INSIDE TOHO’S MIGHTIEST MONSTERS! A Candid Conversation with Nobuyuki Yasumaru About His Kaiju Creations!

Nobuyuki Yasumaru in December 2018. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Born on January 24, 1935, in Toyama Prefecture, Nobuyuki Yasumaru is a creator of miniatures and monster suits who has worked on some of Toho’s most popular kaiju films. Beginning his career with Toho in the early 1960s, Mr. Yasumaru’s credits include Mothra (1961), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), War of the Gargantuas (1966), King Kong Escapes (1967), Destroy All Monsters (1968), Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971), Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972), Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), and Godzilla 1985 (1984). In this December 2018 interview, Mr. Yasumaru spoke to Brett Homenick about his decades-long career in special effects. This interview was translated by Maho Harada and Manami Takagi.

Brett Homenick: Please discuss your early life growing up, such as hobbies you had, and what you did in your childhood.  

Nobuyuki Yasumaru: When I was a child, I lived in the countrywide where we had festivals throughout the year. For these festivals, children would make paper lanterns to pray for a plentiful harvest. These are like the lanterns at the Nebuta Festival in Aomori but not as elaborate, just simple lanterns made of paper on a wooden frame.

Each child would make his or her own lantern and paint it, then place a candle inside, and attach it to a stick. All the kids would go around the village at night carrying their lanterns, singing songs and praying for a plentiful rice harvest.

BH: Would this be done in the fall?

NY: It was in May, after the rice had been planted in the fields. We would go around the rice fields which had been filled with water to pray for a plentiful harvest. The rice grains would start to appear in August or September. As a child, I used to paint pictures on these lanterns.

BH: What would you paint? What kind of designs?

NY: I painted historical people like samurai. The lanterns, called andon in Japanese, were like the ones in the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori, which also have samurai painted on them, but ours were simpler. In some areas, people would float lanterns on the river to commemorate the dead. But we used them for celebrations. We used them in festivals to pray for honenmansaku, which means plentiful harvest. Each village had its own festival.

BH: How did you discover your skill for painting?

NY: In elementary school, I was very good in drawing class. When it came to painting the lanterns, I was very good, so I became the leader.

BH: During your childhood, did you have another plan for your future? Did you think you might become a farmer? What did you think about your future?

NY: I wanted to be a painter. I really liked painting. I really enjoyed drawing and craftwork. It was the only thing I was good at. I was very bad at everything else.

BH: Of course, in a few years, the war came. Do you have any memories of the war and the difficulties of that time?

NY: The war ended when I was in the fourth grade, when I was 10 years old. I remember the day Japan was defeated on August 15. Most of my childhood memories are from the period just after the war. These festivals used to take place before the war, but we stopped having them after the war when the occupation forces took over.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: During the war, would they have the festival?

NY: We didn’t have these festivals during the war, either, only before the war. After Japan was defeated, we stopped having these festivals. Villages and people’s lifestyles became more civilized. Before the war, we would plant and harvest rice by hand. But, after the war, we started using tractors and machinery. Things became more modernized. We stopped having the festivals because there was no reason to have them anymore, and the villagers thought they were outdated. These are the memories from my childhood.

BH: Going back to the war, were there any other memories that you had of the difficulties or hardships?

NY: Yes. In those days, we had six years of elementary school and only two years of what we called higher elementary school or high school. If you didn’t want to continue on with school, you would start working in agriculture. High school was for those who wanted to continue on with their education. High school wasn’t mandatory back then, which is also the case today. After the war, the system was changed to the 6-3-3 system, where we had six years for elementary school, three years for junior high, and three years for high school. So [General Douglas] MacArthur and the Americans helped improve the education system in Japan.

After the war ended, there was confusion for about three years. People were randomly placed in different grades. Some only did one year of high school, while others did two. That’s the kind of time it was. We didn’t have a school in my village. We just had classes at the village hall where they had benches. I lived in Fukuno, which is close to the border of Ishikawa Prefecture. My village wasn’t bombed, so there wasn’t much damage from the war. The capital, Toyama City, which is in the center, was bombed by air raids.

About three years after the war, my village was deemed to be a buraku [a discriminated-against, lower-class village] and was merged with other villages to form a larger town called Inami. I went to Inami Junior High School. For high school, I went to a vocational school specialized in agriculture, which still exists today.

Normally, you would do three years if you started properly at Year One. But, because of the confusion after the war, I started attending this school partway through.

After high school, I made ranma sculptures, for which Inami is still known for today. Ranma are carved partitions placed above screens separating tatami rooms. They usually depict scenery like Mt. Fuji or Japanese pine groves. These carvings are about three centimeters thick.

Because of the war, I started school late and graduated three years later than others. I was three years older than my classmates, who seemed childish to me. I then went to Tokyo and attended Musashino Art University. Now it’s a university, but back then, it was an art college. My parents sent me 8,000 yen per month, from which I had to pay my tuition, rent, food, and everything else. Ramen cost 50 yen, or maybe it was 30 yen. You couldn’t live on 8,000 yen. So I started working part-time. That was the beginning of my career in film.

BH: Of course, you eventually worked at Toho as a part-time job in the beginning. I believe your first work was I Bombed Pearl Harbor (1960). Was that your first part-time job at Toho?

NY: Yes, I Bombed Pearl Harbor was my first job. As an art college student, my job was to make bodies. I first made them with clay, then hardened them with plaster. I then had to sculpt them. We were making a war movie, and they needed dead bodies. Painters couldn’t see things in three dimensions, so this work had to be done by sculptors.

BH: [Were they] miniatures?

NY: No, not miniatures. They were full-size bodies for a feature film. I Bombed Pearl Harbor was my first part-time job as a stage carpenter, making body parts that were lying around after a bomb had gone off.

BH: How did you make the body parts?

NY: The parts I made were for the close-up shots. Mannequins were used for the bodies in the long shots. The ones close to the camera needed to look real. Toho bought old and damaged mannequins from department stores. We would cut them up and use them as body parts that were blown apart in a bombing. For the close-ups, they needed body parts that looked real.

It was a part-time job for a student, but my daily rate was 450 yen. Normal carpenters [on set] only made 400 yen per day. I was paid more because my work involved specialized techniques, making things that regular crew members couldn’t make. If I worked until midnight, the rate was doubled. The rate was 450 yen for 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. If I worked from 5:00 p.m. until midnight, it would be 900 yen, double the daytime rate. Plus, they served us food and gave us a place to stay. So I became rich working a student’s part-time’s job!

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Let’s actually go back a little bit. How did you get hired at Toho?

NY: Toho came to recruit students at Musabi [short for Musashino Art College]. When we went to Toho to ask about the job, they said, “If you’re an art student, you can make body parts.” They were looking for specialized skills and weren’t be able to find people with these skills by recruiting from the general public.

Hideaki Tachikawa, a senior at Musabi, was hired as an art assistant at Toho after graduating from Musabi. Another graduate of the Department of Sculpture, Tohl Narita, was making backdrops. He’s the one who designed Ultraman. He was very good with his hands and had good taste.

BH: For Mothra (1961), by that time, did you get a contract at Toho?

NY: I had a contract with Toho but wasn’t an employee at the time. The first contract was only for three months or six months and was renewed at the end of each contract. Starting with Mothra, it was the same for Godzilla in 1954 and the other movies. No one was an employee at the time.

BH: Did you work on the original Godzilla?

NY: No, I was still in my hometown then. I graduated from Musabi in 1962. Godzilla was before that. For Mothra and the other movies, everyone was on a contract, even the directors. There weren’t any directors who were Toho employees. Only the white-collar people were employees. No one else wore a tie. Everyone else was a laborer, including the directors.

Even in the United States today, none of the important people wear ties. Bill Gates came to Toho once. He was wearing jeans and looked like an ordinary laborer. He didn’t look like anyone important. He came to visit, and I shook his hand. That’s a story I like to brag about. Back then, he wasn’t the richest man in the world. [pointing to a picture] This is Bill Gates, and this is me here. And this is what I had made – a dinosaur.

There was a festival called the MSX Festival. Kazuhiko Nishi was the vice president of a company called ASCII, and Toho was making a commercial for them. Bill Gates came to Japan for business, not to see this dinosaur. He was working with ASCII, which was at same level as Microsoft. Microsoft wasn’t such a big company at the time. [pointing to a photo] This is the vice president of ASCII and Bill Gates, who was a friend of his. Mr. Nishi liked dinosaurs. They used this dinosaur in a commercial for ASCII, for which Mr. Nishi paid out of his own pocket. It was shown at the Yokohama Expo in the ‘80s. ASCII paid $5 million to make the making-of of this commercial.

I graduated [from college] after four years. Toho asked a few of us to stay, so we stayed on with Toho. At first, I was on a contract.

BH: So that would be 1962.

NY: Yes.

BH: So [it was] after Mothra.

NY: That’s right – after Mothra. When I was working on Mothra, I was a part-time employee.

BH: What work did you do on Mothra?

NY: There’s a scene where Mothra destroys the Cultural Hall building in Shibuya. I made that building. I didn’t make Mothra in that film. There was a suit actor in each section of Mothra.

It was the [Tokyu] Department Store, which had a planetarium on the roof of the building. I was still a student then, but I made the building that gets destroyed by Mothra. Mothra was one year after I Bombed Pearl Harbor. From I Bombed Pearl Harbor onwards, I was working on films back to back. There were many tokusatsu films being made then. It was the golden age for Eiji Tsuburaya. He was making two movies a year.

BH: The next work is The Last War (1961).

NY: Oh, yes, I worked on that movie, too. In the last scene, a hydrogen bomb is dropped on the National Diet Building and blows a hole in the roof. In the last scene of the movie, there’s a close-up of the top of the Diet Building, then the camera pulls back. I made the top of the Diet Building, which was about this size [about three feet]. It was made out of plaster. At the end of the movie, the roof is melted by an atomic bomb.

I made the Diet Building many times [but only one time for this movie]. I only made the top part of the building for this movie, but I’ve made the entire building for other movies. I made the Diet Building for King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). It was a never-ending task to make it. This is the Upper House; this is the Lower House. It was about two meters high; the scale was 1/50th. Godzilla is about 50 meters tall.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Which part of the [Diet] did you make?

NY: Not the entire building, only the top part where the roof caves in, and the entrance. King Kong and Godzilla fight and destroy the building.

BH: In King Kong vs. Godzilla, King Kong climbs the [Diet], but they destroy Atami Castle. Those are two different things.

NY: Yes, there was Atami Castle. [pointing to drawing] In this scene, King Kong sits on the building, and it collapses. We made the building out of plaster. To make it collapse better, we cut it up into several pieces and reconnected them. But when King Kong sat on it, it didn’t collapse. So the director had to tell King Kong to twist his hips while he sat down on the building to make it collapse.

[I made] the top part of the Diet and the main building around the entrance. Another department made the other sections. At Atami Castle, they both fall off while they were fighting.

I made Atami Castle as well. The plaster division was split into two teams to go location-scouting. One team went to see Atami Castle, and the other went to see the Kannon [Goddess of Mercy] statue in Takasaki.

BH: That scene was cut from the movie. There’s a photo of Godzilla next to the statue that you can see online, but no one has actually ever seen the cut scene.

NY: We split up into two teams and went location-scouting. I went to Atami Castle with Sakae Terui. Hajime Togashi and Yukio Odagiri went to see the Kannon. But, somehow, we ended up making the statue, and the people who went to see the statue made Atami Castle. It was like we had gone to these places just for fun. We laughed about it afterward. Yukio Odagiri was the leader of the team, the chief designer of plaster arts. Mr. Togashi and Mr. Odagiri often made castles like Atami Castle and Osaka Castle for Toho movies.

BH: You never made Atami Castle?

NY: No, just the statue. But all four of us made the Diet Building. We were the main staff for the plaster division. I was a Toho employee, but the other three were technical contractors, so their salaries were triple that of mine.

BH: Next, I’d like to ask you about Gorath (1962).

NY: Gorath is set at a base in Antarctica. Everyone was really impressed when they saw the set. We made a 0.4-hectare field of snow with plaster. We sprayed the entire thing with raw plaster powder because it doesn’t harden. It was massive and beautiful. There was a dome in the middle, which was the base. We had a crane and some machinery there. The rest was a field of snow. My job was to make this arch. There’s a scene where Magma destroys this arch, so we made it out of plaster. Magma wasn’t a very realistic monster, but it was made by Mr. [Teizo] Toshimitsu from the art division.

BH: And Mr. [Keizo] Murase made the teeth.

NY: Yes, and Magma’s face looks like Mr. Murase. Mr. [Eizo] Kaimai and the Yagi brothers [Kanju and Yasuei] were the other team members. Mr. Toshimitsu was the captain. They were the ones who made Godzilla. This team made Magma for this movie. They were my seniors. For Gorath, I made the dome and field of snow.

BH: [The] next question is [about] Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964).

NY: I didn’t make Mothra or Godzilla. I think I made some miniatures. Maybe I would remember if I saw some pictures. I remember the movie, but I don’t remember exactly what I made.

BH: [How about] Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster (1964)?

NY: I think I only made buildings for that movie, maybe where Kurobe Dam overflows.

BH: Next is Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965).

NY: I made the set for the last scene where a village collapses. Back then, I was making buildings, like when the land sinks. For Frankenstein, it was a small town.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Let’s talk about the process of actually making a building. Could you talk about how you would make a building?

NY: A particularly memorable moment was in War of the Gargantuas (1966). We were making the building that gets destroyed by Sanda and Gaira while they were fighting. The building had walls that were made with plaster that were three centimeters thick. We poured plaster between two panels, then removed the panels once the plaster was dry. In order for the building to stand, we had to make the walls at a 90-degree angle, like an L-shape, if you were looking at it from above.

We were making these sets as if we were actually constructing a real building. To make the building look realistic after it collapsed, we used metal reinforcements, which you could see after the building collapsed. We put in a lot of effort to make the remnants of the buildings look as realistic as possible.

We used lead reinforcements because it was softer, but the building didn’t break properly. The lead part would just break in half. It didn’t look good. We had to use something stronger; otherwise it wouldn’t look like the remnants of a building that had been destroyed.

After making the walls with plaster, we cut the section where we wanted the building to break using a saw and took the wall apart. We then inserted some reinforcement and filled the gap with plaster. But the building didn’t break because the plaster was too hard. We went through a lot of hardships for this scene.

This building was the tallest building I’ve ever made. It’s the building by the Imperial Palace in the Marunouchi area, where MacArthur and the occupation forces were headquartered. This side is the moat, and this is the street that Sanda and Gaira go down while they’re fighting. This building was supposed to collapse from their fighting, but plaster was too hard and didn’t break. So we used mortar instead because it’s softer.

We filled the gap with mortar mixed with water, so it would break more easily. On the outside, it looked smooth, but inside it was all cut up and patched together. It was so frail that if you pushed it, the building would fall over.

BH: What would be the budget for something like this?

NY: I think there was quite a budget for this movie. It was [done on] Stage 11. There were thirteen stages. This stage was only for special effects. There was no soundproofing; the walls were simple slate walls, like a factory. We were able to use as much gunpowder as we wanted. Sometimes, the Seijo police would come because a resident had filed a complaint about the noise. The Seijo Fire Department used the studios for their New Year’s ceremonies or to train residents how to put out a fire. It was an arrangement to make up for all the noise during the rest of the year.

They would build a doghouse, set it on fire, and train residents how to put out the fire. For New Year’s, they would bring out a big paper ball and hose it down with water. The ball would break in half, and a big sign that said, “Happy New Year!” appeared from inside the ball. They usually did this on January 3.

BH: Let’s talk about King Kong Escapes (1967). This is when you started suit-making with Gorosaurus.

NY: Gorosaurus was the first decent suit I made. Suit-making required completely different techniques from the sculpting I did before that. First, I made a dummy of the body using Styrofoam. This had to be bigger than the final size. I took the measurements of the suit actor, including his height and everything. I had the suit actor wear coveralls, like what a mechanic would wear, but more like underclothes for the entire body made of strong fabric that would be molded to fit the suit actor. You had to measure the height properly; otherwise it wouldn’t work. The head was made separately.

I filled the empty space surrounding the suit actor with urethane sticks. Some sticks were three centimeters; others were five centimeters. I connected these sticks together in an accordion shape to create the silhouette. I then put stretch fabric on top. This would give it some thickness and allow movement.

This is a technique I developed to create space between the Styrofoam dummy and the actor. The Styrofoam would hold the shape of the monster, and the space in between allowed the suit to shrink, stretch, or bend as necessary. If the actor squatted, this part would open up. Prior to that, they used to glue the sticks directly onto the person. But the movement wasn’t very good, so they would have to cut them afterward to allow movement.

My technique allowed for more flexibility. The stomach could shrink or stretch as necessary if the actor squatted, for example. You wouldn’t get this flexibility by gluing on the sticks directly, even if you cut them afterward. If you cut the sticks, you would get cross sections. I connected these cross sections to make the suit. If you looked at it from the side, you would see the cross sections all along it. But, because they’re not directly glued on, they can bend.

So, whether it was the tail or any other part, you could bend it any way you wanted. If you just glued it straight on, everything would just bend in the same direction. But, with my technique, the cross sections weren’t glued together, so they bend. They opened up if you needed it to stretch, and this side could shrink. So you could make the parts move freely, however you wanted.

Other than urethane, we used wisteria vine as wire – a wire made from plants. We also split bamboo swords and stacked them together. That way, it would bend freely. Even if you pulled it, it would bend and not break because it had a core.

Mr. Yasumaru’s sketch of the Gorosaurus suit. Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: How did you get the job of suitmaker for Gorosaurus?  

NY: Because they didn’t have much of a budget, they were going to subcontract the work to an external company. Mr. [Yasuyuki] Inoue and I went to see a subcontractor, which happened to be the person who made the monster suits for Ultraman, Ryosaku Takayama. Mr. Inoue and I went to ask him to help us, but he seemed busy. And the monster he was making didn’t look very convincing, with its missing teeth and everything. It looked like a toy. We needed a monster that was more convincing, something with more impact. He had to fight [King Kong], after all. So we thought, we should make a monster that was more solid and realistic. We didn’t want a monster with teeth missing. We decided to make it ourselves. We thought it should look like a dinosaur. We wanted it to be convincing, but there weren’t any pictures to use as a reference. But we made it ourselves. We made the head separately using clay.

Mr. Tsuburaya came in to see it. He was filming at Stage 11, but the special effects scenes take time while they’re building the sets, so he had free time and came next door where we were making it. He said, “The way you’re making the suit is very different from the way they’re usually made.” I explained why we were making it this way, and he said, “That makes sense. It’s important to do things differently.” He often came over in between scenes and liked our way of making the monster. He didn’t say anything, but he was all smiles. He was like a god and didn’t utter many words. When he went to see Mr. Toshimitsu who was making Godzilla, Mr. Toshimitsu would hide because Mr. Tsuburaya would give many orders.

Then Mr. Tsuburaya decided, “Let’s get Mr. Yasu to make the monsters.” After that, I started making monsters. At first, Gorosaurus was only supposed to be for this movie. But the monster Baragon was supposed to destroy the Arc of Triumph in Destroy All Monsters (1968). However, he had big ears like an elephant that would get stuck inside the Arc of Triumph. So they decided to use Gorosaurus instead of Baragon.

Baragon’s skin looks dry, whereas Gorosaurus’ skin is slimy because he’s a reptile. I gave him that texture because I thought it would create a nice contrast with Godzilla’s rough-looking skin. Godzilla’s skin was like that because he spent his days living in dust, and his skin dried out. His skin was made from torn pieces of sponge glued on to the suit, which gave it a rough look. The pieces of sponge would be torn off, and they kept having to glue more pieces of sponge on. But, for Gorosaurus, we didn’t glue anything on. It was one piece that flowed from top to bottom, not pieces glued together like for other monsters. No matter how many times we made it, we could remake the same shape, more or less, because we used a mold to make the head and another one for the body, then combined them into a single piece. Later on, people started making monsters using our technique.

BH: On Son of Godzilla (1967), you made the Kamakiras puppet. So please talk about making this puppet and operating it.

NY: Kamakiras was about one meter. If you include the claws, it was longer. No suit actor could fit inside, so it had to be operated like a marionette. But this allowed us to do whatever we wanted with it. But it was hard to operate. Each one was operated from two points, like a marionette. There were three monsters. A marionette specialist was operating the monsters from above. At the studio, they had metal rails above the stage from which they operated these puppets. They also used these rails to shoot airplanes flying in rotation.

The front claws were made out of iron. The eyes were made out of resin. Insects have many pupils in their eyes, so we made to make many pupils for Kamakiras. The body was made out of wood. We built joints into the body so we could move it in different ways. We attached wires to several points on the monsters. There were two points on the claws where wires would be attached – one at the back and one at the front of the claw. There were also wires at the leg joint and where the body and leg meet. It has similar eyes to Mothra.

BH: Let’s talk about Destroy All Monsters. On this movie, you made Angilas.

NY: I don’t remember anything about Angilas. He had many thorns on his back that were shaped like triangles.

BH: By the way, here is a photo from King Kong vs. Godzilla.

NY: That’s Takasaki Kannon. I didn’t know this information was available [to the general public]. That’s how the movie was supposed to end, with Takasaki Kannon being destroyed. We made it from plaster, and it was hollow inside. But we didn’t destroy it after all.

BH: Do you know why that scene was cut?

NY: I don’t know. Maybe because they didn’t think it was a good idea to destroy a statue of the Goddess of Compassion. It may have been considered disrespectful, so local residents might complain.

BH: By the way, here’s Baragon. Those were the ears you were talking about.

NY: Oh, and Gorosaurus. You can see the lines of the muscles and the folds in the side of his stomach. That’s what I explained earlier.

BH: So, if you don’t remember Angilas, that’s fine.

NY: This is the second Angilas I made. The first one was in an older Godzilla movie, Godzilla Raids Again (1955), where he destroys Osaka Castle.

BH: Let’s talk about Yog Monster from Space (1970). You made Ganime and Kameba.

NY: Kameba was very difficult to make because it was very mechanical. The face was shaped like a triangle. The head would pop out and retract. I worked with Mr. [Akinori] Takagi, who did the mechanical work. Instead of a motor, we used air cylinders, which allowed us to operate the monsters freely. For Gorosaurus, we used a motor to open and close its mouth. But, for Ganime, we used compressed air. We bought a bicycle pump and used it to pump air into the head to make it pop out. We put in radio controls to make the head retract, and we pumped the bicycle pump to make it pop out.

This is all we had, so it was a lot of work. At Disneyland, they also use cylinders for their attractions. Next time you go, listen carefully when there’s no music – you can hear the sound of cylinders when the figures move. Toho employees helped assemble the figures at Tokyo Disneyland. We had to assemble all these parts. Disney had a relationship with Toho because both companies made movies, so they subcontracted the work to Toho. There were about 400 figures for It’s a Small World, and Toho employees helped assemble half of these figures. It was difficult because they were very strict and didn’t approve the work very easily. They also subcontracted some of the sets to Toho.

[going back to Ganime] There was a suit actor inside the turtle, with his head just under the turtle’s neck. The actor was scared because the air cylinder made so much noise right above his head each time the turtle’s head retracted or popped out. I told him, “Deal with it; you’re an actor, aren’t you?” The actor said I was an ogre and called me “Yasu the Ogre.”

Mr. Yasumaru’s sketch of the Hedorah suit. Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Next, you worked on Hedorah for Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971). So talk about making Hedorah, the Smog Monster.

NY: It was tough. They didn’t have any time, they didn’t have money, and they wanted to do something different.

Hedorah – that’s a long story. Mr. Inoue drew many sketches for the design. Hedorah was made from raw garbage, and his skin was slimy like seaweed. He was like a ghost made from bacteria. We custom-ordered foam rubber sponge for Hedorah from a rubber manufacturer in Kawasaki. Some of the sponge was 15 millimeters; some of it was thinner at 10 millimeters. We also had very thin sponge that was about 5 millimeters. Depending on where we were using it, we would use the thick or thin sponge.

Because Hedorah was made entirely with foam rubber, he was very heavy. But it stretched really well and was perfect for his skin. Urethane, which we used for Gorosaurus, is a chemical, oil-based product. If urethane catches fire, it lets out a black smoke and deadly chemicals. It was used as insulation for houses, so when people died in a fire, it was because they breathed in these fumes. It’s scary because inhaling these fumes can cause brain seizures.

Usually, we would make the core of a suit to give it shape. But, for Hedorah, there wasn’t a core; only the head part had a core. Real octopuses and squids have bones inside their heads. I made a kind of cartilage for Hedorah’s head. The rubber legs were attached to the head and dangled from the head. Because it was such a manual process, we couldn’t make the same shape again for Hedorah.

The actor was in the head part. There were shoulder straps and iron rods that served as the structure. By putting the shoulder straps on his back, the actor could hold up the head part. There were handles for the actor to hang on to. This was a huge suit. Director [Yoshimitsu] Banno was a Tokyo University graduate. He was very intelligent, but he told me to make the eyes into vertical lines so they looked like female genitalia. It was male thinking. Mr. Banno was producer Tomoyuki Tanaka’s assistant. He was also the producer for the American Godzilla (2014).

BH: There was a rumor that Tanaka was very angry at the changes that Mr. Banno had made in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster because the style of the movie is very different from the traditional style. Is that true?

NY: Maybe, I’ve never heard of it. I thought the movie was very interesting. Every day, Hedorah’s shape appeared different. There was another Toho movie with an octopus called Dogora the Space Monster (1964). Hedorah was similar to Dogora in that their shape looked different from day to day. Hedorah was covered in slimy seaweed, and his eyes seemed to ask Tomoyuki Tanaka, “Why are my eyes shaped like this?”

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Let’s continue and talk about Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972). Of course, you built King Ghidorah, Gigan, and Godzilla Tower. So please talk about Godzilla vs. Gigan.

NY: When Mr. [Takayoshi] Mizuki, the designer, and I did an event together, I asked him the meaning of the name Gigan. He told me it meant “nice guy.” [Nikkatsu Studios star] Yujiro Ishihara’s nickname was “Nice Guy,” which is where he got the idea from. I thought it meant iron or something powerful, but I was totally wrong. He often designed Ultraman monsters. His last name is Suiki, but you could also pronounce it “Mizuki,” so everyone including the director thought his name was Mizuki, like Shigeru Mizuki.

After we did that event together, we became friends. He was a scraggly-looking guy, but he was interesting. He started sending me New Year’s cards. He often designed monsters for Tsuburaya at the time.

Gigan was inspired by a tailcoat. He had one eye. He kind of looks like Mechagodzilla. In the original design, he didn’t have a saw on his chest. When we showed this idea to the director, he said, “That’s a great idea. Let’s use it.” Mr. Takagi and I came up with this idea. He really liked mechanics. The director didn’t think there would be mechanics involved in this part of the monster. Mechagodzilla’s head could spin all the way around. This was also my idea. When director [Teruyoshi] Nakano saw it for the first time, he was very surprised and liked the idea. Mr. Takagi also thought it was a good idea. The suit actor’s head was below Mechagodzilla’s head.

We made Mechagodzilla’s eyes with taillights from a Japanese 750cc motorcycle. We cut the taillights and used them for his eyes. That’s why his eyes are so precise. The taillights were straight, but we cut them into the shape of the eyes, because we had to cover up the fact that we were using taillights.

There was a dump yard at Toei because of the Truck Guys [movie] series that was really popular that had trucks with lots of lights. That’s where we got the parts from. We used reflectors from the back of a truck for Mechagodzilla’s ears, too. But we had to disguise these parts, so we poked holes in the ears with a pipe. When you would shine light on the ears, they would reflect it.

Gigan had gold wings, but they weren’t gold at first. We didn’t have much time before the scene and had used a thin, see-through fabric for the fin. But when they first filmed it, it appeared white and didn’t look good. We had to fix it quickly because we were already filming, so we decided to paint it gold.

BH: Let’s talk about Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973). What do you remember? You made Megalon, Godzilla, and Jet Jaguar.

NY: The director of the Jet Jaguar [scenes] was Jun Fukuda. Red Aron [Jet Jaguar’s original name] – there were some Seibu trains with the same name, an express train. The lips were made of rubber. With deterioration, the lips started to shrink and his white teeth started showing, which didn’t look very good. [pointing to a photo] This suit was for an event, not for a movie.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Was the way of making Godzilla the same, or did you use a new style?

NY: No, we didn’t make a new Godzilla. We kept using the same suit over and over, repairing it each time. After the shooting was done, they would take the suit to promote the movie. Parts of it would fall off [from wear and tear]. I wasn’t very happy with this suit.

BH: What about making Megalon?

NY: My junior who was named Mr. [Tomoki] Kobayashi made Megalon. Mr. Kobayashi made most of it. I made Godzilla.

BH: What about Jet Jaguar? How did you make it? What was the inspiration for it?

NY: I made Jet Jaguar. I made it with resin. There was an original illustration in the storyboard. I don’t remember who designed it, but I made the 3D version based on the sketch. We layered many, many wetsuits to make it. It’s impossible for an amateur to cut a wetsuit, so we had a wetsuit-maker custom-design the entire wetsuit. We took the actor to the wetsuit maker to make the pattern for the suit. I was very fussy about the details, like the width of the shoulders.

I made the head and the hands. The head was made from oil clay. There were antennas in his ears that would extend. The antennas had to be wired so they could extend and contract, so we had to make the head bigger for the electrical wiring. Mr. Takagi did the mechanical work.

BH: You talked a little bit about Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) already. There’s King Caesar and of course Mechagodzilla. Do you have any other comments about Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla?

NY: Mechagodzilla was in two movies: Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). We didn’t make a new body for Mechagodzilla. We used the same one for both movies. But we had several versions. We had one that was only the top half for when he goes in water. The neck on that version didn’t turn. Only one version had a neck that turned.

BH: How was King Caesar made?

NY: The face was made with clay. Maybe the chest part was made with clay, too. We based King Caesar on this image [points to a picture of the King Caesar statue]. We used mohair for the fur. For the scales, we used a mold to save time. We created the original shape with clay, then made a plaster mold. We then poured latex into the mold and made many pieces. We cut them into different sizes and glued them onto the suit. Women who were part-time workers helped attach the scales to the suit. Because each scale was separate, the movement was excellent.

BH: Your next big work was the ’84 Godzilla. Of course, you built the ’84 Godzilla suit, so talk about that work.

NY: I had an argument with director Nakano. It was a test shoot when the Godzilla suit was still not fully sewn. In this scene, Godzilla was supposed to squat down and grab a train with his fingers. But he couldn’t squat down because the suit was too tight. The bottom had been sewn temporarily but was too tight to squat. I told the director that we couldn’t change the shape of the suit because it would ruin its shape. But director Nakano insisted and said, “Don’t tell me you can’t do it. Godzilla must be able to squat down and grab the train.” I told him it would take three days, and Mr. Nakano agreed. I fixed the suit so that Godzilla would be able to squat. But the shape of the suit was skewed. The director insisted on it, and we were on a tight schedule to meet the first day of shooting.

Mr. Inoue, the designer of the Super X, told me that the design was based on the shape of a temple bell. At a meeting, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka requested that it look like a temple bell, like the big ones you see hanging in temples. The Super X spins around, and when it’s on the ground, it looks like a hanging temple bell. When Mr. Takagi saw it, he got upset and said, “It doesn’t look good. The shape is too modest. It doesn’t look modern enough.” I don’t know what was so “Super X” about it.

Before this movie, Godzilla was 50 meters tall. But, for ’84, they wanted to increase the height to 80 meters because the modern buildings were now skyscrapers. If Godzilla’s height remained 50 meters among the taller buildings, it wouldn’t look very good, so they made him taller. In this movie, Godzilla destroys the buildings in Shinjuku.

BH: When you made the suit, was there any difference, or was it the same process?

NY: Yes, it was the same process.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Did you have any orders from Mr. Tanaka about the look, or could you design anything you liked?

NY: For the ’84 Godzilla, we decided to go back to the original model. All the staff members wanted to go back to Godzilla’s roots because the ’70s version looked like a manga character. We first contemplated his ears. Should Godzilla have ears? We decided to give him ears. We also decided to give him four fingers and four toes.

BH: What kind of things did you personally bring to Godzilla’s new design?

NY: I had a new idea for his teeth. Godzilla had two big fangs. We decided to give him a few smaller ones coming in and three growing close together. I got this idea from shark teeth. When a shark’s tooth is broken, a new one grows underneath it. We decided to do this for the ’84 Godzilla. In the past, he didn’t have these small teeth. Also, we made his lips move up to bare his teeth. I got this idea from looking at monkeys. When monkeys get upset, they bare their teeth. We put in mechanics to move Godzilla’s lips upwards to bare his teeth. Another new idea was to put in mechanics to close his eyelids. But that wasn’t my idea; it came from the mechanics team.

In the past, we made his scales one by one with torn sponge. But, for the ’84 Godzilla, we used a mold to make latex scales. But the back side of the scales had curves and ridges, so the surface wasn’t solid. We had to make the surface solid; otherwise the shape would collapse. So we flattened the back side of the scales with putty before attaching them to the body. This way, the surface would be solid with no open pockets, so the suit would last longer. For the mechanical parts that moved, like the face and the lips, we made scales separately to allow movement.

BH: Can you talk about Pulgasari (1985)?

NY: The monster design was made by Yoshio Suzuki.

BH: Did you know you were making a movie for North Korea?

NY: Yes, I knew.

BH: What did you think about making a movie for North Korea?

NY: I felt reluctant about it. Making the monster was fine, but I wouldn’t have wanted to go to North Korea for the shoot. I heard that the monster suit actor [Kenpachiro] Satsuma was on 24-hour surveillance by the North Koreans. He had no privacy, and it was a very difficult experience. I didn’t go to North Korea. I just made the monster.

BH: Did you have any special orders from the producers or anybody about how to make the suit or what they wanted?

NY: Nothing special.

BH: What are you most proud of?

NY: Not much. I always remember what went badly and forget the good parts. If I did something new one day, the next day it would appear outdated. In sculpting, nothing is ever complete. There’s no end. But we had limitations, so we always had to make compromises. If the deadline came, we had to submit the work even if it wasn’t complete.

BH: Do you have any fun memories of Eiji Tsuburaya?

NY: I often say that director Tsuburaya was a magician. One time, he was filming jets that were suspended by wire. Sometimes the kids said, “I see the wire! I see the wire!” which made Mr. Tsuburaya furious. So he decided to suspend the jets upside down and turn the camera upside-down. That way, the wires were below the jets, so people noticed them less. He tricked the audience into believing that the jets were really flying. He was amazingly creative to make things more believable. That’s why I call him a magician. He was really amazing. Special effects is the work of magicians.

In The Last War, there was a scene in which a house is hurled into the air from an explosion. But, when they were filming, the house didn’t fly off the way he wanted it to. So he decided to suspend the house upside down and then set off the explosion. That way, the house would be dramatically hurled into the air. He also used wafers to make the house so it would be lighter and fly better. It was the best idea. He often tricked the audience this way.

For the scene with the Statue of Liberty in New York, they couldn’t put everything upside down because the statue was surrounded by water, and the water would fall to the ground. So we only used this technique for the statue and did a close-up of it. The scene with water was filmed separately.

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