TOHO’S FAN FAVORITE! Screen Legend Kenji Sahara on His Most Notable Film and Television Tokusatsu Roles!

Kenji Sahara in June 2012. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Kenji Sahara (born May 14, 1932) has appeared in more Godzilla films than any other actor. Mr. Sahara appeared in the original Godzilla (1954) in two small roles and went on to star in such popular titles as: King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), Son of Godzilla (1967), Destroy All Monsters (1968), Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993), and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). Mr. Sahara headlined many other SFX films for Toho Studios, which include: Rodan (1956), The Mysterians (1957), The H-Man (1958), Atragon (1963), and War of the Gargantuas (1966). Moreover, Mr. Sahara is also very notable for starring as Jun Manjome in the groundbreaking television program Ultra Q (1966) for Tsuburaya Productions, which effectively started the long-running Ultra-series. In this follow-up July 2009 interview conducted behind closed doors, Mr. Sahara discussed his extensive acting career with Brett Homenick (joined by totorom). This never-before-published interview was translated by Katsumi Kato.

Brett Homenick: My first question for you is just to give us a little bit of information about your background, growing up in Japan — just some biographical information.

Kenji Sahara: I went to Chuo University, majoring in law. I majored in law at Chuo University because I wanted to become a lawyer. One of my college classmates was also my classmate from high school. Later on, I became too busy and didn’t see him again. This classmate sent my photo to the Mr. Heibon Contest in Heibon magazine. As a prize for becoming the runner-up, I could join the second screening of the annual Toho New Face Contest. So I didn’t get tested, but I passed the first screening because I was the runner-up for the Mr. Heibon Contest.

[The Mr. Heibon Contest winner] was named Ryoji Hayama [who went on to act at] Nikkatsu. I won the second prize, and Mr. Hayama won the first prize. After the contest, we became friends. We used to go out drinking together. Mr. Hayama was making a judo movie, and he injured his leg. He had to go to the hospital for a while, so I went to visit him. At the hospital, a Nikkatsu executive vice president named Mr. Emori saw me. He looked at me a certain way and said, “Why don’t you come to Nikkatsu?” (laughs) I said, “No, no, no!”

BH: The next question that I did want to ask was about the original Godzilla released in 1954. Please talk about how you got involved with that film and what it was like to shoot that back then.

KS: I was a member of the sixth Toho New Face class. After I graduated from Toho Studios’ training course [for several months], we had to have experience in real movie productions [on-the-job training]. Toho Studios’ casting division randomly cast every role [for New Faces], from small- to medium-size roles. Toho’s casting division used to cast this way as part of its system. While they did that, directors would see the movies and give them real roles in their next productions.

Kenji Sahara in November 2012. Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Your first starring role in a tokusatsu film was Rodan (1956). Please talk about your memories of this, this being a major film for you early on in your career.

KS: Before talking Rodan, I have to mention my debut performance. It was in Farewell Rabaul (1954), which was made by director [Ishiro] Honda. It was a small part, but it mattered in the movie. I played an officer candidate with Yu Fujiki. After Farewell Rabaul, I joined Godzilla. The movie People of Tokyo, Goodbye (1956) came from a song by Chiyoko Shimakura. In that movie, Mr. Honda gave me a role in which I could to stand out to the audience. Later on, I joined Rodan.

[Years later,] I joined the movie Shain Burai (a.k.a. Vagabond Employee, 1959). It’s a salaryman movie, and I played the main character. My colleague was Yu Fujiki, the company president was Takashi Shimura, and the president’s secretary was Yumi Shirakawa. The company was called Kakihara Industries. Kakihara Industries did not have enough money, so they received a loan from a bigger company. But, in reality, it wasn’t what they thought it was. The senior managing director, played by Ken Uehara, was sent by that company. Mr. Uehara’s character was above the company president. So he managed not just the company but also private issues of the employees.

In the film, he raped his secretary [played by Ms. Shirakawa], who also happened to be my fiancée. We were engaged to be married, but we broke up due to the rape. So I got angry, punched Mr. Uehara’s character, and quit the company. That’s the meaning of burai [hoodlum]. In this movie, the supervisor was played by Ichiro Arishima. There was a scene in which I told Mr. Arishima that I’m going to complain to Mr. Uehara, but he said, “No, no, calm down.” Later, my fiancée was raped, so I started drinking alcohol and went to a nightclub.

