THE PASSING OF A LEGEND
Akio Jissoji: 1937-2006
Author: Keith Aiken with Bob Johnson
Source: Tsuburaya Productions, Midnight Eye, Udine Far East Film, various
Translations and Additional Material by: Oki Miyano
Special Thanks to Hiroko Sakurai, Brad Warner, and David Chapple
At 11:45pm on November 29, director Akio Jissoji died from complications related to stomach cancer at the University of Tokyo Hospital. At his bedside were his wife (actress Chisako Hara), his daughter, and friends and co-workers from his many productions.
Jissoji is known in Japan for his award-winning experimental movies from the 1970s, but is most familiar to worldwide audiences for his work on Tsuburaya Productions’ popular ULTRAMAN (Urutoraman, 1966) and ULTRA SEVEN (Urutora Sebun, 1967). While episodic television generally has a consistent look and tone, Jissoji’s episodes always stood out for their moody lighting, off-beat camera angles and movement, and strong, character-driven stories.
Akio Jissoji was born in Tokyo on March 29, 1937. During World War II, his family briefly relocated to China before returning to Japan and settling in Kawasaki. Jissoji became a fan of French cinema at an early age, telling Japan Times reporter Mark Shilling that, “When I was young I saw all the French films I could from the 1930s through the 1950s.” The style of France’s Nouvelle Vague became a major influence on Jissoji’s own work. Another influence was acclaimed theater art director/production designer Kaoru Kanamori. After meeting Kanamori, the young Jissoji decided to become a director.
Besides film, Jissoji also had a passion for trains. He organized a fan group called Earth Train Defense Force (Chikyuu Tetsudou Boueitai), perhaps in response to one of his favorite scenes from GODZILLA (Gojira, 1954).
He attended night classes at Waseda University, where he majored in French literature. He was later made an Honorary Professor at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts. After graduating from Waseda in 1959, Jissoji went to work for Radio Tokyo (KRT), which became the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) television network. Within two years he was directing dramas and musical programs for TBS, often employing techniques he had learned from studying French films.
In 1965, Jissoji transferred to TBS’ film division, where he first worked with Eiji Tsuburaya as an assistant director to Hajime Tsuburaya on the television movie SPY: THE WORLD ON PARALLEL TRACKS (Spy Heikosen no Sekai, 1965), a French/Japanese co-production starring Yoshio Tsuchiya (SEVEN SAMURAI, HUMAN VAPOR), Kumi Mizuno (MATANGO, MONSTER ZERO), and Noboru Kaneko (GODZILLA 1985). During this time, Jissoji also met Tetsuo Kinjo, a talented writer and production manager at Tsuburaya Productions. The two worked together often in the coming years.
TBS had long considered Jissoji’s directorial style to be “too unique” for standard TV programming, so he was transferred over to Tsuburaya Productions. Under the pen name “Yuri Manpukuji”, Jissoji submitted two scripts for Tsuburaya’s television series ULTRA Q (Urutora Kyu, 1966) but neither was accepted. He did direct a documentary on Eiji Tsuburaya entitled THE FATHER OF ULTRA Q (Urutora Kyu no Oyaji, 1966) as well as the live broadcast introduction of ULTRAMAN, “The Birth of Ultraman: The Ultraman Premiere Celebration” (Urutoraman Tanjo Urutoraman Sai), on July 10, 1966.
In addition to the premiere, Akio Jissoji directed six episodes of ULTRAMAN. His first show, #14 “Orders to Protect the Pearl Oysters” (Shinjugai Boei Shirei), focused on Science Patrol member Akiko Fuji (Hiroko Sakurai) and the pearl-eating monster Gamakujira. Jissoji’s unused ULTRA Q script “Like A Tapir…” (Bakutaru…) was reworked into ULTRAMAN episode #15 “Terror of the Cosmic Rays” (Kyofu no Uchusen); a story of children’s drawings of the monster Gabadon being brought to life by cosmic radiation. Much of the story takes place in an industrial district— an image Akio Jissoji would use time and again. In a 2002 interview published in Ultraman Age #8, he explained, “I love places where old steel drums or earthen pipes are scattered about — like the one I used in the ULTRAMAN episode “Terror of the Cosmic Rays”. By using those favored landscapes, I wanted to describe the terror that could exist in ordinary daily life.”
