RISING THROUGH THE TOKUSATSU RANKS! Eiichi Asada Reflects on His Career as an Assistant SFX Director in the 1970s and ’80s!

Eiichi Asada in June 2021. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Born on March 13, 1949, Eiichi Asada got his start at Toho Studios in the early 1970s as an assistant director, working on such movies as Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), The War in Space (1977), Deathquake (1980), Sayonara Jupiter (1984), and Godzilla 1985 (1984). In later years, Mr. Asada served as SFX director on Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003) and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). In June 2021, Mr. Asada sat down with Brett Homenick to discuss his career at Toho as an assistant director. This interview, translated by Tetsuya Kato and Maho Harada, is the second of three interviews with Mr. Asada about his film career.

Brett Homenick: Please talk about the Submersion of Japan TV series (1974-75). What do you remember about it?

Eiichi Asada: I don’t remember much about the show, so I don’t have that many memories about it. But the movie had been a big hit, so we thought, “Let’s make a TV version.” So we went ahead and did this. But I only worked on the first three episodes. The tokusatsu wasn’t done at Toho Studios but at a small studio in Komae, Tokyo. There was no air-conditioning in the studio, so it was very hot.

BH: [What exactly did you do?] Would that just be the special effects?

EA: Yes.

BH: How long did you work on this show?

EA: It was so long ago that I don’t remember exactly. I don’t think we spent weeks on each episode. One episode took maybe five or six days.

BH: Do you remember who you worked with on this series, other staff members?

EA: I need to look at the script. [looks through the shooting script] Mr. [Takao] Tsurumi was in charge of filming. I often did tokusatsu work with him at Toho. I remember him well. He was older than me, but he wasn’t that old. Back then, people who were given responsibilities in movies were in their 40s or 50s. But, for TV, people in their 20s or 30s could become cameramen.

I don’t remember much about the Submersion of Japan TV series. There was no time back then, and we didn’t have enough budget to use Toho Studios. So we used this studio in Komae. I think the name of the studio was Komae Studios, or Nihon Gendai Kikaku Komae Studios, or something like that. In any case, Toho was renting that studio.

BH: You showed us the list of stock footage [used for the series]. Could you describe the process of how that was done where you would choose which shots to take from the movie to put in the TV show?

EA: The TV series and the movie were basically the same, but they couldn’t be exactly the same because that would have been boring for the audience. So we tried to portray details that weren’t conveyed in the movie.

For the movie, the special effects scenes, like the ones that take place at the bottom of the ocean, were filmed on sets built in the largest studio at Toho, whereas the Komae studio was only one fourth or fifth of the size, so we couldn’t film the same kind of effect there.

We could film scenes that only required small sets at the Komae studio, but, for special effects scenes like the ones that takes place at the bottom of the ocean, we had to use stock footage that had been shot for the film version.

Documentation from the Submersion of Japan TV series. Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Next, let’s talk about Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). Please describe your work on Terror of Mechagodzilla and what you remember about this movie.

EA: I was 25 or 26 at the time. For this movie, the same crew did the tokusatsu and the drama scenes. Normally, there were different crews for the tokusatsu scenes and the drama scenes, but the same crew did both for this movie. Mr. [Ishiro] Honda was the director [for the drama scenes], and Mr. [Teruyoshi] Nakano was the tokusatsu director, but the staff working under them were the same people, meaning that there was only one team who did both. We first filmed the drama scenes, and then the tokusatsu scenes.

BH: Was that a budget reason?

EA: I’m not sure. That may have been the case. Generally speaking, when you’re making a movie, there’s only one director. If Mr. Honda were able to direct the tokusatsu scenes as well as the drama scenes, he would have been the director for both. But Mr. Honda wasn’t able to direct the tokusatsu part, so a different director was required.

If you film the drama and tokusatsu scenes in parallel, you need two teams of staff members. On the other hand, if you only have one team, it may take longer to film all the scenes, but it’s more efficient and costs less because the structure is more compact. Maybe that’s why they did it this way.

BH: What was it like to work with Mr. Honda? Do you remember him?

EA: In terms of his directing [actors], I was too young to understand back then, so I can’t really say. But, in terms of his personality, I can say that he was very kind and magnanimous.

BH: If you [were to] compare director [Jun] Fukuda and director Honda, how would you compare them?

EA: Mr. Fukuda was an action director. H was very good at directing fight scenes and loved those kinds of scenes. He also liked focusing on details, which meant that he took a lot of shots. For example, to shoot one actor, he took many shots. He would first shoot a close-up [shot], then a bust [shot], then a wide [shot]. So he was what we called an action director, which could include gangster movies. On the other hand, Mr. Honda was a man of composure. He was always calm and full of kindness. That was the difference between them.

BH: On Terror of Mechagodzilla, one of the assistant directors was Kensho Yamashita. Do you remember working with Mr. Yamashita on Terror of Mechagodzilla?

EA: For the shooting, the chief assistant director [Kensho Yamashita] was considered to be the top person. For movies like this, there were usually four assistant directors. The chief [assistant director], then the second, third, and fourth [assistant directors]. For this movie, I was the third [assistant director].

BH: What did you do as the third assistant director?

EA: The chief assistant director is in charge of the overall shooting — the location, what happens on set, everything. The second assistant director is in charge of costumes, and the third assistant director is in charge of props that are used by the actors, like handbags. On the drama side, that’s how the responsibilities are divided.

For the tokusatsu shoots, the tokusatsu chief [assistant director] comes up with the schedule and decides the order of the shooting. I think Yoshio Tabuchi was the tokusatsu chief for this movie. For most of the movies that I worked on as a tokusatsu assistant director, Mr. Tabuchi was the tokusatsu chief. For the Submersion of Japan TV series, Mr. Tabuchi was the tokusatsu chief. He was a very good man — very kind and gentle.

