A CANDID CONVERSATION WITH GODZILLA’S MAKER! Nobuyuki Yasumaru’s Second Interview on His Incredible Suitmaking Career!

Nobuyuki Yasumaru in September 2021. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Born on January 24, 1935, in Toyama Prefecture, Nobuyuki Yasumaru is a creator of miniatures and monster suits who has worked on some of Toho’s most popular kaiju films. Beginning his career with Toho in the early 1960s, Mr. Yasumaru’s credits include Mothra (1961), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), War of the Gargantuas (1966), King Kong Escapes (1967), Destroy All Monsters (1968), Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971), Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972), Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), and Godzilla 1985 (1984). In this September 2021 interview, Mr. Yasumaru spoke to Brett Homenick a second time about his decades-long career in special effects, which was translated by Maho Harada and Mao Watanabe.

Brett Homenick: What did you do on the movie Matango (1963)?

Nobuyuki Yasumaru: On that film, I made a lot of mushrooms — sprouting mushrooms. To make the mushrooms look like they were sprouting, I used urethane foam. I mixed the foam and set up a camera in front of it.

After a while, the foam would rise. I made a hole in the sand and poured foam into in the hole. After a while, the foam would rise, and it looked like mushrooms were sprouting.

Matango was a film about monster mushrooms. I don’t know who came up with this idea; it might have been Mr. [Eiji] Tsuburaya. But, wait, it wasn’t director Tsuburaya; it was the director of the drama scenes. Maybe Mr. [Ishiro] Honda?

Director Honda didn’t usually direct tokusatsu scenes, but, for low-budget films, they didn’t have separate teams for the feature and the tokusatsu scenes. For productions with big budgets, they had separate teams for the feature and the tokusatsu scenes. The feature team would shoot the drama scenes, and the tokusatsu team would film things like trick photography and kaiju scenes.

BH: Do you have any other stories about Matango, anything else to share?

NY: It was such a long time ago, so I don’t remember the staff or the cast. I think the actress was Kumi Mizuno. I don’t remember who the guy was. But I remember Kumi Mizuno because there was a scene with a mushroom growing from her hand. I did the special effects for that scene, which was done with composite shots.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Could you explain how you did the mushroom on her hand?

NY: We first took a closeup of her hand with a small mushroom. In the next shot, we used a mushroom that was a bit taller. That’s how we filmed it — so that it would look like the mushroom was growing.

Like I mentioned before, to film the mushroom’s sprouting, I first made a hole in the sand and poured urethane foam into the hole. I prepared the urethane foam before we started shooting. It was quite small at first, but it gradually expanded and came out of the sand.

The top was flat so that it would look like the cap of the mushroom, and it looked like a mushroom was sprouting. I think whoever came up with the idea of using urethane foam, which looks exactly like a mushroom’s sprouting, was amazing. That’s what tokusatsu is all about – ideas.

Mr. Tsuburaya would hang light[-weight] buildings upside down from the ceiling and blow compressed air from below, which would crush the buildings. The dust from the explosion would then fall toward the ground, but, because he was filming this upside down, it looks like the buildings are exploding upwards. He filmed the set upside down, and the scene looked so impressive. He always came up with these kinds of ideas.

In The Last War (1961), the Diet Building and Tokyo Station are blown up with a hydrogen bomb and fall to pieces. They were pulverized in an instant. To film this, he used wafers.

BH: Was that your idea to use lighter material for the [building] that explodes?

NY: In The Last War, which I think starred Frankie Sakai, Tokyo is blown up. For the Tokyo scenes, places like the Diet Building and Tokyo Station are blown up. There was also a scene of New York where the Statue of Liberty is blown up. But, because it’s standing in water — the Atlantic Ocean – we couldn’t film it upside down when it explodes. So we filmed a long shot with the water, then a close up of the explosion without the water.

It took about two weeks to make the models of Tokyo Station, the Diet Building, and the Statue of Liberty. We made them with plaster so they could be easily destroyed. We poured very thin layers of plaster and put gunpowder inside so they would blow up easily.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Going back to Matango, to make the mushroom grow, did you have to add anything to it? How did it grow?

NY: When you film real mushrooms’ growing, you use high-speed motion [time-lapse photography], shooting them every five seconds. We could have done that, but it would have taken too long to shoot with stop-motion. So I used urethane foam, which expands quickly.

I mixed the [urethane foam] solution with a hardening agent, and the ratio of the two chemicals was how I controlled the speed. I knew that if I used more hardening agents it would grow really fast, and that if I used fewer it would grow more slowly. So I put in more hardening agents, and it grew in no time.

I had to tell the staff to move out of the way because they would be in the way of the camera. As soon as they moved, the mushroom [urethane foam] expanded very quickly. It was a chemical reaction that was very easy to manage, so we did it many times. All I had to do was mix the urethane foam and hardening agent in a bowl and control the ratio.

If they wanted the mushroom to grow quickly, I put in more hardening agents. If they wanted the mushroom to grow more slowly, I put in fewer. I could control it at will. And, if you shot a close-up of it, it looked really big. I think whoever came up with this idea was a genius.

BH: [With] Kumi Mizuno, what was she like? What was her reaction to that?

NY: She didn’t say it out loud, but I don’t think she felt great about it. They put chemicals — urethane foam and a hardening agent — directly on her skin. I’m sure there was a risk of her skin being irritated, and other actresses would have complained. For Ms. Mizuno, it was her hand, so it wasn’t as irritating for her skin. It might have been different if it had been her face.

BH: The next movie I want to ask about is The Lost World of Sinbad (1963). Please tell us what you did on this film.

NY: There were puppets on a pirate ship, but I didn’t make them. Teizo Toshimitsu, a puppet-maker, made the puppets, and they filmed the scenes with composite shots. We made a model of the pirate ship in the background. Of course, we couldn’t make it the actual size. The pirate ship was 1/25 scale, and we made it so that it would be coherent with the drama scenes.

I think the puppets were 1/4 scale; they were very well made. Teizo Toshimitsu was a puppet-maker who made the forms of the puppets that were used in traditional puppet shows. He also made the original Godzilla [suit], so he was considered a god of tokusatsu. People like him and Mr. [Toshiro] Mifune were paid in stacks of money because they did such great work. Unlike our stacks, their stacks were so thick that they could stand on their sides.

Senkichi Taniguchi was the director. He, Akira Kurosawa, and Hiroshi Inagaki were called the “Three Crows” because they were the main directors in Japan at the time. The three of them were huge, probably as tall as you! And they were about the same age. Senkichi Taniguchi was married to Kaoru Yachigusa. He passed away [in 2007], but he was a famous director.

He was also as short-tempered as a racoon dog. He got angry with the staff often and shouted at us. He was so impatient. Mr. Kurosawa also got angry if something went wrong. He’d say, “Weren’t you listening to me?” He would end the shoot because he was too angry, and then we’d shoot again the next day. That kind of thing happened all the time. These directors put everything on the line for these movies, much more than the staff. That’s how much responsibility they had. So they would get angry if the shoot didn’t go the way they wanted. So we would have to put up with this kind of thing.

During the shoot for the first film of The Inugami Family (1976), there was a famous actor – I forget his name – who shaves his head. I made the mask for this actor, but I had to make it over and over again because the director wouldn’t approve it. The color was off, it was too thick, etc., etc. I remade this mask dozens of times until the director finally approved it. That’s how demanding he was. What was his name? He made the Tokyo Olympiad (1965) movie. [The director was] Kon Ichikawa.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: How long did it take you to make all the masks for The Inugami [Family]? 

NY: It took about a month. The scene was one of the last that was going to be shot. I started to make it on the first day of the shoot, but Mr. Ichikawa wouldn’t approve it. I don’t think he knew what he was looking for. He would complain and say, “The nose is too high,” or, “The nose is too low,” or, “The skin isn’t the right color.”

I would show him the mask in between takes, and he would say, “Hm…” and would think about it. Then the break would be over, and I had to leave. So I said, “I have to leave,” and he replied, “OK, go ahead.” And I would bring him another mask the next day. This went on for about a month. If he decided to be particular about something, he was very, very particular. He didn’t know exactly what he was looking for; he was unsure of how it should be expressed. It was for the very last scene, the climax of the movie. It made me realize how important it is to be particular about something. It’s not about how much time it takes. People like me are hired, so all we care about is if our work gets approved. All the successful directors were like that.

BH: The next movie I’d like to ask about is Dogora the Space Monster (1964). 

NY: I don’t remember. Maybe I didn’t work on this movie. 

BH: How about Retreat from Kiska (1965)?

NY: A war movie. Yes, I worked on this movie. Is there a scene of a train running?

BH: That’s Siege of Fort Bismarck (1963). 

NY: It’s a war movie about Qingdao’s being bombed. There was a scene where a cannon is being transported by train. We shot it at the foot of Mt. Fuji. [Director] Kengo Furusawa was full of energy. We called him “Palembang” because he had been there during the war. I think he got injured in the war. Usually, the assistant director would call, “Ready, action!” but Mr. Furusawa would call, “Ready, action!” himself because he was so full of energy.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Was director Furusawa a nice man, or was he difficult like the others?

NY: No, he wasn’t difficult. He had a sense of humor and never got too serious. He survived the war, after all. That’s why his nickname was Palembang, which was the island he had been on during the war. He was very interesting and made entertaining movies [comedies] with actors like Kei Tani and Hitoshi Ueki. He was good at making these movies.

BH: Let’s go back to Kiska one more time. If you remember anything about Kiska and [director] Seiji Maruyama, what do you remember?

NY: Seiji Maruyama was a monk from a Buddhist temple. It feels like these movies that we’re talking about were a dream. I’m 86 years old now, so it’s been more than 50 years. It feels like it was all a dream.

BH: Next is Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966). I think you worked on making Ebirah’s “scissors” [pincers]. Please talk about Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster.

NY: Ebirah was a red-boiled crab. His scissors were made with iron. In [Son of Godzilla (1967)], the tip of Kamakiras’ scissors were also made with iron plates, from the elbow to the tip of the claw. We made them with iron because there’s a scene where the Kamakiras poke [Godzilla’s] egg, and [Minya] comes out of it.

The tip of Kamakiras’ scissors were iron plates that were about two millimeters thick. We had them made at an iron foundry. We suspended the scissors with piano wires from the ceiling. They were very heavy, so they naturally moved because of their weight. The egg was made out of thin plaster, so it was easy for the scissors to crack open the egg. Usually, these parts were made with rubber, but, because they were very light, we had to add weights to make them heavier. But, because the scissors were made with real iron plates that were two to three millimeters thick, they were quite heavy. 

The scissors and legs were suspended by piano wires from the ceiling. There were dozens of crew members operating the legs. Because they were so heavy, one person operated one wire. There was a whole web of walkways under the ceiling, and the staff would walk along these walkways to operate the legs. That’s how they made [Kamakiras] walk and crack open the egg. We could have used machines to move the legs, but all the movements would be the same and mechanical, so it would have been boring to watch. Because people actually moved the legs, it was more lively and more interesting to watch. 

In tokusatsu, there were many specialists; there were many teams of people who specialized in a specific area. For example, the gunpowder team had to pass the national exam for pyrotechnicians to use gunpowder. They had to know which gunpowder to use and what to mix it with to create a specific type of explosion. You had to be a professional to do this job, although it was different for us on the art team! (laughs)

A Kamakiras sketch by Nobuyuki Yasumaru. Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Could you talk more about how the scissors of Ebirah’s worked? Also, how did you get hired to do that?

NY: We made the shape of the scissors with wood. [draws a picture] This is what the leg looked like. It had moveable joints, which were suspended by piano wires. These joints were operated by people on walkways under the ceiling. When the first operator pulled his wire, the first joint was lifted. The second operator pulled his wire, and the second joint was lifted. The eyes were controlled by radio. So it took a lot of man power to move one monster, and it was big. The operators were up on the walkways under the ceiling.

There’s a person inside the body [of the monster]. So, when the person walks, the monster walks. And the legs were operated with wires. The operators were basically lifting wires attached to frames. So, when the operators were told to lift the frame, they had to move the entire frame as one unit. Like I said, the monster was big, so it was a lot of work. As a praying mantis, it had a lot of joints! The body wasn’t that difficult because there was an actor inside, so it moved when the actor moved. But, for the legs, each joint was lifted by a piano wire, so that was a lot of work. There were dozens of staff members.

We had three or four staff members who were dedicated to this. And, if we didn’t have enough people, we hired part-timers. They were often university students at Tokyo University of Agriculture or from the Setagaya campus of Nihon University. Some part-timers came often because they liked this work. We even had older women. The work itself was simple because all they had to do was lift a wire. They just had to follow directions from their captain, who would say, “Lift it,” or, “Lower it.” The captain would say, “Number 3, lift,” and the person would lift the wire. That’s all they had to do. When I was working, we were paid 400 yen a day. That was maybe in 1958?

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Sea Monster was in 1966.

NY: Right. I don’t think it was 300 yen, maybe 500 or 600 yen. That’s per day.

This was published in the late 1950s to early 1960s. It’s an article about King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). This is me [in this photograph]. I was a nobody on the staff. I think a copy of this book is coming out this month, but this is the old version. You can have it [gives a copy of the article]. The publisher asked me to make corrections or add anything I could remember. They don’t have much of a budget, so they’re publishing content they already have.

This is the scene from King Kong vs. Godzilla when King Kong destroys the Diet Building, which was with Old Tsuburaya. This book talks about the destruction of the Diet Building and Atami Castle. The Diet Building was built a long time ago, but Atami Castle was only built four or five years prior. And this is the Kannon statue in Takasaki. We shot that scene, but it wasn’t used in the movie. There’s an episode about making this scene. I was a nobody on the staff then. We made the set out of plaster. This a very rare photo. It’s interesting, isn’t it?

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: How long did it take to make Ebirah’s scissors?

NY: The prototype didn’t take that long to make, but the actual scissors were made out of iron, so we had an ironworks make them. I made the prototype with wood. I first made the shape for the prototype with plywood. To give it thickness, I used balsa. I took it to the ironworks and asked them to make the same thing with iron. They made it with iron plate that was two millimeters thick.

There were some talented people who could make these things, people who specialized in props. There was a hole here for the screws to join it with this part so that it could move and bend. When it was hung from the ceiling, it would move like this, with the scissors here. 

BH: Did you work with director Jun Fukuda?

NY: I worked with him several times. He wasn’t really a tokusatsu director; he directed drama movies. But, before he died, he made a few tokusatsu movies, like Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster.

BH: [Is there] anything else about Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster? Any other stories or episodes?

NY: I don’t think I was part of the staff for this movie, but the workspace was next door to where I was working. I was bored, so I hung out there often. There were several older women, so, if they needed a guy to help out, I would go and help.

Mr. Toshimitsu made the old Godzilla [suit], and he made this one, as well. They didn’t make a new Mothra for this movie. I think they reused an old Mothra they had and fixed some parts. The staff didn’t have enough time to make a new Mothra. I think they made the Godzilla, though.

BH: Generally, do you have any memories of director Fukuda? 

NY: I don’t have any memories of Mr. Fukuda because he did mostly drama movies. Before he died, he directed a few tokusatsu films, but I didn’t work with him, so I didn’t know him very well.

BH: Let’s talk about Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973). This is the first time that you made a Godzilla suit. Please talk about your decisions.

NY: I don’t think this Godzilla suit was new. This suit [Gigan] was new. This Godzilla suit [in the poster for Megalon] wasn’t used in the movie. It was only used for advertising. 

The eyes of this Godzilla were really big. That’s because the rubber shrank, so the space between his eyes became smaller and smaller. So that’s why his face looks like that. As we were using it, his eyes became bigger. We added rubber, so his face was also becoming deformed. His face wasn’t so square in the beginning.

The other monster suits, like Megalon and Jet Jaguar, were only used in this movie. The Godzilla suit went all over Japan to advertise the Toho movie, and we often went along with it. This Godzilla suit was also exhibited at the Osaka Expo. I didn’t go then, but I heard that a mob formed around the Godzilla suit in the main square. Godzilla was so popular.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: As you look at this picture of all the monsters here [from Megalon], do you have any other memories of making the suits or any memories from the set?

NY: Our team made the suits, and there was a separate team that made the set. If we didn’t have much work to do, we would go help them. If something happened to the suit, we would fix it. So at least one person always had to be there.

With Godzilla, sometimes a tooth would come loose or something like that, so we had to go and fix it. If something happened to the set, someone from that team would come to fix it. If something was too complicated to fix, the person who made it would have to come to the studio, and if it was going to be used for the shoot the next morning they would have to work all night so that it would be ready. That happened several times. But, if we said, “Sorry, it won’t be ready by tomorrow,” and they said, “OK,” that meant we didn’t have to work overtime. (laughs) We knew if a repair would be ready for the shoot the next day, or if it was going to take several days.

For the monster team, the stage we used cost hundreds of thousands of yen per day. The longer the shoot took, the more money it would cost, so they wanted to stay on schedule and finish the shoot as quickly as possible. But, for tokusatsu, they had a budget, but it didn’t mean much because you never knew what was going to happen during the shoot.

Back then, the production cost was the actual cost. They didn’t really set a budget in the beginning. They had an idea of how much it was going to cost, but they wouldn’t know the exact cost until the shoot was over. But they always paid us. So, in a sense, they had money to spare for tokusatsu. Mr. Tsuburaya’s fee was pretty good, too! He had a Cadillac.

BH: About Jet Jaguar’s face, he has a big smile, and it’s a very interesting face. Do you have any comments about the look of Jet Jaguar?

NY: His face is hannya, the [noh] mask of a female demon. That was my style. It’s not really supposed to be a smiling. People always said that my designs are quite distinct. The eyes are always sunken. It’s the same for Godzilla. That’s my DNA as an artist. You can tell which masks I designed.

Gigan was the same. It was originally Jun Fukuda’s idea to make it a unicorn. It only has one horn, not two. And it only has one hand with no fingers. It was designed in the image of a unicorn, with only one horn. His feet only had one toe each, like a shoe. Mr. Fukuda insisted on the concept of “one” for Gigan. Godzilla has three fingers, but Gigan only had one of everything. Mr. Fukuda was the director for the drama side of the movie with Gigan. He was in a few movies.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

To tell you an inside story, Jet Jaguar’s eyes were made with taillights of a 750cc motorcycle. [draws a picture] This part of his eyes, the angular part, was acrylic. They were actually taillights of a 750cc motorcycle that looked like this. They were wide lights that light up very well. We cut the corner part of the taillight and fit it onto Jet Jaguar’s face. We cut off the parts we didn’t need and just used the sides of the taillight. It’s so unique; we couldn’t make this even if we wanted to!

