TOKUSATSU THE TOHO WAY! Takashi Naganuma on Creating SFX for the Godzilla Series!

Takashi Naganuma in May 2019. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Born on July 20, 1947, in Niigata City, Niigata Prefecture, Takashi Naganuma began his career in special effects in the early 1970s and lent his talents to many Toho tokusatsu productions through the early 1990s. In May 2019, Mr Naganuma was interviewed by Brett Homenick about his work on the Godzilla series and beyond. The interview was translated by Makiko Nomoto, with additional information provided by Akiko Yamashita.

Brett Homenick: What can you tell us about your early life, such as hobbies or what it was like to grow up during that time?

Takashi Naganuma: I had many, many hobbies. For example, I watched ants when I was a baby. I also played with toy airplanes. I played with model trains, too. Until I was a high school student, I played with model trains.

BH: When did you get interested in movies and special effects?

TN: I wasn’t interested in movies or special effects at all. When I saw The Mysterians (1957), I was not interested in movies in general, but interested in the mecha and the special effects. For example, I was interested in the Markalite.

Before The Mysterians, I saw Godzilla (1954). I was very surprised when I saw it. I was a first-year elementary school student at the time. I was much smaller back then. I was too young to know anything about special effects at the time, so I was just surprised.

BH: After seeing The Mysterians, did you take any steps to work in movies? Did you start to study special effects?

TN: I just watched Westerns and submarine war movies. I watched many, many kinds of movies.

BH: What was the next step in terms of how you started work at Toho in special effects? How did that happen?

TN: One day, my classmate and I went to Toho because it was possible to get a part-time job there. My friend said to me, “Let’s go.” The day after we were hired, my friend didn’t show up.

BH: Talk about the process of applying for a job at Toho.

TN: I was hired on the spot.

BH: What did you do after that? What was the work?

TN: My first job was assembling 1/8-scale bicycles for Ultraman Ace (1972-73).

BH: This was not Tsuburaya Productions? This was Toho?

TN: Toho provided Tsuburaya Productions with the stage and special effects for the program.

BH: Did you do anything else for Ultraman Ace, or just assembling the models?

TN: I painted miniatures and drew blueprints for many things like the bridges used in special effects scenes that were destroyed by the monsters.

BH: Your first movie was Marco (1972). What do you remember about working on Marco, and what did you do?

TN: I built the ship used in the movie. It was all made with wood. It took about a week to make. I also built the Chinese houses with wood. It took two days per house to build.

BH: Let’s continue with Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973). It’s your first Godzilla movie. What did you do on Godzilla vs. Megalon?

TN: I built miniatures. I built the miniature dolphin boat that sinks into the lake. I made it with balsa wood. I built a motor into it. I don’t remember how long it took me to build it. It probably took about three or four days.

BH: What else did you do on Godzilla vs. Megalon?

TN: In the special effects art department, I was at the bottom of the hierarchy at this time. I was underground! (laughs) All the low-ranking staff members at the special effects art department did many thankless tasks. We were like freshmen because we had just entered the company.

BH: How would you describe the character of Jet Jaguar?

TN: They used rubber cement because if it shrinks, it doesn’t crack. So they used rubber glue.

They used polystrene foam to make Jet Jaguar’s flying model. It was used to make the whole flying model of Jet Jaguar.

At the time, nobody planned it, but I think it predicted the AI revolution. But at the time, the director did not intend to predict the AI revolution.

BH: Let’s talk about what you did on Submersion of Japan (1973) and talk your work on it.

TN: We built planes, ships, vehicles, structures, signs, houses, traffic signs, phone booths, guard rails, TV antennae, etc. I also built 1/24-scale driver miniature. I also built miniature Japanese inns and villas. I painted this sign for the Nissan Fairlady. For example, I was ordered to build 10 billboards. I was ordered to make 10 of them, but I could paint anything I wanted. Therefore, I painted the Nissan Fairlady advertisement. Koji Kojima painted a sign with Elvis. He could also paint anything he wanted. The billboards were placed on the roofs of buildings.

We would build bigger airplanes and put them in the front and build smaller planes and put them in the back in order to give the scene a sense of perspective. We used the same perspective technique with mountains and cities.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: How long was the work on Submersion of Japan?

TN: It was about five months. The first work was completed on August 17, 1973, but of course work began before that date. It was started several months before August. The final work was completed on November 26. There was also a preparation period before work started.

BH: How much every day would you work?

TN: We sometimes worked overnight, so I can’t answer how many hours.

BH: So did you basically stay at the studio?

TN: We would stay at the studio or the shooting place. It was very hard work, but we didn’t think it was hard because we had a heart for special effects. We were probably overworked, but we didn’t think about it like that because we loved special effects. Sometimes we stayed at the studio or the shooting place, but other times we went back home.

BH: Would you say that Submersion of Japan was the most challenging or difficult work that you had at Toho?

TN: I don’t think Submersion of Japan was hard work.

BH: Is there anything else you’d like to say about Submersion of Japan?

TN: I have only story. Usually, when a movie was finished, the whole staff would take a group picture together. But we didn’t take one for Submersion of Japan. There was no time to take a picture with all the staff. So four of us staff members (Koji Kojima, Fuchimu Shimakura, Tadaaki Watanabe, and I) took a picture together. It’s a very important picture.

BH: Is this a personal picture, or did Toho take this picture?

TN: It’s a personal photo.

BH: Let’s talk about Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974). Talk about what you did on the film.

TN: Mechagodzilla head was polyester, and his body was FRP. The inside of the shoulder is made of rubber. The arm is polyester. The suit was made out of FRP. There is glass fiber, and polyester is over it. It can be compared to a sandwich.  The head, face, neck, arms body, all of it was polyester.

I was involved in the making the mold and painting the suits.

BH: What did you do for King Caesar?

TN: Just painting. His face and body were made out of rubber, and the fur was mohair. I made the the miniature of the aliens’ headquarters, I made the control booth and everything else there.

I made the rock in which Godzilla was hid himself. This rock was made out of mortar. I made Mechagodzilla’s finger missiles.

BH: What did you use? Is it the same material?

TN: The flying finger missiles were made out of wood and tin-plate (tin-coated iron-plate). Mechagodzilla suit was made out of FRP, urethane, and hard sponge.

BH: How about Espy (1974)?

TN: I made the airplane and the house that explodes at the end of the movie. We used plaster to build it. I didn’t make it by myself. About 30 people were involved in making the house.

BH: Could you talk about making the airplane?

TN: It’s an alloy called duraluminum. We used it to make the airplane. We put duraluminum so that the surface would look metallic.

BH: Why did you (build so many airplane models at different scales)?

TN: The biggest model (1/5-scale) was used for closeups. A 1/30-scale one was used for flying scenes.

BH: There were six airplanes built?

TN: One was built for a camera test, so there were five built that were used in the movie. One was built for flying scenes, one was built for closeups, another was built for flying scenes in which it was closer to the camera, and (the 1/12-scale model) was for the airplane whose bottom scraped against the top of the alps. If we used this smaller one (1/30 scale), it would look like a toy. So we couldn’t use that one. In Espy, these are the only models in special effects scenes that I worked on. I don’t have any other memories.

BH: What did you do on Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)?

TN: This was the first time a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II (1/25 scale) appeared in a Toho movie. It was actually used in the Japan Air Self-Defense Force. Many special effects staff members were involved in making this fighter jet. But it was I who selected this fighter jet to be used in the film. I painted the jet to look like the real thing. It’s cool! At that time, in 1975, it was the state of the art in terms of fighter jets. For most Godzilla and kaiju movies until then, they used the F-86. At that time, Japan was not allowed to manufacture fighter jets, so it purchased them from the U.S.

For the flying Mechagodzilla model, we made it out of polystyrene foam so that it looked like metal. The teeth were plastic. The eyes and the red part of the ear were made from motorcycle taillights. The suit was used many times, so it was damaged. I did not work on the Mechagodzilla suit. (Nobuyuki Yasumaru and Tomoki Kobayashi made the Mechagodzilla suit for Terror of Mechagodzilla. Mr. Kojima and Mr. Naganuma helped them make it up — aging and painting.)

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Did they make a brand-new suit for Terror of Mechagodzilla, or did they reuse the old suit?

TN: They reused the first Mechagodzilla suit. They just changed a part of the chest. They also added the red number two to the suit (to read “MG2”). The flying model was new, but the suit was reused.

BH: What did they use for the lettering on the suit?

TN: Wood plate.

BH: Next is Prophecies of Nostradamus (1974). What did you do on this movie?

TN: The Ballantine (two-meter) ship. Ballantine was the name of an enemy country in the movie. This ship belonged to that country.

BH: I understand that one of the tokusatsu sets exploded during the making of Prophecies of Nostradamus. Is that true?

TN: Stage 7 burned. There was a miniature lake set. The lake was dried out due to geothermal heat. The bottom of the lake had cracked because it had dried out. Stage 7 started to heat up to about 52 degrees Celsius. There was straw inside the walls, and the straw caught fire because of the heat.

BH: When the studio set was burning, what happened next?

TN: The fire department rushed to the studio and extinguished the fire.

BH: Was shooting delayed?

TN: There was no delay. It happened after shooting.

BH: About Prophecies of Nostradamus, do you have any other memories?

TN: There are many stories from this movie, but I can’t tell all of them. When a special effects missile launch scene was being shot, a famous singer named Agnes Chan was shooting a TV commercial at the same time at the same place.

BH: It was at Toho?

TN: Yes, it was at Toho. It was in Studio 10 near the Big Pool.

I also made some small pieces (of debris) out of mortar. Although I made these pieces, they were not used in the film. It was too bad.

BH: Let’s talk about the next movie, which is The War in Space (1977).

TN: We used a variations of silver, such as dark silver or light silver, in order to make the spaceship (the Gohten) seem metallic.

My next story is a big surprise. While we we were working in the studio, Yasuyuki Inoue came to visit. He said, “Don’t make it look dirty.” We were using silver to show the gradations and to make it look like metal. We didn’t intend to make it look dirty; we were just trying to make it look metallic. But Mr. Inoue thought that we were making the spaceship look dirty.

I said to Mr. Inoue that we were painting it to make it look like real metal. He replied indifferently with something like, “OK.” The design of the (alien spaceship Daimakan) was based on classic Chinese ships.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: How about Deathquake (1980)?

TN: We made two (types of) apartment buildings in Sangenjaya. The small buildings were for composite shots (and were not built to be destroyed), and the other buildings were built to collapse. They were destroyed by an earthquake. In the buildings, you can see laundry hanging in the windows.

BH: How did you do that?

TN: We used cotton cloth to make the clothes. We cut out two pieces of cloth at a time and sewed them together. It was like a miniature dollhouse. The laundry was hanging from a bar in the window. Director (Teruyoshi) Nakano was happy to see that, so he praised our work.

BH: Next, let’s talk about Godzilla (1984). What can you tell us about Godzilla?

TN: The high-power laser-beam vehicle, which was my first design, appeared in this movie, which is my favorite. I was in charge of mecha, such as planes, boats, helicopters, submarines, etc.

BH: Did you work on the Cybot?

TN: No, I didn’t.

BH: Do you have any memories from Godzilla?

TN: Shinji Higuchi joined us for the first time. At the time, he worked on the Godzilla suit as a part-time job. Now he has become a famous director.

BH: What was director Nakano like?

TN: I didn’t get any complaints on my work from him. I just did what he asked me to do.

BH: Is there anything else you can tell us about Godzilla?

TN: We got ahead of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in introducing and fabricating a new type of aircraft.

BH: Next is Pulgasari (1985), the North Korean movie. It’s unusual, isn’t it? Please tell me about Pulgasari.

TN: I just supported Yoshio Suzuki, the art director of the movie. I drew the plans of the tank in the movie.

BH: What do you remember about Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)?

TN: It was the second work in which I participated as special effects art director. Mr. (Tetsuzo) Osawa prepared the film set of the special effects production design for this movie. We shared the work of creating the production design.

BH: What was director (Koichi) Kawakita like?

TN: I think he was an enthusiast. I mean, he was much more enthusiastic than other directors. Therefore, the more absorbed we were in special effects settings, the happier he became.

BH: Did you work on Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)?

TN: No, I didn’t. I stopped (at Biollante).

BH: But Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992)…

TN: I helped the movie team in drawing the special effects miniatures. For example, I drew the plans of the models of the Diet Building and the Yokohama Bay Bridge. (Mr. Naganuma drew the maps of Yokohama and planned how many and what kind of buildings were needed.)

BH: Did you work on Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1993)?

TN: No, I didn’t.

BH: Did you work on Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1994)?

TN: No, I didn’t.

BH: So the last one was Godzilla vs. Mothra.

TN: Precisely speaking, the last movie I officially on which I worked as a member of the special effects staff was Godzilla vs. Biollante.

BH: Let’s go back to Tokyo Bay Burns (a.k.a. Conflagration, 1975). Please tell me about it.

TN: It was more enjoyable work than I expected. The stage carpenters constructed the full-size open set. I happened to have a chat with a young actor who came there. Later, I came to know that he played the leading role of the movie.

BH: What can you tell us about The Imperial Navy (1981)?

TN: As of The Imperial Navy, I was officially appointed a member of the art staff. Before that, I had been a member of the sub staff. But just as before, I continued to be in charge of constructing mechanical things. I made the models of the Zero fighters, etc. I made them up, small and large, as real as the originals.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: What can you tell us about Sayonara Jupiter (1984)?

TN: It was hard. I designed the dams and was assigned to the completion of the construction of the spaceship.

BH: Are there any interesting stories from Sayonara Jupiter?

TN: No, there aren’t.

BH: What can you tell us about Zone Fighter (1973)?

TN: It was a quite interesting. I made a lot of mechanical models. I completed the monsters.

BH: How about Tokyo Blackout (1986)?

TN: It was the movie on which my name, Takashi Naganuma, appeared in the credits for the first time as the mechanical designer. For that movie, too, I made mechanical models, for example, that of the helicopter.

BH: Next, let’s talk about Princess from the Moon (1987).

TN: I was not on the art staff of this movie. I only made a photographic record of the special effects work.

There were three suitors who proposed to the princess who had to sail on ships to look for those things requested by the princess. We made only one ship but colored it differently for each time to make it appear to be three different ships.

BH: Why did you stop after Godzilla vs. Biollante?

TN: In brief, I was promoted to a higher position, in which I could use higher budgets for projects such as Disney than for the movies. In other words, I stopped working on movies (completely).

BH: Which work was the most fun?

TN: The most fun movies were Battle Anthem (1983) and Godzilla (1984).

BH: Which work was the best?

TN: The best movie is Godzilla vs. Biollante. That is because I was the (special effects) art director for that movie.

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