BH: Were you on any of the location shoots for Terror of Mechagodzilla?

EA: Yes, I was at all the locations. But I don’t remember any details.

BH: Do you happen to remember the Mafune house?

EA: In those days, I always wrote the locations in the scripts. For example, [if the script said] “a hotel in Tokyo,” that was the Trade Center Building; “in front of the Marine Research Center” meant the Marine Museum. [after reviewing the script] The Mafune house was the Kuwabara residence in Yokohama. We rented the Kuwabara residence.

BH: [looking at the script] What does “AR” mean?

EA: After-recording [dubbing]. During shooting, there was a lot of unwanted noise. So the actors’ voices recorded on site were only for reference purposes. After all the shooting was done, the actors would come to the dubbing room — we called it the “after-recording room.” As we ran the film, the actors’ voices, like, “Hey! What are you doing?” were recorded in sync with what had been shot. We called this “after-recording.”

When Japanese voice actors dub Western films, we call it “ateru-recording,” which is Japanese English. The Japanese word ateru means “adjust.” Animation is also done this way.

BH: Could you tell us about your work with props or other things on Terror of Mechagodzilla?

EA: Brett, I’m sorry! I just don’t remember. If I watch the film, I would be able to remember details, like what kind of gun was used, but I just don’t remember. I guess it means that it wasn’t so memorable for me.

BH: In terms of [Mr.] Nakano and [Mr.] Honda, and [Mr.] Fukuda and [Mr.] Nakano, was there any difference in terms of how [Mr.] Fukuda and [Mr.] Honda would work with Mr. Nakano?

EA: Mr. Honda had fought in the war. He was very mature and was also older than Mr. Fukuda. Mr. Nakano spoke to Mr. Fukuda in a very friendly manner. With Mr. Honda, however, he spoke with reverence. That’s what their relationships were like.

BH: How long did you work on Terror of Mechagodzilla?

EA: The drama and tokusatsu sides combined, it probably took less than two months.  That was the case for most movies in those days.

BH: Here, too, it was drama first, and then tokusatsu next?

EA: Yes.

BH: Do you have anything else to say about Terror of Mechagodzilla before we move on?

EA: I just don’t remember.

BH: Next, let’s move on to The War in Space (1977). From what I understand, Mr. Nakano and producer [Tomoyuki] Tanaka went to Hawaii to see Star Wars (1977).

EA: Yes, so I’ve heard.

BH: What can you tell us about that?

EA: They were crafty. Star Wars was a big hit in the U.S., so they decided to make a space movie before Star Wars was released in Japan. But it wasn’t just Toho that had that idea – Toei had the same idea, as you know.

BH: Message from Space (1978)?

EA: Yes, that’s right. If Star Wars were released first [in Japan], Japanese movies released after it wouldn’t be received very well, which was to be expected, because they had a much smaller budget and less production time [than Star Wars]. So the idea was to release these movies before the Americans [released Star Wars in Japan].

BH: What were some of the ideas that were being discussed?

EA: If we had seen Star Wars prior to making the film, we wouldn’t have made the film the way we did. In other words, the producers had seen Star Wars before making the film, but the rest of the staff hadn’t seen it.

When Star Wars was released in Japan, the shots were amazing. So we asked ourselves, “How could we shoot those scenes?” We found English-language books on tokusatsu and read them. These books explained how certain scenes were shot, and how there was a storyboard for each scene.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Before that, you didn’t work with storyboards?

EA: When I joined the company, people didn’t really use storyboards. There was something like an image board for each scene, which the [tokusatsu] art director would draw. But, in the days of Mr. [Eiji] Tsuburaya, they used storyboards. There were storyboards for Godzilla (1954) and those kinds of movies.

The art director would draw storyboards for the shooting of the tokusatsu scenes. I’m sure you’ve seen them before. I don’t know why they started making films without storyboards, but, when I joined the company, they were no longer making detailed storyboards for the shooting, like they did for Star Wars. There were only storyboards drawn by the director. Unless there were tokusatsu scenes in the film, Japanese directors only described the scene with words.

For example, “Shot one: Close-up of actor. Shot two: Wide shot.” Mr. Fukuda drew simple storyboards. Although they were called storyboards, they weren’t very detailed. They just indicated which direction the actor would face, and that sort of thing, like whether he was facing left or right. Very basic.

Do you know what a ponchi-e is? It means caricature. [draws an example] This is a bust shot. This is the actor’s nose, and it’s pointed this way. That way, you know which way the actor is facing. We only had basic storyboards like this. For the movies I worked on, like [Godzilla: TokyoS.O.S. (2003) and [Godzilla:Final Wars (2004), we used storyboards because the staff members could easily understand the scenes.

BH: Let’s continue with The War in Space. What can you tell us specifically about your work on it?

EA: I think the enemy battleship Daimakan was very well made. It was an awkward idea that something shaped like that could fly, but it worked because it had an amazing design. It was really heavy, though. It was suspended by piano wires that were difficult to hide because they were so thick. That was a lot of work.

BH: Did you work with the Hell Fighters at all?

EA: Yes, the small spaceships with pointed objects. They were small fighter planes. Their actual size was like this [two hands cupped together], and they were also suspended by piano wire, which is how we shot them.

BH: What else can you tell us about The War in Space? For example, there was the Space Beastman.

EA: The drama side was in charge of the acting by the actors. I was on the tokusatsu team.

BH: By this time, you were only [working on] tokusatsu.