There was a motorcycle shop across from the front gate of the studio. I would go there after lunch and ask for old parts. The motorcycle shop didn’t need them because they had been discarded after replacing them with new parts. They were taillights from big motorcycles. That’s what I used for the eyes. You can’t make these eyes! People said, “The eyes were so well made!” Of course they were; they were motorcycle parts.

I did that a lot. The round part of the ear here is also a taillight. Maybe that was from a truck. So I used parts that were very well made! Those are some inside stories for you. So the eyes are pretty cool. If you look at them from above, you can see it’s the corner of a taillight.

Originally, Jet Jaguar had a different name, but we changed it to Jet Jaguar after Seibu Railway complained that the name was too similar to one of their limited express trains [Red Arrow]. I can’t remember the original name.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Red Arone?

NY: Maybe it was Red Arone. I don’t remember clearly, but Seibu complained or something. I think it was Mr. Fukuda who changed the name slightly, so it became Jet Jaguar. 

BH: One question about the name Jaguar. There’s no animal theme with Jet Jaguar; it’s just like an Ultraman-type character. Do you know anything about the name Jaguar, why the name Jaguar was chosen?

NY: Yes, like the car Jaguar. It’s an animal that looks like a wolf. They wanted to call it Red Jaguar [Red Arone] first, but I don’t know why. Mr. Nakano was the tokusatsu director. You should ask him; he should be able to tell you the reason. He’s the same age as me, so he’s still alive. (laughs)

In the book I mentioned earlier on King Kong vs. Godzilla, they talk about him in the beginning. When Mr. Nakano started working at Toho, he was asked to work on tokusatsu movies, but he wasn’t that interested in tokusatsu. But it turned out that the movies he made became legendary. After Mr. Tsuburaya, he was the main tokusastu director. I think he was lucky.

BH: Next, I’d like to talk about The Last Days of Planet Earth (1974). You did the mutants, the children who become mutants because of radiation from war. So I’d like to talk about that, and talk about the making of the mutant costumes of the children.

NY: They only had that scene for the first day of release because they received complaints about the mutant children, so they took out the scene. That scene was only included for the showing on the first day.

I made two suits for the mutant children. It reminded the audience of the victims of the war. The bodies were deformed, but that’s how deformed the bodies of the victims actually were from radiation. So, after the first day of release, they took out that scene. That’s what I heard.

That movie was a masterpiece, too. There was a person who drew the storyboards, and the costumes looked exactly like the pictures in the storyboard. Even today, people tell me how good my work was.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Was it supposed to be used [for] more than just [that scene]? What was the original plan for that?

NY: They planned to use the suits in the last scene, but, because they were [visually] very intense, they were afraid that the movie would become controversial. They received a complaint from Eirin [the Film Classification and Rating Organization] or somewhere like that. I don’t know if Eirin specifically told Toho to take out the scene; Toho may have voluntarily removed the scene.

Toho doesn’t like to make extremely intense movies; they prefer more light-hearted movies. They intentionally make their movie titles and commercials light-hearted and target salarymen .

BH: I’ve seen a picture of you, and it looks like you’re directing the children on the set, maybe showing them how to move. So did you direct the children in terms of showing them how to move?

NY: Yes, we did that for the test before the shoot. They were wearing thin, skin-colored tights, like ballet tights. They were in elementary school, maybe in the first grade. They were about this tall. There were a few part-time female workers on the set who were older. I asked them, “Do you know any children who are about this tall?” Some of them said that their neighbors’ children were that height. I told them that we needed two children for a movie shoot, and they accepted.

So they got their neighbors to bring two children, who were amateurs. Their mothers came with them, so the children weren’t that nervous when they were trying on the costumes, even though the costumes were scary, like ghosts. The faces of the suits were scarred, and only the eyes and mouth moved. Normally, I’m sure children wouldn’t want to put on such scary-looking suits, but because they were with their parents they didn’t complain.

The children weren’t actors; they were amateurs. Actually, maybe it was good that they were amateurs. If they were actors or in acting school, maybe the parents would complain about their children wearing such scary-looking suits. But it went smoothly because the children were amateurs, and their mothers were with them.

BH: Also, there’s a scene where they fight over a worm. It’s a real worm, I guess. Do you have any memories of them with the worm?

NY: I made the worm with rubber. Because it was made of rubber, it was pliable, so it could move like a real worm. The children’s hands were scarred, and the tips of their fingers were thick because of the scars and looked like an octopus’ suction cups. They were also made with ballet tights, like pantyhose.

I used a technique that’s often used in makeup [in movies]. I put a glove on the children’s hands with the finger part cut off. I painted raw rubber over the children’s fingers and attached hair irregularly, which looked like scar tissue. I used latex, which is good because it acts like glue when it’s dry. After the shoot, you can just peel it off, so the skin underneath stays clean. Latex is the same material that people use for hair removal. That’s how we made all the moving parts.

