PRELUDE TO A DIRECTING CAREER! Toru Murakawa on His Years as an Assistant Director at Nikkatsu Studios!

Toru Murakawa in November 2021. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Born on March 22, 1937, in Murayama, Yamagata Prefecture, Toru Murakawa is a prolific film and television director whose collaborations with actor Yusaku Matsuda, such as The Resurrection of the Golden Wolf (1979) and The Beast to Die (1980), are among his best-known works. On the small screen, he also directed episodes of the TV series Daitsuiseki (1978) and Tantei Monogatari (1979-80). Mr. Murakawa joined Nikkatsu Studios in the late 1950s and worked throughout the ’60s as an assistant director. During his career as an assistant director, he worked on Nikkatsu’s adaptation of The Dancing Girl of Izu (1963), the giant monster romp Gappa the Triphibian Monster (a.k.a. Monster from a Prehistoric Planet, 1967), Toshio Masuda’s wartime drama Monument to the Girl’s Corps (1968), as well as the sprawling World War II epic Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). This November 2021 interview with Mr. Murakawa, covering his early years and his assistant-directing career at Nikkatsu, was conducted by Brett Homenick and translated by Ko Iwata and Keiko Takemata.

Toru Murakawa: Tokusatsu was about 60 years, and it was very primitive. I took a test and joined Nikkatsu as an assistant director. It was so different from today. We didn’t use CG or VFX; we actually shot it [tokusatsu] in camera. It was the same as Godzilla (1954) or perhaps Mothra (1961). I was only an assistant director at the bottom of the pyramid at Nikkatsu about 60 years ago. I personally did not make any tokusatsu films.

After 10 years, I became a director, and you can see in the book that I gave you [about Mr. Murakawa’s filmmaking career] that I’ve directed 440 works, none of which has tokusatsu in it. In your questions [which were submitted in advance], you asked me a lot about tokusatsu, such as Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), but they were not tokusatsu. Both the Japanese and American side actually shot the scenes. I really don’t remember much about tokusatsu because it was roughly 60 years ago.

Brett Homenick: Why don’t we start at the very beginning? Please tell us about your early life when you were growing up.

TM: I first became interested in movies when I was four. My childhood was about 70 years ago. I don’t think any of you [sitting at the table] were born at that time. My father brought a manual movie projector home. We would watch chambara and jidai geki movies on a white wall or a sheet, so we watched these movies at home.  

Because it was manual, these were all silent films. So what we would do was put on gramophone records and listen to joruri performers [narrators accompanied by shamisen and other Japanese music] while watching chambara movies on the wall. That is how I grew up.

When I was four, World War II was going on, so we could not see any films from the U.S., Europe, or Asia. The films I saw on the wall were in black and white, chambara films, and they were about good guys and bad guys. I was always rooting for the good guys, the heroes, and loved the light and shadows. That was when I decided to become a director when I grew up. 

After World War II, I was nine years old, and that’s when they imported all these American and European movies, as well as films made in other parts of the world. I was so shocked when I watched these American, European, and Soviet films. They were all so fun. That’s when I decided I wanted to join the film industry.  

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Do you have any memories of the difficulties or hardships of World War II?

TM: During the war, they would have blackouts. So, at times, I couldn’t watch a whole film because there would be blackouts. It was disappointing to me that I couldn’t watch the whole film. 

The Korean War happened during my junior high and high school years. After I graduated from university, I applied to Nikkatsu and was able to join the company. 

BH: I know that you were very young during World War II, but do you have any memories of what it was like in Japan during World War II, specifically?

TM: Since it was during wartime, there was a lot of propaganda. Most of the movies they showed were propaganda films, showing that Japan was winning or that it was strong while advancing into Asia. I was quite disappointed because the movies that we could see were just one-sided. I wish I could have seen other movies at that time, but they were all war movies, and seeing people killing other people.

BH: Please talk about the process of joining Nikkatsu.

TM: I joined in 1958. Nikkatsu is short for Nihon Katsudo Shashin Kabushiki Kaisha [Japan Motion Picture Company, Ltd.]. Everybody just called it Nikkatsu for short. 

BH: Did you have to take a test? How did you get hired to work at Nikkatsu?

TM: Yes, I took a test.

BH: Could you please describe the test?

TM: I had graduated from university, so there were five subjects — English, math, essay-writing, and sociology. 

BH: Typically, how many people who took the test would pass? 

TM: Two thousand people sat for the test, and 28 passed.

BH: Who were some of your classmates? Was there anyone famous who was in your class, so to speak, at Nikkatsu?

TM: Shohei Imamura — he won the Japanese Academy Film Prize. It was 60 years ago, so I can’t really remember, but they were all older than I was. 

BH: Early on, what were your impressions of Nikkatsu? What was the shooting schedule like? Generally, tell us what it was like to work at Nikkatsu around 1958.

TM: The directors who worked for Nikkatsu returned from the war. We were only new assistant directors. We did not have any equipment, so we had to economize everything. This was when the U.S. was prosperous and dominant in the film industry. So they would just keep the camera rolling and say, “Action!” and shoot the film.

But, since Japan was very poor, we just had to start shooting at that point [after the clapperboard was clapped]. There was no “Action.” They just had to shoot everything because film was precious. It was so humiliating and regrettable. In Japan, we had to use three film frames for the clapperboard. But, in the U.S., they had no restrictions. This disparity was so humiliating.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

In America, Eastmancolor was dominant and was the only company that was making film. So they could keep the camera rolling and use the film. But, in Japan, we didn’t have enough money. The directors had to be creative and make detailed preparations. If the shot was no good, then it would just cost a lot of money.

So the actors and directors were all nervous that they could not act well because they just wanted to make sure that what they shot was good. There was such a difference with the U.S. These were hard times in Japan. The difference between the winner and loser of the war was enormous.

Japan may have been behind, but some excellent directors did develop, such as Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Yasujiro Ozu, who became world-famous as they created high-quality films. I was so pleased with and proud of their work. It was humiliating while I was an assistant director because we had to economize, as we could not be extravagant with our film. But amazing films were produced in Japan, and this was what motivated me while I was working as an assistant director.    

BH: Could you talk about the contracts at Nikkatsu? Were you under contract? If so, how did that system work?

TM: I was an employee. I signed a one-year contract as an assistant director, and I had to renew it every year. 

BH: When you first joined Nikkatsu, which directors did you work with most often?

TM: I had three mentors — [Katsumi] Nishikawa, [Kenjiro] Morinaga, and [Toshio] Masuda. Mr. Masuda took over for Mr. Kurosawa during the filming of Tora! Tora! Tora! I studied under these three directors.

BH: Specifically, about Mr. Masuda, could you describe what he was like? What did he teach you as a director?

TM: I’ll talk about the three directors. Mr. Nishikawa taught me the basics and how to make movies. Mr. Morinaga taught me the importance of bringing a humanistic aspect about love into the movies. We should never forget to include human love in the movies, which should be apparent and easy to understand. Mr. Masuda taught me that we need both physical and mental strength to finish a movie.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: When you were at Nikkatsu in the late ‘50s and the 1960s, did you ever leave the studio and work for another studio?

TM: There were directors who wanted me to work with them as an assistant director. So they paid half of my salary to Nikkatsu, and then they paid half of my salary to the other film company. That is how much they wanted me to work with them. I received approval from the film companies.   

BH: Where did you go, and what studios did you work for?

TM: All of them — Shochiku, Toho, Daiei, and Toei. 

BH: What projects did you work on at Toho?

TM: I was an assistant director for all of them. The directors wanted me to work with them. So, at Toho, Toshio Masuda asked me to come and help him out with the films he was making. It wasn’t as if I were the director and that I was filming the movies.

BH: Could you name specific movies that you worked on?

TM: I don’t remember because there were so many. I’ve forgotten. 

BH: Did you work on Gappa [the Triphibian Monster] (1967)?

TM: I was only the assistant director, so I really don’t remember. 

BH: That was with Mr. [Haruyasu, a.k.a. Hiroshi] Noguchi as the director. 

TM: I was an assistant director for Hiroshi Noguchi.

BH: What could you tell us about Mr. Noguchi as a director?

TM: He was a very commercial film director in the sense that his movies were made very quickly, cheaply, and there wasn’t much substance to them. He was well-known for making movies cheaply and quickly. [in English] Easy program picture! There was no content to them. 

