CARRYING ON GODZILLA’S LEGACY: Producer Shogo Tomiyama on Guiding the Godzilla Series into the New Millennium!

Shogo Tomiyama in March 2021. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Born on February 27, 1952, Shogo Tomiyama rose to prominence in the Japanese movie industry by becoming a producer at Toho Pictures. Internationally, Mr. Tomiyama is well-known for producing the Godzilla series from Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) through Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). Mr. Tomiyama officially joined Toho in 1975. After working in the publicity department for several years, he became a producer at Toho Pictures in 1983. Between 2004 and 2010, Mr. Tomiyama served as president of Toho Pictures. In the second part of this two-part interview, Brett Homenick sat down with Mr. Tomiyama in March 2021 to discuss his producing the Heisei- and Millennium-era Godzilla series. This interview was translated by Akane Saiki and Tetsuya Kato.

Brett Homenick: When you were working at Toho as a part-time job in the summer of ‘73 and ‘74, what other productions did you work on at that time?

Shogo Tomiyama: Well, let me see. Apart from Submersion of Japan (1973), I should have done many. Do you know director [Koichi] Kawakita’s TV series at that time. Do you know the title?

BH: Zone Fighter (1973)?

ST: Right.

BH: What did you do on Zone Fighter?

ST: I repaired the miniature sets.

BH: Do you have any stories about working on Zone Fighter that you could share?

ST: I was just a student, so of course I couldn’t read any of the scripts. I was just a part-time worker repairing the miniature sets when I was a student.

I also would wear the monster suits during repairs because when the staff needed to repair the suits, they needed somebody to be inside them.

BH: What was that like? Was that very hot?

ST: It was hot, and the glue smelled really bad. I could barely breathe, so it was very hard. Thanks to this experience, I understand very well how hard it was for the Godzilla suit actors like Mr. [Kenpachiro] Satsuma and Mr. [Tsutomu] Kitagawa.

BH: How long did you have to stay in the suits at that time?

ST: More than one hour.

BH: No breaks?

ST: Of course I was inside the suit, but they didn’t zip it up. Also, they repaired these parts [Mr. Tomiyama gestures toward his underarms], so some air could come inside the suits — a little. (laughs)

Shogo Tomiyama at Toho Studios in 2010. Photo © Shogo Tomiyama.

BH: What other TV shows or movies did you work on at Toho in 1973 and 1974?

ST: I was helping the special effects art department as an assistant.

BH: Could you share any memories of working on Submersion of Japan?

ST: I was as an assistant at the special effects art department where I helped to create miniature sets. The biggest we made was that of the Japanese archipelago, which was almost as big as a school gymnasium — meaning, several tens of meters in size — which was actually submerged to create the sinking scene.

The movie and  TV crew [for the 1974-75 Submersion of Japan TV series] used the same set for bigger sets, such as that used in the submersion scene for the Japanese archipelago. I was responsible for not any detail work but just cutting paper following the map contour lines. Given that this was a lucky chance, I chose to do this for Mt. Fuji. Onto the mountain-like structure I created, other staff members applied plaster and color, and then created cracks in it. When I saw this with my own eyes, sinking in the completed film, I said to myself, “Indeed, this was the creation of my own hands,” which was a satisfying moment.

I was just a part-time student. But, my uncle Mr. [Tokimaro] Karasawa was a cameraman for the TV side [the Submersion of Japan TV series]. But, as for myself, again, I really did not do anything. I worked on the Submersion of Japan movie, and the TV series was made after this movie. During my summer vacation, I was working on the Submersion of Japan movie.

BH: When you made Mount Fuji in the movie, how did you make it? What did you do to make the foundation?

ST: The miniature set of the Japanese archipelago, as I said earlier, filled a gymnasium, and was about 30 meters long. I was cutting sheets of cardboard along the contour lines on a map copied to the cardboard. The cut sheets were then stacked on top of one another to reproduce the geometry [or landscape] expressed by the contour lines.