I went to the nightclub to forget everything, and there I found a lady played by Kumi Mizuno. While I was drinking, Ms. Mizuno served me. I’m not sure if she was her friend or classmate, but Reiko Dan’s character then came down while Ms. Mizuno was serving me. She [Ms. Dan’s character] liked me, and she tried to help me, even though I didn’t know who she was. Gradually, she understood the situation in my life at the time. She also said that she understood my feeling that I would like to return the company back to the old president. She said, “Let’s go together to my father’s company.” That company was in Osaka. I told the whole story to her father, who was played Koreya Senda. Mr. Senda’s character understood the whole situation, and he promised that he would reorganize the company.

The company got back to normal, and I decided to leave the company. So there were no more problems with Mr. Shimura’s company. Ms. Dan’s character asked me, “Why did you quit the company?” I said that if I went back to work there, Mr. Shimura’s character would have understood what I was doing for him, so I should quit. [The relationship between them would have changed.] That scene was shot at Nakanoshima Park in Osaka while we were walking. Then Ms. Dan’s character told me, “Maybe you need me.” That was the ending.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: My next question would be about The Mysterians (1957), which was a seminal science fiction movie that also involved outer space. What can you tell us about the production of The Mysterians?

KS: The Mysterians was made around the time of Rodan and People of Tokyo, Goodbye. Mr. Honda treated me very well [compared to other actors].

I had a chance to go to Sukagawa [perhaps for a film festival]. From Toho, Yumi Shirakawa and I went there. From Shochiku, Toyozo Yamamoto and Miyuki Kuwano attended. From Daiei, Shintaro Katsu and Tamao Nakamura went there. While at the location, Mr. [Masumi] Fujimoto [Toho’s managing director] told me, “You should change your name. A handsome actor should have a handsome name.” One week later, after we came back, Mr. Fujimoto called me. He said, “Why don’t you come down to Toho?” So I went there and went to his office. I was very surprised because there were many names on the table. Mr. Fujimoto picked one name from among them. That was Kenji Sahara. I asked him, “Why did you give me this name?” He answered, “The last character is the number two, which also means ‘very handsome.’” He also said, “The name of a handsome man should have the number two at the end of his name.”

When I was in Rodan, my name was written [on the poster and credits] as “Tadashi Ishihara changed to KENJI SAHARA.” After finishing this movie [Rodan], I started getting tokusatsu movies. After Rodan, Mr. Honda told me, “You can play leading roles from now on.” Later on, I got the part in The Mysterians. Mr. Honda taught me to bring realism to my roles. I kept in mind that, if I performed seriously, Mr. Honda would like it. Perhaps he thought that I was suited to tokusatsu movies because I was careful about giving a serious performance in every movie.

totorom: Was Mr. Honda involved in the casting process?

KS: Of course. Mr. Honda succeeded with Godzilla and Rodan, so he had the ability to cast his movies. So Mr. Honda kept me in his movies.

BH: My next question would be about The H-Man (1958). Please talk about this film, especially regarding your leading lady for the fourth time in a row, Yumi Shirakawa.

KS: Akihiko Hirata was also in The H-Man. He did not play a scientist in this movie, but I did. Mr. Hirata had a strong image as Dr. Serizawa [from Godzilla]. So I tried to be a different type of scientist from Dr. Serizawa, or else I would not have stood out. I thought I should be more modern. I asked Mr. Honda about my idea, and he agreed. So I played a modern scientist of the time.

BH: For my next question, I’d just like to ask you about Atragon (1963). You played a villain in this role. What was it like to shoot that film? That also included a large cast of many Toho regulars.

KS: Before I started shooting, Mr. Honda advised me that I should play a bad guy because it would be a good experience for me. In the movie, nobody knew that I came from the Mu Empire, but in Japan it was very chilly [for my character]. So I tried to perform like this. [gestures as if it were cold in the room] Other people did not feel cold, so only that character felt cold. So it seemed bizarre. I prepared for the part this way. I gave the idea to Mr. Honda, and he said, “Mm … mm … [thinking about it] That’s a good idea.” Then we started shooting. Mr. Honda gave me various kinds of advice. He treated me like a real son.

Mr. [Eiji] Tsuburaya also clearly felt that Mr. Honda treated me like his son. I visited Studio 8, which was the biggest stage at Toho, and there was the miniature set of Fukuoka for Rodan. If we looked at it from above, it looked like just a toy. Mr. Tsuburaya didn’t call me Ken-bo [Mr. Honda’s nickname for him], but Ken-chan. So he said, “Ken-chan, come down here. Sit down here.” Once I sat and saw the miniatures at eye level, I could see them three-dimensionally. I also realized that, if I saw the miniatures at eye level, the city revealed its reality to me. Mr. Tsuburaya gave me such advice. Later on, Mr. Tsuburaya stood there among the miniatures, and he seemed very big. Mr. Tsuburaya said, “That is the essence of how to shoot Godzilla.” I was taught by Mr. Tsuburaya how they shot special effects movies. Both Mr. Honda and Mr. Tsuburaya gave me a lot of advice like this, and I learned a lot from them.

Mr. Honda and Mr. Tsuburaya were good partners, so they knew each other very well. Mr. [Koji] Kajita was the chief assistant director for Mr. Honda. I understood after the fact that, once Mr. Kajita got promoted to director, he wanted to use me in his work. 

Photo © Brett Homenick.

I’d like to touch on “Unbalance.” Tsuburaya Productions made the TV show “Unbalance.” Mr. Kajita was selected [as a director] from Toho because he belonged to the Honda team and knew a lot about special effects movies. My name was attached as the star of “Unbalance” and another show [“Woo”]. This idea [“Woo”] was sent to Fuji TV.

So my name was also attached to “Woo.” In that period, Mr. Tsuburaya bought an optical printer from the U.S. It was very expensive, and Mr. Tsuburaya couldn’t afford to pay for it. Toho refused to pay for the optical printer, but TBS agreed to pay for it. Then Tsuburaya Productions chose to make “Unbalance,” which was submitted to TBS. In that period, Mr. Tsuburaya was already well known all over the world. So TV stations in Japan wanted to have Mr. Tsuburaya’s work. That’s why TBS paid for it. That’s the behind-the-scenes story.

The partnership of TBS and Mr. Tsuburaya was a win-win situation. We were going to start shooting. A producer from TBS was the first producer. He shot two or three episodes. But I’d like to return to the previous topic. I was selected as the star because I had experience with Rodan and other movies. Mr. Kajita was also selected as a director from Toho. Even though Tsuburaya Productions could have me and Mr. Kajita, Tsuburaya Productions didn’t have a staff that knew about casting. Anyhow, I was selected as the star, but the other cast members were not selected. So Mr. Kajita was responsible for casting. Later on, TBS accepted all the casting. After that, Mr. Kajita went to Mr. Honda to report to him about the casting and everything else.

While all these issues were going on, I was in Hawaii shooting None But the Brave (1965). Mr. Tsuburaya was famous around the world, so he did the special effects for this [Frank] Sinatra movie. At the same time, while I didn’t know the story about the casting, Mr. Honda and Mr. Tsuburaya came to the shooting location [Kauai, Hawaii]. I was very surprised to see them there. [I wondered,] “Why are they here?” Mr. Honda told me that Mr. Tsuburaya would produce his first work, “Unbalance.” Mr. Honda told me, “Mr. Tsuburaya must not fail [because this was his first work, and it would affect the luck of his company going forward]. So, Ken-bo, please go and help him.” Mr. Tsuburaya told me, “Ken-chan, please help me.” So I said, “Absolutely.” There, I didn’t ask anything about it.

Anyhow, I completed my work on None But the Brave, returned to Japan, and went to Toho Studios. Toho told me that Tsuburaya Productions would make “Unbalance.” They said that they would produce two episodes in 10 days. Usually, at that time, five days for a 30-minute episode was too much.

If you shoot two of them in 10 days, that means we’ll make one in five days, right?

Normally, in those days, a 30-minute TV show would take about three days to shoot. But we were told that it would take us five days to shoot. So I thought, “Well, it’s not going to take that long.” And then the shooting of “Unbalance” began.

I don’t remember how many episodes we were shooting, but in the meantime, the producer of the show was replaced by Mr. [Takashi] Kakoi. Then he said, “’Unbalance’ is great, but let’s use the monsters.” So that’s how we decided to change the concept of the show, and the result was Ultra Q (1966).

Photo © Brett Homenick.

Then we finished filming all 28 episodes, and it took us a year and a half to finish them all, which was a lot of time. At the time — I think we were about halfway through filming — the [1964] Tokyo Olympics were being held. [At the time,] there was a lot of talk about “Ultra C.” It’s a spinning technique, as you know. They took the word “Ultra” from it and “Q” from “question,” and that became the title, Ultra Q.

We were told that it would be broadcast on TV on January 2, New Year’s Day, but a TBS executive said, “We’re preparing a special program for New Year’s, so Ultra Q won’t get any ratings. Let’s change the broadcast date to something else.” But Mr. Kakoi insisted that it would start on January 2, and it went on the air. As a result, it was a huge hit with a rating of over 30 percent, and it went on to have much higher ratings.

I was originally fond of director Honda and Mr. Tsuburaya, but because of this success, I’ve grown to be even more fond of director Tsuburaya. So I started appearing in a lot of special effects for both movies as well as TV shows.

BH: In Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), you played Mr. Torahata, the villain. Please talk about that role and what it was like to shoot that film.

KS: In the script, I think it was written with the idea that “Torahata sheds blood,” but I had a meeting with director Honda, and we decided to do it more thoroughly. I wanted more and more [blood] so that my whole face would be covered with blood. Mr. [Yoshifumi] Tajima said, “If a handsome actor does such a thing, [his public image] would be ruined, but is it all right?” I replied to him, “OK, but if we don’t do it here, it won’t be interesting!” When I said that, director Honda said, “Yes, yes, let’s go with it!” So that’s what it became.

That’s why I’m acting like I’m going to grab as much money as possible in front of me in the scene. I think we have to do this kind of thing thoroughly. A light performance with a soft touch would not be good. If we perform in a smooth way [with a soft touch], we could not match the special effects or Godzilla. [The performance should not be exaggerated, but it should be done with a lot of energy.]

In that respect, in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), when Gigan suddenly came alive in my last scene [which was cut], I asked director [Ryuhei] Kitamura to attach me to a wire so that I would be blown away by Gigan. However, director Kitamura said, “Sorry, we can’t do that for the professor,” so I gave up. In my way of thinking, I always want audience to say, “This scene was interesting — and that scene, too!” As I previously said, I did not die in the last scene of Godzilla: Final Wars, so I hope to play Professor Jinguji again!

In the same way, the role of Torahata [making Torahata’s facial expression] was like this. As I got into that role, I felt like him. “I’m so important to myself that I even push my friends away! Money is so important!” That’s Tohrata’s creed. I think it is important to get myself into the role I play — also because the co-star is Godzilla!

BH: During that scene, when you’re running away with the money in Mothra vs. Godzilla, a [part of the] building falls on you. Maybe not that scene, but was there ever a scene that was dangerous to film, or perhaps you felt it might be too dangerous to film, in any movie?

KS: It was at the time we were shooting Rodan. That’s when I fell off the minecart. I fell off the minecart, and the minecart fell on me in the scene where the monster was destroyed. I was seriously injured there. I have had a lump on my side [ever since then]. Now that I’ve lost a little weight compared with that time, the lump has become smaller. I don’t think it is good for acting just to perform smoothly or without feeling anything. I think that the audience would enjoy or would be surprised to see a real performance. That’s why I always try to perform by various means when I act.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: In Destroy All Monsters (1968), you play a fairly small role, but it’s a very popular movie. Any memories of filming Destroy All Monsters?

KS: My role in that scene was not one to put my emotions into [given that it was the part of a commander].

BH: The star of that film was Akira Kubo. What was he like in general? How did you two get along on set?

KS: Adolescence (1952) was his debut work, wasn’t it? I think he has his own image. I fully understand him. It is very difficult to be more aggressive [unconventional], especially when we play the leading role. We should keep the image of handsome leading man.

BH: Another fairly small role was in Godzilla’s Revenge (a.k.a. All Monsters Attack, 1969). This was at the beginning of the Toho Champion Matsuri matinee series. I’d just like to get your memories and maybe even your thoughts on the quality of the film.

KS: Godzilla’s Revenge — that’s where I play role of the locomotive driver, isn’t it? In that film, I took a lesson from a real locomotive driver about how to operate it, and I really drove the locomotive. The reason was that, if I were the driver, but there were another driver in front of me when I say, “Hey, my son!” it would seem strange and funny, wouldn’t it? These issues are the things that I think are important and should be carefully considered. I mean, it would be strange if there were another driver in the scene. That’s why I usually try to perform that kind of scene by myself if the situation allows. But I couldn’t operate a helicopter because that’s too dangerous! (laughs) I am going to do all the acting that I can do myself. If I don’t do it, I can’t get into the role.

BH: One of my favorite roles that you had was in Yog Monster from Space (a.k.a. Space Amoeba, 1970) where you play Obata. I love your clothing in that film. Did you have much input on that role, such as the clothing and so forth?

KS: Choosing costumes for characters usually had been done by the director. At that time, I suggested, “How about this image?” If the director said, “OK, good,” we’d decide it that way together. But, if the director said, “That’s not the image; it’s more like this,” then needless to say we would have done it that way. After the discussion about the role with the director, and once I got the image, I went straight into the role. Therefore, that time would also be “a time of searching” when I was unable to decide. That’s one of the ways I create my roles.

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