THROUGH THE LENS OF TOKUSATSU! Cinematographer Masao Nakabori Goes Behind the Scenes of the Ultra-Series!

Masao Nakabori in September 2019. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Born on February 12, 1943, in Nippori, Arakawa City, Tokyo, Masao Nakabori joined Tsuburaya Productions in the mid-1960s and became a cinematographer on some of Japanese television’s best special effects series. Among his tokusatsu credits are Ultraman (1966-67), Ultra Seven (1967-68), Operation: Mystery! (1968-69), Silver Kamen (1971-72), and Ultraman Taro (1973-74). On the big screen, Mr. Nakabori frequently collaborated with director Akio Jissoji, including the films Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis (1988) and Ultra Q: The Movie (1990). In this September 2019 interview with Brett Homenick and Masaru Hayakawa, Mr. Nakabori discusses his decades-long career in tokusatsu. This interview was translated by Maho Harada.

Brett Homenick: Let’s start at the very beginning. Please talk about your childhood, your hobbies, etc.

Masao Nakabori: My father was a photography buff – photography and pachinko [a Japanese version of pinball]. When I was in the first grade, we moved to Matsumoto, Nagano, because my father had been transferred there. My father loved photography, movies, and pachinko. When I was in the first grade, he started taking me to the movies every Saturday. I didn’t care for the movies. We didn’t go see Toei or samurai movies. Every week, my father would take me to art movies like Akira Kurosawa and Keisuke Kinoshita. I didn’t like going to the movie theater because it was always packed and made me feel sick. But I went because my father would treat me to ramen on the way home.

In addition to movies, my father loved cameras and took me to photo shoots where he shot photos of models. He had two cameras. He used the Rolleiflex for taking pictures of models and told me to hold the 35mm camera because it would get in the way if he had to hold two cameras.

Masaru Hayakawa: So you were his photography assistant.

MN: Yes, that’s when my career as a camera assistant started, in elementary school. It was still black and white back then. When we got back from a photo shoot, he would develop the negatives in the closet, which had been converted into a dark room, and print the photos. I always helped him. I didn’t care for the movies but loved photography. When I was in the eighth grade, my father said, “If you want to do photography at university, there are only three universities in Japan where you can study photography: the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Chiba, the Faculty of Arts at Nihon University, and Tokyo Photography Junior College.”

He told me to get pamphlets from these universities. The pamphlets would show me what I needed to study in high school. So, when I was in junior high school, I had the pamphlets sent to my home. The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Chiba required that I study all subjects, which I didn’t want to do. In the Nippon University pamphlet, film studies was listed first, and photography was listed after film studies. Because I wanted to be a photographer, I read the photography section first, then the film studies section. The film studies section said that students would study both film and photography so they would be “more marketable.”

BH: What’s the name of the university?

MN: Nihon University Faculty of Arts. It still exists. That’s where I studied film. Among my many seniors there, a few told me to come help out on the tokusatsu set for Alone Across the Pacific (1963) during summer break of my second year.

MH: The seniors you mention are Minoru Nakano and Kazuo Sagawa, who had already graduated?

MN: Yes.

MH: They were both working at Tsuburaya Tokusatsu Laboratories, weren’t they?

MN: Yes.

MH: They asked you to join them to make the miniature of the Mermaid yacht for the Nikkatsu film Alone Across the Pacific?

MN: Yes. We shot the typhoon scene at sea, where the Mermaid sails through a huge storm. I worked as a part-time staff for two and a half months. We shot the scene at Katsuura in Chiba. That was my first tokusatsu job. The Mermaid was 1/2 scale.

We brought three sizes – 1/2, 1/3 and 1/4 scale. Two people could board the 1/2 scale by mounting it. Depending on the size of the waves, we would change the size of the yacht. My first impression was, “They go through so much trouble to film a tokusatsu scene. What idiots!”

MH: And they did this shoot at sea, not in the giant pool.

MN: Yeah, they did this at sea. They ended up using the pool at Nikkatsu in the end for some scenes, like the one where Yujiro [Ishihara] drowns after he dives into the sea.

MH: They couldn’t use the Toho pool?

MN: This was a Nikkatsu film.

MH: They couldn’t use it even if Mr. Tsuburaya asked?

MN: No, they couldn’t. But Nikkatsu had a pool that was big enough.

That was my first tokusatsu job. After I graduated from university, Tsuburaya Productions asked me to join them. I graduated the same year that Ultraman (1966-67) started. That’s when I joined Tsuburaya Productions.

BH: Let’s talk about Ultraman. Please talk about the process of working on Ultraman and the beginning of when you started, what episode, what you remember about it.

MN: They were still filming Ultra Q [when I joined Tsuburaya Productions]. I was there just at the end. I didn’t work on Ultra Q; they had just finished filming it. I started with Ultraman. My first job was the [second episode featuring Alien] Baltan with director [Toshihiro] Iijima. 

Director Toshihiro Iijima did three episodes: episode 2 “Defeat the Invaders!,” episode 3 “Sally Forth, Science Patrol!,” and episode 5 ”Treasure of the Miloganda.” At the time, the same team shot both the drama and tokusatsu. In the beginning, the shoot took about two months.

From the beginning, I thought, “Oh, my God! Tokusatsu takes so long.” As an assistant cameraman freshly out of school, I was busy running a lot of errands. After that, it was Ultraman, then Ultra Seven (1967-68), then Operation: Mystery! (1968-69). So, in four years, I worked on these three.

BH: What did you do as the assistant cameraman on Ultraman?

MN: No one taught me. The tokusatsu team had four, which were either 35mm or 16mm. We had four cameras between the six of us – the cameramen and our leader. I had used cameras at school, so they pretty much let me do as I pleased. The tokusatsu team at Toho were better off because they had a bigger budget. Tsuburaya Productions didn’t have any money, so we had to do everything by hand. No one taught me what to do. I had to work things out on my own. It was really good experience because I had to get creative.

Each time the kaiju fought, the set would get destroyed. After a battle, the miniature set got broken into pieces, so the set had to be rebuilt after each take. We had to figure everything out on our own, including the lenses and everything. We mostly used wide-angle lenses, but we also had to know if we would need a telephoto lens. I learned what it looked like if I shot with a wide-angle lens. And then I had to place a second camera where it wouldn’t get in the way of the first camera. No one taught me what to do. I had to figure out on my own how to shoot tokusatsu.

BH: When you looked at some of the tokusatsu scenes being produced, do you have any memories of interesting situations on set? There’s certainly monster fighting and lots of explosions. Could you talk about any interesting situations or stories from the set?

MN: Everyone had to think for themselves after reading through the script. This was especially true for [director Akio] Jissoji’s team, which was very interesting to work for. We had to go above and beyond what the director expected and figure out how we were going to shoot. We couldn’t do anything ordinary because the director wasn’t ordinary. Mr. Jissoji would demand unusual things, so we had to be very creative.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

MH: What was the most interesting thing when you joined the crew on set?

MN: I’ve talked about this before, but the kaiju are actually suits, right? You know the scene where kaiju Gamakujira eats pearls? Well, it was actually very difficult for a kaiju to eat such tiny pearls. We discussed how we could get him to eat the pearls and decided to string them together. Director Koichi Takano was the tokusatsu director at the time, and he was directing this tokusatsu scene. Usually, the drama director doesn’t come to the tokusatsu stage. But director Jissoji was very worried about Gamakujira’s acting and came to the shoot.

We’re just about to shoot this scene with Gamakujira, and Mr. Takano says, “Ready, action!” But Mr. Jissoji says, “Wait.” He goes up to the actor in the kaiju suit and says, “Wait. You’re not acting the right way.” But the actor is doing his best to eat the pearls. Mr. Jissoji asks him, “Do you understand how women feel when they want pearls?” But he’s just this big old guy in a kaiju suit. Of course he doesn’t understand. But Mr. Jissoji says to him, “You should eat these pearls the way you would imagine a woman lusting after pearls.” I didn’t realize that directors said these kinds of things.

MH: Were there any other Ultraman directors who directed the drama part and came to the tokusatsu shoot?

MN: The first [director who came to the tokusatsu shoots] was Toshihiro Iijima. Mr. Iijima, Mr. Jissoji, and Mr. [Kazuho] Mitsuta came to the shoots. Because he worked as a tokusatsu assistant cameraman, Toshitsugu Suzuki sometimes came to the shoots, too. The Toho drama directors left it up to us to shoot the tokusatsu scenes.

MH: I guess Mr. [Samaji] Nonagase would be the same?

MN: Mr. Nonagase would never set foot on a tokusatsu set.

MH: I guess Toho directors who directed the drama side were like that.

MN: They were too proud.

MH: Right, they were too proud. So Mr. Jissoji was quite unique.

