INVENTING A BRILLIANT ACTING CAREER! Katsuhiko Sasaki on His Toho Roles and Tokusatsu Legacy!

Katsuhiko Sasaki in April 2013. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Katsuhiko Sasaki is a third-generation movie actor whose credits in the Godzilla series are among the most popular. Born on December 24, 1944, in Tokyo, Mr. Sasaki’s father (Minoru Chiaki) and grandfather (Takamaru Sasaki) were not only actors themselves, but also appeared in Godzilla movies (Godzilla Raids Again and Monster Zero, respectively). Mr. Sasaki joined Toho at the very end of the studio’s contract system, and went on to star in two of the Godzilla series’ best-known entries: Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) and Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). In April 2013, Mr. Sasaki sat down with Brett Homenick and Yasushi Okuyama for an interview about his lengthy acting career. Translation for this interview was provided by Maho Harada.

Vantage Point Interviews: Could you share some stories about your childhood with us, such as what your hobbies were?

Katsuhiko Sasaki: Most of my memories are from kindergarten [when I was] about five or six years old. It was after the war in Japan, and we were very poor. I remember that very clearly. My father [Minoru Chiaki] was a shingeki [“new drama” theater] actor, so we were especially poor.

VPI: We will ask you about your father later on. Were you born in Tokyo?

KS: Yes, in Eifukucho. The train depot for the Inokashira Line was in Eifukucho, which was targeted by the Americans. The entire area was flattened by the bombing, and there were very few houses left. We lived in a tiny house in this area. Because my father was poor, I remember not having enough food to eat when I was a child. Then my father was in a Kurosawa film called Stray Dog (1949) and was recognized for his acting. After he started working in cinema, our lifestyle changed dramatically, and we were able to eat better. That’s what I remember.

VPI: What hobbies did you have as a child?

KS: I couldn’t sit still. Back then, we didn’t have video games, computers, or TV. We would play outside and get all muddy playing baseball, which most kids played at the time. I loved baseball and played baseball all the way up to high school. I spent all my time playing baseball because I wanted to become a professional baseball player.

VPI: Did you join the baseball club in your high school?

KS: Yes, I was in the baseball club. When I was in the 10th grade, we won the tournament in Tokyo and went to the Japanese High School Baseball Championship.

VPI: Really? Wow! That’s a very rare anecdote.

KS: I also liked singing. I was a good singer. I sang and played the guitar. My junior high school teacher told me to go to music college. But I liked baseball, so I decided not to become a singer but pursued baseball instead.

VPI: So you went to Hosei University to play baseball?

KS: Actually, I had an injury in high school and had to give up baseball. But I was in a high school attached to Hosei University, so I was admitted there. I started a Hawaiian band with some friends. After seeing friends act in theater, I wanted to become an actor. When I told my father, he said, “You’re in university, so you should finish university before you become an actor.” So I waited until after university.

VPI: What kind of band was it?

KS: A Hawaiian band. The band name was Luna Island Earth. Luna means “to float” in Hawaiian. The band name meant “people living on a floating island.”

VPI: Doesn’t luna mean “moon”?

KS: In Hawaiian, I think it means “to float.” That’s what I did in university until I graduated, and then I pursued acting.

VPI: We talked earlier about Minoru Chiaki, your father. I’m sure we could talk for hours about him, but could you share the strongest memory about your father?

KS: I have many memories about him. He was quite strict when it came to acting. He himself had left Hokkaido to be an actor and made it on his own. He told me, “If you’re going to be an actor, you have to do it on your own. I’m not going to support you financially.” I joined the Bungakuza [a theater company] training school. He said, “I’ll pay for your tuition. But, after that, you’re on your own.” So I would go to the training school during the day and make pocket money at night by singing in clubs in Roppongi and Shinjuku. I didn’t ask for any financial support after that.

VPI: So he was supportive of you doing what you wanted, but you had to do it on your own.

KS: Yes, that’s the kind of father he was.

VPI: Was he a strict father?

KS: Yes, but I think it was for the better. That’s why I didn’t take on “Chiaki,” his stage name, and used “Sasaki” instead, which is my real name.

VPI: Your grandfather, Takamaru Sasaki, was also a stage actor. I’m sure there are also many stories about your grandfather. Do you have one memory that stands out?

KS: I heard an incredible anecdote about him. He could tolerate a lot of alcohol. After the war, there wasn’t much alcohol around. Once in a while, someone would get his hands on shochu [a Japanese alcoholic beverage] made from sake lees, and they would drink that. At the time, there was also something called “bakudan” [bomb], which is essentially methanol. My grandfather and two of his friends really wanted to have a drink, so they went to drink this “bakudan.”

The next day, his two friends were dead because they had drunk methanol. But my grandfather said he only had some extra discharge from his eyes. That was it. He could really tolerate alcohol, unlike me. Anyway, that’s the kind of person he was. Unlike my father, he was really kind. He said, “Ask me anything, ask me anything.” He taught me so much.

VPI: I’m sure this is something people often say to you, but Takamaru Sasaki, your grandfather, was in Monster Zero (1965). Minoru Chiaki, your father, was in Godzilla Raids Again (1955), and you were in Godzilla. I don’t know of any other actors who were in Godzilla movies over three generations.

KS: Well, it’s not like kabuki, so it’s not that big of a deal. Fortunately for us, it’s a question of talent, unlike kabuki actors [for whom it’s a question of lineage]. If we can’t act, we wouldn’t get any work or recognition. We just kept working hard. Maybe that’s what worked for us.   

VPI: This is an unusual question, but what career did you have in mind when you were young? A baseball player or band member, as you mentioned earlier?