We used latex in huge quantities, so we bought it in 18-liter cans. We used it to make the suits – we painted over the fabric and attached things, and we could peel it off easily afterward. We would paint on the latex, then dry it, then paint again, and then dry it. But it could only be used once. Once you peeled it off, you would have to throw it away. And it stinks like ammonia.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Do you have any other stories from the set, or did you do anything else on The Last Days of Planet Earth?

NY: In the beginning of the film, there’s a scene with a giant slug, which was shot at Yumenoshima. I made the giant slug with a product called “hot melt,” which is a liquid that turns into a soft jelly, like konjac [a jelly-like food made from konjac flour] I heated hot melt with an electric heater to make the giant slug. 

BH: There’s a scene where they use fire to kill the giant slug. You can see one is burning. Did you create the slug that was burning?

NY: Yes, I did that scene, too. When you heat hot melt, it melts. But it’s reusable, so you can turn it back into jelly. So you can use it over and over again.

BH: [Did you do] any other work on The Last Days of Planet Earth?

NY: The giant slug scene was shot at a garbage dump in a place called Yumenoshima. The area was redeveloped; it’s where they built the residences for the Olympics. But it used to be a garbage dump as far as the eye could see. It was actually an island of garbage. That’s where we shot the giant slug scene.

Going back to hot melt, do you know the dolls at Tokyo Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World”? They used hot melt for those faces. Toho made 400 or so of those dolls for Disney. I didn’t make them, but the part-time women did.

They brought molds over from the States and had an assembly line at Toho to build the dolls. That’s how they made the elephant’s trunk in the Jungle Cruise, too. They used hot melt so there would be wrinkles in the trunk. We used an electric heater to melt the hot melt and attached parts with an electric iron.

That was about 30 years ago, so I’m sure they use a different technique now. It was difficult because the hot melt is soft, and there were also moving parts. The moving parts were also shipped over from the States. Toho built the dolls in an assembly line. Toho, like Disney, is a movie company.

Mr. Mori was the Toho executive who got the contract. Even today, there’s a Toho branch that does this type of work for Disney. It was completely new for me, so I went to the States for two weeks to see how they did it. It was difficult for men to do this job, but women were able to put these dolls together very well. They did work this in between shoots.

BH: The next movie I’d like to ask about is The Evil of Dracula (1974), a vampire movie. 

NY: I vaguely remember it. There was a movie I did with director Nakano that involved a mask. Zone Fighter (1973) — that was a Toho [TV series] directed by Mr. Nakano, and there were a few seasons.

BH: Please tell us about what you did on The War in Space (1977). 

NY: I remember this film, but I don’t think I was a part of it. 

BH: What did you do on [Godzilla vs.Biollante (1989)?

NY: That was one of the last Godzilla movies, but it wasn’t a big hit. I made the Godzilla suit. We didn’t have much time to make the suit. After that movie, a younger guy called [Tomoki] Kobayashi became the Godzilla suitmaker. He was very good, but he passed away [in 2009]. The company made him go through a checkup when he turned 60, and they told him he had cancer. He was supposed to be hospitalized, but he didn’t want to be hospitalized, and then it was too late. I was the second Godzilla suitmaker, and he was supposed to be the third Godzilla suitmaker. He was very good, so it’s a shame [that he passed away]. 

He was very promising. He did the modeling [suitmaking] for the later Godzilla movies, and his work improved with each successive film. He modified Godzilla in each movie. He passed away just after he retired. He was 12 years younger than me. He did all the later Godzilla movies. 

BH: Did you work on Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)?

NY: I made King Ghidorah’s wings. King Ghidorah was a big monster; the wings were about three meters wide. King Ghidorah was very big, so it was a lot of work to make it. I dyed a lot of fabric. Only the face and necks were made with latex; everything else was made by hand.

The wings and legs were made with the same techniques as Godzilla, so it was a lot of work because it has three heads and two tails. We had to make all the parts. We had to make three faces and necks. It was a lot of work, so we had a lot of part-time older women helping us glue on scales and things like that. The faces were the only part that the professionals made, including the teeth.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Generally speaking, do you have any memories of working with Eiji Tsuburaya?

NY: Mr. Eiji was full of ideas, like hanging buildings upside down and blowing them up. For the air combat scenes, he hung the plane and camera upside down for the shoot. But, if you flip it over after you develop the film, the plane looks natural when it’s flying. If you hung the plane right-side up, the audience would notice the piano wires because they would be above the plane. But, by hanging the planes upside down, the piano wires were underneath the planes, so people didn’t notice them. Those are incredible ideas to trick the audience. He was very professional — a magician, really. I was always impressed with his creativity.

