MY LIFE WITH GODZILLA! Toho Star Akira Takarada Reflects on His Decades-Long Association with Filmdom’s Mightiest Monster!

Akira Takarada performs onstage in July 2015. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Born on April 29, 1934, in what is now Chongjin, North Korea, Akira Takarada joined Toho as a member of the studio’s sixth New Face class in 1953 and quickly established himself as one of its brightest stars. His big break came with the leading role of Hideto Ogata in Godzilla (1954), which was followed up with star turns in such SFX films as Half Human (1955), The Last War (1961), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), Monster Zero (1965), Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966), King Kong Escapes (1967), and Latitude Zero (1969). On October 14, 2008, Mr. Takarada sat down with totorom for the following interview, for which questions were prepared by totorom and Brett Homenick.

Vantage Point Interviews: Mr. Takarada, you have “co-starred” with Godzilla in six movies, from the original Godzilla (1954) in 1954 to the latest, Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), in 2004. And you always mention Godzilla is your “classmate.” First of all, I would like to know, over these 50-plus years, how your relationship with your classmate has changed.

Akira Takarada: I joined Toho in 1953 and had a “close encounter” with Godzilla in 1954. Godzilla was the third movie that I ever worked on. Before the production of the movie, I had no idea what Godzilla was. I just thought it sounded like a mixture of kujira [“whale” in Japanese] and gorilla. (laughs) Toho did not allow me to meet with Godzilla during pre-production or the early part of production.

They gave me a brief explanation with the storyboard, but I could not get a clear idea what it was like. I believe there was a kind of censorship at Toho during the production because they did not want to reveal the details of Godzilla to the public or other movie studios. When we were about to finish the first half of the production, Godzilla finally showed up. It was a long-awaited encounter for me. I said to myself, “Finally!”

When we completed shooting the movie, we had a preview only for the staff and cast at the studio. Then I saw the last scene for the first time. I saw the huge body of Godzilla becoming a skeleton due to the Oxygen Destroyer, drowning, and being left alone in the sea. I asked myself then, “Does Godzilla really deserve to have such a death?” Honestly speaking, I could not help having more sympathy for Godzilla than for human beings.

I would like to share with you the social background of the year 1954. In those days, nuclear bombs were frequently tested. Many esteemed scientists like Dr. Oppenheimer, Dr. Einstein, and Dr. Yukawa from Japan, strongly opposed making powerful bombs like atom bombs and H-bombs.

H-bombs were being tested by the United States in the area of the South Seas Islands like the Bikini Atoll. I believe those South Seas Islands were originally very quiet and peaceful before the H-bomb tests. The areas used to have beautiful oceans with lots of fish living happily. On the nearby islands, people were enjoying their lives peacefully. Some of those people, however, were exposed to radiation from the H-bombs.

Several tests were done in the deserts of Nevada, too. Many U.S. soldiers were exposed to H-bombs in Nevada. Those were man-made tragedies. I think it was a great sin of mankind. Godzilla suddenly woke up, though it was a fictional story, to punish us all, the sinful human beings. He brought a message to the world: “Hey, human beings, how stupid you are!”

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: Godzilla was sleeping quietly in the ocean, but human beings forced him to awaken.

AT: Yes. Of course, Godzilla is a fictional creature, but he gave a warning to all of us. He came to sound an alarm. Maybe you could call him an apostle. Today, after all these years, we still have a lot of problems all over the world, for example, environmental pollution. Fifty-five years ago, through this fictional creature, the movie gave us a warning. In my opinion, it is not too much to say that Godzilla was a sacred missionary. Japan is the only country in history that has been attacked with an atom bomb.

We also had the [Japanese fishing boat] Lucky Dragon No. 5 exposed to the H-bomb and contaminated. Godzilla is not a nonsensical monster movie. I think the social background of this time created the movie. Toho took a long time and a great effort to make it. I cried when I saw the last scene of the movie for the first time. I was very proud to work for this masterpiece, and I still am. I could not help having sympathy for Godzilla.

VPI: Since 1954, Godzilla has been featured in 28 movies over 50 years.

AT: Yes, 28 movies. Also, the character was sold to Hollywood and recreated as “digital” Godzilla with CG. I have proudly worked with “analog” Godzilla in six movies, from the beginning to the latest.

VPI: What are your feelings about your classmate Godzilla now?

AT: My feeling about my classmate? Well, Godzilla was going back to the sea in the last scene of Godzilla: Final Wars. That might mean Godzilla has completed his mission, and he is now sleeping quietly deep in the ocean again. As a classmate, I would like to let him sleep peacefully. (laughs)

However, as you can see, we still have the issue of nuclear weapons all over the world, including nearby Asian countries. We human beings are still in the ugly game of weapons. So I have a feeling Godzilla may wake up and rise again. He cannot stand watching the stupid behavior of human beings. He may hit Tokyo Bay again or another place.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: For world peace, I would like to see Godzilla sleeping quietly. However, as a fan of Godzilla movies, I would like him to rise again for the 29th movie. (laughs)

AT: I understand what you mean. (laughs)

VPI: By the way, in my opinion, some of your six Godzilla movies, especially the productions in the mid-‘60s, were more entertainment-oriented. For example, in Monster Zero (1965) and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966), Godzilla was portrayed as a human-like character. Did you have mixed feelings about such a change for Godzilla?

AT: Yes, a kind of mixed feeling. But I believe movies are essentially entertainment, and movie studios always expect bigger audiences to come to the theaters.

So I understand why they gave a different nature to Godzilla. They wanted to attract even bigger audiences. In some movies, Godzilla was portrayed as a humorous character. Some people did not like it. I understand that. But just try to think of Godzilla as a huge movie star. Then you could understand that he could play a wide variety of characters.

VPI: Godzilla is an actor who can play many different characters? (laughs)

AT: Exactly. (laughs) Godzilla is not a narrow actor. He can play many different characters. He can be comical. He can be serious. He has known both the bitter and the sweet. (laughs)

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: With the variety of characters, Godzilla could appeal to even more people?

AT: I think so. I understand some people think Godzilla must be serious, and they are not so happy with a comical Godzilla. But kids love the comical nature of Godzilla. It is very important that people have many different opinions and discussions about the movies.

VPI: In the recent movies like Godzilla: Final Wars, Godzilla is not comical. Godzilla as the symbol of destruction has revived.

AT: Yes. By the way, Shochiku made a movie series called Otoko wa Tsurai yo [It’s Tough Being a Man] with a very famous character, Tora-san. They made 48 movies in about 30 years. Some people say Tora-san movies could not beat Godzilla movies because small kids wanted to see Godzilla, not Tora-san. Kids cannot go to the movie theater by themselves, so their parents and maybe their brothers or sisters must go with them. It doubled or tripled the audience.   

VPI: The whole family goes to the theater to see Godzilla.

AT: In 1954, when the original Godzilla was shown for the first time, the population of Japan was not as high as it is today. Maybe it was 100 million at the most. Godzilla drew over nine million people then. Can you imagine that number?

VPI: Every tenth Japanese person saw the movie.

AT: Yes, 10% of the total population saw it.   

VPI: By the way, Mr. Takarada, you have co-stared not only with Godzilla but also several actors from America for Toho tokusatsu movies. I would like to hear some of your memories about those American actors. First of all, you worked with Nick Adams in Monster Zero.

AT: Yes. Nick was a good guy. I think he understood the Japanese mentality very well. We were close in age, so we became very good friends right away. We always went out for a drink here and there. (laughs) We had dinner together, and I even took him to some “sexy” places. (laughs)

He came to Japan all the way from America by himself, so I tried to make him feel relaxed. I wanted to let him feel at home while we were working on the movie. Even on our days off, I spent time with him as if we had known each other over 10 years. So Nick and I were really good friends. We spent the days together like brothers. (laughs)

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: We can feel such a good relationship between you and Nick when we see the movie.

AT: You are right. In those days, in addition to movies, I was starting to work on some theatrical musicals. We performed Broadway musicals in Japan. Do you know Kiss Me, Kate, written by Cole Porter?

VPI: Yes.

AT: I was going to work on that musical after Monster Zero. I told Nick about it. He said he would send me its vocal score once he returned to America. I thought it was just lip service, but he actually sent me the vocal score from America with his autograph and message, “Wish you success, Akira.” I had never seen an American vocal score before. I was amazed. I still keep it somewhere in my house.

