BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE: The Art of Japanese Special Effects (First Look, Part 1)
Part 1: SYNOPSIS
Author: George Lawrence
Official site: Godzilla on DVD
A SciFi JAPAN EXCLUSIVE
Last week, SciFi Japan reported that BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE: The Art of Japanese Special Effects will have a premiere screening (along with WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS and MOTHRA) at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood on August 3. BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE is an original documentary produced by Classic Media, the company responsible for the recent “Toho Master Collection” Godzilla DVDs in the United States. The film will be included as a bonus feature with Classic Media’s DVD set of the Toho genre classics WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS and RODAN, which goes on sale across the country on September 9, 2008.
We are now pleased to present an exclusive two-part report on BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE. Part 1: SYNOPSIS gives tokusatsu fans an early look at who and what they can expect to see in the upcoming documentary. Part 2: PRODUCTION NOTES and PERSONNEL FILE— which will run here in the next few days— covers the making of the film and the people behind the production.
BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE
Original documentary included with genre classics WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS and RODAN on DVD by Classic Media. Available September 9, 2008
Why is Godzilla still a man in a suit? In an age when Hollywood’s overblown blockbusters showcase the latest technology, Japanese sci-fi movies still rely on old-school techniques, such as rubber costumes and miniature cities. For more than a half century, Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah and other giant creatures have been brought to life this way, with a handcrafted approach steeped in tradition.
BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE goes behind the scenes of a filmmaking style that remains firmly rooted in the past even as special effects leap into the future. From the original GOJIRA (1954) through 50-plus years of sequels, spin-offs and imitations, this original documentary tells the story of the genre’s creation and evolution via exclusive interviews with filmmakers, special-effects artists, actors and monster stuntmen. Narrated by self-proclaimed Godzilla fan Alex Cox (director of REPO MAN, SID & NANCY), the film celebrates the artistry behind the world of Japanese monsters and ponders the future of Godzilla and his city-smashing analog brethren in the digital age.
ORIGINS: Godzilla. Mothra. Rodan. King Ghidorah. These monsters and many others are just part of the long history of Japanese science fiction and fantasy cinema. Where did it all begin? Long before the birth of Godzilla, in the mind of a creative young filmmaker named Eiji Tsuburaya (1901-1970), the father of Japanese special effects.
Tsuburaya’s first love was airplanes, and if not a twist of fate he might have become a pilot. He entered the world of motion pictures at age 19 and began working as a cinematographer during the silent movie era, and soon developed a reputation as an innovator. Tsuburaya experimented with special-effects techniques early in his career, but after seeing Merian C. Cooper’s KING KONG (1933), he was inspired, and he dedicated himself to special-effects filmmaking. A few years later, during World War II, Tsuburaya spearheaded Japan’s first special-effects boom, directing elaborate miniature re-creations of military battles in wartime propaganda movies made by Toho Studios in collaboration with the Imperial Japanese government. In THE WAR AT SEA FROM HAWAII TO MALAYA (1942), Tsuburaya staged a re-enactment of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was so convincing that—according to certain sources—during the postwar Occupation, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s film censors mistook Tsuburaya’s effects for actual war footage.
In 1954, Toho Studios chose Eiji Tsuburaya to create the special effects for GOJIRA, Japan’s first-ever giant monster movie. Although he might have preferred to use the type of stop-motion effects seen in KING KONG, Tsuburaya did not have the budget nor the lengthy schedule that were required. Instead he decided to bring the monster to life utilizing a stunt actor in a skillfully designed latex costume; the monster’s rampages on Tokyo would be done with meticulously constructed miniature sets. It wasn’t Tsuburaya’s first choice, but this innovative combination—monsters and miniatures—would become the signature elements of Japanese special effects over the next 50 years.
PARTNERS: GOJIRA’s special effects required a massive undertaking, so Tsuburaya assembled a team of craftsmen. One of the chief members of that team was Yasuyuki Inoue, who would become one of Tsuburaya’s key creative allies. Like Tsuburaya, Inoue entered the movie industry by chance. After suffering a debilitating injury in World War II, Inoue studied furniture design in Tokyo as a means to support himself; he was hanging around at Shintoho Studios when he was recruited to design models and props, which became his job. Beginning with GOJIRA, Inoue worked on all of Toho’s science fiction and fantasy pictures, designing and overseeing the construction of the miniature worlds that became the genre’s trademark.
THE TOHO SFX WORLD: During the 1950s and 60s, the golden age of Japanese science fiction movies, Inoue and his crew brought Eiji Tsuburaya’s visions to the big screen, building the miniature worlds that Godzilla and his fellow monsters routinely destroyed—the model cities, landscapes, vehicles, spaceships, forests—everything in the “Toho universe.” Inoue and his assistants in the Special Effects Art Department could build almost anything—including an ocean, in the form of the “Big Pool,” a massive water tank on the Toho Studios lot, first constructed for the war film I BOMBED PEARL HARBOR (1960).
Inoue’s crew erected the dense miniature forests seen in films such as FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965) and WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966), planting thousands of real, live tiny trees on a soundstage. They also designed and built the futuristic weapons used by the Japanese military to combat monsters, such as the “Maser Cannon” that fires electromagnetic rays in WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. Ultimately, though, the SFX art department’s challenge is to achieve perfect destruction—these intricate sets not only have to look realistic, they must also crumble realistically whenever Godzilla & Co. trample through them.
INSIDE GODZILLA: Playing the King of the Monsters is no easy task. The men chosen to wear the Godzilla suit must have fearlessness, pride, and physical and mental endurance. In May 2007, three generations of Godzilla suit actors united, for the first time ever, to share stories of monster battles. Haruo Nakajima, the original Godzilla, donned the rubber suit from the monster’s birth in 1954 until 1972. Ken Satsuma helped re-establish the monster as a force of destruction in THE RETURN OF GODZILLA (1984) and played the role until 1995. Tom Kitagawa played Godzilla for a new generation, appearing in five films from 1999 to 2004.
The three men discussed the rigors of working inside the cumbersome costume, the challenges of destroying cities on cue, and the perils of working in the “Big Pool,” where Godzilla’s greatest battles were filmed. And while the monster costumes have gotten somewhat lighter and more flexible over the decades, master suitmaker Shinichi Wakasa, who designed and built most of the Godzilla suits since GODZILLA 2000, explains the challenges of updating the monster while adhering to the tradition.
RISE AND FALL: The blockbuster success of GOJIRA was followed by an invasion of Japanese giant monsters. But soon the Japanese sci-fi genre was undergoing changes. Eiji Tsuburaya’s affection for children helped transform Godzilla from an anti-nuclear metaphor into a kid friendly monster that danced the “Shieeee!” in INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER (1965). Meanwhile, the Japanese movie industry lost its title of “king of entertainment” to TV; as box-office results plummeted, movie production budgets were slashed. After Eiji Tsuburaya died in 1970, the genre he created lost its leader and its luster; Toho was still making Godzilla movies but the films were now visibly cheaper; the elaborate effects work of the earlier films replaced by stock footage and recycled monster costumes. After TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975) underwhelmed at the box office, Toho put Godzilla on hiatus.
EVOLUTION: By the 1980s, a new generation of SFX filmmakers who grew up with the films of Eiji Tsuburaya was now ready to take the lead. It was time for some members of the original generation to step aside, and leave their legacy behind. THE RETURN OF GODZILLA was the biggest Godzilla movie that Yasuyuki Inoue ever worked on—and it was also his last. Meanwhile, Hollywood was achieving new levels of realism in special effects. A digital revolution was under way, but the Godzilla movies of the 1990s held steadfast to traditional analog methods. To keep pace with Tokyo’s growing skyline, Godzilla grew bigger than ever, but that meant the miniature world was getting smaller, less realistic. With his popularity falling again, in 2004 Godzilla went on hiatus once more. After 50 years, the genre invented by Eiji Tsuburaya stood at a crossroads, its survival uncertain.
A TRIP TO THE PAST: Even as technology leaps forward, there are still those who remember how to do things the old way—by hand. Yasuyuki Inoue is now retired, but his workshop on the outskirts of Tokyo is a virtual museum of artifacts from his long career. Here, in Inoue’s workshop, four generations of special effects craftsmen reunited to stage a demonstration of the old-school “tank cloud effect,” which simulates the eruption of an undersea volcano as seen in LATITUDE ZERO (1969) and other films. With Inoue directing the action, the crew revisited the era of Eiji Tsuburaya, capturing the essence of working on a Toho soundstage during the golden years, and producing an impressive effects sequence using only simple tools and materials.
THE FUTURE: With rapid changes in technology and the audience’s demand for heightened realism, what will become of traditional Japanese special effects? Will the genre fade away, or will these artists and craftsmen have an opportunity to bequeath their art to new generations?
Eiji Tsuburaya would surely have welcomed the advent of CGI. If the old, traditional effects techniques are to survive in the modern era, they must be combined with digital technology to create a new look, preserving the spirit of the past while embracing the possibilities of the future.
For more information on Classic Media’s RODAN/WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS DVD set and BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE please see the earlier coverage here on SciFi Japan: