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 January 2021, Mr. Iizuka discussed his optical effects work at Toho and beyond in his second interview with Brett Homenick, for which translation was provided by Maho Harada.
Sadao Iizuka: The management at Toho said, “Why don’t you become an employee?” But, if I became an employee at Toho, I would be dyed the same color as everyone else, and I wouldn’t be able to escape. I wanted to work freelance. As a contract employee at Toho, I had an annual contract. I only had to work on two films a year. I loved my job, and the only thing that mattered was that I had work. So I decided that I wanted to work freelance. At Toho, I had enough work as a freelancer. Anybody at Toho could become a full-time employee, but I didn’t want to be an employee!
At Toho, it was Old Tsuburaya who created this field within the film industry. The staff at the time, including myself, had no idea how to do any of this. We had no methodology or knowledge. Unlike today — where everything is digitized with computers, and anyone is able to use this technology — back then, everything was done by hand. So, if we wanted to do something, we had to think of how we could accomplish it. In film, each cut [shot] lasts at least two seconds, which means there are 48 frames that need to be made. We did everything by trial and error. We would go home after work and continue thinking about how we could accomplish whatever it was we were trying to do. That was the only way we could do it.
Brett Homenick: Today, I want to talk about the TohoScope logo. You wrote in English “TohoScope” [for the logo].
SI: I made it the same way any film company would make its title. The Toho logo was carved in glass, with “A Toho Production” or “TohoScope” underneath the logo. Thinking back on it, the method I used was very primitive. I drew the Toho logo on paper and glued it onto the glass. I went to see a movie a while ago and was surprised to see that they’re still using the same title today.
I set up a projector in the background that projected glittering light and shot it with the Toho logo in the front of the light. I used a large optical machine and set it up so that we could shoot both [the piece of glass with the Toho logo and the glittering light from the back] onto the same film. When I explained how I did this, people were very surprised. At Toho, Old Tsuburaya invented a lot of machines to make composites so that we could shoot whatever he had in mind.
There was a projector in the back that projected light through the glass. The logo and the title were on the front side of the glass, so you would only see the silhouette because of the light projected from the back. After that, we reversed the film and shot it again, this time using a black backdrop and a light projected onto the front of the logo and title. By shooting over the silhouette of the logo and title with light glittering from the back [onto the same film] without developing the film, you get both the logo and title lit from the front with the glittering light in the back.
It was so primitive, a childish way to do it, but it was the only method we could come up with then. Afterward, they came up with the optical printer, which allowed us to shoot on the same film twice. Before that, everything was done by hand because we didn’t have the necessary tools. Looking back now on how we did it, it seems so stupid! But none of the movie companies in Japan had this methodology. Toho was the only company that was able to do this.
BH: In making the TohoScope logo, did you have any difficulty working with the English letters, or was that fairly easy to do?
SI: It was easy because we drew it directly on the glass. When you project light from the back, the logo and letters appear as a silhouette. It was very primitive. There were about five movie companies at the time, including Toho, but no other company was able to come up with this method. When the Shochiku staff found out how I did it, they wouldn’t believe me. They said, “There’s no way you could do that.” (laughs) But Toho was able to do it because of Eiji Tsuburaya, and we technicians had to come up with a way to make it happen.
BH: Let’s talk about The Mysterians (1957). This was your first job as an optical technician.
SI: Someone came up with the phrase “optical shooting.” I came up with the technique of first shooting the silhouette of the Toho logo and title, then shooting over the same film with the Toho logo and title lit from the front, but someone — I don’t know who — decided to call this technique kogaku, which is the study of light, and means “optics.”
We technicians constantly thought about the methodology and did a lot of trial and error. We failed many times, but we had to come up with the methodology. In the beginning, we weren’t able to reverse the film and shoot over the same film. But the optical printer allowed us to reverse the film without exposing the area that we had already shot. For example, with the Toho logo, we first shoot the silhouette, then reverse the film and shoot it a second time with a light from the front on the Toho logo. By doing this, the logo appears on the silhouette.
They may not use it anymore, but the logo was slightly out of position. If you look very carefully, you’ll see a shadow because it wasn’t perfectly aligned. But, back then, we were very happy that we were able to shoot the logo this way. We didn’t have the tools and lacked the skills and experience, so we did a lot of trial and error. That’s how the technique evolved.
BH: Specifically, about The Mysterians, could you talk about what you did on the film?
SI: The Markalite emitted a ray, but it was a lot of work to draw the ray. We wanted to shoot some bubbles, so we got an aquarium and a machine that fired air bubbles very rapidly. We had a black backdrop and shot the bubbles, turning the camera sideways and upside down to get the angle we wanted. Against the black backdrop, the bubbles appeared white and looked like they were moving fast.
We used a very big lens called a condenser, which allowed us to shoot on the same film twice. We put a piece of glass in front of the condenser and checked the position of the area we wanted to black out. To prevent shooting over a certain area on the film, we painted over the area [on the condenser] with black paint or used black paper to cover the area so that it wouldn’t be exposed on the film. Then we would reverse the film and shoot it again, this time with light projected from the front.
Film can only be exposed once; you can’t shoot over the same area twice. So, the first time, you have to black out the area that you want to film the second time around. [By blacking out that area,] you only see a silhouette, and the blacked-out area remains unexposed. Then you reverse the film and shoot over it, this time with light projected on that area that you didn’t expose the first time around.
For the Toho logo with glittering light projected from the back, we did about three exposures. By reversing the film, you get different layers of light. With all the technology we have today, it seems so childish. But back then, it was the only method we could come up with.
BH: Do you have more to say about The Mysterians?
SI: The Mysterians — I don’t know, a lot of things happened [on that movie]. It was during the peak of the tokusatsu era in Japan. The screenwriter came up with the concept. Most of the weapons used in The Mysterians were drawn by hand by us technicians.
BH: Who else did you work with at the time?
SI: At first, it was just me. Then my wife became my assistant. I had three female assistants [including my wife]. They graduated from Tama Art University and joined Toho. The rest of the assistants were all guys. All of them [both the male and female assistants] graduated from Tama Art University or Musashino Art University and worked at Toho as part-time employees. I had to teach them the methodology, why I did things the way I did. I often said to them, “I’m not a schoolteacher!” But we were using a technique that we had developed ourselves. There weren’t any manuals, so I had to teach them what to do.
The Musashino Art University graduates were better at actually making things; the Tama Art University graduates helped me with the work I was doing. My wife was from Tama Art University and became my assistant. My department was called the sakuga [drawing] department, and we would draw things like beams. Toho was the only movie company that had this kind of department.
During lunch break, a bunch of guys would pile into our room because I had three or four female assistants. I often yelled at them, “Did you come here to kidnap the women?” One of them became my wife. Another assistant, who was her classmate, married Teruyoshi Nakano. We all worked together.
There were only girls in my department because the work didn’t involve getting dirty. That’s probably why the young women were sent to do this work, and the men were sent elsewhere. I was the only one who could teach them the technique because nobody else could teach them. We had to come up with everything ourselves.
BH: At this time, especially before the optical printer, how involved was Eiji Tsuburaya in supervising?
SI: He was involved from the very beginning. Old Tsuburaya would say where [the drawings] were needed and would edit them in. He really wanted to do The Ten Commandments (1956), but couldn’t do it with the technology available in Japan at the time. Later on, we developed the technology, which came pretty close [to The Ten Commandments]. I wouldn’t be in this industry if it weren’t for Old Tsuburaya! (laughs) Nobody could have done it. Even if there were somebody who understood the technique, they wouldn’t have been able to meet the Old Man’s demands. I always thought, “That bastard!” and desperately tried to meet his demands.
While watching the rushes, I would ask him, “Old Man, what do you think?” and he always said, “I guess it’ll do.” Once, the production chief came to see a rush and was so surprised that Toho was able to do this kind of thing. I got really angry and complained to him, “You don’t even know what we’re able to do at Toho! That’s why I never get a raise!” (laughs)
Of the five or six movie companies in Japan at the time, no other company had this technology. Toei and Shochiku often invited me to dinner (laughs) and asked me about the methodology. I would tell them, but they didn’t have the equipment or technicians who understood the technology. The other movie companies like Toei and Shochiku thought this was such an amazing technology. When the technology chief at Shochiku asked, “Why can’t we do this at our company?” he was told, “None of our technicians knows how to do this.” That’s how it was.
If it weren’t for Eiji Tsuburaya, I wouldn’t have been involved in this work. I would have become an artist. The Ten Commandments was the source of a lot of pressure for us because it’s what Old Tsuburaya wanted to do. Everyone said to him, “We don’t have the technology.” But he never commended us on our work, not even once. Whenever we asked him what he thought, he would just say, “I guess it’ll do.” But Old Tsuburaya didn’t understand the technical aspects either; he just envisioned what the final result would look like.
BH: And he would just judge it based on that.
SI: Yes. I would bring him my work and ask him what he thought. He would just say, “I guess it’ll do.” But if there was something he didn’t like, he’d crumple the film into a ball and throw it into the hallway, saying, “I can’t believe this crap!” I was very young at the time, so, when he did that, I would say, “I quit! I quit! I’m going home. I can’t do this work anymore.” Then, later on, he would gently say, “Maybe you should change this part like this.” (laughs) I’ve said this before, but, if it hadn’t been for Old Tsuburaya, I never would have thought of creating and developing this technology. Whenever the Old Man asked me to do something impossible, I got very angry. (laughs) It was always a battle between us.
But now, thinking about it more calmly, our technology evolved because of the way things were. Toho was the only company that could do optical effects. When I went to the States and explained to the American technicians what I did, they were so surprised. In the States, they didn’t do anything by hand; they always used some equipment. They were very surprised that Japanese technicians did everything by hand. I was only supposed to stay one day in Hollywood, but they pleaded with me to come again the next day.