There’s a scene where Mt. Fuji erupts. To shoot this scene, he used an aquarium. He had an aquarium custom-made, which had a certain depth. He shot the eruption underwater. There was a hole in the crater of Mt. Fuji, and gunpowder smoke was fed into this hole underwater. When you remove the water, you can’t tell that it was shot underwater, and it really looked like Mt. Fuji is erupting. Those are the kinds of tricks he came up with. That way, you could shoot it safely but still make it look realistic. I don’t think there was another way to shoot explosion scenes at that time.

He also used wafers for buildings so they would crumble easily, like I explained before. He used that for the scene of the Diet Building’s blowing up, and the building turns into dust when it explodes. I made all that. The wafers were about this big, and we glued them together. We ordered custom-made wafers, which were delivered in cardboard boxes. They were three, maybe five, millimeters thick. We cut them with cutter knives and glued them together with adhesive glue. They broke easily, so we had to be careful not to break them when we were making the buildings.

Before going home for the day, we had to make a sort of electric greenhouse and put the buildings in there to avoid exposing the wafers to humidity. That’s why the buildings would turn into dust. So we had to put the buildings into these greenhouses with infrared lamps to keep them dry. If we left them outside for half a day, they would go limp, which was not good because they wouldn’t snap when they broke.

But everyone was secretly eating the wafers. We probably ate half of them! So our feces were colored because the wafers had dye in them. Tokyo Station was made with red bricks, so those wafers contained red dye, and the Diet Building was gray, so those wafers contained gray dye.

So we made these buildings with the right color of wafers. When we made Tokyo Station, we would go to the toilet and be surprised that our feces were red. I’m sorry for the gross details, but we had a good laugh with the wafers. Of course, the students who were working part-time ate the wafers for lunch. I think we ate half the wafers we had! That was a funny episode.

Anyway, that was Old Tsuburaya’s idea. I was so impressed. Some people are so creative and come up with such innovative ideas. He was very particular about how the buildings would fall apart. At first, I was in the plaster section. Our job was to make buildings that would be destroyed. At university, I majored in sculpting, so I knew how to use plaster. They were looking for people who knew how to use plaster [at Toho]. That’s how I started my career. 

BH: Do you have any general memories of director Teruyoshi Nakano?

NY: He used to stutter. He would say, “Dddd…Ya… Ya… Yasu-san!” But he doesn’t stutter anymore. I wonder if he’d get angry if I said, “Congratulations!” to him. He’s the same age as I am. When he started working at Toho, he wanted to direct, but they already had enough directors, so he was doing something else for a while.

He couldn’t direct because there weren’t any positions available for a director. He graduated from Nihon University College of Art. I think he majored in film. There were a lot of people like that. They wanted to direct but were asked to work in the art department [at Toho] or something like that. But then they became interested in the work and became art directors. That happened to one of the drama directors.

After the war, people wanted to work for Toho because it was a big company. So, even if they wanted to direct, they had to work in another department because there weren’t enough positions. It’s a shame, but that’s how it was.

I know Mr. [Keizo] Murase. He worked under Mr. Toshimistu. When he started working at Toho, the daily wage was 200 and something yen per day. That’s also in the book that’s coming out, the compilation on King Kong vs. Godzilla. I think it’s coming out this month, or maybe it’s already available. It features professionals like Mr. Murase when he just started at Toho, and it talks about how his first daily wage was 200 and something yen. I worked part-time as a student, and my daily wage was 400 yen.

That’s what it was like back then, which was around 1957. A bowl of ramen cost 25 yen. There was a cafeteria at Toho where you could get a set meal for 50 yen. We bought tickets for 50 yen each. The rate doubled if we had to work late, so I would be paid 800 yen instead of 400 yen. So I could eat dinner, have a place to sleep, have breakfast the following morning, and stayed until noon. That was amazing! I could sleep half the time; it didn’t matter. (laughs) There were dozens of people like that.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

But Mr. Murase was only paid 200 or 250 yen a day when he first started [at Toho]. That’s the kind of era it was. We were fresh out of university and were paid 400 yen. If you were a bit older, you were paid 450 yen. Can you imagine 25 yen for a bowl of ramen?! (laughs)

Some of the people [who worked at Toho] were from agricultural families in northern Japan. During the winter, there was no work there because there was a lot of snow. So they came to the city to work. The chief of a team would invite people from his hometown to come work at the studio during the winter. There were a few people like that. The daily rate was 450 yen, and the work was good. This was in 1957 or so.

They didn’t have any work in their hometown, so they came to the city to work. Some people stayed and became full-time employees, and they became quite successful. There were some very good carpenters, too. They weren’t just ordinary carpenters who built houses; they were specialized in building temples and shrines. So of course they had excellent skills. They had special tools and were extremely skilled. They could build sets that were exactly like the blueprints.

