MISS NAMIKAWA SPEAKS! The First Lady of the Godzilla Series Remembers Her Legendary Toho Career!

Kumi Mizuno is an actress who needs no introduction to readers of Vantage Point Interviews. Among fans both in the United States and Japan, she is without a doubt the series’ most popular actress. Among her genre credits are: Gorath (1962), Matango (1963), Monster Zero (1965), Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), War of the Gargantuas (1966), Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966), and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).

Born in Niigata Prefecture on January 1, 1937, Ms. Mizuno began her film career in 1957 and continues to act in film and television to this day. On May 21, 2012, Brett Homenick spoke to Kumi Mizuno about her life and legacy. 

Brett Homenick: Please talk about your early life in Niigata.

Kumi Mizuno: Before I was born, when my mother was pregnant, she fell down the stairs. Then I was born. Since my parents had some kind of trouble, my mother didn’t want to have a child. So, intentionally, she fell down the stairs. When she fell down, she went to the hospital. That was on January 1. So nobody was there at the hospital. The doctor who took care of me was a very old doctor who was drinking! (laughs) He gave me a shot in the wrong place, near my heart. I still have the scar. I was born about two or three months early, so I was a little baby. But I survived.

BH: Wow, that’s remarkable!

KM: So I think that’s the beginning of my life.

BH: Given that as the (start) of your life, what are your favorite childhood memories? What sort of things do you remember from your childhood that you really like and that stick out in your memories from your childhood?

KM: I felt happy when I was playing roles in school plays. That was the happiest moment for me. I was always playing the main role. When I was in elementary school, I did not have the main role. That was the last time I had a small role. But, besides that, I always acted in the leading role.

BH: Before high school, and before you really discovered acting, what did you think would be your profession, your career? What did you think, before acting, that you might do with your life?

KM: I wanted to be a geisha.

BH: Really?! (laughs)

KM: (laughs) My father ran a photo studio and was a photographer. Once I thought about quitting acting because I wanted to be a photographer.

BH: When was this?

KM: I was between 13 and 14. I had already decided at that time. So, before I graduated from junior high school, I had almost made up my mind to become an actress. From the bottom of my heart, I really liked being an actress. I knew that I was going to become an actress.

BH: Before acting (and) before high school, what sort of things did you like as a child for fun — hobbies that you had as a child?

KM: Since I grew up in a very snowy countryside, there was nothing to do. So I went out; I just went out and stood in the snow. I was a dreamer in the snow.

BH: During high school, tell me about the plays that you acted in. What do you remember about the plays in high school that you performed in?

KM: I was in King Lear in the role of Cordelia, by Shakespeare.

BH: So King Lear is what really made you want to become an actress?

KM: Right.

BH: What other plays in high school do you remember that you enjoyed?

KM: There were two roles that impressed me. One was The Tale of Shuzenji. In this story, I played a male role, the part of a shogun (an old-time general) named Minamoto no Yoriie during the Kamakura period. (My high school was an all-girls’ one.) That was a really impressive role. Also, in The Tale of Genji, in the story “Suetsumuhana,” I played the role of the princess. All the princesses are usually very beautiful, but my role was kind of ugly! (laughs) I had a long nose. That was a very impressive role at that time. (laughs)

BH: Shortly after high school, you started with Shochiku (Studios).

KM: That was my major debut. My first movie was The Unbalanced Wheel (1957). That was my first movie at Shochiku.

BH: Talk about getting started and working at Shochiku. What was it like to work for Shochiku Studios?

KM: I was young, very young, among the old veteran actors and actresses. Even so, I was sort of bold. I didn’t care who they were.

BH: I read that you were friends during this time with (the famous Japanese pro wrestler) Giant Baba. What do you remember about Giant Baba?

KM: When I was in junior high school, Mr. Baba was one year younger. So I knew him. After leaving Niigata, I lived in Tokyo. In Tokyo, when I moved into my new house, I asked him to carry my baggage! He was also in Tokyo, too. A couple of times, I met Mr. Baba in Hawaii when I was shooting. He was in Hawaii for his wrestling matches.

BH: Do you have any funny or interesting memories about Giant Baba? I’m sure there must have been.

KM: I don’t have any other memories besides that.

BH: I see. Please talk about when you joined Toho. How did you decide on Toho, or did Toho make you an offer to join them?

KM: At first, I thought I was going to act in Shochiku, but when I graduated from Haiyuza, Mr. Ozawa, a teacher there, advised me that Toho was a big company that could give me a formal contract like Hollywood. Then a Toho producer chose me.

I really wanted to be a stage actress instead of a movie actress. That’s why I stopped going to school at Haiyuza. Haiyuza prepares actors and actresses for the stage.

BH: Around this time, you chose the stage name Kumi Mizuno. What led to the name change, and how did you decide on the name Kumi Mizuno as your stage name?

KM: When I made the movie The Unbalanced Wheel at Shochiku, it was when I first used the name Kumi Mizuno. My real name is Maya Mizuno, but Maya sounded sort of old-fashioned. Shochiku named me Kumi Mizuno. So Kumi was the most popular name at that time, and Maya was outdated, so they named me that.

BH: Another interesting bit of information that I read was that you attended the opening ceremonies at Toho La Brea in Los Angeles. What do you remember about attending the Toho La Brea (opening) in Los Angeles?

KM: I was onstage, singing and dancing, with Toshiro Mifune and another actress. I met Clint Eastwood. He was starring in Rawhide at the time, and he came to the La Brea Theater in his shooting costume for Rawhide. And he was barefoot at that time. (laughs)

I took pictures of many Hollywood celebrities like Jayne Mansfield. That was the golden era of Hollywood, and I was there. So I was excited because I visited many movie studios and saw many actors and actresses there. I was able to have a meal with directors, actors, and actresses at a movie studio restaurant.

BH: That’s very good! Well, one of your first roles at Toho was The Three Treasures (1959) with Hiroshi Inagaki directing. What do you remember about The Three Treasures?

KM: I don’t remember well, but I might have played a female pirate role. I don’t remember now.

BH: Another one that Mr. Inagaki directed was Chushingura (1962).

KM: I played a spy for Kuranosuke Oishi (the main character of this movie). My role was small. I think my roles were always of strange characters! (laughs)

BH: What do you remember about Mr. Inagaki as a director? How would he direct you in scenes?

KM: He was a very strict director, but he was very gentle with the actresses.

BH: Another movie that you worked on was The Lost World of Sinbad (a.k.a. Samurai Pirate, 1963) with Toshiro Mifune. What do you recall working on that? You actually had a bigger role with Toshiro Mifune.

KM: I thought that I was getting remarkable myself during that time. My roles were always characters rather than princesses because the Toho producers thought that I could do something more than just play princesses.

BH: So that’s why you ended up with, perhaps, more off-beat roles because you (could be) more than just a timid woman. Is it because (you) could do more as an actress than a lot of the others at Toho?

KM: I think my roles were always character parts or supporting the main actors. That means I have to be a very powerful actress and a good actress to support the main stars. My roles were always that kind of part. I’m always supporting the main character. So it’s not a small role.

BH: What do you recall about working with Toshiro Mifune? What do you recall about him as a costar or as another actor?

KM: He’s very vigorous, incredibly vigorous, from the rehearsals before shooting. So Mr. Mifune started to embrace me very vigorously from the rehearsals! (laughs) He’s really into it, into the character. But he was very kind to the ladies.

BH: The Lost World of Sinbad was directed by Senkichi Taniguchi. What do you remember about how he directed you in a scene?

KM: He was kind of a gentle director. He was very good at directing actresses. So it was very easy to act in front of Mr. Taniguchi.

BH: Would he basically allow the actors to do what they wanted? From what I understand, he was someone who basically allowed the actors to do what they wanted.

KM: As you said, the way he directed was to let them do, let them act. But, at some point, he pointed things out. So the way he directed was very easy to get along with.

BH: One of your first kaiju movies was Gorath (1962). What do you remember about working on Gorath as an actress?

KM: I didn’t like the role. Most of my scenes were shot on the set.

BH: One of your more popular roles was in Matango (a.k.a. Attack of the Mushroom People, 1963). Please talk about what you remember about shooting Matango. When you first read the script, what did you think about the film?

KM: Among the many other monster movies, I thought that Matango was very different. So I jumped into that role.

BH: To film the movie, what was it like? Certainly, you filmed on location on the island and on the musty set on the ship, which is very run-down and kind of dirty.

KM: Oshima was the location. The scenes in the ship were shot on the studio set at Toho. The mushroom monsters were all shot on set at Toho.

BH: Was Hideyo Amamoto in the make-up as the mushroom (creature)? What do you remember about Mr. Amamoto? He’s a very unusual person. (laughs)

KM: He’s very unusual, but he’s a very serious person. He plays a role very seriously. He works very hard as an actor on his character. He was running some kind of a clothes shop. I’ve been there. He was a very serious person, very straight.

My impression of Mr. Amamoto is that he doesn’t have a sense of everyday life. (laughs) I think he didn’t believe that he was an ordinary actor from the very beginning. That’s why he could play monsters and strange people.

BH: Would you consider Matango your favorite SFX/kaiju type of movie? Would Matango be your favorite?

KM: I love it! (laughs) I liked Matango and Monster Zero (a.k.a. Invasion of AstroMonster, 1965) among the monster movies I played.

BH: About Monster Zero, what do you recall about working on that? You mentioned Nick Adams; what do you remember about working with him as a costar?

KM: Well, first, I didn’t understand English. But we worked together. I thought that language was not really important because we could feel when we saw each other. The eyes speak. He sometimes taught me English conversation.

BH: Oh, really? Do you remember any words?

KM: (laughs) Horny, horny!

BH: (laughs) Horny? (laughs)

KM: (laughs)

BH: (laughs) Do you know what that means?! (laughs)

KM: (laughs) I don’t know what that means. But I remember that he often said, “Horny!” (laughs) I talked to him on the phone because he called me several times. I was always with my English dictionary! He asked me to marry him. I refused his proposal because he was married, and I was engaged at that time. So I said, “Stop that.” (laughs)

BH: Mr. (Yoshio) Tsuchiya, like Mr. Amamoto, was maybe unusual, too. So what were your memories of working with him in any movie?

KM: He was unlike Mr. Amamoto. He is very pure, like a boy. He was a hard worker.

BH: Also, during this time, one of your Monster Zero costars (was) Akira Takarada. In this time, what were your impressions of Mr. Takarada?

KM: We didn’t see each other on this movie. We didn’t have a chance to see each other.

He was very much a gentleman. Mr. Takarada used to teach a lot of things to me. I thought he was very kind.

BH: You also worked with Nick Adams on Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). What do you remember about filming the scenes in Frankenstein with Nick Adams and just in general, just working on that film?

KM: Lots of jokes! He always tried to make people laugh.

BH: From Nick Adams, we go to Russ Tamblyn (on War of the Gargantuas, 1966)…

KM: Russ Tamblyn was always with his wife. The wife was always watching! (laughs) So Mr. Tamblyn was kind of afraid of her! It wasn’t easy.

He was a Hollywood actor, so maybe he looked down on Japanese actors a little bit and thought that he needed to help them. That was his attitude.

(After I discussed Russ Tamblyn’s ad libs on the set of War of the Gargantuas, Ms. Mizuno offered the following comments.)

Compared to Nick Adams, Russ Tamblyn’s character is, even if he said something funny, it doesn’t fit. Even if he tried to ad lib, it’s kind of troublesome, and it wouldn’t work.

BH: So when Toho ended its studio system in 1970, what was your impression when Toho no longer had the contracted actors, and they were changing how they made movies? So what was your reaction to that?

KM: Even before that, I quit. I had already quit when Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (a.k.a. Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, 1966) was shot. That was the last one I did for Toho. I couldn’t believe that I was offered (a monster movie role) by Toho after this.

BH: After you quit Toho, please talk about what you did after that, and what you did with your career after you left Toho.

KM: I thought that I finished all the Toho jobs, and I just got out of the Toho background. Then there were so many requests and offers from TV, stage, and other film companies, like Toei, Daiei, and Nikkatsu, but not Toho. I still had a lot of things to do, a lot of offers besides Toho.

BH: For people in America not familiar with a lot of the roles that you had following Toho, what were some of your favorite roles after you left Toho?

KM: Too many! (laughs) After I quit Toho, I had free choice to select work. During my time at Toho, I couldn’t choose. So after I quit Toho, there were lots of works I liked. I could select the jobs I wanted.

BH: You also came back to Toho about 10 years ago for Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (2002). You worked with (Masaaki) Tezuka. What was your reaction to being asked back on Godzilla films again?

KM: Mr. Tezuka is very crazy about Godzilla. He is a very famous Godzilla freak. My role was the Prime Minister, so it’s different from the roles I used to play. My impression was Mr. Tezuka was trying to support the actors and actresses to raise their motivation and trying to direct that way.

When I accepted his offer, he was so glad that I accepted. Mr. Tezuka might have thought I wouldn’t accept this old-time role. It was from a long time ago.

BH: With Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), please talk about that, and what it was like to work with Mr. (Ryuhei) Kitamura. What did you think of the film as well after you saw it?

KM: Do you remember the name of my role in Monster Zero?

BH: Namikawa.

KM: Namikawa! (laughs) The role of X-Seijin I played before when I was young and vigorous. This time, under Ryuhei Kitamura’s direction, I played another X-Seijin.

It was difficult to get the take OK because of the bullets, and I had to fall down stiff as an X-Seijin. It’s different from a human being. An X-Seijin falls differently from human beings. I thought that the X-Seijin came through me! (laughs)

BH: So what did you think of Mr. Kitamura as a director? What was it like to work with him, and what were your impressions of Mr. Kitamura?

KM: Very good, very sharp. He’s a director who directs from the beginning. He plans very well. So it was easy for me to be directed. And I think the movie was done well.

BH: Final Wars is a very different type of movie. Some people like it; others don’t. What did you personally think of the film once you saw it?

KM: I like it because I thought that I did very well in the role! (laughs) As the X-Seijin character, I couldn’t move my eyes. So I think the reason I did it well was because I was trained at Haiyuza.

BH: At this point, I’d like to do word association. So I’ll mention a name, and just tell me the first either word or sentence that comes to mind.

Akira Takarada.

KM: Sempai (senior or mentor).

BH: Kenji Sahara.

KM: Gentle.

BH: Yoshio Tsuchiya.

KM: Very cheerful.

BH: Hiroshi Koizumi.

KM: Serious.

BH: Yumi Shirakawa.

KM: Very feminine.

BH: Ishiro Honda.

KM: He’s got everything. And gentle.

BH: Hiroshi Inagaki.

KM: Veteran director.

BH: Senkichi Taniguchi.

KM: Kind of weak!

BH: Tomoyuki Tanaka.

KM: Very kind and gentle.

BH: Ryo Ikebe.

KM: Good sense.

BH: Akihiko Hirata.

KM: Like an older brother.

BH: Akira Kubo.

KM: Partner. We’ve worked together since my debut at Toho.

BH: Yu Fujiki.

KM: (laughs) Hard to deal with. Hard to get along with. He didn’t mind hurting people with his words. He hurt people; he made people uncomfortable. But he was a funny person, too. (laughs) He had many different characteristics. I didn’t know if he was bad or good.

BH: Hitoshi Ueki.

KM: I once worked with Mr. Ueki on the stage, just once. It was a very happy memory.

BH: Tadao Takashima.

KM: I enjoyed getting along with him.

BH: Keiko Sawai.

KM: Not competitive. Not very assertive as an actress.

BH: Takashi Shimura.

KM: Wonderful person. Wonderful actor.

BH: Russ Tamblyn.

KM: (laughs) West Side Story! (laughs)

BH: How about Nick Adams?

KM: Humorous, very humorous.

BH: Jun Fukuda.

KM: Very good personality.

BH: Okay, that’s the end of the word association. Tell me about what you’re working on now. What are some of the projects you’re doing now?

KM: Now I play a lot of grandmother roles, so sometimes I play with my hair and color it gray.

BH: Do you have any final comments that you would like to say? Is there anything you’d like to say in summary?

KM: Even though I receive letters from American fans, I can’t reply. If they get a chance to see my movies, please remember those movies I’m in.

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