GODZILLA AND MOTHRA IN THE ’90S! Assistant SFX Director Yosuke Nakano Reminisces About Heisei-Era Kaiju!

Yosuke Nakano in December 2019. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Yosuke Nakano (whose professional name is Yo★Nakano) is a veteran of Japanese special effects who has worked on various SFX franchises for a variety of studios. Born on August 8, 1971, Mr. Nakano graduated from high school in Fukuoka in 1989 and enrolled at the special effects department of Tokyo Eizo Geijutsu Gakuin (Tokyo Institute of Visual Arts) in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture. Upon graduation, Mr. Nakano immediately began work on the Heisei Godzilla series, starting with Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993) as an assistant director. This experience would eventually lead to a career in SFX that has lasted decades. Mr. Nakano answered Brett Homenick’s questions about his tokusatsu work in this July 2020 interview.

Brett Homenick: Please tell me about your early life. When and where were you born? What were your hobbies?

Yosuke Nakano: In August 1971, I was born in Hakata City, Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan. I loved monster movies and superhero movies since I was a child. All the time, I drew many monster pictures and wrote many monster stories [like comic books]. I pretended to be monsters with my friends every day. And I loved many cartoons and animated films, too. That became the basis of my career.

BH: How did you get started working in special effects?

YN: I learned about making films at film school, including special effects. In the last semester of the school, movie studios were in need of new movie crew members. After graduation, I chose one of the [jobs]. That was the assistant director of new Godzilla’s movie, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II. So I started my career.

BH: Please talk about how you joined Toho.

YN: Toho Eizo Bijutsu Co. [one of Toho’s production companies] recruited a new assistant director for the new Godzilla movie. So I joined them.

BH: Your first Godzilla movie was Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993). What work did you do on this film?

YN: I supported director Koichi Kawakita in every way. He was my boss for a long time. I was the first to arrive and made sure everything was ready to shoot at the shooting site, gave instructions to all crew members according to the director’s orders, and was the clapper loader. (In Japan, in many cases, the clapper loader is one of assistant director’s jobs.)

BH: Who did you work with on Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II?

YN: Koichi Kawakita was the SFX — we call it tokusatsu or tokugi — director. Tomoyuki Tanaka and Shogo Tomiyama produced the movie. Kenichi Eguchi was the director of photography. Kaoru Saito was the lighting engineer. Tetsuzo Osawa was the art director. Tomoki Kobayashi and Shinichi Wakasa were the monster molding artists. Kenji Suzuki was the chief assistant director. Makoto Kamiya and Yoshiaki Konndo were assistant directors. [There were four assistant SX directors on this movie.] Kenpachiro Satsuma was the Godzilla suit actor. Wataru Fukuda was  Mechagodzilla. I also worked with many other crew members — about 70 to 80 on only the SFX part. Over 200 people worked on the movie.

BH: This was your first time to work with director Koichi Kawakita. What was it like to work with him on this film?

YN: He was a very passionate and creative director. He strove for many new ideas for his movies. He loved Godzilla and crafting SFX movies. He was very kind to me. He inherited the spirit of Eiji Tsuburaya and the original Godzilla staff. He respected them very much. I learned how to make monster movies on this film.

BH: There were many explosion in this movie. Was it dangerous to work around so many explosions?

YN: These were kept safe by the many explosion specialists. Fires and explosions — of course, these were not CG — are dangerous. But we managed the explosives properly and carefully. Real fire and explosions are difficult to control, but they have a big impact. I love these effects.

BH: How long did filming the SFX scenes last on Mechagodzilla?

YN: They started pre-production autumn 1992. In spring 1993, shooting started. I joined them in May 1993 when they shot the Godzilla vs. Rodan part at Adonoa Island. So we finished shooting in the studio at the end of July. After that, the post-production staff started working — editing, optical synthesis, sound effects, music, sound mixing, and so on. It ended in November. At the same time, we started planning for next year’s Godzilla movie. So we needed about one year to make a Godzilla movie every year. Only in 1994 did we film another monster-adventure movie, Yamato Takeru, before the next Godzilla movie [Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla].

BH: What did you do on Yamato Takeru (a.k.a. Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon, 1994)?

YN: I was an assistant director, too, on Yamato Takeru. [There were only three assistant directors on this film.] I was the clapper loader and supported many sections of filming because every part needed help. Assistant directors help them and make it their job to carry out the director’s vision. For example, I set the monster-operation wires and operated the monsters’ heads and necks, decorated miniature sets, [handled] effects gunpowder, carried monster suits to their shooting position, and showed the directing plan to the suit actors. I kept the actors in good condition every time they wore the monster suits. I drew storyboards.

Koichi Kawakita discovered my talent for directing films. He asked me draw it. So I made storyboards for the appearance of the evil castle [on the Moon], the giant silver hero Utsuno Ikusagami’s arrival, and the battle against the evil, eight-headed dragon Yamata no Orochi. In the same scene, Mr. Kawakita needed to change plans during shooting. When he changed plans, I had to change the storyboards. After filming, I created the names and descriptions of the [SFX] characters’  weapons and abilities for monster books.

BH: Do you have any stories from the set of Yamato Takeru that you can share?

YN: The sets were very simple because the main battlefield was on the Moon in ancient mythology — no buildings, no cars, and no castles. Yamata no Orochi was very large. He needed a lot of space. So a simple Moon set was a very good idea. Utsuno Ikusagami flew over the set on wires. Yamata no Orochi breathed fire from his mouths. We used flamethrowers for this sequence. The real fire gave the movie some verisimilitude.

The art director and the crew had to make the set [carefully] by hand so that the materials could burn [properly]. Because we used a lot of fire effects in Yamato Takeru, we had to be careful in making everything. But sometimes trouble still happened. One day, the Yamata no Orochi monster suit was badly burned. It kept the fire sealed in his body. We extinguished fires many times.

Many of great old SFX techniques were used on this film. We could experience it on this set. That was the last chance to learn.

BH: Why didn’t the sequels to Yamato Takeru happen?

YN: Unfortunately, this movie wasn’t as profitable for Toho as the Godzilla series. They gave up on continuing the Yamato Takeru series. They wanted to make three movies for the Yamato Takeru saga. Me too!

BH: What work did you do on Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1994)?

YN: I was an assistant director, too. I drew storyboards before and during filming. I storyboarded about 80% of the SFX scenes, except for the island sequences with the monsters. Director Kensho Yamashita didn’t have a storyboard artist [for the drama scenes], so he asked me to storyboard the scenes in which the human characters attack Godzilla.

I created many images for this movie. I came up with many battle ideas and monster weapons. For example, Space Godzilla controls gravity. He carries Godzilla with his gravity power, and his attack beam is able to bend. So he can strike his enemies that are dodging his attacks from their blind spots. Mr. Kawakita really liked my ideas. I ran the movie crews better than I did during my first year. My job was not limited to any section. Every section need my help, so I supported each section.

BH: How was working on Space Godzilla different from working on Mechagodzilla?

YN: First, a very cute monster appeared [in this movie]. That’s Little Godzilla. I directed him to seem fun and cute in the movie. He was the only such monster at the time, like Minya.

Second, the battle in space. Mogera intercepted Space Godzilla in the asteroid belt. I focused on drawing cool storyboards and concept art. But this sequence had only a few days to shoot. I wanted to make it better according to Mr.  Kawakita’s new directions, but we couldn’t. And we made many battle situations. For example, underground, in the jungle, and at Mogera’s base. Those were fresh experiences for me.

Third, Space Godzilla attacked Fukuoka City. Fukuoka is my hometown. That is a very happy experience for monster lovers like me. Also, Space Godzilla created [giant] crystals in the city. That was a specific idea by SFX director Koichi Kawakita. He was inspired by The Monolith Monsters (1957). In addition, a new Mogera appeared. He was a combining robot like Voltron and many other Japanese animation robots. I loved it! Many more Mogera models were made than for Super Mechagodzilla.

Yosuke Nakano in July 2020. Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: What difficulties did you have on Space Godzilla?

YN: The battle in space was very hard to make because digital effects were not common like today. Controlling Space Godzilla and Mogera freely in space was very difficult. I want to retry it with today’s VFX when I film a new Godzilla movie. We used R/C helicopter models over the sea to attack Godzilla. The sea was a very large outdoor pool at Toho Studios. It was too difficult to keep them in the camera frame. One day, one helicopter fell into the water because some electromagnetic waves were jammed. There was no spare. We had to wait to repair it. So we lost a few days.

Space Godzilla transformed into its flying form from its standing form. The flying form model was hard to fly on wires. It was too heavy, had bad balance, and had too many parts that were made out of clear FRP.  It was very delicate and heavy, and because of that, it was very difficult to hold. Today, these characters would be controlled by composite or full CG, but when we did it, it wasn’t available. It was very hard to fly. The transformation scene wasn’t very good, either.

BH: How did you feel about Space Godzilla as a movie?

YN: Great! Marvelous! Excellent! I like the movie. And I want to make side-story films with Space Godzilla in the future. He can be the main villain-monster in films without Godzilla. In addition, I’ll make the side stories of G-Force giant robots and machines, like a new Mogera, Super Mechagodzilla, Super-X, Maser Cannons, and so on.

At the time, I drew some storyboard ideas for a possible Space Godzilla sequel, but of course it never happened. But I hope there can be another Space Godzilla movie in the future.

BH: How long did filming the SFX scenes last on Space Godzilla?

YN: The same as the previous year’s Mechagodzilla. There had been fixed period of filming Godzilla every year since 1991 [Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah].

BH: In some scenes, Destoroyah was inspired by the movie Aliens (1986). Did the SFX crew have other inspirations from other films in this movie?

YN: Of course, we were inspired by Aliens. I love it! And the SFX crew tried to make Godzilla Junior a dinosaur like in Jurassic Park without CG. We had tried it since Baby Godzilla.

BH: How long did filming the SFX scenes last on Destoroyah?

YN: It was about three months, the same as the others in the series.

BH: Do you have any other memories of working on Destoroyah?

YN: We changed Godzilla’s color to be like magma, and made his eye lighting like that of other monsters. That was a big challenge. But today many Godzilla fans love it! So we succeeded. The Godzilla movie series ended at that time.

But this topic shows me the possibility of Godzilla and new monster movies. Every time, my imagination runs free!

I developed a high fever when we made the scene in which Godzilla is frozen by the Super X3 because we worked in a very cold pool throughout the night. So director Kawakita gave me a day to rest, and he gave me another job. I did mask-compositing for the Hong Kong footage in the staff room all day while they finished that scene.

BH: Do you think Destoroyah was good as Godzilla’s “last” movie?

YN: I don’t think so. The plot is confusing. Destoroyah was weak as the last monster against the King of the Monsters, Godzilla.

If he were just one of his challengers, he would have been very good. But he was not. I wanted to make him stronger. Another reason is that G-Force should have battled more, but they kept only watching Godzilla, even though they had new super robots and other technology. But of course I love this movie!

BH: What do you remember about working on Rebirth of Mothra (1996)?

YN: We filmed the movie different from Godzilla, like a fantasy movie. I drew many storyboards for this movie. I made many new weapons and attack techniques for the new monsters in the storyboards. I gave them names and descriptions for monster books [before filming started]. That created the new Mothra’s world. I was the assistant director, and drew concept art and storyboards. After shooting, I did digital effects with computer graphics. Nowadays, we are able to touch up films in post-production, but on Mothra, I could not. Movies were made quickly at this time in Japan.

I did everything with the director. Besides that, I planned, wrote scripts for, and directed promotional events for the movie, wrote the backgrounds of the monsters for books, directed toy commercials, and so on. So I have a love for this movie.

BH: How was working on Rebirth of Mothra different from working on the Godzilla series?

YN: There were no military weapons. There were few buildings. It was difficult to make Death Ghidorah an evil character. So I made his backstory [through storyboard drawings] different from King Ghidorah’s.

BH: What work did you do on Rebirth of Mothra II (1997)?

YN: I was assistant director, concept artist, storyboard artist, and monster designer.

BH: This was the last Toho movie with director Kawakita. How was working with him on this film?

YN: He worked very well. He was passionate and creative. He made us the inheritors of traditional filmmakers like his master, Eiji Tsuburaya.

BH: What was your favorite movie to work on?

YN: I like Godzilla vs. Space GodzillaRebirth of Mothra IIKamen Rider Den-O: I’m Born! (2007), Mazinger Z: Infinity (2017), and so on. I’m proud of all my jobs, like my children!

BH: Which film was most difficult?

YN: Godzilla vs. Destoroyah.

BH: Why was Godzilla vs. Destoroyah the most difficult for you?

YN: Godzilla is the strongest monster for many people — and for me, too. But the movie must show his death. I wondered about the best ending for the greatest and strongest movie star, Godzilla.

BH: What can you tell us about working on Ultraman Tiga (1996-97)?

YN: I was assistant director for episodes 38, 39, and the side-story spin-off [the direct-to-video release of Ultraman Tiga Gaiden: Revival of the Ancient Giant, 2001], did the clapperboard, and supported all the crew.

BH: Please talk about working on Ultraman Cosmos (2001-02).

YN: I joined this production about ⅓ through the series. I was a storyboard artist on it. I drew storyboards for about ⅓ or ¼ of the episodes. Sometimes, I drew concept art and monster designs, too.

BH: You also worked on Tokumei Sentai Go-Busters (2012-13). Please discuss your work.

YN: I drew storyboards and concept art for episodes 1 to 3. I created new robot (Megazord) transformations and battle situations [through storyboards]. I designed the enemy force’s base, but didn’t design any Megazords. I designed some enemy monsters, but the producers did not use them. So I was disappointed. Go-Busters was used to make Power Rangers Beast Morphers (2019-20) in America.

BH: Could you tell us your memories of Kamen Rider Fourze (2011-12)?

YN: This was my 11th Kamen Rider series. I was storyboard artist and concept artist in all the TV episodes and movies. Director Koichi Sakamoto directed the main stories. He respects Japanese tokusatsu and updated it very well. I enjoyed working with him. Another new crew member was Kia Asamiya. He created all the villains for this series. I love his comic books and animation. His villains were very cool! I was very happy with him. Another one was Kazuki Nakajima. He is a scriptwriter. He wrote his stories passionately. I like his scripts, too.

BH: Do you have any final comments for this interview?

YN: Thank you for listening! I love monster movies and superhero movies, just like you. I was very happy to make  those films over a long period of time. Now I want to work in new monster and superhero movies in America. When you need new movie monster designs, storyboards, concept art, illustrations, etc., contact me any time! Thank you, Brett, for giving me the chance to talk about my work. I thank my family for supporting my career. I’m going to work on the newest tokusatsu and animation. Please watch, and I hope enjoy them!

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