When the subject of Japanese film comes up, you might assume that Akira Kurosawa is that nation’s most famous filmmaker in terms of international recognition and critical acclaim. Yet, a 2014 book by August Ragone (published by Chronicle Books), makes a good case for another filmmaker from Japan whose worldwide popularity, especially among sci-fi/fantasy fans, is probably greater than Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Kon Ichikawa combined. His name is Eiji Tsuburaya. What? The name doesn’t ring a bell? Maybe you’ve heard of Godzilla (1954) or Mothra (1961) or Destroy All Monsters (1968) or Rodan (1956) or countless other sci-fi/fantasy films from Toho Studios that featured Tsuburaya’s special effects?
Although Ishiro Honda is the director who helmed most of these efforts – and deserves a blog entry of his own – it’s Tsuburaya’s bizarre imagination and sense of outré design (the giant rampaging monster robot with the bird-like head in The Mysterians (1957), the anti-gravity ray attack on Tokyo in Battle in Outer Space (1959) the undersea warship with the rotating drill in Atragon ) that captured the imaginations of moviegoers in this galaxy and beyond.
It’s hard to actually gauge the impact that Godzilla (Gojira) had on young viewers everywhere when it first appeared in 1954 Tsuburaya’s creation marked the appearance of the world’s first kaiju eiga aka Japanese monster films. He was the visual effects master behind practically every fantasy film made during the “Golden Age of Japanese Cinema” (1945-1965) and was a successful producer on his own as well, creating the Ultraman franchise for television in 1965 as well as its TV sequel Ultra Seven. (TNT used to show the amusing English dubbed version of Ultra Seven in late night slots during the early days of that network).
Stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, etc.) is probably the closest we have to a Tsuburaya counterpart but his film credits are easily dwarfed by Tsuburaya’s resume which includes more than ninety features as special effects supervisor, not including his television work. Tsuburaya also dabbled in screenwriting, producing and got his start as a cameraman in the silent era circa 1924. He shot more than fifty features but slowly moved into the special effects field in the late 1930s. His final film as a cinematographer was The Invisible Avenger (Tomei Ningen, 1954), which also showcased his visual trickery.
Not all of Tsuburaya’s films in the special effects field feature giant-monsters stomping on Tokyo. He was one of the first to visualize an ape-like missing link in the Japanese alps that was a response to rumored sightings of The Abominable Snowman. His feature, Ju Jin Yuki Otoko (1955), was released in the U.S. in a heavily edited form under the title Half Human and included additional footage featuring John Carradine, a trend that would continue in Godzilla which was also recut for American audiences in 1956 with Raymond Burr added as an on-screen narrator/reporter (It was released in the U.S. as Godzilla, King of the Monsters).
Other offbeat Tsuburaya projects that strayed from the giant mutant monster formula were The H-Man (1958, aka Beauty and the Liquidman), The Secret of the Telegian (1960), Matango (1963, aka Attack of the Mushroom People), and The Lost World of Sinbad (1963, aka Samurai Pirate). The H-Man, in particular, is a personal favorite, and one that took the Japanese yakuza film in a new direction, adding a disturbing sci-fi subplot to its lurid nocturnal world of drug smugglers, nightclub beauties and pursuing policemen. In this case, the real threat isn’t gangsters but some gelatinous-like creatures that can absorb humans (like The Blob) and turn out to be victims of a H-bomb test; the premise was inspired by a real incident in which fishermen on the trawler Daigo Fukuryu Maru were exposed to nuclear fallout from the U.S. Castle Bravo thermonuclear device test on Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954.
The Secret of the Telegian is a serial killer thriller, though tame by today’s standards, in which a former soldier takes revenge on his comrades who left him for dead. He kills them one by one through the aid of a cryotron which allows him to transport himself across phone lines and completely baffle the cops who are trying to solve the case.
Much creepier and funnier is Matango which proves you really are what you eat. Case in point: the shipwreck victims who end up on a foggy Pacific island where the vegetation has grown over the surface of everything and the only food source appears to be mushrooms. Really big mushrooms. Those who partake get “high” and become one with nature so to speak. It’s like Gilligan’s Island on acid.
Equally strange is The Lost World of Sinbad which features Toshiro Mifune in the starring role, battling pirates, witches and wizards. I saw this as a kid at the theatre and thought the English-dubbed dialogue was hilarious, especially in a scene where a wizard transforms himself into a fly and lands on the gyrating bosom of a female dancer. I can still hear his insane cackle. Way out risqué stuff for a kiddie matinee.
If any of this piques your interest, you should definitely check out Ragone’s book, Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters which has lots of fantastic, behind the scenes production stills and a straightforward account of Tsuburaya’s career in chronological order. There is also good coverage of other favorite Tsuburaya effects films I didn’t profile here such as The Human Vapor (1960), Gorath (1962), the ideal film for 6 year old boys – King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and Dogora (1964).
You should also Google a look at some of the nutty toys and merchandising that was inspired by Godzilla, Ultraman and other Tsuburaya creations. There was even a figurine of Eiji produced by Tsuburaya Communications in 2006. Too bad the master didn’t live to see that. He died in January of 1970 at age 68.
Other websites of interest: