Born on April 29, 1934, in what is now Chongjin, North Korea, Akira Takarada joined Toho as a member of the studio’s sixth New Face class in 1953 and quickly established himself as one of its brightest stars. His big break came with the leading role of Hideto Ogata in Godzilla (1954), which was followed up with star turns in such SFX films as Half Human (1955), The Last War (1961), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), Monster Zero (1965), Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966), King Kong Escapes (1967), and Latitude Zero (1969). In this July 2010 interview with Brett Homenick and Damon Foster, Mr. Takarada reflects on his career and shares his thoughts about the true meaning of Godzilla.
Brett Homenick: Before we begin, would you like to address the audience?
Akira Takarada: My father was in Harbin, Mainland China, and he worked for a railroad company. I came back to Japan in 1947. Of course, the war ended on August 15, but before that, Russian soldiers came in, and Harbin was in anarchy. I polished the shoes of the Russian soldiers and sold tobacco to them to make money. Then I finally came back to Japan, and I studied. By chance, I was doing acting when I was a high school student. I was enthusiastically recommended to take a test for Toho movies. I was able to enter Toho in the sixth New Face class. Toshiro Mifune was in the first class. He was my senior (at Toho) by about six years.
I acted in my first movie, but then in my third movie, I had a big chance. I got a script from Toho Company. On the red script was written “Go-ji-ra.” So I asked the question, “What is Godzilla?” Godzilla — I’d never heard of it before. Then I was told, “This is the leading role you’ve been waiting for, so do your best.”
On the first day of shooting, I entered the set. I said to the staff, “I am Akira Takarada. I’m a newcomer, but I’m going to star as the main character. Please accept my regards.” I greeted them this way on the first day. Then the chief of the lighting staff said, “You’re not the main character; Godzilla is!”
Director (Ishiro) Honda, Momoko Kochi, and producer (Tomoyuki) Tanaka, and the famous actor Takashi Shimura — he was one of the Seven Samurai — have all passed away, but the first memorable work (of the Godzilla series) was created. At that time, Godzilla and Seven Samurai were being filmed at the same time. It took a year to make Seven Samurai. In the case of Godzilla, it took about three and a half months. Before being made public, I watched a preview of the completed movie in the studio with the staff and actors. There were about 100 people.
In the end, Godzilla is sinking and turning into a white skeleton because of the Oxygen Destroyer. I was watching Godzilla’s white skeleton, and I cried a lot during the preview. Why did we have to turn this animal into a white skeleton with the Oxygen Destroyer? I couldn’t help feeling sympathy; my feeling was sympathy. The reason is that, although Godzilla is an imaginary animal, he was sleeping in the South Islands.
I’m going to say this because it was a long time ago. There was some hydrogen bomb tests conducted at Bikini Atoll. (Godzilla) woke up and came out. Then, at that time, the Japanese ship the Lucky Dragon No. 5, was exposed to radiation during the atomic tests. They were exposed and came back to Japan. The sailors passed away.
There was such a social backbone in the background when Godzilla was made. So everywhere in the movie, there was an anti-nuclear message. Dr. Serizawa and others, including Dr. Yamane, advocated against nuclear (weapons) — in the Diet of Japan, too. Never using nuclear bombs is the core theme. At that time, Russia and America were in the Cold War. We Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced the atomic bomb.
So America didn’t want to say anything that contradicted that (the use of nuclear weapons) as its policy. Unfortunately, in the American version of Godzilla, those parts were all cut out, or the lines were changed through dubbing. In my scenes, TV star Raymond Burr was acting. He was a big star. It’s time for all of us to recognize (the threat of nuclear weapons) in this era. In fact, I wanted to talk about it frankly with you.
Damon Foster: What was it like working with Momoko Kochi on the set of Godzilla?
AT: She was the granddaughter of the founder of RIKEN, which is famous. Her real name is Momoko Okochi. By omitting the kanji character O, her name was changed to Momoko Kochi. By the way, my name is Akira Takarada. It’s my real name. The meaning is very good — treasure (takara), field (da), and bright (akira).
Momoko was my peer. At that time, the number of students of the sixth (Toho New Face) class was small. So we always cleaned the training place early in the morning. Sometimes, when Momoko was changing clothes because she was sweating, I happened to go into the room, and I often saw her naked upper body. (laughs) I like her!