BH: Next, let’s talk about moving to the publicity department at Toho. What kind of things did you generally do at the publicity department?

ST: There were two principal tasks if you worked in the publicity department. The first task is publicity, of course, so you release information to the media in order to do promotion. The second is being a publicity producer. First, I did three years just releasing publicity to the media.

When I was in charge of production publicity, I was at the shooting site, from which I would send out press releases or production news. In other words, you always “release” from where the action is taking place. This was for three years. Then I was a publicity producer.

My work also included all of the work related to publicity. So, in effect, I was also a general producer for the project.

BH: Do you remember House (1977) at the time? What can you tell us about that?

ST: Regarding House, of course I was on the set. I would discuss publicity-related strategies a lot with director [Nobuhiko] Obayashi. He was a good director, but he was also like a producer. In fact, he was effectively a producer for this film — a good one, too. Usually, publicity staff would talk to the director about the information or news that they were going to release. It was very easy and smooth for me to work with director Obayashi.

BH: Was it difficult to publicize House? Because House is a very unusual movie, did you find it difficult to find an appropriate way to promote it?

ST: It was difficult, but for me it was not a disadvantage. Actually, it was a good opportunity for me to think of something innovative.

BH: You also worked on Kagemusha (1980) in the publicity, and you said that you brought people to the set of the [Akira] Kurosawa movie. Do you have any memories of Mr. Kurosawa or being on the set of Kagemusha?

ST: Director Kurosawa was a really tall person, and he spoke very loudly. Back then, he was approximately 70 years old. He was the one who understood the subject most, and everyone was struggling very hard to satisfy his requests, but obtaining his satisfaction was an extremely difficult task. Because the publicity part was the next process, we needed to wait a very long time to get to it. Seeing this, producer [Tomoyuki] Tanaka discussed with the director about the timing and content of the publicity work, which was a helpful contrivance on his part. This was the first time I ever worked with Mr. Tanaka. When director Kurosawa was younger, I guess it was really tough for the staff to meet his demands because he was quite picky. At that time, as well, it was really difficult for the crew to satisfy director Kurosawa.

After all the work of the crew was finished, the publicity staff could then talk to Akira Kurosawa. Producer Tanaka did his best efforts to facilitate my publicity work. This [Kagemusha] was my first work with producer Tanaka. [after checking online] At the time, director Kurosawa was 68 years old.

BH: Let’s speak generally about producer Tanaka. How would you describe his personality in general?

ST: He was a very quiet person, so he didn’t speak a lot. He was always thinking about movies. He was also a person who didn’t give up easily.

BH: At this time, you started to move up at Toho and started to work closely with Mr. Tanaka. After Godzilla (1984), [Godzilla vs.] Biollante (1989) started. Do you remember Mr. Tanaka’s reaction to Godzilla ‘84? Was he satisfied with the movie, or did he not like it?

ST: When they were thinking of the theme for the new Godzilla movie, they decided on the revival of Godzilla. But the revival of what kind of Godzilla? They decided that Godzilla should be scary. They considered the movie very successful in terms of a scary Godzilla, but, after that, they also wanted to add an entertainment element. So it was successful as a scary movie, but they thought the movie lacked an entertainment element. So they decided to add an entertainment element to the next movie.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Did you have any involvement with Godzilla ‘84?

ST: No, I didn’t. What I just said was not what Mr. Tanaka directly told me. But I received a lot of Mr. Tanaka’s orders and comments back then. So that’s what I imagine, but I think it’s accurate.

BH: Generally speaking, during any time that you were working with producer Tanaka, what were some of the things you learned from Mr. Tanaka about producing?

ST: As I said earlier, always be thinking about movies and also do not give up easily. He used to tell me to think about movies no matter what you’re doing. Even when you’re eating, in the bathroom, or sleeping, you have to think about movies.

BH: Please discuss your contributions to Biollante.

ST: I was an assistant to producer Tanaka, so Mr. Tanaka asked me to write with director [Kazuki] Omori. Of course, Mr. Omori wrote the script, but I discussed it a lot with them. So we wrote the script. That’s the most important contribution that I made.

BH: Do you remember what comments specifically you told Mr. Omori in terms of writing the script?

ST: Before Biollante, I had already worked with Mr. Omori on two movies. So our communication was quite smooth. At first, Mr. Omori wrote a treatment, and then I added some ideas. After that, the first version of the script was created. Then I discussed with Mr. Omori giving him some particular ideas about the specifics of scenes, characters, and lines of dialogues.

BH: How involved were you with the casting? For example, Katsuhiko Sasaki has said that you were the one who brought him back for the Godzilla series. So how involved were you with the casting? Could you talk about casting more?

ST: Of course, the casting producer was in charge of casting. I had a colleague named Tadao Tanaka. Both of us worked for Toho, and we were not only familar with each other but also various things within Toho. Over the years, the Godzilla series developed as a Toho production, so naturally we wanted to use those actors or actresses who were associated with Toho, Godzilla, or other tokusatsu films. I don’t remember very well, but I’m almost sure that it was Tadao Tanaka’s recommendation to use Katsuhiko Sasaki as an actor.

We have so many families of tokusatsu movies. So there are a lot of actors and actresses who love Toho tokusatsu or Toho’s Godzilla series, so we try to bring them back to the Godzilla series.

BH: Day to day, during shooting, typically speaking, what would be your role in terms of being a producer?  

ST: There is the drama crew and the tokusatsu crew. The drama shooting has its own director and crew, and the tokusatsu side has its own director and staff.  So I usually went to both the drama and tokusatsu shooting and communicated with both teams. If needed, I helped them communicate with each other. During pre-production, I already knew which scenes would be very important or which scenes would potentially need attention for the production. So, for the shooting of those scenes, I tried my best to be on set to watch the shooting.

BH: Generally, what was your relationship with Mr. Kawakita typically throughout the series like?

ST: Mr. Omori and I viewed him a bit like how Mr. [Eiji] Tsuburaya from the old days was viewed by director [Ishiro] Honda and Tomoyuki Tanaka because Mr. Tsuburaya was a 10-year senior tokusatsu director to them. Likewise, Mr. Kawakita was a ten-year senior to Mr. Omori and me. Such senior tokusatsu directors existed only in Godzilla, so we felt that such a circumstance had come along once again. Because both Mr. Honda and Tomoyuki Tanaka were once both working with Mr. Tsuburaya as a person to be respected, Mr. Omori and I, likewise, worked with the same respect for Mr. Kawakita.

Shogo Tomiyama in 2009. Photo © Shogo Tomiyama.

BH: Also, for Biollante, I’ve heard that Daisaku Kimura was maybe asked to be a cinematographer for Biollante. Was that true? Was Mr. Kimura asked to be a cinematographer for Biollante?

ST: Actually, I heard about that afterward. What I know is that Mr. Kimura demanded that the drama and tokusatsu shooting not be separated. But it was not realistic back then, so they didn’t use him.

BH: According to Mr. Omori, he wanted to have Tatsuya Nakadai in Biollante. Do you know anything about that?

ST: I don’t remember very well. Given that it was coming from the director, I am sure that the request, including the scheduling matter, was made most likely by Tadao Tanaka, who was mentioned earlier. But  probably something did not work out well with the scheduling or something.

It was my idea to use Koji Takahashi because I found him as powerful as Tatsuya Nakadai. At first, Tadao Tanaka said, “That would be near impossible,” but he did his best to convince Mr. Takahashi, and we made it happen.

BH: How did you discover Mr. Takahashi? What did you see him in that made you think he was the right person?

ST: Mr. Takahashi was multi-talented, and whose speciality encompassed historical themes, TV, and other things like theatrical plays — outstanding, indeed. His acting was very deep. His physical build wasn’t very Japanese; being a big, tall man, he far surpassed other Japanese actors in his height. So that’s why I found him right for Biollante.

BH: After Biollante was finished, what was Mr. Tanaka’s reaction to the movie? Was he satisfied? What did he think?

ST: He was very satisfied. Mr. Omori later told me that, at the preview for only the movie staff, he went up to him after the movie and sincerely said, “Thank you very much. I’m very satisfied.”

BH: What was your reaction to Biollante?

ST: On this movie, I was kind of a partner with the director. From the scriptwriting stage, I was working with the director. So I knew that it would be great, and I was very confident.

BH: And you were satisfied with the final movie.

ST: I was satisfied with the movie. All the actresses in the movie were depicted very well. Mr. Kawakita reserved showing the last scene to us first where Biollante ascended to heaven in the form of small fragments, into which the image of Yasuko Sawaguchi was superimposed. I was stunned at seeing, for the first time, something I’d never seen before, and uncertainty about it started to grow in me. But, as time went by, and as I watched it again, I said, “Wonderful,” realizing how great a man he really was.

BH: Obviously, everyone is satisfied with Biollante. So was there a decision that Mr. Omori [would continue to be used]? Were you still open-minded for other directors or writers? What were the plans for director Omori after Biollante?

ST: We wanted Mr. Omori to continue to make movies because producer Tanaka acknowledged the great success of the idea to renew Godzilla. It was decided that tokusatsu director Kawakita and director Omori would both make the next Godzilla. But the music part was an exception, as we decided to bring Mr. [Akira] Ifukube back as the music composer. It was a decision made by Mr. Tanaka, Mr. Omori, and me.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: So Mr. Ifukube was not approached for Biollante.

ST: The music producer Mr. [Masao] Iwase went to Mr. Ifukube’s place to ask him to compose the music for Biollante, but Mr. Ifukube turned it down. Actually, the offer by the music producer was also turned down for Godzilla ‘84, meaning it was turned down for the second time for Biollante in 1989. Yet, in 1991, the producer went to his place again. There is a Chinese proverb that says, ”If you are approached three times, you cannot decline the third time.” Maybe Mr. Ifukube knew this proverb, so he said, “You’ve already asked me three times, so this time I’ll accept.” In 1991, the third time Mr. Ifukube was approached, I went to see him with Mr. Iwase, and we succeeded. So I was the lucky one.

BH: At this third meeting in 1991, how was Mr. Ifukube’s reaction to it? What was he like at that time?

ST: Mr. Ifukube wasn’t worried at all. He was confident because he was so familiar with the Godzilla series. He gave us just one condition. When the orchestra played the music, he asked that they play the movie at the same time so that all musicians could play while watching the movie. That was his only condition.

BH: Throughout the years — obviously, Mr. Ifukube returned for [Godzilla] vs. Mothra (1992), Mechagodzilla (1993), Destoroyah (1995) — do you have any other memories of working with Mr. Ifukube or anything else you could share about him?

ST: At the Toho dubbing studio, with all the musicians, he himself orchestrated the music as the conductor. I was there myself and was touched by the fact that this was the way music in the Godzilla films were recorded in the old days.

Actually, for 20 years, this recording method hadn’t been used. It goes back to the 1950s or ‘60s. They used to use this recording method, but it had stopped being used. When I saw this recording style for the first time, I became overwhelmed. I was really touched. Then I realized, “This is the original way of making movie music.”

BH: Was there ever any consideration at any time during this period to bring back Ishiro Honda as a director? Was that ever seriously considered or not?

ST: I never worked with Ishiro Honda on the Godzilla series. But, during the making of Kagemusha, Mr. Honda was a co-director with director Kurosawa, so he was a partner of Mr. Kurosawa. I was admiring Mr. Honda as someone to be respected.

No, [Mr. Honda was not considered] because, for the Godzilla series, the producer takes the initiative, and the producer always wants to make progress by having new new people. So it wasn’t considered.

