FILMMAKING DURING THE SHOWA ERA! A Look Back at the Golden Age of Cinema with Tatsuyoshi Ehara!

Actor Tatsuyoshi Ehara recalls his acting career. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Tatsuyoshi Ehara is a prolific Japanese actor whose career stretches all the way back to the 1940s. Born on March 26, 1937, Mr. Ehara began in entertainment as a child actor. His entry point into the world of filmmaking was at Shochiku Studios, the home of legendary auteur Yasujiro Ozu. Moving to Toho Studios in the 1950s, Mr. Ehara appeared in numerous works for some of the best directors Japan has ever produced, including Akira Kurosawa, Hiroshi Inagaki, and Ishiro Honda.

A partial list of credits include: Desperado Outpost (1959), Inao: Story of an Iron Arm (1959), Sanjuro (1962), Red Beard (1965), Chushingura (1962), Ultra Q (1966), Samurai Rebellion (1967), Japan’s Longest Day (1967), Admiral Yamamoto (1968), and the long-running Young Guy series. 

On Monday, June 9, 2014, Brett Homenick and Asako Kato sat down with Mr. Ehara to discuss his lengthy acting career in an interview translated by Ms. Kato. The first part of the interview is below. The rest of the interview will be published on the blog Blossoming Japan in both English and Japanese.

Tatsuyoshi Ehara: I played a role as a child actor in the play Kane no Naru Oka in 1947, written by Kazuo Kikuta, a very famous playwright. My teacher selected me for the lead role of a play when I was in the fourth grade that was in competition for a national student theater contest. (This teacher liked plays rather than movies.) The producer of Kane no Naru Oka happened to see me in the play, so I was picked up. This play ran at the same time as Tokyo Odori (Dance), which was a stage musical by the Shochiku musical troupe.

At first, it was for a stage show played by Shochiku women, and then it was made into a movie, and I appeared in it. I was raised by my mother because my father died in the war. It was a single-mother home. My mother was a physician, and child doctor, who specialized in preventative medicine. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was also a doctor, and my cousin was a doctor. So my mother put me in Keio Junior High School, which is a prestigious private school. It’s a pun in Japanese, but I was (supposed to be) a doctor, isha, but actually I became an actor, yakusha! (laughs) At that time, I was only 15 or 16 years old. I was a young actor, and there were very few young actors, so I was asked to appear in the movies starring promising young actresses, like Ayako Wakao at Daiei and Mariko Okada at Toho. I convinced the school that I would use my long holidays to appear in movies, and so I could appear in movies.

When we had a love scene in a movie called Shishunki (a.k.a. Adolescence, 1952), Mariko Okada was 18 or 19 years old, much older than I was. I still remember this. But she advised me, “Don’t hesitate.” Ayako Wakao was also older than I was. As a young actor, I was advised by the staff members that I had to be an actor who is loved by everybody. Most beloved actors are called “-chan.” (The equivalent of calling a person named Leonard “Lenny.”) My name is Tatsuyoshi, so people started to call me Tat-chan soon after I got started in this business. Many former Toho actors still call me Tat-chan.

Brett Homenick: In the 1950s, I also know you worked with Mr. Seiji Maruyama in a film as the director and also co-starred with Chishu Ryu, who is a very famous Japanese actor. So please talk about what you remember working with Mr. Maruyama and Mr. Ryu.

TE: Seiji Maruyama directed Shishunki in which Mariko Okada starred. Chishu Ryu is the most respectable person for me. He was one of the leading players in Yasujiro Ozu’s films. When I met him at Toho, he was asking, “Have you ever done a love scene, Tat-chan?” I said, “Once or twice.” He responded enviously, “Oh, I envy you. I’ve never done that. I wish I could.”

BH: In the early days, you worked with Shochiku in Ofuna. What do you remember about working with Shochiku Studios during that time?

TE: In Shochiku’s Kyoto Studios, the interesting thing I want to point out is that there’s a Kyoto common sense. Japan’s capital used to be in Kyoto. So the staff would direct me, “Tat-chan, can you move a little closer toward the palace?” But I would have no clue in which direction I would have to move because I’m from Tokyo! Where Kyoto Palace was turned out to be the first thing I had to learn.

Speaking of Kyoto, Toshiro Mifune half-jokingly said that he wanted to appear in Toei Studios movies because there were two big stars at the studio. In Toei, all stars had their personal assistants. When the stars wanted a cigarette, it would be brought to them with a lighter and an ashtray. The stars were taken care of by the staff members. A person would also fan the star when he was hot. Three staff members would take care of one star. That never happened at Toho.

Utaemon Ichikawa and Kanjuro Arashi were two big stars there, so I heard the numbers of close-up cuts they would have to take had to be exactly the same, like 30 cuts each. Have you ever heard of Kinnosuke Nakamura? He was a Toei star. When he played in historical dramas, the way he cut people was not realistic. He said he could not kill people that way. It was kind of a dance. So he wanted to act in Toho movies once where Mr. (Akira) Kurosawa and Mr. (Toshiro) Mifune were doing realistic films.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

In Sanjuro (1962), I was one of the nine samurai. The swords we were using were real instead of bamboo replicas. Near Shochiku Ofuna Studios, there’s a restaurant called Tsukigase which Keiji Sada’s wife’s family owned and operated. Have you ever heard of the young actor Kiichi Nakai? He is the son of Keiji Sada. At that time, I would have lunch at Tsukigase every day. One of the reasons I moved to Toho was the route I had to take. I was born and raised in Mita, Tokyo. So I took the train at Tamachi Station and switched at Shinagawa. Going to Ofuna was tiring. It is much easier for me to take a train from Mita to Shibuya and switch to a bus to Seijo. That’s why I went to Toho!

Originally I had no intention to become an actor. Have you ever heard of Chohko Iida? She would play the role of grandmothers or old ladies. In the Young Guy (a.k.a. Wakadaisho) series, she played another old-lady role. One day, while putting on her makeup in the dressing room, she wore a ring, which was not made of authentic jewelry. It looked real, but there was a space in the back, so I realized it was fake. So I pointed it out to her, and usually a woman might get angry, but she said, “You have to become a person who makes a fake ring look real.”

As you may know, I often talk about the vertical society in Japan. Usually the grandfather has the most power in a family, followed by parents and older siblings and teachers. Children are raised by these people. Discipline, manners, and etiquette are taught by these senior people. But, these days, everything is getting flat, so society on the whole is getting horizontal. So I’m a little concerned about that. In those days, the neighborhoods were more active, and your next-door neighbors, such as an old lady, would say something to you, like, “You shouldn’t do that,” even if your parents didn’t say such things. Those kinds of neighbors are very important for me (and, at that time, for everybody) because if they thought that something wasn’t right, they would speak up. But, these days, even if they do, they don’t speak up, and it’s a problem!

These days, in the priority seats of trains, a lot of young people sit there, using their cell phones or pretending they are sleeping, even though they notice the older people. It’s a shameful thing to see.

BH: You mentioned joining Toho after Shochiku. What were your initial impressions of Toho once you joined it?

TE: The major difference between Shochiku and Toho is, at Shochiku there are some factions like Keisuke Kinoshita’s faction, Yasujiro Ozu’s group, and other ones. They would eat lunch together in a specific restaurant, but other factions would not go to that restaurant. It was that kind of atmosphere. On the other hand, Toho Studios was much more liberated and a fun place to be. It was a more innovative, anything-goes kind of place. At that time, the top star was Toshiro Mifune. He had no assistant or manager. He drove his own car by himself. He would come very early in the morning and would clean the studio by himself. That was the impression I got. When we would do some production, on the way back we would have to dismantle large props and load equipment such as lighting fixtures onto the truck. Mr. Mifune would help us do that. So that was very impressive.

On the other hand, when Mr. Mifune was invited to Hollywood, he would do the same thing there. But the union for cleaning people was opposed to his actions!

BH: When it came to Toho contract system, please discuss the negotiation with the contracts and how that would change over time.

TE: I did not have any contract with Shochiku, so I was offered by Toho to enter into an agreement, and I accepted it. I was raised only by my mother, so I wanted to help her (half-jokingly said). Toho’s contracts were good for actors, especially for A-form (A-level) actors who have the title roles on the screen. Basically, they guarantee how many films a year the studio will offer. One film is usually for 50 days. So there’s a fixed amount of money paid annually to the actors. If the production lasts longer than 50 days, from the 51st day, actors would get paid every day, whether we act or not. Red Beard lasted a year and a half, and after 50 days, I was paid pretty well! Mr. Kurosawa advised us not to appear in any other movies, otherwise our acting styles would be different. In those days, Mr. Kurosawa said that making a movie is like being at war, which costs a lot of money. Even though the soldiers have run out of bullets, they cannot simply stop the war themselves. When we are at war, we have to continue to fight, even though we don’t have any bullets left. The same thing could be said about films. Even if we don’t have enough money, we have to continue to finish up the film. We were paid pretty lucratively, but because of that, maybe they decided not to produce such expensive films after Red Beard.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

When we shot Red Beard, there is one scene where there’s a big cabinet for the drugstore. Every drawer has herbs and Chinese medicine. Mr. Kurosawa insisted that we had to have real medicine in each one of the drawers! There’s no scene where we had to open the drawers, so the audience wouldn’t know what was in there. But Mr. Kurosawa insisted that we had to put real medicine in every drawer. Mr. Kurosawa said that the surface of the drawers would look different without the medicine. Everybody disagreed, but that’s what we did. That was at Toho.

At Daiei, one time Kenji Mizoguchi said that the floor in a scene was not what he wanted, so he ordered the floor to be replaced with a new one he wanted, which they did. They tore out the old floor and rebuilt it. When there were rushes of the scene, the president of Daiei came to see them, and he asked, “What’s the difference?” Mr. Mizoguchi said, “Well, you have to hear the sounds of the steps. The sound is different.” It was that kind of culture. That’s how films go; that’s how I was taught. Actors at that time were taught that way.

BH: Do you have any stories about Mr. (Masaichi) Nagata, the president of Daiei?

TE: Mr. Nagata’s nickname was “Rappa,” which is a trumpet. It means that he tends to say exaggerated things. This is probably because he would usually say everything in a loud voice in an exaggerated way. He was big shot, and I was a young man, and I only appeared in Ms. Wakao’s movies, two or three films, so I didn’t have a real chance to talk with him. But that was my impression.

Unlike today, where films are made on a fixed scheduled and fixed budget, at that time, when we’d go to the studio, we might find out that today was a day off or that maybe tomorrow would be. When I was working on Red Beard, I had a 10-month holiday! I didn’t have to go to work, so I could do something else, which in my case was driving. There was a driving contest to determine who was the best driver in Japan, and I participated in this contest. I won the Best Driver in Japan title. Because of that, I had a chance to work for Nissan, when they were producing the Bluebird car models, and then Mitsubishi. So I had a chance to take part in car races.

I taught race car driving to many different people. That led to Go, Go, Young Guy! (1967). I was driving in the long shots of the car-racing scenes in that movie. I was sort of a stunt man! Mr. (Yuzo) Kayama was there with me, so he wanted to do some spin turns. Mr. Kayama asked me to teach him how to do that. It’s very dangerous. So I asked him to promise me not to do that stunt in front of other people. He did promise me, but he started to show off in front of others!

BH: You worked with (Hibari Misora), Izumi Yukimura, and Chiemi Eri in Janken Musume (1955), Cha-Cha Musume, (1956) and that series of films. Please talk about your memories of working with Ms. Yukimura, Ms. Eri, and (Ms. Hibari Misora).

TE: In those days, the studio was trying to sell actors and actresses as trios. Hibari Misora was the youngest of that trio, but she was ranked number one of the group. She made her debut when she was young. Hibari was taken care of by her stage mother. (laughs) She made her debut when she was very young and became a star. She reportedly had no wallet or purse. Her nickname was “Ojo,” a princess, which even her mother called her. Next in age was Tonko, which came from Izumi Yukimura’s real name. Ms. Yukimura would sing American jazz. Chiemi Eri was the oldest. But Chiemi was ranked number three, and Ms. Yukimura was number two in the trio. I appeared in the Sazae-san series with Chiemi (who was starring).

BH: Personality-wise, on the set, do you remember what Ms. Yukimura, Ms. Eri, and Ms. Misora were like, making those films?

TE: Hibari was kind of a child star, so she was treated separately. But Chiemi was always together with her older brother. Chiemi married Ken Takakura. Mr. Takakura was a very serious man. So it was kind of hard for her to live with that type of person since she was more of a liberated and delightful type of person. She was a very considerate type of person. Izumi had an assistant and driver. She didn’t have any songs by herself, but she was able to sing American jazz.

BH: One of your films during that time was Waga mune ni niji wa kiezu (1957), with Ishiro Honda as the director. Of course, Akira Takarada, Akihiko Hirata, Yoshio Tsuchiya, many famous Toho actors (appeared in it). What do you remember about this film and specifically Mr. Honda?

TE: I’m very happy that you pointed out this movie. It was a B-movie. Usually there were two films released at the same time every week. I was one of the actors in this B-movie. The A-picture was headlined by a top star at that time. I was young, and I was not the top star at that time. I had a major role in this B-movie. The A-movie was usually concerned with how much money it could make. But, with B-movies, that is not a concern at all. We were able to concentrate on producing something creative, meaningful, and of high quality.

In many cases, assistant directors propose some play or screenplay that they wrote themselves. There’s no casting involved from the beginning; it’s very free in that sense. In order to make a good movie, they could select appropriate actors for that role.

In film productions these days, I noticed that the angle they use is very flat. If you want to make the film more realistic, you should use vertical angles to give depth to the film. So many more people have to be cast to be in the shot, so it could be more costly. So they try to avoid using that kind of angle, which is more attractive as a film. I notice that these days. In the past, there would be a scene where a couple is walking along a river horizontally or a pedestrian deck in a horizontal way and not a vertical way.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

(The famous Japanese actor) Yujiro Ishihara said, “Please don’t put Kurobe no Taiyo (a.k.a. The Sands of Kurobe, 1968) onto home video, which would be shown on TV.” That’s because the screen is so small, and the audience can’t figure out what’s going on in that scene. It’s too small to see. These days, people can watch movies on their smartphones, which is tiny.

So they can’t figure out what they’re watching! In a movie like Lawrence of Arabia, you can’t see anything on a smart phone! So audiences should go to the movie theaters instead.

I don’t like TV dramas these days because if two lovers walk along the river very slowly, that means something. But, if today’s audience sees that, they’d change the channel. So all the scenes before the commercials attempt to be unpredictable to try to keep the audience from switching channels. (laughs)

When I was working on Desperado Outpost (1959), I had to speak Chinese. The Japanese language is very flat with little fluctuation or intonation. So it was very hard for me to emulate what the Chinese teacher said. But the Japanese are not able to tell the difference, so the director easily said, “Okay!” When we had a preview with a Chinese audience, what I was saying was completely incomprehensible. (laughs) So it was very difficult for Japanese to speak Chinese.

Kihat-chan (director Kihachi Okamoto) wanted to shoot the movie dividing the lines into many cuts. He usually wants to divide each line into two cuts. For example, if the line is, “I’m glad to see you today,” I’d have to say, “I’m glad to see…” That’s the whole cut! But you have to keep the same emotion in the next cut, which finishes the same sentence. So it was very hard for us actors to keep the same level of emotion.

Mr. Kurosawa was the complete opposite. (in English) One scene, one cut. Two cameras would be shooting. There would be long scenes, and if someone messed up in the middle, they’d have to do it again from scratch. So actors would tend to use up a lot of film.

Mr. Okamoto was unique in the sense that he’s always wearing all black. So other actors and the staff members were wondering if his underwear was also black! Gradually we sensed that Mr. Okamoto directed the cameraman to shoot the actors when we didn’t have lines. The other actors in the scene would be speaking to me, but my face would be in close-up. If the cut is your listening scene rather than a speaking scene, we sensed that Mr. Okamoto was beginning to trust this actor. I realized that reaction to the other actor’s line is very important. Mr. Okamoto would ask me, “Tat-chin, why don’t you jump from that cliff there?” with no hesitation. It would be a tense scene, so I couldn’t say no. So I would have to jump from the cliff. I realized that the reaction to the lines spoken by the other actor is very important.

There’s a movie called Samurai, and there’s a long recitation I have to do at the beginning of a scene. So I practiced and began reciting it in a recording room. Then Mr. Okamoto said, “No, no,” and showed me how he wanted it himself. So I had to practice again from the beginning because the way I did it was totally different from Mr. Okamoto’s understanding. Something like that would happen very often. But Mr. Okamoto was patient until the actor could do what he wanted.

The movie Desperado Outpost deals with the subject of comfort women. It’s still a big topic now, but these films did not promote war; they were anti-war. Mr. Okamoto implied in his film that war is humanity’s stupidest act. That’s what he tried to reflect in that movie. Still, some critics have argued that it’s a movie that promotes war. But Mr. Okamoto’s attitude was that only those who understand my message will get the message, so let it be.

BH: Another film that you worked on was Osorubeki hiasobi (a.k.a. Playing with Fire, 1959), with Jun Fukuda (as director), and Daisuke Kato and (Yosuke) Natsuki as the stars.

TE: My position in this movie was to support the newcomer, for example, Mr. Kayama and Nat-chan (Mr. Natsuki). When they made their debut, I was asked to be there to help them. At Toho, Nat-chan was a motorcycle freak. Nat-chan forced me to buy one, even though I never had a chance to drive it! Nat-chan was considered something like a gangster in Hachioji (Nat-chan’s hometown). It was a Honda model, but there was no cell motor. You had to kick-start it, so I did.

BH: During this time, you were also in a trio with Akira Kubo and Akira Takarada. What were Toho’s plans for this trio?

TE: Mr. Kubo was a star at that time. Mr. Takarada was from Manchuria. Both were stars, so they couldn’t star in a film together. So that’s why I was brought in. That made the trio. Mr. Kubo’s roles were usually very serious, so he couldn’t do anything ridiculous in his private life. Mr. Kubo once admitted to me, “You always get to play a bad guy, so I envy you!” He was tired of always being the leading man.

A great interview! Shaking hands with Mr. Ehara following the Q&A. Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: In the early 1960s, you worked on Daigaku no Wakadaisho (a.k.a. University Young Guy, 1961) with Mr. Yuzo Kayama. So please talk about the introduction to Mr. Kayama and how that relationship started.

TE: I met with Mr. Kayama in a college PE class, which was actually a skiing class in Shiga Kogen Ski Area. I was born in March, and Mr. Kayama was born in April, so even though we were born in the same year (1937), in Japan the cut-off date is usually April 1. So, in that sense, Mr. Kayama is one year younger than I am. But we happened to meet in this skiing class, and at that time I was already an actor and had worked together with Mr. Kayama’s father, Mr. Ken Uehara. So Mr. Kayama introduced himself by his real name: “Hi, my name is Ikehata.” I asked him, “Are you going to be an actor as well?” He replied, “No, I’m not interested in becoming an actor. I’m very into designing ships. So that’s what I want to do — design boats.” However, when I was in the shooting in Hakuba for a movie called Daigaku no Sanzoku-tachi (1960), Mr. Kayama just came up to me and said, “I’m going to be an actor.” He had just graduated from college. I asked him, “Why didn’t you become a designer of boats?” He answered, “You can’t make much money as a salaryman, so I’m going to make some money as an actor, and then I can design ships.” His stage name is Yuzo Kayama, and the kanji characters in his name are “ka” (from Kaga Domain or modern-day Ishikawa Prefecture — a very wealthy area) and “yama” (from Mount Fuji). “Yu” is hero, and “zo” comes from the founder of Toho, Ichizo Kobayashi.

Mr. Kayama’s father, Ken Uehara, was a big star, but he was a frugal man. He didn’t spend much money in his everyday life like a star. One day, Mr. Hiroshi Koizumi got Mr. Uehara’s used car, but the car didn’t have a clock. Mr. Koizumi asked, “Why doesn’t this car have a clock?” Mr. Uehara answered, “You have a watch on your wrist.” (laughs) He was that type of person. I presumed that Mr. Kayama was raised by Mr. Uehara in a very strict way, not in a rich way.

Translator Asako Kato (left) poses with Ms. Michie Tsukui (center) and Mr. Ehara at English Avenue. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Yoko Kozakura is his mother, and she is a very interesting person. One time, she went to Hawaii for skiing. At the Immigration counter, she was asked, “Why are you carrying skis?” She answered, “You live in Hawaii, but you don’t know there is a skiing area in the mountains.” Mr. Kayama was asked to be a guarantor of his uncle’s hotel, and they became heavily in debt afterward. He had a very hard time to pay off that debt. There is an actress named Megumi Matsumoto, a B-form actress, and they were married. They started out in a very shabby apartment, but they became very successful after all. But without his wife, there is no Mr. Kayama. Mr. Kayama is a composer, so I asked him, “Why don’t you create something for your wife?” Finally he recently did that for her. But every time Mr. Kayama wants to start something new, his wife would ask me, “Tat-chan, you should say something to him.” Mr. Kayama is a very good skier, and he was selected for the National Athletic Meet. Because his relatives operated a hotel in Iwappara (a skiing resort), the lift was free. That’s why he became a very good skier. That’s what I said, but Mr. Kayama said, “Don’t say that!”

Mr. Natsuki’s mother was a great mother. She was very well-mannered and very well bred. Every time I called, his mother answered the phone with a very, very polite greeting. Their real name is Akusawa. “Thank you very much for taking care of my son, Tamotsu, all the time.” Every time a girlfriend would call him, his mother would say exactly the same thing to his girlfriend. Mr. Natsuki was very popular among girls, but all the girls were intimidated and scared away by his mother. That’s why he ended up being a bachelor. One time Mr. Natsuki asked me, “What are you driving?” I replied, “I’m driving a light car.” Mr. Natsuki envied me because he wanted to drive a Wagon R, but his manager told him not to drive a car like that because, for a movie star, it’s not good to drive such a car! (laughs) So he didn’t have a chance to drive the car he wanted. He had to maintain his image.

GUILALA GUY! Shinichi Yanagisawa on His Decades-Long Entertainment Career

Actor Shinichi Yanagisawa poses for a publicity photo during his heyday. Photo courtesy of Shinichi Yanagisawa.

Born on December 19, 1932, in Tokyo, Shinichi Yanagisawa began his entertainment career as a jazz singer in postwar Japan but soon found himself in demand as an actor, both in front of the camera and behind the microphone as a voice talent. Mr. Yanagisawa plays the comic relief character Miyamoto in The X from Outer Space (1967), produced by Shochiku Studios. Prior to that, Mr. Yanagisawa was a star at Nikkatsu Studios before eventually making movies at all five of Japan’s major studios. In the late 1950s, Mr. Yanagisawa worked freelance at Toho Studios, appearing in the Otora-san series of comedies, which were directed by Motoyoshi Oda (Godzilla Raids Again). As a voice actor, Mr. Yanagisawa provided the voice of Ricky Ricardo in the Japanese version of I Love Lucy, as well as lending his voice to the Japanese versions of the popular American TV programs Mr. Ed and Bewitched.

Although Mr. Yanagisawa has gained popularity for his acting and jazz singing, he is most proud of his social activism, which he always placed ahead of his entertainment career. In this interview, Mr. Yanagisawa discusses his life and experiences with Brett Homenick. Many thanks to Kyoichi Watanabe for his translation work.

Brett Homenick: Tell me about your early life and childhood, growing up.

Shinichi Yanagisawa: I was a patient child. When I was very young, I got the measles. My parents got a wet compress for me. The medical liquid on the compress was a little bit expensive, so my parents put some mustard on my back instead. It was a little too strong for a young child. I was three years old, but I was patient, and I got rid of it. That was the episode which decided my life’s motto. There is a Japanese proverb that says the character of people is decided around the age of three, and their character never changes. This episode of my youth reminds me of this proverb. My motto is, “If I am patient, everything will work out.” That is my motto, and I chose it as my motto when I was three years old. This is another Japanese proverb.

BH: How did you get started in the entertainment business? Did you think you might work some other job, or were you only set on becoming an actor and musician?

SY: In 1950, it was the time of the Korean War. Just five years after World War II, there were many orphans in Japan. I noticed that they didn’t have any socks or gloves. If the weather were cold, they wouldn’t have any way to keep warm. So I decided to devote myself to volunteer work. During my volunteer work, I got some money to pay for the supplies for the people in need from singing jazz as part-time work. So that was the beginning of my entertainment life. I never had a hope of becoming a star; I just wanted to devote myself to volunteer work and social activism.

Mr. Yanagisawa candidly discussed his career. Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Specifically about becoming an actor, did you have any professional training, or was it just something that you started without having any formal training?

SY: I never wanted to become a professional actor. To this day, I cannot read music or play the piano. Because I was doing volunteer work, I didn’t think acting could become a full-time career. All the professional work I did was to support my volunteer work. So I never got specific training. I had to go back to Aoyama Gakuin University. It is a famous university in Japan. I was absent a lot because I was a jazz singer, so I was too busy to attend. I was also singing in the Nichigeki Nippon Theater, 500 days in three years. So I was too busy to go to school. I had an agreement with my university to take a three-year leave of absence, due to my work schedule. But I had to graduate, and my three-year agreement with the university was ending, so I decided to quit the entertainment business at that time. So I announced my retirement from singing. I was getting popular as a singer, and my retirement became a big problem. Enoken (a.k.a. Kenichi Enomoto), Roppa (a.k.a. Roppa Furukawa), and Kingoro (a.k.a. Kingoro Yanagiya) were the three top comedy actors in Japan at the time, and they convinced me not to quit the entertainment life. They said, “If you quit singing jazz, please stay in the entertainment business as an actor.” They brought me to the movies and TV. So I quit the university!

Therefore I never got any formal training as an actor. I studied by myself and by watching other performers.

BH: The first studio you worked for was Nikkatsu. How did you get started at Nikkatsu, and were you under contract to Nikkatsu Studios?

SY: At that time, I was a singer. Nowadays, we see that singers can act, and actors can sing. It’s a very popular thing. But, in those days, it was a very rare case. Actors were actors, and singers were singers. That was the way things were. They were separated. Most of the people at that time considered me a jazz singer. So they wondered, if a jazz singer acts, what will become of it? Nikkatsu was one of them. So Nikkatsu called me, and there was a chance to have a contract. I was contracted first with Nikkatsu, then with Toei and Shochiku. I acted in almost 160 movies.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: In the early days, what were your impressions and thoughts of working at Nikkatsu in the late ‘50s?

SY: In 1958, I was divorced. It was very complicated, but I believed in my motto, so I remained silent about it. But the people blamed me for the divorce, so there was a lot of blame on me. As a result, Nikkatsu decided not to use me in any more movies, so I had to quit Nikkatsu. I didn’t have a good impression of Nikkatsu. I believe silence is golden, so I didn’t complain. I was an expected actor of the next generation, and I acted in a few movies, then I quit because of the divorce.

BH: You worked with Shohei Imamura, the (famous) director. Mr. Imamura is well known in America for making some very good films. You worked on films like Nishi Ginza Ekimae (a.k.a. Nishi Ginza Station, 1958), Hateshinaki Yokubo (a.k.a. Endless Desire, 1958), and Nusumareta Yokujo (a.k.a. Stolen Desire, 1958) — all with director Imamura. Please talk about working with Mr. Imamura as a director, how would he direct you, and what were your impressions of Mr. Imamura?

SY: About Nishi Ginza Ekimae, it’s not such a good story, but during the shooting of the movie, there was some location shooting. In Japan, the film stock used for movies was very expensive at that time and even now. So Mr. Imamura didn’t want to waste too much film. He didn’t want to spend any money on film. So there was an episode during filming on the beach in which I was in the ocean. The weather would sometimes change, for instance, from sunny to cloudy, but the shooting must go on. The director did not want to waste the film. So I had to stay in the water the whole time. It was very freezing, so I got sick. My voice dubbing work became very difficult after that because I caught a cold, and my voice changed.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: That brings up another question about dubbing. You worked on I Love Lucy, Mr. Ed, and Bewitched – very famous American TV shows. How did you become involved with the voice acting?

SY: Dubbing actors nowadays are really in heaven. But, 50 years ago, it was hell! Back then, the scripts were ready the day of the recording. So we didn’t get the scripts until the day we recorded. We couldn’t rehearse, so it was hard work for us.

I chose to become a voice actor because I have a clear voice for recording. In I Love Lucy, Lucy’s husband (Ricky Ricardo) is Latin, so for many of the punch lines he’d speak Spanish. But, in those days in Japan, interpreters couldn’t translate Spanish, so I would ad lib the lines. That was hell!

Photo courtesy of Shinichi Yanagisawa.

BH: Was there any attempt to make it sound Spanish, or was it totally Japanese?

SY: There was no attempt.

BH: After Nikkatsu, you made some movies for Toho.

SY: I was never under contract with Toho; I was freelance.

BH: You made a movie called Otora-san no Kokyubi (1958), directed by Motoyoshi Oda. (This is part of the Otora-san series of comedies director Oda made at Toho in the late 1950s.)

SY: Did you ever hear of the Newsweek article? Newsweek praised Otora-san. I played Cho-san (a.k.a. Imocho), a street vendor selling sweet potatoes. That was the character I played in the movies.

Much more than his acting and jazz music, Mr. Yanagisawa is most proud of his charitable work. Photo courtesy of Shinichi Yanagisawa.

BH: This was in a Newsweek article? Did Newsweek magazine write something about you?

SY: It was an article about the movies.

BH: Do you remember working with director Motoyoshi Oda?

SY: The movie was based on the comic called Masura o Hashutsufukai. It was based on this comic. In the movie, it was about a muscular man who worked housekeeping jobs, doing things like cleaning floors and babysitting, which were usually thought to be jobs for women.

Since this was the time of the mass production of movies, I actually don’t have any memories of him.

Mr. Yanagisawa worked with some of Toho’s biggest stars when he worked freelance at the studio, including Tatsuyoshi Ehara (far left), Akira Takarada (third from the left), Izumi Yukimura (fourth from the left), and Tadao Takashima (third from the right). Mr. Yanagisawa is second from the right.

BH: At Toho, you worked with many stars such as Ichiro Arishima and Reiko Dan. Do you have any memories of the Toho stars from that time?

SY: Actually, I don’t have so many memories of them because there were no meetings before movies would shoot. We would go to the studio, film our scenes, and say goodbye. That’s all. That was the age of mass production of the movies, so everyone was very busy.

BH: During your time at Toho, as a freelance actor, could you describe what it was like for you to work at the studio?

SY: Nothing much! Do you know the movie called The Magic Hour (2008)? It was one of my latest movies. It had been 50 years since I worked for Toho Studios when I made this movie. In The Magic Hour, my character was very important in the movie.

BH: After your freelance work, you went to Shochiku where you stayed for many years and worked in many films. So please talk about what it was like to work for Shochiku, and why did you join Shochiku after all?

SY: I had no agent, and I never sold myself to any kind of production. But Shochiku called me and made me an offer.

BH: You have worked for, under contract or not, Nikkatsu, Shochiku, Toho, Toei … and Daiei?

SY: I made one movie for Daiei in the Nikkatsu era.

BH: You worked for all the five major studios at (this) time. What was your impression of the five studios? Which was best, which was not so good? (laughs)

SY: There were good points and bad points for all of them. There was no number one or number two. There will always be good points and bad points.

BH: Do you have a personal favorite?

SY: I have many favorites. I can’t choose. It’s very hard for me. In the Shochiku era, I liked the serious movies, like Goben no Tsubaki (a.k.a. The Scarlet Camellia, 1965), Kinokawa (a.k.a. The Kino River, 1966), Yukiguni (a.k.a. Snow Country, 1969). Comedy movies like Iroboke yokoboke Monogatari and Senjo no Yarodomo were also my favorites. Since I have done more than 160 movies, I can’t remember them all!

BH: Let’s talk about Goben no Tsubaki, with Eiji Okada as one of the stars. (It was) directed by Yoshitaro Nomura. Please talk about that film and what you remember.

SY: In that movie, I was in the trial scenes. I was the prosecutor or some sort of police official. I would talk with a runny nose. It worked for the scenes. The scriptwriter praised my acting choice for doing that. So I remembered that. The writer said it was nice acting. It was not written in the script. It was a serious movie and a serious scene. In fact, in the real world, we see regular people as policemen, so this reflects reality. (My character) was not like Humphrey Bogart; it was like Peter Falk! (laughs)

BH: Another movie at Shochiku, Kono Sora no Aru Kagiri (1964), with Minoru Chiaki, directed by Hideo Sakurai. Do you have any memories of this film?

SY: There was a location scene where I was lying on an asphalt road. Mr. Chiaki walked up to me and said, “It’s cold, isn’t it?” So Mr. Chiaki brought me a cup of sake. So I thanked him.

Mr. Yanagisawa received this fan letter from the United States in the early 1960s. Photo courtesy of Shinichi Yanagisawa and Kyoichi Watanabe.

BH: Now I’d like to ask you about your most famous movie worldwide, which is Uchu Daikaiju Girara (a.k.a. The X from Outer Space, 1967).

SY: There are nicer movies I’ve made! (laughs) Shochiku was very bad at kaiju movies.

BH: In this film, there were Eiji Okada, Shunya Wazaki, Itoko Harada, and Peggy Neal. In the film, you share many scenes with Peggy Neal.

SY: She was an amateur and not an actress at all. She was not such a good actress! (laughs) As you know, Eiji Okada was a very nice actor. He picked me up from my home in Tokyo and drove me to Shochiku Studios in Ofuna. So he was a nice kind of person.

BH: Do you remember, Kazui Nihonmatsu, the director?

SY: Not so bad, but not so good! As you watch the movie, you can tell he’s so-so!

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: What was the reaction among the cast, like Mr. Okada, about making something a little silly? They’re used to more serious dramas, but this is like a children’s movie.

SY: It is different from the American entertainment world. Actors couldn’t resist the roles offered by Shochiku. So we would do what they asked. So Mr. Okada and I didn’t care about the reaction. The motto of actors was to do what the filmmakers want us to do and do the best we could at it.

BH: How about Ochiba to Kuchizuke (1969) with the Village Singers. Hiroshi Fujioka was the main star of this film, who went on to do Kamen Rider.

SY: Mr. Fujioka was a New Face. I didn’t have much contact with him at that time.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Tell me more about your interest in social welfare and activism.

SY: I convinced Shochiku Studios to bring Guilala to an orphanage. I worked hard on it, and it finally happened. (shows a photo) This was me with Prime Minister Suzuki in 1981. (shows a paper signed by many children) This is my favorite award I’ve received. I got it about 50 years ago. I started my activities in 1950. In this 1981 photo, I was the representative of volunteer activities, and there were many important people in politics here. I also met the Japanese emperor, who at the time was the prince. Because it is rude to take a photo from the back of the emperor, it was taken from behind me! So my activities have gotten a lot of recognition.

Mr. Yanagisawa (with his back toward the camera) meets the future Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. Photo courtesy of Shinichi Yanagisawa.

BH: Would you like to talk about your jazz musician career at all?

SY: I started my career as a professional jazz singer in 1952. That year was my debut year, but the following year, 1953, there was a sort of fight between the record companies like Columbia, Victor, and King – the top three record labels in Japan. But my motto came into play: If I’m patient, things will go well. So I decided not to join any of these record companies and to resist their offers. I felt that if I joined a specific company, it would create bad feelings with the other two record labels.

Japanese Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki (far left) honors Shinichi Yanagisawa (far right) for his charitable work. Photo courtesy of Shinichi Yanagisawa.

That was a big topic among people in the jazz world back then. I was in my 20s, so people were surprised that such a young man would resist these big offers. So it became a big topic. Some people thought I was a little strange, but that was fine with me.

Shinichi Yanagisawa still acts and performs jazz music to this day.

BH: What are your activities nowadays?

SY: I perform in a jazz band (the Shinichi Yanagisawa All-Stars). I also have a talk show. There are two actors in it. One of them is me, and the other is a comedian named Hadaka Samuzora. We talk about current topics. We will be talking about the current problems with the Asahi Shimbun. It’s about 70% serious, and the rest is comedy. On the third Tuesdays of even-numbered months, my band has a show in the HUB Asakusa. It’s a regular gig. I sing and play drums. I’ve been doing it for 24 years.

Special thanks to Kyoichi Watanabe for all his assistance.

Shinichi Yanagisawa and Brett Homenick pose for a photo after a successful interview. Photo © Brett Homenick.

MY LIFE IN TOKUSATSU! Actress Yukie Kagawa Reflects on Her SFX Career!

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Actress Yukie Kagawa holds a bouquet of flowers and a Bandai Gamera figure following an interview on her acting career. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Yukie Kagawa is an actress whose career has touched most of the major studios in Japan. Working in genre movies and TV programs at Daiei, Shochiku, and Toei, Ms. Kagawa has played a wide variety of roles, from leading ladies to treacherous villains. With a career that has covered everything from the Gamera series to Super Sentai, Ms. Kagawa has made an indelible impact on the Japanese special-effects genre, but it is one that has not been discussed at length until now. 

Vantage Point Interviews would like to thank Mr. Tsuyoshi Tanaka for all his help in arranging this interview as well as Ms. Ayu Ogawa for her tireless translations. This interview could not have been conducted without their faithful support.

Brett Homenick: First, please tell me about your early life, growing up. Tell me about your childhood.

Yukie Kagawa: I was very interested in theater and acting. I joined an acting company when I was in elementary school.

BH: So tell me about some of the things you did in elementary school with your acting. What kinds of plays did you do?

YK: I was in that company, but I didn’t do professional work. I did King Lear. When I was in junior high school, I started some acting jobs at Daiei. Then I enrolled in Daiei Company. But I started as an extra.

BH: Tell me about how you got started at Daiei as an extra. How did that happen?

YK: When I was in that company, I may have been scouted as an extra. That’s why I started acting as an extra and then later became a professional.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: When you started with the extra work at Daiei, what was it like to work in the background of those movies at that time? It was your first time, so what were your thoughts and impressions at the beginning of being an extra at Daiei?

YK: I was so impressed to see such famous people around. At that time, I was very tall, so everybody noticed me. That’s why I was picked. (laughs) I was so tall for my age.

BH: How did it come about that you got hired by Daiei as more than just an extra? Were you under contract at Daiei when you were hired?

YK: I got a test to get into Daiei Company, and I had half-year lessons like flower arrangement, Japanese tea ceremony, theatrical combat, and horse riding. Raizo Ichikawa was one of the teachers.

BH: What are your memories of Mr. Ichikawa?

YK: There were people who went to Mr. Ichikawa and those who went to Mr. Shintaro Katsu. I was one of those who went to Mr. Ichikawa. So I was in his movies, but he went to Tokyo Daiei Company. (He went back to Tokyo Daiei Studios to make Nakano Army School: Top Secret Command (1967). After that, he came back to Kyoto.) That’s my memory.

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Yukie Kagawa and her manager (retired actor Sadafumi Kawahara) reflect on acting in Daiei’s Gamera series. Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: When you were hired by Daiei, were you in Kyoto’s Daiei (studio)?

YK: I spent a year in Kyoto, then moved to Tokyo. The chief of Daiei told me, “You are too tall, so go to Tokyo!” because I was too tall. (laughs)

BH: So the training at Kyoto Daiei was about a year?

YK: Two years in Kyoto. Half a year training in Kyoto, spending a whole two years in Kyoto in total.

BH: Your first movie with your first major role was, perhaps, as the young girl in Gamera vs. Barugon. So what can you tell us about working on Gamera vs. Barugon (1966)?

YK: That movie was directed by Mr. (Shigeo) Tanaka, and my role had no lines at all as a deaf-mute. So it was very hard.

My real name is Hiroko Nishi. Do you know Mr. Yusuke Kawazu? He named me ”Yukie Kagawa.” He was in the movie Ken (1965), and the name of his character was Mr. Kagawa. So I was named after his character. “Yuki” means snow, but if you write it in Chinese characters, it goes out so suddenly. That’s why I put it in Japanese characters instead of Chinese characters. “E” means a picture, and it means to be as beautiful as a picture book. So I’ve grown up so beautifully. (laughs) That’s what it means.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: In the movie Gamera vs. Barugon, you’re onscreen Kojiro Hongo and (Kyoko) Enami. What do you remember about working with these two Daiei stars?

YK: Ms. Enami was a very good friend. She and I were in Kogarashi Monjiro (a.k.a. Withered Tree, the Adventures of Monjiro, 1972) together, which is a Toei movie. That was my first movie as a Toei actress. Mr. Hongo was a good friend of mine as well. He was in the TV series Tokusou Saizensen (a.k.a. Special Investigation Frontline, 1977-87). Whenever he saw me, he’d say, “Hi, how are you doing?”

BH: Where were your scenes filmed for Gamera vs. Barugon?

YK: It was on a set. There was no location. I thought it was very beautiful. It was an open set.

BH: Were you in Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967)?

YK: Yes, I was. My friend, Reiko Kasahara, was in the movie with  a good role, so she and I were very pleased that she was in the movie because I liked her and cared about her very much.

BH: After Daiei, you made a movie at Shochiku called Cruel Ghost Legend (1968). How did you get to Shochiku? What do you remember about making this controversial film?

YK: Mr. Kawazu was in the union called Theatre de Poche (a union in Japan for actors). (Tomokazu Miura belongs to this union now. Tetsuro Tamba was a well known actor in the union at that time.)  I was in this union. Because Mr. Kawazu was in the union as well, he invited me to the union and that made me act in the movie.

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Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: What did you think of this movie?

YK: I was very shocked. I regretted it. (laughs) I did all kinds of roles, and I was so excited about that. I was so happy to have all kinds of roles as an actress.

BH: After that film, you switched to Toei. Please talk about the transition to Toei Studios.

YK: The union itself had the connection with Toei. That’s why I could not appear in the movies of other studios.

BH: Was this your first studio contract with Toei?

YK: I had to be only in Toei movies. (The contract was with the union because of Gosha Kyotei, the Five-Company Agreement.)

BH: When you joined Toei, you were in The Snake Woman’s Curse (1968).

YK: (laughs) Yukiko Kuwahara has the main role. Everybody thinks I have the main role. Preparing the costumes and makeup took a long time.

(For the makeup,) I had to stand still. It took a whole three hours. I had to put every piece of makeup on. I put on the pants first and then put on the pieces, one by one. I had to put the pieces on my face as well. So that’s why it took such a long time. That made me sick! (laughs)

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: On this film, you worked with director Nobuo Nakagawa. So please tell me about working with Mr. Nakagawa.

YK: He was a very, very nice person. He wore geta all the time and wore a tenugui (handkerchief) in his back pockets. He was very friendly. He didn’t look like a director. He looked like an ordinary person. I am in almost all the movies he directed.

BH: How would he direct you in a scene?

YK: He didn’t say anything particularly precise, so I could do as I liked. He was a wonderful director.

BH: Next we move on to another director, Teruo Ishii, for Horrors of the Malformed Men (1969).

YK: I am in all the movies directed by Mr. Ishii. He was so friendly and such a nice person. Ken Takakura was picked by Mr. Ishii for the Abashiri Prison series and got famous. So I was very honored to be in his films. He was very kind to everybody.

BH: How was his directing style? Did he also let the actors do what they wanted?

YK: He didn’t say anything to me. I could do as I liked. But, for the actors who could not do well, he spoke a lot. He wasn’t angry at all. He just wanted to help the actors. He was a very kind person.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: About the film, Horrors of the Malformed Men, what can you tell us about making this film?

YK: There was a group (called ankoku butou, which specialized in unusual dance theater) led by Mr. (Tatsumi) Hijikata. That whole group was really sort of weird! They were not friendly. But that made the film itself so nice and realistic. Also, many famous and talented stars, such as Asao Koike and Teruo Yoshida, were in this movie. I was so excited about that.

BH: What do you think about the contents of the story? Of course, it’s not shown in Japan.

YK: I don’t agree with the subject matter itself. I think it’s untouchable.

BH: Were there any concerns (about the story) when the movie was being made?

YK: I wasn’t worried at all at that time. I enjoyed making the film.

BH: Next is a very popular film, Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972). What do you remember about making this film and working with Meiko Kaji?

YK: Ms. Kaji’s name was Masako Ota in Nikkatsu. She changed her name at Toei. I wanted to act with her in a movie. Then my dream came true. I loved her in the movies. We both used the same brand of tobacco called “red long dark.” They were long cigarettes. We didn’t like the shorter ones. We smoked the cigarettes together.

On the set, it was a mountain scene, and I had to run in this set. Also, in this situation, it was raining. If the scene is NG (no good), I would have to dry my clothes and start over again. It was so hard. I had to carry another person (Eiko Yanami) on my back at the same time. The director made me perform this scene so many times. It was such a tough scene.

BH: Were there NG cuts?

YK: Yes, there were. NG wasn’t just about the acting; it was also about the amount of rain. This was all filmed on set, so the rain was not real.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: The director was Shunya Ito. What was he like as a director?

YK: I knew him beforehand. So I could do as I wanted. He didn’t say anything to other actors, either.

BH: You also worked with Ms. Kaji and Shinichi Chiba on Wandering Ginza Butterfly II: She-Cat Gambler (1972).

YK: I’m in all the movies directed by Mr. (Kazuhiko) Yamaguchi. So I know him very well. Mr. Chiba is a very kind person. I know him very well from Key Hunter (1968-72). (But) I first met him at the studio before that. So we knew each other.

BH: During this time, what was it like to work at Toei?

YK: I’m very thankful to Toei because my name got very famous. But I think Toei must be very thankful to me because the studio made money with me.

BH: Also at Toei, you worked on the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, with Kinji Fukasaku, a very famous director. So please talk about working with Mr. Fukasaku as director on these films.

YK: He was a very nice person. I met him on Key Hunter for the first time. I could act freely as I liked, but with other actors and actresses who could not do well, he told them, “Do this” and “Do that.” The cameraman has to follow actors all the time.(That was his shooting method.) He was different from other directors. He pointed out every word and every action.

BH: Was he the most perfectionist director that you worked with, the one who was most direct?

YK: He was good to me. Mr. Ishii was the hardest. That’s what I think. He made me do such impossible roles. That’s why I think he was the hardest. At first, I got offered to play (the bizarre killer) Sada Abe, but I said I couldn’t do it. I thought it was too hard at the time.

Ms. Yukie Kagawa reminisces about her career while her old friend Gamera looks on. Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: You did Spider-Man (1978-79), the (Toei) TV show. So please talk about getting cast on the series. How was it different from doing movies?

YK: I preferred movies instead of TV because it was really hard. The hardest thing for me was having to wait such a long time to get things prepared, such as getting the sets organized.

BH: What was it like to adjust to playing a regular character who was a super-villain?

YK: Once I got into the costume, I became that character instantly. I myself cannot understand how it works, but once I got into the costume, I became that person.

BH: On (Taiyo SentaiSun Vulcan (1981-82), (you wear) a very interesting costume. Was it difficult to work with the costume at all, or was it rather easy?

YK: During an explosion, I actually got burned, and there were holes everywhere in my costume. So it was hot and very uncomfortable. Even so, I still had to act.

BH: With these action series, what do you remember about doing some of the fights and the choreography?

YK: The explosions were the hardest things.

BH: Which do you prefer, Spider-Man or Sun Vulcan?

YK: (pause) I prefer Spider-Man because that was the first time.

BH: What do you remember in general about working on Spider-Man?

YK: Even though my character was the enemy of the cast, they were very, very friendly in real life. They were all good friends.

BH: What do you remember about working on Sun Vulcan?

YK: They were all good friends as well. We would go out to have drinks after shooting.

BH: What are some of the things you’re doing now? Tell me about the projects and the things that you’re doing now.

YK: Since I broke some bones, I haven’t done any acting jobs. I lost my dog, and then I broke some bones. So I haven’t done any acting work for about five years. I fell down the stairs (which broke my bones), but I don’t remember when – maybe five years ago. I got offered so many jobs, but I had to take a rest.

But now I’m prepared to return to acting, including the theater and commercials.

Many thanks to Mr. Tsuyoshi Tanaka and Ms. Ayu Ogawa. The author also wishes to acknowledge the following Web sites:

● OK Entertainment official site:
http://ok-enter.com/
● Baron Special:
http://baronbaron.hungry.jp/
● Kochi-toku:

Yukie Kagawa poses with Brett Homenick following a successful interview. Photo © Brett Homenick.