GODZILLA’S LEADING MAN OF THE 1970S! Katsuhiko Sasaki Discusses His Life and Career in Film!

Katsuhiko Sasaki in April 2013. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Katsuhiko Sasaki is a third-generation movie actor whose credits in the Godzilla series are among the most popular. Born on December 24, 1944, in Tokyo, Mr. Sasaki’s father (Minoru Chiaki) and grandfather (Takamaru Sasaki) were not only actors themselves, but also appeared in Godzilla movies (Godzilla Raids Again and Monster Zero, respectively). Mr. Sasaki joined Toho at the very end of the studio’s contract system, and went on to star in two of the Godzilla series’ best-known entries: Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) and Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). In July 2014, Mr. Sasaki discussed his life and acting career with Brett Homenick in an interview translated by Robert Field.

Brett Homenick: Please (talk about your) childhood and any early memories (you have).

Katsuhiko Sasaki: During my childhood, Japan lost the war. It was a time when there was nothing at all. When it came to playing, we played baseball together on some land. Of course, there were no computers or video games, and I played baseball very hard. I wanted to become a professional baseball player in the future.

BH: Of course, your father is very famous. He is Minoru Chiaki, whom we’ve all seen in Seven Samurai and Godzilla Raids Again. So please talk about your famous father, Mr. Chiaki.

KS: My grandfather was an actor, and my father was an actor, too. My father was especially favored by director Akira Kurosawa, and as a result reached his high position. I really respect (my father). He never scolded me at home. I became an actor and succeeded him, and I’m working very hard. I haven’t reached his level yet, and I’m going to continue to make efforts a little longer.

BH: Before you became an actor, did you have any thoughts about pursuing another career path besides acting?

KS: When I entered college, I majored in economics, so I thought I would become a salaryman. But around me, there were many people who were acting. I just started to watch their plays and meet them, so I started to think, “OK, I want to become an actor.”

BH: So let’s talk specifically about the transition to becoming an actor. When did you make the decision, and how did it happen?

KS: When I was in my second year of college, my father’s driver quit. In the summer, I was my father’s driver as a part-time job. At that time, I went to the movie and TV studios. In the course of it, as I told you before, I thought, “It would be good to become an actor.” So I consulted my father, but he scolded me. He said, “Actors can’t make enough to eat.” That situation repeated itself many times. I graduated after four years, and I entered a place where I studied acting. It was not too late for a man (to start an acting career). Then I started (acting).

BH: What happened when you started working with Toho Studios, and were you under contract at the time, or was this after the contracts ended?

KS: I started acting, and after a while, I had a chance to act together with Sayuri Yoshinaga. A Toho producer who saw it said to me, “Why don’t you become an exclusive actor at Toho?” Then I entered Toho. As TV programs were going up, movies were going down. So things were shifting toward TV.

BH: Let’s talk about the beginning of your acting career. One of your earliest roles is in Mr. Okamoto’s film Battle of Okinawa. It’s a very bloody, violent war film with an all-star cast. Many famous Toho actors are in it. So please talk about making this very important war movie.

KS: In this war movie movie, it was my first Toho movie, and I had a shaved head. Mr. Okamaoto was — I don’t know whether you know it or not — always in a black style. He tried to do his best. He taught us very good things. I am very happy about that movie, and I feel very nostalgic about it. That movie led to Special Boy Soldiers of the Navy (1972).

BH: Do you have any memories of Mr. Okamoto, who’s a very stylish director?

KS: He was a very interesting person. During work, he was very good at what he did. But when he was away from work, he liked girls. (laughs) I did not do what he did, but I’ve been married three times. (laughs)

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: The following year, you worked on another war film (Special Boy Soldiers of the Navy) with director (Tadashi) Imai. I know it’s one of your very favorites, so please tell the audience what you remember about this film and what it is.

KS: This movie has a very heavy theme. After graduating from elementary school, when they were 13 or 14, they became soldiers. At the end of the war, there were too few people who could become soldiers, so those (children) had to become soldiers. As a result, there was an anti-war theme to it. Actually, I’m not good at English, but I played an English teacher (in this movie).

The movie was a hit. The main actor, Takeo Chii, and I got relatively good reviews. Mr. Chii won a Best Actor award. I was a little bit disappointed (that I didn’t win an award). When I was disappointed, director Imai said, “Your performance was good as it was. It was great. Keep working hard in the future, as well.” Then I thought I would like to keep working hard as an actor.

BH: Now (that) we’ve talked about the serious stuff, we can now turn our attention to the monsters. Let’s talk about Godzilla vs. Megalon and working with director Fukuda. So please share your memories.