In #22, “The Surface Destruction Directive” (Chijoh Hakai Kosaku), a subterranean race kidnaps Ultraman’s human host Hayata (Susumu Kurobe) in a bid to use Ultraman and their kaiju Telesdon in conquering the surface world. Episode #23 “My Home is the Earth” (Furusatu wa Chikyu) is the sad tale of Jamila, an astronaut transformed into a monster by space radiation. The comedic episode #34, “A Gift from the Sky” (Sora no Okurimono), dealt with the Science Patrol’s bumbling attempts to send the incredibly heavy monster Skydon back into outer space. This episode was based on Jissoji’s second unused ULTRA Q screenplay, “Countless” (Kiriganai). Jissoji’s final ULTRAMAN episode, #35 “The Graveyard of Monsters” (Kaiju Hakaba) with the spirit-monster Seabozu, introduced the Ultra Zone, a Phantom Zone-like dimension where the souls of fallen kaiju rest in peace. The concept was recently revisited in episode #21 of the current Ultra series, ULTRAMAN MEBIUS (Urutoraman Mebiusu, 2006).
While ULTRAMAN had been a rather unconventional show from the start— in episode #2 “Blast the Invaders” the character Ito (Masanari Nihei) breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the audience— Jissoji pushed the envelope with his techniques, and this didn’t always sit well with TBS or some of the other staff members of the show. Jissoji often butted heads with Samaji Nonagase, another ULTRAMAN director who had joined Tsuburaya Productions after years as an assistant director at Toho on such films as THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (Kakushi-toride no San-Akunin, 1958) and MOTHRA (Mosura, 1961). Nonagase particularly complained about Jissoji having Hayata mistake a spoon for the Beta Capsule in “A Gift from the Sky”, but the episode’s high ratings soon justified Jissoji’s work. The spoon scene has become one of the most famous moments from ULTRAMAN, and there is even a figure of Hayata in the transformation pose that comes with an extra hand holding a spoon.
The director always felt his visual tricks fit the stories he was telling: “My image is there is always an extraordinary world next to our ordinary world— and one day, a tiny part of the border between the two of them breaks. At this fissure, the two worlds become intertwined, and from there the story evolves.”
ULTRAMAN was followed by ULTRA SEVEN. Despite the obvious similarities between the two shows, Jissoji felt the tone for each series was quite different: “The basis of ULTRA SEVEN was more progressive and more founded in serious science fiction than ULTRAMAN was. In a sense, ULTRAMAN is simple and anachronistic, but it allowed me to create fairytale-like settings. ULTRA SEVEN threw away all those fairytale conventions. For instance, at that time the Vietnam War was going on, and this altered the meaning of the word “invasion.” I believe that the concept of “invasion” in ULTRA SEVEN is different from the Baltan Invasion in ULTRAMAN. I think that the concept of “invasion” became much crueler.”
Jissoji’s first ULTRA SEVEN episode was #8 “The Targeted Town” (Nerawareta Machi, US title “Smokers on the Rampage”). In the show, Ultra Seven’s alter ego Dan Moroboshi (Koji Moritsugu) and the villainous Alien Metron have a discussion while sitting on tatami mats in an old apartment. The scene has become one of the iconic images from the series, but Jissoji had a hard time taking it seriously. “I think Tohl Narita’s design [for Metron] is excellent, even from today’s point of view,” Jissoji told Ultraman Age. “And I think that the finished monster costume is great, but when I went to the set all I could do was laugh. When the rehearsals started, I began to feel funny and thought what a stupid scene we were shooting. It was so funny to me. I had the assistant director, Masataka Yamamoto, start rolling the camera, while I was watching the shooting from the corner of the soundstage— laughing my head off. I laughed and laughed until my sides ached. How rude I was!”
