‘MOTHRA’ MEMORIES! Masamitsu Tayama Recalls Appearing in the 1961 Toho Classic!

Masamitsu Tayama in April 2021. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Masamitsu Tayama is a former child actor who appeared in several movies and TV shows in Japan in the early 1960s. Most notably, he played Shinji Chujo, the younger brother of Dr. Shinichi Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) in the Toho classic Mothra (1961). Mr. Tayama would not pursue acting filming Mothra, but he quickly found his calling as a singer and musician, which he still continues to this day. In April 2021, Mr. Tayama spoke with Brett Homenick about his role in Mothra in an interview translated by Kanki Takatsuki and Keiko Takemata.

Brett Homenick: When and where were you born?

Masamitsu Tayama: I was born on December 2, 1948, and I was born in the National Hospital Organization Tokyo Medical Center.  

BH: Tell us about where you grew up and what hobbies you had as a child.

MT: At that time, I loved to sing, and I usually hung out with my little brother’s friend. We sang popular songs of the time.

BH: What kind of singers or songs did you like, specifically?

MT: For Japanese singers, I liked Michiya Mihashi and Hibari Misora. As for singers from overseas, I liked the British singer Helen Shapiro. The song that I liked was “Don’t Treat Me Like a Child” [by Helen Shapiro]. 

BH: What schools did you go to in Tokyo?

MT: I went to public elementary and junior high school, and my high school was a public one.

BH: Could you tell us the names of the school?

MT: Tokyo Metropolitan Fukasawa High School.

BH: Did you go to college?

MT: I went to Nihon University, majoring in art. I specialized in photography.

BH: Let’s go back to your child days. How did you get started with acting?

MT: When I was a child, I saw a flyer by chance in a Japanese newspaper, and it was for something called Toho Jido Gekidan [Toho children’s theater troupe] when I was in the fifth grade of elementary school. At that time, it had “Toho” in its name, so I thought it was affiliated with Toho. I joined it shortly thereafter. That’s the reason I started as an actor.

BH: Were you familiar with Toho movies at that time?

MT: No, not at all.

BH: Did you watch any movies at all during that time, like American movies?

MT: At that time, I was not interested in American movies. I usually watched TV programs. When I was an elementary school student, our social and emotional learning [a set of topics recommended by the Ministry of Education] gave us the chance to attend a film festival to watch some movies outdoors. Also, the movies for students to watch were recommended by the Ministry of Education. So I thought there were no movies that were interesting to me.

BH: So you didn’t like any movie that you saw.

MT: None of the movies were interesting. The movies were all education-oriented, not for entertainment.

BH: Obviously, with movies, you’re not so interested, so why did you want to join this theater group?

MT: As I mentioned before, I saw Toho Jido Gekidan by chance. So I was interested, but it was just by chance. I thought it was a chance for me to be on TV as an actor. I happened to appear in jidai geki [period pieces] and famous home dramas [sitcoms] at the time, but it was just something by chance.

This theater group had Toho in its name. But, after that, I realized that this group was actually fake. It was not a real group affiliated with Toho. Actually, I didn’t receive any money for acting in Mothra. To my knowledge, I think the group just took the money for cooperating with the movie Mothra. I don’t know if they were the owners or not, but they were the people who ran the theater group.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: At this group, what kind of training did you have? How did they train you to be an actor?

MT: It was a tough experience for me, for example, saying tongue twisters in Japanese. This is fundamental practice for reading scripts, but we did not practice acting in these sessions.

There was a lesson to have the students read a script quickly. [Mr. Tayama demonstrates.] They asked a few students to read this script quickly. After that, we had to read the script normally, and the words were the tongue twisters. This included some dance [practice], too.

I don’t remember very clearly, but it was a fake theater company. However, it held recitals once or twice a year.

BH: What kind of dance was it?

MT: (laughs) At that time, while it had elements of dance, I actually don’t think it was really a dance lesson. It was a rhythm lesson because we performed box step to practice rhythm, and we practiced how to pose. It was a dance lesson, but it wasn’t a dance lesson for something like hip hop today.

At that time, the theater group actually had performances on some TV shows and movies, so I also had the chance to work as an extra. After that, I had the audition for Mothra from this theater group. So I thought that the theater group was really doing well.

