AN ANIMATED LIFE IN TOKUSATSU! Minoru Kujirai on His Anime and SFX Work at Tsuburaya Productions and Toei!

Minoru Kujirai in November 2021. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Born on September 13, 1944, Minoru Kujirai is an animator who began working at Toei Animation in the mid-1960s, working on numerous well-known anime programs, including the kaiju-themed King Kong (1967). In the early 1970s, Mr. Kujirai transitioned to working on such Toei-produced tokusatsu programs as Kamen Rider (1971-73) through Ex Productions. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Kujirai would join Tsuburaya Productions, where he would spend the rest of the decade, working behind the scenes on some of the production company’s most popular titles, including the Ultraman series. In November 2021, Mr. Kujirai answered Brett Homenick’s questions about his anime and tokusatsu work in an interview translated by Ko Iwata.

Brett Homenick: When and where were you born?

Minoru Kujirai: I was born in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, on September 13, Showa 19 [1944]. 

BH: Talk a little bit about your early life, like your hobbies and so forth.

MK: I loved to draw, paint, and create things.

BH: What kind of things would you draw?

MK: I was only a school student, so my paintings were of landscapes or just general paintings. My craftwork was something a bit different. I would come up with and create things that were different.

BH: What kind of things did you create that were different?

MK: It was during my elementary school days, a long time ago, so I forgot what I did. (laughs)

BH: When did you see Varan the Unbelievable (1958)? Talk about the impact that this movie had on you.

MK: I saw Varan at a movie theater around my second year of junior high school. It was black and white, and I was so impressed by the movie. Because I was still in junior high school, I really didn’t think of making it into a career but was interested in this field.

It was only after I entered high school that I began to aspire to work in the industry. I consulted my art teacher, but none of his former students worked in the film industry. It was partly because my high school specialized in commerce. So the conversation ended there.

BH: What was the name of the high school you went to?

MK: The name of the high school was then called Saitama Prefectural Kumagaya Commercial and Technical High School. The high school I attended had a very good baseball team, and they were one of the schools that reached the Best 8 in Koshien [the National High School Baseball Championship] when I was there.

Nowadays, they’ve divided the school into two. There’s a commercial side and a technical side. But, when I was there, they were both together. They’ve also changed the name of the high school. 

BH: Did you play baseball in high school?

MK: No, I didn’t, but our baseball team was very strong. 

BH: How did you get involved in animation? Please talk about the process of how that happened.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

MK: At first, I sent my drawings to Mushi Production, which was started by Osamu Tezuka, and passed the first exam. But I failed the second exam, and I didn’t know what to do. So I took my drawings to a company that is called Eiken today, which produces Sazae-san (1969-present). The company’s name was [later] changed. Back then, it was called Television Corporation of Japan [TCJ] and had an office in Shinagawa.

Television Corporation of Japan was producing 8 Man [8th Man] (1963-64), Sennin Buraku (1963-64), and Tetsujin 28 [Gigantor] (1963-65). Once I showed them my drawings, they accepted me immediately and wanted me to start the following day because, at that time, television animation was very popular, and they didn’t have enough people. So they hired me immediately.

BH: What year was this?

MK: This was in Showa 39 [1964]. The first job I joined as an animator was with Tetsujin 28. 8 Man and Sennin Buraku were with a different group, and their production periods were different.

BH: Please talk about your work on that. What did you do on Tetsujin 28?

MK: I was an animator.

BH: Do you have any memories of working on that show, and what the work was like?

MK: After I joined, I was just working frantically. Days went by so quickly. I was happy at the same time because I never thought I would be able to get this job. But I wasn’t at Television Corporation of Japan for very long — only about six months. The main reason is that, while I was working with Television Corporation of Japan, Toei started to recruit animators.

In retrospect, I feel a little bad that more than half of my colleagues also went to Toei. Toei was the largest company for feature-length animated movies, so they were better known. As it was more of an ideal job, I guess lots of us just rushed to Toei. I turned out to be one of them! (laughs) Thinking back on it now, I somewhat feel sorry about it.

BH: Please talk about what happened next. 