The director returned with the infamous “banned episode” of ULTRA SEVEN: #12 “From Another Planet With Love” (Yusei Yori Ai-o Komete, US title “Crystalized Corpuscles”) featuring guest star Hiroko Sakurai. “In “The Targeted Town” I tried to describe a terror hiding in our daily lives, and an invader who was living in your neighborhood. However, in “From Another Planet With Love,” I used the opposite approach, in that I tried to show men keeping an eye on, and conversing with the invaders in order to find a way to coexist. I spoke with writer Mamoru Sasaki and others about ULTRAMAN’s Jamila, and discussed trying to make an episode in which people were seeking a way to achieve peaceful co-existence with aliens. Though such an idea was against the basic concept of ULTRA SEVEN, I think Mr. Kinjo saw it would make the program richer to use such a different story other than the ordinary straight-forward invasion theme.”
“From Another Planet With Love’s” notoriety was a result of a pictorial in the October 1, 1970 issue of the children’s magazine Shogaku Second Grade (Shogaku Ninen-sei). A writer described the episode’s Alien Spehl as “Hibaku Seijin”, a play on “Hibaku-sha”, a term used for survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Tokyo Federation of A-bomb Sufferers Organizations complained to the press that the show compared bombing victims to monsters. Concerned by the public outcry, Tsuburaya Productions pulled the episode from circulation. It is no longer broadcast on television, has never been released on home video, and is ignored in most reference books for ULTRA SEVEN. An English dubbed version of the episode aired on the US cable television channel TNT on May 3, 1997, and video tapes of the show were much in demand with Japanese fans.
Adding to episode #12’s woes was a horrible incident in 1989. A young man named Tsutomu Miyazaki kidnapped and murdered four little girls. When police searched Miyazaki’s apartment they found a massive library of anime and tokusatsu videocassettes, including “From Another Planet With Love”. The incident popularized the slang word “otaku” (meaning “shut-in”), and to this day many Japanese still associate otaku with social deviants like Miyazaki.
Akio Jissoji directed two more (much less controversial) episodes of ULTRA SEVEN; #43 “Nightmare of the 4th Planet” (Dai Yon Wakusei no Akumi, US title “Tyranny by Design”), and #45 “Horror of the Supreme Apeman” (Kyofu no Choenjin, US title “Simian says- Surrender”). “I had intended to direct more ULTRA SEVEN episodes,” Jissoji said, “but I had to stay in Kyoto for the shooting of TBS’ GALE [Kaze; a TV Drama]. While I was in Kyoto, my rotation with the other directors kept changing. I ended up directing an episode close to the end of the series.” During his time in Kyoto, Jissoji also directed two of his four episodes for Tsuburaya Productions’ series OPERATION: MYSTERY (Kaiki Daisakusen, 1968).
In 1969, Jissoji made the experimental short film WHEN TWILIGHT DRAWS NEAR (Yoiyame Semareba). The movie was picked up by the Art Theatre Guild (ATG), an independent film distributor that was chiefly financed by Toho, who released it on a double bill with Nagisa Oshima’s DIARY OF A SHINJUKU THIEF (Shinjuko Dorobo Nikki, 1968). After leaving TBS and founding his own production company, Godai Ltd., Jissoji directed his first feature-length film for ATG, THIS TRANSIENT LIFE (Mujo, 1970). The movie’s subject matter— including an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister that results in pregnancy— sparked controversy and ticket sales to become ATG’s biggest hit. THIS TRANSIENT LIFE was also internationally hailed as a masterpiece, becoming the centerpiece at the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) conference in Milan and winning the 1970 Grand Prix at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland.
