THE MASTERFUL MAKER OF MONSTER BEAMS! Sadao Iizuka on His Early Life and Career at Toho!

Sadao Iizuka in December 2020. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Born on December 26, 1934, Sadao Iizuka joined Toho Studios in 1954 during the production of the original Godzilla, working as an assistant in the tokusatsu art department. Mr. Iizuka stayed at Toho for many years thereafter, eventually pioneering Toho’s trademark optical effects that would become prevalent in the late 1950s and ’60s. Mr. Iizuka would go on to animate Godzilla’s atomic ray and King Ghidorah’s gravity beams, among many of the studio’s other optical effects. In December 2020, Mr. Iizuka discussed his early life and career (mostly covering his work in the tokusatsu art department prior to his optical effects work) in this interview with Brett Homenick, for which translation was provided by Maho Harada.

Sadao Iizuka: Godzilla (1954) just happened to be a part-time job. I was studying art, and they needed people at Toho. I happened to go, and happened to work on Godzilla. I just treated it as a part-time job. Then Godzilla turned out to be a huge hit. I actually had another job lined up at a company, but I kept putting them off. They said, “After this job is over, you’ll come work for us.” In the end, I never worked for that company because, after Godzilla, I worked on Godzilla Raids Again (1955), then on color [films]. So I never took that job. I really wanted to work in the art department in films as an assistant. The head of the tokusatsu art department said, “I want you to work on this next film,” and it was one film after another. So the president of the company I was supposed to work for said sarcastically, “You’re supposed to work for us. Is it really that interesting to work in film?”

So I kept working at Toho and didn’t do any part-time work anywhere else. When I was working on Godzilla Raids Again, Old [Eiji] Tsuburaya was the [special effects] director. He said, “There’s something I want to do. Do you want to do it with me?” He wasn’t specific about what he wanted to do, but I thought, “Oh, well, it’s just part-time work anyway.” Old Tsuburaya had seen The Ten Commandments (1956), which had a scene where animation had been superimposed onto the film. That’s what Old Tsuburaya wanted to do. He said, “I want you to do that.” But I had no idea about the methodology or anything. So I stopped working on location [on the set] and moved indoors [off the set] to work on optical effects. That was how it all started. From then on, I worked on indoor optical effects, on tokusatsu optical effects. I worked on countless films, doing all kinds of things. Old Tsuburaya would simply say, “You think about how this can be done.” Easy for him to say!

The Old Man was fond of [the person who would later become] my wife, who’s now passed away. He treated her as his own daughter. He said, “The two of you should get married.” But I was totally against the idea and said, “Never! I never want to marry her!” The Old Man said, “I plead with you, marry her. If you marry her, the two of you will be able to live comfortably.” In the end, we got married. So the Old Man was our official matchmaker. It was incredible; he acted as if he were her father. That was my relationship with him.

He said, “From now on, there’s going to be this kind of work, adding optical effects to film. I want you to do the research and think about how it can be done.” Nobody could teach me the methodology. Back then, it was film. So I thought about how it could be done. We would go through a lot of trial and error, then watch the projection of the composite shot. But he [Tsuburaya] would say, “No, that’s not it!” So it was an accumulation of all the research I did. We made a lot of films; there was a lot of work coming in. And that’s when the shift took place from black and white to color. Looking back now, I think I did an amazing job. 

Brett Homenick: What’s your wife’s name, and what did she do at Toho?

SI: [Her name was] Etsuko. She worked part-time in the special effects art department. When I started doing the indoor optical effects, there were two or three students from Tama Art University who came to work part-time [at Toho]. She was one of them. For some reason, Old Tsuburaya took a real liking to her. I gave her the nickname Chabo. She had a small body and a big butt, so when she walked, she looked like a chabo [hen]. So I called her Chabo, and that became her nickname. Nobody knew her real name; she was just known as Chabo. Everybody would say, “How is Chabo-san?” when they asked about her. Back in those days, everybody in the movie industry had a nickname; no one was called by his real name. As for me, I was called Den-san at Toho. Elsewhere, people would wonder, “Who is Den-san?” Even the production manager called me Den-san. I said, “My name is not Den!” But everybody called me Den-chan. At the time, there was a four-panel comic in the newspaper called Densuke. Somebody at Toho said I looked like him. So everybody started calling me, “Den-chan, Den-chan!” I’m sure that half the people at Toho didn’t know my real name. And, in this industry, everybody knew me as Den-san. So, when I started my company, I called it Den Film.

I had a bad reputation. Nobody knew my real name. Even today, people in the industry call me Den-san. Back in the day, they would always refer to me as Den-san. In the movie industry, nobody was called by his real name. It was always by his nickname. Everybody thought it was a way of showing affection. Actually, I wanted to be a real artist; I studied painting and wanted to be a painter. I went to high school by working part-time jobs, but I thought it would be difficult to get into university by just working part-time jobs. Painting is actually very expensive because you have to buy paints and all sorts of supplies. With my friends, the three of us would share the paints that we bought individually with our part-time jobs. That’s how expensive it was.

My high school teacher told me to go to art university. But I was anti-academic and thought there was no way I could get into art university, so I didn’t go. But by chance, I found out about the Nikakai [art] society, which had just opened. I decided to go visit. It happened to be located on the property of Seiji Togo, who was the big boss of Nikakai.

The Nikakai [art] society started using the space after the Matsuyama Ballet Company had vacated it. I decided to go visit and took my sketchbook with me. From that day on, I went there every night after I finished my part-time job, all the way to Kugayama. I really liked sketches of sculptures made of plaster, so I did a lot of those. There were many well-known artists around Seiji’s Togo property. They would see a light on at the [art] society, where I was doing sketches, and they would drop by to see me. They would look at my sketch and say, “You idiot, you have to draw the other side [of the plaster sculpture]!” I think I was the only one who was being taught directly by these artists; I was very lucky. At the time, I was working part-time at a bar, and my boss would say, “It’s time for you to go to your art group now.” He took very good care of me. Thinking back on it, I think I was very lucky.

I won an award in two competitions. They said, “You should submit your work!” I didn’t think I was ready, but they pushed me. I submitted my work to Nikakai and won an award. I submitted my work a second time and won another award. At the time, there were many art groups. Issenkai and Nikakai were considered to be major art groups, so winning an award at Nikakai was a big deal. At art universities, the Ika department was for studying traditional Japanese art, and the Nika department was for studying Western art. So the name Nikakai signified that it was about Western art. It had a lot of history.

Thinking back on it, my teachers were very good to me. On Seiji Togo’s property, there was a very big garden. When I had time, I would mow the lawn. Mr. Togo’s wife, who was the chairperson of the Nikakai [art] society, never called me by my name but always called me Kuro-chan because I was always wearing a black shirt. One day, she came out and said, “Kuro-chan, come here. From next month onward, you don’t have to pay tuition.” So my tuition was free, but I had to do things like mow the lawn and walk their German Shepherd. They had two maids from Kagoshima, where Seiji Togo was from. They would shout, “Kuro-chan! Dinner’s ready, come and eat.” So I didn’t have to pay tuition, and they fed me dinner.

To be honest, I didn’t like Seiji Togo. But Nikakai was quite different from the other art groups. In other art groups, the style was dictated by the main teacher. But, at Nikakai, each teacher had his own style, and they were all very unique. So I think I was very lucky. It was interesting because one teacher would say, “This is great. You should do this part a little bit more like this.” Then another teacher would come along and say, “What the hell is this? This is no good. You have to do it like this.”

Both were artists and my teachers, but they would give completely opposing opinions. It was great to be among such unique teachers. That was unheard of back then. In other art groups, the main teacher would dictate everything. But, at Nikakai, there were about ten teachers who would come once a month and give their opinion. One teacher would say, “What the hell is this? Throw this crap away!” And a second teacher would come along and say, “This is good. It would be even better if you tweaked it like this.”

Thinking back on it, I was very lucky to be at Nikakai, with such unique teachers. It just happened that, when I looked into art groups, I found out about the newly founded Nikakai [art] society. And, though the tuition was quite expensive, Mr. Togo’s wife told me that I didn’t have to pay tuition anymore. Their garden was quite big, so I mowed the lawn and walked the dog, and everything else that needed to be done. But I enjoyed the work. Mr. Togo’s wife loved it when the white magnolias blossomed, but she hated it when they turned brown and fell on the lawn. She would yell, “Kuro-chan!” and tell me to pick up the withered flowers. But I didn’t have to pay tuition. That’s not why I started mowing the lawn in the first place, but I enjoyed doing the work. So the wife took a liking to me, and the two maids would make me dinner.

There were three daughters in the [Togo] family. One day, when I asked, “Where should I sleep?” they told me to sleep next to Tamami, one of the daughters, who was still in high school then. When she came out of the bath, she was buck naked. We told her, “You’re a girl; you should be embarrassed!” The three daughters started singing in a group. There were about ten of us at Nikakai who hung out together. We decided to go and pretend we were part of the audience. Often, three of us guys would sleep on the floor in Tamami’s room when she was still in high school. She would come out of the bath buck naked, so we would say to her, “You idiot! You’re a girl; you should be embarrassed!” She would say, “Why should I be embarrassed?” She was used to seeing models, so she didn’t think it was embarrassing for girls to be naked.

About two years ago, I ran into her at Narita Airport. I thought, “That looks like Tamami.” She came right over and said, “Kuro-chan!” So I didn’t just learn art [at Nikakai]; I also learned a lot about life. I’m glad I didn’t have the money to go to art university, but joined the Nikakai [art] society instead. I think I was lucky. Later on, I ran into a friend who went to art university, and he ended up being an art teacher at a junior high school. So my friends pursued a stable life. But I was against everything that was academic and ended up going down this path. At the time, everything was difficult. But, when I look back on it, I realize that I had a lot of fun.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Let’s go back to the very beginning. Please tell us when and where you were born, and talk about growing up and what you remember about your childhood.

SI: I was born on December 26, 1934, in Tokyo. All of my relatives were born and raised in Tokyo, in the Shinjuku and Yotsuya areas. So I’m a pure Edokko [a person who was born and raised in Tokyo]. Every member of my family, from my mother to all my uncles, was in the Shinjuku and Yotsuya areas [of Tokyo]. If I ran out of pocket money, I would go to my uncle who lived in Yotsuya and say, “Hi, Uncle!” and he would give me pocket money. So I never left Tokyo.

During the war, people would evacuate to the countryside, to their parents’ or grandparents’ hometown. But, because we were all from Tokyo, we had nowhere to go. So, for children like me, they had group evacuations for children. They took me into the mountains with a bunch of other kids. When my mom came to visit, we were all sitting in a row at lunchtime, with one sweet potato on a plate. My mom thought, “He’s going to starve to death if I leave him here,” so she brought me back to Tokyo, and I stayed with relatives.

This meant that I was in the middle of Tokyo during the major air raids, with huge fires and everything, because I hadn’t evacuated to the countryside. My mother, a pure Edokko, said, “If we die, the whole family will die together.” People around us told us to evacuate, but, looking back on it, this was a very precious experience. Even if you try to have this kind of experience, you can’t. Of the five or six families in my area, I was the only boy because all the men and boys were gone [serving in the military]. The wives of these families were all depending on me, even though I was a third-grader [in elementary school]. When there was a bombing, they would say, “Sadao-chan, where should we go? Where would we be safe?” I just went with my instincts and said, “Let’s go over there. It’ll be safe there.” Even though I was a kid, I had my wits about me. Because all the men had gone to war, there were only us kids. So the women in my neighborhood relied on me, trusting that I would lead them to safety. Looking back on it, it was an extraordinary experience.

After the war, the education system changed to the 6-3-3 system [six years of elementary school, three years of junior high school, and three years of high school]. After graduating from elementary school, we would move on to junior high school, and the same kids would go to the same high school. But I had to work to attend high school, so I took on all sorts of jobs. I used all the money I made to pay the tuition for the [art] society and art supplies. It’s not so much that I wanted to do art; I just thought that art was the only thing I had talent for. So I decided that I would become an artist. As I said before, my high school teacher told me, “You should go to art university.” But I didn’t think it would do me any good. Instead, I was very lucky and got into the Nikakai [art] society, because all the teachers there were very unique. If I had money, I would have gone to art university like my friends and probably became an art teacher. That’s not a bad thing; that’s one way to live life. But, luckily, I was able to do something I was very passionate about.

Nikakai had just been started, so there were no other students at first. I was there every night after finishing my part-time job. Many of the teachers lived in the same area and would come by when they saw that the lights were on. They would find me doing sketches of sculptures made of plaster, which I loved to do. They would say, “This is good. But, look, you haven’t drawn the background.” I would reply, “But there’s nothing in the background.” They would shout at me, “You idiot! You have to draw the background to make it look three-dimensional!” They never taught me what to do; they just gave me harsh criticisms. That was their style of teaching. It was hard at the time, but, looking back on it, I realize that it was a very good experience. When other students joined the art group, I became the one who said to them, “You haven’t drawn the background!” It was hard, but this was a very positive experience because it helped me build a foundation.

At the time, the tuition wasn’t so high, but the supplies were expensive. It was very expensive just to buy one tube of paint. So I would buy paint with two of my friends. That’s how we got through the hard times. And we were adamant about not using cheap paint because it would change color, and we wanted to make paintings that would last forever.

In those days, I worked very hard until late at night. Look at my hands. These are rashes from the paint. In my 20s and 30s, I used to mix the paint with my hands because they mix better that way. Like I said before, the three of us would pitch in and buy paints together. That’s what everybody did at the time. So you had no time to worry about being tidy.

Because of my economic situation, I couldn’t go to school [art university]. A few of my friends went to art university. They became art teachers at junior high schools and were relatively well-off. But I didn’t like that kind of environment. It’s not that I sought hardship, but I didn’t mind working hard. I didn’t mind doing things that people didn’t want to do, like mowing the lawn.

When I was working at Toho as a part-timer doing special effects art, I don’t know why, but Old Tsuburaya saw me and came over. He said, “There’s something I want to do. You do it.” He didn’t give me any details, but that’s how I got into optical effects. After Old Tsuburaya had seen The Ten Commandments, he wanted to insert animation into film. For some reason, he chose me. It was easy for him to ask, but I had no methodology, no technique whatsoever. I asked him, “How am I supposed to do this?” He just shouted back, “You idiot, think about it yourself!” I don’t think he’d be able to get away with that kind of treatment nowadays, but that’s how it was at the time.

But I think he had foresight and knew that I would be able to do it. He took me under his wing. I think he did that with a few people. I don’t know why Old Tsuburaya chose me. But I had a curious streak in me; once I started doing something, I wouldn’t give up. Maybe that’s what the Old Man saw in me. But somebody told me what Old Tsuburaya said about me. He said, “That guy’s really strange. I’m going to pull him into my work.”

I just did part-time work because I wanted to make as much money as possible. That was my motivation when they asked me to continue working at Toho part-time. So I said, “Of course! With great pleasure.” I was probably the only one at Toho who continually had work. The others would be let go once a film ended. We would all be standing onstage and someone would come up to me and say, “Come over here right away. We want you to work on the next film.” So it was constantly one film after another at Toho. People would say, “Den-san, I’m jealous of you.” But I didn’t promote myself or anything; it just happened that way. But I loved this work. I said to myself, “It would be great if I could keep doing this work.” So I got one job after another. I wanted to become an artist and make paintings that would last forever, but I also wondered, “What is the point of being a painter?” There was an endless battle within me. Eventually, I felt that, if I could make a lot of money doing this job, it would be better.

I was working part-time at Toho and was one of seven or eight people who were chosen to become full-time employees. But I refused. I was the only one who refused. People asked me, “Why do you want to refuse being a full-time employee at Toho? You’ll be guaranteed work until you’re 60. You’ll have retirement benefits.” But I said, “No way. I don’t want to be a full-time employee,” and refused. I made sure I always had freedom. I hated being part of an organization. I always thought there was another way to do things. I think Old Tsuburaya respected that aspect of me.

When someone asked me to do something, I didn’t just say yes. I dared to do what people didn’t expect from me. So Old Tsuburaya thought, “What a strange guy.” That’s probably why he took an interest in me. We were making miniatures of a traditional wooden house that was 1/25 and 1/30 [scale]. I came up with the idea of putting a telephone pole that was 1/10 [scale] right in front to give a sense of depth. Old Tsuburaya liked the fact that I would come up with outrageous ideas like that. Because I knew how to draw, I came up with ideas that were interesting to me. Nobody asked me for ideas; I just came up with them myself. When I looked through the camera viewfinder, I thought it would be interesting to put a pine tree in front to give a sense of distance. I was known for that kind of thing. I’d just go ahead with my own ideas. If I looked into the viewfinder and thought it looked strange, I would fix it myself right away.

Old Tsuburaya was watching me during shoots and thought I was interesting. He was thinking of doing something new – optical effects – and thought I would be the right person for the job. If it hadn’t been for this, I wouldn’t have been in this world [of optical effects]. I might just have worked in [special effects] art. You never know what happens in life.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Let’s go back to Toho. Could you describe in more detail how you joined Toho, your initial impressions of Toho, and what it was like at the beginning?

SI: An acquaintance told me that they were looking for part-time workers to do artwork for Toho. I had other part-time jobs at the time, but I decided to go to Toho, where they were in the midst of shooting Godzilla. They were using miniatures, and I thought, “What are they doing with all these toys?” But, when I saw the rushes and how it looked on the screen, I thought, “This is magic!” I was hooked. Then Old Tsuburaya came along and said to me, “There’s something I want to do. You do it.” That’s how I got into it. He wanted to do optical effects like they were doing in the U.S. and was looking for someone on the staff who could do it. Somehow he singled me out, and that’s how I got into optical effects. We drew pictures and filmed them, then made composite shots with what they had shot. At the time, nobody else in Japan was doing this, but the Old Man wanted to do it. He wanted to use animation and combine it with shots that had been filmed. But there was no methodology at the time; it wasn’t digital like today. They were coming out with new types of film. And, in the U.S., they were taking advantage of this fact.

So we decided to get our hands on a certain kind of film and process it using an optical printer to burn composite shots onto the film. Later on, I spoke to technicians in Hollywood who said, “You did that? That’s amazing!” In the States, they were very orthodox; they had to follow certain rules and do things in a certain order. But we didn’t follow any rules and did things in whatever order we wanted. So the American technicians were very surprised at what we had done.

Normally, you shoot the film, then develop it. But we decided to shoot a second time on the film before it was developed. We burned several images onto the same piece of film. We used an optical printer to reverse the image, then shoot another image, and shoot again with a different image. They didn’t do that in the U.S. Once they shot a piece of film, they would develop it, then shoot with a new piece of film. But, in Japan, we didn’t have that much time, so we shot on the same piece of film over and over before we developed it. When I told the technicians in Hollywood about this, they said, “No way; you’re lying! That’s not possible!” I told them that film has this characteristic that allows you to burn several images onto it, and they were very interested in this technique. We would burn four or five images onto the same piece of film using an optical printer. In order to do this, we had to do many tests using different intensities of light and that sort of thing.

Nobody does this anymore, but at the time we were using film, [so we used this technique]. For special effects, I don’t know how many times we burned images onto the same piece of film. We did that kind of thing all the time. No one knew how to do this. But I was the type of person to experiment and try different things. Now, with digital [technology], I see young people sitting in front of their monitors doing things so easily, and I’m jealous of how easy it is for them. Normally, you would develop the film once it was shot. But we experimented by burning images onto the same piece of film several times before developing it. So, when I told the technicians in Hollywood, and they wouldn’t believe me. I told them, “You take a red light and a blue light, then reverse the film. That’s how you do it,” and the American technicians were so surprised. They said, “Japanese people are so amazing!”

But this comes from the wisdom you gain through daily life. I experimented with the number of times [I burned images onto a piece of film], and the order of each step. I was more of a chemist than a technician. In Japan, no other companies could do this kind of thing, only us [at Toho]. So Shochiku and Toei often came to me and said, “Please come work for our company and teach us how to do this.” I always refused and said, “This isn’t something that can be taught.” It was just the result of a lot of trial and error. I had the final picture in my mind and knew what I had to do. I knew that you could put different images onto the same piece of film by burning it several times. You can’t burn the same area of the film, so when you burn it a second time, you have to cover the area that was burned the first time. Technicians at Shochiku pleaded with me to teach them this technique. But I always refused. This comes from the wisdom you gain through daily life. You know you need to put more intensity here, less intensity there, and you repeatedly do tests. I hardly slept at night and often thought to myself, “Why in the world did I end up working at Toho? I was supposed to be an artist.”

People who joined the company after me ask how I did it [optical effects], but it’s not something you can explain verbally. I had no experience, so I just experimented over and over until it worked. I don’t know if “research” is the right word, but I would try something and fail. I would try something else and fail again. While I worked for Toho, I never slept. I came to the conclusion, “Sleep is not what you do at night.” After many failures, once in a while, I would have a major success. So you could say that it was by chance. There was a person named Dan in Hollywood who specialized in optical techniques, and he said, “You’re not human. Normally, you know what can be done and what can’t be done. But you know that, even if there’s something that normally can’t be done, you can make it work by doing this, then this, then this.” It’s work, after all. Nobody could teach me.

This applies to everything, but if you do something for the first time, you don’t know the answer. In order to find the answer, you have to think about the [mathematical] equation. And you do this repeatedly. Even if I spent two sleepless nights thinking about something, I would come up with an answer that seemed impossible. Then, I would think about it some more and say, “Wait! Maybe I can use this part of the answer to come up with the solution.” I would modify how I did something and try again. I repeated this cycle every day. So, when people asked me how I did something, I could never answer because there was no equation. I couldn’t tell them, “You do it this way.” I would say, “Let me think. I think I was in the darkroom for two hours…” That’s the only kind of answer I could give them. I was more like a craftsman.

As I said before, I wanted to work in the art department in movies and had the confidence to do it. But optical effects were unknown territory. Old Tsuburaya would simply say, “Do this.” But, when I asked him how to do it, he would always say, “You idiot! Come up with the answer yourself!” So all I could do was experiment and go through a lot of trial and error.

Thinking back on it, I realize that I could have done things more easily. Nowadays, if you go somewhere where they do optical effects, nobody uses film anymore. A lot of people in their 20s have never even seen film; they don’t even know what it is. Even [still] cameras don’t use film anymore. Everything is digital now, so you can take as many photos as you like. But, back in those days, we used rolls of film that you had to rewind once you finished taking photos. And, once you shot the film, you weren’t able to shoot it anymore. So I wonder if it was better that I worked in the period with film, or if I would have preferred working with digital [technology] like they do today. In that sense, I’ve become a historic person. If you take five young people and talk to them about film, they won’t understand a thing. They don’t even know what film is.

The times are evolving, and the technology and machines are evolving, too. It’s really frustrating to see people just clicking away and doing things on a monitor, because I spent so much time experimenting and trying to come up with the answer without sleeping for nights. Young people can do that so easily now. But movies are really about how much you can move the audience or surprise them. That’s what this work is about. It’s not about just making pretty pictures. Once in a while, somebody asks me to watch something, and I say to them, “You idiot! No one’s going to be surprised by this.” That’s all they’re able to do. They do everything like they’re following an equation. But, when I ask them to try breaking the equation, they say, “That’s impossible.” I tell them, “There’s no such thing as impossible. You just need to tweak things a bit. If you use a little imagination, then this work will become uniquely yours. If you’re just using techniques that even a kindergartner can use, how can you call yourself a technician?”

Those who push the system [technology] further are the ones who help it evolve. It’s not when they do whatever is asked of them but when someone says, “This is what we want to do. How do you think we should do it?” Then it’s a question of how you use the system to your advantage. Especially in movies and TV, the audience tends to be quite critical. So it’s whether you can move the audience or not. That’s the most important aspect of making movies. In music and literature, people can use their imagination. But, with movies, you can’t fool people; they directly see the image you’ve created. Films are about how you can move people emotionally.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: What specific work did you do on Godzilla ‘54? Even if you weren’t involved in it, what information could you tell us about the production?

SI: As I said before, I didn’t intend to work in cinema but joined Toho as a part-time job. When I started, they happened to be working on Godzilla. Then it was Godzilla Raids Again. It was one project after another, and I couldn’t quit Toho. That was how I got into movies. Then I got into TV with Ultraman (1966-67). I had so much work.

During the day, I worked at Toho, and at night I came home and worked on Ultraman. Somebody would come in the morning, and I would hand them my work. I was the one who thought of the Specium Ray. I didn’t do it for pleasure; it was just work for me. Old Tsuburaya said, “Please help them out,” so I couldn’t refuse the work. But my name was never in the credits for Ultraman because, at the time, I was under a contract at Toho and wasn’t supposed to work for other companies. So I would get in trouble if they put my name in the credits. But people at Toho said, “We could recognize right away that it was your work.”

My contract with Toho was for three films per year. That calculates to about four months per year at Toho. That meant I could do other work for the other eight months, so I decided it wouldn’t be a problem if I worked on Ultraman or Kamen Rider (1971-73). And people knew that, if they asked me to do something, I would do it. So I did one project after another for Toei. They asked me to come to Kyoto for tokusatsu work, but I just ended up drinking every night. But nobody else could do this work; I was the only one who could do these things. Shochiku also begged me to work for them, but I refused and told them, “I don’t want to belong to one single company.” I think it was destiny that I worked with Old Tsuburaya. If it weren’t for him, maybe I would have worked freely for other companies. It wasn’t really out of loyalty, but I refused work several times because of him. It’s important to remember your roots. If it weren’t for The Ten Commandments, I wouldn’t have been in this industry. I was the first in all of Japan to specialize in this work. Shochiku and Toei asked me to join them, but I refused because I didn’t want to be tied to one single company. Shochiku begged me to join them.

If one person starts using a certain technique, it’s also being done at a different company, just maybe not in the same way. It’s really a question of style. My sense of style came from Old Tsuburaya. For example, when Ultraman is fighting his enemy, my theory was that he shouldn’t kill the enemy right away. That would be too boring. A technician from Shochiku once told me that the pause before Ultraman fires the beam had a dramatic effect. Instead of using his weapon and killing the enemy right away, the pause before he fired the beam was uniquely my style. It came from experience and my knowledge about movies.

In action, it’s easy to fire the beam right away. But, if you fire the beam when the audience doesn’t expect it, they’re much more satisfied. You can’t lie in movies, unlike in literature or music, where people can use their imagination. Movies depict images in much more detail, so you have to know how people will react and feel about the scene. For example, when an actor sheds a tear, the audience also cries. That’s the magic of film. They’re not actually in that situation themselves, but, if they feel moved, they’ll laugh or cry. That’s because you can’t lie in movies. When people read literature, everyone is moved in a different way, and they may cry and laugh, or not at all. Movies are so much more difficult because the depiction is very concrete. You have to think about the audience’s perspective and create scenes that will move people.

In movies, you can’t fool the audience because they directly see the images you’ve created. So it’s difficult work. But I don’t think of it as work. What’s really important is the technique. When I see a carpenter using a chisel to drill a hole in wood, I think it’s amazing. Not everyone has that kind of technique. You have to go through years of training and put in a lot of effort to be able to do that. There’s no methodology; you have to think of how you’re going to solve the problem yourself. And, in order to find the right methodology, you try, you fail, you try, you fail. Then, finally, you succeed. So it doesn’t matter if you fail many times; you just need to succeed once. It’s a very inefficient process!

But, now, a lot of people tell me, “Den-san, you’re the one who invented this technique.” But I don’t agree. It was just that one technician went through a lot of trial and error out of necessity. It’s not a technique invented by one talented individual; it was just pure chance. So people are mistaken if they think that I invented it. I came up with it because I had to. People say, “Den-san, how did you come up with this?” I tell them, “Of course! Every night before I went to bed, I would have a glass of sake, find some white paper, and just keep drawing different beams.” That’s how focused I was.

My mother, who’s passed away, used to say, “You were always drawing, but you were always making sound effects [like ‘boom’ and ‘bang’] while you were drawing.” So I guess I always had it in me. As I said before, movies aren’t about making something that you think is interesting. It’s about how much you can move the audience emotionally, or surprise them. That’s what this work is about. You’re an idiot if you think your work is amazing. It doesn’t mean anything unless people are moved by your work. My juniors would say, “But your work is amazing!” I would tell them, “That may be true, but you keep that to yourself. Save that for when you’re having a drink at home. Don’t ever express to other people that you think your work is amazing.”

As I said before, I wanted to be a painter. I thought about the different kinds of expressions there are and thought, “I can’t do literature, I can’t do music. The only thing I can do is paint.” So that’s what I pursued. But, in terms of my own personal history, if I’ve made one thing that lasts, I’m happy.

For the first Godzilla, I worked in the art department. My main work was to make the miniatures. For the later Godzilla movies, I drew the beams. For the first Godzilla, they filmed the fire that Godzilla spews by using mist. When they started filming in color, for the scenes where Godzilla spews radiation from his mouth, they filmed him from different angles, and I airbrushed in the beam frame by frame, then superimposed it onto the film to make it look like he was really breathing fire [firing his ray].

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Do you remember which miniatures specifically you worked on on Godzilla ‘54?

SI: In the scenes where Godzilla destroys Tokyo, I worked on the buildings that he was going to destroy. The plaster technicians made the buildings with plaster. They were miniatures of actual buildings made at 1/25 and 1/40 [scale]. Once the buildings were made, we painted them just like the actual buildings [they were modeled after]. Then the special effects team would make cracks in the buildings so that, when they were damaged, they would fall apart properly. So I was working in the art department when Old Tsuburaya came up to me, as I told you before.

The Ten Commandments was the beginning of it all. Old Tsuburaya wanted to paint onto film that had been shot. His idea was to make movies that looked real, not like what Disney was doing. So, later on, every time Godzilla fired his beam in a different direction, that was another frame that we had to paint [using an airbrush]. We would then make a composite shot. Thinking back on it, my work was very boring. But, anyway, that’s how I transitioned from artwork.

Then I had to work on Ultraman for TV because I was the only person who could draw the beams. For the earlier Ultraman episodes, I drew every single beam. There are 24 frames per second. So, for one second, I had to draw 24 pages. I worked at Toho during the day, and at night somebody would drop off a huge stack of Kent paper that had rough sketches in pencil [so that I would know where to draw]. I would draw beams all night, and somebody would pick them up in the morning. For the earlier Ultraman episodes, I drew every single one of his beams because no one else was able to do this.

BH: One other thing about Godzilla ‘54: Do you have any other production memories about the making of that particular film?

SI: In the studio, we were making sets that would eventually be destroyed. But, for one scene, they decided that the set hadn’t been destroyed properly, so we had to rebuild it. It had to be done at night so that they could shoot the next day. We had to recreate the whole set. This kind of thing happened so many times, so we asked ourselves, “Why do we have to do this?” Of course, the set never fell apart the way they wanted.

In addition to the people in the art department who painted the buildings, there were people whom we called “destroyers.” Their job was to make cracks in the plaster with small knives so that the buildings would fall apart properly. When the director gave the signal, they would pull the piano wire, and the buildings would fall apart. Piano wire was attached to the cracks so that, when they pulled the piano wire, the buildings fell apart. They filmed this at five times the usual speed to make it look like the buildings were actually falling apart. Normally, there are 24 frames per second, but they were filming at five times the regular speed. If it’s five times faster, it’s 120 frames, so it’s high speed. None of the tokusatsu back then was filmed at normal speed. Speeding up the film made the 1/25 scale miniatures actually look like tall buildings that were falling apart. The way they fell looked realistic.

BH: Do you have anything else to share about Godzilla ‘54 specifically?

SI: We were all completely absorbed in what we were doing. Everybody was doing it for the first time. There were many times when we knew that it was going to be another all-nighter. We made every effort to make things look real. We were always wondering, “Is the color really like the actual building? Maybe the color should be more like this.” Because they were filming at high speed, they had to light everything up very brightly. But it was so bright that there were no shadows, so we had to paint the shadows on. We were like, “This is so stupid! You can make shadows with lights! Painting the shadows on is crazy.”

The technicians were so focused on making the details as realistic as possible. For example, they were making telephone poles that were going to be broken in half. They used kapok to make the telephone poles and shaved them down, and the stage set team made miniatures of traditional Japanese houses at 1/25 scale. They made these houses with such detail and even put in the ceilings. I said to one of the technicians, “What’s the point? They’re going to be destroyed anyway.” Then the person said, “Shut up! I’m making this!” I was very shocked when he said that. I felt the spirit of craftsmanship. He was making something that was fake, but he felt like he was making the real thing. I can still hear his voice.

That was the mentality of people who make and create things. Even for those of us who worked on the set, we were very impressed when we saw the film. There was so much visual impact. So I knew I’d entered such a strange world. But I really loved making things. I still think, if I’d been born into a rich family, I would have become a junior high school teacher. But it turned out to be a good thing that my family didn’t have money. It was just my luck that I met Old Tsuburaya. The technicians of that time were borderline crazy. They were so adamant about making things and so focused. 

BH: How long did you work on Godzilla ‘54?

SI: Including the preparation, just under two months. I think I worked a total of about 40 days over the two-month period.

BH: What were the hours like at that time?

SI: It was more than 18 hours per day. We would start at 9:00 a.m., and go home to sleep at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: [Was] that most days?

SI: Yes. We couldn’t work in shifts because there weren’t other people who could do the work. They would say, “OK, this team can go home now and get some sleep.” For the first Godzilla, none of us knew how it was going to turn out. But, when we saw the destruction scene onscreen, we thought, “Next time, we should do it this way,” and wanted to improve things. In a sense, Godzilla became our textbook of how  things should be done. During the shoot, we thought, “What is this?” because the buildings would just fall apart. But it was recorded in high speed at three or four times the normal speed, so, when you see it onscreen, it looks real, like actual buildings are crumbling.

In tokusatsu, we never filmed scenes like that at regular speed; the camera assistant would say, “We’ll be filming at four times the speed today.” Back then, it was very primitive. There was a battery and a motor, and the camera assistant would wind the motor by hand. He would check the meter and say, “It’s ready!” Then we could start the shoot. Later on, the technology improved so that you just needed to push a button, and the motor would automatically record at whatever speed was required. But, back then, it was very primitive; the camera assistant stood on top of a box and wound the motor by hand. I wasn’t on the camera team, but I saw how much trouble they had to go through.

BH: On Godzilla ‘54, who was your direct supervisor? Who was the person giving orders to the art assistants?

SI: Akira Watanabe, the art director, was my supervisor, and Old Tsuburaya was the director. Back then, none of us knew what we were doing; we were all completely in the dark. Every day, we did things by trial and error and thought, “Oh, no, it didn’t work. We have to do it again; we have to make the miniatures again.” We kept repeating this process. It was such demanding work. Today, it would be against labor standards.

But everybody loved what he was doing. You can’t work in those kinds of conditions if you don’t love what you are doing. We took pride in our work. If we thought it wasn’t right, we’d ask to do it over again. We were all completely in the dark, but we had a vision of what we wanted to achieve. Maybe it was because Toho had enough budget, but they let us do what we wanted. I remember once we made the same miniature three times. By the third time, the buildings looked real. That’s what technique is about. Every day, you put in effort, and things improve as a result of that effort.

Nobody told us to do this or that; we sensed it ourselves. “Oh, I should have done it like this.” That leads to the next step. Thinking back on it, we were just a group of idiots, but that’s how passionate we were about this movie. At the time, other people at Toho called us “the group of eccentrics and weirdos” because they saw us cheering loudly when a guy in a Godzilla suit destroyed a bunch of buildings. They said, “What a group of weirdos!” But, when we saw the screening of the film, everybody in the screening room stood up and applauded, saying “We did it!” I don’t think people nowadays feel that kind of excitement. But that’s what it means to make something. Even if what we were making was eventually going to be destroyed, we were very adamant about it and insisted on making it so that it would crumble in a particular way.

Going back to the story [about being told to shut up by the person making the houses], I can still hear his voice. That’s what making things is all about. If I had money, who knows, maybe I would have been an unsuccessful painter. But I ended up working in this strange industry instead.

BH: On Godzilla ‘54, what was Akira Watanabe like to work with? How was he as a supervisor?

SI: He didn’t do anything. He would just stand there with a camera hanging from his neck and inspect the set. He’d give a bit of advice, like, “Maybe you should change this a little bit.” I only worked with Nabe-san [Akira Watanabe’s nickname] on Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again. But he was a really nice man. There was a café across the street from Toho, and he would treat me to coffee. Everybody thought that the tokusatsu team was a bunch of weirdos. In a sense, you have to be a weirdo to do this work. Actors would say, “What are they doing? They’re crazy!” But, in the end, we made something that actually lasted.

At the time, Toho was going downhill financially and not doing very well. But, with Godzilla, the studio was able to bounce back. So Toho realized that these movies were good for business and decided to make more of them. Producer [Tomoyuki] Tanaka worked with Toho to make these movies. But, when I started working for Toho, I thought, “What are they doing shooting these miniatures? Who are they trying to fool? I prefer working with actresses!” 

When I saw the city crumble on the set, I wasn’t impressed. But, when I saw that scene on a square screen, I was so impressed. That’s the magic of movies. At first, I thought, “What is the point of destroying a bunch of toys?” But, when we saw the rushes onscreen, we were all very impressed. That’s not why I joined Toho, though. I just wanted a part-time job. And then Old Tsuburaya came along and told me he wanted to do something new. That’s why I ended up doing optical effects. He wanted to do The Ten Commandments, but I thought, “There’s no way we can do that!”

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Let’s talk about Godzilla Raids Again, the next film. This was made just a few months after the original Godzilla. What work did you do on the film, and how was it different?

SI: We had experience working on Godzilla, so we were used to the process. On Raids Again, we were actually able to work much more quickly. From our experience with Godzilla, we knew how to make buildings made of plaster crumble properly, so it was much easier for Raids Again. However, for the scene where Osaka Castle crumbles, that was another story. We had to make it three times because it didn’t fall apart properly. It took us two nights to remake the castle. I went to a photo store in Seijo [near Toho Studios] to develop photos of the miniature castle. The owner of the shop said, “Oh, that’s Osaka Castle!” When I told him that it was a miniature, he was so surprised! That’s how real it looked. That made me very happy.

Nobody on the tokusatsu staff had any experience. We would try one thing and see if it worked or not. Then we would say, “Maybe it would work better if we improved this.” So that’s how the technique evolved, because there was nobody who could teach us how to do it. For example, if we wanted to make a miniature of a building, we would go to the actual building and say, “How many stories is this building? Can we borrow your blueprints?” But they would never give us the blueprints. So we took a meter stick and took photos of the building. Then we enlarged the photos and measured the height of the building, using the meter stick as reference. That was the only way we could make miniatures of the building, because we couldn’t say to them, “We’re going to destroy this building, so give us the blueprints.” 

Thinking back on it, we did a great job. Nowadays, with digital effects, it would be so easy to do, but, back then, we had to make every single thing. I think that fact alone is enough to make tokusatsu a part of history. Shochiku wanted to know how we did it, but, back then, we had to keep everything top secret. At that time, I thought, “Why do we have to keep it secret?” But Toho didn’t want outsiders to know the techniques and the know-how. Later on, at Toei, they asked me how we did it, and I told them once. They wanted to know how to make miniatures look like the real thing, how to make them not look like miniatures. We [at Toho] we were desperate to make them look like the real thing; we even painted the corners of the building so they looked a bit dirty.

BH: In Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), there’s a miniature horse that they use, and it’s not very convincing. There’s a longstanding anecdote that someone asked Mr. Tsuburaya, “Why did you include this fake-looking horse? It doesn’t look good.” And Mr. Tsuburaya supposedly said, “Well, it’s more fun that way.” What’s your response to that?

SI: Movies aren’t made to satisfy the people who make them; they’re made for the audience. You want to surprise them and fulfill their expectations. It’s not about the people who made the movie feeling like they made a great movie. You want to elicit a reaction from the audience. When I was a child, I often went to watch “Kurama Tengu,” starring Kanjuro Arashi, which was a very popular movie back then. There’s a scene where Kurama Tengu, the hero, is in danger. He chases the enemy on horseback, and everybody in the audience would applaud loudly. That’s how much importance the filmmakers placed on the audience’s reaction. Movies, like theater, are about entertainment; they’re made for the audience, not for the professionals who make them. In the movies I saw as a child, even if the hero is badly wounded, we never see any blood. If the audience saw blood, they would avert their eyes, which wouldn’t be effective. So, even if the hero is wounded, he doesn’t bleed, and the audience cheers because they feel good. If they see blood, they would be shocked and wouldn’t feel good about the movie. That’s what movies are all about. That’s why I always say, “Movies are about lying.”

I think the real objective of movies is to depict something false as if it were the truth. We [filmmakers] shouldn’t be satisfied with our work; the point is to elicit a reaction from the audience. That’s the real pleasure of making movies. We would often go to the theater because we wanted to see the audience’s reaction. We considered it as part of our professional spirit because we would learn what worked and what didn’t, and that would lead us to the next step.

BH: Going back to Godzilla Raids Again, was Akira Watanabe the same on this, or was he more involved?

SI: He was the head of the special effects art department. He was the same, and he basically just hung around. But, for the crucial points, he would give his opinion and say, “Maybe this should be done like this instead.” I never knew where he came from or what his real job was. When I first joined Toho on Godzilla, I thought, “There are a lot of people who do nothing around here,” while the rest of us hardly ever slept. But I understood later that that was just the way the movie industry was structured. There were the people working on the set, and then Nabe-san would come in and say, “You know…” And everybody would listen to him. He was respected.

Later on, I realized that the miniatures were as incredible as they were because of Nabe-san’s presence. On the surface, you would just see him walking onto the set and think he wasn’t doing anything. But, later, I understood that he had a very objective point of view. People working on the set just see what they’re doing, but you need somebody who can take a step back and see things objectively. People working on the set were desperate to get their work done, so they weren’t thinking about looking at their work objectively. But Nabe-san was able to take a step back and see the whole picture. So he would give his opinion, and people would listen. He was very good at this.

Old Tsuburaya would always ask for Nabe-san’s opinion; that’s how important Nabe-san was to him. Later on, when I was working in optical effects, I was able to appreciate Nabe-san and his contribution. Before I started doing optical effects, I always thought, “Why are they shooting this?” But, once I started doing optical effects, I was able to have a more objective point of view and would think things like, “They should put a little more action here.” Anyway, I ended up in a very strange industry. It’s too late to regret it, but, if I hadn’t met Old Tsuburaya, I wouldn’t have been in the movie industry. That old man ruined my life!

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Do you have any other memories of Godzilla Raids Again?

SI: What I remember most is having to make Osaka Castle three times because it wouldn’t fall apart properly. So we kept having to make another miniature, just because it didn’t fall apart properly. I was on the set for Godzilla Raids Again and the next film after that. But then the Old Man asked me to work on his new project. It’s all because of that movie, The Ten Commandments. He really wanted to do that, to do optical effects. So I started doing optical effects, although I wanted to work in the art department. On Godzilla Raids Again, I thought they shouldn’t make suits for monsters that walk on four legs. It doesn’t look real; it just looks like a dog. I thought they should never make four-legged monster suits ever again.

BH: How long did you work on Godzilla Raids Again?

SI: It was about two months. We worked for about 40 days in total over a two-month period, including the retakes. In those days, if you were shooting a movie for two months, that was considered a major film. I always regretted joining the movie industry, but, after I started working in optical effects, I became very passionate about my work. I really enjoyed seeing how processing film impacted a movie. The Ten Commandments became my textbook.

When I went to the States and talked about my work in Japanese movies, people were really impressed. I was surprised that they were so impressed with me! When I went to Hollywood, I was only supposed to be there for one day, but they asked me to come back again the next day. So I ended up spending three days with these technicians specializing in optical effects.

BH: The next film I’d like to talk about is Half Human (1955). Please talk about the work that you did on Half Human.

SI: For Half Human, I didn’t do the optical effects. They asked me to work onset and help the art department. For some sections of the Snowman creature, we used real snow. Well, we didn’t have real snow, so we used shaved ice, which was a lot of trouble.

But, on that film, you could tell that it was a human being wearing a suit. It didn’t look like a real Snowman creature; he would walk in a more dramatic way. Because I came from a painting background, realism was important to me. So, even though movies are about lying, it’s not good to lie too much. That was [one of] the last film[s] on which I worked on the special effects art side.

BH: How long did you work on it?

SI: I didn’t work on it the whole time, but I think they shot it over two months. I remember it being very cold in Studio 1 because they were using real snow or, rather, shaved ice to make snow. So it was very cold in the studio! That’s the only thing I remember about this movie. Around that time, I started doing optical effects at Old Tsuburaya’s insistence. In the movie industry, optical effects departments already existed, but they didn’t do the kind of special optical effects we wanted to do. At Toho, for example, they would add in paintings of faraway mountains to film that had been shot to give [the shot] perspective. But we started adding in film that had been shot.

I was the one who came up with senga [line drawing]. For example, Ultraman’s Specium Ray has lots of lines in it. So that’s all I did, draw lines. I was the one who came up with Ultraman’s Specium Ray and other beams for monsters; I drew them all. There are 24 frames per second, so, if a beam lasted for three seconds, I had to draw 72 frames. I stayed up every night and didn’t sleep because nobody else was able to do this. I wanted to go out and have fun, but I couldn’t. (laughs)

BH: The next film I’d like to talk about is Madame White Snake (1956). That’s with Ms. [Kaoru] Yachigusa, and you like Kaoru Yachigusa.

SI: I worked on this movie because Kaoru Yachigusa was in it. I couldn’t care less about Yoshiko [Shirley] Yamaguchi. Yoshiko Yamaguchi, who was also known as Ri Koran, was very famous; she was a big star in Manchuria. But, when we saw both of them, everybody was more interested in Ms. Yachigusa. She was so cute!

They built a big pool for the set, and there was a scene where Ms. Yachigusa and Yoshiko Yamaguchi were holding onto a tree because they were being washed away in a river. When they stopped rolling, they were very cold, so everybody offered Ms. Yachigusa a towel, but nobody offered Yoshiko Yamaguchi one! I felt so bad for her. Nobody offered her a towel, poor woman.

BH: What kind of work did you do on Madame White Snake?

SI: I was helping the art department, in scenes like where the two were being washed away in the river. We made a huge pool and kept filling it with water to make it look like a river. The cameraman was a famous cameraman named Mitsuo Miura. He put a dolly in the pool and shot the scene from the dolly. That’s how he ruined his health. The camera assistants said, “Mr. Miura, we’ll take over, so please come out of the pool,” but he insisted on staying in the pool. [Mitsuo Miura died on October 24, 1956, at age 53.]

Sadao Iizuka poses with actress Kaoru Yachigusa. Photo © Sadao Iizuka.

[Mr. Iizuka shows a photo of himself with Yachigusa] Once a year, all the Toho actors and staff would get together at a party called Hoyukai. Ms. Yachigusa saw me and said, “I haven’t seen you in a while.” It’s such a shame that Ms. Yachigusa has passed away. She was so cute! She used to be in Takarazuka and played the role of a young girl. Madame White Snake was her first movie. After that, she became a movie actress. She was so cute! As soon as I saw her, I was always very earnest. There were many actresses at Toho. But, once you saw Ms. Yachigusa, none of the other actresses mattered. When she debuted as a film actress, she was so cute. It was almost unbearable, she was so cute. She had a style that no other actress had.

At first, she was a member of Toho’s Takarazuka Revue. Toho often took girls from this group and used them as movie actresses. Toho owned Takarazuka, so they had their pick of actresses. Ms. Yachigusa was one of the actresses whom Toho introduced to cinema. I adored Ms. Yachigusa, so, if she was going to be in a movie, I made sure I could work on it. Everyone wanted to work on her movies. I thought, “She’s become such a good actress,” but [director] Senkichi Taniguchi beat me to it and married her. Everyone said, “That bastard Senkichi!” We all complained!

In the Takarazuka Theater, there was a room where the actresses hung out. I would go there when all the girls from the Takarazuka Revue were in the room and say, “Somebody get me some tea,” and they would all bring me tea. Many of these girls became famous actresses. But I loved Ms. Yachigusa, not just as an actress. When she debuted in cinema, she was unbearably cute. When we took this photo, she was the one who came up to me and said, “I haven’t seen you in a while.” That’s how close we were. It’s not that we were dating, but everyone knew, because Toho and Takarazuka were like one company. That’s why I treasure this photo so much. It’s such a shame that she has passed away. There weren’t that many great actresses at Toho. Setsuko Hara was an amazing actress, but, other than her, there were only weird actresses like Reiko Dan, who looked like a dumpling [dango, a play on words with her surname]. Ms. Hara was so beautiful, especially if you saw her in person.

Back then, it was strictly forbidden to walk shoulder to shoulder with an actress on the studio grounds. If someone saw you with your arm around an actress, you would be punished by Toho. But, during the shoot, you could bring her a towel after a take, for example. So we were all competing to bring her a towel and place it over her shoulders. That’s how popular Ms. Yachigusa was. Toho wasn’t able to produce great actresses, so they had to bring them in from Takarazuka or elsewhere. Among such actresses, Ms. Yachigusa was the best. The greatest actress at Toho was Setsuko Hara. Other than that, there were only useless actresses like Reiko Dan; nobody was interested in speaking to her. Ms. Yachigusa wasn’t interested in cinema, but, because she was in Takarazuka, which was owned by Toho, they brought her in for Madame White Snake and turned her into a movie actress.

At that time, nobody cared if a new actress came [to Toho] from Takarazuka. But it was different with Ms. Yachigusa; she was so popular. There were at least 10 of us who were big fans. That’s how cute she was, unbearably cute, even though she was older than us. People think actors have bigger bodies, but it’s not true. Good actors have bigger faces. They’ve always said that, ideally, actors’ faces should be big compared to their bodies. Ms. Yachigusa had that balance; her body was slim, but her face stood out compared to her body. That’s what a lot of people liked about her. There were very few actresses from Takarazuka who became successful movie actresses.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: What else did you do on Madame White Snake? Could you talk about your actual work on it?

SI: For Madame White Snake, I worked in the special effects art department. For the scene I mentioned earlier where Ms. Yachigusa and Yoshiko Yamaguchi are caught in a huge flood, and they’re hanging on to a tree, I just went to help out for that scene because I knew Ms. Yachigusa was going to be there. They had built a pool on the set and had filled it with water. Someone said, “Ms. Yachigusa’s over there!” and everyone brought her a towel. I didn’t do any work at all.

There were many Yachigusa fans in the art department, and we were all trying to bring her a towel. We would say, “It’s my turn next!” She was so cute; that’s the only word I can use to describe her. Most of the guys in the department were her fans, so, as soon as we heard that she was going to be in a movie, we all wanted to work on that movie. She was a member of the Takarazuka Revue and it was the first time she was in a movie. Every time we found out that she was at the studio, it was mayhem. We would all get excited and say, “Ms. Yachigusa is here!”

That’s how beautiful she was. She was two or three years older than us, but age didn’t matter because she was so cute, unbearably cute. Director Senkichi Taniguchi married her, and everybody was extremely jealous of him. But, if I think about it, she was older than us, so it made sense. Toho and Takarazuka were the same company, so they could do whatever they wanted. If Toho thought that a girl in the Takarazuka Revue was good, they would cast her in a movie. They liked Ms. Yachigusa’s Takarazuka performance and thought that she was perfect for the role, so they cast her in this movie. That’s how she became a movie actress.

Back then, I was excited to go to Toho every day! (laughs) She wasn’t just beautiful; we thought that she was super cute. Something about her made you just want to hug her; that’s the kind of girl she was. She was two or three years older than us, but, damn it, she was so cute. I feel nostalgic about those days. That’s why I still have this photo [with Ms. Yachigusa]. It’s the treasure of my life.

[At the party,] she recognized me, even though we had both become old. Back then, it was forbidden by the company to date actors and actresses. So we couldn’t be open about it. Sometimes, I had to go to the main office [of Toho], and I would drop by the room in the Takarazuka Theater where all the actresses hung out. Some of them became very good actresses, even if they didn’t become very famous. So I would go to this room and say, “Let’s have some tea!” The café across the street did deliveries, so I would order some tea, and we drank the tea together. That was so much fun.

The name Toho is actually an abbreviation of Tokyo Takarazuka. Toho was founded by Ichizo Kobayashi, who was a show manager. I heard about an episode where an old man was sweeping the floor at the Hibiya Movie Theater during the break. Someone said, “Hey, old man, you’re in the way!” It turned out to be Ichizo Kobayashi. He was a show manager and created the Toho movie studio. He was the birth father of Toho.

I was involved in the movie industry during its peak, and I was there after the peak, too. During Toho’s prime years, a lot of Takarazuka actresses wanted to become a movie actress like Ms. Yachigusa and be onscreen. So, whenever I hung out in the actors’ room at Takarazuka, a lot of actresses came up to me because I worked at Toho, even though I was a nobody. They treated me really well, just because I worked at Toho. They all dreamed of being in a movie and becoming a movie actress.

I feel so nostalgic about those days. We took such pride in our work and were passionate about our jobs. I don’t think people nowadays would understand. Like Toho and Takarazuka, Shochiku also had a theatrical troupe, but not many of them became movie actresses, whereas Toho produced a number of movie actresses from its Takarazuka members, probably because Ichizo Kobayashi had that kind of talent.

BH: Let’s talk about Rodan (1956). Certainly, there’s the elaborate volcano scene at the end of the movie, and I know you have something to say about that. Please talk about your work on Rodan.

SI: I was in the special effects art department and did the artwork. For the volcano scene when it erupts, there were a few foundries in Kawaguchi [in Saitama Prefecture]. They spent one month melting iron agents, which we used for the shoot. We used real slag! It’s surprising that they allowed us to do that. Normally, you would probably use some paint with steam come out of it or something, but we used real molten iron. At the time, I thought, “What idiots! Filmmakers are such idiots! Why do they do such insane things?” But, because we used real iron, it had so much impact. I think they decided to do it this way for the sake of realism. It’s probably because Godzilla had been such a hit, so, when the tokusatsu team said, “We want to do this,” they [Toho] shelled out the money.

When Rodan comes flying down the volcano, he’s hanging from two piano wires. But one of the piano wires melted and fell to the ground because of the heat from the molten iron. So he was just hanging by one wire, and the staff was making his wings flap like crazy. So he’s flapping his wings, and the other Rodan comes flying and circles around him. Everybody said, “That was such a sentimental scene.” But we all knew that it wasn’t sentimental at all; it happened because of a mistake! But that scene became famous.

But what did they expect? We were using real molten iron, so of course the piano wire would snap! Rodan was hanging by one wire, so they were going to stop shooting, but Old Tsuburaya said, “Keep rolling! Keep rolling!” Those words created that sentimental scene. (laughs) We all said, “Only the Old Man could have the foresight!” But it was because of a mistake. One of the wires had snapped, but the other piano wire was still good. So Rodan’s flapping his wings, and the Old Man says, “Keep rolling! Keep rolling!” But it ended up being a good scene. Everybody thought he was going to yell, “Cut!” and that we were going to have to reshoot the scene. But he said, “Keep rolling! Keep rolling! Keep rolling!” There were two or three cameras rolling. One of the newspaper reviews said that it was a very sentimental scene. Not at all! But that’s what cinema is all about. It’s about these kinds of coincidences. Old Tsuburaya had the foresight and decided to keep rolling with two or three cameras.

BH: There’s another scene in Rodan where Mr. [Haruo] Nakajima is in the suit, the piano breaks, and he falls into the water. So it’s a different scene, but, again, the wire broke. Do you remember why the wire broke in that situation?

SI: I wasn’t at the shoot, so I don’t know. But there were so many unexpected things that happened on the set. But Old Tsuburaya was sitting next to the camera [when one of the piano wires holding Rodan snapped] and saw what was happening. The assistant was going to stop filming, but Old Tsuburaya said, “No, keep rolling! Keep rolling!” That’s how they were able to shoot such a great scene. So we were all impressed.

He was a cameraman at heart, so he was always conscious about the image. When he was filming a ninja movie in Kyoto, there was a scene with two ninjas who were talking. One of the ninjas left, but the camera kept rolling. Old Tsuburaya said, “That’s great! It looks like the ninja disappeared! We’ll use that.” That was the way he saw things. He was able to leverage the magic of film. We were always on edge because we never knew what he was going to ask us to do. But, if it hadn’t been for him asking me to do the impossible, I wouldn’t have been in the movie industry. I probably would have done something else. But, one day, he suddenly came up to me and said, “Do this!” That changed my life forever. But he really took care of me. Actually, he took care of my wife, not me. And he basically ordered us to get married, even though we didn’t want to. But he said, “I plead with you, please marry her.” So he attended our wedding as our official matchmaker [the person who officially introduces the couple to each other and presides over their wedding].

Photo © Brett Homenick.

We had a Japanese wedding in a traditional tatami room. The Old Man had been the official matchmaker for many couples but only for [Western-style] weddings that were held at hotels. So he had never officiated a wedding in a traditional setting. We had a traditional Japanese wedding because that’s what my mother wanted. Old Tsuburaya loved it and said, “Now that’s a real wedding!” He said to us, “You two should go on a honeymoon!” I said, “I don’t have any money.” But he happened to have a membership card for a hotel and said, “Here, use this.” So we went to Yugawara for our honeymoon. The Old Man was very fond of my wife. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have been in this industry. He always demanded the impossible, and I always thought, “Damn him!” But that’s how it all started. He took really good care of my wife. He made her sit next to him and asked her, “Would you like some coffee?” He never asked the rest of us! He would order coffee from the café across the street from Toho. But, in the end, he told us to get married; it was an order. I told him, “No way!” because there was another girl I liked.

BH: What other work did you do on Rodan?

SI: For Rodan, I worked in the art department. After Rodan, I went into optical effects. But, for Rodan, I made the volcano that erupts and the Iwataya department store. Rodan lands on the roof of Iwataya, and it falls apart. That’s the kind of work I did for the art department. I wanted to work in the art department, but, because the Old Man wanted me to help him with his new project, I ended up doing optical effects. As I told you before, it was because he wanted to do something like The Ten Commandments and singled me out to do the job, for some reason.

In the scene with Yamata no Orochi in The Three Treasures (1959), Old Tsuburaya wanted to make it looks like flames, so he ordered us to draw in the flames as animation. That was the beginning of my work in optical effects. He said, “This is the way film is going, so I want you to do this.” I don’t know why he singled me out, but that’s how I started my career in optical effects.

When I worked on Ultraman with Tsuburaya [Productions], I drew every single one of Ultraman’s beams. After coming home from Toho, I stayed up all night to draw them. In the morning, a young guy would come pick up the thick stack of drawings I had done. I airbrushed a black beam on white paper. When it was filmed, the colors would be reversed, and it looked like a white beam on a black background. Then we would burn that onto the film using an optical printer. So, before I knew it, I was working in optical effects.