MN: You can tell a kaiju to act like a woman lusting after pearls, but he just won’t get it. He won’t understand how a woman feels. I was so surprised at what Mr. Jissoji said. He really poured his heart into everything, including scenes where Ultraman would fight a kaiju. Take Neronga, for example, a kaiju that eats electricity. No one would stop to think about the symbolism behind him eating electricity. They would just go about their business and shoot the scene. But watching Mr. Jissoji made me think hard about these things. It was a great learning experience. I’d just graduated from school, but I learned through Mr. Jissoji that tokusatsu scenes have to be thought through, just like the drama scenes.

BH: How would you describe the differences between directors Iijima and Jissoji? 

MN: I don’t think Mr. Iijima realized he would be involved in tokusatsu, but when it was decided that he would participate in the tokusatsu shoots, he had to think about how Ultraman would move, the movements of the kaiju, and things like that, because it was the first time he was going to be involved in this kind of thing. He had to direct both the drama and tokusatsu shoots, but he was able to deal with the situation because he was a flexible person. That’s how the Ultraman shoots started.

The show started airing in July 1966. Mr. Iijima started working for Radio Tokyo [a.k.a. KRT, which became Tokyo Broadcasting System, Inc., in 1960] in 1951, just after it had been established as a company. Mr. Jissoji started working for TBS in 1959. Although they came from different backgrounds, both of them aspired to be people of expression [artists]. I think the eight years in which the company transitioned from radio to TV affected these two directors differently. Although Mr. Jissoji was stubborn, I think he started to listen to people a bit more during Ultraman and Ultra Seven.

Mr. Iijima didn’t have experience with kaiju or Ultraman. He did have experience with fight scenes in samurai films, though, which were somewhat similar. Mr. Iijima was meticulous when it came to shooting drama. Not that Mr. Jissoji wasn’t, but neither of them considered it to be a children’s program, unlike all the other directors. It seems like a children’s program because there are many children in it, but Mr. Iijima put a lot of thought into it, like where the kaiju came from, or what forced the kaiju to come from outer space to planet Earth. He thought hard about these things as he made the drama.   

It was the same, whether he was making dramas or kaiju films. He would put just as much thought into the emotions between humans and kaiju, just like you would for the emotions between men and women. Even if it was the first time he was doing this, Mr. Iijima put just as much thought and care into making the story between kaiju and Ultraman. Mr. Jissoji joined from the 14th episode onward. In one Ultraman series, I think Mr. Iijima did about five episodes, whereas Mr. Jissoji wasn’t there for the first 13, so he had no idea how they were made. But he looked at what had been done and spent a lot of time thinking about his approach.

After he saw the previous episodes, he thought about the kaiju he wanted in the stories and made requests to Mamoru Sasaki, the scriptwriter, saying things like, “I want the kaiju to be like this. I want the kaiju to be like that.” Normally, directors don’t make requests like that. The TBS directors could say whatever they wanted, and everyone would make it happen. They weren’t part of Toho or Tsuburaya Productions. The money came from TBS, so if a TBS director wanted something, Tsuburaya Productions had to make it happen. In that sense, TBS directors could do whatever they wanted, whereas the other directors would have some hesitation.

MH: Yes, because they worked for Tsuburaya.

MN: Yeah. They had restrictions like how many feet of film they could use per movie. But even Mr. Iijima and Mr. Jissoji had to respect those kinds of things. Mr. Iijima tried his best to respect the rules. In the first Ultraman, they were able to do whatever they pleased, so they went way over budget. For me, it was an amazing learning experience to be involved from the beginning.

So I learned the ropes through tokusatsu. Tokusatsu can be interpreted as ingenuity [resourcefulness], which basically means that you have to think about it. We had to come up with ideas and apply them. You need ideas to make art. So we studied these kinds of things a lot. Actually, it was more experience than studying. I could work for any other company and not be afraid. For example, if we needed to build a set, it didn’t matter what needed to be done; I could think of a way to make it happen. This is still true today. I started when I was 22, and I’m now 77, but I have just as much ingenuity as I did back then.  

Have you heard of the kaiju project that Masami Horiuchi is leading? We’ve decided to finally start making Gotochi Kaiju [local kaiju for each prefecture in Japan]. It’s an amazing project. How would we do the tokusatsu for this project?

MH: Is Tsuburaya Productions involved?

MN: No, no, no. We don’t have funding yet, so we’re putting together something we can present to get funding. It’s intense. Mr. [Hiroshi] Sagae, who makes figures, was told that he only has three months to live. He has cancer. So, before he dies, we need to start documenting the process of making the kaiju. Some actor could play Mr. Sagae, but we have to film Mr. Sagae himself and document the passion he’s pouring into this project. Using this footage, we could make a drama or a documentary. I don’t know which would be better.

Before we make all 47 kaiju, we’re talking about make the 48th kaiju, which would be the Japanese archipelago. Wouldn’t that be an incredible story? The Japanese archipelago would have legs and all the necessary body parts. It would come out of the sea, lifting up the archipelago. Hokkaido and Kyushu would be the two heads of the kaiju. It’s an amazing design.

BH: Going back to your work on Ultraman, how often did you go to work? How many days a week and from when until when?

MN: The drama part usually takes three days to shoot. So three days shooting the actors. We were told that we had to finish the tokusatsu shoot in four days, but four days wasn’t enough. It took about one week. At least twice as long. It was a specialized production that cost a lot of money. In addition, because Mr. Tsuburaya would check the work, we couldn’t do anything halfheartedly, so it took at least twice as long as the drama. We should have been able to finish one episode in four days, but no matter how many extra days we worked, we were paid the same salary. If there was a [kaiju] fight on the set, and we had to do a retake, we would have to rebuild the miniature set because it would get destroyed. So it took longer and longer and cost more and more money. Ultraman took the longest to shoot. Seven took less time, but Ultraman took an insanely long time to shoot.

I’ve been trying to document Mr. Jissoji’s life from the time he was born and started writing it down. Ultraman was two years after the Tokyo Olympics, right? So Ultraman started in 1966. But, within one, two, three years, we started with Ultraman and got all the way to Operation: Mystery!

Photo © Brett Homenick.

MH: In such a short time…

MN: Yes, we were able to shoot all that.

MH: Considering how long ago this was, that’s amazing.

MN: It really is. If I think about it now, we were incredibly productive back then. I couldn’t say this now, but the Jissoji team worked very quickly, as if their life depended on it. If we’d had more money, we would have been able to do it properly, but…

MH: I heard that, for the shoots, art students helped with the tokusatsu [set] decorations.

MN: But they didn’t know anything about lenses; they just came to work part-time. So we had to take the lead. The art people made whatever they had to make – houses, forests, and that kind of thing. But they didn’t think about the other parts. They couldn’t. Of course, if they stayed long enough, they would have gradually learned and become incredibly skillful. But the cameramen had to take the lead, more than the director or the tokusatsu director. I really think so. That’s why some cameramen became tokusatsu directors.

MH: Like Mr. [Sadamasa] Arikawa from Toho.

MN: Yeah.

MH: When you worked on Ultraman at Tsuburya Productions, what time would you start in the morning?

MN: We were supposed to start at 9:00 a.m., which means that we had to be there by about 7:30 a.m. At Toho, if they said we would start at 9:00 a.m., that meant that the cameras had be ready to roll by 9:00 a.m. We had to be ready when the director said, “OK, let’s start,” like the Kurosawa team.

I would arrive at work by 7:30 a.m. and go home by taxi. It wasn’t like that in the beginning. But, from some point onward, I had to take a taxi back to Yokohama every night. My salary was 30,000 yen. After taxes, it was 27,000 yen. The taxi fare to Kikuna cost about 10,000 yen. Repeating this every day made me think, “What the hell?”

MH: If it took four days to shoot one episode, does that mean it took eight days to shoot two episodes? Is that correct?

MN: It wasn’t like that in the beginning. They said they wanted to shoot two episodes in four days, but that wasn’t possible.

MH: Which means you needed two teams to shoot Ultraman.

MN: We were under the gun. They had to have two teams; otherwise they wouldn’t have had anything to air.

MH: But, even if you have two teams, there’s only one Ultraman, and you can’t make multiple sets.

MN: Yes, that’s why there was a lag. We had to have a break, at least a few days. There were two to three days between team A and team B. Otherwise we would have keeled over. That’s why they spent so much money.

BH: Let’s talk about Ultra Seven. Talk about how you got hired to do Ultra Seven. Was it a natural continuation?

MN: No one thought about that [the transition process] at all. We knew that Seven was going to be the next project, but we didn’t have the luxury of considering if we were going to work on it or not. It was like, “Okay, next project.” Nothing changed. I’m sure it was a lot of work for the company, but none of us thought about that. It was like, “Just keep going. Seven is the next project.”

MH: Were you there for the last episode?

MN: The last episode of Seven overlapped with Ultraman, so I worked on one or the other. I think I did both. I did one or the other. They overlapped, more or less. If I went to the studio, I had to work on one or the other. I don’t remember which one I did. When the episode aired, we didn’t have time to see it. I think it aired on Sundays at 7:00 p.m., but we didn’t even have a half-hour break on Sunday evenings. We would barely have enough time to see the rushes. We quickly went to see the rushes when we had a spare moment, but we didn’t see the show when it was aired. We didn’t have time to watch the final product.

MH: Was it seamless from the last episode of Ultraman to the first episode of Ultra Seven? Or did you have a break in between? 

MN: In between, we filmed quite a few shots of the Earth Defense Force base in Ultra Seven so that we would have a library [of stock footage] that we could use in any episode. We converted the hill set used in Ultraman into the Earth Defense Force base and filmed these shots. After we finished these shots, we had a small break and then started preparing for Seven.

MH: That must’ve taken time to prepare. What do you think? Were there a few days in between, or was it right away?

MN: Well, we only had Studio A. It would have taken at least two weeks to build. But we would help complete it. So we only had three or four days off. We had to build everything, including the mountains. We helped with everything.

MH: You didn’t sign a new contract for Ultra Seven or anything?

MN: For us, not at all. I think our salaries went up a bit. But for the final episode, however, episodes 48 and 49, which were Part 1 and Part 2 of “The Greatest Invasion in History,” cameraman Kiyoshi Suzuki refused to take part due to [a dispute over his] contract. So they told me, “You shoot,” and I was the cameraman. By then, I had two and a half years of experience as assistant cameraman on the tokusatsu team for Ultraman and Ultra Seven, so I had no uncertainties whatsoever and was able to complete the shoot. I participated until the final episode of Ultra Seven.

BH: Also around this time, you had a nickname based on a manga character. 

MN: Kuri[-chan], but it was a mistake. There were manga that had characters called Kuri-chan and Fuku-chan. I drew a picture of Fuku-chan, a manga character with a triangular hat, and said, “This is my [new] nickname.” But, when I started school, I had long hair and it got a bit curly. I had curls like this, so they started calling me “Kuri-chan” [after a manga character with curly hair]. A senior student started calling me Kuri-chan, and the name stuck. My wife’s last name is Kurita. She went to an all-girls school, where she was also called Kuri-chan. So both of us are Kuri-chan. That’s why our email address is “Kuri.”

But, recently, Mr. Horiuchi saw the manga character I had drawn next to my autograph and said, “That’s Fuku-chan.” I said, “Kuri-chan isn’t cool at all with his curly hair.” I had drawn Fuku-chan with the triangular hat, so he said, “That’s not the right character.”

BH: Going back to Ultra Seven, did the work change very much? At this point, did you have more work, more responsibilities, or was the work basically the same?

MN: Ultraman became Ultra Seven; that was all. Nothing else changed for the tokusatsu team, for the people on the set. The only change was with the director, Mr. Jissoji. Then Mamoru Sasaki came along. The scripts written by these two were completely different from the other scripts. They started doing in Seven what they weren’t able to do in Ultraman.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

MH: In the beginning, Mr. Iijima is not part of the Ultra Seven team. Do you think he handed the torch to Mr. Jissoji? The set for the episode with Alien Metron cost a lot of money, didn’t it? 

MN: Actually, the set for Alien Metron didn’t cost that much money. We used tricks like backlighting.

MH: What about the factories in the town?

MN: The apartment, the factories, the river – we built the set on top of the pool to make it look like a river. Actually, the artwork for Alien Metron didn’t cost that much money. With the sunset, we didn’t need much else.

Even for the apartment, it didn’t have to be an actual set. We could just use the corner of a dressing room somewhere. In that sense, [the] Alien Metron [episode] really didn’t cost that much money. It looks like it did, but it didn’t.

MH: There was a balance between episodes that cost money and those that didn’t, like Alien Chibull and Mr. Mitsuta’s team. They used miniature tanks and things, but there wasn’t much of a set or tokusatsu involved. So there was a balance.

MN: Mr. Mitsuta understood these things and was very careful in that sense.

MH: Compared to Ultraman, aliens came in spaceships, and there were more gadgets. I had the impression that they went through more trouble and that Ultraman went through an upgrade.

MN: That’s the impression. But we also used a lot of small things, like rockets.

MH: But, in the beginning, the Ultra Hawk would combine, and there were more things that had to be done.

MN: That’s true. There were things that took time.

MH: It seems like these things became a bother, so the Ultra Hawk stopped splitting, or it would already be split. Also, the episode with Alien Bira seemed like it was a lot of trouble to go through.

MN: That’s because the transition to Seven gave way to a more mechanical, hard SF [science fiction] tendency compared to Ultraman. Those who were involved in its creation came up with ideas based on their experience with Ultraman. Tohl Narita, who was on the art team, came up with the idea of Ultra Hawk No. 1, the principal fighter plane of the Ultra Guard [Ultra Garrison], splitting into three separate planes and named them Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. The directors came up with all sorts of ideas that they weren’t able to do in Ultraman. That’s why Mr. Jissoji discussed with scriptwriter Mamoru Sasaki what kind of monsters would appear and what kind of story they were going to create. He [Mr. Sasaki] played the role of relief pitcher whose slight curve balls would change the taste and atmosphere [of Seven].

The first episode directed by director Jissoji’s Seven was Alien Metron in episode 8, “The Targeted Town.” His second episode was the [withdrawn] episode, Alien Spell in episode 12, “From a Planet with Love.” His third episode was episode 43, “Nightmare on Planet Four,” which had no aliens or monsters, only robots that looked exactly like humans. His fourth episode was Alien Perolynga in episode 45, “The Boy Who Cried Flying Saucer.” However, he was disappointed with the tokusatsu team’s lack of sense [taste] and aroused controversy by trying to decrease the tokusatsu parts. Though he was discontent with the production, he steadily created a high-level TV [show], ignoring the fact that this was supposed to be a tokusatsu show for children.

MH: They created a show between Ultraman and Seven called Captain Ultra (1967). In Captain Ultra, the plane split into three parts, and toy stores requested that they do the same in Seven.

MN: That’s right. The worst is having to take orders from toy stores. Back then, none of us knew that. We were just impressed with the ideas they came up with. It was a lot of work, but we were determined to use our ingenuity to do whatever we had to do. It was difficult to pick up the nuances, the subtle nuances with the camera.

Thinking back on it, the directors looked at what they hadn’t been able do in Ultraman and tried to do those things in Ultra Seven. But Mr. Jissoji was the only one took the time to discuss these matters with the scriptwriter. The others just charged forward, but they didn’t have any kaiju that they wanted to create or anything like that. I think Akio Jissoji taught us a lot. At the time, I didn’t think he taught me anything, but now I realize that he taught us to be more proactive in our work.

MH: For Ultraman, Mr. Jissoji was like an interim pitcher, filling in for directors like Mr. Iijima and Mr. Hajime [Tsuburaya]. He threw curve balls to change the flavor and atmosphere of the show. But, in Ultra Seven, they expected him to be the ace pitcher right from the beginning with kaiju like Alien Metron and Alien Spell, didn’t they?

MN: That’s true. They expected him to be the ace pitcher. But that shouldn’t have been the case. Why did he have to be the ace pitcher?

MH: Yet he was expected to be the ace pitcher for those two episodes, wasn’t he?

MN: That’s true. Because he’d been recognized for his work with Ultraman, even if they didn’t like it.

BH: During this time, did you have any encounters or memories of Eiji Tsuburaya himself?

MN: I saw Mr. Eiji [Tsuburaya] when I went to his house when we worked on collaborations with [Mr.] Tsuburaya. When I was a student, I sometimes went to the Tsuburayas’ home with my seniors. I just sat there and didn’t say anything, but I met him then.

MH: Was that for Alone Across the Pacific?

MN: It was before that. Mr. Tsuburaya had received an order from Nikkatsu films to shoot the tokusatsu scenes for Alone Across the Pacific, but he was busy with Toho films, so he decided to supervise. It was the first time he accepted work as Tsuburaya Tokusatsu Productions. His disciple, Keiji Kawakami, was the tokusatsu director. As a part-time summer job, I stayed at the Katsuura Coast in Chiba Prefecture and shot the Mermaid as a yacht that battles its way through the raging Pacific Ocean. We had miniature models of the Mermaid that were 1/2, 1/4 and 1/6 of the actual size. It was a very challenging shoot and took us two months. Through this job, I learned that to do tokusatsu, you needed time, money, and guts. Through my mistakes, I also gained valuable experience.

MH: So you would see Mr. Eiji [Tsuburaya] when you went to his house?

MN: Yeah, for a few of the Ultraman episodes and for Hajime [Tsuburaya’s] Osaka Castle story [Ultraman episode 27,“The Prince of Monsters: Part 2”]. He still showed up back then.

MH: Did you work on the episode with Aboras and Banila?

MN: My memory is hazy around there. In any case, I wasn’t in a position to get to know him well. I would go to work and see the rushes. Sometimes he would yell, “That’s not what I expected!” to the entire staff. But he wasn’t an intimidating person, at least that was my impression.

BH: What was the most difficult thing about working on Ultraman or Ultra Seven?

MN: On Seven, we had less and less time. We didn’t have the time to make each episode very carefully, but we had to make it look like we did. That was hard. It was so sloppy how we shot the water scene in the Jamila episode.

The hose was just wedged [between Ultraman’s hands]. We could only shoot from an angle where the hose wasn’t visible, so we were limited in the angle we could shoot from. You’d think, why would they be so sloppy? We could have hidden the hose inside the suit or something. That would’ve been so much better. I thought, “We’re supposed to be doing tokusatsu. Why are we being so sloppy?” I don’t know why, but they were so pressed for time. The Jamila episode was the worst. Mr. Jissoji was there for that shoot.

MH: Did Mr. Jissoji decide the pose for these scenes?

MN: No, no, no. Mr. Takano did. All they cared about was that you couldn’t see the hose, so they just wedged it between his hands.

They could have thought it through and planned it in advance. But they only thought about how they were going to shoot this scene the morning of the shoot. So all they could do was wedge the hose between Ultraman’s hands.

MH: They couldn’t pass it through his gloves or something?

MN: No, they didn’t do that. They would have had to prepare for that in advance.

BH: On the other side of that, what was the [best] thing about working on Ultraman or Ultra Seven?

MN: Watching the last episode now, I realize that we put a lot of thought into the tokusatsu. We didn’t plan to do all-nighters; we just ended up shooting until dawn. I just did what I could at the time, based on the best solution I could come up with. I don’t think any of it was well done. It was different by the time we did Ultraman Tiga (1996-97). For Ultraman and Ultra Seven, there aren’t any scenes I’m proud of. I had to be resourceful and make sure that there was continuity between the scenes and things like that. That’s a tough question.

MH: In the last episode, the scene where Ultra Seven goes back to The Land of Light at sunset – or was it at dawn? The scene that was shot outside in natural light. Was that scene shot at sunset or in the morning?

MN: In the morning. It’s supposed to be morning. But we couldn’t shoot at dawn. By then, I knew that we could shoot it at sunset and make it look like it was dawn. Compared to sunset, the colors at dawn are more bluish and orange. We shot at sunset and pretended that it was dawn. We had that kind of resourcefulness.

BH: Do you have anything else to share about Ultra Seven? Any other memories?

MN: Seven was the first time I was the [main] cameraman. I did the tokusatsu for the last two episodes of Seven, Part 1 and Part 2. I did my best, of course. That doesn’t mean I have any scenes I can say I’m proud of. But I think I did a good job, especially when I watch the episodes now. Back then, I couldn’t watch them.

MH: Ultra Seven – they ran out of budget at the end and couldn’t even build a set. 

MN: We were filming inside.

MH: For the last episode, they managed to scramble together enough budget to shoot something worthy of the last episode, like the Alien Ghose base.

MN: Yeah, there were a lot of scenes where we only had sky backgrounds. They would do a composite with a sky background and that kind of thing, but we didn’t have a proper set.

The scene where Alien Ghose attacks the Ultra base, that was also shot by tweaking the Science Patrol base set, which had been partially dismantled.

MH: For the scene where the Alien Ghose attacks Ultra Garrison’s base, you mentioned reassembling the Ultra Garrison base set, which had been dismantled.

MN: We first shot a library [of stock footage] using the Earth Defense Force’s Futagoyama base. For the last episodes, episodes 48 and 49, we changed the sky background so that we could use it for the battle scenes between the planes and the flying saucer. So we used the same set longer than we normally would have in order to reduce the budget. But tokusatsu is made by being creative. It’s what we do best.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Let’s continue with Operation: Mystery! Please share your memories about working on this TV program.

MN: Operation: Mystery! wasn’t imaginary, you know? There weren’t any [large-scale kaiju], so we had to be creative in a different way. It’s not a tokusatsu movie, so there was more focus on the human drama. There was more emphasis on human drama. That’s why I think there was a natural flow in my career. There was Ultraman, Ultra Seven, then Operation: Mystery! If you ask me what I would have done differently, I still can’t believe how one thing led to another for me. Operation: Mystery! makes me think that there is such a thing as destiny.

As we look at Mr. Jissoji’s work through the Jissoji Society, I’m finding resources that shed light on a lot of things I didn’t understand, items that back up what I had imagined to be the case, things that confirm my assumptions. Sometimes, there are some difficult moments that make me think, “Really? This is the kind of person he was?” or, “Man, he really looked down on people.” Those are tough realizations.

Some people think this is normal when you’re making art. But, compared to my experience of making art, I’m surprised by how far Mr. Jissoji went as a film director in terms of experimenting. We’ll never know for sure, but take Mr. Iijima, for example. He was a decent person and made all the right decisions. On the other hand, I think his work lacked oomph [impact]. I’m sure he wouldn’t like me to say this about him, but his work never takes you out of your seat. He did everything in a logical manner.

BH: [What about] Silver Kamen (1971-72)?

MN: Yes, Silver Kamen. The same goes for Silver Kamen. Don’t you think the earlier episodes were amazing, before they turned into giants?

When we finished the 1971 movie Mandara, Mr. Jissoji said, “I’m going to do a TV [series] called Silver Kamen. I want you to be the cameraman.” This was my first job as a cameraman. Episodes 1 and 2 were by director Jissoji, episodes 3 and 4 were by director Eizo Yamagiwa, and episodes 7 and 8 were by director Hiromi Higuchi. Director [Shizuo] Sato was the assistant director for director Nagisa Oshima and Mr. Jissoji. For four episodes, from episodes 3 to 6, I worked with these two veteran directors and did my best to accommodate their style. Mr. Sato and I understood each other, as we had worked together on This Transient Life (1970) and Mandara, so I was able to be adventurous.

For episodes 1 and 2, director Jissoji’s expressions were bold. He started episode 1 with a thorough darkness, a peculiar angle and movement, and hurried cuts. As for me, I was pulled forward by the director’s ideas and worked hard as the driving force [supporting the director behind the scenes as an unsung hero]. I was completely enthralled in the work and enjoyed myself every day. One critic wrote, “It was tiring to watch this episode because of the director’s unrelenting seriousness and coolness.” However, the show ratings after episode 2 became pitiful.

BH: Around Operation: Mystery!, I understand that Tsuburaya Productions was going down, and there were many problems. Could you tell that things were going down? Were budgets being cut? What did you see at Tsuburaya Productions when things were going down?

MN: We didn’t have a budget anymore, so we couldn’t continue. But I had learned so much in those four years, so I had the confidence to deal with any situation, especially after working with Mr. Jissoji. There were times when I thought, “Isn’t it too dark?” It’s difficult to work with very low lighting, but normal lighting wouldn’t be a problem. So, when I had to leave Tsuburaya Productions and go work for a different company, I had a lot of experience behind me. I was very lucky again and went to Tokyo Eiga, where I worked with an amazing cameraman named Kozo Okazaki. Working for this new company, I realized how much I had learned, including all the technical stuff. In the cinematography department at Tokyo Eiga, I learned the theory behind what I already knew.

After Ultraman, Ultra Seven, and Operation: Mystery! were finished, there weren’t any more shows to make, so the staff was splitting up. During those four years, I had the privilege of experiencing tokusatsu with Tsuburaya Productions and meeting director Jissoji. Thinking back on it, I feel that I was given the freedom to express [myself] as I pleased. Some of those expressions included things that would not have been accepted in terms of general strategy [technique], but that also became a valuable experience for me. The accumulation of this experience gave me wisdom that would become useful later.

After my time at Tsuburaya Productions, I participated in the shoot for Tokyo Eiga’s TV [series] S.H. Are the Initials of Love, which was broadcast on TBS starting in April 1969, starring Akira Fuse. At this company, there was a famous cameraman named Kozo Okazaki, whose assistants were my seniors – graduates of Nihon University Faculty of Arts’ film department – so I was a member of the shooting team. I worked on TV [shows], and I was the chief cameraman, despite being more junior than the others.

The way they did shooting here was different in terms of technique compared to what I had learned at Tsuburaya Productions. I thought that the thinking [logic] behind Mr. Okazaki’s technique was the right [correct] way. The lighting he used was completely different, and he used a large, heavy arc lights for outdoor shoots. At Tsuburaya Productions, we mainly used Cine King [Lights], which were small battery lights. These differences helped me gain new techniques. From then on, I was able to apply the right technique to the right situation. Mr. Jissoji insisted on using as little lighting as possible, if not none at all.

From this time, I had a strong desire to make movies with this person. This was a feeling that had come from meeting Mr. Jissoji at Tsuburaya Productions.

It would have been different if I’d gone to Toho or something. When you work for a big studio like Toho, they have huge lights and all kinds of equipment. For a location shoot inside a house, for example, they have lights called arcs. I’d never seen an arc at Tsuburaya Productions. We only had battery-operated [Cine King Lights], so we had to be creative when it came to a shoot. At Tokyo Eiga, I came to understand the logic behind everything I knew. We would shoot in a very logical manner. I thought, “This is amazing! This is amazing!” This experience allowed me to understand what I had learned and calculate everything. That was amazing. At Tsuburaya Productions, the director [Mr. Jissoji] had hated doing things in a logical manner. But, at Tokyo Eiga, it was all logic.Subdued lighting should be like this. Don’t skew the angle on the actors. Shoot the actress so she looks beautiful.

For the first time, I learned at Tokyo Eiga that if you want to shoot something, you should shoot it properly. I learned that there’s a proper way to do things. I worked there for about two years, but I decided that I didn’t want to do TV anymore. I said to Mr. Jissoji, “I want to do film. I want to do film.” So he hired me again. You see, there’s a natural flow to everything.

MH: For Silver Kamen, did you work for [Nippon] Gendai Kikaku?

MN: I worked for Nippon Gendai Kikaku, and they sent me. My salary was paid by Nippon Gendai Kikaku. They had an agreement with Tokyo Eiga. A large portion of the money for my salary was paid by Tokyo Eiga. That’s where I worked on Silver Kamen. Silver Kamen was the first show I worked on as the main cameraman.

BH: Let’s talk about Silver Kamen. Please talk about your joining this production, what it was like to join Silver Kamen under a new company.

MN: [Nippon] Gendai Kikaku would assign work to staff who were available. Well, that’s what they’d planned to do, but the first project they got was Silver Kamen, which was huge. Tsuburaya Productions had to fight with Fuji TV. In that sense, they had a decent budget, at least in the beginning. They had more money than they knew what to do with. In the beginning, they were able to build a proper wall outside the studio and everything. I was able to shoot the drama part for a big movie however I wanted, at least for the first season.

I applied absolutely everything that I’d learned until that point, and I did everything as properly as possible. It’d been five or six years since I had left Tsuburaya Productions. I found myself in a situation where all my experiences came together, not that I’d planned it that way. For Silver Kamen, I was commuting from Kanazawa-bunko. But, because I was shooting the drama and getting paid a decent salary, I rented an apartment in Komae, near [Nippon] Gendai Kikaku. I paid rent for the first time. It only took me 10 minutes in the morning to get to work, so it didn’t matter how late we finished at night.  

I was only shooting the drama. There was some tokusatsu that didn’t involve kaiju, like the scenes using fire. But I applied what I’d learned, like how to use mirrors and other creative ideas, to shoot the drama. Even things that the director hadn’t thought about. I’d say, “I think we should shoot this next,” and make suggestions. I used all the knowledge I’d accumulated.  

BH: Did you work with Eizo Yamagiwa? What do you remember about him?

MN: When I worked with Eizo Yamagiwa, I was still shooting in a very classic style and didn’t shoot in my own style. I was still trying to shoot in a proper, classic way. Shizuo Sato was doing things that were Jissoji-like. Eizo Yamagiwa was the tokusatsu director for only two episodes of Ultraman Taro (1973-74). I just did the drama. I’m glad I got to work with Eizo Yamagiwa, though. I was surprised that he did tokusatsu. Ultraman Taro was the first time he worked as a tokusatsu director, right? But he leveraged his experience and did some amazing things.

I didn’t talk to him much, though. If we met on set, we would just be like, “Yes, yes.” I think I was trying to be in line with him as much as possible.

BH: Along the way, Silver Kamen became Silver Kamen Giant. What do you remember about that transition and that change? Was it a good idea or a bad idea?

MN: It cost money for them to return to their normal size, so it made me wonder why they did that. But I get it. They were worried about the ratings, so they had to turn them into giants to make the fight scenes more interesting. But I didn’t think they needed to turn them into giants and do tokusatsu. They could have just fought normally because they were crafty and had Mr. [Kenji] Suzuki, my junior, shooting the tokusatsu. The director was crafty, too.

MH: It’s a lot of work on the set if you have to turn them into giants.

MN: It is. But he quit, even though he was the director. But [Nippon] Gendai Kikaku had to keep going; otherwise they would be in trouble. I never saw a single episode with the giants. It was so much work to shoot on that stage. I remember thinking it would be easier to shoot outside. Did you watch all the episodes?

MH: Yes. They built a set for everything. But Mr. Jissoji left partway through.

MN: He wasn’t involved at all afterwards.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

MH: I’m sure it was tough, working on Silver Kamen.

MN: It was. Kiyoshi [Suzuki], on the other hand, had taken off to work on a modern TV series called Lonely Female (1969). He was also an executive at [Nippon] Gendai Kikaku. He worked for two years and dedicated himself to drama. Mr. Suzuki at that time was amazing. He applied what he’d learned at Tsuburaya Productions.

BH: Next, you went back to Tsuburaya Productions for Ultraman Taro. How did it happen that you went back to Tsuburaya Productions? Please talk about joining this production.

MN: A [tokusatsu] director named Masataka Yamamoto asked me to work with him. The lead role was played by Saburo Shinoda, who also sang the theme song.  

Masataka Yamamoto called me and asked me to work with him. Yama-chan [Mr. Yamamoto’s nickname] wasn’t that thorough, either. Anyway, I stayed over at Yama-chan’s house while we worked on the storyboards and everything else. We did everything thoroughly. We worked out everything we would need and the order in which we needed to do them. All that he needed to do was the directing, and he left it up to me to decide how I wanted to shoot. It was like a mediocre Jissoji team.  

MH: No, no. The camera angles and everything were very elaborate.

MN: They were.

MH: And there was a lot of camera movement.

MN: Yes, we leveraged those kinds of techniques a lot. It was just the two episodes, the first two episodes of Ultraman Taro. People hated me because I was the annoying camera guy. But, from day one, my assistants became really interested and decided that they weren’t going to complain, no matter what I asked them to do. So it was really interesting. All you have to do is get people involved. Not like when cameramen went to Kyoto and got bullied, and then they couldn’t work anymore. Instead, you just take leadership. That way, you get through to people. I was convinced that this way would be better. But the old men in the art department thought I was annoying because I asked them to do so many things that were a bother. But even they started taking interest. It’s part of the process.

In terms of tokusatsu work around this time, this is when I shot the background for the credits of Lone Wolf and Cub (1973-76) and I Want to Go Far Away (1970-present).

I shot the background for the credits for this TV [series]. I did Lone Wolf and Cub in 1973, and Dark Magistrate in 1975. These were shot in a small office at Kodai Group using a lot of creativity and wisdom. I was able to do them because of my experience on the tokusatsu team at Tsuburaya. Director Jissoji and I did the editing so that it would fit the title song. When we brought it to Aoi Studio where the dubbing was being done for the drama, Kinnosuke Nakamura, the main actor, was there, and we watched it together. He said, “This is much more interesting than the drama.” The director and I couldn’t help grinning. For Dark Magistrate, we even went to Nagasaki for the shoot.

In 1970, the newly-established TV Man Union and Yomiuri TV produced a travel show [I Want to Go Far Away] that is still on today. With director Jissoji, I worked on episode 82 “Walking in Yamatoji,” which featured Rie Yokoyama traveling the Asukaji [a historic road in Kyoto]. There were five crew members, and the camera that we used was a 16mm Arriflex ST, which couldn’t record sound simultaneously, but that was what the director wanted. I devised a new way of shooting the actress as she traveled the Asukaji. I made a small hole in the bottom of a tin dustpan and fixed the camera to it with screws. I held the dustpan by the handle and used a wide lens to shoot. Because we had long takes, I had to be careful that our shadows wouldn’t appear. I took advantage of the cloudy weather and followed the actress by circling 360 degrees around her.

Because I used a wide lens and held this contraption as close to the ground as I could and shot at a low angle, the shaking is barely noticeable. The effect of this contraption is very similar to the movement of the Steadicam, which was first used nine years later in the 1980 horror film The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick. I used this contraption numerous times while shooting I Want to Go Far Away. After it was aired, several people called me to find out how I had shot it. Because we were shooting over three to four days with a small team, my experience with tokusatsu inspired this kind of creativity. I worked with director Jissoji on 14 episodes [between 1971 and 1975].

BH: Ultraman Taro was different from other stories because it was a fantasy-style tale. Did you like that style or not so much? How did you feel about that?

MN: I think that’s why Yama-chan asked me to work with him. There were kaiju that came flying from the sky and that sort of thing. This opportunity came at a time when I already had experience interpreting the scripts. I thought, “This is going to be interesting.” So I used my experience and applied it to shoot this fairy tale. I wonder if that’s what Yama-chan thought, as well. He was my senior at Nihon University. So that’s why those two episodes of Taro are different from the other episodes, because the feel is different.

But I didn’t want to continue doing that forever. I’d had enough of TV. I didn’t want to work on TV [shows] anymore. I wanted to do more film. Some of my seniors at Tokyo Eiga were doing amazing things in film, in drama. So I wanted to pursue film even more. Shigeru Mori [a lighting veteran of Kurosawa movies] also worked on a film [that I worked on] and taught me so much. I was so impressed with how professional he was. He really struck a chord with me. During break time, I’d speak with him and was moved by what he said. I feel so fortunate about all this. I never worked on a shoot where I encountered any trouble.

Working in tokusatsu really helped me in my film career. Tokusatsu requires a lot of resourcefulness. The same goes for drama. My tokusatsu experience still helps me to this day. It made me realize that in order to make art, you need ingenuity.

BH: Which is your favorite movie?

MN: Of my work?

BH: Yes.

MN: Most of the movies I did were with director Akio Jissoji. So there was a time when I wanted to see how other directors made movies. I was sure there were other ways to make movies. Other than Mr. Jissoji, the directors who made the movies I saw when I was in elementary school were Akira Kurosawa and Keisuke Kinoshita – classic Japanese movies. The only camera lenses they used were 40mm and 50mm. They only used two lenses. I was used to the 4:3 screen because that’s how I saw movies when I was a child. I watched Ikiru (1952) and movies like that with pure eyes.

I was really impressed by these movies, which were shot only using standard lenses. Of course, I wasn’t thinking about the kind of lens they used when I was watching these movies. When I worked for Tsuburaya Productions, I learned how amazing wide-angle lenses were. When I was a child and went with my father to his photo shoots, I saw him use the standard 50mm lens to shoot women. He would use a lens that didn’t warp the woman’s face, and he took beautiful photos.

When I was in the third and fourth grades, I went with my father to his photo shoots. He brought two cameras – one was a 35mm Leica, and the other was a Bronica double reflex. He would use the double reflex to photograph people. When he photographed models, my father would leave me the 35mm camera and disappear into the group of photographers. When I couldn’t see my father’s face anymore, I would go looking for him. Then I would be scolded [by the other photographers], “Boy, you’re in the way there. Can you move?” So I got bored, and looked through the viewfinder of the 35mm camera that was in my hand. I was surprised because what I saw [through the viewfinder] was wider than what I saw with my eyes, and the group of photographers seemed father away.

That was my first encounter with the wide lens. When the photo shoot was over, my father and I would go home, shut ourselves in the futon closet, then develop and print the photos. This is what led to my love of photography. My father also loved movies, and we would watch movie after movie, especially the culture movies made in Japan from 1949 onward. These included movies made by masters, such as Kurosawa, Ozu, and Kinoshita. We were very fortunate in those days. Back then, my father would promise me that we would go eat soba after the movie, which is why I went with him. So that’s how photography and movies became guide posts to my future. At the time, we lived in the Shinshu region [Nagano Prefecture], in Matsumoto, where my father had been transferred.

So I had a vague understanding of how wide-angle lenses worked. But none of the movies between the time I was in the second grade and the seventh grade used a wide-angle lens. When I went to see a movie, I had an image in my head of what the screen should look like. As a child, I had a preconceived idea about this. I thought it would be best to use orthodox equipment to make movies. A wide-angle lens was never used to shoot people, and most people didn’t want to use one. But, in tokusatsu, we mostly used wide-angle lenses because of the miniature sets. I didn’t think that there was anything off between what we were doing and what I saw as a child. But most of Mr. Jissoji’s films made good use of wide-angle lenses, didn’t they?

His use of wide-angle lenses fit the story line. Even if he slanted the camera, it didn’t seem unnatural. But, if you pulled back a bit, the frame looked unnatural. So I thought, “I want to shoot in a different way. If I’m going to make movies with this person for the rest of my life, I want the opportunity to see how other directors make movies.” So, when the opportunity came up, I took it. Mr. Jissoji called me and said, “You’re trying to do something different, aren’t you?” I said to him, “To tell you the truth, I want to continue working with you for the rest of my life. But, to do that, I need to see how other directors work; otherwise I won’t understand what’s special about what you do. I know there’s a difference, but I want to work with a different director and see what the difference is.”

Mr. Jissoji said, “You don’t need to learn anything more than you already know. You just need to keep working with me.” But I wanted to see for myself, at least once. So I decided not to use a wide-angle lens like Mr. Jissoji did. I only took five lenses with me. The only wide-angle lens I brought was an 18mm, just in case I needed it. I had an 18mm and a 25mm, a 35, a 50, and an 85. Along with these five lenses, I took a zoom lens in case I needed a telephoto. I tried not to use the 18mm and went with a classic frame. But, because we didn’t have much of a budget, we couldn’t build a set. We didn’t have any shoots on a set or in the studio. For the location shoots, we rented a house, so sometimes I had to use a wide-angle, the 18mm, for that frame. I tried to use it only if I had to. I used it in order not to slant the camera and kept it as natural as possible.  

That movie was called Mitsugetsu (1984), which means “honeymoon.” I’ll show you this movie sometime. I don’t have an English version, but you’ll see what I mean. Of the movies I did, I like this one. There’s a TV [movie] called Lanterns on Blue Waters (1983) that I shot with Mr. Jissoji, which stars Chishu Ryu. We used a lot of wide-angle lenses in that movie, but it’s a different caliber from the usual Jissoji movies. So my favorite movies are Mitsugetsu and Lanterns on Blue Waters. Of Mr. Jissoji’s movies, Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis (1988) is a classic, but…

BH: [What about] Ultra Q: The Movie (1990)?

MN: Ultra Q: The Movie is really well made, isn’t it? I think it’s really well made as a movie, including the tokusatsu and everything else. But my favorite movies are Mitsugetsu and Lanterns on Blue Waters. Ultra Q: The Movie is good, too, but there’s a movie called Women in the Mirror (2002) that I shot with a director named Kiju Yoshida [Yoshishige Yoshida] about the atomic bomb.

The same director [Mr. Jissoji] did A Watcher in the Attic (1994), Murder on D Street (1998), and Marquis De Sade’s Prosperities of Vice (1988). These three movies are really well made, but there were a lot of scenes that I didn’t like. For one of those scenes, I thought, “Why are we filming this?” Anyway, I want to show you Mitsugetsu sometime, although I might only have the Japanese version. I don’t think I have the English version.

There’s one movie I do have the English version. It’s called The Harimaya Bridge (2009). I’ll show you sometime. I worked on that with a black American director [Aaron Woolfolk]. I’ll show you that sometime.

Next time, I’ll hand you the movies I worked on one by one so you can watch them. Most of them use more ingenuity than tokusatsu movies. So there’s Mitsugetsu and Lanterns on Blue Waters. Women in the Mirror was a good one, too. Have you seen all of Mr. Jissoji’s movies? Maybe you’ve seen all his tokusatsu movies.

BH: I’ve seen Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis and Ultra Q: The Movie. I don’t like Ultra Q: The Movie that much, but I really like Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis.

MN: They should’ve put out a proper Blu-ray of Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis. It wasn’t done properly. Kinema Junpo has the rights, but they’re terrible. I had a big argument with them the other day. They don’t do things properly; it’s not good. They should have put out a proper Blu-ray, but it wasn’t done properly. It’s a sham, the Blu-ray they put out. They really didn’t do it properly, how terrible. I think it’s bad. They say they’re going to do it properly sometime, but they won’t.

For Lanterns on Blue Waters, I used Nippon TV’s EC-35 [Electric Cinema Photographer 35] camera made by Ikegami Denki. It was such a great camera, but no one knew how to use it. A lot of companies bought them up, but none of them used it to make a movie. Do you know what a Mitchell is? It’s the oldest camera. It was like a Mitchell. Cameras need to be a certain size in order to have presence on the set. When I see someone with a hand-held camera, and they’re standing over a couple being intimate, I think, “That’s not cinema!” I’m not saying that Yasujiro Ozu and the classic way of making movies is the only way, but I think movies should be made properly. Tokusatsu is different, of course.

BH: Did you see the Toho tokusatsu movies like the Godzilla series?

MN: I did. Actually, the only one I actually saw was Godzilla (1954). We were so busy back then. There were so many movies. I went to Mr. Tsuburaya’s shoots to help out, but I didn’t get to see those movies. The one with King Ghidorah, that one was a big production that was shot at Toho Studios.

BH: Toho tokusatsu shoots?

MN: Yes, I went to help out. Many of my seniors worked there, so I went to see them. And also to see Mr. Tsuburaya. So, yes, I saw the shoots. They were huge productions. But they didn’t have that many ingenious ideas, contrary to my expectations.

Godzilla is in a class of its own. I really thought it was amazing, as well as the old movies like The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (1942), of course. I haven’t watched the movies where Mr. Tsuburaya was the tokusatsu director. They’re all well made, but I think they could have been better. At Tsuburaya Productions, they were able to do amazing things in that tiny studio with just a few cameras, so Toho should have been able to do better with so much more money and a huge studio. Of course, movies like Battle of the Japan Sea (1969) are different.

BH: Oh, the war movie.

MN: Yes, the war movie. Mr. Tsuburaya’s scenes with the ships are amazing. There aren’t any kaiju, but I went to see the shoot. However, I thought they could have done much more. But I guess Toho had time restrictions, too.  

BH: Do you know Latitude Zero (1969)?

MN: I haven’t seen it. Is it a Tsuburaya movie?

BH: Yes, it is. It’s probably his last movie. Many American actors like Joseph Cotten and Richard Jaeckel came to Japan.

MN: Did they shoot it in Japan?

BH: Yes, yes.

MN: Oh, I’ll take a look. Latitude Zero.

BH: Mr. Tsuburaya’s last movie.

MN: I didn’t know that. I’ll take a look.

BH: It’s an interesting movie. But [there was a sudden] budget cut, so the kaiju suits are not so good.

MN: So, yes, I went to see a few Tsuburaya shoots. I know I’m not in a position to say this, but I thought they could have done better because, when I saw the shoots, they were doing impressive things on impressive sets.  

Mitsugetsu is the film where I left director Jissoji because I wanted to see what it was like to work with a different director. He said, “What are you doing? You don’t need to do that. You don’t need to learn anything else.” That motivated me even more. That’s why these movies are quite different from my other work. I shot Mitsugetsu the way I wanted to, so I think it’s well made, if I may say so myself. I can bring these movies next time so you can watch them. That way we can talk in more detail, so the discussions will be even more interesting.

BH: Do you have anything else to share about Ultraman Taro? Do you have any memories or stories about Ultraman Taro?

MN: I only did those two episodes for Ultraman Taro, but I stayed true to the way I believed was the best way to shoot. That’s why they’re so different from the other episodes. Even before the director asked me, I came up with the storyboards and showed them to Yama-chan. I gave it everything I had, but I think I was too impassioned. When I watch them now, I think, “Why did I take that vertical shot? Why did I switch camera angles so many times?” I can’t remember who it was, but there was a guy from NHK who told me that those two episodes are completely different from the others. I watched Ultraman Taro the other day for the first time in a long time. I didn’t do the tokusatsu; that was Eizo Yamagiwa. He did an excellent job.

MH: What about the budget for Taro? You didn’t work on the sets for Ultraman Ace (1972-73) or Return of Ultraman (1971-72), did you?

MN: Not at all. But we had a bigger budget for Taro, like in the beginning.

MH: Yes. From the sets and props in that [series], we get the sense that there was a bigger budget.

MN: That’s true.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Let’s talk about Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis, which is a very big-budget movie. First, let’s talk about how you got involved in Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis.

MN: I heard that director Kihachi Okamoto first got the offer. After much deliberation, director Jissoji got the final offer. The production enjoyed a lot of freedom, which hadn’t been available to most production methods for making Japanese movies until then. I’m talking about casting. Insisting on making a huge set for the early Showa-era Ginza scenes, deciding to use Hi-Vision [Sony HDVS] cameras for the first time in Japan alongside film, asking H.R. Giger from the film Alien (1979) to do the conceptual design, being adventurous with the techniques, entrusting director Akio Jissoji, a genius with a bias for his generation with this movie, etc. It was Takashige Ichise, the 26-year-old executive of the new production company under the Seibu Saison Group, who was behind all of this as the head of a massive project.

Hiroshi Aramata, who wrote the original story, knew that “things were working out exactly the way they should be” when he found out that Mr. Jissoji would be the director. But, in the beginning, Mr. Jissoji nominated Rio Kishida, who had written the script for Blue Lake Woman (1986), directed by Mr. Jissoji, which was shown on Tuesday Suspense Theater (1981-2005).

According to Mr. Jissoji’s diary, Rio Kishida wrote the first draft at the beginning of 1987, and a meeting was held to discuss the second draft. But, because of the decision to change the direction so that the movie would be an entertainment piece, the baton was passed from Ms. Kishida to Kaizo Hayashi.

During this time, director Jissoji parted ways with some of the performers he had chosen because he didn’t want them to think of unnecessary questions. Around this time, there were a few restrictions that limited the director, like the numerous staff who mostly came from the Kodai Group, and the decision to appoint Maki Ishii, who had studied under Akira Ifukube, as the music composer. Because of these restrictions, I think he decided to suppress his selfish frustrations and finish shooting this movie until it was done. When they decided on Mr. Jissoji, he told me, “This is a commercial movie, so hire a crew who won’t make a gloomy movie!” This was against his principles, so I was surprised by his determination.

He probably didn’t want to repeat the same failure of Utamaro’s World (1977), a movie from 10 years earlier that could not be called a success in terms of either content or [ticket] sales. Mr. Jissoji depicted the tokusatsu scenes using meticulously-made miniatures that were intentionally reminiscent of Eiji Tsuburaya. However, he wasn’t able to conduct the required meetings to discuss the elaborate sets or the mechanism of the open set because of the tight schedule. He left it up to the art team. It was regrettable to shoot without doing anything about it. It was a shame for scenes like the kubizuka [the burial mound for severed heads] set and the collapse of the 12-story building on the open set for the Great Kanto Earthquake.

Despite these circumstances, there was some amazing work. We needed a scene in which a pieces of paper turned into crows. After much deliberation, we decided on two methods. One was to use CG, which had started to be used around this time. The other was to use stop-motion, which would be shot by Fumiko Magari. In the end, we decided to go with the stop-motion because CG would take too much time and would be too difficult to estimate the cost in advance. We formed a special team for this, who shut themselves in a studio. No one other than the team members could set foot in the studio. No one could see the rough cut, and the director left it up to this team. But, when we saw the final rough cut, it was amazing.

Also, the scene where Jo Shishido walks toward the camera on the Ginza street open set was shot while moving the camera. For the sequence where Jo Shishido enters the pool hall on the second floor and goes up the stairs, I used a pair of double-track streetcar rails. I put a vertical-movement rail on a cart on the streetcar rails and placed a crane on top of the cart. The streetcar rails stopped in front of the pool hall. I moved the cart with the vertical-movement rail and the crane at the same time so that the camera could go through the window to capture Mr. Shishido, who had climbed the stairs to the second floor, in the pool hall. I learned to shoot this kind of scene in tokusatsu.

Although the methods for the crow scene and the pool room sequence were different, they were made thanks to the artisanship and the entire staff’s swift understanding of what needed to be done. In contrast, the scenes for which detailed discussions were neglected were unfortunately made in a negligent manner.

Things progressed without our being able to make use of Minoru Nakano’s visual effects because we didn’t give them enough time. This is regrettable because we were not able to fully take advantage of the essence of tokusatsu taught by Eiji Tsuburaya.

Mr. Jissoji hated waiting during his shoots, and his personality was such that he would quickly cut ties with people. Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis and Utamaro’s World were both given a lot of budget and time, and a lot of preparation went into these two movies, but somehow I feel that they are both unfortunate movies.

What should be said is that director Jissoji, whether it was a movie or a TV movie, was always thorough about the music. For the dubbing, he went as far as making a color-coded list for the finish schedule, which he handed to the staff in advance. His meticulousness in working by himself to get things done was almost abnormal. He liked classical music in particular.

He grew up in China before the war, and when he started elementary school, he listened to the SP [phonograph] records he found in his home. The first piece he was moved by was the Toy Symphony, which is said to be written by [Joseph] Haydn. This later expanded to Beethoveen’s Symphony No. 7. This was a long time ago. After the war, he doused himself in classical music, listening to NHK radio shows. He wrote, “The music I listen to is like the blessed rain that rejuvenates the desert in my heart.”

He was introduced to Seiji Ozawa by Haruhiko Hagimoto, the producer of the TV show Here Comes the Orchestra (1972-83), and said, “Mr. Ozawa repeatedly taught me the importance of a single note.” From then on, he transitioned to being an opera director.

In his late years, he was recognized as professor emeritus of Tokyo University of the Arts for his contribution in directing operas.

MH: You had a very unique experience as a cameraman.

MN: Yeah, it wouldn’t have been possible today. We were shooting movies like that all the time.

BH: Now, you may not know the answer, but H. R. Giger, the famous designer, was hired to do some work. Do you know anything about how he was contacted? Did you hear any stories about that? What can you tell us?

MN: It wasn’t really planned. The producer happened to see Giger’s exhibit in Roppongi or something. He met Giger and asked him to do some work. It’s out of place, isn’t it? It was so much trouble to just move it. We had to think how we were going to move it. If we hadn’t used Hi-Vision, it would have been difficult to shoot. It’s good that we had Hi-Vision.

MH: Did you have any interactions with Giger?

MN: No, no. I never met him.

MH: So it was Mr. Ichise, the producer?

