Interview: Akira Takarada, Star of the Original GODZILLA
Interviewer/Translator: Kim Song-ho
Special Thanks to Akira Takarada, Cho Young-ho (The Japan Foundation Seoul), Yeon Ji-mi (simultaneous interpreter), Hiroaki Iwasaki (Takarada Planning) and Hong Gi-hun (Big Monster Club)
Editor’s Apology: Reporter Kim Song-ho submitted this interview to SciFi Japan months ago. It should have run at that time, and the reasons it didn’t are completely my fault. There are no excuses. I apologize to Song-ho, Akira Takarada, and everyone who contributed to this wonderful article. — Keith Aiken
From December 20, 2015 to March 6, 2016, The Japan Foundation Seoul, The Korean Association of Cinematheques, Busan Cinema Center and Korean Film Archive jointly organized a massive retrospective of Mikio Naruse, one of the most prolific and respected directors of the Japanese cinema.
As a special event for the retrospective, actor Akira Takarada, who starred in several of Naruse’s works, visited Korea and showed three films of his personal choice to the Korean audience on February 20 and 21, 2016 at Korean Film Archive. This marked his first visit to Korea as an actor. I had a great pleasure to meet and interview Mr. Takarada, who is also a legendary actor from Japanese tokusatsu films.
Note: This interview was first published in Korean on Monster Preservation Site.
Kim Song-ho: Yesterday, you met the Korean audience twice. What was your impression?1
Akira Takarada: I was quite surprised to find how passionate the audience was. Some of them had already seen those two films and had very detailed knowledge about Mr. Naruse. If he were still with us, he would be glad that his films were shown in Korea with this passionate response. It was an amazing experience.
Kim Song-ho: You have personally picked three films for the special screenings of the retrospective: GODZILLA [ゴジラ, Gojira, 1954], THE LAST WAR [世界大戦争, Sekai Daisensou, 1961] and DIFFERENT SONS [二人の息子, Futari no Musuko, 1961].
Akira Takarada: Since I decided to participate in this retrospective, I wanted to show GODZILLA, one of my major works, along with Mr. Naruse’s films. It was produced by Toho in 1954, 62 years ago. It was my third film and the first that I received a top billing. After the first film, there was a franchise that lasted for 50 years and it became Toho’s dollar box, loved by audiences all over the world. Even Godzilla himself couldn’t expect such strong support. That really brought back old memories.
Kim Song-ho: In GODZILLA, you have worked with Ms. Momoko Kochi and Mr. Akihiko Hitara, and continued to do so for several other films. What was it like to work with them?
Akira Takarada: Ms. Momoko Kochi was one of my colleagues of Toho New Face. Toho New Face was a system that began with Mr. Toshiro Mifune and it produced many big stars of the Japanese film industry. I entered Toho in the 6th class of Toho New Face with Ms. Kochi and we spent a year as research students at the studio. So I was very relieved to have worked with her in GODZILLA.
Mr. Hirata was a year senior to me. He had graduated from the highest institution and chose to become an actor. Most of the co-stars were close each other, so I was able to be very relaxed during shooting.
But as a matter of fact, I was thrilled beyond anything, that I was able to work with Mr. Takashi Shimura, who had starred in SEVEN SAMURAI [七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai, 1954]. GODZILLA was a film made with those great talents.
Kim Song-ho: We have just conversed about GODZILLA with actors’ perspective. But we can’t talk about GODZILLA without mentioning of director Ishiro Honda. You have work with Mr. Honda in several other productions after GODZILLA. What was your impression of him? Actually, he is not that well-known in Korea [at this moment, Mr. Takarada said “Yes, indeed.”], so I’d like to hear about Mr. Honda as you remember him.
Akira Takarada: When director Honda entered Toho, one of his colleagues was Akira Kurosawa. I have done films with Mr. Honda, such as A RAINBOW PLAYS IN MY HEART [わが胸に虹は消えず, Waga Mune ni Niji wa Kiezu, 1957], which was not about monsters, but Mr. Honda must have concerned about the job of directing GODZILLA. He must have felt a great deal of pressure, too, because he had never experienced that kind of film. And from Toho’s point of view, GODZILLA was like a gamble, because it was impossible to predict whether it would be a hit or not. Of course, the film industry always has that kind of aspect… but if the first film didn’t succeed, there wouldn’t be another one.
In 1954, the year GODZILLA was released, the population of Japan was 88 million [now it’s more than 130 million]. Among them, 9.61 million, which is considerable numbers even today, watched GODZILLA. It must have been connected to Japan’s experience as the only country to have been exposed to atomic explosion, which cost hundreds of thousands of people’s lives in an instant. Also in 1954, as Japan was reconstructing itself as its economy started growing after the war, America and the Soviet Union carried out hydrogen bomb tests, because it was the time of Cold War. One of those tests resulted in a radiation exposure of Daigo Fukuryumaru [Lucky Dragon No. 5], a fishing vessel that was affiliated to a port in Yaizu, Shizuoka. It was the third radiation exposure Japan has experienced, and only 9 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The incident led Toho to make GODZILLA as a message to the world appealing for nuclear dismantlement. Surely, GODZILLA is not just a simple popcorn movie, but also has a profound theme. Director Honda himself had to go through life-or-death situations during the war, and he was very critical about warfare. When he was given the job of directing GODZILLA, he decided to make it represent strong voices from the Japanese people.