BH: What other extra work? Do you remember the names of the TV shows or the movies that you did?

MT: There was a TV show called Mom, Come Here for a Moment (1959-63) and a jidai geki called Here Comes the One-Eyed Man (1960-61). There was also a movie with Hideko Takamine, but I don’t remember the title.

BH: [Was it] before Mothra?

MT: Yes, before Mothra — around ‘61 or ‘62.

BH: Do you remember anything else?

MT: I don’t remember.

BH: Let’s talk about the audition for Mothra. Do you remember how many other children auditioned for Mothra?

MT: There were some other boys, but I don’t remember how many. There were about four or five others.

BH: At the school, how did they present this to you? Was it an offer, or did you have to do it?

MT: It was not mandatory, but we were interested in it, and we just went to it.

BH: I see. But [it was] not like, “Would you like [to do] this?”

MT: No, it wasn’t.

BH: At the audition, do you remember what you had to do?

MT: It was Q&A-style. “Do you like movies?” I was asked these kinds of general questions about movies.

BH: Do you remember who auditioned you? Was it Mr. Honda?

MT: I don’t think Mr. Honda was there. It was an important audition, but I did not know it was that important.

BH: So what did you think it was at the time? How did you think about it?

MT: I don’t feel very much about the audition because, in my mind, I only thought, “If I pass the audition, I can be in the movie.”

BH: How did you find out that you were cast?

MT: I don’t really remember, but there are some possible ways. Maybe the manager [of the theater troupe] told me, or maybe there was direct contact [from Toho]. I think I was probably contacted by the manager, but I don’t remember. I just thought something like, “We start shooting tomorrow.”

BH: After that, when you started acting in Mothra, what was the first thing you did? Were there rehearsals?

MT: It was so long ago. There were no rehearsals. We just did it on the set. On the set, we practiced, but it wasn’t a rehearsal.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Do you remember the first scene that you filmed for Mothra?

MT: The first scene that I recall was in the home of Mr. Chujo [Hiroshi Koizumi]. My white mouse escaped into the area where the reporters were trying to take his picture, and I was trying to find it.

BH: Was that done at Toho, or was that an actual house?

MT: [It was] a studio set.

BH: What do you remember about shooting?

MT: The clear impression I have is the location in Kirishima [filming the original ending of the movie that was eventually changed to New Kirk City]. Because I was alone, I had many good times with the group on location at that time. Everyone took very good care of me. I remember that I went to Kyoko Kagawa’s room, and she gave me juice and snacks.

Because I was staying there with them, I went to everyone’s room. Because the location itself was in the mountains, the mountains were very slippery. At the time, I was a little bit fat, so it was a very tough experience.

BH: Speaking of that, was that [being that size] one of the requirements for the character?

MT: No, it wasn’t. At that time, there were few fat boys. So I think my body shape actually benefited me. I don’t think it was because of my acting that I got this job, but I think it was because I was this way. I got the chance to be in Mothra and appear in commercials because of my body shape.

BH: But it was not something that they wanted in the beginning, but it helped you get the job.

MT: At the time, I just got fat in my daily life, so it was not a requirement. I was fat, so they looked at me and decided that a fat kid would be good for this role when they were casting Mothra, I think.

BH: In that scene in the house, what was it like to work with the mouse?

MT: The white mouse actually bit Frankie [Sakai].

BH: What was his reaction?

MT: [imitates the sound he made] “Ouch!” He lightly tapped the mouse on the head with his index finger.

BH: There’s the scene where the ship is leaving, going toward Infant Island. Everyone is waving goodbye, and you were in that scene. Where was that scene shot?

MT: It was the port of Kagoshima. It was a “package” of locations, Kirishima and Kagoshima. That’s why we moved from Tokyo to Kyushu.

BH: There’s also the scene where the ship comes back, and everyone welcomes the ship. Was that the same day, or was that a different day?

MT: It was the same day.

BH: Did they change clothes, or did they do anything different in between to make it look different?

MT: Yes, we changed into different clothing.

BH: One other question about the white mouse. Was the mouse ever really inside [Frankie Sakai’s] clothes, or was that just him acting?

MT: It was Frankie [Sakai’s] pantomime.

BH: Do you have anything else to share about the port scenes — how many takes there were?

MT: There were several takes.

BH: How about the mouse scene? How many takes was that?

MT: Usually, there were three or four takes. For the mouse scene, Frankie [Sakai] needed to be satisfied with his own acting.

BH: About the mouse scene, Mr. Koizumi had a beard. Was that makeup, or was that a real beard?

MT: It was like makeup, and they put the fake beard on him.

BH: There’s also the theater scene where there’s a big crowd to see The Peanuts, and many people go inside the theater. Where was the theater shot? What’s the location?

MT: It was Hibiya Public Hall.

BH: What can you tell us about shooting that day? How was it done, and what stories can you tell us about that day of shooting there?

MT: You may remember the scene, but I was actually trying to get into the backstage area of the theater without being noticed by anybody. A guard was trying to watch the area, and I hid between the theater chairs while the guard was looking around. Before I was found, I popped up, and I tried to avoid being spotted. It was like a game of tag. It’s a little scene, but, because this is a movie, the director was trying to get the funniest scene, so it required three or four takes in order to get the funniest scene.

BH: Was [Mr.] Honda, the director, giving you directions?

MT: That’s right.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: What was he telling you?

MT: I don’t remember what I was told, but, in any case, the director kept saying that he wanted to make the scene a lot funnier. So, when I pop up, he wanted me to look around like a mouse. That’s what I remember.

At the time, in the theater, I had an injured leg. It was so tough. But, because it was work, I had to be professional. I did a lot of acting, but, after that, I realized that the scene was cut shorter than I expected.

BH: How did you injure your leg?

MT: I injured it at school, playing dodgeball.

BH: Did it just hurt to walk? How bad was the injury?

MT: It was painful, but I still tried to walk, slowly, and step by step.

BH: If the scene was supposed to be longer, do you remember what you did in the scene? What was filmed that was going to be longer?

MT: I can’t remember how many minutes or seconds were cut, but I remember that I tried to rescue The Peanuts. I actually had two scenes with The Peanuts, and both scenes were cut more than I expected. In the scene where I took The Peanuts’ cage, it was cut in some parts.

BH: Actually, that first scene in Nelson’s office, with Jerry Ito, was that also at the Hibiya [Public Hall]?

MT: It was a studio set.

BH: What do you remember about Jerry Ito? There’s also Osman Yusuf, another foreigner who’s part of Nelson’s gang.

MT: I don’t remember anything that happened in Tokyo, but in the Kirishima location, because I went to everyone’s room, I went to Jerry Ito’s room, as well as Tetsu Nakamura’s room, and we played around. He actually invited me to smoke a cigar. It was in his room.

BH: What did you think? Did you like it or not like it?

MT: I started to like the taste of cigars, and this was how I became familiar with cigars. After I became old enough to smoke, I actually tried it, but it’s not Mr. Nakamura’s fault.

BH: There’s the scene where you’re acting with the Shobijin dolls. There’s Frankie Sakai, Ms. Kagawa, and Mr. Koizumi. What do you remember about the scene with the Shobijin dolls? Please talk about that.

MT: I remember the scene with the Peanuts dolls. When I read the script, I thought, “Oh, I can finally meet The Peanuts!” But, in the scene where I rescue The Peanuts, there were actually just dolls in the cage. I was so disappointed.

BH: Which scene was shot first? Was it with the group where Ms. Kagawa is there and Mr. Sakai, or just the scene with you rescuing The Peanuts?

MT: The scene of the rescue.

BH: What was it like acting with dolls? Was that kind of difficult to do because they’re not real? Did director Honda give you any direction about that?

MT: Mr. Honda was a very nice person who always let me do something simple in order to do the scene. It was always something easy, not difficult. So there were no such difficult things at that time. But, for the scene with the dolls, there was some direction: “Don’t let the dolls in the cage fall down.”

BH: When you’re carrying it?

MT: Yes.

BH: So how did you carry it? What did you have to do to make sure the dolls didn’t fall over?

MT: Of course, there were no such technical things for me to use in order not to let the dolls fall down.

BH: Did director Honda pantomime it, or did he only explain [it]?

MT: At the time, Mr. Honda did not show us how to do or act these kinds of specific things. The assistant director would always tell us how to do things.