Nick was such a good guy, a man of his word. We could not find American vocal scores in Japan back in the ‘60s. They were only sold at some specialized bookstores on Broadway. I shared the score sent by Nick with my co-stars for the rehearsal of the show. I am still thankful to him. It is so sad he is no longer with us. I heard he passed away soon after Monster Zero.

VPI: Yes, he died in 1968, about three years after Monster Zero. I understand he was actively working in America before he came to Japan.

AT: Yes, I heard he was a busy actor in America. I do not think he was a big star playing leading roles in big-budget movies. I believe he was one of the most important actors in those days playing supporting roles with a very good acting ability. He starred in a Western movie, didn’t he?

VPI: Are you referring to the TV series The Rebel (1959-61)?

AT: Yes, The Rebel. Was that a Civil War drama, not a Western?

VPI: Kind of. Its plot is set sometime after the Civil War.

AT: He lives in my memory. I can still see his pointed nose and blond hair. He joked a lot. We always addressed each other, “Hi, Nick,” “Hi, Aki.”

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: In Monster Zero, Glenn and Fuji turn their thumbs down when the soldiers of Planet X capture them. Were they soldiers or security guards? (laughs) Anyway, I really like your acting with Nick in that particular scene. Did you and Nick come up with the idea of the “thumbs down” gesture together?

AT: Yes, we did. Nick and I were always joking and doing funny things together. We seemed to understand each other by some sort of telepathy. Being actors, we responded to each other when we were acting. It was as if we were playing catch. We had a great mutual understanding.

VPI: Do you remember any other American actors than Nick?

AT: Though it was not a Godzilla movie, I worked with Rhodes Reason for King Kong Escapes (1967). Is he still alive?

VPI: Yes, he is still well. [shows Mr. Takarada some recent photos of Mr. Reason]

AT: Oh, my goodness! He is an old man now. (laughs)

VPI: He retired from acting, but he is doing fine in the State of [Oregon].

AT: He was a tall, handsome guy. I enjoyed working with him. Is this really Rhodes today? Unbelievable. (laughs)

Speaking of American actors, I cannot forget Latitude Zero (1969).

VPI: In Latitude Zero, you co-starred with Hollywood star actors like Joseph Cotten and Cesar Romero.

AT: Yes. I learned a lot from working with those Hollywood stars. I had never dreamed I could co-star with Joseph Cotten of The Third Man (1949).

VPI: What was it like?

AT: It was so interesting to see how they adjusted their acting to the Japanese way of filming. In Japan, we could not waste film, as the budget was limited. The camera would not start until the director said, “Action,” and the clapperboard clapped. On the other hand, America was a rich country, and they could afford to roll the camera continuously.

Latitude Zero was made in a Japanese way, so I was wondering if the actors from Hollywood could get used to it. I was curious to see how they prepared for acting. They were so natural. They acted so smoothly. They did not have any problems. Their acting was just great, even if Mr. Honda, director of the movie, did not give them detailed direction. I was impressed.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: Can we talk about directors next? You made many movies with Ishiro Honda. Also, you worked with Jun Fukuda for Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. Were these two directors quite different?

AT: Mr. Honda joined Toho almost at the same time as Akira Kurosawa. I believe Mr. Honda had had an ambition to direct straight [dramas] since he was an assistant director. Then he was offered to direct Godzilla. I think he had to carefully consider whether a movie like Godzilla was the right way to go. When we made Godzilla in 1954, we actors had to face the unknown all the time, so we asked a lot of questions of Mr. Honda. He seemed to be facing the unknown himself, too. Nobody experienced such an SFX feature movie before.

Mr. Honda was always with us actors, thinking together, imagining together, discussing together. If we were lost, he took the storyboard from Eiji Tsuburaya and showed it to us. Then he explained how large Godzilla would be and what it would look like so that we could understand how we should act. He always answered our questions carefully in detail. Mr. Kurosawa was well known for his passionate direction. Mr. Honda was, to the contrary, very quiet, like a philosopher. He was indeed a gentleman.

VPI: You worked with Jun Fukuda for non-Godzilla movies like Ironfinger (1965), too. When I watch his movies, I always think his direction is very smooth. What was it like to work with him?

AT: Yes, his direction was very smooth. In those days, Toho had many great directors, like Mr. Fukuda and Kihachi Okamoto. Those directors were making their movies with a firm construction based on the storyboard. Mr. Fukuda was very good at making movies in that way. I really enjoyed working with him. We made some comical movies like Ironfinger.

I am so sad Mr. Honda, Mr. Fukuda, and Mr. Okamoto are no longer with us. Many actors passed away, too. My classmate at Toho and co-star of Godzilla, Momoko Kochi, has already passed. Speaking of my classmates, Masumi Okada and Yu Fujiki are no longer with us, either. But I am happy to see Kenji Sahara is still doing fine.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: Many of your movies are being released in DVD now. Your fan base is expanding, from generation to generation, in the United States, too. From your point of view, why are your tokusatsu movies still so popular overseas?

AT: In my opinion, those movies we made back in those days are not “fake.” You still feel the visual effects in the movies are great. In the earlier days, for example, the original King Kong (1933) in the 1930s, the techniques were not yet mature. It was stop-motion photography using miniatures, so you sometimes feel uncomfortable with the special effects.

On the other hand, Godzilla was played by Mr. [Haruo] Nakajima, an actor wearing the Godzilla suit, which was over two meters tall. It was not a toy. The Toho SFX team led by Eiji Tsuburaya had great techniques. Their special effects never disappoint you. I know all the staff and cast members were doing their very best during the production. That is why we could make those magnificent movies. They are so different from the movies of today. You can make anything with CG easily today.

VPI: The movies in those days were so powerful. I do not think today’s movies made with CG can be so powerful.

AT: I agree with you.

VPI: Can you give us your message to the readers?

AT: Before I appeared in Godzilla, I received 10 or 20 letters daily from Japanese fans. Then, after Godzilla, a lot of fan letters from America came to me. Those letters reached me through Toho. Some of them were handwritten by kids, and some others were sent by adults with photos of their faces enclosed. Godzilla was shown in Southeast Asia, so I received many letters from there, too.

Recently, I have received fewer letters from overseas, but I am encouraged and pleased by the fact that there are still many fans of my movies overseas. I would like to thank them for supporting me. By the way, I have never watched the U.S. version of Godzilla in which Raymond Burr starred. Is it a modified version of the original Godzilla?

Photo © Brett Homenick.

VPI: Yes. Raymond Burr plays the role of a news correspondent. The story is told from his point of view. He happens to be in Tokyo when Godzilla attacks the city.

AT: Interesting. I would like to watch it on DVD. I understand there are some people in America doing an academic study of Godzilla. I am very impressed with them.

VPI: Yes, indeed. There are so many enthusiastic and knowledgeable Godzilla fans in America. Some fans have surprisingly valuable collections.

AT: We have many knowledgeable fans in Japan, too. A few years ago, I participated in a Godzilla movie preview as a guest and spoke about the old days. While I was speaking onstage, a fan in the audience shouted, “Mr. Takarada, your memory is wrong!” (laughs)

VPI: Fans know about you more than you yourself do. (laughs)

AT: Exactly. (laughs)

VPI: Many fans are waiting for a new Godzilla movie. If Toho makes its 29th Godzilla movie, what would you expect of it?

AT: Well, I’d like to say it should go back to the basics. In other words, the future Godzilla movies, if they make any, must not forget the spirit of the original 1954 Godzilla. I do not think the world has changed that much since 1954. We still have wars and environmental disruptions. The Earth is crying out for help. So I believe Godzilla will come back to give a crushing blow to the human beings. In a wide sense, Godzilla movies can be entertainment, but I really hope Godzilla keeps his original character.

VPI: Do you hope the future Godzilla movies keep the same message as the original 1954 movie?

AT: Yes. SFX techniques are being improved even more, so I believe the new Godzilla movies will have greater special effects. Maybe the future Godzilla movies should have international casts, actors from Japan, America, China, France, etc.

VPI: That would be fantastic. Mr. Takarada, thank you very much for sharing [your] time.

AT: My pleasure. 


Leave a Reply

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s