KS: This is shameful, but I never thought about what I wanted to do as a career until I went to university. Yes, I was in a band, but I majored in economics, so most of my classmates became salarymen. Back then, the employment rate was 100%, so my professors would say, “You’re also going to work for a company, aren’t you? There are so many great companies to work for.” That’s the kind of era it was. But then, I started saying that I wanted to be an actor. My university professors got mad at me and gave me a hard time. They said, “You’re going to lower the university’s employment rate!”

I was quite carefree in those days. I was in my second year when I decided to become an actor. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to continue with my singing, so I stayed very active with my band.

VPI: I’m sure there was a lot that happened between then and when you joined Toho, but please tell us how you joined Toho.

KS: I first joined Bungakuza as a trainee. The training period was one year. After I graduated, I joined a theater group called Rokugatsu Gekijo [June Theater] where Kirin Kiki was a member, and started my theater career there. My manager happened to get this role for me. I had done some acting for TV where I acted alongside Sayuri Yoshinaga. I guess that won me a good reputation, so they asked if I wanted to be in a Toho movie. That’s how I first got involved with Toho movies.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: So you were offered to be in a Toho movie after you joined Rokugatsu Gekijo?

KS: That’s right. Unlike now, I was a younger and better-looking. Anyway, that’s how I got involved, which I feel very fortunate about.

VPI: Acting alongside Sayuri Yoshinaga isn’t something just anyone can do.

KS: Yes, I was trembling at the time. A producer who saw the show approached me and said, “Would you like to be in a Toho movie?” That’s how I started acting in Toho movies. The first movie I was in was based on a novel by Ayako Sono [For Whom Do You Love?]. After that, I was in a salaryman movie where I played a comic role. A famous producer named Masumi Fujimoto, who’s now deceased, said, “You’re funny. Come to Toho. Come to Toho.” So I signed an exclusive contract with Toho.

VPI: Mr. Fujimoto was an outstanding producer. We’ve heard about him a lot. Hiroshi Koizumi was also approached by Mr. Fujimoto when he was an announcer at NHK.

KS: Yes, that’s right.

VPI: This is your profile on the Internet. There are so many movies. In terms of general movies, would you say that The Sound of Waves (1971) was one of the first ones you were in?

KS: I think For Whom Do You Love?  (1971) was the first one.

VPI: Out of the ones that were released in 1971?

KS: Yes. The Sound of Waves and I Hear the Whistle (1971) — these two were released at the same time. At the time, there were so many movies being made.

VPI: There was an incredible number of movies per year, wasn’t there?

KS: Yes, yes. I was in so many movies, I can’t remember them all.

VPI: Were you with Rokugatsu Gekijo for about four years?

KS: No, I wasn’t with them that long. Maybe a year or two. I started being in Toho movies, and they kept asking me to sign an exclusive contract, so I told Rokugatsu Gekijo that I was going to sign an exclusive contract with Toho.

What was funny was that Mr. Fujimoto brought me to Toho to play comic roles as a comedian. But, at the time, all the senior actors who were playing the roles of good-looking men were leaving. There weren’t enough actors to play those roles, so they asked me to replace them. That’s why I started playing those roles instead.

VPI: Next, we would like to ask you about Battle of Okinawa (1971). Was this movie a big hit back then as well?

KS: Battle of Okinawa? Yes, I think it was quite a big hit.

VPI: I’m sure you have a lot of memories about this movie. You talked about first being hired to play comic roles. In this movie, you play alongside prominent actors like Keiju Kobayashi, Tetsuro Tamba and Tatsuya Nakadai. You played the role of a communications officer in this movie.

KS: Yes, yes.

VPI: You must have been very close to these three prominent actors during the shoots. Do you have any memories you would like to share?

KS: Of course, I was nervous to be in the company of such veteran actors. But I was very young at the time and simply threw myself into the role. I had to shave my head, but it wasn’t a problem because I had to shave my head when I played baseball. What I remember most is this scene where I had to run a long distance with the camera filming me from afar. I run to Mr. Tamba and Mr. Nakadai and report to them, “The Americans have landed at Kerama!” We first started with the test.

Because I had played baseball for years and was very good at running long-distance marathons, I wasn’t at all out of breath. I was completely normal when I reported, “The Americans have landed at Kerama!” So director Okamoto said, “Hey, Sasaki. You’ve been running, so at least pretend you’re out of breath.” I said, “Oh, right.” So I had to deliberately pant and pretend I was out of breath.

VPI: Running that distance wasn’t enough to make you lose your breath.

KS: Not at all.

VPI: So director Okamoto thought you weren’t acting?

KS: I guess not. I barely lost my breath. Running was nothing for me. I remember this episode very well.

VPI: This was when you first started at Toho?

KS: Yes, that’s right.

VPI: It seems that you weren’t that nervous acting in front of these actors, either. Was it because you were completely engrossed in your role?

KS: Yes. I realized then that being part of a baseball team was like being in the military. The training, being hit and punched every day. I realized it really had been a very useful experience. So, yes, I felt nervous, but my experience in sports helped me a lot. Of course, I was nervous and rigid, but I felt a lot of momentum.

VPI: Related to that, what was your impression of Mr. Okamoto’s directing style?

KS: He was a very kind director that brought out each actor’s uniqueness. He told us to act however we wanted and gave us freedom as actors. He wasn’t the kind of director who said, “Do it this way, do it that way,” and gave very detailed instructions or criticism.

VPI: So he didn’t instruct each movement and allowed the actors to act freely instead.

KS: He just said, “Do it however you want.” When it wasn’t right, he would give advice and say, “Maybe not like that.” He gave us a lot of freedom. Of course, he would tell us not to enter the frame if it would interfere with the camera angle, and things like that. But, in terms of acting, he gave us a lot of freedom.

VPI: Is that so? Ms. [Kumi] Mizuno, who also worked with director Okamoto on [the] Desperado Outpost [series] said the same thing. She said Mr. Okamoto gave her a lot of freedom. So he was consistent in his directing style.

KS: I think so. Before we started, I thought he would be intimidating. Bu,t once we started, he wasn’t intimidating at all as a director.

VPI: Special Boy Solders of the Navy (1972) is part of the Toho 8.15 series. You mentioned in the [DVD audio] commentary about working with director Tadashi Imai in this movie. Can you share any memories about this movie?

KS: Tadashi Imai was a master, a great director of his time. I had heard that he was strict, that when he was directing a Toei movie, he didn’t like the actress and fired her on the spot, replacing her with another actress. This made me think that I had to put everything I had into this role. But it was the same as Mr. Okamoto. Perhaps because of my youth, Mr. Imai gave me a lot of freedom and told me, “Do it however you want.”

When we arrived for the shoot, we would first rehearse the entire scene. Then they would decide the camera angle and how they were going to shoot the scene. While we were rehearsing a scene, Mr. Imai asked me, “Can you think of anything else?” Because I was young, I was quite audacious and said, “What if I moved this way and did it this way?” He said, “Okay, let’s try that.” After I tried it, he said, “That works. Let’s go with that.” So he accepted my ideas.

VPI: Is that so? When you think of him a master director, you can’t help imagining a strict director. But he was quite free then?

KS: Well, I was quite young, so I think he gave me freedom so I wouldn’t feel intimidated.

VPI: So, in a sense, he was committed to training and educate young actors?

KS: Yes. After the screening, everyone was talking about Takeo Chii, who had established a very good reputation. Mr. Imai came over to me and said, “Sasaki, you were good the way you were.” I felt so relieved by his words and was inspired to continue being an actor.  

VPI: So being recognized by director Imai had a huge impact on you.

KS: Yes.

VPI: Now we would like to ask you about the tokusatsu movie, Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973). How did you get involved in this movie? Was it a natural progression?

KS: Yes. The number of Toho movies was starting to dwindle, and they didn’t have the same budget for Godzilla movies as before, so it was a low-budget movie. That meant the casting had to be more subdued. When they were deciding the cast, they probably said to themselves, “Why not Sasaki?” I had to be in a certain number of movies per year because I had an exclusive contract with Toho. That’s how they decided I would be in the next Godzilla movie.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: So they were trying to lower the cost by using relatively young actors.

KS: Exactly.

VPI: In that sense, they were creating opportunities for young actors. So it was a great opportunity for you because you would play the lead role.

KS: Yes. The movie was shot with a low budget, but it did reasonably well in Japan. And it was also shown overseas, in the U.S. and Europe. So they weren’t in the red at all. In fact, they made a lot of money on this movie.

VPI: Were they making about 20 movies a year back then?

KS: Not that many. When I first started, it was about 40 movies per year. But, partway through, it became more like 10 per year, about one per month. But I had to be in five or six movies per year.

VPI: The director was Jun Fukuda, who is well-known for action movies. What was your impression of his directing style and technique?

KS: Mr. Fukuda wasn’t very demanding as a director, either, and gave us freedom. There was one thing, though. He told me not to gain weight. At the time, I ate and drank quite a bit, so he told me to go easy on the eating and drinking. But, in terms of acting, he wasn’t very demanding.

Also, director Fukuda often said, “Things are going to get quite difficult for you, so you should read books and submit your own proposals.” Basically, he was telling me to read books I liked and propose them as movies. He told me to make lots of proposals. I did, but none of them were approved.

VPI: It was a difficult time, wasn’t it?

KS: It was. Toho stopped making movies, so they weren’t going to approve any old proposal. It was that kind of era. In better times, I’m sure my proposals would have been approved.

VPI: Yes, if it had been 10 years earlier, things may have been different.

KS: I think so. We went from 10 movies per year to four or five per year. After that, they were outsourced.

VPI: Megalon was filmed by Toho, wasn’t it?

KS: Yes, that’s right.

VPI: You speak about this in the commentary, as well, but was the shoot for Megalon about one month?

KS: Yes, about one month. It was like a slightly longer TV drama. We had to shoot it in a short period.

VPI: I heard that for the old Godzilla movies, they took about 90 days just to shoot the non-action scenes. For Godzilla Raids Again, which your father was in, it may have been shorter. But, for the movies with your grandfather, the shoot was probably two to three months.

KS: Yes. Special Boy Solders of the Navy was also shot over a relatively long period. There’s a funny story about that movie. When we were filming on set at Toho Studios, an American TV feature called “The Adventures of Sinbad” [the 1973 movie Marco] was being filmed at the same time. The lead actor was Liza Minnelli’s boyfriend [Desi Arnaz, Jr.]. I think the budget for the Toho 8.15 series was 300 million yen at the time. When I asked what the budget of the TV feature was, I was told one billion yen. I remember sighing when I heard that.

VPI: “The Adventures of Sinbad” — was that an American TV feature?

KS: Yes, an American TV feature with Japanese actors who could speak English, like Masumi Okada.

VPI: But Liza Minnelli wasn’t in it?

KS: Liza Minnelli came to visit her boyfriend. When I went to watch the shoot, they were hugging and kissing after each take. I remember seeing them hugging and saying “Oh, nice! Great!”

VPI: I didn’t know that.

KS: Yes, I just remembered.

VPI: That’s amazing. It’s rare to hear stories like this. Going back to Megalon, in the commentary, you talk about Hiroyuki Kawase, the child actor. Can you share some memories about him? In the first scene, he’s on a boat on Lake Motosu, while you and Yutaka Hayashi are watching him from the side of the lake. I heard the shoot was in December or sometime when it was cold enough to see your breath. He was wearing shorts in the water and looked like he was about to cry, so director Fukuda told him to look like he was having fun. In any case, it seemed to be a difficult shoot.

KS: It was extremely cold. Yes, I remember now. Yes, Kawase-kun looked like he was about to cry.

VPI: But Mr. Fukuda was strict, telling him to look like he was having fun, not like he was about to cry.