Jissoji became one of the top filmmakers at ATG with MANDARA (1971), a strange art-house take on sex and Buddhist philosophy starring Hiroko Sakurai and Shin Kishida (LAKE OF DRACULA, GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA); POEM (Uta, 1972) and LIVED IN A DREAM (Asaki Yume Mishi, 1974), an adaptation of the manga by Waki Yamato. For Nippon Herald Films he directed UTAMARO’S WORLD (Utamaro Yume to Shiriseba, 1977), a biography of the famous painter. Jissoji also worked in television on such projects as the Nippon Gendai Kikaku superhero series SILVER MASK (Shiruba Kamen, 1971), and he continued his association with Tsuburaya Productions by writing the script for RETURN OF ULTRAMAN (Kaettekita Urutoraman, 1971) episode #28 “Fairy Tale in the Moon” as well as additional screenplays for RETURN OF ULTRAMAN and ULTRAMAN TARO (Urutoraman Taro, 1973). In 1979, Tsuburaya released the theatrical film ULTRAMAN: DIRECTED BY AKIO JISSOJI (Jissoji Akio Kantoku Sakuhin Urutoraman), a compilation of the director’s episodes from the original series.
After several years away from the camera, Akio Jissoji returned in 1988 with the Nikkatsu film THE PROSPERITY OF VICE (Akutoku no Sakae), and the horror movie TOKYO: THE LAST MEGALOPOLIS (Teito Monogatari), his biggest box office success. TOKYO: THE LAST MEGALOPOLIS was based on the 1971 novel by author Hiroshi Aramata, featured conceptual designs by HR Giger (ALIEN) and special effects by Tsuburaya Productions, and introduced the character Lord Yasunori Kato, the villain of Takashi Miike’s THE GREAT YOKAI WAR (Yokai Daisenso, 2005). 1989 saw the S&M story TORTURE ME PLEASE: HENRIETTA (Ijimete Kudasai, Henrietta), followed by 1990’s video movie LA VALUSE (La Valuse: Watashi Bokosaremashita).
The director also turned his attention back to one of his favorite subjects: the works of Tsuburaya Productions. In 1987, he wrote about his experiences working on the original ULTRAMAN series in The Lunar Vessel of the Star Forests: The Men Who Dreamt of Monsters. Two years later, TBS broadcast a TV movie based on Jissoji’s book entitled THE MEN WHO MADE ULTRAMAN (Urutoraman-o Tsukuta Otokotachi), but the film fictionalized events for dramatic impact and is not highly regarded at Tsuburaya Productions. Jissoji also floundered with ULTRA Q THE MOVIE: LEGEND FROM THE STARS (Urutora Kyu Za Mubi Hoshi no Densetsu, 1990), a poorly received big screen update of the classic television show.
In 1996, Tsuburaya Productions revived the Ultraman franchise with ULTRAMAN TIGA (Urutoraman Tiga), and this gave Jissoji the opportunity to once again direct in the fast paced, tight budget world of television. “I wrote and directed an episode of ULTRAMAN TIGA entitled “Flower” [Hana; Episode #36],” Jissoji told Ultraman Age. “There is a sequence where Ultraman Tiga is human-sized and fighting on a stage, even though it is supposed to be a special effects scene… I had this idea that it could be shot as either a special effects or non- special effects scene.”
From that point on, Akio Jissoji would work sporadically on Tsuburaya’s shows; directing episodes of ULTRAMAN DYNA (Urutoraman Daina, 1997), the radio drama THE ULTRA Q CLUB (Urutora Kyu Club, 2004), ULTRA Q: DARK FANTASY (Urutora Kyu: Dakku Fuantaji, 2004), and ULTRAMAN MAX (Urutoraman Makkusu, 2005). In 2003, ULTRAMAN THE MOVIE: ULTIMATE DVD COLLECTION VOL 1 included ULTRAMAN: DIRECTED BY AKIO JISSOJI and AFTER THE DREAM: THE ULTRAMAN FACTORY (Yume no Ato Urutoraman no Kojo), a documentary hosted by Jissoji.