The technicians who were involved in optical effects were especially interested in what I had to say. In Hollywood, technicians who worked for [production] companies like Disney used different technology. But, at movie companies like Paramount, there were technicians who could shoot these kinds of scenes, but they didn’t have anybody who could come up with the methodology. So, when I explained how I came up with the methodology and how I did it, the American technicians wouldn’t believe me at first. But, after they listened to my talk, they said, “Japanese people are so amazing!”
But I did it because the Old Man asked me to do it. He would make all these demands, then yelled at me if it wasn’t exactly what he wanted. Every time that happened, I thought to myself, “Damn him!” and tried again. So it wasn’t because I wanted to develop this technology; I was forced to develop the technology.
Normally, you can only expose film once, but we came up with a workaround, which was to blacken out the part you want to expose the second time. When I told the technicians in Hollywood about this, they said, “That’s impossible!” Twenty technicians were crammed into this small room, asking me, “How did you do this?” In the States, they had the equipment, so they didn’t need to do things by hand like we did in Japan.
BH: Around what year was this? When did you go to the States?
SI: It was a long time ago. When the first optical printer arrived in Japan, a technician came along with the printer. It was this technician who asked me to come to the States. That’s why I ended up going there.
BH: Was this around 1963?
SI: It must have been around then. I didn’t think my technique was anything special compared to what they were doing in the States, but it turned out to be the opposite. The optical printer was invented by someone named Oxberry. He took a machine designed to burn film and converted it so that it could be used for optical effects. Later on, the Oxberry [optical printer] became available in Japan.
When I first mentioned this to the American technicians, nobody believed me. But I explained to them, “This is how I did it, in this order.” They said, “You Japanese people are amazing!” Even at Disney, there were several technicians who had thought of doing it this way. But the company didn’t think it was important, so their work never saw the light of day. Because you can only expose film once, we thought, “How can we get around that? We have to mask the part we don’t want to expose.” The American technicians were so amazed by this.
But, you know, American technicians are incredible. When we started using Kodak Eastmancolor film, the technicians at Kodak came up with all kinds of methodologies. They thought about optical effects from the perspective of a film manufacturer. Film is made of a very thin layer, and, within that thin layer, there are many, many layers of color. To get around the limitation of only being able to expose the film once, the Americans came up with the concept of masking an area, then exposing it with other colors.
BH: [For] Varan the Unbelievable (1958), what can you tell us about your work on [this movie]?
SI: I don’t remember anything about it. They asked me to do some technical work, but I don’t remember exactly what I did. [With Toho,] my contract was to work on two or three films per year, and I was also working on other films, so I never had any time. Then all these TV [programs] started coming out, like Ultraman (1966-67) and [other] TV [programs], so I didn’t sleep at night. It’s not I didn’t want to sleep; I couldn’t sleep. In my line of work, we used to say, “Nighttime is not for sleeping.” That’s what it was like. Even after the younger staff left for the day, I continued working.
To prevent exposing a certain area of the film, I used masking. I made the masking, which had to be very precise. Every night, I experimented with the optical printer to determine the masking intensity, whether it should be 100%, 70%, or 50%. When Old Tsuburaya saw something that he didn’t like, he would say, “What the hell is this?” Then he would crumple the film and throw it out. When he liked my work, I would be ecstatic and shout, “Yes!”
I worked on so many projects. People often ask me, “What was the best part about your work?” Every time, I say, “Sorry, but there wasn’t anything.” But, if I was able to achieve even 60% of what I intended to do, I was ecstatic. That’s what it’s like to be a technician. You keep working on one thing, and, if it doesn’t work out, you think about how you can do it next time.
My work was actually to draw, but I had to come up with all these other things. I was supposed to be an artist, you know. Honestly, if I hadn’t met Old Tsuburaya, I wouldn’t have been in this industry. The Old Man always asked for the impossible. Whenever I told him, “That’s impossible,” he would say, “There’s no way that it’s impossible!” I would think to myself, “Damn him!”
I was the only person who could argue with Eiji Tsuburaya as his equal. Everybody else would just stand rigidly in front of him, and the only thing they could say was, “Yes, yes.” The Old Man often asked me, “They just said, ‘Yes, yes,’ but do you think they really understood what I said?” I would say to him, “Of course they didn’t understand!”
Maybe it’s just my personality, but I’m never satisfied until I find the solution. When I asked him for his opinion, he would say, “How dare you make such crap?” Then he would crumple the film and throw it out. So I would say to him, “That’s it; I’m going home!” and he would say, “Go home!” But, when I went back to get my things, he’d say, “Hey, do you want a cup of coffee?” He knew that he was asking me for the impossible.
Within 35mm film, there are all these different layers, so it’s very precise, and you have to calculate everything. Using the masking technique, you can prevent exposing certain parts of the film. I had to think about all this. The Old Man knew how much work was involved, but he still complained. So we were always fighting. “That’s it; I’m going home!” “Go home!”
Back then, there weren’t any technicians who were specialized [in optical effects]. The optical printer was evolving and came with many different functions. But nobody thought about making images with these functions. The masking technique allows you to expose the film with two different images. We technicians thought it would be interesting to combine two different images.
The Old Man knew about this process, but he still asked for the impossible. When I told him, “That’s impossible!” he would say, “It’s not impossible!” If he did that today, it would be against labor laws. But, if I think about it now, the technology developed because Eiji Tsuburaya asked for the impossible, and we technicians were inspired to try to meet his demands.
BH: Actually, you did get a chance to work on the Japanese Ten Commandments in The Three Treasures (1959). I know you animated the bird at the end, and I know you did other animated effects, so please talk about what you did.
SI: I drew all the scenes with the swan. It was all done by animation. At normal speed, we would only need three cels for the scene where the swan flaps its wings. But, to make the swan flap its wings more gracefully, we did it at three times the normal speed, which meant that we needed 10 cels or 20 cels, and we also had to fill in the gaps. It’s not that difficult to depict a bird flapping its wings with animation.
But, in the movie, Yamato Takeru transforms into a swan, so the request was to make it look like a god that’s gracefully flying away. So, although we would have only needed 18 cels if we did it at normal speed, we had to draw 36 cels, and it still wasn’t enough to depict the swan flying away gracefully. Today, with digital [effects], it would have been so much easier, but, back then, everything had to be done by hand, so it was a lot of work.
But the most memorable scene in The Three Treasures is when the swan flies away. I don’t know how many cels I drew! (laughs) The story is about Yamato Takeru turning into a swan, so I had to draw it with great care. There’s a lake in Chiba where you can see swans flying, and the staff went to film them. When we developed the film and watched it, we looked at each frame and decided that the flapping was too fast. If I drew it exactly like those frames, it wouldn’t be graceful at all. So six frames became 12 frames, which became more than 30 frames. I had to draw it very precisely to make it look graceful. If I saw that movie today, I would look down in shame.
The Old Man made the request [to create the optical effects], and we decided to take up the challenge. It was a battle between the person making the request and the technicians. When other technicians saw the final product, they said, “Wow, that must have been so difficult to do!” But there was so much more to it than what you see – they don’t know about the mental effort I had to put in. I hate losing, which means I have a lot of useless pride. I think a lot of my work is based on my pride.
Nowadays, technicians use digital equipment, but they don’t go beyond the limitations of the equipment. But it doesn’t matter whether you have to do everything by hand or if you have access to digital equipment. To create optical effects, you have to add your own skills. I don’t do it often anymore, but I used to visit [optical effects] technicians and ask them what they were doing. A technician said, “This is supposed to bump into a rock and fall over.” I said, “You idiot! It’s not interesting at all if it just falls over. You have to make it float in the air, tumble around, then fall over. That’s what makes a movie more interesting. You have to put more thought into it.” Cameras have evolved a lot, but human skills – I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’ve regressed, but they’ve stopped evolving.
When you imagine something, there has to be something more intricate. I tell technicians to put more thought into their work. But young people nowadays aren’t as sentimental as we used to be at their age, so I guess they’re satisfied with what they’re doing. For us, making movies was all about using our imagination. When you read a book, you use your imagination. But, when you watch a movie, you see the actual image. So, [when you’re making images for a movie,] you have to take your work very seriously. You have the power to make the audience believe something that would never actually happen. When the audience really believes what they see, that’s when you know you’ve done a good job. You can make a victory pose at the back of the theater. That’s what technology is all about.
BH: Do you have any other memories of The Three Treasures?
SI: The swan transformation scene was a lot of work. It was the climax of the film, so it was a very important scene. Technically, we were using animation, but we had to make it look like a real swan was flying away. I didn’t go home for 40 days.
BH: Wow, really?
BH: So you would sleep at the studio?
SI: I wouldn’t say “sleep” because we didn’t really sleep. I would sleep at my desk. Once most of the work was done, several of us watched the scene, and they said, “It’s good!” But, if there was something I wasn’t satisfied with, I wasn’t able to let it go. That’s what it’s like to be a technician. Even if people say it’s good, I have to be personally satisfied. Thinking back on that time, I realize I didn’t sleep at all!
BH: At Toho, what was the longest work that you did?
SI: [I didn’t go home for 40 days working on The Three Treasures] because I wasn’t satisfied with my work. Even if the others said it was good, if I wasn’t satisfied, I would redo it. I would call it technician’s pride. That’s how I improved my skills as a technician. So, when I started doing work for TV [programs] like Ultraman, I took it easy. When you make a movie, it’s not for the people who are making it. You make it so that it elicits emotion in the audience, so that they feel excitement or disappointment [about what’s happening in the story]. That’s what movies are all about. Unlike literature [where people use their imagination], movies depict the actual image. That’s why it’s a lot of work.
There were other films where I didn’t go home for 40 days. I wasn’t satisfied, and I wanted to do it again; that’s why it took longer. That happened often. Even if people in the screening room thought it was great, if I wasn’t satisfied about something, I would redo it. Forty days was on the longer side, but there were many, many movies where I didn’t go home for a month. In the screening room, people would be happy with my work. But, if I wasn’t be satisfied, I would go back and redo it. Everybody would ask, “They’re happy with it. Why are you redoing it?” I had to work on it until I was personally satisfied.
Like I said before, you don’t make movies for the people who make them; you make them for the audience. If the audience sees something wrong, that’s not good. A lot of people said to me, “Iizuka-chan, you don’t need to be so adamant.” But I would tell them, “I have to work on it until I’m satisfied.” As I said before, I wanted to be an artist and make beautiful artwork. That’s why I would look at the overall picture and notice if something wasn’t quite right. Even if the others said it was fine, I would go back and redo it.
Thinking back on it, it seems idiotic, but I treated [each movie or TV show] as my artwork. I won two awards for my artwork [as a painter], and I wanted to be an artist. But my parents said, “You can’t make a living as a painter,” so that was always in the back of my mind. I didn’t want to give up on being an artist, so I thought, “What kind of work would leverage my skills as an artist?” That’s when I met Old Tsuburaya. If I’d been able to make a living, I might have ended up being an unsuccessful artist. But, if I hadn’t met Eiji Tsuburaya, this technology would probably not have developed. He was incredibly demanding, and that made me want to show him [that I could do it]. But, thinking about it calmly, it was idiotic.
When I graduated from high school, my teacher told me to go to art university. My artwork won second place nationally, so my teacher said very firmly, “Go to art university and become an artist.” My teacher’s older brother was an artist. When my teacher showed my artwork to his brother, the brother said, “This guy should go to art university!” But, back then, I had to make a living, so I decided to leverage my skills to make a living.
My parents said, “What’s the point of being an artist?” and my mother threw all my paint supplies out the upstairs window. I never met him, but I heard that my uncle had been an amazing artist. He won awards for the artwork he drew on kimono obi [sashes]for Mitsukoshi. His name was Sada. My mother often said, “You’re the reincarnation of you uncle.” But I complained and said, “I don’t want to be like a dead person.” My relatives all said that I took after my uncle, and what my uncle wasn’t able to do he was accomplishing through me.
I paid my way through high school by working part-time jobs. I could manage the tuition for art university, but the art supplies were extremely expensive. So I shared my paint supplies with three or four people — three people using one tube of paint! That’s how tough it was. Two of my friends went to art university, and I was very envious of them. A few years later, I met with them and asked them what they were doing. They were both working as junior high school teachers. At the time, that was the only option. Nowadays, you can choose whatever path you want to take [as an artist] and the kind of work you want to do. My parents were completely against my being an artist, so they threw out all my art supplies. I had to pick them up afterward. My high school teacher said, “From your grades and talent, you can go to art university.”
But I was paying my way through high school by working part-time jobs, so there was no way I could go to art university. That’s why I became part of the art group called Nikakai — so that I could learn the basics. Nikakai was located in a building in [Japanese artist] Seiji Togo’s garden. There were all these sculptures there, and I would sketch them at night when nobody was around. Many art teachers lived in the area, and they would come visit because they would see the light on and find me working really hard on a sketch. They became my teachers. They said, “You haven’t drawn the background!” and I replied, “But there is no background.” They said, “What do you mean, there’s no background?”
That was amazing training. I was lucky to receive this kind of training, which was possible only because I had someone teaching me personally. It’s not enough to just draw something beautifully. They always told me to draw in the background. They said, “You can’t just draw the surface. You have to draw three-dimensionally. You have to draw the background to create a sense of depth.” When I think about it now, this was amazing training, being told that there was more than just the surface. That’s the foundation of everything [in art]. I’m still really grateful for this training.
I never exchanged a word with Seiji Togo. He was the owner of Nikakai, so everyone always bowed to him, but I only ever said, “Good morning,” to him. His wife was very kind to me. They had a very big garden, so I cut their grass and took care of the garden. In those days, I always wore black from head to toe, so the wife called me “Kuro-chan.” She’d say, “Kuro-chan, dinner’s ready! Come have dinner at our house!” And I would say, “Yes! Thank you!” I didn’t take care of the garden [hoping for something in return]; I just took the initiative myself. The other Nikakai students came from rich families, but I joined because I couldn’t afford to go to art university.
BH: When did you think that you finally perfected the idea of optical effects?
SI: A lot of people ask me this question, but I’ve never felt that I’ve perfected this skill. There’s nothing I’ve done that I can say with confidence that I was able to do perfectly. After watching an hour-and-a-half film that I worked on, I did feel a sense of accomplishment. But, after spending 30 or 40 sleepless nights on something, even if everybody else said, “It’s really good,” I would always find something that was wrong with it. I was never completely satisfied with my work.
My friends would say, “That’s asking a lot. Why don’t you just accept it when people say it’s good?” At the time I did the work, I would think, “It’s good,” but I would always find something wrong and could never be completely satisfied. Nowadays, young people are satisfied when somebody tells them, “You’ve done a good job,” and they stop there. But it’s a shame because, if they’re not satisfied with their work and see how they could improve it, they’d be able to make something even more amazing.
I think it’s the same for everybody. I’d say eight out of ten people think, “It’s done” [when they finish something]. But, if there’s something I’m not satisfied with, I want to make it better. I think this goes for craftsmen or anybody who makes things. If you don’t have this spirit, that means you don’t aspire to keep improving. If you’re satisfied with what you’ve done, then you’ll never attain a high degree of perfection, no matter what you do.
BH: Let’s talk about Battle in Outer Space (1959) next. Please talk about your work on this. Also, I understand that you were inspired by tracer bullets, maybe during World War II, for some of the beams or the lasers.
SI: Tracer bullets were used during the war [to allow soldiers] to see where they were shooting. They always fired a tracer bullet between two bullets so that they could see where the bullets were going. They’re not actually bullets; they’re actually tracer lights. If you’re shooting at night, you can’t see where you’re supposed to shoot. But, if you use a tracer bullet, you know the direction and distance you need to shoot. This is the case, especially if you’re shooting from a plane. If you don’t use tracer bullets, you don’t know where your bullets are going. Tracer bullets aren’t actual bullets; people fire them so that they can see where their bullets are going.
We often drew tracer bullets. Sometimes, the tracer bullets would be going in a different direction from the bullets that were fired, so we’d have to redraw them. During World War II, I was in the fourth grade, and I saw planes firing tracer bullets. They first fired tracer bullets so they could see where they needed to fire, then they fired the real bullets. These tracer bullets were the inspiration for the beams. It’s very easy to draw beams when monsters fire a beam to make something explode.
Once — I think it was Godzilla – he was on a beach, and there was a boat on the water. Godzilla was supposed to fire his ray at the boat and make it explode. But, by accident, Godzilla was looking down, so the ray couldn’t be fired in that direction. We couldn’t do anything about the angle of his head, so I got around it by drawing his ray so it bounced off the water and then blew up the boat.
So tracer bullets were very important. In Japanese movies, you see planes firing bullets in the air. But, in reality, they had to insert one tracer bullet in between two real bullets to help them indicate the direction of the bullets. Earlier, none of us knew that tracer bullets weren’t actual bullets. But we found out that they were used to indicate the direction of the bullets.
Movies are visual, so you have to depict things visually and in detail for the audience. Using the concept of tracer bullets was one way to help explain to the audience where the bullets were going. In real life, during air battles, they needed to see where their bullets were going, so they used tracer bullets. The audience needs a visual to understand where the beam is going.
In the military, the captain would first shoot a tracer bullet so that the rest of the troops would know in which direction they needed to fire. Movies are made for the audience, and the audience needs to understand where the bullets are going, even in ordinary [non-tokusatsu] movies about war. It makes the scene more exciting if you use tracer bullets.
In Message from Space (1978), we put in tracers. The director [Kinji Fukasaku], who’s now passed away, said, “Den-san, can you put in more tracers here?” because tracers give it more flair. You have to take the time to depict what’s happening for the audience. So you don’t really need real bullets; you just need tracer bullets! (laughs) I really believed that tracer bullets were real bullets, but they’re not. They just help indicate the direction.
So, if you get hit by a tracer bullet, you won’t be wounded. A long time ago, there were two armies at war, and they didn’t know where to shoot, so they fired a cannon. When it exploded, they could see what was happening over there. Then they could recalculate the direction based on what they saw. If you don’t know where the enemy is, you don’t know where to shoot. So they had to first fire a cannon to know where they were supposed to fire. It’s very primitive, isn’t it?
BH: Is this something that you saw personally during the war, or did you just see it on film?
SI: Yes. When I was in the fourth grade, I saw Japanese planes and B20s in battle. I saw it with my own eyes. But they were missing their targets. That’s how bad the quality was. Watching war movies, I always thought, “There’s no way they can hit their target from that distance.” They’re flying and firing at the same time, right? When the planes fire, the bullets go in a certain direction, but the planes are constantly changing directions when it’s flying. In air battles, the planes have to fight in mid-air. They aim at the other plane and fire, but they don’t know where their bullets have gone; that’s why you need tracer bullets. So you have actual bullets between the tracer bullets to help indicate the direction.
BH: Let’s go back to Battle in Outer Space. Let’s talk specifically about your work on this film, so what did you do?
SI: Battle in Outer Space? I’ve done so many movies, I can’t remember. It was a war in space, so, unlike modern-day wars, they only used lasers beams. So we had to depict something that had we’d never experienced ourselves. Science fiction like Battle in Outer Space is actually easier to do. It’s more difficult to depict realistic scenes, like an air battle between planes. For Battle in Outer Space, all we had to do was fire a bunch of beams, so it was a lot easier.
BH: Could you talk about creating stuff from nothing, from your own imagination?
SI: All of it [was created from my imagination]. Nobody could teach me; I had to come up with everything. I would come up with two or three ideas, test them out, then decide on one of them. I always thought, “I wish somebody could teach me how to do this!” I had to be creative and come up with ideas. If somebody said, “That looks fake,” I would get frustrated and do it over. But, as I said before, movies about outer space were easy to do because nobody has seen any of it before, so I had complete freedom. But, for scenes that had actually been filmed, it was a lot of work. Space movies were easy!
BH: Next, let’s talk about The Secret of the Telegian (1960). The main bad guy in this movie teleports himself from one place to another, and his body looks like electricity [when he teleports himself]. I think there’s a lot of optical effects in this film. Please talk about your work on The Secret of the Telegian and what you remember about it.
SI: When you fill a man’s body with electricity, you see a phenomenon called electric discharge. During an electric discharge, the man disappears, and you’re left with empty space. That’s how you teach the audience to understand that the person has teleported. I hate these “electric humans” [from Telegian] and “liquid people” [from 1958’s The H-Man] because they’re too realistic. I prefer monsters and aliens. Some people might like doing these realistic depictions, but I hated it. I would do monsters any time, but I hated it when parts of an actual human disappear during an electric discharge. The audience probably enjoyed it, but I didn’t like it at all. I don’t like movies with actual people where their bodies transform.
BH: Is that because it’s technically difficult, or do you dislike it for another reason?
SI: There are many points of view about movies, but I think they should primarily be about humans. I really don’t like it when humans are liquefied or disappear somewhere using [electromagnetic] waves, even if it’s imaginary. I prefer it when humans are depicted as humans. The Secret of the Telegian is like something out of a children’s comic book.
BH: Do you have any other comments about The Secret of the Telegian, like any other memories about working on it?
SI: Not really. Like I said, I don’t like “electric people” or “gas people” [from 1960’s The Human Vapor], so I try to forget about these movies. Movies aren’t made for the people who make them. They’re made to elicit emotion in the audience so that they feel surprised or disappointed or shed tears [about what’s happening in the movie]. To me, that’s what movies are all about. We have to make something that’s not real but [still elicits emotion]. It’s a form of entertainment, after all. It makes the audience think, “What would it be like if we could do that [transport ourselves or disappear]?” The Secret of the Telegian is probably the movie that I hated the most.
BH: Did you work on The Human Vapor?
SI: Yes. We took the footage of smoke that the staff had shot and turned [the smoke] into the form of a human; that’s all. “Electric people,” “gas people,” “liquid people” – I hated the “Ningen” series [The H-Man, The Secret of the Telegian, and The Human Vapor]. There was nothing technically impressive about these movies, either. All we had to do was turn someone into liquid or make them disappear with gas. Of all the movies I worked on, I hated the “Ningen” series.
I think they’re on the same level as freak shows. I don’t think the audience really enjoys watching that kind of thing. The Human Vapor, The Secret of the Telegian, and The H-Man – I do my best to forget about them. I think they’re the three most evil movies made by Toho. I prefer Godzilla by far because it’s much more movie-like. People often tell me that they like The Human Vapor, or that The Secret of the Telegian was good, but I don’t like to talk about them. You make movies for the audience, but you never know how they’ll receive it. Especially little kids – I hate the idea of little kids imagining that it’s possible [to transform or disappear].
When I was little, I saw a movie called “Kurama Tengu.” Somebody is in imminent danger, and, at the very last minute, Kurama Tengu comes charging in on his horse and saves them. Everybody in the audience would clap and cheer loudly at the screen. That shows how clearly movies differentiate between good and evil. But, in my later years, I often wondered if what I was doing was meaningful.
I guess the idea was to make something totally unexpected by transforming humans or making them disappear, but I hate that kind of thing. People say that being able to make a person disappear or teleport is something you can only do in movies. But I don’t see the point of portraying people like that. I much prefer movies where a beautiful woman embraces a handsome man. That’s what movies are about!
It’s not so much the case today, but, back then, everybody was excited about what they saw in movies. For example, if people watched Ultraman, everybody would see themselves in Ultraman and wanted to be a hero like him. That’s how much movies influence people – they can make the audience want to be like the hero they see in a movie. Our job was to make the image as realistic as possible.
Of course, it depends on the person and what he or she perceives as good or evil, but I much prefer movies like “Kurama Tengu” in which he saves somebody from imminent danger. There’s obviously a difference in the way of thinking when you make these kinds of movies, but, when you fulfill the audience’s expectations about what’s going to happen, that’s the power of cinema. Nowadays, people try to show the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary onscreen, but I think movies are about the audience, if they can identify with the protagonist, whether he’s going through a tragedy or experiencing joy.
BH: Please talk about what you remember about Gorath (1962).
SI: I worked on so many films, it’s hard to remember! (laughs) Movies have the power to help people visualize their desire, like wanting to become a hero. Even if you know that what’s happening onscreen could never happen in reality, people can imagine themselves as the hero. I think that’s the most powerful aspect of cinema. In Gorath, for example, there’s quite a number of people who think it’s possible for this to exist somewhere in space, although it’s actually impossible. That’s why cinema is so captivating.
BH: Let’s talk about King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). This is the first time that you created Godzilla’s ray. Please talk about the creation of Godzilla’s ray. How did you do it? How did you design it?
SI: In order to decide what Godzilla’s ray would look like, I had to imagine every aspect of it, like when the beam should be really intense, or what it should look like if Godzilla wanted to threaten the other monster. I had to imagine every detail. The Old Man just brought me the film and said, “Put the ray here.” I had to watch the film over and over so that I could decide if it would be better to have the beam spread out all of a sudden, or if it was better to make it really intense, depending on the scene. I had to rely on my imagination to come up with ideas.
I’m sure many people in the audience thought, “Why doesn’t Godzilla’s just fire his beam and kill off the other monster?” But, if you depict a very intense beam, exactly the way the audience would imagine it, it wouldn’t be very interesting. If Godzilla kills the other monster right away, the movie would end there. So he has to keep his best weapon for the last scene. There’s a peak in each minute of an action scene – that’s what makes movies so interesting. If Godzilla just constantly fired his beam, it would make for a very boring movie.
BH: Let’s talk more about the design of the beam. I know that there’s an outer part of the beam and an inner part of the beam. Could you talk about the actual design and the look of the beam?
SI: I spoke earlier about good and evil, but there are also good and evil beams. There are helpful beams, and beams that kill or attack. I always imagined beams this way, like, “With this beam, he won’t be able to kill the other monster,” or, “With this beam, he can inflict a fatal wound and immediately kill the other monster.” I would watch the film and decide what kind of beam I was going to draw. I had to imagine the details, like whether the beam would match the other monster’s beam, or if it could inflict a fatal wound. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to draw the beam.
A beam has two components – the core and the fray. There’s a strong beam at the core that’s intense, and there’s the surrounding fray. The fray supports the beam at the core. I always drew these two components for each beam. I could have only drawn one type of beam, but there were scenes where that beam wouldn’t be appropriate. I had to think of all kinds of different situations. I would change the style of the beam, depending on whether Godzilla wanted to kill off the other monster, or whether he just wanted to threaten the enemy.
BH: How would you draw them differently?
SI: They were drawn the same way, but the way they were burned onto the film was different. If you wanted a very strong beam, you would burn it very intensely onto the film. If you burned it very lightly onto the film, the beam wouldn’t be very strong. It was on a case-by-case basis, depending on the scene. The best was when Godzilla fired his beam, and the other monster died right away. That was easy to do. But, in a movie, there’s a process [of building the story]. If Godzilla fires his beam and can’t kill off the other monster, I imagine how the beam would be different the next time. That’s how the beam continually evolved.
BH: Typically, how long would it take for you to animate one of Godzilla’s beams?
SI: At the very minimum, I would have to draw 1.5 seconds [for a beam], which is 36 frames. In order to have any impact, a beam has to last at least one second, which is 24 frames. [How long it takes to animate] depends on the beam. It took me one hour to draw 24 frames. That’s how fast I had to work because one cut [one shot] usually lasted for more than one second. Rarely was it ever just one second. My work would have been so easy if the beams only lasted for one second! Some beams only required one second to express their intensity, while other beams required more than two seconds to express their intensity.
So, if a beam was meant to kill off the enemy within one second, you had to change the style to express that. As I’ve been saying, it’s not enough to just think about the people who are making the movie; you have to constantly think about how the audience is going to perceive it. So, even if you’re depicting something that’s impossible, you have to imagine how the audience is going to react. You can’t just create any old beam; the beam has to be appropriate for the scene. As technicians, we can come up with all sorts of beams, but we have to keep the audience in mind when we design beams.
BH: What else could you tell me about your work on King Kong vs. Godzilla?
SI: I’d drawn lightning for another movie. Lightning is not the same as beams. You only see it for a fraction of a second. The question was, how do I capture this action? I can’t remember which one it was, but, when I drew lightning for another movie, there was a scene where the characters are on the porch looking out at the garden, and they’re frightened by the sight of lightning.
Just by force of habit, I’d drawn it as if it were a beam fired by a monster. But then I realized it shouldn’t be like a beam from a monster, so I had to redo it. I’d drawn so many monster beams that it was second nature to draw it like one. But I realized it wasn’t the same thing. To depict lightning, you have to draw a very thin line [in the first frame]. In the second frame, it suddenly gets thicker. That’s how you express the light you see in a lightning bolt.
One time, at Toho’s Studio 8, there was some incredible lightning. We all went out to the balcony on the second floor to watch it. It was the real thing! It was a great opportunity to learn because you can’t depict something without seeing the real thing. To depict something in a movie, you have to draw something that’s fake. You have to draw it so that it has visual impact. If you depict lightning as it appears in reality, it wouldn’t have the right effect. So most of the lighting you see in the movies is fake.
BH: Also, in King Kong vs. Godzilla, there’s stop-motion. Was that difficult to do?
SI: You can’t do stop-motion to film an octopus. If the audience saw the movement of the tentacles, they would know right away that it was shot in stop-motion. With stop-motion, you take a shot, move the object a bit, then take the next shot. But the movement of an octopus is very fluid, so you can’t capture it with stop-motion. So I said, “You can’t do stop-motion for an octopus!” and refused to do it.