KS: Yes. And I remember the director calling out to the staff and asking for something. He then brought us some whisky and said, “Have a drink.”

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: To you and Mr. Hayashi?

KS: Yes, to warm ourselves up. I remember drinking whisky before shooting this scene.

VPI: I hope he didn’t give any to Mr. Kawase.

KS: The poor boy, he was in shorts.

VPI: It must have been a difficult scene. Even just watching the scene, it looks difficult.

KS: He must have been so cold standing in the water. I remember that now, yes.

VPI: In the commentary, you talk about receiving fan letters from Poland because the movie had been successful overseas. Do you remember hearing how the movie was received in other countries?

KS: Yes, I received letters from Poland, Russia, and some Northern European countries.

VPI: Is that why you said [in the commentary], “I get so many letters from communist countries”?

KS: Yes. At the time, I didn’t know that the movie had been exported to communist countries. I knew that it had been sold in the UK, France, the U.S., countries like that. But I had no idea that it had gone to Poland, Russia, and that part of the world. I received a fan letter in Polish, but, of course, I didn’t understand Polish at all. If it had been in English, I would have been able to translate it somehow. But I found someone who understood some Polish and got them to translate the letter into English. I then could translate it into Japanese. I remember going through all that to be able to read the letter.

VPI: The fan letter from Poland wasn’t written in English? It was written in Polish? Is that because a child wrote it?

KS: Yes. I couldn’t understand a word in Polish.

VPI: So you had someone translate it into English, then had that translated into Japanese?

KS: Exactly. Unlike now, I could understand English with the help of a dictionary back then. Once I understood what the letter said, I wrote a reply, had it translated into English, then had the letter sent to Poland. I never found out if the person received my letter, though.

VPI: That would be difficult to find out. Was the letter from Russia also written in Russian?

KS: Yes. I have no idea. I don’t know if the movie was officially shown in communist countries, or if these fans went to another country to see the movie.

VPI: In the commentary, you talk about a boy named William who lived in your neighborhood. Was he American or British?

KS: He was half-American, half-Japanese.

VPI: And he told you that he saw the movie in the U.S.?

KS: Yes. His father was an American soldier in what is now Tachikawa.

VPI: You spoke English with him?

KS: Back then, I spoke some English. I’ve forgotten most of it now and can barely say a word. Although he was half-Japanese, William looked more American. We were quite close, but he was very discriminatory towards us. He would say things like, “I refuse to go to a Japanese pool because Japanese people pee in them. They’re bad.” I asked him, “Don’t you ever pee in the pool?” He thought about it for a while. Then he said, “I do.”

VPI: Next, we would like to ask you about Yutaka Hayashi, with whom you co-starred. In the commentary, you mention that he was in the movie just after the Village Singers had disbanded. Can you share any stories about him?

KS: Not really. We got along during the shoot. He was an idol who had been very successful with the Village Singers. I remember keeping some distance from him, but we did get along.  

VPI: In Megalon, were some scenes easier than others?

KS: There wasn’t anything that was really difficult. There wasn’t much of a budget for costumes, so I only had one or two costumes. I just remember thinking, “This movie is really low-budget.” Because I was young, I didn’t have any difficulty with the action scenes.

VPI: Nothing was difficult — does that mean that everything was easy?

KS: Yes, everything was easy. Because there wasn’t much of a budget, they couldn’t take the time to shoot everything carefully. They just kept going. Even if someone made a mistake in their acting, they would move on to the next scene.

VPI: The enemies, the Seatopians, lived at the bottom of the sea. Do you remember anything about the Seatopian actors, Ulf Otsuki and Kotaro Tomita?

KS: I don’t remember much about Ulf. Mr. Tomita was my senior. We worked together often in TV. He was a real gentleman and taught me a lot about acting.

VPI: Which movies were you together with Mr. Tomita?

KS: We first worked together at Toho and then in some TV dramas and other movies after that.

VPI: [Ingrid] Fuzjko Hemming is [Ulf Otsuki’s] sister.

KS: The pianist? I didn’t know that. Have you met Ms. Fuzjko?

VPI: I met her once. She was very nice. She gave me flowers. Someone had given her flowers, but she didn’t want them, so she said, “Here, it’s a present for you.” Because you were in good shape, you didn’t have any difficulty doing the action scenes?

KS: That’s right. Until now, I’ve never had any difficulty with any action scenes.

VPI: Didn’t you take your child to see it in the theater?

KS: My child was still very young then. I think it was just after my child was born, so I don’t think my child saw the movie back then.

VPI: In the commentary, you mention seeing the movie two or three times. There was the screening, then you saw it in a theater in Shibuya.

KS: Yes, that’s probably right. I’ve seen it a number of times. But I think it’s a good movie despite the low budget and short filming period. In terms of good movie/bad movie, it’s a good movie if children enjoy it. It’s part of my career as an actor, and I have good memories about it. In that sense, I think it was good.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: Next, we would like to ask you about Evil of Dracula (1974). Can you share any memories about the director, Michio Yamamoto?

KS: He was a Toho movie director who did TV dramas like Howl at the Sun! (1972-86). I met him before this movie in a TV drama or something.

VPI: Did you work with him on [that TV series]?

KS: Yes, I worked with him many times, and we were close. I used to go to his home for drinks. Toho directors are generally very kind, unlike at Toei and Nikkatsu where the directors are intimidating. Anyway, I have a good impression of Mr. Yamamoto. But, in terms of the movie itself, I have vivid memories of almost dying in a fight scene.

I think the shoot for Evil of Dracula was in February. It was cold. During the fight scene with Toshio Kurosawa, I was supposed to fall on the ground and stand up again. They had spread dead leaves on the ground so I could fall without hurting myself. After I fell, I pushed the ground with my hand so I could stand up. But, when I did, I pushed my hand on chestnuts covered in needles and had hundreds of needles stuck in my hand. We had to stop the shoot to take the needles out before we could start shooting again. Right after that, we shot a scene where I drown and die in a pond. But the pond was too shallow to sink in, so we had to go back to Toho and use the studio pool.

VPI: So you first tried the drowning scene in a real pond.

KS: Yes, but it was too shallow and air would enter my clothes, so I couldn’t sink. So we went back to Toho and used the pool there because there were pulleys at the bottom of the pool. We started reshooting the scene with me tied to a rope that would pull me into the pool. The director had told the staff to let go of the rope when he said, “Cut.” But the staff didn’t let go right away, so I swallowed water and almost died. These are the memories I have from this movie.

VPI: If you had done that scene in the lake, that would have been even more difficult. You could have had a heart attack or something.

KS: Yes, it was dangerous. They didn’t know what they were doing back then.

VPI: So it was better to shoot the scene on the set because it wasn’t as cold.

KS: It was still cold, but they had drawn a bath for me, so I could take a hot bath as soon as we finished and warm myself up.

VPI: Oh, right. I guess they can’t have steam coming out of the pond, so the water had to be cold.

KS: Yes, the water had to be cold.

VPI: We spoke earlier about Shin Kishida from Rokugatsu Gekijo and Toshio Kurosawa. What do you remember about performing with these two actors?

KS: Toshio Kurosawa was my senior at Toho, but he was always really lax with time. We would arrive for the shoot and someone would say, “Where’s Kurosawa? He’s not here. Call him.” Someone would call his house, and he would answer the phone. He lived in Yokohama back then. Even if he rushed to the shoot, it would take an hour for him to arrive. Mr. Kobayashi, Daisuke Kato, me — we all had to wait for him. That’s the kind of person he was.

Shin Kishida was my senior at Rokugatsu Gekijo, so we were close. He died very early, and I think he was already quite sick then. His hair was thinning, and he was using some hair tonic for it. I remember his asking me, “When you use hair tonic, does it sting?” When I replied, “Yeah, it stings,” he said, “I can’t feel the sting anymore.”

VPI: Mr. Kishida was a very special actor among all Japanese actors, like Hideyo Amamoto.

KS: These things suited him so well. He was a valuable actor. He died when he was 42 or 43.

VPI: Do you know Goro Mutsumi?

KS: Goro Mutsumi? Yes, I know him very well.

VPI: Were you in the same theater group?

KS: No, we first met at Toho. Before that, he studied under the playwright Juro Miyoshi. We were never onstage together, but afterward we worked on the same movie. We became good friends.

VPI: Goro Mutsumi has said that he visited Shin Kishida in hospital a few days before he died. Mr. Kishida had terminal cancer and wouldn’t let go of Mr. Mutsumi’s hand. It must have been a day or two before he passed away. He didn’t want Mr. Mutsumi to leave. Mr. Mutsumi felt painfully reluctant when he left, and Mr. Kishida died soon afterward. That was the last time he saw Mr. Kishida.

KS: He died way too early.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: It’s a shame we lost such a great actor.

KS: I think he had cancer of the larynx or something like that.

VPI: Did he have trouble speaking?

KS: During the shoot, I remember there were days where he could speak and other days where he couldn’t.

VPI: I see. He really didn’t want Mr. Mutsumi to leave. Mr. Mutsumi said he had a desperate look on his face.

KS: Cancer is terrible, isn’t it?

VPI: In Evil of Dracula, you played the role of a vampire. How did you approach this role?

KS: This role was very difficult. Director Yamamoto said to me, “Be as expressionless as possible.” “Don’t show any emotion,” is the way he phrased it, I think. Not showing any emotion is very difficult. I’m still not sure if I was able to do it.

VPI: Shin Kishida played the role of a vampire in this movie. Did he offer any advice?

KS: No, no advice.

VPI: So you thought about it on your own and developed the role with the director?

KS: That’s right. This movie was quite difficult. I think it was the character I had the most trouble with. I really didn’t know what to do, especially in the beginning.

It would be the opposite for me now. Now, if someone told me, “Don’t show any emotion,” I don’t have to do anything, so it would be easy. But, back then, I wanted to do so much. I remember this role being really difficult.

VPI: I think Evil of Dracula was quite brutal as a movie, especially back then. There is a lot of gore and violence. How do you feel about this?

KS: I didn’t realize this until after it went on the air. I remember thinking, “Wow.” Also, there were sound effects to frighten the audience. For example, the sudden sound of birds flying would startle the audience. They deliberately used techniques like that to frighten the audience. Combined with the bloody scenes, I guess it elicited criticism. But, I guess compared to some brutal American movies, it’s nothing.

VPI: On the other hand, it’s quite different from the regular Toho movies, which are more about entertainment and upbeat.

KS: That’s true.

VPI: Until this movie, there weren’t many movies with a lot of gore. In that sense, did you think that this movie was special or different from other movies?

KS: I did. It had a different feel to it. I sensed that in the script and throughout the shoot. It felt different. It seemed like the director and everyone else was determined to his utmost to make this movie. I think it’s quite an unusual movie for Toho.

VPI: Evil of Dracula was the third movie of the Bloodthirsty series, after Lake of Dracula (1971) and The Vampire Doll (1970). Since they made three movies, it must have done pretty well.

KS: It must have done pretty well. And there were probably some big fans of it.

VPI: Where was the shoot done?

KS: In the suburbs of Tokyo and Yatsugatake in Yamanashi Prefecture — maybe around Fujimi Kogen or Nobeyama. I had some other work before this shoot, and they told me to come as soon as I was done. When I told them there were no trains, they told me to take a taxi. I remember going by taxi and paying tens of thousands of yen.

VPI: Next is The Last Days of Planet Earth (a.k.a. Prophecies of Nostradamus, 1974). This was a very difficult movie, wasn’t it? There were many issues and debates. It was shown in very few theaters and wasn’t released on home video or DVD. I know it’s one of the tokusatsu films that you were in, but is there anything you remember about the director, Toshio Masuda?

KS: I think Mr. Masuda was from Nikkatsu and hadn’t done many movies for Toho. Mr. Tamba would come to the shoot without memorizing his lines. When we started the shoot, he would be like, “Um … oh … um.” So the director told the other actors to be quick. He said, “Don’t pause between your lines. Be quick, be quick.” I remember rushing through my lines without putting in any emotion. The director kept saying, “We have to use a lot of film for Mr. Tamba, so you guys have to be quick.” I don’t have good memories from this movie.   

VPI: That’s how Mr. Masuda directed you and the other actors?

KS: Yes.

VPI: That must have been difficult.

KS: It was. Mr. Tamba didn’t memorize his lines, so he was going, “Um … um … so … huh?” and taking so long. When it came to the other actors, the director kept saying, “Okay, be quick. Be quick. Just do it really fast.”

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: I’ve heard that about him, that he caused trouble. Apparently, he pasted his lines everywhere so his eyes would be looking all over the place trying to read them.

KS: He would say, “What am I supposed to do here?” He would come to the shoot without reading the script. So I don’t have good memories about director Masuda.

VPI: I don’t know if it was Mr. Masuda’s fault or Mr. Tamba’s.

KS: It’s difficult to say, but, yes, it wasn’t really Mr. Masuda’s fault.

VPI: The Last Days of Planet Earth wasn’t shown in theaters or released on home video or DVD because there were depictions of people deformed by radiation at the end of the movie, wasn’t it? And, during the movie, there were people who go crazy and eat other people because of radiation. I heard there were some groups who objected because they thought the movie violated the rights of nuclear radiation victims. The movie came out on August 3, 1974, but I think they cut out the controversial scenes and re-released it in November. It was hardly shown after that, too.

KS: Is that so?

VPI: There’s no official way to see the movie. Did you know about this situation?

KS: I had no idea. But, now that you mention it, I don’t think it was rebroadcast or even shown on TV.

VPI: It was shown on TV once in 1980, I think. That was the only time it was shown on TV, and not many people watched it then, either.

KS: I remember the movie getting national attention. I don’t think anything came of it in the end, but it’s not good to stir things up, either. And, yes, because of the controversy about nuclear radiation, they probably made that decision.

VPI: They decided to cut the controversial scenes and sell the movie in the latter half of 1980, I think. Toho promoted the movie, but another objection was raised, so they suddenly decided to stop selling it.

KS: Is that so?

VPI: Yes, this movie was very controversial.

KS: Yes. But, despite all the attention, I don’t think many people went to see it. I wonder how the box office numbers were.

VPI: It actually did well at the box office. It came in second place for domestic film revenue in 1974.

KS: Is that so? So people went to see it.

VPI: Yes, I think it was in theaters until March or April. But it was in theaters for a while, which is probably why a lot of people went to see it. But compared to Submersion of Japan (1973), which came out the year before, it didn’t do as well.

KS: I see.

Mr. Sasaki’s colleague: I went to see it in the theater. There were a lot of people in the audience. I remember that there were many shocking scenes.

VPI: At the time, the movie was recommended by the Ministry of Culture.

KS: Is that so? I didn’t know that.

Mr. Sasaki’s colleague: The Ministry gave their recommendation based on the script.

VPI: Next is Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), which was directed by Ishiro Honda, the original Godzilla director. I’ve heard a lot about Mr. Honda, but we would love to hear your impression of his directing style and anything else you can remember.

KS: Director Honda lived close to my parents’ home. He was also a friend of my father’s, so I knew him before I worked with him. He was a gentleman and very kind toward me. Mechagodzilla has some love romance in it, and he was very particular about the love scenes. He was very detailed in his directing and said, “Do this, do that.”

VPI: I heard that he always did things himself to show what he wanted the actors to do, even for the actresses’ parts.

KS: Yes, he did. I remember him making very detailed suggestions.

VPI: Do you have any memories about playing opposite Tomoko Ai?

KS: It was just this one movie, so I don’t remember much, just that she was beautiful. Later on, she married a very close friend of mine, Toru Minegishi. They got divorced, which was another thing that Minegishi and I had in common. We used to complain over drinks about how it didn’t work out with our first wives. We listened to each other complain about this quite often. We also lived close to each other. She was quite a carefree person, Tomoko Ai.

VPI: I think this was her debut movie, so I wondered if you gave her a lot of advice.

KS: No, I didn’t give her any advice. I remember saying to her, “Let’s do what we can and do our best,” when we started filming.

VPI: I guess she couldn’t help that her acting was tense. I thought you had taken the lead with her.

KS: I’m bad at love scenes. I feel so embarrassed.

VPI: You mention this in the commentary, but what are your impressions of Tomoe Mari, who now goes by the name Yasuko Agawa?

KS: She was very beautiful. She was also my junior at Bungakuza training school. When Toho stopped making movies, they tried to feature her. She was beautiful but wasn’t that great of an actress.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: Yes, she was too tense. I don’t think she had many scenes, especially in this movie.

KS: Yes, Toho was trying to promote her but wasn’t very successful. She started singing and was much more successful.

VPI: You mention in the commentary that you often heard her sing and that she was good.

KS: Yes. When we all went out drinking, we often sang together. She has a husky voice. She was a very good singer.

VPI: She became a very well-known jazz singer.

KS: Yes.

VPI: Maybe it was for the better since she became so famous. It was a good thing that she became a singer.

KS: I think so. In his later years, Keiju Kobayashi often said to me, “You should have become a singer, too. You would’ve been more successful.”

VPI: That means you sang duets with Ms. Mari. That would have been interesting if you had performed together.

KS: No, no. But she was very beautiful.