When we were building castles with plaster, like Osaka Castle or Atami Castle, we needed a mold for the plaster for the roof, which was difficult to make because the roof was curved. The highly skilled carpenters made curved molds for us, so all we had to do was pour the plaster into the mold. When the plaster dried, we broke the mold and had a curved roof.

Because they were so skilled, making curves wasn’t difficult for them. They were accurate and worked very fast. Before these carpenters came, we made the molds ourselves, but it was very difficult. But these carpenters would make exactly what we needed in one go. If we needed a 45-degree angle, they would make something that was exactly 45 degrees. They were so good!

Because they had come from their hometown to work in Tokyo, it worked out well for them because they were paid 450 yen per day, they had meals provided, and they could stay in the company dormitory. Some of these people stayed and became chiefs and stayed until retirement. They even passed an exam to become a building engineer. It was a good deal for them.

Normally, when people came from the countryside to work in the city, they did more general work, like weeding and cleaning, and their wages were very low. But countryfolk are very honest and diligent, so I was very impressed. Their families, like their wives and children, stayed in their hometown. So these workers came during the winter, when there was no work in their hometown, because there was work here.

BH: Do you have any general memories of Mr. Toshimitsu?

NY: Mr. Toshimitsu was a drunkard; he liked his alcohol. I was surprised when I first saw this, but he always had whiskey in his pocket when he came to work. He didn’t drink while he was working, but around 5:00 p.m. he would take the whiskey out of his pocket and mix it with hot water or hot tea and seemed really to enjoy drinking it. I thought it was strange to mix hot tea with whiskey, but he let me taste it, and it was good. I’d never seen that before. Before I knew it, I got addicted to it.

After work, we would go to a bar across from the station. We would stand at the counter and have one drink while we waited for the train to come. When the train came, we would say, “Bye!” and go back home. 

You could always find people from the studio in Seijo around 5:00 pm. Some people continued drinking at a bar until late at night. Especially on payday, people would go out drinking, and the next day they wouldn’t be able to remember where they were the night before.

Mr. Nabe [Tadaaki Watanabe] was the same. That happened to him once or twice. He did the explosives. He just passed away. Mr. [Takashi] Naganuma called me, but the funeral and everything were already over. Mr. Naganuma is the head of the Godzilla Association, so he keeps everyone informed. I think his [Mr. Watanabe’s] wife has dementia, too. I remember her; she was very young and beautiful. Anyway, they only inform us of these things when the funeral is over. There’s not many of us left anymore. Only the bad ones like me are still around.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

Mr. Toshimitsu made the [first] Godzilla suit. I heard he belonged to a traditional puppet theater before coming to the studio. He joined Toho because they were going to do Godzilla (1954). But he didn’t have any assistants. In the modeling department, there were the Yagi brothers [Kanju and Yasuei], Mr. [Eizo] Kaimai, and Mr. Murase, and Mr. Toshimitsu was the captain of the team. He was working on sketches all the time. Day in, day out, he was working on sketches. He worked on sketches even until the last day of the shoot. Those sketches got better and better.

He made traditional puppets in his previous job, which were made with wire-netting. So he was very good at making the shape of bodies with wire-netting, and he could make them very quickly, like in a week or so. If he were able to see the actor, he would take his measurements, like his shoulder width and girth. He would make the outline of the shapes with thin wire-netting, which was about three millimeters. He would then glue paper onto the wire-netting and added clay, an oil-based clay. Unlike us, Mr. Toshimitsu made the shapes with papier-mâché.

We didn’t use wire-netting; we just made the shape and added clay. So the ones we made looked like [foldable] paper lanterns; they didn’t have the right volume or any muscle. But Mr. Toshimitsu used wire-netting to make faces, too, and he would add the eyebrows and things like that. For the torso, our method was sufficient because the actor would go inside the puppet [suit], so it didn’t matter as much. We just needed to work on the details on the outside of the body.

Even for the fake boulders, he would make the shapes with wire and papier-mâché, so you could throw them easily because they were light. The details on the outside of the boulder had to be perfect; otherwise, they wouldn’t be approved. Anyway, that was his background.

BH: When you talked about Jet Jaguar, you said the face was inspired by a character [hannya] from a noh play. Was it just a coincidence, or were you really inspired by that character for Jet Jaguar’s face?

NY: No, it’s just a peculiarity of my designs. No matter what I design, it always ends up looking like that — for Godzilla’s face, and for Jet Jaguar, as well.

Going back to Jet Jaguar’s name, it was Red Jaguar [Red Arone], which was very close to Red Arrow, the name for the Seibu [limited] express train [Red Arrow]. I think it was Mr. Fukuda, the director, who said we should change it. But I don’t remember clearly, so I might be wrong. 


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