GOING TO SEE GODZILLA! Yoshinobu Kaneko Recounts His Experiences as a Young Actor in the Showa Era!

Yoshinobu Kaneko in May 2013. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Former child actor Yoshinobu Kaneko is best known to Western monster movie fans as the young boy in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) who begs his mother to go see Godzilla, only to be told that they’re not going to the zoo. In Japan, however, Mr. Kaneko is much better known for his starring role in the title role of the Toei fantasy/action film Watari, Ninja Boy (1966), as well as for co-starring as Blue Shadow in the Toei TV series Red Shadow (1967-68) and its movie spin-off Ninja Scope (1969). Beginning in 1969, Mr. Kaneko went to Taiwan to film a trio of fantasy films, including The Magic Sword of Watari (a.k.a. Golden Boy and the Seven Monsters, 1970).

Mr. Kaneko can also be seen in episode 15 (“The Terrifying Cosmic Rays”) of Ultraman (1966-67), among numerous other TV and film appearances. Despite rumors to the contrary, he is not the younger brother of the late child actor Mitsunobu Kaneko, who starred in Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot (1967-68). In May 2013, Brett Homenick and Aizu Shingo interviewed Mr. Kaneko about his career as a child actor in the 1960s. This Q&A was translated by Maho Harada.

Vantage Point Interviews: Where were you born?

Yoshinobu Kaneko: I was born on June 28, 1955, in Itabashi City, Tokyo.

VPI: What led you to become an actor?

YK: When I was a kid, I had asthma. I couldn’t play outside, so I didn’t have any friends. Because of that, I had a pretty gloomy personality. My parents thought that it would be better if I was in a group setting, so they put me in a theater group. It turned out to be perfect for me. But then they said I had to quit because my little brother came along, and it became difficult to take me to the theater group. We had to go to Shimbashi from Itabashi, where we lived. But I refused to quit and forced my parents to let me continue.

VPI: What role did you play in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)?

YK: A kid in a housing complex. In King Kong vs. Godzilla, I was supposed to say “Mama,” but I normally referred to my mother as “Mother,” so I was too embarrassed to say “Mama.” I remember the director telling me many times, “Say ‘Mama.'” I also remember playing in the Toho studio and sitting on the Mothra larva. I also remember peeking in the warehouse and seeing all these monster suits hanging there, like Rodan and Mothra. It was exciting to think that they might move or something.

VPI: How long was the shoot?

YK: Only one day because I was only in one scene.

VPI: Was Ishiro Honda scary as a director?

YK: No, I didn’t have that impression at all.

VPI: In a book, Mr. Honda is quoted as saying, “It’s difficult to handle children.” Was he referring to you?

YK: Yeah, I think that was about me. (laughs)

VPI: Please tell me what you remember about Siege of Fort Bismarck (1963).

YK: I wasn’t in that movie.

VPI: You didn’t get a request to be in this movie, either?

YK: No, I don’t think so. But, for some reason, my name is in the credits. I’ve been asked this question a few times, and each time I have to say that I wasn’t in it. (laughs)

VPI: Please tell me what you remember about Ultraman (1966-67) episode 15 [“The Terrifying Cosmic Rays”].

YK: Out of the blue, with no audition, the theater asked me to be in it.

VPI: You played the boy who scribbles the picture in the Gavadon episode.

YK: Yeah, the kid with the yellow hat. For Ultraman, the breaks between the scenes were three to four hours long. There was a really long wait until we left for the night shoot, so they showed me a few episodes of Ultraman in the screening room at Tsuburaya Productions.I was really happy. That was when I first saw Alien Baltan. The people at Tsuburaya Productions were so nice; they did this so I wouldn’t be bored. Many years later, I saw director Akio Jissoji at an event at [Tokyo] Big Sight, maybe a year before he passed away. When I said to him, “Thank you for everything during Gavadon,” he was really happy.

VPI: When you worked for Toho or other studios, what was your contract like?

YK: I never had a contract. For Red Shadow (1967-68), they would say, “You’re going to Kyoto. And, by the way, you’ll be going to a new school.” That was it.

VPI: So you never had an official contract?

YK: Never. They just suddenly call and say, “You’re going to Kyoto tomorrow.” That’s how it was.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: Back then, were child actors treated well?

YK: Kokusai Hoei was the only place that treated us well. They paid an unbelievable amount of money, too. Ken Miyawaki from the Ken-chan series had an annual salary of 60 million yen. Back then, that was a lot of money.

For Red Shadow, my salary paid for the apartment rent. Me, my little brother, and my mom were in Kyoto, leaving my poor dad by himself in Tokyo. I only recently realized how lonely he must have been. That was after he died. If my dad had said that he couldn’t bear it, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything.

VPI: Who was the easiest director to work with?

YK: Director Junji Kurata, the tokusatsu director for Watari [Ninja Boy, 1966].

VPI: You were requested by director Kurata for [the period TV series] Kurayami Shitomenin (1974), weren’t you?

YK: Even when I messed up a line during the shoot, he just ignored it. He OKed it, even though I messed up the line. In that episode, Kenji Ushio played the guy who kills me, [Weasel] Man, in Kappa no Sanpei (1968-69).

VPI: What was Mr. Ushio like in normal life?

YK: He was just like [Weasel] Man. He really liked kids.

VPI: What was the most challenging movie you worked on?

YK: Hm. That’s a tough question because I enjoyed all of them. During the shoots, they were all strict. That goes for Watari, Red Shadow, Kappa no Sanpei, and Dokkoi Daisaku (1973-74). But everyone truly enjoyed themselves. Everyone had a lot of fun and enjoyed the work.

VPI: Did you ever feel that a shoot was grueling?

YK: No, I never felt that a shoot was grueling. I thought that’s just how it was. I enjoyed it.

VPI: I heard you were supposed to be in Daiei’s Gamera vs. Guiron (1969).

YK: That’s when I was in the 9th grade. I wanted to be in that movie. They’d decided that I would be in it, and Noriaki Yuasa, the director, had said to me that he was looking forward to working with me. But then my school demanded that I pull out. They said, “You’re failing junior high. If you do this movie, you’ll going to fail junior high.” It pained me, but I gave up. I really wanted to be in it. But, afterwards, when I watched Gamera vs. Guiron and saw the role, I was glad I wasn’t in it because I didn’t have to shave my head. (laughs)

VPI: Outside of the tokusatsu movies, which movie was the most memorable?

YK: My first major role was in Toho’s My Hobo (1962), a road movie about coming back from Kyushu, starring Keiju Kobayashi and Hideko Takamine. Zenzo Matsuyama was the director. During the shoot, I saw King Kong vs. Godzilla in Kyushu. I think the Toho staff took me to see it.

I worked with [Rentaro Mikuni] when I played his son in The Life of a Horse-Trader (1963). Masuharu Segawa was the director. I was in the 2nd grade. The Life of a Horse-Trader was my first Toei movie.

VPI: Miyamoto Musashi V: Duel at Ganryu Island (1965) with director Tomu Uchida was also with Toei.

YK: When the director was casting for the Iori Misawa role, he happened to see me onstage and decided to cast me for the role. All of a sudden, I was on my way to Kyoto for the fitting. I took the airplane by myself. Back then, we didn’t have the bullet train yet. I took the airplane by myself, and I think someone from Toei must have picked me up at the airport. A car from Toei picked me up and took me to Kyoto. It was the same way going back.  

VPI: That must have been tough.

YK: Even now, I wouldn’t fly on my own if someone asked me to, but this is when I was in the 3rd grade.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: You must have felt uncertain flying on your own.

YK: But it was fun. I don’t think I was worried back then. I think I really enjoyed it. I really liked going on airplanes. The stewardess came and said, “Look, there’s Mt. Fuji.” Things like that. Back then, I guess we had more time for these kinds of things. (laughs) They used to serve us sandwiches on planes back then, didn’t they? They were propeller planes back then.

VPI: Did you always go to Kyoto by yourself?

YK: No, only for the fittings for costumes and wigs. My mom came with me for the shoots.

VPI: Of the movies you were in, which is your favorite?

YK: My favorite is Kappa no Sanpei.

VPI: Was it filmed in Tokyo?

YK: Yes, at the [Toei] Oizumi studio in Nerima, Tokyo.

VPI: Does that mean many of the location shoots were done in Nerima?

YK: Actually, most of them were in the Tama area. There weren’t that many city scenes. The buildings were filmed at the studio. The opening scene with the horse carriage was filmed at a placed called Toei Hill, which was in Toei Studios.

VPI: I thought that scene was filmed on location somewhere.

YK: Toei Hill appears in 100% of Toei films.

VPI: What happened to the actress [Yachie Matsui] who played Kanko in Kappa no Sanpei?

YK: Didn’t she become a professional bowler?

VPI: Who is your favorite actor?

YK: I have many, but Kinnosuke Yorozuya. He’s amazing! And Takeshi Sasaki, who was Kamen Rider 2. I like him as a person, as well.

VPI: What about Yuzaburo Sakaguchi from Red Shadow?

YK: I loved him. I met him about a year before he passed away. Mr. Sakaguchi had a really strong personality, but it didn’t bother me at all. I think a lot of other people thought that he was really scary, though.

I don’t remember, but Mr. Sakaguchi told me that on our way back from seeing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), we passed in front of a toy store in Shinkyogoku in Kyoto, and I suddenly fell to the ground, kicking my arms and legs, and wailing, “Daddy, you have to buy me this for me!” (laughs) Mr. Sakaguchi ignored me and walked away. Apparently, I got up and said, “Oh, well,” and ran after him. Nobody realized who we were. Well, maybe they did, but no one said anything. That made me think that I wasn’t so popular. Every time there was a fan gathering, Mr. Sakaguchi told this story. And, every time, I’d say, “I don’t remember that!”

VPI: What was Fuyukichi Maki like?

YK: Mr. Maki was amazing. We first worked together in Watari. We worked together for two years straight – Watari, Red Shadow, Kappa no Sanpei. I really liked him. Kanko [actress Yachie Matsui] and I were working on a late-night shoot. It was on a hospital set, and there were beds. Kanko and I were sleeping together in a bed. Mr. Maki came by and said, “Hey! Don’t you know that boys and girls have to be separated after the age of seven?” We told him, “No, we didn’t know that.” Mr. Maki said, “Oh,” and Kanko and I just kept sleeping.

VPI: Did you ever meet Mitsunobu Kaneko?

YK: Only once. I remember passing by him at a studio and thinking, “Oh, it’s Akuma-kun!”

Because we have the same last name, people think we’re brothers. Sometimes I’d get a fan letter, and at the end it would say, “Say hello to your older brother.” I wondered who my older brother was. I thought, “Oh, they must be talking about Mitsunobu!” I got a lot of letters like that.

I only worked with Yoshio Yoshida on Dokkoi Daisaku. He thought I was Mitsunobu Kaneko and said, “Hey, I haven’t seen you in a while.” He totally mixed us up. (laughs)

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: When you were a child, would people recognize you and say, “Hey, it’s Mr. Kaneko!” or would children tease you?

YK: Sadly, not very often. Just once, when I went somewhere with my parents, I remember someone pointing at me and doing the Blue Shadow pose [placing his hand on his nose]. That was the only time.

VPI: Were you close with any of your seniors at the theater?

YK: I never saw any of them as my senior. Even if they were older than me, we became friends. We were all kids, so none of us cared if someone was older or younger. Kids are just kids. Kenbo Kaminarimon was one of them.

VPI: What became of Kenbo Kaminarimon?

YK: I’d like to know as well, but no one can tell me.

VPI: Please share your memories about Red Shadow.

YK: People often say things like, “The auditions must have been rigorous,” or “How many auditions did you have to go through?” But I didn’t have to go through any auditions. This probably sounds really conceited, but that program was made for me and Fuyukichi Maki. Red Shadow was the last role to be cast.

VPI: There were some physically challenging scenes in Red Shadow.

YK: Yes, the kites fell so many times. Nowadays, they wouldn’t fall at all. But, back then, they were using wires that were one millimeter in diameter. We were suspended with one-millimeter piano wires. They said the wires could hold up to one ton, but when you pass electricity through them, they weaken really quickly. There would be a “swish,” then a “bang!” and Red Shadow would fall to the ground. He was always fracturing a bone.

VPI: Please share your memories about Watari.

YK: When we were filming The Secret of the Urn (1966) at Toei, there was an ad in Shonen Magazine to recruit kids who would play the role of trainees at the Genin Training School in Watari.

VPI: Isn’t that where Rookie Shinichi was?

YK: Exactly. My little brother played a boy from Genin Training School holding a glass gourd. He was forced to play that role. (laughs) I said it would be perfect because I was already in Kyoto for The Secret of the Urn. I begged to be in the movie, even if it was just one scene. I wanted to be this character who dies.

I went to the planning department every day and begged them to cast me in Watari, even for one scene. I was happy when they finally agreed. When they started the fittings for the costume and wig, it was strange because they were being really thorough. When I asked them about it, they said, “You’re going to be Watari.” I was really surprised because I didn’t have much confidence.

My mother wasn’t happy at all because it meant that we had to stay in Kyoto for another three months, and I would miss school again. But I wanted to do it so badly.

Watari was quite popular and was supposed to become a TV show afterwards. But the author, Sanpei Shirato, said, “No way!” and got really mad, so the show fell through. That’s what led to Red Shadow.

VPI: So you were supposed to do the TV series for Watari?

YK: Exactly.

VPI: Was Watari a big hit overseas? Did you hear about its reputation?

YK: Apparently. I never heard about it myself, but I was really surprised when I got an offer from Taiwan a few years later. They said Watari had the highest number of movie-goers in Taiwan that year.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: How many movies did you make in Taiwan?

YK: Three. After the shooting was done for first movie, I came back to Japan for a month. Once summer vacation started, I went back for the other two shoots.

VPI: Were two of the three movies Momotaro [movies: Prodigy Momotaro (1970) and The Magic Sword of Watari (a.k.a. Golden Boy and the Seven Monsters, 1970)]?

YK: Yes, Momotaro.

VPI: The [original Taiwanese] title is Prince Hiryu.

YK: That’s right. For the script, it was called Prodigy Momotaro. Maybe because Momotaro’s not popular outside of [Japan]. Even the hairstyles were similar to Watari.

VPI: How old were you for the shoot in Taiwan?

YK: I was in the 8th grade. It was three years after Watari and one year before the Osaka Expo, [so it was] 1969.

VPI: What was director Mu-Hua Tang like?

YK: [His real name was] Namio Yuasa. He was Japanese but chose to be a Taiwanese citizen.

VPI: Were there interpreters [on set]?

YK: No, because the director was Japanese.

VPI: Did you ever watch these movies that were shot in Taiwan?

YK: I saw the first Momotaro [movie] at a screening while we were filming the next film. I’d already come back to Japan [before] the other two [were released], so I haven’t seen them.

VPI: What was the film The Magic Flute Child (1970) about?

YK: It’s basically the story of Child Flutist (a.k.a. Clan Revival). There was a really long fight scene. I kept going, hoping that at some point the director would OK it. (laughs) I don’t have any photos of it.

VPI: Do you have a message for [Vantage Point Interviews] readers?

YK: Of all the Godzilla movies, King Kong vs. Godzilla had the highest number of movie-goers in Japan. I’m happy that I was in that movie. Even when I see it now, I think I was cute – back then, anyway. (laughs) My eyes were really round. I’d be happy if there were people who loved me back then, even though I’m going bald nowadays. (laughs) Even now, when I tell people that I was in Godzilla, they go, “No way!” That’s pretty amazing.

VPI: Thank you for sharing us all these stories. Thank you for your time.

Special thanks to Damon Foster.

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