VPI: Among the actors you worked with, there was Akihiko Hirata. You also worked with Goro Mutsumi and Tadao Nakamaru in this movie. Could you share any memories about working with Mr. Hirata and Mr. Nakamaru?

KS: Mr. Hirata was a Tokyo University graduate. He was quite the gentleman. He was never condescending and always very polite. He taught me the basics of being an actor, about the state of mind of an actor. He was very courteous, so I have a very good impression of him.

Mr. Nakamaru was irresponsible. “Dynamic” might be a better word. I didn’t learn anything useful from him, but, as my senior, he was kind to me. They had completely different personalities, Mr. Nakamaru and Mr. Hirata.

VPI: Mr. Nakamaru seems like the mischievous type. Mr. Hirata is more like the exemplary student.

KS: Yes. You could say his acting was boring. But he had a lot of serious roles.

VPI: Mr. Hirata didn’t play the bad guy very often.

KS: That’s true. He’s not the bad-guy type.

VPI: In the movie, Mr. Hirata plays Professor Mafune. Do you remember where the location was for his mansion?

KS: The interior was on a set, of course, but…

VPI: What about the exterior?

KS: I think it was in Yokohama, in the Yamate area where a lot of foreigners live. I think it might have been around the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery. It was relatively close.

VPI: Do you remember how long the shoot was?

KS: About one month.

VPI: That movie must have been one of his last, Ikio Sawamura.

KS: Oh, the supporting actor? He was really interesting.

VPI: I think this movie must have been one of his last. Do you remember anything about him?

KS: We weren’t in the same scenes, so I don’t remember much about him from the movie. But I always saw his movies and found him very interesting as a supporting actor. You can’t make a movie without people like him, so I had a lot of respect for him.

VPI: He had very few lines in this movie and was really thin, so I thought maybe he had been sick. He was in the same scenes with Tomoko Ai. I think he was her servant or something, so they’re in a lot of scenes together, but he had very few lines. I wanted to know if that was the role he played, or if they had to change the role because he was ill.

KS: I don’t know the details.

VPI: Next is Conflagration (1975). Do you remember this movie?

KS: I just had a tiny role as a pilot or something. Because it was such a tiny role, I don’t remember much about it.

VPI: Then you don’t remember much about the director, Katsumune Ishida, either?

KS: Actually, I remember director Ishida very well. I was in another film that he directed about a salaryman, which I remember very well.

VPI: What was he like as a director? I don’t think he made that many movies.

KS: No, he didn’t make many movies. All my answers are going to sound the same, but he was also a Toho director and very kind. I don’t remember him ever being fussy about anything. He wasn’t one of those directors with a strong personality.

VPI: Coming into the ‘70s, Toho stopped making so many movies, as you mentioned. What were your impressions about this time?

KS: They made very few movies. All the big names at Toho were quitting, and the company was shrinking. I was worried that TV was going to swallow the film industry, and movies would disappear altogether. For me, personally, I had very little work in film and was on TV a lot more.

VPI: Did you want to stay at Toho? Or was it more important to work as an actor, and you weren’t fixated on the idea of staying at Toho?

KS: At first, I wanted to stay at Toho, so I chose to be in Toho TV dramas. But, after a while, I didn’t explore other options. So, after I did a few Toho TV dramas, I left to do other things that interested me.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: But then you went back to Toho for Godzilla: Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) and Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). In Biollante, you played a member of the Self-Defense Forces.

KS: Yes, although I didn’t have that big of a role.

VPI: In King Ghidorah, you had a big role. Your acting as the professor was brilliant. I loved that character. What led to your being in Biollante? The director was Mr. [Kazuki] Omori, which made this movie quite different from the Showa Godzilla movies. How did you feel about this? And what was Mr. Omori’s directing style like?

KS: That’s when the shooting style started changing. Until then, the film length was mostly fixed, so they didn’t take extra shots. For example, if there are two people in a scene, they would shoot a close-up of the first person, then shoot the second person, and that would be it. They wouldn’t take a close-up of the second person or a long shot of the two together. They would decide very quickly what they were going to shoot.

But, from director Omori’s generation, they started shooting a lot of material, especially actors’ reactions. They would shoot someone’s reaction while another person was speaking. As a director, Mr. Omori wanted a lot of material, which meant that it took a lot longer to shoot.

VPI: Toward the end of the ‘70s, the budget was limited, so they could only shoot the minimum. Just a close-up and maybe a quick long shot; that was it. But, for Godzilla in the ‘80s, there was a lot more budget available, wasn’t there?

KS: Exactly. Until then, Toho had produced all its own movies. But they started finding sponsors for their movies and other financial sources.

VPI: You mean production committees for each movie.

KS: Yes. I think they started to pool money from these sources to make movies. If Toho only did the distribution, they could reduce the risks of movie-making.

VPI: That’s why they were able to shoot extra footage.

KS: Exactly.

VPI: Was that Mr. Omori’s style to begin with?

KS: Yes, I think that was his style. Before this movie, I worked with him for a short period during Totto Channel (1987) and worked with him again later on.

VPI: Was this the same year?

KS: Totto Channel was slightly earlier. That was a tiny role, but I had a bigger role this time. At the time, I had quit Toho and belonged to an agency, but they wanted to use the old Toho actors.

VPI: So Mr. Omori reached out to you to be in this movie because he liked your work in Totto Channel?

KS: I’m not sure, but that may have been the case.

VPI: Did you get a direct offer?

KS: I knew the producer, Mr. [Shogo] Tomiyama, very well. He approached me and said, “Mr. Sasaki, we’re going to make this movie. Would you like to be in it?” But, yes, there’s a good possibility that he had discussed this with Mr. Omori before offering me the role.

VPI: Was Mr. Tomiyama also the producer for Totto Channel?

KS: I’m sorry, I don’t remember.

VPI: There were many differences between the old Godzilla in the ‘70s and the Heisei Godzilla. What do you think was the biggest difference between the two?