Whether it’s a human walking on two legs, or a monster walking on four legs, the movement always involves joints. You have joints at the hips, knees and ankles, where you can clearly see movement. But an octopus doesn’t have any joints! That’s why I told them it was impossible to do stop-motion for an octopus. The only way we could film the big octopus moving in a fluid way was by suspending it. For stop-motion, you shoot it frame by frame. But you can’t shoot an invertebrate like an octopus using stop-motion.
The stop-motion was used for the part where the octopus grabs a human. I made an octopus leg and put in a lead [rod] so that I could bend it. My idea was to project light on the leg [to make a shadow] and film the movement of the shadow. We then based the stop-motion on the movement of the shadow, so we knew exactly which frames we needed to shoot. It’s easy to do stop-motion for vertebrates because they have joints. But we didn’t know how an octopus moves. So [for the stop-motion] we installed a panel and placed the octopus in front of it. We made various shapes [of the octopus] and drew the outline of its shadow. Whenever it looked unnatural, we would correct it. That’s how we made the movement of the octopus. It was very hard work.
BH: Did you physically move the stop-motion?
BH: There’s a scene at the end of the movie where Godzilla kicks King Kong, and that’s also stop-motion. Did you also do that, as well?
SI: Yes. That was also with stop-motion. No one knew how to do this scene, so they asked me to do it. We suspended Godzilla with piano wire, decided on the angle, and then we tossed Godzilla. We then inserted the frames that we had shot using a puppet, like I just mentioned. We thought it looked quite real. But it was more trouble than it was worth!
BH: How long did that take?
SI: One entire day.
BH: Was that [Mr.] Tsuburaya’s idea?
SI: No, it was our idea. The Old Man just said, “I want a scene where the octopus tosses a person.” It was very easy for him to say. We were the ones who had to come up with a solution.
BH: On those stop-motion scenes, did you work with anybody else, or was it just you by yourself?
SI: There were about three other young staff members. I had to say, “OK, that’s good. Next!” Otherwise, things wouldn’t move forward. Thinking back on this makes me shiver! (laughs) Old Tsuburaya always asked for the impossible and expected us to make it possible. That’s how he was. It made us think, “Damn him! We’ll show him!” Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to meet his challenges. It would have been easy for us to say, “Sorry, but it’s not possible.” But, when he challenged us, it inspired us in a way. It would be easy for us technicians to refuse what the director asked us to do, saying that it was impossible. But we thought, “Let’s take him up on this challenge,” and thought about how we could make it happen. It tickled our pride as technicians to show that nothing was impossible. In a sense, it was like a clash between technicians.
Nowadays, staff members [in the movie industry] can say very easily, “Sorry, it’s not possible.” But I want to say to them, “Think of it as a challenge and give it your best.” That’s what leads to the evolution of technology. That’s what movies are all about! Our job is to make something that people want to see, but is difficult to create. You don’t need to agree immediately to what you’re being asked, but at least take the time to think about how you could make it happen. If you’re successful, you’ll say, “Hurray!” Or you might think, “Damn, it doesn’t look good.” It depends on the technician, but there’s no right or wrong. The answer may be clear in the future, but technicians are constantly facing challenges, so it’s up to them to see how they can solve those challenges.
BH: The Godzilla and King Kong scene took a day. How long did the octopus scene take to do the stop-motion?
SI: I didn’t have that much experience in stop-motion, but we decided that this was the only way we could do it. We made puppets of Godzilla and King Kong, both about 50 centimeters [tall]. We hung them by piano wire and used metal wire at the ends to fix them in place so they wouldn’t move. It was hard work to do this scene!
Stop-motion is stop-motion. There’s no flow [to the movement]. You just take shots of each frame. When you shoot something real, you also shoot the space [around it], but stop-motion can’t capture that. So that’s why we didn’t use stop-motion that often. But we had to do it if it was requested.
BH: By [Mr.] Tsuburaya?
SI: He said, “I want [Godzilla] to dropkick [King Kong], and then [King Kong] to go flying.” He wanted to shoot this scene, but it was impossible! So we had to come up with another way. That’s why we made the smaller versions. You might think it was gutsy for us to do it this way, but the person making the request [Mr. Tsuburaya] was also gutsy. But that’s why you make movies, to surprise the audience. That’s why we could be gutsy about how we did things.
It was quite a challenge for us technicians, but the person making the request [Mr. Tsuburaya] was harder on us than he needed to be! But that’s what Old Tsuburaya was like. There were things that he really wanted to do, and he requested us to do it, knowing that we were capable of making it happen. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have done some other work! I can’t believe I did this for 40 years.
If it’s absolutely impossible, technicians will refuse. But, if there’s even the slightest possibility of making it happen, they will make an effort. That’s because technicians have this useless pride! As I said before, I often had arguments with the Old Man. When he crumpled the film with my scenes and threw it into the hall, I would say, “That’s it; I’m going home!” and he would say, “Go home!” When I saw him the next day, he would always say, “Do you want some coffee?” But I must have been destined to work with him because there was an understanding between us that didn’t require words.
When his movies became hits, and he was world-renowned, people would stand rigidly in front of him and say yes to whatever he said. He would ask me, “Do you think that guy understood what I said to him?” And I would say, “Of course he didn’t understand!” He would say, “That’s what I thought.” (laughs)
BH: What was Mr. Tsuburaya’s reaction to seeing the stop-motion?
SI: He only said, “Not bad.” He never said, “Great job!” The Old Man knew the limits of the people working for him. And he had this habit of pushing people slightly beyond their limits. Not once did the Old Man say to me, “You did a great job!”
BH: Which stop-motion scene was more difficult to do, the octopus or King Kong fighting Godzilla?
SI: The octopus was more difficult. Because it had no joints, we had no idea how it should move. So, as I said before, we set up a board behind the octopus and projected light on it, then drew the shadow of the octopus for each frame. If something has joints, you know how it would move. But an octopus doesn’t have any joints, so we didn’t know how the curves [of the tentacles] should move. So we drew the outline of the shadows [and used the outline of the shadows for the stop-motion]. It was a very primitive method, but it was the only way we could do it.
BH: You mentioned with King Kong and Godzilla that they had the wires as the skeleton. Did you do it differently with the octopus?
SI: [For the octopus,] there was only a lead rod inside. Because an octopus doesn’t have any joints, the movements had to be smooth. So we put a lead fuse, like something you would use in an electrical circuit, inside the octopus.
BH: What can you tell me about Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)?
SI: With Godzilla, we could do whatever we wanted, but, with Mothra, we were limited in the way we could move it. You can do stop-motion with four-legged creatures or with creatures that have joints. But, for creatures like octopuses that don’t have joints, it’s difficult to do stop-motion. Mothra had some joints, so we could do stop-motion. But it couldn’t stand up and walk.
For Mothra, we created three categories of movement – A, B, and C. We also had sub-categories of movement like A-dash and B-dash so that the movement looked more realistic.
With Mothra, we had to use stop-motion for some parts. For the magic of film to work, we had to be flexible and adapt to [the requirements for] each scene. It would have been so easy if we could just shoot all the action scenes on set, but some scenes required other techniques like stop-motion, so we technicians had to think about what was necessary.
We made each scene, hoping it would grip the audience. Some of the staff would say, “What the hell are you doing?” But it was so much work! We often worked through the night without sleeping at all. Back then, I thought, “Why did I end up doing this work? I’ve got myself into such a strange industry.” But I couldn’t do anything about it. When we were able to do something successfully, the requests became more and more [challenging]. That’s what technology is like. In order to go from step 1 to step 2, you have to fill in all the values in between. Even nowadays, I say to the young staff members, “You think it’s easy going from this step to this step, don’t you? But there’s a lot of space between those two steps.”
With today’s digital technology, it’s easy to make it look like someone is kicking another person. But I tell them [today’s technicians], “It doesn’t look real when the person goes flying.” It’s a question of how much realism you want to pursue. That’s what determines the quality of a movie. Nowadays, people think they don’t need to work so hard to make shows for children. So the technology may be evolving, but, overall, things are devolving.
It frustrates me to see how easily people can do things with digital technology today. I want to say to them, “Do you know how many sleepless nights I spent doing this?” They just turn the switch on, push a button, and it’s done. Human creativity is about making things from scratch. But, with today’s digital technology, they use whatever software to make movies. So, even if two different people make it, you’d get the same result. Maybe it’s fine for today’s movies, but…
BH: How long did the stop-motion take this time?
SI: Including the planning and test work, about three days.
BH: Did you feel that the stop-motion was getting better, or did it not really get better at all?
SI: As I said before, with stop-motion, you can’t get the space in between. So we would shoot the stop-motion, then shoot a second time to take the space in between. Then I would combine the two using optical effects to make the overall flow look real. I put in a lot of effort so it wouldn’t look like it was stop-motion. It was double the amount of work doing it this way.
BH: At this time, was Mr. Tsuburaya trying to make stop-motion a regular part of the tokusatsu, or was it still just an experiment?
SI: The Old Man just demanded what he wanted as the final product. He left it up to us technicians to think of how we were going to make it happen. It was up to us to come up with the methodology, whether it was by using stop-motion or shooting on set. He [Mr. Tsuburaya] never said, “Do it this way.” He would watch the scene and either say, “Yup,” or “What the hell is this?” It was one or the other! (laughs)
He took a very long strip of film, crumpled it up, and threw it into the hallway. So I said, “That’s it; I quit! I’m going home!” and he said, “Go home!” I actually went home. The next morning, he asked me, “Do you want some coffee?” The Old Man always said, “It’s up to human wisdom to make the impossible possible,” so he hated it when somebody simply said they couldn’t do something. He said, “Don’t just tell me it’s impossible. Tell why you can’t do it and think of what is possible instead.” That’s what he was like.
BH: In Mothra vs. Godzilla, did you decide to do stop-motion on your own?
SI: I decided to use stop-motion because it was the only way to do it. It was up to the Old Man to see the end result and decide if it was good or not. But I decided which methodology to use. I was just supposed to draw the artwork; I shouldn’t have had to think about the methodology. But, because of my pride, I took him up on his challenge. So I ended up joining this strange industry and doing this work.