Filming of GODZILLA was handled by two departments — one for the special effects led by Mr. Eiji Tsuburaya, and the other for the drama led by Mr. Honda. The two teams worked hard each other to depict the images. For example, we, the drama department, had difficulty in filming scenes involving Godzilla because we had no idea of how the monster was to be depicted in the finished picture. We didn’t know if it was fully exposed, or it was looking sideways or backwards. I used to ask Mr. Honda, “How should I react to Godzilla?” but he, too, was not sure, so he said, “Well, how about shooting two versions of the same scene? One for when Godzilla is looking straight ahead, and the other for when Godzilla is looking backwards. Maybe one of them should turn out to be right.” That’s how we tried to solve problems on location.
Sometimes Mr. Tsuburaya visited the drama department with some storyboards, and we all gathered around to understand what the scene would shown on screen. “Aha, Godzilla is looking this way!” So we tended to wait anxiously for the storyboards when we were acting. There were a great number of similar episodes when filming the first GODZILLA.
Mr. Honda was always earnest, serious about his occupation of directing, and that impressed all of us very deeply. We respected and admired his guidance in return.
Kim Song-ho: He was known to be a great gentleman.
Akira Takarada: (strongly agrees) Yes, he was! He was very calm and poised, and he has never raised his voice or scolded us. He was always there with great earnestness, and we used to discuss methods to film the scenes the best way. I, too, have learned so much about acting from him. He was like an old teacher to me, to Ms. Kochi, to Mr. Hirata and to all of us.
Kim Song-ho: Having listened to you makes me feel GODZILLA and THE LAST WAR are like brothers, because these two films share similar theme, and even your roles in them are related to the ocean. I think I can understand why you have chosen these two particular films for the screening.
Akira Takarada: That’s right. The two films are about nuclear threat, and because Japan had experienced nuclear bombing, it was able to speak against nuclear disarmament more strongly than any other country in the world. For this, sometimes Godzilla, a fictitious monster, would appear. In the case of THE LAST WAR, it was about an ordinary family. Everyday relationships between father and son, husband and wife, or in my character’s case, a couple, began to change into worry and anxiety, as nuclear threat drew nearer. So in that sense, GODZILLA and THE LAST WAR clearly have something in common.
Kim Song-ho: That reminds me of your anti-war activities across Japan. It may have connected to both your career as an actor and your own experiences growing up, which was also a period of upheaval. What was the reason you began anti-war activities and what do you want to tell us through them?
Akira Takarada: I am 82 years old this year. 22 years ago, when I became 602, I thought about something. When I was young, I lived in Harbin, China and had to return to Japan because the war broke out. When the Soviet army entered Harbin, I had seen women and children violated by them, and I had also been shot. I returned to Japan with disgust at the act of war. I’ve never been in the army, but I have been living with criticism against the war through my experiences in Harbin.
Until I became 60, my career had been successful and satisfactory. But then I started asking myself if that was all life was about. I realized that I had to leave messages inspired from my own life, for the next generation and the children. That led me to speak oute against war and nuclear armament as strongly as I could, and I started participating in several anti-war demonstrations and movements to prevent reforming the constitution. In 2015, I attended the World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs in Hiroshima to deliver a lecture, and sang an anti-war song along with the participants. I believe doing so is my duty and responsibility.
The interview has ended here, but Mr. Takarada seemed he still had something to say.
Akira Takarada: Well, to me Godzilla is my colleague… MY CLASSMATE. But this particular classmate has become an international superstar, the likes of which resides in the faraway sky [Mr. Takarada smiled].
After the first GODZILLA was completed, a premiere was held at the studio and more than 100 cast and crew members attended. As I was watching the climax where Godzilla became a heap of bones and then vanished, I thought, ‘What strong karma we humans have!’ Although Godzilla was not real, it was portrayed as just an animal who had been sleeping at the bottom of the ocean. But humans kept doing those nuclear tests on the ground and on the ocean, and made him a collateral victim.
Every time I hear Godzilla’s roar, I feel sorrow, even pathos. At the premiere, I shed tears because I thought Godzilla was so poor. It’s Godzilla’s duplicity, not just as a destroyer, but also as a victim, that made him a character cherished by people all over the world.
And when GODZILLA was made 62 years ago, there was no such thing as computer graphic imagery. Everything in GODZILLA was hand-made and analog. Nowadays they make everything out of CGI by pouring enormous amount of time and budget, but to me, those images look somehow hollow and fake. The black and white images of GODZILLA, made with none other than analog-age craftsmanship, was indeed a triumph of special effects.
1. This interview was taken on February 21, 2016. A day before, he first met the Korean audience through two talk sessions after the screenings of Naruse’s DAUGHTERS, WIVES AND A MOTHER (娘・妻・母, Musume Tsuma Haha, 1960) and A WANDERER’S NOTEBOOK (放浪記, Horoki, 1962), both of which he starred in.↩
2. In East Asia, being 60 means a person has accomplished one big circle of life. It originated from the traditional sexagenarian circle. So the 60th anniversary of a person’s birth could have a special, deeper meaning to him or her.↩