MK: We took a test, and about 60 of us passed. Maybe not so many companies have it today, but back then Toei had a training institution. I was paid and trained as I started. (laughs) The famous Yasuji Mori and animators from Tatsunoko Production came in to train us. It was so much fun; it was a time when every day was fun. There was no assigned task to worry about, which I obviously had to worry about in later years. I was able to receive training and also get paid. I made friends of different ages. Many of them are still my friends today.

My first job at Toei was Space Patrol Hopper (1965). I am not so sure, but apparently the title was changed either to or from Uchukko Jun. I guess that the hero of Space Patrol Hopper was called Jun. It was in black and white. Toei would start churning out more animation, so they later hired lots of animators for each project by having them take entrance exams. As a result, there were some shows I wasn’t involved in.

I did Fujimaru of the Wind: The Childhood of a Ninja (1964-65) and Sally the Witch (1966-68). Then I did Maho no Mako-chan (1970-71) and The Secrets of Akko-chan (1969-70) in rapid succession.

But, during this time, I also helped out with other anime shows, even though my name isn’t credited. There were some other feature-length works we did in collaboration with overseas companies.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Do you remember any of those names?

MK: The name of the company was Rankin/Bass, and we made Tom of T.H.U.M.B. (1967), King Kong (1967), and The Mouse on the Mayflower (1968). We also made some [stop-motion] puppet shows with Rankin/Bass. Rankin/Bass also made some other shows with companies that made [stop-motion] puppets. 

BH: For King Kong, specifically, do you remember what you drew on that — any characters or creatures? 

MK: I was an animator for King Kong, so I drew everything. 

BH: For King Kong, or for any other animation that you worked on, are there any strong memories of the work that you did?

MK: Like I said before, I worked together with dozens of staff members. Honestly, I just focused on carrying out my job every day. For the rest, I just went out with everybody to have fun. More than the works I was involved in, I mostly remember the time I spent with my fellow animators after work. Every few months, you would be on a different production. There were so many productions aside from the ones I mentioned before, such as Cyborg 009 (1968) and some others, that I participated in. So I don’t have particular memories about the individual animated productions that I worked on.

BH: Rankin/Bass is very famous for its Christmas [stop-motion] animation in America. Even now, it’s still very famous. Did you work on any of those Christmas [stop-motion] animated shows?

MK: I visited the studio frequently to see the making of the Christmas animation in which reindeer appear. I often had conversations with the company president. There weren’t very many studios that made shows for overseas [companies], so most of the overseas shows were sent to this studio, whose name has just slipped my mind.

I wasn’t directly involved with these shows, but an animator named Hiroshi Tabata, who animated creatures later on, became famous from this studio. Since we’ve been in this industry for a long time, we’re all connected somehow. 

I wasn’t involved in any of the Christmas shows. I just knew people who worked on them. I just wanted to say that the connection between Rankin/Bass and Toei was because they were both doing animation, and Toei had some connections with an overseas company. 

BH: In terms of animation, do you have anything else that you’d like to share — any other work that you’ve done or any other memories that you’d like to share with us?

MK: Stepping back from animation, I actually joined the industry because I had seen Varan. That means my interests were in tokusatsu, even though I was also working in animation. While I was working in animation, I would go back home once a week to Kumagaya. I made a pool in the field of a farm, filled the pool with water, and filmed tokusatsu with an 8mm movie camera. I brought my work to Tsuburaya [Productions] to have them take a look at it. That was how I got the chance to join Tsuburaya. Thus, while I was still at Toei, my thoughts drifted toward tokusatsu, especially during the latter half of my time with Toei.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Please talk about your correspondence with Tsuburaya and what happened next.

MK: When I visited Tsuburaya, I met with the company president, Hajime Tsuburaya, and Sadao Iizuka, an engineer who is very famous in the field of optical compositing. At the front door, they agreed to take a look at the film. Then they watched it and praised it by saying that it could not be the work of an amateur. They told me they wanted to have me join right away. A week later, I received a letter from them, so I started to commute to their office soon after that.

BH: What did you film that you [brought] to Tsuburaya?

MK: It was a short film in which I anthropomorphized stationery. The movie set I made was a real one, but I used stationery, such as paper clips, pencils, and [pencil] caps. The stationery would fly, or it would run.

When I paid a visit to Tsuburaya, they said that they wanted me to start right away. What I really wanted was to be part of their tokusatsu art department, but they didn’t have any openings. Then Mr. Iizuka, who was in charge of compositing, offered me an open position in his unit. So, right after I joined, I became an assistant in the compositing unit.

Today, digital technology gets the job done quickly, but in the old days we used traveling mattes when, for example, a person would run in front of a kaiju. The person and the creature could not be filmed together because their sizes were different, so what you would do was make masks for the person.

For example, there is a rock on this side, and the person is here, and then the creature appears. So on paper you would make masks for the person, such as the head that appears here like this, and then you would superimpose them optically. This way, a live-action scene would be made where the person runs in front of the kaiju.

On an animation stand, we would go over it frame by frame in such a meticulous manner — what a depressing job! (laughs) It was unspectacular work. But everybody, even all the guys from Toho, also used to do it since the time of Godzilla (1954), despite being tedious.

BH: On what TV shows were you working with Mr. Iizuka, doing the beams?

MK: Ever since he joined Tsuburaya, Mr. Iizuka had been in charge of compositing on all the shows. When I joined, I started as an assistant. He was working on a show called Mirrorman (1971-72). He left in the middle of making [UltramanTaro (1973-74) and started his own independent company called Den Film, which was named after his nickname, Den-san. It was a situation where, with Mr. Iizuka gone, the compositing unit would be shut down at Tsuburaya. That meant I was going to be fired. (laughs)

Then Kazuo Sagawa, a famous tokusatsu director, came to me and said, “Kujirai-kun, why don’t you do compositing?” Mr. Sagawa was asking me to succeed Mr. Iizuka now that he was gone. Tsuburaya’s original intention was to outsource compositing to Mr. Iizuka and dissolve its own compositing unit. Then came this offer from Mr. Sagawa. Of course, I did not want to lose my job, so I accepted his offer, and took over from Taro.

A man named Mr. [Kaneo] Kimura worked under Mr. Iizuka. Both of us were assistants. At one point in time, he became the head, and I helped him as an assistant. From [UltramanLeo (1974-75), Mr. Kimura had left because of his age, and I worked sort of solo — or became the main person credited. Before that, both Mr. Kimura and I were credited.

BH: Working with Mr. Iizuka — of course, he kind of invented beams and so forth. What was he like as a person? What was he like to work with?

MK: I didn’t talk much with Mr. Iizuka. He had been around since all the way back to early days of Godzilla at Toho. All the names I’ve mentioned so far, like Mr. Tabata and Mr. Iizuka, can be found as a top result if you search them online.

There was a Mr. [Minoru] Nakano in the optical unit. The optical and compositing units worked together to produce beam animation. Mr. Nakano came from Toho, as well, together with Mr. Iizuka. While Mr. Iizuka was with Tsuburaya, he would just tell me what to do, which I simply followed. After I took charge, I started to devise my own things. 

Photo © Brett Homenick.

One reason that I was invited by Tsuburaya to join them was because I was involved in animation at Toei. So, one day, I was asked to go to the president’s room for a talk. I was told about the company’s interest in producing stop-motion photography in the future, which would later lead to works like [Dinosaur Expedition] Born Free (1976-77) and other stop-motion projects, including animation.

Sometimes, I felt bad because Tsuburaya Productions was a company that had nothing to do with animation at the beginning. Then I introduced them to animation that was three-dimensional as well as two-dimensional. But, later on, Tsuburaya began making a lot of animation, so I believe it was a good thing.

Mr. Sagawa made pilot films, such as [the 1974 demo reel] Giant Beast Planet, at Tsuburaya. At one point in time, Tsuburaya was running out of productions for TV. So, in an effort to produce something, I submitted a project. Then I was told to come up with whatever I wanted to produce. I made the characters, setting, stop-motion photography, and the animation all by myself. Mr. Sagawa joined as the cameraman. That may be why I was eventually asked to stay and continue working on compositing.

I think Mr. Sagawa was willing to adopt many different things. If not, he would not have talked to me.

BH: Well, let’s talk about some of the shows at Tsuburaya. Do you remember what your very first show at Tsuburaya was?

MK: My first job was to do compositing for a monster for Mirrorman, which was adopted. I talked with the producer of Mirrorman and was asked to work on one monster. So I did, and it was adopted for just one episode. That was all I did for Mirrorman. After that, there were Emergency Directive 10-4·10-10 (1972), Daigoro [vs. Goliath] (1972), The Last Dinosaur (1977), Jumborg Ace (1973), and some animation.

There was The Last Dinosaur, on which Mr. Sagawa was the [tokusatsu] director. From Mirrorman to Ultraman, I was involved with the ones that Mr. Iizuka was also involved in. I’m not credited, but I was involved with all the productions that were made by Tsuburaya during that time. 

BH: Specifically, about Mirrorman, could you talk about the work? What did you do? What monster did you create?

MK: I designed and named a monster, but they changed the name, and I’ve forgotten what it was.

BH: Do you remember either what you named it or what the studio named it? Do you remember anything about it?

MK: No, I can’t remember the name. 

BH: Did you do anything else for Mirrorman?

MK: I liked tokusatsu, so I was watching, but I wasn’t really involved in it. I just designed one of the monsters. 

BH: Did you work on Jumborg Ace?

MK: I was involved as an assistant for the beams. On everything for which Mr. Iizuka was the head of the beam effects, I was his assistant. So I was involved in everything that Mr. Iizuka did, but I was not credited. 

BH: As the assistant, exactly what work would you do?

MK: I worked on the beams and traveling mattes. I’d be in a dark room, shining light against the masks on the animation stand, and projecting it onto the film. Then I would trace the outline. Mr. Iizuka was the head, so my role as an assistant was just that. Then Mr. Iizuka would place what was made on the desk to draw the beams.

BH: Did you work on Ultraman [80] (1980-81)?

MK: No, I didn’t. I left Tsuburaya [Productions] after The Ultraman (1979-80).

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Talk about the work on Ultraman Taro

MK: With Ultraman Taro, I was involved in compositing, that is, mostly beams and traveling mattes. But, before The Ultraman, [I was involved with] with Star of Pro-Wrestling Azteckaiser (1976-77), authored by Go Nagai, which was a live-action [TV show] comparable to Kamen Rider instead of tokusatsu. There was a five-minute animation sequence within every live-action episode, which was the scene of a pro wrestling fight.

I was asked by the producer to draw a storyboard for the animation scenes. So, from start to finish, I was in charge of the storyboards for the five-minute animation in each episode of Azteckaiser. The end credits read, “Sakuga [drawing] animation: Minoru Kujirai,” but that wasn’t true, so I asked for a correction. It was not the animation that I drew; it was the storyboards. The actual sakuga was done by another production company.

BH: With Ultraman Taro, did you do Ultraman Taro’s beams and [those of] the monsters? Whose beams did you do?

MK: I did all the beams.

BH: When you have to do kaiju beams, for example, you have to make them different. 

MK: I did all the compositing for the beams that the kaiju emit, as well as the ones for Taro.

BH: When it came to designing the beams, did you have any inspiration? What kind of ideas did you bring to it to make the beams different and unique?

MK: While Mr. Iizuka was in charge, he was the one to make decisions for what his assistant should produce. So I followed [his instructions] and produced them based on his decisions. But, when I became in charge, I was able to use my own ideas and produce them the way I wanted. The traditional fine [thin] lines [of beams] that Ultraman emits were mostly based on a template, so nothing was changed. But, for any other new beams that I was allowed to make, I came up with my own based on my experience, combining some different ideas. It actually wasn’t all that difficult.

For example, you are firing a beam at your opponent. Then you bend one beam this way, and also this way, making it a triangle. So it looks as if it is going like this [makes the sound of the beam] as a result of frame-by-frame shooting.

When there is movement, it will look as if it’s moving, too. I think the way the beam is expressed depends on the talent and sense of the creator.

In theory, anyone can do it, simply by moving beam lines. I think Mr. Sagawa asked me to stay on because I was able to recreate what Mr. Iizuka had done.

I had a lot of fun when I was working for Tsuburaya. I’m here now because of my job there. I have mostly good memories. For example, after seeing the things that I could do and wanted to do, some of my colleagues kindly asked me to design kaiju for The Ultraman.

BH: Let’s talk about Ultraman Leo. What kind of work did you do on this? Did you have more freedom this time?

MK: Starting from Leo, I became the lead, so only my name was credited for compositing. So I did have more freedom.

Nobuo Yajima from Toei was doing tokusatsu at the time; the studio was just next door. He was working on, for example, Captain Ultra (1967). I met him for the first time while working at Toei Animation, and I told him that I wanted to do tokusatsu going forward. He said to me, “Good luck.”

Then, a few years later, Mr. Yajima took charge of [tokusatsu] work at Tsuburaya Productions. Animation was included in that particular work. Thus, I was able to speak with him again after some years.

After meeting him at Toei, I met him again several years later in a meeting room at Tsuburaya. It was as if it were serendipity. I was so surprised that I would be able to meet him again.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Talk about designing the beams for Ultraman Leo and the inspiration that you had and how you made the beams different for the characters.

MK: I rarely made sample beams for testing [before shooting]. I would semi-finalize the beam in my imagination and simply color-burn it onto the film. After color-burning it, I usually did not find any problems, so there was no need to redo the beam. We could not afford to redo beams, anyway, due to the tight budget and schedule. That was the case even when Mr. Iizuka was there.

You may be able to redo what you produced in the case of movies. But, for television, you must do it without practicing [ahead of time]. So, most of the time, the beams would be adopted just as they were. The target of the beam is to hit the opponent. So, unless the beam missed the mark and did not hit the opponent, you would not have to redo the beam. As long as it hit the opponent, any beam produced was roughly accepted.

BH: Let’s say, [for] Ultraman Leo’s beam, how long would it take you to animate one beam for one scene?

MK: It did not take that much time. You probably have seen that beams would only run for a few seconds very quickly. It takes one or two frames. It is possible to make up to 24 frames per second. It was enough just to make 12 sakuga [drawings] on two frames.

The halation that would occur around the beam can be expressed very easily today. In the old days, we would use an airbrush to blur the beams. I would draw beams in black and white on a white piece of paper and color them optically later on.

When the monster would fire its beam out of its mouth, as an effect, it had to spark. Today, it is possible to make the spark optically, but back in those days we would use a brush to blur the beam. Nowadays, it’s so easy to create beams optically. Whether you like it or not, there are too many beams in use today.

There are so many beams that it is as if a game were going into overtime. It kills the effect of the beams. Beams only work when they appear just every once in a while. Now, beams are used too often because it is easy to make them. Maybe it is partly due to toy companies. It would be more effective to use beams less frequently.

It only took several hours for the sakuga, but it took about half a day to produce the in-betweens [frames added to animation to create motion] by projecting the frames onto the animation stand. I would be confined to a dark place and trace the outlines very accurately.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

If another in-between were to be placed behind this, you would trace it with a pencil in a very fine manner but slightly inward. If it goes outward, the scenery gets in. Initially, you would use a pencil only to trace the outline. Then you would go back to the sakuga room and blacken the inner side using a magic marker.

You would trace it like this with a pencil. The tracing was done in a dark room. Then I would go back to the sakuga room and do it like this evenly. And, if the trace goes outside, then the outside scenery would go over the outline. That’s why you would need to go a bit inward. You would use black poster paint like this, and then you would erase the penciled lines.

Then the kaiju would be embedded in this black area.

BH: Do you have any other memories of Ultraman Leo that you’d like to share?

MK: I was busy every day! (laughs)

BH: Mr. Iizuka once said that he would have many sleepless nights because there was so much work to do. Did you find that to be the case at Tsuburaya, or did you have regular work hours that were manageable?

MK: I rarely worked overtime.

For Giant Beast Planet, a demo reel by Tsuburaya, which was only a five-minute production, I was involved 100%, excluding the camerawork and the lighting. Kazuyoshi Kasai, who was the head of production, rather than directing, allowed me to do things my way. It was a five-minute piece. Without Mr. Kasai, this work would not have happened. Everyone was discussing what to do, as there was no work at Tsuburaya [at the time]. So we decided to create something.

BH: How about The Last Dinosaur? You worked on that, so what did you do?

MK: Mr. Iizuka was the head, so I was an assistant. I don’t remember if I made beams. The story was about real dinosaurs, and real dinosaurs don’t emit beams. Possibly, there were some beams made for the Polar Borer vehicle.

Any memory I may have about The Last Dinosaur is just the set I went to see in Kamikochi [in Nagano Prefecture].

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: What did you think of the set at Kamikochi?

MK: It was very well made.

BH: You also worked on The Ultraman, and you designed [about two-thirds] of the creatures and monsters. Please talk about your work on The Ultraman.

MK: The producer would describe what kind of image he had of the monster, and I would also read the story. In the beginning, I would draw whatever I wanted according to his image. Well, if an underground kaiju were what I was asked to draw, it would not be not good for me to come up with a creature that did not look like an underground kaiju.

So, after listening to the image, I would draw a creature that looked like an underground kaiju. Then I would show my drawing to the producer. After it was approved, it would be sent to the animation studio. I think it was Sunrise, the company that did [Mobile SuitGundam (1979-80). They were pretty good.

The drawings that I made were very detailed, and it would have been too time-consuming to make them into animation. My drawings were quite simplified during production. I did a search afterwards to see if I really did that many, but it turned out most of the kaiju characters were my own work.

I was an animator myself, so I know there is no need to be upset that my drawings were simplified. It would be too cumbersome for the animators to work on those details. It just made sense and was fine with me. I would make the drawing look real, with lots of wrinkles, and give it to the production. But, in the animation, there were no wrinkles, and it was all plain-looking. Having been an animator, I know it would have been costly to include all the details I drew. So the simplification was not a problem for me.

BH: Could you talk about any details, like inspiration of monsters that you designed, or if any design was particularly difficult? 

MK: I have my own repertoire, from which I would take ideas, and put them together.

BH: Do you have any other memories of The Ultraman?

MK: Not in particular as an individual title. It was just a lot of fun.

BH: Let’s go back [in time] to Ex Productions for Kamen Rider (1971-73). How did you join Ex Productions?

MK: I went there to sell myself. I probably paid personal visits and sold myself rather than being approached by someone. I had no connections, so I guess I just showed up myself.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Who hired you at Ex Productions?

MK: Ultimately, the company president hired me. It was during the time when the current president of Rainbow Zoukei Co. [Nori Maezawa], which is a big company that makes [suits for the] Kamen Rider [series], was still at Ex Productions. There are some other people who have since passed away.

BH: Let’s talk about Kamen Rider. Please talk about the kaijin suits that you created.

MK: During those days, I had to work on multiple shows at the same time, and I was so busy that twice a week I had to work all night. So I can’t really remember much about it. What I can say is that the kaijin these days are very well made. A long time ago, they weren’t made that well. I think that’s the difference between the current time and the past. 

BH: At the time, at Ex Productions, who did you work with at the company?

MK: The man I mentioned earlier [Nori Maezawa, the current president of Rainbow Zoukei Co.] and all the other big names from those days whom you can still look up and find easily today. Some of them are not with us anymore. Rainbow Zoukei Co. is the biggest suit-maker for [Toei TV series] like Kamen Rider.

BH: How long would it take to make a suit at this time?

MK: Every week, we would have a new monster, and as I said I worked on different shows simultaneously in parallel. It wasn’t like one person was in charge of one suit, but lots of us worked on the same suit together, so I did not really calculate how long it should take to make one suit. But, normally, I must have made at least one suit per week.

BH: Was there anything particularly difficult about the process that you remember?

MK: Since I joined without any knowledge, I had my senior colleagues teach me how to create these costumes, and I’d learn how to make them. It was a lot of fun, but I had to work very hard. 

Some staff members from Ex Productions later became independent and founded Rainbow Zoukei Co., which includes its current president. I only worked for Ex Productions for one year. Even though I was so busy every day, it was just for one year.

I worked for Toei for seven years and Tsuburaya for seven years, but I was only at Ex Productions for a year. After I left Ex Productions, I did some part-time jobs during my free time. Of course, I made a lot of special effects for seven to eight years after working at Tsuburaya. I made a lot of props with soft materials for films and for commercials.

BH: Do you remember anything about [HenshinNinja Arashi (1972-73) or Barom-1 (1972)? Do you have any memories of working on these TV shows?

MK: I worked on these shows at the same time I was working on Kamen Rider, so I was just very busy. Once I finished one costume, I would help out on other costumes at the same time. 

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Let’s skip ahead to the Toho movie The War in Space (1977). Please talk about how you got hired to work on The War in Space and what work you did on this movie.

MK: There’s a very famous special effects art director named Yasuyuki Inoue, who had been working at Toho since Godzilla, and at one point in time I worked temporarily at his workshop in Ebina to help him with some of his props. That eventually led me to be asked to help him on designing for the movie. He had some image in his mind for The War in Space, and then I joined the project to finish up the drawings.

[I helped design] the Gohten and the other one — what was it? — the Daimakan. But, anyway, there were two spaceships. One was a spaceship for the bad guys and the other one for the good guys.

BH: What kind of inspiration did you have? Was there any direction from Mr. Inoue about how he wanted them to look? 

MK: I didn’t start from scratch. Mr. Inoue had ideas, so I listened to his ideas, and I drew it up and finished it for him. 

BH: How long did it take you to design the two spaceships [the Gohten and the Daimakan]?

MK: It took a week.

BH: Do you have any other memories or any other stories to share about The War in Space?

MK: Well, I just watched the movie. It was fun watching what I created for the film. I think it is this sense of fulfilment that drives people who work in the film industry, like simply seeing their names in the credits. Such enjoyment drove us to get involved.

BH: How about Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis (1988)? What work did you do, and how did you get hired on Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis?

MK: There is a creature that appears in the movie called Shikigami. I worked on its guignol [a puppet usually manipulated by inserting one’s hand], which was actually controlled using some device. It’s a small monster that appears in the movie. I teamed up with several other people on this.

It is the designer who draws the monster. Based on the design that is drawn, the special effects unit expands on it. For any movie, the intent of the production side is always the first priority. Even today, it is very rare that you are allowed just to create anything you want. Rather than being delegated to do whatever you want, there is a designer who starts first. Your job is to make something close to the design. Normally, I think that is how it works even today.

That is, unless you are famous like Hayao Miyazaki, who would have been fully delegated.

When there was an idea to be developed, it starts from some rough sketches by the designer. Then it was my job to expand on the image to create something greater than the image.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: How long did you work on it?

MK: It took quite some time, like half a month. If it’s just a design, I would just draw it on a piece of paper. But we had to make and deliver a three-dimensional figure out of clay, like a sculpture. It had to be made from soft materials that felt fluffy when you touched it. It also had to be movable — the neck, the eyes, and the mouth.

BH: What other materials did you use?

MK: It was rubber-based, like latex or polyurethane foam. If it weren’t rubber-based, it would have been too stiff for the monster to move. Clay was used at the start, and then a lot of different types of materials were applied toward the end of the work.

BH: Going back to Tsuburaya Productions, you worked with Kazuo Sagawa [and] Hajime Tsuburaya. Do you have any personal memories of some of the famous people at Tsuburaya Productions?

MK: I almost never talked with those actors, even though they often visited the Tsuburaya head office in their hero outfits. I did not talk with those famous show biz people.

However, I was working with the company president and all the famous directors in tokusatsu.

As I said before, when I visited Tsuburaya, I happened to meet Mr. Tsuburaya at the front door. That was how I was hired. But, even if that encounter had not happened, I probably would have joined the tokusatsu industry sooner or later, anyhow. But, thanks to these two gentlemen [Mr. Tsuburaya and Mr. Iizuka], I was able to set foot in the industry.

We shared similar views, such as our interests in stop-motion photography. Unfortunately, Mr. Tsuburaya passed away young in his 40s. If he were still alive, he and I could have worked on a lot more projects together.

About Mr. Sagawa, as I mentioned before, I didn’t usually talk a lot with him because he was on tokusatsu sets most of the time and only occasionally dropped in at the office. But he was the one who invited me to work on compositing, so in that sense I am truly grateful to him.

BH: Out of all the projects we talked about today, which one are you most proud of, or which one was the experience you enjoyed the most? Which one do you like the best?

MK: Honestly, I love all of them. I enjoyed working on all the projects in which I was involved. I absolutely do not even have a single project that I regret getting involved in or found boring. Even though I do not have the money for it, and I am old, there are still many more things that I want to create.

BH: Why did you leave Tsuburaya Productions?

MK: I left because they ran out of productions. If they kept producing other shows, I would have stayed on. In time, you would have left, anyway. But, in my case, it was because The Ultraman had ended. After a while, though, they started making Ultraman [programs] again. Otherwise, I would have extended [my contract] and stayed in compositing. Basically, I was on a contract basis, so, without any more productions, I was done.

Special thanks to Eri Hibino.

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