EA: Yes, for this movie. While the drama side was being filmed with the actors, the tokusatsu shooting was taking place almost at the same time.

BH: That’s unusual, isn’t it?

EA: Yes, it was. Normally, if the drama side were being shot, the tokusatsu side would lag behind a little. That was how things were normally done. The two sides didn’t usually start at exactly the same time.

BH: Is that because they wanted to release this quickly because of the Star Wars success? Why did they do it this way?

EA: Yes, exactly. We had very little time. We had to get this movie out before Star Wars was released.

BH: In terms of tokusatsu, do you have any other things to say about The War in Space?

EA: For the battle scene between the Daimakan and the Gohten, we made a large version and a small version [of the models]. For example, we placed the bigger battleship in the foreground and used the smaller one in the background. That’s how we created perspective.

For a horizontal composition, for example, if the Daimakan and the Gohten were side by side, they had to be the same size. If one were smaller than the other, it would look strange. For a vertical composition, the one in the foreground had to be bigger, and the one in the back had to be smaller to give a sense of distance. Those are the basics in shooting.

BH: How long did it take to shoot The War in Space?

EA: For both the tokusatsu and the drama side, the shooting was less than 30 days each. That doesn’t include days off; it’s the actual number of working days.

BH: Was it one of the faster projects?

EA: Other films took less time, with the exception of the [Akira] Kurosawa team. For a movie without tokusatsu scenes that was directed by a competent director, there would only be one team, and the director could afford to spend more time on the shooting with the same budget — for example, one and a half months.

But, in this case, we had two teams working in parallel, which means double the number of staff. If you have only one team, you could spend one to one and a half months on the shooting, which meant 50 working days. But, if you have two teams, we could get it done faster, but the labor costs are higher because more people are involved.

BH: [In terms of other] tokusatsu movies, was it faster than those?

EA: It was about the same. The number of shooting days was the same as other films, like Mechagodzilla. In general, the number of days for the shooting wasn’t that long.

BH: Actually, let’s go back to Conflagration (1975). Let’s talk about this film and your work on it.

EA: The tokusatsu and drama scenes were shot separately for this film. I was the third assistant director of tokusatsu. That was my job.

BH: What do you remember about the shooting?

EA: [The premise of the movie was that] Tokyo Bay was on fire, and the sea was burning. The question was, how were we going to film this scene? The chief assistant director of tokusatsu was Mr. [Koichi] Kawakita. He understood composite shots very well.

The sea itself wasn’t burning in reality, of course, so the question was, how were we going to shoot the fire? We couldn’t make a [miniature] set of Tokyo Bay, because it was just too big. So we made the sea with agar [kanten]. We poured alcohol onto the sea of agar and set it on fire so that it would go up in flames.

BH: Where would you put this [agar], and how big was it?

EA: The art team made the sea of agar. We boiled the agar mixture in a big earthenware pot and added color to it. We created this set in Stage 9, which was the biggest. It was called the “sea of agar set” in the script. Mr. Kawakita [the assistant director of tokusatsu] took shots of Tokyo Bay and placed the cameras on the set so they would be at the same angles as the real shots of Tokyo Bay.

That way, the shots taken on the set could be used to make composite shots. This sea of agar set was also used in the film version of Submersion of Japan for the scene where the Japanese archipelago slowly sinks into the sea. Agar has been used [this way] since the Tsuburaya days. 

BH: Do you have anything else about Conflagration

EA: Mr. Nakano was called “Napalm Nakano.” I’m sure you know that he did that for Godzilla. To make the round tanks explode, we poured gasoline on them and blew them up with explosives. Mr. Nakano loved that kind of thing.

In those days, that kind of thing was allowed. We were allowed to explode napalm on the sets. Of course, we installed flame-resistant sheets on the ceiling before setting off napalm explosives. Anyway, Mr. Nakano loved explosions so much that people called him “Napalm Nakano.” He was also very good at it. 

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: With all the explosions going on in Conflagration, or even in other movies, was there any danger?

EA: Not really. We were very cautious. In one film in which I was not involved, there was a fire.

BH: Prophecies of Nostradamus [a.k.a. The Last Days of Planet Earth (1974)]? What can you tell us about that?

EA: I didn’t work on the movie, so I can’t tell you the details, but this is what I heard from the staff. When you use gasoline, you would place rags soaked with gasoline where you want flames and set them on fire. Gasoline is volatile, so you have to wait until the last minute before pouring gasoline on the rags.

But, for Nostradamus, the area was quite large, which meant that a lot of gasoline had to be used. When they were about to shoot, they used watering pots to pour gasoline onto the rags and set them on fire. They started doing this for the forest fire scene, and the fire spread quickly once they lit the rags on fire.

They shot the scene, and the director said, “Cut!” They then stopped for lunch, so the staff started leaving the set. This turned out to be bad luck. Only one or two staff members stayed behind on the set, and everyone else went for lunch. A production assistant went to make sure the fire hadn’t spread to the ceiling, but he saw that the ceiling was filled with smoke. A large fan was pumping the smoke outside through an exhaust port, but there was too much smoke.

The production assistant used his flashlight to check for flames and spotted a section that was burning. He tried to extinguish it, but it wouldn’t go out. He immediately reported the fire, and the staff came back and removed flammable items from the set, like explosives and high pressure cylinders that were used for the shooting. Luckily, the gasoline wasn’t inside the studio.

After they moved the flammables outside, they contacted the fire station. But, by then, it was too late. The fire had spread everywhere. Firetrucks arrived on the set. There were no other buildings around the studio, which was surrounded by streets, so the fire wasn’t going to spread to the other buildings.

The firemen determined that it was too dangerous to enter the building, and that the fire wouldn’t spread to other buildings, so they decided to let it burn down and didn’t do much to extinguish the fire. I helped move the cars that were parked behind the building so that they would be out of danger.

BH: So you were there for that?

EA: Yes. There were about 10 of us doing this. We started doing this before the fire trucks came. When the chief fireman came, he only gave explanations and said things like, “The building is on fire.” Ridiculous, isn’t it? That was what happened on Nostradamus.

Oh, I remember one more thing. The firemen asked, “Who ordered the shooting of this scene with the fire?” and everyone said, “Director Nakano!” because he was the director who said, “Ready, action!” He wasn’t the one who poured gasoline and set it on fire; that was another guy. Both men were asked to come to the fire station, but, in the end, they only had to write a letter of apology, swearing that they would never do that again.

BH: Was that for Setagaya Ward? Did they have to promise Setagaya Ward not to do that?

EA: I don’t know where the document was submitted, but Toho didn’t take any responsibility for the incident. They said, “We didn’t order them to shoot this scene. The director was the one who told them to ignite the gasoline.” But they didn’t want this to be a big issue, so I’m sure Toho did something under the table.  

BH: To apologize for it.

EA: Exactly. 

BH: But Mr. Nakano had to say, “I will never do this again,” in writing.

EA: That’s what I heard, but I never saw the document itself. 

BH: About Conflagration, [is there] anything else before we move on?

EA: As I said before, the composite shots were excellent. They were really well done.

BH: Next, let’s go to Deathquake (1980). So please talk about this work.

EA: Mr. Nakano was also the [tokusatsu] director for this film. And, to my surprise, I was the tokusatsu chief [assistant director]. This was the schedule that I made. [shows the schedule] Here, it says, “The second time,” and here it says, “The third time.” I counted the number of shots, but there were very few.

There were less than 30 [shooting] days, according to the schedule. In reality, it took about a month. What were memorable were the subway scenes. The set was Stage 9, which was the biggest. We used the longest side of the studio to create a subway tunnel and a station. We built the “water drop” contraption that we talked about before [for the dam scene in Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)] to have water rushing into the tunnel.

This is the tunnel, which was very long. The camera was set at the end of the tunnel. The water comes into the tunnel and comes rushing toward the camera. We got a great shot that was very powerful. Both we and the camera were washed away by the water. 

BH: Please tell us about that. What happened?

EA: After the director said, “Action,” water came rushing from the back through the tunnel. This was very good. But the water arrived in a flash. So there was no time for us to get out of the way, and everything was washed away.

Eiichi Asada poses with his shooting schedule from Deathquake. Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: How far were you carried?

EA: About this distance, maybe three meters. We could only see the front end of the water, but not the other end. The water in the tank came through the tunnel, which was narrow. Because the water traveled through a narrow opening, it came rushing toward us with force. But there wasn’t that much water that followed the first burst, so we were safe. Even though we were washed away, we were safe.

As you probably know, we used high-speed photography to shoot tokusatsu [to create a slow-motion effect]. It happened so fast [in reality], but that snap of an instant was shot at three or four times [the normal frame rate] on film, so we got a great shot. 

There was also the apartment building that was next to a highway. I think it was the Route 3 highway that runs alongside Shibuya. So this apartment building that was next to the highway collapses. The main characters were a couple who lived in this apartment building. That set was very well made.

It took a long time to set up art sets and miniature sets. In tokusatsu, it’s all miniature sets. We decide the camera position first, then we build the set from there to create the best shot. We started building the apartment building set the day before the shoot and didn’t sleep at all that night. 

BH: Why not?

EA: Because there were so many buildings. Starting with the apartment building that was going to be destroyed, there were the highway and the miniatures. We had to put in extra details for the objects closest to the camera. So it took a long time.

In Mr. Nakano’s time, we would first go location scouting and visited the actual places that we could potentially use in the movie. Based on that, we would make the miniatures. It was the same with Godzilla 1985 (1984). That’s how we built the scene in Yurakucho. That’s why it took so much time.

For the movies that I worked on, for example, we based [the set] on a certain place in Tokyo. There was a specific place in Minato Ward where you could see Tokyo Tower in the background. But we didn’t create the set exactly the same as the actual location because that would have taken too long to make. And, if the camera were to shoot first from a certain angle and then from a different angle, we wouldn’t be able to create the set exactly the same as the actual location.

Take the Yurakucho Mullion Building, for example. Godzilla pushes against the wall and damages it. The Yurakucho set was created from that particular camera angle. The camera would never shoot from another angle, like from the side or from the back. The set was not designed for multiple angles.

There were exceptions. In the scene where Godzilla grabs a train, the foreground of the set was intentionally made bigger to give a sense of perspective. The scale in the foreground of the set was 1/25, whereas, toward the back of the set, the scale became smaller, like 1/30, 1/50, and even 1/75, to create a sense of perspective.

You just needed to move the camera to a place on the set that was at the right scale. But, for the movies I worked on, we couldn’t shoot from multiple angles. We didn’t have that freedom. 

Going back to what I was saying about the apartment building [in Deathquake], we created the set exactly the same as what we saw in the location scout, so it was a lot of work. The Yurakucho set was even more difficult. 

BH: Do you have anything else to say about Deathquake?

EA: The apartment building and the subway were the two major things. 

BH: Do you know how you became chief assistant director of tokusatsu?

EA: It was because I no longer had any superiors. Mr. Tabuchi, whom I mentioned before, became a manager, and I was the only one who had been working on shoots. That’s why I became chief [assistant director]. It didn’t mean that I became more important; it was just a natural step. 