After this movie, Momoko wanted to study acting more. She went to Haiyuza to study stage acting. She only stayed at Toho for three years after Godzilla. Unfortunately, she passed away more than 10 years ago. I think it was unfortunate that she passed away. That is my answer to the question.
BH: Another one of your co-stars from that film is Akihiko Hirata, and what was it like to work with Mr. Hirata on the set of Godzilla?
AT: He was a very smart man. He graduated from the top school, and he worked for (Mitsubishi Corporation), a trading company. He was in the (fifth Toho New Face) class. He was scouted. He was very serious. He didn’t smoke or drink. We were bad guys, and we invited him to drink and smoke, and we went to places where he could meet women. I pulled him toward in a bad direction. (laughs)
I think I did something bad to him, and I feel sorry about that. Sorry, Hirata! He married a famous actress named Yoshiko Kuga. Unfortunately, they didn’t have children. Mrs. Hirata is still doing well now. Akihiko Hirata also appeared a lot in Godzilla movies. Do you have anything else?
DF: On the set of Godzilla, did you ever go behind the scenes and see any of the special effects done? Did you interact with Eiji Tsuburaya at all?
AT: On the first Godzilla movie, we weren’t able to see Godzilla when we went to the special effects stage. There was a news blackout. They didn’t show it to anyone — to us or the media. It was only in the middle of the shoot that it was opened up to us. Until then, we were managing everything with just the storyboards.
When we saw Godzilla in Toho Studios, it was about two meters tall with Mr. (Haruo) Nakajima walking inside it. We were really frightened; we had goosebumps. Until then, Mr. Tsuburaya came to our studio and explained it verbally, but he never showed us the real thing or a miniature. But he was always very kind. When we asked questions of him, he was the type of person who always kindly answered us.
As a boy, during the war, I saw the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. I also saw the (HMS) Prince of Wales sink during the war. I thought it was the real thing. But in fact, they were all made in miniature by Mr. Tsuburaya’s creativity. When I said, “Mr. Tsuburaya, you made them (miniatures, etc.) for Godzilla, didn’t you?” He laughed. He was a very wonderful, skillful craftsman, and he was a world-class special effects director.
BH: You talked about one of the masters who created Godzilla, but let’s talk about the other one. What was it like to work on the set with Mr. Honda, and how would he direct you in a scene?
AT: Mr. Honda was the peer of Akira Kurosawa at Toho. Mr. Kurosawa started working with Toshiro Mifune and went the way of samurai pictures. Mr. Honda went the way of Godzilla movies. Those two went in separate directions. Later on, Mr. Kurosawa asked Mr. Honda to work as a “second director” several times because they were such good friends.
From the first one, director Honda was (always) agonizing over something by himself like Rodin’s sculpture (The Thinker). He was always worried about what kind of movie it was going to be. When we asked questions, and the director couldn’t find the answer, he would say, “Please give me two or three days, and I will give you the answer.” He considered our questions very seriously. Mr. Honda was a very quiet man. He was an academic type.
DF: Next, we’re going to jump to the next Godzilla movie that you were in, Godzilla vs. the Thing. So what was it like working on 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla?
AT: Unfortunately, Godzilla King of the Monsters had a different connotation. It was accepted in America largely as a work of entertainment. The first work, intellectual movie people, such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, very much supported Godzilla, and of course a lot of fans, too. That’s the reason it was a big hit.
Maybe last year, in 20 cities across America, including Chicago, the original version (of Godzilla) was previewed. We were praised by every newspaper, and we couldn’t help feeling that Godzilla finally saw the light of day. I think that was a very correct review of the movie.
This (Mothra vs. Godzilla) was made in 1964. The first one got an audience of 9.6 million. At that time, about 10% of the Japanese population saw it. It was a big thing. Nowadays, if a movie gets two million people, it’s a very big hit. There were five movie companies in Japan. They did a lot of things, but they decisively lost to Godzilla. It was such a hit because children, like seven-, eight-, nine-, and 10-year-olds, went to see Godzilla. They didn’t go to the movie theater alone. They always were accompanied by their fathers, mothers, and older brothers. Therefore, it became one multiplied by three or four.
Now Mothra vs. Godzilla — I was in this movie 10 years after the first one in 1964. This was also seen by 7.2 million people. I think this movie is the last one in which Godzilla played a villain. In order to counter Godzilla, the huge moth, Mothra, appeared. Mothra was on Infant Island, which was exposed to radiation by nuclear testing.
There, Mothra was born. It was a guardian deity on Infant Island. Interestingly, Infant Island was (in the same movie with) the imaginary country of the Republic of (Rolisica). At that time, it was the Cold War. Ro is from Russia, and ka is from America. They combined it together. That was the name of the country that the Japanese imagined (in the original Mothra).
Godzilla is a very violent monster. There is something human-like about it. It makes a sad face, and sometimes it makes a very vicious face. I like it very much. Originally, it wasn’t born as a devil-god; it was (born) because of humans. It was born that way, so I can’t help thinking it sometimes makes a sad face. Nowadays, people are crying out for the world environment.
Although it was an imaginary animal, we want it to stay deep underwater. It’s my hope as a human being. I think Godzilla is an alarm for human beings. Intelligent human beings (must) wake up, and we have to create peaceful countries. Japan waged a huge war and made a big mistake. As a human being who was brought up during the war, that’s what I think.
BH: Returning to Mothra vs. Godzilla, you also worked with Hiroshi Koizumi and Yuriko Hoshi on that film. What was it like to work with those two actors?
AT: Hiroshi Koizumi was an announcer with NHK. He was three years (my senior at Toho), and came to the company in the third New Face class. Announcers typically don’t show their emotions much when the deliver their lines. They speak matter-of-factly and accurately without making mistakes. He felt bad that he couldn’t change his way of speaking to be more like an actor.
Audiences also thought his way of speaking was stiff. (laughs) I feel like he’s still that way. (laughs) I’m sorry I speak ill of him because he is not here. I feel really good about saying that. (laughs) He is very classy, and he is now about 84 years old. He’s a very good golf player — single (digit) handicap. But for dialogue, he’s a 34 handicap. (laughs)
Yuriko Hoshi — ah, she’s so pretty. She’s a lovely actress. She is one of the actresses who is still working hard on movies, TV, and on stage. When I was filming movies, she arrived as a newcomer. After two years, we started working together in a love story. But she was still young, and I was a big star. I felt she was very cute because she was trying to act more experienced than she was.
She married once and was divorced. She now lives happily with her second husband. There was a kissing scene in another movie called The Last War (1961). She was shaking like this in the kissing scene. (But at the same time,) there was an earthquake with a seismic intensity of about 6.
DF: Next, we’re going to discuss Monster Zero. So what was it like working on Monster Zero?
AT: Ah, Monster Zero. It was in 1965, the year after Mothra vs. Godzilla. An audience of 7.2 million saw it. This was the first time aliens came to attack the Earth in a Godzilla movie. This was the first time I acted with an American actor, Nick Adams. Hi, Nick! Hi, Horny Nick, how are you? It was my first time to act with a Hollywood actor. His TV show was also broadcast in Japan. We acted mindful of each other. He was young, and I was also young.
Thinking that he would be lonely, I invited him to go and eat sushi, tempura, and sukiyaki. Then because we were men, we gradually became lecherous. Then he elbowed me and said, “Akira, take me to a nice place.” You understand what I mean. The biggest problem that happened is top secret! In that way, when movie people work together for a day, we feel like we have a relationship like we have known each other for 10 years.
Toho has a lot of theaters. I was scheduled to act in the Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate by Cole Porter. But there was no vocal score. I asked Nick, after the shooting, “When you go back to America, could you look for and find one?” I didn’t expect it, but about two weeks after he went back to America, it was sent to me, saying, “Akira, I wish you success.” I was really grateful to get it. He was a very nice guy.
BH: Well, I’m sure this next gentleman’s personality will be slightly less interesting than Nick Adams. But also on Monster Zero, you worked with Akira Kubo. What was it like to work with Mr. Kubo?
AT: Akira Kubo joined the company about two years before me. He was my senior, even though he was younger than me. When I went to Toho, he always acted like he was my senior, so he said, “Make me tea,” and, “Shine my shoes,” even though I was older than him. I thought that I would surpass him in a short time. I thought I would go beyond him.
In Monster Zero, the nuclear issue is a big theme. As you may remember, the Japanese government was saying don’t use nuclear weapons against the monsters. I think you might have felt that. At that time, unfortunately, the editing was not going well. The re-editing of the first one, second one, and third one was done by an American distributor. This was the last work in which re-editing was done.
This was the last work in which the movie was re-edited for the American version, because even though the movie was re-edited, it digresses from the original theme.
Three or four male American voice actors played all the characters, from small characters to main characters, including Dr. Yamane and me. American audiences couldn’t feel the characters were different because of the voice. It was unfortunate that that kind of sad fate happened to it. Monster Zero was like that.
I haven’t acted with him much together after that. I was acting in leading roles, and he was becoming a supporting player, and his parts got smaller and smaller. So there was a reversal. That’s life.
DF: The next question is about Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. What was it like working on Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster?
AT: It was released in Japan in 1966, but released in America in 1968. This was seen by 5.2 million people in Japan. There are many memories about this.
It’s very costly to make a big city set and destroy it. So the budget was restrained little by little, and ticket sales were going down. It’s costly for Godzilla to destroy a miniature set about three times the size of this (room). So the set gradually started to be reduced. Thus, they made it a story about a South Seas island. They reduced the budget of the set.
The world changes rapidly, so this kind of thing might happen. When we aired the movie on TV, the widescreen has to be cut down to TV size. Important parts are cut. Therefore, I thought it became a strange image. When it is cut, you choose which part to take out. If you choose this part, all the rest is cut out.
In this movie, there was an organization called Red Bamboo. Nuclear weapons are developed on the island. Godzilla destroyed the Red Bamboo base. Red Bamboo was a bad organization that used nuclear weapons. At that time, there was the Cold War. So if we said “red,” it meant Russia. In that image, the movie was created.
BH: Another one of your costars that our audience would like to know very much about is none other than Ms. Kumi Mizuno, who costarred with you in both Monster Zero and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster.
AT: Kumi Mizuno, she is a very wonderful actress. She acts on the stage as a supporting actress, and she is working hard, acting very well. She is an actress who started in movies. In her roles on the stage or in TV dramas, she is a valuable actress. Her way of saying lines is good, and her acting is good.
DF: What was it like working on Godzilla: Final Wars?
AT: Between them, we made another movie, a remake of Godzilla vs. Mothra. During Godzilla’s 28 movies, for 50 years, there was the first one, and this is the last one. I think it’s rare in the world to act in a career of 50 years in the first and last one, and in the middle as well. The theme is, because of repeated nuclear experiments, the Earth’s environment has been progressively destroyed. Godzilla woke up again and attacked the Earth. Aliens came out, and the last hope for human beings was to make Godzilla fight against them.
Don Frye was a popular professional wrestler in Japan. I didn’t expect that I would act with him. I don’t watch professional wrestling much, so I didn’t know his name. He was very quiet and gentle. He listened to the director attentively as if he were a newcomer and said, “Yes, I understand.” He was also very popular in America.
The impressive part in this scene is, after fighting, Godzilla quietly goes back into Tokyo Bay with the sun setting in the background. Looking at his back, I felt sorry for Godzilla, thinking that he fought well for 50 years, and he had been told that he was a villain. The desire to apologize to him came up inside me. People on the Earth aren’t going to cause trouble anymore. So please go to a deep sleep and rest quietly. I prayed like that. My great classmate Godzilla was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As a world hero, he remains in everyone’s mind. I’m very happy that I was able to have this classmate.
(Hideki) Matsui with the (Los Angeles) Angels — his nickname is Godzilla. He was called that nickname in Japan all the time. Godzilla is a metaphor for something gigantic, and it can also mean terrifying. In that sense, you can use Godzilla for many things, like “Microsoft is Godzilla.” To sum up Godzilla in one word, Godzilla is not the assailant. I want to say that Godzilla is also one of the victims. That’s what I feel about Godzilla now.
BH: One other director that you worked with on the set of Final Wars was Mr. Ryuhei Kitamura. Of course, he’s very controversial among Godzilla fans. Some people like the job he did, and others really don’t. But what did you enjoy or perhaps dislike about working with Mr. Kitamura?
AT: It was the first time for me to work with director Kitamura. I didn’t know him well. I don’t know what kind of movies he had made, and he was very young. I only worked with him on that movie, so I don’t have many details about him. He’s about 6’1, and he looks like a pro wrestler. He also has watched Godzilla movies since he was small.
Those who direct Godzilla movies all watched the movies when they were small. So they know about its horror. So when they go into shooting, that kind of feeling is already in their heads. When he directs acting or explains to me, I would say, “It’s OK. Please tell me more frankly.” But he said, “Could you please do this?” or, “Excuse me, please.” I almost felt like saying, “Don’t be afraid of me.” It was like that.
Whether the work was good or not was talked about in Japan. As it was the last memorial work, I felt like he strained himself more than expected and made this work.
DF: What was your favorite role you ever played in a Godzilla movie?
AT: Of course, Godzilla, the first one. The second one was Godzilla vs. the Thing, the same year as the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.
Godzilla vs. Mothra in 1992 — at that time, the Godzilla suit was stolen. In the newspapers and TV, they were saying, “Please look for it.” If you put it up as an ornament, it would be quickly discovered. The Godzilla suit was found in the forest around Tama Lake, which was 150 kilometers from Tokyo. It was pitiful to see it just lying there. How sad! (laughs) The paintings of Picasso or Cezanne couldn’t be sold so easily. So even if you have Godzilla, you have to look at it in secret. (laughs)
DF: Next up, questions from the audience.
Q: Out of all of the kaiju movies you’ve done, did you ever want to get inside the suit to be Godzilla?
AT: (laughs) At this age, that’s really impossible.
Q: (When you were younger,) did you ever want to do that?
AT: When I was young, I wanted to do it. Mr. Nakajima had a body like Don Frye. Once you wear it, it’s very difficult to take it off, so you’d have to bother other staff members. Mr. Nakajima put up with it, even when he wanted to go to the toilet. This is top secret, but I’m going to disclose it for American fans. He peed inside Godzilla. (laughs) It’s sweat, anyway. (laughs)
Q: I read in the program that you will be on Broadway. I’d like to know when and where.
AT: I acted in movies for a long time and acted in 200 movies. I gradually faded out, but at the time I faded (back) in, there were many Toho stages. So I started to act in musicals. The first American Broadway musical I acted in was Annie, Get Your Gun. The second one was Kiss Me, Kate. The third one was Gone with the Wind — Rhett Butler. I was a poor Rhett Butler. (laughs) Japan was the first to make it a stage show at the same time as a movie. I acted in Gone with the Wind for eight months at the Imperial Theater. So the theater was like my home. Scarlet O’Hara was changed three times, but only I played Rhett Butler.
An American children’s literature author and philosopher Leo Buscaglia wrote a book called The Fall of Freddie the Leaf. That played as a musical in Japan for 10 years. There was an offer from Broadway to do the musical on Broadway. So Japan said, “Please perform it.” This August, I’m going back to Japan. As soon as I finish performing in Japan, I will quickly go to Broadway.
Q: I’d like to know if on Godzilla vs. the Thing if you had any memories of working with the Peanuts, the Ito sisters, or if because of the special effects, you never really worked together.
AT: The Peanuts shot their scenes at a different time. Dolls of them that were created were put here (in front of us). It was a composite shot, so there was nothing there. We had to match the eyeline, so we had them especially created, and there was the pair of the Peanuts.
What we especially can’t help laughing about is that in the first (Godzilla) when Godzilla appears from behind the mountain, it was in fact a composite shot, so there was nothing there. When I asked the director where the head of Godzilla was, the director said, “Imagine that cloud there is the head.” So I was looking at it. But while we were testing several times, the cloud started moving. When I watched the rushes, everyone’s eyeline was different. So we had to retake it.
We were only able to see small, 35mm storyboard drawings of Godzilla. So I had no idea how tall or wide it was. There was a tall, nine-story building in front of Tokyo Station at that time. I was told that Godzilla’s chest would be above the building. So I thought, “Wow!”
Godzilla became famous, and it destroyed many towns like Osaka and Kyushu. So other towns offered to be destroyed by Godzilla because it was like publicity for their towns. Mayors came to the shooting, and said, “Please come to our town and destroy it.”
Q: Do you have any memories of working with Yoshio Tsuchiya on Monster Zero?
AT: Yoshio Tsuchiya became famous in Seven Samurai as a farmer. Later, in Godzilla movies, his specialty was playing space people like X-Seijin. I acted with him in a TV series, so we know each other well. He acted well because he was from Haiyuza. He hasn’t appeared in movies or on TV recently.
Q: Besides Godzilla, who is your favorite kaiju?
AT: Mothra — she’s very cute.
Q: Since musical scores are really important to movies, I was wondering if you had any comment on using Keith Emerson to (compose) the score for Final Wars versus a traditional score.
AT: I think the original composer, Mr. (Akira) Ifukube, is outstanding. Of course, Final Wars used that music following the tradition, and also they used the new music. The first music was so impressive, so I can’t really remember the new music.
Q: I found out that you also did the voice of Jafar in the Japanese version of Aladdin.
AT: How did you know? (laughs) I played Jafar in Aladdin. It was a difficult role — dual personality. He was gentle on the surface, but underneath the surface, (the voice) was more (guttural) than Don Frye.
I did the voice of Jafar for the movie, the DVD, and the voice that is used at Tokyo Disneyland. So Jafar is always me. In Tokyo Disneyland’s Westernland, there is the Bear Jamboree, and the young one is my voice. I did the summer vacation version, Christmas version, and the original version. Every year, they play them alternately.
Q: In Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, what was it like working with director Jun Fukuda?
AT: Director Jun Fukuda repatriated from China (after the war). He had dreams of becoming a director. He started from the lowest position of assistant director. He patiently studied hard and came up the ladder to the top. I made three or four movies with him. He drew all the storyboards in his script. He showed them to the actors. So he created a montage in his mind. In his mind, the film was put together, and it was like a montage. I think he’s one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with.
Q: In Latitude Zero, you did all of your dialogue in English. I thought that was great. Do you have any remembrances from that movie with Richard Jaeckel and Joseph Cotten?
AT: Latitude Zero (was with) big American stars, like Joseph Cotten, Cesar Romero, Patricia Medina, and Richard Jaeckel — bad guy, Richard! (laughs) It’s a joke; he’s a nice man. I never imagined that I would be able to act with such a big star who acted in The Third Man. I never imagined I would act with Cesar Romero who moved colorfully and overacted.
Richard Jaeckel always went to the gym in between takes and worked out very hard. He said, “Akira, touch my chest.” So I touched his chest many times. Unfortunately, he passed away. Of course, Joseph Cotten as well, and Cesar Romero. So three people passed away recently.
I was very interested in what kind of acting big American stars would do, and from the first test (I wanted to see) how they acted in each scene. I thought that someone like Joseph Cotten’s manager would show him his dialogue while he was acting. But he didn’t look at the script at all; everything was in his mind. I was impressed and really astonished that his acting was flowing and natural, and I learned a lot from that. About the method of shooting, in the case of America, in one take, it could take as long as two or three minutes. So it can be edited smoothly.
But in the case of Japan, it’s one cut, one cut, one cut. So it’s possible that the acting couldn’t be edited. So I was worried that he would be dissatisfied with that. But he remarkably continued his acting. When I watched the completed film, his acting was really edited well. So I thought he was great.
Q: (Why weren’t you shown any of the special effects scenes for the original Godzilla?)
AT: (The shooting of) Godzilla was not open from the beginning in order to be effective. It was because of the strategy. We were told that it was their original intention not to show Godzilla to the public or the media, so we were told not to say anything about it.
Mr. Kurosawa did Seven Samurai, and Mr. Honda did Godzilla. They were (made) at the same time. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas saw Seven Samurai. Mr. Spielberg watched Godzilla when he was small. I think I’ve read that he said (he was frightened by Godzilla). He showed that fear in Jurassic Park (in the scene in which the water in the cup is rippling). When Godzilla finally appears in the middle of a movie, it’s timed so that it has the biggest impact on your emotions. In Jurassic Park, the timing is the same.