KS: If I say this, I might ruin the drams of the American fans. As I said before, movies were eaten by TV. We were wondering what should be done with Godzilla movies. (They said,) “Our budget is small, but let’s do our best and make the movie. The main character, Sasaki’s, salary is not so high, so it should be OK (to make the movie).” And the movie was made. I think, for Toho, the movie was not a loss.

Director Jun Fukuda was usually very aggressive. But he allowed me to do whatever I wanted. Ulf Otsuki was also put through the mill by the director.

BH: One of the most notable scenes in Godzilla vs. Megalon is the lake scene at the very beginning, with young Hiroyuki Kawase in the lake riding around on his little dolphin. I understand you have a funny story about that that you’d like to share.

KS: It was in the middle of winter. We went to a lake near Mt. Fuji and shot there. The setting was in autumn or summer. The small child (Hiroyuki Kawase) was wearing shorts. He was paddling his boat and crying (because of the cold temperature). I also couldn’t say my lines because it was so cold. So the director said, “Drink whiskey.” It was the first and the last time that I acted while drinking.

BH: Your costar in the film is Yutaka Hayashi, who is very famous in Japan for being a drummer with the Village Singers. What was your relationship like with him on set?

KS: We really didn’t have much of a relationship, but he is a very good drummer. He sometimes performers at a live house in Roppongi, and every so often my friends and I will go to see him perform.

You might not have guessed it, but in college, before I became an actor, I was in a Hawaiian band, a Western band, and a folk band. I did all three. It was how I made my money.

BH: Before we continue on, do you have any other memories or stories you’d like to share from the set of Godzilla vs. Megalon?

KS: I have a few memories, but not so many. I actually have a lot more from Terror of Mechagodzilla.

BH: There is a more of a controversial movie — it’s never officially been released in Japan — called The Last Days of Planet Earth. (You) have a small role in the film. So what do you recall about this film, and what do you think about the controversy about the film not being released?

Photo © Brett Homenick.

KS: It was very scary. Because there was a political message in it, I think it couldn’t be released in America.

BH: Do you have any memories that you’d like to talk about with Toshio Masuda, the director, or anything else? It was a very small part, so do you have anything that you’d like to share?

KS: The director was a Nikkatsu director. He made movies very quickly. I think Tetsuro Tamba was acting in it. He never memorized his lines before coming to the set. He memorized his lines on the spot by looking at the script. He memorized his lines while saying, “Uhhh, uhhh.” (In order not to go past the scheduled time,) Mr. Tamba said, “You have to say your lines quickly.” So I drank a lot out of despair. (laughs)

BH: One of your other bigger roles in the Toho sci-fi/horror genre is Evil of Dracula. You play a vampire in this film. You also worked with director Michio Yamamoto. Also, this is with Shin Kishida as the main vampire character. So many great actors and a very interesting director. So please tell us about working with these fine folks on Evil of Dracula.

KS: It was in February during a cold winter. It’s the scene in which I was killed by Toshio Kurosawa in the lake. I was (pushed into the water). I was wearing a suit like this, and it had air inside. So the suit didn’t sink, and it didn’t work well. Later, we went back to the movie studio.

They decided to shoot the scene in the pool at the movie studio. There was a pulley at the bottom of the pool. The rope was tied around (my waist). I exhaled and died (in the scene). When the shot was approved, I was told that I would be released and told to go back up. But I wasn’t released, so I thought I would die because there was no air in here (my lungs). That’s my memory

BH: Let’s go on to the one that we’re all very interested in, Terror of Mechagodzilla. Let’s start at the very beginning with the director, Mr. Honda. Please talk about working with the director and what he was like as a director.

KS: Mr. Honda is a director whom my father also knew well. He was excellent and also excellent as an assistant director. He made a lot of good works. He was a kind director. He was better at serious films rather than movies like the Godzilla movies. He paid special attention to the love scenes with Tomoko Ai.

BH: Of course, another aspect of the film that we’re all very interested in is your relationship on set with Tomoko Ai. She told her side of the story earlier today, so please tell us what it was like on set.

KS: At the time, it was totally business. So we were lovers in the scene, but when it was all over, I wen my way, and she went hers. Looking back now, maybe I should have done something. (laughs)

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: There were also many very well-seasoned actors on set, such as Akihiko Hirata, Goro Mutsumi, and Toru Ibuki. Did you get a chance to speak with any of these actors?

KS: About my memories with Akihiko Hirata, I met him during other jobs. We did voice-acting work together. He was really a gentleman and taught me things in detail. He was not condescending, and he was a very good man.