BH: Was it dangerous to work with molten iron?

SI: Of course it was dangerous! In Kawaguchi, there were many small foundries that had blast furnaces for melting iron. They melt iron in a furnace and pour it into molds to make all kinds of iron products. We hired two foundries for the shoot. It’s unbelievable, but we used real molten iron. We needed to melt lots of iron, so we tried to get our hands on as much iron products as possible. Two companies came [to Toho] with a blast furnace and melted iron over several days, working late into the night. I guess they [Toho] had money back then, but it was such a stupid idea.

Two specialists came from the foundries in Kawaguchi, and they melted iron every day in the blast furnace. It was so much work. We couldn’t use tin; it had to be iron, otherwise the molten iron wouldn’t be thick enough. The guys from Kawaguchi were being paid, but they worked really hard. I still can’t believe it.

We made a backdrop and built the volcano from plaster in front of the backdrop. When they gave us the sign, we poured molten iron from behind the backdrop. Looking back on it, it was such a stupid idea; we didn’t need to use real molten iron. But they insisted on doing it this way. What a waste of labor!

[Referring to a drawing] This is the backdrop, and this is the miniature set. There’s a hole that’s hidden here. Behind the backdrop was the blast furnace containing the molten iron. When they said, “OK, release it,” we released the molten iron, and it poured onto the set. It was such a stupid idea! Because Godzilla was such a huge hit, Toho was ready to do whatever the Old Man wanted to do. Looking back on it, it was such a stupid idea. Nowadays, you can do this very easily with optical effects. We released real molten iron, so it burned whatever it touched. It looked like real lava.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: So how did they clean it up?

SI: I don’t know. The guys who made the stage set probably cleaned it up. [After the shoot,] there were lumps of iron left, which the guys from Kawaguchi took back with them in their truck along with the blast furnace. They probably made utensils from

them or something. I think the guys from Kawaguchi were quite bold to come and do this. The plaster would burn if it came into contact with the molten iron, so we had to solidify the plaster with cement to prevent it from burning. They [Toho] had so much money back then, didn’t they? [Looking at a photo] Isn’t that right, Old Man? Look, he [Tsuburaya] is glaring at me. Like I said, if I hadn’t met Old Tsuburaya, I wouldn’t have worked in this industry. He was always asking me to do the impossible, which really frustrated me. He led me down the wrong path.

But the Old Man really took me under his wing. In Hollywood, they had already done it [optical effects], so he really wanted to do it and singled me out for the job. He said, “Do it! Do it! Do it!” There was no methodology at all. When I asked him how I should do it, he said, “You come up with the answer yourself, you idiot!” That’s how the conversation always ended. It was very frustrating for me, so I thought about it really hard. I thought about it a lot and came up with a solution. When somebody asks you to do something that’s impossible, there are two things that can happen. You either put in all your effort and come up with a solution, or you give up and  leave. It’s one or the other. I was very stubborn, so I decided to take on the challenge. That’s what kept me going. I wonder what would have happened if I’d said, “Screw this! “and left Toho. I probably wouldn’t have existed [at Toho or in the industry].

But Toho was the only film studio that had this technology. Later on, Shochiku and Toei started doing it [optical effects] too, but they couldn’t do what we were doing at Toho. When Shochiku invited me, I was surrounded by optical effects technicians, who bombarded me with questions. “How did you do this? How did you do that?” When I explained how I did something, they asked, “How did you do that?” So I showed them how I did it, then asked them to do it. They always ended up saying, “Oh, that’s OK. We can’t do it.” Some of the technicians actually understood how Ultraman’s Specium Ray or other monsters’ beams were done, but nobody could draw them. No, it’s not that nobody could draw them; there wasn’t anybody to direct the technicians [like Tsuburaya].

Somebody asked me, “How did you come up with the Specium Ray that’s emitted from his [Ultraman’s] hand?” I saw a scene [on which I had worked] in a science lab where there’s an evil beam that’s used to block other beams. It was my own beam, so I decided to steal the idea and came up with the Specium Ray. Whenever somebody said, “It’s such an amazing beam!” I would say, “It’s not amazing at all. I just plagiarized my own beam, so nobody can complain.” I came up with all sorts of things, but the Old Man became more and more demanding.

Like I said earlier, the Old Man had seen The Ten Commandments and was impressed with the combination of animation with scenes that had actually been shot, and wanted to make something similar. But there weren’t any technicians in Japan who had the technology. When I went to Hollywood, I explained how I did the beams. The technicians were all surprised and said, “No way!” It was their turn to be surprised. I told them, “I didn’t want to imitate what you guys had done, so I came up with my own method.” They were so impressed. I was only supposed to be in Hollywood for one day, but they asked me to come back the next day.

BH: How long did you work on Rodan?

SI: It was about 40 days. Back then, one month would be considered long for a shoot, and the longest would be about 40 days. Even if Toho had the money, they didn’t want to spend that much money on one movie. They wanted to make a movie and move on to the next one. They made a lot of money, but we didn’t see any of that ourselves. It’s the same nowadays; none of the film studios wants to spend a lot of money on one movie. Producers want to show how good they are by spending as little money as possible. When I went to Toei in Kyoto, they were happy because I stayed within the budget. I said, “Of course! I think about how I can stay within the budget.”

BH: After you became [involved] in optical [effects], you did the TohoScope logo. So please talk about designing the TohoScope logo.

SI: Yes, I did the Toho logo. It wasn’t really optical effects. I had a piece of glass with the Toho logo and the company name underneath the logo, and stood it upright. Behind it was a rotating disk made of cut glass, which emitted rays of light when it was lit. Behind that, there was a round stand with red and other color lights that also rotated. When both the cut glass and the colored light behind it rotated, you would see rays of glittering light. For the later version, we used optical effects. But we filmed the first version manually. They wanted me to do the second version because I had done the first version. Toho still uses the second version.

When movies became widescreen, the light in the back wasn’t wide enough. So [for the second version], we used an upright oval for the Toho logo, which cast a silhouette. We first filmed the Toho logo with the light in front. When we projected that film, you could see light glittering through the Toho logo. They’re still using that version today! Most of the Toho movies today still use that version. If only I had the copyright…

Back then, the only way we could do this was by hand. Today, it would be so easy to do with digital [effects], but we didn’t have that kind of technology back then. So we had to do everything by hand. When I was in the movie industry, things were so hard. If I worked in the movie industry now, it would be so easy. The way we did things was so primitive.

[Referring to a drawing] We etched the Toho logo onto glass. Behind it, we had a plate of cut glass that was lit from behind. When both the cut glass and the light behind it rotated, you would see glittering light. It’s very primitive, isn’t it?

BH: So you were involved in making the original Toho logo.

SI: Yes, I did the first one.

BH: What did you do specifically?

SI: I designed it. I had to think about how it could be done, and this was the only way I could think of. Nobody could teach me how to do it. A piece of glass etched with the Toho logo was placed in front of a black backdrop. We had a light in front of the glass with the Toho logo, so you would just see the logo on a black backdrop. First, we filmed it like this in color. Then we switched off the front light, so you could only see the silhouette of the logo. [This step was to mask the logo to ensure they don’t film over the logo when they reverse the film and shoot it a second time.] Then we reversed the film and shot the glittering light coming through. By doing this, you have both the logo and the glittering light coming through. It was a lot of work to do this.

I had to come up with the method of how we were going to do this. I thought about it and thought about it, then came up with this method. I didn’t build this, but someone had to come up with the method. It was very primitive.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

It was fine to make it once, but we had to make it for four different companies: Toho Production, Toho Distribution, Toho Takarazuka, and there was another one [whose name I’ve forgotten], Toho something distribution. So we had to do this four times, with four different pieces of glass. The Toho logo was the same. We had a company make the different pieces of glass with each company name, but we had to replace the glass each time we filmed. How primitive! But we had to do it this way because, if you copy film, you get more grain, and it looks rough. So, in order to get a clean image, this was the only way we could do it. Film is made up of tens of thousands of particles. If you duplicate the film, you’ll burn the same particles, so you get grain. In order to avoid burning over the same particles, we took the same piece of film and shot it several times. This was the only way we could get a clean image. Back then, there was only one original film [negative]. You could make as many copies of it as you wanted, but there was only one original film [negative] that was shot. It would have been easier to make copies, but we filmed each one [company name] separately.

Kodak makes good film, but they also made film specifically for duplication, which is called intermediate film. But you couldn’t use it with normal lighting. You had to use direct artificial lighting. With the film we used, the only way we could do this was by reversing it and shooting over it several times. Thinking back on it, it was so primitive, wasn’t it? But this was the only way we could do it.

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