[shows Mr. Murakawa the poster for Gappa] I was only an assistant director, so, when Gappa would appear, I directed the extras running away from the monsters and the extras looking at the flying monsters. I was only an assistant director, so that’s all I did.

I had just graduated from college, so I didn’t know from left to right. I was working hard to do whatever I was told. I was just an assistant director. I wasn’t involved in many special effects movies, so I’m not sure if I’ve answered these questions well. If I’ve answered them well, then I’m very happy.

BH: I don’t want to credit you for anything you didn’t do, but would you say that you did work on Gappa?

TM: Yes, and the director was Hiroshi Noguchi. I knew Hiroshi Noguchi very well.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Do you have anything else, in terms of his personality, [to] share about Mr. Noguchi?

TM: He was a very gentle person, not the type of director whom people would respect, because all he wanted to do was make program pictures. There was no depth to them; they were just cheap and fast entertainment. 

BH: Mr. Noguchi died very young, so what do you remember about his final days or final years?

TM: I wasn’t around on his final day. He was at a Japanese inn at a hot spring, and he had a heart attack. 

BH: The next movie I’d like to ask about is [The Dancing Girl of Izu] (1963), directed by [Mr.] Nishikawa, who was one your teachers. So please talk about this film and what you remember.

TM: I respect Mr. Nishikawa so much because he was an amazing director, and he took me under his wing and took care of me as if I were his son. I learned the basics from him. For The Dancing Girl of Izu, we had the [book] author Yasunari Kawabata and the actress Sayuri Yoshinaga at the filming location, and I worked as an assistant director. Just the other day, The Dancing Girl of Izu was screened at a large movie theater. We made a fascinating movie. I respect him very much. 

BH: Do you have any episodes or memories from the set of this film?

TM: The story is a love story involving a girl working with a group of traveling performers and a high school student. They were traveling from the mountains of Izu to Shimoda Port. On their way back to Shimoda Port, we had to dig a path, a shortcut, for the troupe members to walk along. Just as we were making the path, Yasunari Kawabata visited us and said, “There’s so much work that you people have to do for this film.” I remember having onigiri for lunch with him and how he was very kind to us, saying how hardworking we were in clearing the path for the movie.

BH: Could you talk about working on Monument to the Girls Corps (1968)? 

TM: Toshio Masuda was the director, and I was the chief [assistant] director for this film. I wore about three hats because I was an actor playing a captain, I had to make sure that it was raining, and I was also the assistant director. So making this movie was a very busy time. 

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Why did you end up as an actor in the film?

TM: It was a very difficult job because I was the assistant director, and, as there were about 40 in one troop, we had a lot of extras because it was a military film. So I played the captain at the head of the line so that the extras could imitate me. It was like killing two birds with one stone because I could act and teach the extras at the same time. I also had to make sure that it was raining, that the troops kept pace when walking, and that they stood in a row, so it was a lot of work.

BH: Do you have any other memories from the shoot of Monument to the Girls Corps — anything about making the film or location memories?

TM: It was a lot of fun working on this film. The film takes place in Okinawa, and there were about 20 high school girls in the movie. There is a scene when they go into a river after the bombing stops, which was shot at Mount Fuji. We filmed the scenes there. We had to film a peaceful scene where all the girls would go into the clear water.

I, as a man, had to organize the schedule to make sure that none of the girls was menstruating at the same time, which was difficult for me to do as a man. It was so easy working with the men, but, with the girls, we had to be very careful. It is a sad story because all the girls died in the end. There is no end to the challenges we face.

Eighty percent was filmed in Kawazu in Izu. We had to use airplanes, as well. It was a lot of work. Sayuri Yoshinaga acted in this film.

BH: I understand that screenwriter Yasutaro Yagi was very angry about how his story for Monument to the Girls Corps was changed in the final version. So what do you remember about this situation?

MT: I was not the director, so I don’t know much about the final scene [that was changed from the original screenplay] because this involves the director, producer, and the distribution company. I didn’t know anything about this. I think it was exaggerated. You are talking about the final scene – I guess it was an issue that the distribution company had.

Normally, the director has the final say in creating the final scene, and I was only the assistant director. I’ve directed 440 works up to now, and I always have the final say in each work. The writer is there, but the director has final say. Of course, the writer will be angry, but that is useless.

Yasutaro Yagi was a major screenwriter. He had his ideas as a screenwriter, and the distribution company, Nikkatsu, would have their ideas, too. But I don’t have any detailed information about that. I guess they all had their own ideas, but it’s probably all been exaggerated.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Next, how did you get hired to work on Tora! Tora! Tora!?

TM: Do you know about Mr. Kurosawa’s leaving the movie production?

BH: What’s the real story?

TM: It’s a very famous story. Mr. Kurosawa was sent a contract from 20th Century-Fox by Darryl Zanuck that he would make this movie in three years and several months, as they had to raise funds for the movie. But Mr. Kurosawa had his own method for creating the movie, and time just went by. There were numerous issues. Time just went by, and the end of the term of the contract was closing in. Mr. Kurosawa was quite adamant in his way of filmmaking. Mr. Zanuck and Mr. [Elmo] Williams decided that the film would not be ready using Mr. Kurosawa, so they decided to replace the director.

This is where Mr. Masuda came in. After looking through all the data and asking the fundraisers and searching for an alternate director, 20th Century-Fox decided that Mr. Kurosawa would not be able to meet the deadline and also decided to find another director after objectively looking at the time where nothing was taking place.

Mr. Kurosawa had a nervous breakdown, and he attempted suicide by slitting his wrists. This is true. That is why Mr. Masuda, my mentor, took over the project, as he had enough background in directing.

Mr. Zanuck, Mr. Williams, and Mr. Masuda had a meeting at Hotel Okura where Mr. Masuda accepted the job. I was his chief assistant director at that time. It was a difficult decision to make, but it was the correct one. Considering the reason they made this movie in Japan by the Japanese, the basic idea, they had to use Mr. Masuda.

The film could not be made by one director, so they invited Mr. [Kinji] Fukasaku, as well. There was only six months left, so Mr. Masuda was the only director to complete the movie [as the main director]. The actual decisions were made in November – it was actually around this time of the year, many years ago, and I was involved in this project. This is quite famous, as it has been written about in books.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Please talk about some of the memories from the set of Tora! Tora! Tora!

MT: There are too many! It would take about a week to talk about them all. There was so much that went on during filming that I don’t think it’s fair. I know what happened before and after. You have to see the film and read the books about the movie. There are a lot of people who are still alive who were involved in making this movie, so I don’t think I would like to speak about it.

BH: What was it like to work with directors Masuda and Fukasaku on this film? Could you tell us what your relationship was like with them on this film?

MT: Mr. Masuda is a powerful person, so he put together the [filming] site with that power and completed an American movie produced with a large budget by the deadline.

Mr. Kurosawa could have done it, but there were areas that Mr. Kurosawa could not complete, either. Looking at the results, both Mr. Masuda and Mr. Fukasaku worked together to complete the film, but there were areas that they could not film because they were running out of time. Of course, I was the one who made the proposal to use a second director.

The main issue was to complete the film by May. This was a legal issue, a must, or we would have had to pay a penalty. Elmo Williams of 20th Century-Fox had to make the decision.

BH: Who was your favorite director to work with at Nikkatsu?

TM: There were three — my three mentors. 

BH: What was the most challenging part of working at Nikkatsu?

TM: Joining Nikkatsu, the challenges and the good experiences are at different extremes. Joining Nikkatsu was difficult, but I loved it because it made me what I am now. Do you know The Dancing Girl of Izu writer Yasunari Kawabata? He won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Mr. Zanuck was a leading figure in Hollywood, a producer and the president of 20th Century-Fox. His right-hand man was Elmo Williams, a director and a major producer.

BH: What was your favorite part about working at Nikkatsu?

TM: After the war, when dissolving the zaibatsu [“financial cliques,” which were large business monopolies that existed in Japan until the end of World War II], there was a huge film company. It was Dai Nippon Eiga [Seisaku] Kabushiki Kaisha, which was divided into Daiei and Nikkatsu.

After World War II, after dissolving the zaibatsu, Daiei became a movie production company, and Nikkatsu was the newest company because it was a movie production company that was born after the war. Everyone wanted to work at Nikkatsu. It was an American-style company. That was one of the reasons I wanted to work at Nikkatsu. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s