Goro Mutsumi was also a good man. He liked drinking. The Fugitive (TV series) was a big hit in Japan, and he (voice-acted) the main character. When the American Fugitive played in Japan, it was very popular at that time. He would take me drinking to Shinjuku, Akasaka, and many other places. So I’m grateful to him. Because he is still well, maybe at some point, I want to pay him back in some way.

BH: There’s a big gap in between the monster films, but Kazuki Omori cast you in Godzilla vs. Biollante. So please talk about Mr. Omori and how he decided to contact you for casting you in Godzilla vs. Biollante.

KS: It wasn’t really Mr. Omori who brought it to me. It was producer (Shogo) Tomiyama who said, “It’s been a while. Let’s do something together.” So it was actually Mr. Tomiyama who brought me in to play the part.

Mr. Omori would send letters, saying, “Let’s work together again next time.” But it never happened. (laughs)

BH: You had a much bigger role in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. Let’s talk about that film, and so what was it like on set?

KS: I remember it well. I also worked with Scott for about two months. I was partly helped by Scott and Chuck Wilson. His Japanese was not very good. There is a (funny) story. (Scott) fell in love with Anna (Nakagawa). But in the end, he was rejected. (laughs)

She, which you would know if you look at her, is (a quarter) German. She had an exotic face, and she was liked by everyone.

At that time, (Scott) came to my house. My house was being renovated. He and others came there. Contrary to his appearance, he couldn’t drink sake. He said, “Give me juice.” So he got the juice and drank it.

BH: How about the Hawaii reunion in 1993, I believe it was.

KS: It was the next year in January during New Year’s at the Hilton. When I was checking in at the counter, we recognized each other and we said to each other, “What are you doing here?!” It was good that we didn’t bring our girlfriends, wasn’t it? (laughs)

BH: In our remaining moments, let’s open it up to the audience.

Q: Do you have any memories of Mr. Shin Kishida, your costar in Evil of Dracula?

KS: He was doing very good acting. He was suffering from cancer. He died at the young age of 43. I was very sorry about it. In the dressing room, he asked me, “Katsuhiko, when you put hair tonic on your scalp, does it burn?” I said, “Yeah, it burns.” He said, “It doesn’t burn anymore.” It was a funny story. When I look back on it, I think it was the precursor to his dying from cancer.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

Q: Godzilla vs. Megalon was the first Godzilla movie I saw. Thinking back, how do you personally feel about the film?

KS: At the time, TV was taking over, and fewer people were going to the movies. So when they decided to make this movie, of course they didn’t have any money, so it was very cheaply made. On the other hand, I’m surprised that so many people in America know about it because it really didn’t do well in Japan.

Q: At the time, or even now, is it kind of hard to fathom that the movies you’ve made have influenced generations?

KS: I was very surprised that Americans took to these movies. Looking back, I wish they would have advertised them more in Japan so they would have done better. I also look back on the roles I played back then and how I could have done them better. But I was very surprised about the whole thing.

Q: What’s been your favorite role in your career?

KS: My favorite role was the war film Special Boy Soldiers of the Navy, directed by Mr. Imai. That’s probably the best for me for the reason that, even though the other actor won the Academy Award, Mr. Imai told me, “You did great work. Continue on; you’ll do good things.” So that was the best thing.

Toho had the Ekimae (Station Front) and Shacho (Company President) series of comedies. I was called the second Keiju Kobayashi (an actor known for his recurring role in the Shacho series), and I was told to join because I was funny. Handsome actors like Akira Kubo, Kenji Sahara, and Yosuke Natsuki all quit. After that, I was given acting roles.

Q: In Godzilla vs. Megalon, do you have any memories of working with the actor Robert Dunham?

KS: I don’t have any memories of him because I didn’t work with him. It’s been 40 years, and I hardly remembered his name.

Q: At least in your Godzilla movies, you seem to play softer type characters. Like in Godzilla vs. Megalon, you kind of play a science nerd. In Terror of Mechagodzilla, you play a tragic love hero. Were those roles you were just (given)? Looking back at it, would you have preferred to have played stronger, more square-jawed heroes?

KS: I’ve enjoyed all the parts I’ve done up until now. I’ve been a bad guy in some part, as well. There were a couple of love scenes I had to do one time. I said, “I’m not very good at doing them.” So they said, “Well, we’ll give you five minutes. We’ll just roll it. Do whatever you need to do to get it done.” I would have really loved to have been a hero then. (laughs)

Q: Do you have any memories of working with Megumi Odaka in Godzilla vs. Biollante and Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah?

KS: When I was working with her, I always thought she was very cute. I had a good time working with her. But I don’t know what she’s up to now.

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