BH: Let’s talk about Dogora the Space Monster (1964). I understand that you designed the kaiju. Please talk about the genesis of your involvement with Dogora the Space Monster and your designing of the monster.
SI: I was walking with director [Ishiro] Honda in Izu by the sea in the summer. We were talking about coming up with [an idea for] a space monster. As we were walking along the beach, some children were playing with a jellyfish. I thought it would be an interesting idea [for a monster] and came up with the design for Dogora. When I showed it to Old Tsuburaya, he said, “That’s interesting; let’s use it.” That’s how I ended up being the designer for Dogora. He never asked me to come up with an idea or ordered me to do something specific. If he didn’t like it, he wouldn’t have used it – end of story. But that’s how it started — Mr. Honda and I discussing how a jellyfish would attack. (laughs)
BH: Was it used as is, or did they make any changes to it?
SI: Of course, they had to make a few changes for the shoot, but the modeling team [the monster-makers] complained. They said, “Den-san, this is all your fault! It’s so difficult!” I said, “I just came up with the idea. There’s nothing I can do about it now.” (laughs) I wanted to say to them, “You guys come up with an idea for a monster!” They decided to use it, so what could I do about it?” But the modeling team complained so much.
BH: In Dogora the Space Monster, there is actual animation. They used actual cartoon animation to show the tentacles of Dogora picking up a bridge. Did you do that animation?
SI: Yes. That was the only way we could do it because they used my design as it was.
BH: Was it your decision to do animation, or was that a request?
SI: No, it was because it was the only way we could do it. If we could have shot it by hanging a puppet, that would have been the easiest way. But we couldn’t, so we had to use stop-motion.
We had to use stop-motion for the scene where Dogora’s tentacles appear from a black cloud. Because an octopus’ tentacles are curved and have no joints, you don’t know where it’s supposed to bend. So we had to suspend it by piano wire and move it. That’s why the modeling team complained to me, saying, “It’s your fault for designing this!” But I couldn’t do anything about it because [Mr. Tsuburaya] had decided to use my idea.
The scene at the bridge was actually filmed; it wasn’t stop-motion. They filmed it by suspending Dogora with piano wire. The filming crew had to come up with the methodology. There were so many amazing technicians working on the set. It wasn’t up to me to come up with a solution. I thought, “Ha ha! Serves you right that you have to struggle with this!” (laughs)
BH: When you did the animation for the bridge, how long did that take?
SI: That scene was shot on the set. I came up with the design for Dogora, and they asked me to draw some of the storyboards. Because I had drawn some of the storyboards myself, the modeling team complained to me a lot. They actually shot that scene on the bridge.
If Dogora had joints, it would have been easy. But, because it didn’t, we had to do it like I described before, suspending the puppet with piano wire and making each frame [of the stop-motion] by tracing the shadows. We would draw one shadow after another, tilting and bending the tentacles. We didn’t have a choice; stop-motion was the only way we could do it. We had to think of the methodology for each scene.
BH: [shows Mr. Iizuka a picture of the animation used for Dogora.]
SI: I did most of these drawings, up to the scene where Dogora’s tentacles are wrapped around the bridge. They asked us to make this scene, so we had to think of the methodology. If we were to shoot this, we would reverse the motion. Instead of having the tentacles wrap around the bridge, we would start with the tentacles already wrapped around the bridge and unravel them, then reverse the motion to make it look like the tentacles were wrapping around the bridge. We often reversed the motion for these kinds of scenes. Some scenes could be shot on the set. It was easy for them to request these kinds of scenes. But it’s my fault for drawing the storyboards! (laughs)
They were trying to sell some of these movies overseas, so we had to draw many, many storyboard pictures that Toho used for their sales pitch. I worked with four others, and we worked very hard to draw these storyboard pictures. They used these storyboard pictures to sell movies to the States. Thinking back on it, we were drawing them for the Toho sales team.
BH: Did you do the storyboards because you designed the monster?
SI: I didn’t really design Dogora; I just drew some pictures, and they ended liking the idea. That’s why the modeling team complained to me, because I came up with the idea. But, yes, that’s why I drew the storyboards. It wasn’t only Toho that did this, but we drew many, many storyboards that were sent to an American distribution company. The sales team used them to see which scenes they liked or preferred to leave out. They did this because they couldn’t understand the movie by just reading the script; they needed storyboards to understand the climax and other aspects of the story. There were four or five of us drawing the storyboards.
BH: So that you could show that there was a monster in the story?
SI: Yes. But Toho didn’t pay us for this extra work. I drew storyboards for two or three movies. We drew storyboards just for the important scenes. Thinking back on it now, I should have complained to Toho and asked them to pay me for the extra work! (laughs)
When we were watching the rushes, the production director said, “I didn’t know we had people who could draw these kinds of things in our company.” I got so angry! I complained to him and said, “You don’t even know what kind of technicians are working for your company!” There were 10 of us who were asked if we wanted to become full-time employees at Toho. All the others were overjoyed and accepted the offer. I was the only who refused, saying, “No way, I don’t want to be an employee!” Everyone asked me why. They said, “Why don’t you want to be an employee? You’ll have work until you retire and get retirement benefits.” But I didn’t want any of that.
It’s not that I didn’t like being part of an organization, but it would have been painful for me to be told what to do and have to do it. All my colleagues had their yellow Toho badge; I was the only one without one. One of the managers once said to me, “I get it. I can’t see you as an employee.” I wanted to keep working freelance. If I’d become an employee then, I would have worked until retirement and been able to receive retirement benefits.
If I had children, I might have become an employee. It depends on your life and your circumstances. I decided early on that I wanted to be a lone wolf. Everybody was surprised that I refused to become a Toho employee. It’s not that I didn’t want to be an employee; I just didn’t want to follow orders. It wasn’t in me to follow orders; I’m not an obedient person. If I had children, I probably would have stayed until I was 60 and received retirement benefits. But it’s too late to regret that.
But, because of that, I was able to work with Tsuburaya Productions and Toei,and became very busy with that work. I was able to do that because I was freelance. I was the only one who could draw beams for Tsuburaya Productions. When I came home from Toho, a young staff member from Tsuburaya Productions would bring me a stack of Kent paper. I’m the one who came up with the Specium Beam for Ultraman. I should have gotten a patent on it. At the time, everyone said, “The Specium Beam is amazing!” I said, “Really?”
When Ultraman makes the pose [to fire a beam], I thought it would be strange if the beam was just one small point of light. A beam like a lightning bolt would also be strange. So I decided to connect everything in between with lines. Ultraman is a hero, so an electric discharge wouldn’t do the job. So it had to be a strong beam.
I had to come up with these ideas on my own. I would have been rich by now if I’d gotten a patent and charged them for it! (laughs) Even though I came up with the idea, I can’t go back now and ask them to pay me royalties. Of course, I would have been happy if they’d paid me royalties, but it was more about having my creation being used. That was more important. I came up with so many ideas. I don’t even know how many [ideas] I came up with. When people ask me, “How did you come up with this idea?” I can’t answer them. There are good guys and bad guys, and that specific beam was a hero’s beam. That’s what I was thinking when I created that beam.
BH: Going back to the storyboards, how much freedom did you have to make monster battles and design how the battles would go? How much freedom did you have?
SI: There was a script and a story that I had to follow, of course, but I thought about what would move or surprise the audience. That’s what I always had in mind when I drew the storyboards. Young people today would just draw whatever they wanted to draw. Something created from that motivation might be technically correct, but movies are about how much you can move or surprise the audience.
BH: So you did have freedom to create things?
SI: I couldn’t just draw whatever I wanted. I had to keep in mind which was the good monster, and which was the bad monster. Otherwise, you end up with only bad [monster] beams or only good [monster] beams. Like I said, you have to keep the audience in mind. The hero appears in the moment of imminent danger, fires his beam, and defeats the enemy. Then the audience is overjoyed. That’s why movies are so interesting. I drew the storyboards while keeping the story line in mind, about who was good, and who was bad. As long as I respected the story line, I could use my imagination to draw the storyboards.
Thinking back on it, I had a lot of responsibility. I couldn’t just draw whatever I wanted to draw. If I were asked to do this now, I wouldn’t dare to do it because the movie would be based on my imagination and drawings.
BH: Let’s talk about Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster (1964). Here, you created King Ghidorah’s beam, as well as the birth scene of King Ghidorah. So please talk about, first of all, animating the birth of King Ghidorah.
SI: There’s an American movie where monsters are born in space. I remembered that scene and thought it was really interesting, so I used it as a reference. I drew King Ghidorah appearing from the outline of the flames. A lot of people told me they thought it was interesting. But, to be honest, it was plagiarism. King Ghidorah is a space monster; he wasn’t born on Earth, so I had complete freedom. If he’d been born on an island somewhere, I wouldn’t have had that much freedom. But, because he was born somewhere out in space, I had the freedom. But, even with that freedom, I had to be very precise in my depiction.
BH: How long did it take you to do it?
SI: I don’t think it took me that long. I first drew the outline of the flames, with increasingly more overlap [of the lines], then the monster was born.
BH: In that scene, it seems like there’s a frame missing. I don’t know if you would know why that is.
SI: When you depict something with animation, there’s a limit to how real it will look. By overlapping it with real flames, you get the illusion that the animated flames are real. I used this technique several times. Even if you draw flames, it won’t look real. You have to use real flames. That’s the magic of film. That’s how you surprise the audience.
Forbidden Planet (1956) was a great reference. I went to see it so many times at Theatre Tokyo. I couldn’t understand the methodology behind it, but what they depicted was incredible. I was inspired many times by American movies. Of course, I couldn’t do exactly the same thing; I would come up with my own idea and make my own version of it. Because Theatre Tokyo in Kyobashi was owned by Toho, and I could get in for free, I went to watch [Forbidden Planet] so many times. In this line of work, you have to watch lots of movies to get ideas. But, no matter how good a job I did, I was paid the same salary!