KS: I was still in my 20s for Terror of Mechagodzilla, so I was happy when they called me back when I was older because that meant I was being recognized for my acting. When I was younger, I had an exclusive contract with Toho, so they had to cast me somewhere.

VPI: That meant that for the new Godzilla, they requested you?

KS: Yes. I was happy to do another Godzilla movie. I don’t think many people have been in four Godzilla movies.

VPI: In Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, you worked with American actors. Can you share any memories from that time?

KS: I remember it well. There was an actor who was there for a long time. Not Chuck Wilson, but the other Android character.

VPI: [Robert] Scott Field.

KS: Yes, Mr. Scott Field. We were close. He fell in love with an actress who was in the movie and pursued her quite seriously, but it didn’t work out for him.

VPI: You mention her name in the commentary.

KS: I did, didn’t I? That wasn’t a good idea. About two years after the shoot, I was in Hawaii for vacation and bumped into him at the Hilton Hotel. Back then, everyone affectionately called him “Scott.” I heard this big voice saying, “What are you doing here?” It turned out to be Scott.

VPI: You must have been very close.

KS: We were. [looking at a recent photo of Anna Nakagawa] Oh, she’s still so beautiful. That’s really wonderful. She’s a quarter German.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: More recently, you played the director general of the Ministry of Defense in Aegis (2005). Yoshio Harada has unfortunately passed away. Do you have any memories about him?

KS: I worked with Mr. Harada many times in other dramas as well. Contrary to his appearance, he was extremely kind. He was very perceptive and took care of us very well. He himself went through a lot of difficulty, so he was very thoughtful of other actors. He was never condescending.

VPI: In Isoroku (2011), which came out last year…

KS: I was only in one scene.

VPI: I remember you saying that Koji Yakusho spoke very strictly. How was it to work with him?  

KS: He’s very hard-working. I’ve also worked with him on other movies. During this shoot, I remember it being very friendly between us. Also, director [Izuru] Narushima tends to take very long cuts, and Mr. Yakusho — maybe he hadn’t memorized all his lines — had several retakes. He would say, “I’m so sorry. One more time!” He played the lead role, so he had so much to do. I only had one scene, so I had memorized my lines, but it must have been very tough for him.

VPI: It must have been quite difficult to playing this role. But you did a great job portraying the distress of an admiral who had to give in to public opinion.

KS: Yes, the character I played was quite scholarly and had to give directions against his will under pressure from the [Axis powers].

VPI: There hadn’t been very many war movies recently; it was the first one in a long time. I’m sure it was different from the war movies in the ‘70s. There probably aren’t many actors who have been in war movies in the ‘70s like you. Even actors like Mr. Yakusho, or Akira Emoto, for that matter, don’t have experience being in the older war movies. Because of your experience, I imagine that the others came to you for advice.

KS: No, not at all. The director shot the movie the way he wanted to shoot it, and I prepared for my role on my own. I never gave any advice to anyone. Every actor takes responsibility for his own role and prepares for it himself.

VPI: In recent years, you’ve been doing a lot of voice acting for both TV and film. In the commentary, you talk about doing voice-acting for The Lord of the Rings. What I’m personally interested in is your experience as the voice actor for Liam Neeson who played Henri Ducard in Batman Begins, which was a critical role because he turns out to be Ra’s Al Ghul, the big boss. I think you and Liam Neeson have the same feel and exude a very calm energy. I was especially curious to find out if it was your voice in The Dark Knight Rises, the final movie of the series. It’s difficult to find out who the voice actors are, but it turns out that it was indeed you. Can you share any memories from this experience?  

KS: I’ve done a lot of voice-acting. Because I had done Liam Neeson’s voice many times, they specifically asked for me. The first theatrical movie was very well-received, so I was happy that I did it. I enjoy voice-acting. I also did the voice acting for the king in Jack the Giant Slayer, which is in theaters right now.

VPI: You have more and more roles as kings and other serious roles.

KS: Yes, I guess I’m at that age now.

VPI: I heard Liam Neeson turned Star Wars down to be in Batman Begins. I think it turned out to be a very interesting film, and I was impressed that you did the voice-acting for this movie.

KS: When it came out, everyone in Japan was talking about Ken Watanabe because he was in it. But it turned out that he didn’t have a major role, and Liam Neeson played the bad guy.

VPI: He played the most critical role. He probably did it because he found it very worthwhile.

KS: I think so, too.

VPI: Last question: Of all the movies you have been in, which one is your favorite?

KS: Tokusatsu movies? If we’re talking about tokusatsu movies, I would say the Godzilla series.

VPI: Not one movie in particular, but Godzilla?

KS: Yes, Godzilla. With the tokusatsu, it was fun. Godzilla is, what, 50 meters tall? When we were acting, our necks hurt. Back then, CG isn’t what it is today, so we often had to compensate. I have many fun memories.

VPI: Which director had the biggest impact on you?  

KS: Like I mentioned earlier, I would say Tadashi Imai as a movie director. When he said, “Sasaki, you were good the way you were,” that had a lasting impression on me. His words affirmed my decision to be an actor and inspired me to continue.

VPI: Of all the movies you were in, which movie do you like best?

KS: That’s a hard question. All of them had an impact on me. Special Boy Solders of the Navy and The Sound of Waves were fun.

VPI: Both movies are from your earlier days.

KS: Osho (1973) was interesting, too. There are so many anecdotes from that movie.

VPI: We would love to have another opportunity to hear about them.

KS: Yes, sure.


One thought on “INVENTING A BRILLIANT ACTING CAREER! Katsuhiko Sasaki on His Toho Roles and Tokusatsu Legacy!

  1. Thank you for this interview. This was the first Godzilla movie I ever saw as a child. I became a big fan of Japanese monster movies. They would come on television late Friday nights, and I had to get permission from my mother to stay up late to watch them.


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