MN: Yes, he knew Giger’s name and invited him to come. They thought they could use Giger’s artwork. It was a hassle, though. But the best thing was that we were using a Hi-Vision camera. It just happened that we were using one, but it really saved us. I don’t think we could have shot it on film. In that sense, I think we live in a good era. We were the first to use it.

BH: I also read that there were some accidents on the set. Is there any truth to that or not?

MN: The scene in the beginning when you see Tokyo from above and the ground splits. They were so sloppy about the whole thing. I hate that. I have to let others do their job. But no one took the time to discuss how we were going to do it. So when the ground split, it split in a square shape.

In the scene where his hand is cut with a knife, they just cut wherever. They could have put in more effort, but the director said OK, and that was it. That was it. That’s not how you do tokusatsu. If I could go back and fix everything now, I would. I have so many regrets.

BH: How would you describe your working relationship with director Jissoji at this time? Please tell us about working with director Jissoji on this movie.

MN: That man, once he decided on something, he wouldn’t change his mind. It didn’t matter what you said, no meant no. If I were the director, I wouldn’t care if it took extra time; I would do it. But he would just let it go and say OK.

MH: He was very simple in that sense.

MN: Too simple, if you ask me. Mr. [Shintaro] Katsu praised the scene I shot. There just happened to be some wind, and it looked amazing, so I shot it. He said, “You’re amazing! How did you shoot that? Did you use a fan or something?” But it was real wind. The director wasn’t there, but I shot it, anyway. If you take time and wait, you get shots like that. If he’d have left it up to me, I would have shot a ton of stuff like that. But he never let us do that. He would say, “Don’t do anything that’s unnecessary.” He would get angry if he heard me say this.

Among Marquis De Sade’s Prosperities of Vice in 1988, Ultra Q: The Movie in 1990, A Watcher in the Attic in 1994, and Murder on D Street in 199[8], I was surprised by how the director [Jissoji] wasn’t impatient and didn’t cut corners for Prosperities, Attic, and D Street, despite not having enough budget or time. I even wondered if he was OK. We didn’t waste any takes, either; we used all of them.

Prosperities was a Nikkatsu film, and Rio Kishida wrote the script. It wasn’t a failure like Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis, and everything went smoothly.

Attic was also a Nikkatsu film. Only one scene was shot on an open set built by Toho, and the rest was shot on a Nikkatsu set. The attic was built into the single-building boarding house so that we could shoot the drawing room from the attic directly above, as well as the attic from the drawing room. We set it up so that we could hang ropes that would allow us to move the camera vertically as freely as possible. You could call this tokusatsu, too. We made good use of the limited budget, in an intellectual criminal kind of way [being very creative in how we used the limited budget so that we were able to do more with it]. We also used all the takes we shot for this movie.

D Street was shot at Toei Studios. We built a shopping street inside a studio and used a second, smaller studio for a simple black backdrop. Hiroyuki Sanada, the lead actor, excellently portrayed a fake painter. Film critic Naofumi Higuchi said, “What’s attractive about this film is that everything that’s portrayed seems like a waste, like a waste of time. Watcher in the Attic also had this ambience, but with Masao Nakabori and Kenji Ushiba’s lighting, the sense of darkness in this film is even more thoroughly expressed throughout the film. The light is also extremely stylish, making Mr. Jissoji’s tone and manner even more intense.”

The director requested that the images leading to the credits that appear at the end of the film be made using tatebanko [papercraft dioramas] of landscapes, famous places, and seasonal scenes. But we didn’t have the time or budget to make them, nor did we have a place to shoot. So we rented a room in a camera equipment shop and made a slightly sloped base on which we shot a streetcar disappearing into an old street made with papercraft. We did this to bring out the flavor of the era. This is another thing that came out of my experience in tokusatsu. These three films were the result of some unique work done by the Kodai Group.

MH: That’s very interesting. I thought that the shoots were much more harmonious and creative, and that there was a good relationship between the two of you. But it doesn’t sound like that was the case [on Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis].

MN: In the scene where sheets of paper turn into crows, Ms. Magari [the stop-motion animator] told the director, “Don’t come in until I say it’s OK to come in.” So Mr. Jissoji had to wait for a long time. We only saw what Ms. Magari showed us in the end. So, of course, the director was like, “I can’t stand this. I don’t want to be told what to do.” It was unbelievable.  

When Ms. Magari was on the set, she would say, “I can’t stand it anymore. Do whatever needs to be done. You don’t need me.”

BH: Of course, there are many big stars in the production. Mr. Katsu, for example, and many others. Do you have any memories of working for some of these stars on the movie?

MN: You know the scene where the conference room splits? That was my idea, too. He just said, “Sure, the conference room can split.” That was it. If we’d shot it properly, it would have been amazing. But he was so lazy.

He hated things that were bothersome to do. But that actor was incredible, wasn’t he? I was so impressed by Mr. Katsu – his acting, how he engaged he was. I was shooting when Mr. Katsu said, “Why don’t we do it this way?” and blew smoke from his cigar in front of the camera. He said, “I think it’s better this way.” He really captured the atmosphere by doing that. Instead of saying, “Whatever. I quit,” the director said, “Yes, please do it that way.”  

BH: What techniques did you bring to this movie? There are many great shots, and it’s visually a great movie. Could you talk about some of the visual techniques for Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis?

MN: I think it was great that we were able to partner with Hi-Vision. Normally, people who work with video don’t like it when there’s an afterimage. Film people hate afterimage. But that’s what was good about it.

MH: The last scene of the movie…

MN: Right? The white is good, isn’t it? We kept the white in the scene. I don’t know why no one wanted to use it; it was great to use it this way. The director and I liked the effect. That’s why we decided to use it. You have to know what you’re doing with Hi-Vision. That’s also the case today with CG. During the planning meeting, the director would say, “Let’s go with CG for this scene.” But no one bothered to work out the details. They just came up with what they thought would be good, and he said, “That works.” That’s not how it should be done. We didn’t have any meetings to discuss what kind of CG we wanted. CG for Ultraman, on the other hand, I had no desire to see it. I think the opposite is better. That’s why I want to do this kaiju project. It’s an outlet for my passion. Hand-made kaiju. I have to do something to save tokusatsu from becoming a thing of the past. Kaiju don’t actually exist. If you take something that doesn’t exist and turn everything into CG, it would end up like Shin Godzilla (2016), which I hated.

MH: Shin Godzilla was more like animation, wasn’t it?

MN: It lacked the tokusatsu spirit. They didn’t treat it like tokusatsu. Everything, absolutely everything, was controlled. That’s not interesting at all. Within one scene, you should have three or four shots that are tokusatsu-like. In that sense, Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis was…

MH: It was the opposite.

MN: I wish we’d done a better job with that. But we didn’t know that at the beginning, then it was like, “Go, go, go!” from the midpoint onward. If we were going to use cranes like that, I would have planned it myself. But, no, we pushed the crane to its maximum so that it was shaking. If I’d known from the beginning that we were going to do that, I would have planned accordingly. But it was like, “OK, that was good.” That’s not how it should be done. It was so sad with the director. If I wanted, I could go back and fix these things. I wish I could just fix everything. Because the director isn’t here anymore. For Silver Kamen, I went back and fixed everything.

[about Ultra Q: The Movie]

This movie was produced by Akira Tsuburaya, Eiji Tsuburaya’s third son, and distributed by Shochiku. Mr. Jissoji wrote in an article, “In my lifetime, I want to make a daikaiju eiga. I don’t care for dull computer graphics, I want to immerse myself in a fable world using handmade miniatures and working with artisans who maneuver them.” Around 1984, the Tsuburaya Productions theatrical movie “Ultra Q: Kaiju Concerto” was planned with Shinichi Sekizawa as the supervisor and Mamoru Sasaki as the scriptwriter. Amidst a foreign SF film boom, they nearly started shooting, but then the project was called off. Most of Mr. Jissoji’s wish came true six years later. What scriptwriter Mamoru Sasaki, who hadn’t written anything for Ultra Q, and director Akiko Jissoji created was something completely unique. Mamoru Sasaki unleashed his talent and created his own world, while Mr. Jissoji’s direction could be felt in every corner of the film more than ever. This was the only monster film made by Mr. Jissoji.

Naofumi Higuchi gave his candid opinion immediately after watching the film. He wrote in a film magazine, “If you ask me whether the effort put into the film bore any fruit, I would say that it actually punctured [like a flat tire] the film. Mr. Sasaki and Mr. Jissoji’s devotion to this film is almost obsessive. But, taking all this into consideration, I rather liked [Ultra Q: The Movie]. The two target indolent, affluent adults and cultivate their aesthetic sensibility, and they could be considered living national treasures because what they did is so unique. As for the tokusatsu, its primitive and overwhelming emotion criticizes the savage foolishness of SFX and fights it full on.”

These are my thoughts about tokusatsu.

Special thanks to Taichiro Kubota.


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