BH: Let’s talk about the creation of King Ghidorah’s ray. I think on the original poster King Ghidorah’s ray was shown one way, where maybe it was a straight beam. But, in the movie, his beam is curved. So please talk about the changing of King Ghidorah’s ray in the movie.
SI: Old Tsuburaya wanted a straight beam. But I’d seen drawings of the monster and thought, “It has three heads that move in different directions. If it used a straight beam to make something explode, it would miss its target.” That’s why I made the beam like that. Old Tsuburaya complained and said, “The beam on the poster is straight!” I told him, “Maybe it’s straight on the poster, but the beam won’t work if it’s straight.” He said, “That’s not true!”
But, when he saw the film [rushes], he said, “You’re right, a straight beam doesn’t work.” That’s how we ended up with that beam. Like I said, movies are all about convincing the audience. If we’d used a straight beam like the Old Man wanted, a completely unrelated area would explode. It’s really important to stay flexible when you make a movie. In the end, the Old Man agreed with me and said, “You’re right, a straight beam doesn’t work.”
When you make a movie, it never goes as planned. So many unexpected things happen. It’s so important to envision the image you want to create. You have to be a creator to do this work. But, damn it, my salary didn’t reflect all the work I did! (laughs)
BH: Around this time, I’ve heard you tell this story before, about going to a snack bar [a type of Japanese hostess bar] with Eiji Tsuburaya. Somebody called him Tsubo-chan, and he was, I think, very embarrassed. So could you tell the Tsubo-chan story?
SI: The Old Man never took his staff to the bars that he frequented. But, one time, he took me and another staff member to this snack bar where he went regularly. As soon as he opened the door, the hostess said, “Oh, Tsubo-chan, it’s you!” That’s how we found out that he was called Tsubo-chan. This episode allowed me to see a different side of him. He was too old to be called Tsubo-chan, but I saw that he was treated like any other customer in these kinds of places. He never took anyone with him to these bars, but we were lucky enough to go with him. I thought, “Serves him right to be called Tsubo-chan!” (laughs) He took such good care of me, but he was so demanding, and I had to put up with his challenges.
BH: Let’s talk about Monster Zero (1965). This is another film with King Ghidorah. Please tell me your memories.
SI: I worked on so many films. It’s not that I don’t have any memories about this movie, but there isn’t anything special that I remember about it. It was just another movie with monsters that fire beams. People really seemed to like the action I created with monsters’ beams. Whenever there was a scene with a monster firing a beam, the Old Man would say to me, “I’ll leave it up to you.”
In a scene where a monster was moving its head, there was a split second where it looked like he was about to fire a beam. I never missed that kind of momentum and would depict the monster firing the beam at that precise moment. Apparently, the Old Man really liked it, so, after that, he always called on me for scenes with monsters firing a beam and left it up to me to decide how to draw it. That wasn’t just for this movie, but for all of the work we did together. He preferred to work with people who understood what he was trying to accomplish. But, when he told me to marry [the woman who became] my wife, he practically forced me.
BH: On that topic, sometimes when Godzilla would use his ray, his spines on [his] back would light up. Is that something you decided?
SI: Yes. It would have been easy if all I had to do was draw Godzilla’s ray when he opened his mouth. But I thought there should be a buildup to it [Godzilla firing his ray]. So I decided to light [his spines] up one by one, frame by frame, before he fired his ray. When the Old Man saw this, he said, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I thought, “It’s more than just interesting!” When you do this work every day, you come up with a lot of ideas. Nobody asked me to do this. I just came up with the idea to build up the momentum before Godzilla fired his ray. People said to me, “That was a fantastic idea!” But it was just a whim.
BH: Let’s talk about War of the Gargantuas (1966), [which] has the Maser Cannons.
SI: I came up with so many ideas. I always think about each part of the action and what would make it more interesting. I calculate backward and think of the effect it would have on the scene. What would be more appropriate? A straight beam or a curved beam? When I’m asked to draw a beam, I can’t draw it right away. I have to watch the film over and over, and then I come up with several kinds of beams. When Tsuburaya [Productions] asked me to draw a beam for a scene in Ultraman, they expected me to draw it right away. But I had to first ask what effect the beam had, and then I thought about the style of the beam. There are hundreds of ways I could draw a beam. So I had to think if the beam would be suitable for a particular scene. This beam will defeat the enemy. That beam will help the enemy. I have to start with these kinds of rudimentary questions.
BH: In Son of Godzilla (1967), your optical effects got a lot of praise. A lot of fans say that it has very good optical effects. Why do you think that Son of Godzilla’s optical effects were so good?
SI: Godzilla’s son [Minya] is still young, so his ray doesn’t have the same power as his father’s. But the son wants to fire his ray, so he tenses up. And, when he finally fires his ray, it comes out like rings from cigarette smoke that fading away. I did that to depict the difference between the son, who’s still a child, and his father. The son is tensing up to fire a big ray, but it just comes out as smoke rings. I came up with this idea to help the audience interpret their relationship.
I had fun coming up with this idea. I did it to show that Godzilla’s ray was much stronger than his son’s. It was more work and more trouble to draw the rings, but I did it because I wanted to elicit a reaction from the audience. I came up with so many beams, probably hundreds, including the ones for Ultraman.
BH: Why was it more work to do the smoke rings?
SI: Godzilla’s ray was easy because I could draw it in one go with a brush. For the son’s ray, I had to draw the rings and make them look like they were fading away. It was very delicate work, so it required a lot more work. The audience probably thought it would be easier to draw the smoke rings, but it’s actually the opposite. It’s much easier to draw Godzilla’s big ray.
BH: With Destroy All Monsters (1968), this I think might be your last film at Toho. Please talk about what you remember about Destroy All Monsters.
SI: A lot of people ask me what my last film at Toho was, but I can’t remember. But I do remember saying that Destroy All Monsters was going to be the last one. I was starting to do a lot more work for TV. Unlike TV, movies take so much longer to make. Even making one cut [one shot] for a movie took so much time. Sometimes, I watch tapes of old movies and think, “Did I do this one, too?”
The drawing itself is not that difficult. If somebody says, “Draw this,” anybody could do it. What was much more difficult was the process of thinking about what I should draw, how I should draw it, and the style. Now, if somebody asked me to draw something, I would make sure to ask for a certain amount of money, but, back then, I didn’t. You show your worth when you’re able to think about something and then create it. When somebody said, “Den-san, could you draw this for me?” I would say, “Sure!” and accept right away. But, thinking back on it, I shouldn’t have accepted so easily.
At the time, it wasn’t about money. It was more important for me to be involved in making movies. That’s the reason I would accept so easily whenever somebody asked me to work on a project. I never asked, “How much are you going to pay me?” It was so easy for everyone else. All they had to do was ask me, and I would accept. If somebody from the production got involved, they could say, “This is how much it’s going to cost for each cut.”
When I went to Kyoto to work for Toei, they said, “Sorry, this is all we can pay you.” So I said, “No way. I’m going back to Tokyo.” The man in charge of production rushed over and said, “Wait!” So I negotiated with him. I told him, “If you pay me this much, I won’t say no.” The director said, “You’re very good at business.” I think money is the only way you can show how valuable your work is. They got me to come all the way from Tokyo — of course I’m going to be asked to be paid properly!
Kinji Fukasaku, whom everyone called Saku-san, really liked me and trusted me. Whenever he said, “Den-san, can you do this?” I would say, “No problem.” That’s how close we were. He lived in Seijo and passed away a long time ago. We were very close. I think Message from Space was the first movie we worked on together. It was first time they filmed an outer space movie in Kyoto. The production team there was like, “What the hell is this?” But Saku-san really took a liking to me, so, after that, he always asked me to work with him.
BH: So [Mr. Fukasaku] was the one who asked you add more [tracers]?
SI: Yes. There was a film where lots of bullets were being fired. In this scene, you weren’t sure if the bullets were actually hitting their targets or not, so Saku-san asked me to put in more tracer bullets. As I said before, tracer bullets aren’t actual bullets; they just indicate where you’re aiming. Saku-san and I became very close after that movie. I think there were two samurai movies after that. I had nothing to contribute, but Saku-san asked me to come to Kyoto. He lived in Seijo, and his wife was an actress. I never called him director Fukasaku; I called him Saku-san.
BH: Going back to Destroy All Monsters, there’s a scene where Godzilla uses his ray on the UN building. Godzilla is bending over, and the beam is very curved. So you’ve talked about something like this before, but could you talk about the difficulty of making the beam match the explosion after it’s already done?
SI: I had to deal with that kind of thing all the time. They set up the gunpower randomly, so the explosions went off all over the place, regardless of which direction Godzilla was facing. For the scene with Godzilla and the boat, I came up with the idea of bouncing the ray off the surface of the water to make the boat explode. They asked me to draw the ray, but Godzilla was facing downward, so there’s no way his ray could have hit the boat. So I had to make the ray bounce off the surface of the water to hit the boat. Everyone was happy. I said, “It wasn’t easy!” That kind of thing happened all the time.
Directors always have all these ideas [about where a beam should be]. Even if I tell them, “That’s not going to work,” they would say, “I want it there.” So I would have to make it work somehow. My philosophy is that there’s no such thing as an unrealistic phenomenon; everything is possible. For the scene with Godzilla and the UN building, there were buildings in front of the buildings he wanted to destroy, so Godzilla’s ray had to go over the buildings in the front. So I came up with the idea of a curved beam to make it work. I’m a sham; I did things half-heartedly like this all the time.
Even if you’re depicting something that isn’t true, you have to make it work somehow. If Godzilla is firing his ray in a certain direction, but the building is in a different direction, you have to make it work somehow. So I made his ray bounce off the buildings in the front to make the buildings in the back explode. I’ve done that kind of thing so many times. But, even if you’re depicting something that isn’t true, you have to make it look like it’s true. That’s the magic of movies. I’ve done that so many times. My drawings make the impossible seem possible. If you ask young people nowadays, they’d probably just say, “Sorry, it’s the wrong angle,” and that would be it.
BH: Why did you leave Toho?
SI: There was no particular reason, but I was busy working for Tsuburaya [Productions]. I did this work at night after coming home. I thought to myself, “I’m freelance.” So I didn’t renew my contract with Toho. I didn’t have to quit Toho, but I didn’t want to be tied to one organization, so I decided to quit so that I could be completely freelance. Then I suddenly had more work with Toei in Kyoto. I was so busy! I started working on TV commercials. They wanted to use the tricks we used in movies in their commercials. There were so many commercials I had to do! I didn’t sleep at night.
Kyosen Ohashi’s production office asked me to do a TV commercial. It wasn’t anything special for me, but I guess it was unique, so Kyosen really liked it. When I went to collect the money, the accountant handed me one million yen in cash. Normally, they would hand it to me in an envelope. But Kyosen’s younger brother, who was doing the accounting, said, “Thanks for doing such a great job!” and handed me a wad of money. I put the money in my pocket and felt really nervous the whole way home. I worked on a lot of commercials. Within a short span of 15 or 30 seconds, they need to have impact. So I got a lot of commercial work and didn’t sleep at all.
BH: Let’s talk about just one more movie, Message from Space. This had Vic Morrow from America as its star. What do you remember about Vic Morrow?
SI: I wasn’t working on the shoot. I knew of Vic Morrow. We all had tea together once. But I wasn’t really interested in him. I was much more interested in Kaoru Yachigusa. I wanted to spend as much time with her as possible.
I didn’t work on the shoot, but I remember some of the Toei staff saying, “He greets everybody; he’s very polite for an American.” Maybe somebody told him that it would be a good idea to go around and say, “Good morning,” to everybody on the set in Japan. It’s hard to believe that a big star like Vic Morrow would go around and greet everybody. No matter how many famous actors there are in a movie, you can’t make it without technicians. So maybe somebody told him that he should show respect to the technicians.
In Japan, production companies were very strict about stars being respectful and greeting everybody. In the States, the actors don’t need to greet the technicians on the set. When I went to Hollywood, I saw actors going back to their dressing rooms as soon as the director yelled, “Cut!” In Japan, actors say, “Thank you for your hard work,” to the staff when the shoot is over. So it’s quite different in the States. American actors differentiate themselves from the staff and crew.
BH: Aside from that, what can you tell me about your work on Message from Space?
SI: I did all the scenes when the spaceship fires beams while it’s flying, when the Japanese spacecraft fights the spaceship, and when the spaceship destroys a city. I did all of those scenes. I had to do all the scenes where the good guys fire beams, and where the bad guys fire beams. That’s why they called me “the Beam Guy” in Kyoto. I got angry and said, “I’m not the Beam Guy!”
When they saw the rushes, everybody was so surprised at the difference when the beams were added. They first watched the scene without the beams, then I showed them the scene with the beams. Kinji Fukasaku really liked my work because the beams were fired very precisely. Saku-san really liked it when something happened in the nick of time. He really took a liking to me. He often came to me, saying, “Den-san, come help me.” He loved action in movies. Saku-san loved it when I put a lot of beams into an action-packed scene. It’s a shame that he passed away.
BH: What year did you get married?
SI: I’m not sure. It was about 60 years ago. I was in my 20s. It happened so quickly. Old Tsuburaya ordered us to get married. He really appreciated my wife and favored her. He said, “You two should get together.” I told him, “I don’t want to!” He said, “If you get together, you’ll be able to make ends meet.” We couldn’t afford to go on a honeymoon, so the Old Man gave us his membership card for a hotel so we could stay there for two nights.
All our colleagues had their wedding reception at a hotel. We got married at a shrine in my neighborhood where I was a parishioner. The Shinto priest did the ceremony, and we had a Shinto-style reception in the main hall of the shrine. After the reception, the Old Man said, “Now, that’s what I call a real wedding!”
He was from Fukushima and had never been to a traditional Japanese reception like that before. We had traditional trays of food in a tatami room and toasted with sake. He said, “That’s what I call a real wedding!” He had been the official matchmaker for many couples, but all of them had their reception at a hotel. [As the official matchmaker], he had to sit on the stage, and he hated that kind of thing. Old Tsuburaya really favored my wife. She was always sitting on his lap.
BH: At the studio?
SI: In the editing room of the studio. The Old Man would sit in his chair [in the editing room]. I called her “Chabo” [a type of hen called Japanese bantam in English] because she had a big butt and looked like a hen when she walked. So the Old Man started calling her Chabo, too. He told us to get married. But I wanted to marry somebody else at the time, so I said, “I don’t want to.” He said, “I’ll be your official matchmaker, so get married.” And he gave us his membership card for the hotel for our honeymoon so we could spend two nights there. I thought, “I really don’t need that.”
There were very few women at the studio, only script supervisors [a position usually filled by women]. My wife was my assistant and knew how to draw. That’s why [Mr. Tsuburaya] took such a liking to her. I was the victim of a conspiracy! The Old Man favored her and always called out, “Chabo, come here!” There weren’t any girls in the Tsuburaya family; he only had brothers. There were three women in my department. One of them died young; another one got married to [Teruyoshi] Nakano, who was a [special effects] director. I was the only one the Old Man ordered to get married. I said, “I don’t want to!” but he said, “I beg you, please marry her!” His punch line [final word] was, “You’ll be able to make ends meet if the two of you get married.”
My father was not actually my biological father. My biological father passed away when I was a baby, and my mother remarried. So, in a sense, Old Tsuburaya was like my real father. I was the only person who could talk back to the Old Man and tell him, “That’s impossible!” Everybody else thought of him as the world-renowned Tsuburaya, so they stood rigidly in front of him while he spoke to them. After they left, the Old Man would ask me, “Do you think they understood what I said to them?” I would reply, “Of course they didn’t understand.” Old Tsuburaya was really like a father to me. We were like father and son.
Life is so interesting. I really wanted a father, but my real father passed away when I was a baby. And I never considered my adoptive father to be my father. That’s why I Old Tsuburaya was like a father to me. I never called him “Mr. Tsuburaya”; I always called him “Old Man.” When he passed away, I was heartbroken. I had lost my second father. He took such good care of my wife. She was the only one that he would buy coffee for. I once complained to him that he never treated me to coffee! He said, “Get your own coffee!”
The one regret I have with the Old Man is when I visited him when he was convalescing from an illness. My wife and I went to visit him at his vacation home in Izu, where he was staying with his wife. Old Tsuburaya said, “The two of you should stay here tonight.” We had reserved a room at an inn nearby, so I told him, “We’ll come again.” That was the last time I saw him. I really regret not staying the night. Like I said before, I never got to know my real father, and I never considered my adoptive father to be my father. So, when the Old Man died, I really felt like I had lost my father. After he died, my wife and I were crying, and we could almost hear him say, “Don’t cry!” He really took good care of my wife. I was so envious!
I just turned 86. I never dreamed of living beyond 80. When I was 12 years old, I actually died [was on the verge of death]. I had a high fever, and the doctor had given up on me. All my relatives lived in the Shinjuku-Yotsuya area. There was a horse butcher in Yotsuya, so they went there and bought four slices of horse meat and attached them to my chest and back.
My fever went down overnight, and I came back to life. Everybody told me, “A horse saved your life, so you should never go to the horse races!” When carpenters injured themselves with a bad cut or bruise, they used to put raw horse meat directly on their arm or wherever they’d injured themselves, and the wound wouldn’t heat up or get infected. There was an old butcher shop in Yotsuya that specialized in horse meat. It was called The Kick. (laughs)
I was in the hospital, and the doctor told my mother, “I’m not sure if your son is going to make it through the night.” My uncle who lived in Yotsuya said, “I know what to do.” He went to the horse butcher and came back with four slices of horse meat. They attached the meat to my chest and my back with a cotton cloth. I don’t remember this, but, apparently, my hospital room stank [because of the horse meat]! My fever went down right away. So I was saved by a horse! I was in the Keio University Pediatrics Department in Yotsuya. I was sharing a two-person room with a girl, but she died that night, and I saw her body being taken away. I thought I was going to be next.
If only they had penicillin back then like they have now. I had acute pneumonia. On my way home from school, I thought I tripped on something. But when I got home, my mother saw my face and said, “There’s something wrong with you.” She took me to our family doctor, and he said, “We have to hospitalize him right away.” Ever since I was saved by horse meat, I’ve never had any major illnesses. My uncle told me, “You died once, but you came back to life.”
My uncle Sada died when he very young. He was a very talented painter, so everybody thought that I was his reincarnation. He did Japanese-style paintings and painted kimono obi [sashes]. When I was a child, everybody said, “Sadao is a reincarnation of Sada!” I never met him, but, if I had, I might have been more successful. (laughs)
My high school teacher told me that I should go to art university. But I was anti-academic, so I didn’t want to go to art university. That’s why I ended up joining the art group called Nikakai, which was located in Seiji Togo’s garden. Tamami Togo [Seiji’s daughter] was still a high school student, but she would come out of the bathroom completely naked, even though we guys were around. We said to her, “Tamami, you’re a girl!” But she didn’t care. She just said, “What’s the problem?” I think she was still in the tenth or eleventh grade then.
I used to spend New Year’s in Hawaii every year and bumped into her at Narita Airport. She wasn’t that great of a singer, but she formed a group with two other girls and Yuji Yasuoka. We went to her concerts and pretended we were part of the audience. I never spoke to Seiji Togo, but I helped his wife by taking care of her garden and looking after the other art students.
One day, she told me, “You don’t have to pay tuition from next month,” so I could be a member for free. That really helped me. In return, I had to walk their dog and mow the lawn. There was a gardenia tree by the hedge. The wife loved it when the gardenia tree was in bloom, but hated it when the flowers fell on the lawn. So it was my job to pick them up off the grass. Whenever she needed me, she would call out, “Kuro-chan!”