BH: For “Mothra vs. Bagan,” Bagan has a very interesting fan following, and there’s a lot of people who are interested in Bagan as a monster. Was Bagan ever seriously considered as an opponent for Mothra or Godzilla after that?

ST: Producer Tanaka actually came up with the idea of Bagan because he wanted to create a new character. So his idea was that Bagan would first fight Mothra, and if it worked, then his idea was to make Bagan fight Godzilla.

BH: During the planning [of the other Heisei Godzilla movies], was there ever any consideration [of using Bagan]?

ST: After our experience with Biollante, we learned that developing a design for a new character is not easy. It requires a lot of time and effort. We couldn’t really picture Bagan as a new kaiju, and we didn’t think it would be worth developing the design and everything due to the amount of time and effort needed. So we decided to stick to the monsters that were already known and loved by the public.

Also, because a Godzilla movie was released every year, producer Tanaka didn’t find it necessary to develop a new kaiju or new character.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Let’s talk about the genesis of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) — a very interesting time travel story. Could you talk about the genesis of this story and why time travel was decided for this Godzilla movie?

ST: Using King Ghidorah had already been decided back then. King Ghidorah was an outer space monster from Venus. But a “space monster” sounds very childish. So we tried to make a new idea that wouldn’t seem so childish. That’s why we came up with the idea for time travel for King Ghidorah’s birth.

BH: It’s been said that Back to the Future Part II (1989) was an inspiration for the time travel because that was a big hit at the time.

ST: Of course, I saw the movie, but it had nothing to do with its success. Even back then, Mr. Omori and I knew a lot about science fiction, so we felt that the concept of time travel was bit too complicated. At the beginning, we thought it might be too difficult to use the concept time travel, but it had nothing to do with the movie.

BH: Around this time, when producer Tanaka was still there, what were some of the rules for the Godzilla series? Maybe [Mr.] Tanaka was conservative in his approach, and he maybe didn’t want too many changes. Generally speaking, could you talk about the rules for Godzilla?

ST: When we made a new movie, we always checked things against such rules. For example, Mr. Omori came up with the idea that Miki Saegusa would use her psychic power to levitate Godzilla, but Mr. Tanaka rejected this idea.

BH: Do you have another example?

ST: Not much, most was approved. Maybe that was because Mr. Kawakita understood really well about what not to have Godzilla do. He also wanted to adhere to what Mr. Tsuburaya, his sensei, had been doing. So nobody was going to do anything outlandish.

BH: Let’s talk about the trailers, the coming attractions. You said that there were maybe certain shots for the trailers that you would choose. Could you give examples of your contributions to the trailers or the previews of the Godzilla movies?

ST: The producer knows the shooting schedule very well. The trailer gets released before the movie, and the producer is the one who knows which scene would go well for the trailer. It had to be made well ahead of the main film. So I used to discuss with the publicity producer and director of the trailer and then decide the whole process.  

BH: Can you give me an example of a shot, specifically?

ST: It’s hard to say without watching any trailers. Beforehand, you could tell what scenes would be appropriate for the trailer.

BH: For Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, what was your reaction and producer Tanaka’s reaction after seeing the movie?

ST: Because I like science fiction, I was really satisfied with the movie. There were a lot of science fiction elements in it. Regarding producer Tanaka, he was also no doubt satisfied because he said, “The presence of Mr. Ifukube’s music made this truly qualify as a new Godzilla film. With Godzilla, there is nothing better than Mr. Ifukube’s music, while for the drama, scripts, and tokusatsu, Mr. Omori and Mr. Kawakita are very good, too. So we got the best people in all these roles.”

BH: Then that’s a good question about why, for the next movie, Mr. [Takao] Okawara was chosen. Why was the decision made to bring in Mr. Okawara?