Mr. Honda and the assistant director did not require too much. “Act however you’d like, but the result must be good.” Also, I was given direction to hold the cage higher to let the audience see it better.

BH: In the rescue scene, you’re hiding under the chicken, so please talk about that scene and what happened.

MT: It was from the direction of the assistant director. “Do something manga-style.” From my perspective, it was meaningless because my leg was very painful.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: So was it your decision to use the chicken, or was that something that they told you to do?

MT: It came from the director. It was not my idea.

BH: When you’re doing things like carrying the box, how many takes [were there]?

MT: It took several times, but I don’t remember the specific number.

BH: The clothes that you wear in the movie, were they provided from Toho?

MT: That’s right. All the clothes I wore in the movie came from Toho. As you know, this was a co-production between Japan and America. In the script, we were trying to send The Peanuts [home] from Kirishima. At the time, that was the original ending. But, because of the complaints from the American side, that scene was actually changed to New [Kirk City]. They forced that change on us. So that’s why New [Kirk City] was in the last scene and that the scenes we shot in Kirishima were abandoned.

BH: Do you know why the Americans were complaining about that? Did they just want more American scenes? Do you know anything about that?

MT: From my perspective, I think it’s because it was a Japanese-American co-production, but all the scenes took place in Japan, so it was a little unfair to the Americans.

As a bit of a fat boy, it was always a struggle to wear sweaters because you don’t want to show your body shape. In the scene where I wore the sweater on the mountain in Kagoshima, it was a fancy sweater because of the movie. But, because that scene was cut from the film, I feel very bad about that.  

BH: But you couldn’t keep the sweater?

MT: Actually, it was my own sweater. But I don’t have it anymore.

BH: How did it come about that you were able to wear your own sweater in the movie?

MT: Because we actually went to the mountains, I bought the sweater at the time. But the [Toho] staff said, “That’s a very nice sweater. Why don’t you wear it?” So I wore it in the scene.

BH: Going back to the white mouse scene, there were other children in that scene. Do you remember anything about those children?

MT: All those children belonged to the same theatrical group, Toho Jido Gekidan.

BH: Were you friendly with them? How well did you know them at the time?

MT: We were just friends. Because we were from the same theatrical group, we had to take the same lessons. But we didn’t return home together, and we didn’t go to each other’s house.

BH: Let’s also talk about the scene where you’re rescuing The Peanuts, and Jerry Ito and his gang are chasing you. It’s a very interesting scene where you’re being chased. Could you talk about that, and did director Honda give you any direction?

MT: Director Honda didn’t say anything very direct to me, but he had some direction for Mr. Ito because he asked him [and the other actors] to act like bad guys. Director Honda just required me to bear the situation in front of the bad guys.

BH: Do you remember how many takes were done for the chase scene?

MT: It took several takes, but I do not remember.

BH: How about getting tied up? Please talk about that.

MT: I had never been tied up in real life before, so it was my first time to be tied up during filming. Because I’d never had such experiences, I thought it was enjoyable.

BH: Is there anything else about that, like anything about Mr. Honda?

MT: Mr. Honda’s personality was to try to film the movie without using a lot of words. So he was always watching me with a warm smile. That’s all.

BH: Let’s talk about the original last scene in Kagoshima. How did you get there?

MT: It was by sleeper express train.

BH: Could you explain what the situation is in the last scene that got cut?

MT: In Kirishima, Mothra was flying from this plateau to that mountain. The people there included Frankie [Sakai], Mr. Koizumi, and me. We  just waved and saw Mothra off.

BH: How many days was shooting in that area for the original ending?

MT: Everything took about two weeks.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: How was the weather at the time?

MT: It was always sunny. When we went to the hot spring was only the day we had rain.

BH: Around what time of year did you film that scene?

MT: Because I was wearing the sweater and a blouson, and because it was neither cold nor hot, I think it was autumn.

BH: Do you have any other memories of the shoot in Kagoshima?

MT: I remember the cigar with Tetsu Nakamura. Another thing I remember is going downtown in order to eat ramen. I really realized the difference between the pork bone broth ramen in Kagoshima and the one in Fukuoka.

BH: Generally, how would you describe director Honda? Please talk about him a little bit more.

MT: Because I was a child at the time, Mr. Honda always smiled warmly and was very kind to me.

BH: How about general memories or stories about Hiroshi Koizumi?

MT: Mr. Koizumi was also very kind, just like everyone else was at the time. After we finished shooting, Mr. Koizumi invited me to his home, as well. In Kinuta Park, I watched him play golf.

BH: How long did you stay in touch with Mr. Koizumi?

MT: It was about two or three years. We always sent letters to each other because we were in Mothra together.

At the time, I was a junior high school student, so probably after I completed junior high school is when we lost touch. Sometimes, we still exchanged New Year’s cards. After I completed junior high and started my music is when we lost touch.

A few years ago [in 2011], there was a Mothra event in Ginza. One of the guests was Mr. Koizumi, so I met him there. We greeted each other by saying, “It’s been a long time.” I didn’t know who was busier — he or I — but we just came across each other.

BH: How about general memories of Frankie Sakai? What could you tell us about him?

MT: In Meguro, there was a club called the Lions Club, a group of social volunteers. He was also a member of it. At that time, I was in a band in my university, and I performed at this club. At that time, we still met each other.

After that, Frankie unfortunately passed away, and I felt very sad that he had passed. I also played drums like him, and I was a fan of his, so I was very sad about it.

BH: How about Kyoko Kagawa?

MT: I don’t have many memories about Ms. Kagawa. In Kirishima, she was very nice to me. We spent time together, and she always asked me a lot of questions, and I answered her questions. After that, I did not have any opportunity to meet her. But I have to say that she is a very kind and warm woman.

BH: How long was the shoot?

MT: It was about three or four months.

BH: Every day, how long was the shooting?

MT: Every two or three days, or three or four days, we had shooting. There were no required hours that I had to work. We received the instruction of when we would go shooting.

BH: What about your school life during Mothra? How difficult was it to go to school and do Mothra at the same time?

MT: I didn’t have any difficulties because I attended a public elementary school. The school wasn’t very strict. I just told my teacher, “I will be working on Mothra on this day until this time.”

BH: Was that week by week?

MT: It was every week.

BH: Was there a premiere for Mothra?

MT: At that time, there were no premieres.

BH: Why did you stop acting after this?

MT: When I was in junior high, I was in another movie, but it was an education-related movie. Also, it was because of my body shape that I had the opportunity to appear in movies.

In my mind, I really didn’t think I had this kind of talent, and it was because of my body shape that I was able to get these chances. Also, I felt that I needed to work hard on my studies. That’s why I did not choose to continue acting.

The theatrical group I mentioned before was fake, but, if they were a serious group, I probably would have continued to work with them, including in the management [of the company], and so on.

But I remember that, after Mothra, the theatrical group was caught by the police in Hokkaido because of some incident.

BH: What kind of incident? Do you know what happened?

MT: I think the theater group cheated someone. But I only heard about it.

BH: How did you become a musician? How did that change happen?

MT: The reason I started my music career is because I love singers like Michiya Mihashi. I’m very interested in the music of many kinds of Japanese singers.

His music was also folk music. When I was a junior high student, I loved Western music — American and British pop music. I thought it really fit me, so I started my career as a musician and singer.

BH: For people who don’t know your music, how would you describe it?

MT: My music describes that it is quite a brilliant thing to feel that we are alive. I sing my wife’s lyrics now. Even if my songs don’t become famous, I would continue to sing.

BH: Can you tell me about the song “Spring Is in the Air”?

MT: Every year in the spring, they play “Spring Is in the Air” on the radio. It’s been continuously played for 40 years. Even I think it’s an incredible thing. [The song was a debut single that was released on February 26, 1976, and sold 210,000 copies.]

BH: What is the theme of this song?

MT: The theme of the song is mainly related to nature, what people feel from their lives, and how their emotions react to this song.

BH: Did you write it yourself?

MT: Yes, I did.

BH: How long did it take you to write it?

MT: It took only 20 minutes.

BH: Would you say that was your best song, your signature song?

MT: Most sales! My best song is my next song; it is the next song that I will write. Maybe tomorrow I will write that song.

BH: But, for now, it’s your most famous song and your best-seller.

MT: Yes.

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