Tomoko Ai never dreamed of becoming an actress, but once she became one, she achieved international attention with her starring role as Katsura Mafune in Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). Prior to her casting in the final Godzilla movie in the Showa series, she portrayed Monster Attacking Crew (MAC) member Haruko Matsuki in Ultraman Leo (1974-75). In July 2014, Ms. Ai answered Brett Homenick’s questions about her acting career in an interview translated by Robert Field.
Brett Homenick: Tell us a little bit about your early life, growing up, what you remember about your childhood.
Tomoko Ai: I was a very quiet child. I didn’t like to talk or do anything in front of many people. So I never thought I would become an actress.
BH: Since you didn’t think you’d become an actress, what did you think you would end doing for a living?
TA: I wasn’t really thinking about what kind of job I was going to do. I was walking around in Roppongi, Tokyo, when I was scouted. That’s how it happened.
BH: When you were scouted for the entertainment business, what were some of your early jobs?
TA: When I first entered the entertainment industry, I was a model. The first thing I did was a poster for a bank.
BH: Certainly, you started off doing modeling. How did the transition come to start acting?
TA: I was doing some modeling, and while other models were very tall, I was short. So the president of my agency said, “You should try something else. How about acting?” I said, “OK, I think I’ll get into it.” That’s when Ultraman Leo came around, and I got the job for that. That’s what started me off as an actress.
BH: Speaking of Ultraman Leo, how exactly were you cast in the series?
TA: At the very beginning, they took me for a camera test to try out. I passed the tryout. After that, I became a regular on the program. So that’s how it started.
BH: What are some of your memories from working on Ultraman Leo, such as working with your costars or going to any location shooting?
TA: Because I was very young, I was very much like an amateur at doing this kind of job. So everything was like a new adventure to me. It was basically like going back to school. I would talk to the people with whom I was doing the job, and they would talk about where they would go to eat out afterward, and have a good time during the location shooting. After eating, we would go out drinking together. So it was a lot of fun for me.
BH: Do you have any specific memories of Tsuburaya Productions during the heyday of the Ultraman series?
TA: I was always scolded on set, but it wasn’t just me; everybody was scolded, too. But if we were all scolded, then we didn’t have to worry about it. (laughs)
BH: Shortly thereafter, you made a transition to hopefully a bit friendlier studio at Toho. So how was Toho different from Tsuburaya in your opinion?
TA: I was in the middle of shooting Ultraman Leo, so I had my costume on. For Terror of Mechagodzilla, a lot of people were auditioning, but they just couldn’t decide who they really wanted. I was pretty much the last person who auditioned for it. They said, “We need you to come.” So I was wearing my Ultraman Leo costume and went straight to Toho, which was really close to Tsuburaya. I auditioned with my costume on, and I got the part.
I went to the director (Ishiro Honda) and greeted him. I wonder how I got the part.
The difference between Toho and Tsuburaya is that Toho is a traditional movie company, and it was very prestigious. So Toho was different in that way. Therefore, I thought I really became an actress at that moment. It was just then that I realized it.
BH: Let’s transition to Terror of Mechagodzilla. You talked about how you got cast, and you did mention Mr. Honda, the director. So please share some more of your memories of working with Mr. Honda.
TA: Four days before I came here, I went to the house of director Honda, and I greeted his wife. I nostalgically looked at the photos she showed me. It renewed my feeling. To compare Mr. Kurosawa to Mr. Honda, Mr. Kurosawa was like the devil, and Mr. Honda was like Buddha. (laughs) Mr. Honda was very, very kind, and I enjoyed working with him very much. The staff was the same way, too, so it was a good experience.
His wife said to me, “I think Honda directed very persistently by acting it out himself, didn’t he?” Even though his wife said that, in my case, there was very little direction. But my role was a very difficult part. I was not a human; I was half-human and half-robot. So he would say, “Here you’re human,” and, “Here you’re a robot.” That was the only thing he really emphasized. I don’t remember much other direction from him.
Up to that point, it was very different from the other Godzilla movies. It was like a Romeo and Juliet type of Godzilla movie. So it was different from the other movies up to that point.
BH: Well, that is a very good question to talk about, the cyborg aspect of your part. How did you approach that? Did you do any sort of preparation? What was your approach?
TA: I really love to smile, and I’m always very bubbly. So the hardest thing for me was not being able to smile during the cyborg part of my character. So that was the hardest thing for me during filming. But that’s basically what I tried to do — not to smile. Even though it was the hardest thing, I was somehow able to do it.
BH: We can’t talk about Katsura Mafune without speaking about the father. Your father, of course, was played by Mr. Akihiko Hirata — very legendary, famous actor in Japan. So please talk about working with Mr. Hirata.
TA: I seldom communicated with the other actors on set. Mr. Hirata was the only person who spent much time with me. Only one time, he took me out to eat. He said, “This is what it’s like to be an actress, so do your best.” For this role, he was wearing heavy makeup (a wig and fake mustache). He said, “You can’t smile, but I can’t smile, either.”
BH: Another one of your costars who is joining us this weekend is Mr. Katsuhiko Sasaki. So please talk about being the Juliet to his Romeo in Terror of Mechagodzilla.
TA: When he and I met at Narita Airport to come here, it was our 40-year reunion. So we were able to talk together at Narita. But 40 years ago, he wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say! (laughs) When I asked him, “Why didn’t you talk to me?” he said, “Well, there was really nothing to talk about at that time.” (laughs)
BH: There were many locations for Terror of Mechagodzilla. So please talk about going on location to shoot some of the scenes away from the Toho set.
TA: What I remember most was, when I was standing next to the ocean, I was wearing a long wig and wearing green clothes. There was a scene in which I was staring at the sea. There was no CG like today, but my eyes shined green in the scene. I had to keep my eyes open (without blinking). It was very hard for me.
I often went to Yokohama for location shooting.
BH: Do you have any other memories you would like to share from making Terror of Mechagodzilla?
TA: I didn’t know the reason at the time, but there were a lot of wardrobe changes. Along with the costume staff, I went to Seibu (Department Store) in Shibuya to purchase costumes. I was allowed to choose whatever I wanted. I thought, “As expected, this is great!” I chose many costumes that I liked. Because I was young and this was my first time, I thought, “Movies are a lot of fun!”
BH: A lot of people here don’t know much about your career following Terror of Mechagodzilla. Obviously, that’s covering a lot of ground. Could you just give us a brief summary of what you did following the film, just to let everyone know?
TA: The deal between my agency and Toho was that I would basically belong to Toho and that Toho would give me a lot of work. But I didn’t end up getting a lot of work, so I went to Toei. Because I was originally a gymnast and was very flexible, I was cast in a lot of action roles in both TV and movies. My agency got upset, so I left Toho and went to Toei, doing a lot of action in movies and TV.
BH: At this point, let’s open it to the audience.
Q: I read in an interview that you owned your own business for a while. So I was wondering what that business was and how it went for you.
TA: I’ve since stopped, but I used to run my own counseling salon. It was for women’s fitness and anti-aging. It was for about 15 years.
Q: Here in the United States, with movies like Star Wars and Star Trek, actors are very intimidated about entering into those kinds of movies because of fear of typecasting. Is that something you went through when you were offered the role in Terror of Mechagodzilla?
TA: No, no, no, no! (laughs)
Q: We all loved you in Terror of Mechagodzilla. Was there ever any other kaiju films that you wanted to be in?
TA: There really wasn’t another movie that I wanted to be in. I was very young at the time, and I would say, “I’m Tomoko Ai from Terror of Mechagodzilla.” I was a little bit shy about it. I enjoyed being in it, but I was shy because I was very young at the time.
Q: Tell me your memories of Teruyoshi Nakano.
TA: I have no memories of him. He worked on the special effects side, and I worked on the drama side. So I haven’t even met him.
Q: I was wondering if you had any idea that 40 years later, you’d be sitting in a room on the other side of the world with a bunch of people who could quote the entire movie.
TA: No! (laughs) I’m really happy to have lived up to now.
Q: When you were working on Terror of Mechagodzilla, did you ever get a chance to meet producer Tomoyuki Tanaka? If you did, could you tell us your memories of him?
TA: I did meet him, but it was basically just greetings. So I really have no memories of him. In Japan, it’s a ladder society. He was a big producer, and I was just a new actress. You don’t talk to producers. (laughs)
Q: Were you aware of the number of people in America who are Godzilla fans, who’ve watched the movies?
TA: I knew that there was some kind of popularity in America for kaiju, but I didn’t realize it was this big.
Q: Do your family and friends poke playful fun at you for having been a robot-girl, or is it something you all really enjoy?
TA: My niece once came up to me and said, “You put your boobs out there, didn’t you? (laughs)
Q: Are you still working? If not, what hobbies do you have?
TA: I’m doing a lot of stage work now. I’m doing various things, but I’m doing a lot of plays. I also do some narration work. I do a lot of things that have to do with the culture of Japan to continue it on with the children and other people of Japan and to help them understand more about the culture.
Q: What sort of projects did you do while working with Toei Company?
TA: I wonder if you know it or not, but it’s a movie called Detonation: Violent Riders (1975). There was also a program called Playgirl Q, which is like Charlie’s Angels. Anyway, they were action.
Q: One of my favorite actors in Terror of Mechagodzilla is Goro Mutsumi. What was he like to work with?
TA: I was able to meet with Mr. Hirata for dinner, but he was the only one with whom I had any relationship. I’m sorry, but I didn’t get to know him.
Q: Before Terror of Mechagodzilla, had you watched any of the Godzilla movies before you were cast?
TA: Yes, when I was in elementary school, I saw Mothra.
Q: Toho utilizes a lot of returning actors and actresses in their movies. If they were to offer you some type of role in a future Godzilla movie, what are you thoughts on returning to the big screen?
TA: Yes! (laughs)
Q: Do you know if any of your Toei Studios films have been released in America?
TA: I don’t know, but I don’t think so.
Q: What was the most difficult experience you had when you working on the show Ultraman Leo?
TA: The hardest thing about it was that during the summer, the costume I wore was very thick and heavy, so it was very uncomfortable.
Q: I have a question that I think some of us have been wondering for a long time. What was the context of that publicity photo you took with Titanosaurus where you had that whip?
TA: I have no idea! (laughs) I don’t know why there was a whip there, either.
Q: We all think your performance in Terror of Mechagodzilla is one of the most poignant in the series. I want to know what you thought of your performance in the movie, and what did you think of the movie as a whole?
TA: I think the Romeo and Juliet story is timeless and still could be used today. So I think the movie itself is good. As for me, I think I overacted a little during some parts of it. As a whole, though, I think it was well done.
Q: First, is there any big celebration in Japan going on right now with Godzilla? The second part of that: Did you think that Godzilla would be this big for so long? How do you feel being a part of that?
TA: There are a lot of little events going on in Japan right now, but nothing this big. I’m very grateful to have been in Terror of Mechagodzilla and very pleased to be a part of the history of Godzilla.
Q: Titanosaurus only appeared in one movie. Do you think that he could appear in another?
TA: I don’t know. But if he appears again, it would be good.
Q: This is a bit off-topic, but (you said that you’re) doing theater at the moment. So I was wondering about what sort of theater you were doing and what attracted you to that medium of art?
TA: All the jobs that I’ve had with Tsuburaya, Toho, Toei, and all the stage work I’m doing now didn’t happen because I wanted to become an actress; it just sort of happened. The stage acting also just sort of happened. But what I like about it is having a live audience watching my acting. So I feel very good about that now, and I enjoy acting onstage.
Q: Can you talk about the culture of arts and acting in Japan, specifically your experience as a woman in the field?
TA: The difference between Hollywood and Japan is that they need to do a lot of catching up in Japan. Hollywood actors are at the top level, and they work hard to get there, but Japan is trying to catch up. I think that is the biggest difference.
Here in America, especially in Hollywood, everyone learns how to sing, dance, act — all kinds of things. In Japan, it’s usually separate. For example, someone who could dance well probably couldn’t sing. Someone who could sing well probably couldn’t dance. Someone who could act well probably couldn’t do anything else. So there’s a lot of separation in that sense. I think they are trying to get better, like in Hollywood, where performers can do everything.
Q: I was just wondering how has your experience been so far in the United States.
TA: I’m having a good time here, and I’m looking forward to the rest of it. It’s exactly how I thought it would be, and I’m having a great time.
Q: Besides Terror of Mechagodzilla, do you have a favorite Godzilla film?
TA: As a child, I watched Mothra, but that’s actually not my favorite. I like King Kong because the ending is very sad.
Q: What was your favorite role as an actress, and why?
TA: It was Katsura Mafune. (laughs)
Q: How is Godzilla perceived in Japan? Among who is it popular — young people, older people?
TA: It’s not very popular with the younger generation. It’s more popular with people 30 and 40 years old and up.
Q: In the movie, you were with Mechagodzilla. Would you rather have saved Mechagodzilla or Godzilla? Who was your favorite?
TA: In the situation as it was, I would help Godzilla.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Godzilla 2014 movie?
TA: I think it’s totally different from the original Godzilla, which maybe is a good thing.
Q: Who would be more fun to control — Mechagodzilla or Titanosaurus?
TA: (laughs) It’s difficult. I would say Mechagodzilla. (laughs)
Q: You said that you have done some voice-over work. How big of a difference is that from acting in movies and TV shows?
TA: When you’re in a movie or a TV show, that is a part that you have to play, and it may not be you. But when it comes to reading narration, a lot of yourself comes out. So I get to be myself when I do voice-overs.
Q: With all the different prosthetics you had to wear during the shoot, how did you feel with that and (working with) the makeup people?
TA: I had very good experiences with it. I wore the cyborg suit when I was younger, so I was a bit more plump. When I wore the suit, it made me look really skinny. So I really enjoyed it and working with the staff.