ST: It was actually a dream of Toho Pictures to use a director who belonged to Toho Pictures. There was a screenwriting contest called the Kido Awards, and Mr. Omori started his career from the Kido Awards contest [in 1977]. Mr. Okawara also won this contest [in 1987]. Actually, this competition was judged by Tomoyuki Tanaka. Mr. Tanaka was very satisfied to have renewed the Godzilla series, and his next goal was to use a director who belonged to Toho Pictures. So it was our goal.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: How would you describe the difference between director Omori and director Okawara, as much as you can? What would you say are the differences between their styles?

ST: Mr. Okawara was also an assistant director under Akira Kurosawa during Kagemusha, so his method was very orthodox. On the other hand, Mr. Omori’s way of shooting was unorthodox. In baseball terms, he throws screwballs. That’s the difference.

Do you know the movie genre “screwball”? Mr. Omori likes that. Mr. Okawara was very straight.

BH: About Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, Momoko Kochi was cast. Could you talk about casting Momoko Kochi and that process?

ST: Destoroyah was the back door of the Godzilla series, meaning it would end for the time being, as I previously said. That’s why I thought of using Momoko Kochi to end the series as she starred in the first Godzilla (1954).

BH: Is there anything to say about working with Ms. Kochi? She apparently didn’t like being associated with Godzilla. Was it difficult to get her back? What was her reaction to being cast?

ST: It’s a good question because we thought perhaps Ms. Kochi would accept after such a long time. Maybe in the beginning she disliked people pointing at her and saying, “Oh, Godzilla, Godzilla!” But, given that a lot of time had passed, she might have changed her mind. I wanted to say to her, “Welcome back to Godzilla.” Actually, I was right. Her reaction was very good. She told me that in the beginning she was young, she found it very sad, but it was all right for her, and she was happy to come back to Godzilla.

BH: Of course, in 1996, you got the MTV Movie Award. How did you get notified about the MTV Movie Award? Could you talk about that a little bit?

ST: I was received from Toho’s international department. Of course, I was happy to be praised in foreign countries. When I received the trophy, it was shaped like a popcorn container. I found it very funny.

BH: Was the idea to shoot the video something MTV asked, or was that something Toho came up with?

ST: Maybe it was not our work, but MTV put together the clips of Godzilla on their own.

[about the video Mr. Tomiyama recorded] It was done in a manga style. If I watched it now, it would be very funny. Toho would never allow that, so it was MTV’s idea.

BH: In 2002, Kadokawa bought Daiei, and Kadokawa put out a press release. They announced that they wanted to do “Godzilla vs. Gamera.” What was your reaction to that? Would there ever be a chance of “Godzilla vs. Gamera”?

ST: Maybe it was in 2002. Perhaps Godzilla or tokusatsu fans would want to see it, but there would be no benefit for the filmmakers to make this movie.

BH: During your time at Toho, Tim Burton and James Cameron have come to Toho to visit the set. Do you have any stories about Tim Burton or James Cameron coming to Toho and visiting the set?

ST: I remember Tim Burton very well because I guided him around the studio. I remember he was very carefully looking at the set. He is an outstanding director, but he was outstanding as a person, too. Seeing his attention being totally fixed on the set, I connected with him as I found that he was no different from other tokusatsu fans. As for Mr. Cameron, I didn’t guide him, so I don’t remember.

BH: For Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), please talk about the beginning of that idea and your concept for Final Wars in the very beginning.

ST: That was really the end, so I really wanted to make it gorgeous like a festival movie with all the kaiju stars.

BH: Out of all the Godzilla movies that you worked on, which one is your best?

ST: (laughs) I’m not able to answer that because I have special memories with and special feelings for each movie. I also spent time with the crew on each film. So I can’t decide which is the best movie. But I can say that King Ghidorah and [Godzilla vs.] Megaguirus (2000) both involved science fiction elements. So, while these are not the best, they are my favorites, as they were sci-fi movies which I so much love. For me,  the foundation of kaiju movies is a sense of wonder. Those are two outstanding movies with a sense of wonder.

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