When not making Ultraman, Jissoji often filmed adaptations of stories by mystery writer Rampo Edogawa (the author’s name is a variation of Edgar Allen Poe). Jissoji was a tremendous fan of Edogawa’s work, and he spoke at length about the author in an excellent 2006 interview with Mark Shilling. Jissoji’s first Rampo Edogawa films were WATCHER IN THE ATTIC (Edogawa Rampo: Monogatari: Yaneura no Sanposha, 1994) and THE D-SLOPE MURDER CASE (D Zaka no Satsujin Jiken, 1997), both of which starred Shimada Kyusaku as Detective Akechi Kogoro. In 2005, the director helmed the Kogoro story “The Mirrors of Hell” (Kagami Jigoku) for the anthology film RAMPO NOIR (Rampo Jigoku).
Akio Jissoji also produced and supervised several films, including Tomoo Haraguchi’s MIKADROID (Mikadoroido, 1991), and Minoru Kawasaki’s THE CALAMARI WRESTLER (Ika Resura, 2004) and THE WORLD SINKS EXCEPT JAPAN (Nihon Igai Zenbu Chinbotsu, 2006)— a parody of Shinji Higuchi’s remake of SINKING OF JAPAN (Nihon Chinbotsu, 2006). The WORLD SINKS EXCEPT JAPAN website has updated with a eulogy for Jissoji.
Despite health problems, Jissoji showed no signs of slowing down in recent years. In addition to his work on RAMPO NOIR, Jissoji also directed the supernatural mystery SUMMER OF UBUME (Ubume no Natsu) in 2005. This year, Jissoji supervised and directed one of three segments for DIE SILBERMASKE (Shiruba Kamen, 2006), a new version of his SILVER MASK television series. The film is set in Japan during the 1920s and mixes historical and fantasy elements such as aliens, a Japanese-German girl as the new Silver Mask, and author Rampo Edogawa as a character. DIE SILBERMASKE will be released theatrically in Japan on December 23.
Jissoji also joined directors Kon Ichikawa (THE BURMESE HARP), Takashi Shimizu (JU-ON), Yoshitaka Amano (FINAL FANTASY) and others for Nikkatsu’s TEN NIGHTS OF DREAMS (Yume Ju-ya, 2007). The anthology of stories by author Soseki Natsume was screened last month at the American Film Market and will open in Japan this February. At the time of his passing, Jissoji was prepping LIGHT (Hikari), a film based on the novel by Keizo Hino which was to star actor Hiroshi Abe (TRICK, SUMMER OF UBUME). He was also planning to direct a stage production of the opera “The Magic Flute” for the New National Theatre in Tokyo in July of 2007… and he was always willing to do more Ultraman. “If Tsuburaya Productions calls me, I will go there, because it still feels like home to me,” the director said. “What kind of story will I create next? I will think of that when they call me!”
While few of Jissoji’s works are available in the United States, most of his films and shows are on Region 2 DVD in Japan. In 2003, a boxed set of his ATG movies went on sale, and an 8-disc DVD set called THE AKIO JISSOJI COLLECTION was released in 2005. The set featured WHEN TWILIGHT DRAWS NEAR, THIS TRANSIENT LIFE, MANDARA, POEM, LIVED IN A DREAM, UTAMARO’S WORLD, THE PROSPERITY OF VICE, BLUE LAKE GIRL (Aoi Numa no Onna, 1986), and several short subjects. The 2003 release was accompanied by an all-night theatrical showing of THIS TRANSIENT LIFE, MANDARA, and POEM in Tokyo. The event was introduced by Jissoji’s long-time friend, Hiroko Sakurai.
Last week Ms. Sakurai commented on the legacy of Akio Jissoji: “Rather than focusing on special effects, he mainly showed the humor in his work. His films always had a handmade feel, and I believe the spirit of his work will live on in future generations of filmmakers.”
May he rest in peace.
For more photos and an exclusive tribute written by Hiroko Sakurai, please see: