzilla to melt the things in the movie.

Q: How did you create King Seesar?

TN: The idea of King Seesar originally came from an imperial guardian lion in Okinawa.  This imperial guardian lion is placed on the roof [of buildings] as a guardian in Okinawa, so I created King Seesar based on this idea.

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: Honestly, I agree with you. It did not matter whether the octopus appeared in the movie. Actually, we tried to make the scenes in which the octopus appears, but it was not successful because the opponent was Frankenstein, a human-like monster. We put a vinyl bag on the rubber tentacles of the octopus to make them shine, but, when we tried to move the tentacles, they were too hard to move, and the gloss was lost due to the the sweat [condensation] contained in the vinyl bags.

That is why there were so many NG scenes [unusable takes], and then I was barely able to pick out some shots that could be useful and edited. In addition to this, the reason it was difficult to make the octopus scenes was the complicated story that the octopus, a “devilfish” in English, fights Frankenstein. The result of the scene was like that, as you know.

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

TN: In the 50-year history of Godzilla, this is the only one in which Godzilla was the bad guy. His eyes were remade for this movie. This suit design is called MosuGoji in Japan, and it was the most popular design among Japanese Godzilla fans. Because Godzilla was so scary-looking in this movie, we wanted to make a weaker and cuter Mothra. It was the hardest time for us to make the film. In Japan,  it is said that the young Mothra larva looks like a Chocolate Pie [made by Sanritsu Confectionery]. The Japanese kids liked it because it did look so delicious. (laughs)

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