BH: How about The Imperial Navy (1981)? It’s a big war movie. Please talk about this one.

EA: We made a big model of the battleship Yamato. I forget the scale. It was built somewhere in Kansai. When I joined the project, they had already started building this model. It was built so that people could go inside the model and operate it.

But, in the open ocean, only people who were licensed could operate this model. It was dangerous, of course. We towed it out to sea — not for a shoot, just to try it out in the open ocean.

The shooting of the Yamato was very difficult. When the Yamato leaves the port of Kure and goes through the Inland Sea [between Honshu and Shikoku], you see the front tip of the Yamato appear very slowly from behind an island.

But the Yamato is big, so it takes a long time to make a turn. It looks very powerful, but the camera is rolling at high speed before the Yamato appears, and, eventually, we see the Yamato appear. So we had to load a new roll of film for every take.

We had to repeat this many times. Watching the rushes, we would say, “Hm. We have to shoot it again.” So, even though we used up a lot of film, only a fraction of it was used in the movie. 

What I remember most about the tokusatsu for The Imperial Navy was the sinking of the Yamato. There’s a huge explosion, and flames go off in all directions, like a flower of flames. Then it sinks. Even on the set, it looked beautiful. We shot the Yamato in the pool, from both above and below. There was a place where we shot the Yamato from above.

BH: Next to the pool, basically, outside the pool?

EA: Yes, exactly. 

Eiichi Asada’s sketch of the “shamisen” device used during the making of The Imperial Navy. Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: How did they do the flower fire effect?

EA: There was a team at Toho called Tokushukoka [Special Effects], which handled gunpowder and things like that. [shows a document] Here, it says “Special effects: Tadaaki Watanabe.” He was one of the people who handled gunpowder. He had many assistants, and he decided how much napalm should be used here, how much gunpowder should be used over there, when to use napalm, and so on.

He calculated everything and then ignited the explosions so that they would go off in the right order. The camera was running at high speed, but, in reality, it happened instantaneously.

Mr. Watanabe built a contraption that we called the shamisen [Japanese lute] inside the ship, which was a stand to ignite the explosion. [draws a diagram] An electric cable connected the gunpowder for the first explosion to the second explosion, then another cable connected the gunpowder for the second explosion to the gunpowder for the third explosion. When the first explosion was ignited, electricity went through the cable and triggered the second explosion.

[pointing to the diagram] These are [explosions number] one, two, and three. They’re the children, and the parent’s over here. The children have two lines coming out of them, and one of the lines goes back to the parent. Let’s say there’s gunpowder set in eight places. That means that eight children are connected to each other with electric cables, and that there are also eight lines connecting the children to the parent. It [the shamisen] was basically a handmade switch to trigger the explosions [in sequence].

BH: When operating the scene with the ship sinking and all the explosions, was that logistically difficult, or was it simple?

EA: The ship model didn’t actually sink. The explosions went off in sequence, and the model sank a bit, but it didn’t actually sink. To shoot the model’s sinking, we had to do that in a separate shoot, without the explosions. We had a contraption that used a wire to pull the ship downward to make it look like it was sinking.

In addition to gunpowder, we used compressed air to create bubbles, and water hoses, which were like fire hoses, were also part of this contraption. We had a cylinder with gunpowder inside to shoot out a pillar of water. So various contraptions were built into this set.

BH: So it was very elaborate.

EA: We didn’t have all these contraptions in one single shot. We had separate shots for each contraption. One contraption would be used for a certain effect, and another contraption would be used for a different effect. We would move the camera in for a certain cut, then have a wide shot for another cut. We used different camera angles, as well, and we shot so many different cuts. That’s why it took so long.

What was difficult were the wide shots. You could get away with the close-ups because an explosion would go off, and it would look impressive. But, for a wide shot, an explosion wouldn’t look that impressive. With all these contraptions, it was difficult because they took a long time to shoot.

So, if there’s a pillar of water shooting out of the sea, or if a ship has been hit and goes up in flames, it’s difficult to shoot a wide shot because it just doesn’t have that much impact. So, when the Yamato fires shells, we needed to set gunpowder for the shoot. We need long shots in a movie, but the impact was always disappointing [in the long shots].

BH: Let’s continue with Sayonara Jupiter (1984). This was with director Kawakita. How was he different from Mr. Nakano? What do you remember about making Sayonara Jupiter?

EA: Mr. Nakano and Mr. Kawakita — everyone is different and has a different character. (laughs) Mr. Nakano was very patient, whereas Mr. Kawakita was short-tempered. He was always saying, “Quick! Quick! Quick!” “Hurry up! Hurry up! Hurry up!” That’s what he always said during the shoots. Having said that, Mr. Kawakita began his career as a camera assistant. Then he worked in post-production on composite shots, after which he returned to shooting. So he was very knowledgeable about composite shots, which affected his directing. 

Especially for Jupiter, he came up with new ways of shooting and new tokusatsu methods, saying, “I want to try this; I want to try that.” Mr. Kawakita also did Zero Pilot [a.k.a. Samurai of the Sky (1976)]. He used radio-controlled fighter planes, which hadn’t been used in war movies for some time. Because they hadn’t used radio-controlled fighter planes for a while, people had forgotten how to use them. When you shoot fighter planes on a set, you suspend them with piano wire and fly them.

By the time it’s picked up enough speed and momentum, it’s about to crash into the wall. Because we were rolling at high speed, you need a certain level of acceleration. Otherwise, it looks awkward, especially if explosives are being used. If a fighter plane is flying and gets hit by an enemy, it catches fire and makes a smoke trail in the sky. But, if it’s flying at low speeds, the trail of smoke behind it won’t be straight.

If you watch old war films, when a fighter plane is hit by an enemy plane and catches fire, the smoke trails directly behind it. That’s because the model is flying at high speeds. But, on the set, you can’t make fighter planes fly that fast. So, in previous war films with fighter planes, when you see the impact of the hit and the smoke trailing behind the fighter plane, they’re actually two different shots.

In Zero Pilot and Zero (1984), Mr. Kawakita set explosives inside the radio-controlled planes so that when he pressed a switch, it would ignite the explosives while the planes were in midair. So, while the planes were actually in midair, they would explode, catch fire, and make a smoke trail. That’s why it looks so real. Not only did Mr. Kawakita work on war films with planes, he also helped revive old techniques. 

In Jupiter, he built a system called motion control, which allows you to repeat the same movement as many times as you like. What he made was a dolly — the camera is fixed onto a rail and moves along the rail. He fixed the camera onto a robot arm, which was attached to the dolly, and the dolly would move along the rail.

The robot arm held the camera, and the hand on the robot arm moved, allowing you to tilt and rotate the camera. And this contraption could repeat the same movement while it moved along the rail as many times as you wanted. That’s what motion control is. That’s how we shot the spaceships. It was the first time this was done in Japan.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

However, it wasn’t a motion-control camera in the true sense because, with a true motion-control camera, you can control the aperture of the camera, the focus, etc. That’s what we call a motion-control camera system. On Jupiter, the camera didn’t have that kind of system; only the movement could be controlled. Still, it was very well made. In those days, Star Wars had already been released [in Japan], so we knew how the fighter planes were shot in Star Wars.

We used blue fluorescent tubes around the spaceships. The spaceships weren’t suspended; they were held up with supporting rods, which were either fixed to each end of the spaceships or below them. They filmed Star Wars with a blue background, which meant that if you used black supporting rods, you would have to erase the rods from the film.

So we filmed on a blue background and put blue fluorescent tubes around the spaceships that would light up. We then tried to erase the rods from the film. Conventionally, we would have hand-drawn a mask onto the film to cut them out, but we wanted to try doing it this way [how Star Wars was filmed]. But it had never been done in Japan, so we didn’t know what kind of fluorescent tubes we should use.

You may know that bullet trains use DC [voltage]. If you use AC [fluorescent tubes], you get a flicker because of the difference in frequency, so they have to use DC fluorescent tubes instead. So we went to the Toshiba laboratory in Fuchu to ask them for a supply of DC fluorescent tubes. Then we ran a camera test [with the DC fluorescent tubes].

We were somewhat successful in removing the rods, but it was a lot of work — more than we expected. In tokusatsu in Japan, we never have time, so we didn’t end up using this method. For Jupiter, Mr. Kawakita wanted to try new methods. That was one big difference between him and Mr. Nakano. Mr. Kawakita was always keen to try out new things, whereas Mr. Nakano was more conventional.

BH: You talked about what didn’t work, so what did you actually do, making the movie?

EA: The story was based on the novel by Sakyo Komatsu. Officially, he was the general director, but he knew nothing about tokusatsu, so Mr. Kawakita was the tokusatsu director. The preparation period for this film was very long. If we stayed faithful to the script, it would have taken a long time and cost a lot of money. So we said, “Let’s cut this, let’s cut that, let’s change the story here.” That [process] alone took about six months, so it took a while before we could start shooting. 

As I said before, we used storyboards for tokusatsu, and Mr. Kawakita made his own storyboards. His drawings were nothing elaborate, but they were good enough for the staff to understand. He made a lot of these drawings. We had a schedule for the shooting, including the start date and end date, which we call “crank-in” [start] and “crank-up” [end].

Not only was the preparation period long, the shooting itself was also very long, so we couldn’t keep up with the schedule that I had created. We had to keep retaking the first scene with the spaceship, which was called TokyoIII. This first scene of TokyoIII’s approaching the camera took one week before we could finalize the shot.

BH: What was the problem?

EA: (laughs) No one except the director knew. 

BH: So only [Mr.] Kawakita was rejecting it?

EA: Exactly. Watching the rushes, he would get in a very bad mood and say, “We have to retake the scene.” He was in such a bad mood that we were afraid to ask him what was wrong. We asked the cameraman why we had to retake the scene, and he just kept shaking his head. He didn’t know, either. We did the retakes over and over without knowing the reason. Maybe it was the lighting, or maybe the camera angle was slightly off. No one knew.

But we sensed what the reason was. In outer space, there’s only one source of light. There’s only one Sun in the solar system. So, to shoot a spaceship heading toward a planet, we would always decide where the Sun was beforehand so that light shines from one side, and the other side is dark.

But, with the miniature spaceships, if one side is too dark, the dark side would blend into the darkness of space. But, instead of using a blue background, we were using a black background, so we couldn’t do the masking. There had to be a very subtle balance. 

So the spaceship was only lit on one side, but we also had to think about the masking, which was a problem. We speculated that this was the reason. For one week, as I said. Day in and day out, we took the same shot. My stomach churned.

Do you remember the scene toward the end where the spaceship descends into Jupiter? We finished shooting without having shot that scene because the company said that we had to stop shooting because we were over-budget. Director Kawakita got very angry and said, “OK, I understand. We’ll stop shooting. I don’t care anymore.”

But that put me in a difficult situation because, without that scene, the movie wouldn’t be complete. I was the assistant director, and, with the producer in charge of the shooting, the two of us tried to find a way to shoot the last scene. The producer said, “I’ll find the money.” But the company wouldn’t allow it. 

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Who was the producer?

EA: Masayuki Ikeda was the producer in charge of the shooting. In Japan, we call this person “the producer in charge.” He’s since passed away, but he loved movies. He said to me, “I’ll find a sponsor myself, so let’s restart the shooting with that money.”

But Mr. Kawakita said, “The company told me to stop, so I’m going to stop, period.” One or two weeks after that, we officially stopped the shoot. But then the company made a compromise. I think it was because Mr. Komatsu said that he was dissatisfied. So we were able to resume the shooting.

BH: With Mr. Kawakita?

EA: He said, “The company says ‘shoot,’ so I guess we have to shoot.” But, in front of the staff, his body language suggested that he was doing it grudgingly. His words also reflected the same attitude. He said, “I have no choice.” Normally, we used the big stage, but the last scene of the spaceship descending into Jupiter was shot on the smallest stage. The stage was very compact, and so was the time. We had to come up with creative ways to shoot this last scene because we had limited space, time, and money. 

BH: So they just made things on the fly to save time and money?

EA: Not really on the fly — I think Mr. Kawakita had these ideas beforehand. The premise was that a strange creature, the Jupiter Ghost, lived in the atmospheric ocean around Jupiter. We built a pool on the biggest set and put dry ice, smoke devices, and nitrogen gas in this pool.

The Jupiter Ghost, which was as big as a whale and moved along a rail, like I mentioned before, lived in this pool. There was a mechanical contraption that made the Ghost move up and down as it moved through this mist.

BH: Compressed air?

EA: Yes. We attached fiber optics on the surface of the Jupiter Ghost. The fiber optics had varying thickness, from very thin to very thick, and the ends protruded out from the surface of the Jupiter Ghost. We bundled the fiber optics, and each bundle had its own light source and flashed at different times. Wasn’t that great? The Jupiter Ghost lived in this atmospheric ocean around Jupiter, and the spaceship descends into this atmospheric ocean. Actually, it was a space station, not a spaceship.

[Going back to the story about finally shooting the last scene] We no longer had the ocean set, so we came up with the idea of using a translucent plastic sheet. We painted this plastic sheet with muted colors, and it was backlit with some colored light. In the scene, the space station falls into this atmospheric ocean in front of the camera. We only used a short length of film.

We fired tiny flash bulbs in sequence under the plastic sheet, then the space station falls into this ocean. So we finally finished shooting the last scene. If somebody who didn’t know anything about this situation saw this scene, I’m sure he would have no idea that we shot it in such a small space with such simple mechanics.

BH: I know that you weren’t really involved with Mr. Komatsu, but how involved was he with the movie production? Was he just a figurehead, or was he really involved?

EA: During the shooting, Mr. [Koji] Hashimoto directed the drama part with the actors. Mr. Komatsu was responsible for the overall film, for the script and the general direction, including the role of the producer. 

We had various types of spaceship models for the tokusatsu. In those days, university students made these miniatures. Mr. Komatsu thought that one of the students was really interesting, so he suggested that this student make some of the models. I think this student made some of the main miniatures, including TokyoIII and the Communication Ship [a.k.a. the Transmission Ship].

I forget his name, but this student started a company called Ogawa Modeling [Group] with a few of his friends to make miniatures. Mr. Komatsu probably helped him, but the student founded his own company for the production of Jupiter to make various types of spaceships for the Jupiter shoot.

I think the student was quite well-off; his father owned his company’s building. He [the student] had a workspace on one of the floors of his father’s building and was able to run his business without much investment. 

BH: Do you know the name of this person?

EA: Yes, it was [Masaharu] Ogawa [of the] Ogawa Modeling [Group]. It took a long time to make these miniature spaceships, so I went to this company many, many times to check on the progress. 

BH: Let’s talk about Godzilla 1985. Let’s talk about your work on it and what you did.

EA: I don’t have the script anymore. I lent it to someone, and he never returned it to me. I was also the chief assistant director for this film. 

BH: Please tell us about the shooting and what happened on the set.

EA: The Yurakucho scene in which Godzilla destroys the Mullion Building was the toughest scene, which I already mentioned. To my amazement, Mr. [Yasuyuki] Inoue, the art director, recreated the set just like the real thing, down to the finest detail. He didn’t miss any details whatsoever. Everything he made was simply excellent.

When Godzilla walks toward the camera, he stumbles before reaching the Mullion Building because the underground passage beneath him collapses. So he leans toward one side and grabs the wall of the Mullion Building, destroying it. In that shot, you see Godzilla’s face reflected in the glass window of the Mullion Building, like a mirror. No matter who you ask, everyone says, “That was an amazing shot.” But, to tell you the truth, it was awfully difficult. 

When Godzilla stumbles, the street beneath him was made of plaster, so it would collapse if someone walked on it, even if it wasn’t Godzilla. Let’s say this is the Mullion Building. The camera is shooting from this direction. In order to have Godzilla’s face reflected in the glass window, his face had to be lit from the right angle. The lighting technician was giving instructions [to his team], saying, “Put this light here; aim it this way.”

At the same time, he was also approaching Godzilla himself while casting light on him. When he was doing that, someone shouted, “That’s plaster! Don’t step on it; it’ll cave in! It’s dangerous!” But the lighting technician was so focused on the lighting that he stepped on the plaster by mistake. He was giving instructions [to his team] while he was walking and casting light on Godzilla, and he fell into the plaster. He didn’t just do that once but a second time. That’s why we got such a great shot.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: When he did that, how long did it take to set everything up again?

EA: We had spare plaster plates, so it didn’t take much time to place them and paint them so that they would match the rest of the street. We painted the center line and sprinkled dust. So that wasn’t too bad, but, after he did it the second time, everyone got fed up. 

BH: How about the Cybot? Please talk about what it was like to work with the Cybot?

EA: People often say to me that the face is different — the face of the Godzilla [monster] suit is not the same as the Cybot’s face because the Cybot is much bigger. When the size is bigger, the face looks different, no matter how hard you try. There was a clay prototype that was made by the modeler, Mr. [Nobuyuki] Yasumaru. Based on the prototype, Mr. Yasumaru made the [monster] suit for the actor to wear, but the Cybot was made by a different person. 

I don’t remember. There was a workshop that was a 15-minute drive away from the studio. Not only was the Cybot big, it also had to move, so there were steel angles inside it. On the tokusatsu set, we mainly took bust shots. We used a combination of air cylinders and wires, and many staff members were involved in the operation of the Cybot. Several people were needed to operate all the parts. The eyes, the mouth, the neck, the cheeks — each part had its own contraption, so it was very difficult to operate. It wasn’t motion control; it was all done manually.

We needed six people to operate everything, pushing buttons, moving levers, etc. It was different each time we operated it, but, once we were able to do the basic movements, we could finally start shooting. For the actual shoot, we were able to do the movements in the same way most of the time as we had done in the rehearsals. But everything had to be done manually, and the Cybot was operated by human beings, so it was impossible to do the movements exactly the same way each time.

BH: Was there a situation where Godzilla is in the water, and on the bridge there’s the military firing at him. Godzilla uses his ray, but he’s kind of turning. Was there a problem with that shot?

EA: I think you’re talking about the scene in Tokyo Bay with the gantry cranes and lots of [military] tanks. Godzilla fires his ray, and the tanks explode one after the other. I think this scene was one of the most memorable scenes in this movie. For this movie, too, each explosion was made with gunpowder and gasoline.

The explosions were connected by electrical wires and designed to go off one after the other. Mr. Watanabe was the person in charge of the gunpowder. Godzilla’s ray was added in as animation after the shooting. Just by turning his neck in a certain direction, Godzilla made the gunpowder explode in succession.

Mr. Watanabe made the explosions go off one after the other, starting with the farthest tank and moving closer. During the shoot, all the explosions went off, and the director said, “Cut.” But the special effects assistant director said, “Mr. Watanabe, I think the timing was too quick.”

When we saw the rushes, we saw that, indeed, the explosions went off before Godzilla faced that direction. The film was shot at high speed, so it was hardly noticeable. We adjusted this in the animation [of Godzilla’s ray] so that the ray preceded Godzilla’s facing the direction of the explosion. But only the people who were at the shoot could tell; the audience watching the film didn’t notice. 

BH: Do you have any other Godzilla 1985 memories to share?

EA: We hadn’t made a Godzilla movie for some time; it had been several years since the last one. When we were making Godzilla movies on a regular basis, we were making them for children. When we started working on the ‘84 movie [Godzilla 1985], we watched the first Godzilla by Mr. Honda and Mr. Tsuburaya. We didn’t want to copy it, but we asked ourselves the question, “What is Godzilla?” Our answer was to make a movie that wasn’t for children, but a movie that had been thought through. That’s what the staff was eager to do.

There are many kinds of Godzilla movies, and Godzilla movies are difficult. They’re entertainment movies, but they’re more than that. The first one was very impressive.

BH: Let’s talk about Pulgasari (1985). This is a very interesting movie because of its North Korea connection. So please talk about Pulgasari.

EA: It’s about a monster that eats steel and grows bigger. A kaiju this small grows as big as Godzilla. The shooting was done in Beijing and Pyongyang. We shot in Beijing for the first two weeks, and then we went to Pyongyang. The shooting took about two months. 

BH: Did you go to Pyongyang for the shooting?

EA: Yes. In those days, Kim Jong-il was still in power, and he loved films. Shin Sang[-ok], a Korean director, was invited to Pyongyang. They said to him, “We’ll build a studio that’s exclusively for you.”

After entering Pyongyang, we found out that our accommodation was actually Kim Jong-il’s vacation home, which was called the “guest house.” Director Nakano had his own private room, and we were able to watch NHK broadcasts on TV there. The Hanshin [Tigers baseball team] won that year, but that’s not important. (laughs) 

The new studio was ready, so Kim Jong-il said, “Please come.” Director Nakano and the art director arrived first. The walls were all concrete, and there were no decorations. There were holes where the windows were supposed to be, but there were no glass windows or frames. It looked like a construction site that just had a concrete structure. We needed a 200-volt outlet for shooting, but that wasn’t available.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

Somehow, there was a thick, 200-volt cable, but, when there was major construction taking place nearby, the voltage immediately went down. The camera operators and lighting staff could tell the difference when that happened. A slight drop in the voltage would change the color of the light. And, because we were shooting at high speed, a slight drop in lighting would degrade the quality. It was one thing after another. 

Before leaving Japan, the art director told us that we wouldn’t be able to find any plywood or nails there, so he decided to bring everything from Japan. He said, “Whatever we have here in Japan, expect that you won’t be able to find it over there.” I thought he was joking. But, when we got there, we saw that he was right. The nails had flattened heads because they had been reused many times and straightened each time. They really had nothing over there.

In a communist country, I didn’t expect there to be any thieves. But, when we got there, there was an unfinished set. Behind this set, we made a place to store our tools, like pliers and all kinds of tools. We left them there because we didn’t want to take them back with us [to where we were staying]. When we went back the next morning, one item was missing. The next day, another item was missing. Someone stole them because what we brought from Japan was of high quality. So, after that, we locked everything up. 

The staff members were all very nice. If I start talking about Pulgasari, I could go on for an hour. I have so many memories about this movie. 


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