Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Sadao Iizuka, the Animator of Godzilla's Ray, Passes Away at 88

Sadao Iizuka in May 2019. Photo by Brett Homenick.
The Anime Tokusatsu Archive Centre (ATAC) has announced today that legendary tokusatsu animator Sadao Iizuka, who animated the beams of Godzilla, King Ghidorah, and Ultraman during the 1960s, passed away on March 24 at 9:10 a.m. due to aspiration pneumonia after being hospitalized in January. He was 88. The news was confirmed by Mr. Iizuka's friend and manager Tabata Kei.

Mr. Iizuka was born on December 26, 1934, and went on to join Toho as a part-time employee in 1954 and worked on Godzilla (1954) in the tokusatsu art department. He would also work on the productions of Godzilla Raids Again (1955), Half Human (1955), and Rodan (1956) in similar capacities until being recruited by Eiji Tsuburaya to work on optical effects for The Mysterians (1957).

Sadao Iizuka in February 2018. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Mr. Iizuka would work tirelessly throughout the 1960s on a variety of effects, including the stop-motion animation used in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and the animation used to depict the fiery birth of King Ghidorah in Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster (1964). 

Sadao Iizuka in December 2021. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Mr. Iizuka's beam effects for Godzilla, King Ghidorah, and Ultraman would help define Showa-era tokusatsu, but by the end of the '60s he would go leave Toho and eventually start his own company, Den Film Effect. (Mr. Iizuka's longtime nickname was Den-san.)

Sadao Iizuka with Toho SFX director Teruyoshi Nakano in March 2016. Photo by Brett Homenick.

I was privileged to interview Mr. Iizuka twice about his career in his home. It was only intended to be one session, but Mr. Iizuka had so much to say that we scheduled a second session for a couple of weeks later. Those interviews can be found here and here.

Sadao Iizuka draws Godzilla's beam in December 2021. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Mr. Iizuka was certainly outspoken about his true feelings and opinions, rarely holding back when you asked him what he thought about something. That quality made him one of the more endearing guests you would meet at such events.

Sadao Iizuka in between Tsuburaya Productions director Toshihiro Iijima (left) and kaiju suitmaker Keizo Murase in March 2016. Photo by Brett Homenick.

I first met him in August 2015, and he became one of my favorite folks to meet at events. Even then, he was one of the last remaining individuals who had worked on the original Godzilla and had many memories of working with Eiji Tsuburaya.

Sadao Iizuka poses with Toho SFX director Eiichi Asada in December 2022. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Pre-COVID, he always seemed in great health, especially for his age, and that seemed to be the case when I interviewed him in December 2020 and January 2021. However, when I met him again at an event on December 26, 2021, he seemed noticeably more frail. He seemed the same the last time I would ever see him, Christmas Day 2022. He was scheduled to attend another event in January, which was canceled due to his poor health. 

With Sadao Iizuka in December 2022.

Rest in peace, Iizuka-san.

UPDATE: I'd also like to mention that I was proud that this photo I took was used on Mr. Iizuka's official website for years.

It was truly an honor.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Clark Kent Comes to Tokyo? No, It's Machida-san!

Masanori Machida. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Earlier tonight (Sunday, March 26), I attended another dramatic reading featuring the great Masanori Machida. Actually, I arrived late to the show, but I was quite surprised to find that the show was literally wrapping up as I entered! I was particularly surprised because last month's performance went on much longer than I expected. Perhaps the heavy rains kept a performer or two away -- in any case, it was interesting that the show ended so soon.

Masanori Machida. Photo by Brett Homenick.

I had a few screen grabs on my phone from The Green Slime (1968), in which Machida-san played one of the aliens. I wanted to confirm that he played the very first alien that we see in the film in its full form -- the one writhing on the floor next to the "Danger High Voltage" sign that Robert Horton wants to shoot with a laser gun before he's talked out of it. (A net is fired on in instead.) Machida-san looked at the grabs and confirmed that was him.

I told Machida-san that he looked cool in his costume and that he looked like a detective. He told me that, in today's story, he played a character who wants to become Superman, so he dressed like Clark Kent. I thought that sounded great, and it made me regret that I missed his performance. 

Despite the miserable weather, it was a fun evening. Many thanks to Machida-san!

Evangelion x Shin Kamen Rider Sakaba Opens in Shinjuku for a Limited Time!

A Shin Kamen Rider advertisement near the new toku tavern. Photo by Brett Homenick. 

While walking in between train stations earlier tonight (Sunday, March 26), I happened upon the newly-opened Evangelion x Shin Kamen Rider Sakaba in Kabukicho, Shinjuku. Don't get your hopes up about this new establishment, though. It will only be open from March 10 until May 28. 

I didn't enter it, however, because 1) I had no time, and 2) I wasn't that interested. But I thought it was worth blogging about, so here you go.

Friday, March 24, 2023

'Shin Kamen Rider' (2023)

Shin Kamen Rider at Toho Cinemas Roppongi. Photo by Brett Homenick.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't think I'd even see Shin Kamen Rider (2023). There didn't seem to be much buzz around it -- certainly not among the circle of Toho/Tsuburaya fans I know. The ones I've talked to expressed virtually no interest in it, whether it was due to a lack of familiarity with the Kamen Rider franchise, a lack of interest in the director's work, or a combination thereof. Seemed like a bad sign, but, given all the hype for director Hideaki Anno and his passion project, there had to be something there, right?

The main thing that jumped out at me was how small the production felt. You rarely see more than four characters onscreen at a time. There are barely any extras. There's a lot of location shooting, and what tokusatsu sets we do get are hardly elaborate or memorable. It's minimalist filmmaking. I get that it was shot during the pandemic, and there were (and, in some ways, still continue to be) strict COVID rules in Japan, but plenty of other Japanese films are coming out that don't look like they were shot with a cast you could fit in a phonebooth.

The CGI is bad. SHOCKER member Koumori Augment-01 (an evil human-bat hybrid who moonlights as a scientist) looks downright embarrassing when he flaps around by way of the most unconvincing computer graphics this side of Xena: Warrior Princess. It was so bad that it reminded me of a gif I saw about a year ago from the Mel Brooks flop Dracula: Dead and Loving It, in which Leslie Nielsen's head is poorly superimposed onto a flying bat (before it crashes into a window, to much comedic effect). But at least the Brooks film was trying to go for comedy.

I'm not exactly sure what Shin Kamen Rider or Hideaki Anno were trying to do. It's faithful to the source material -- almost to a fault, much like last year's Shin Ultraman. But it doesn't bring anything new to table. There are a couple of government agents in dark suits, but none of the political commentary of Shin Godzilla (whatever you thought of that film's commentary).

Free Shin Kamen Rider swag given out by the theater staff. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Even as a copy -- or a "love letter" -- it misses the mark. The action is dull and lacks energy. It looked to my eye that Anno was more concerned with how to shoot the fights rather than their choreography. To the extent we see Kamen Rider battle SHOCKER agents, there just isn't anything particularly special here. As usual, they politely wait their turn to get vanquished by the titular hero.

The hero himself leaves a lot to be desired. When I first saw photos of Sosuke Ikematsu as Takeshi Hongo, I couldn't understand why he was cast. I just didn't see it. He didn't seem equipped to fill even a single shoe left by Hiroshi Fujioka, let alone two. And -- wouldn't you know it -- there are no surprises there, either. Ikematsu simply lacks any charisma or screen presence. Toward the end of the movie, Ikematsu has to convey extreme heartbreak and sadness, but it just doesn't work. His acting left me cold. In fact, he gets overshadowed at times by his co-star, actress Minami Hamabe (playing Ruriko Midorikawa), who sometimes seems to be driving the story more than our actual hero. 

As with the other entries in the Shin series, this film is talky. Lots of dialogue and exposition. All the wide-angle lenses in the world can't make that interesting. Show, don't tell. Film is a visual medium. 

That's about all. Speaking anecdotally, it's interesting to me how little impact this movie seems to be having. You couldn't get away from Shin Godzilla or even Shin Ultraman for weeks (if not months) when they were released. It's only been days since this one has been out, and it feels like everyone has already moved on. It's only been hours since I've watched it, and I already have.

Cherry Blossoms Along Meguro River!

Cherry blossoms along Meguro River. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Cherry blossoms are in full bloom in Tokyo, and I had the occasion to check them out up close and personal along Meguro River, one of Tokyo's most popular (and busiest) viewing spots. Here's what I saw. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

DEEP DIVE: So How Did Godzilla Get His Name, Anyway?

Godzilla is just as curious as you are to know how he got his name. Photo by Brett Homenick.
Most of us have heard the stories about how Gojira got his name. It's a combination of the Japanese words for "gorilla" and "whale," and may have been the nickname of a rather imposing Toho employee (though there is plenty of reason to doubt that anecdote).

But what about the name Godzilla? Much less has been written about it over the years. The basic rundown we usually get is that it was named by Toho, not the American distributors, and that it was likely chosen because it's an approximation of the Japanese name Gojira, with "God" suggesting the creature's divine-like power, and "zilla" suggesting its reptilian origin. (I specifically remember reading this hypothesis in Jim Harmon's The Godzilla Book back in the mid-1990s.)

But it turns out that there's quite a bit more to the story than what usually gets told. So, without further ado, let's jump right in.

Since Toho wanted to export its ambitious 1954 monster epic overseas, Toho head of production Iwao Mori asked producer Tomoyuki Tanaka to create a name for the overseas title. Tanaka had several meetings with the advertising department and proposed three possible titles to Mori. These titles were GOJIRA, GOZILA, and GODILA. Tanaka's recommendation was the third name, as it combined Gojira with the English word "god."

However, Mori advised adding two "l's" because the English "r" doesn't have the same sound as the Japanese "ra." Mori was quite familiar with foreign countries, considering he had traveled in Europe and the United States from December 1925 through April 1926 to learn about the film industries there, on top of having read a lot of Western books following the end of World War II. (Moreover, according to Mori's Japanese Wikipedia page, he had just returned from another tour of the U.S. prior to becoming Toho's head of production in 1952.)

Mori also suggested replacing the "j" of Japan after "God" with the "z" of the Z flag and asked a foreigner he knew to check the pronunciation of the name he had just concocted. As a result, Godzilla (pronounced and spelled the way we all know it today) was born.

So where did I find this information? Do I have a super-secret contact at Toho? Did I unearth Iwao Mori's personal diary? Was I in the room when it was all decided?

Surprisingly enough, the answer to all the above questions is no. I actually found this information in Osamu Kishikawa's liner notes for Toho's LaserDisc release of Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964). I was at a gathering of tokusatsu fans in Tokyo for which the attendees brought rare items to pass around and share with their fellow devotees.

While checking out the LaserDiscs that one of the attendees brought, I was stunned to find the explanation of how Godzilla got his name staring right back at me. It was an amazing find, and one I discovered quite by accident. 

Still, I have to agree with William Shakespeare, who once famously wrote, "What's in a name? That which we call a gorilla-whale by any other word would swat as many jets.”

A Legendary Shochiku Actress in Concert!

Yoko Takahashi. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Actress Yoko Takahashi held a fun event earlier tonight (Wednesday, March 22) in Daikanyama. It was something of a mini variety show, as she not only sang and played the guitar but also acted in a comedy skit and talked about her acting career.

Yoko Takahashi sings and plays the guitar. Photo by Brett Homenick.

The bulk of the event, of course, featured Takahashi-san singing and playing the guitar. I wasn't all that familiar with the songs she sang, but she did perform one by Kyu Sakamoto, and at least I know he is!

Yoko Takahashi as a cat! Photo by Brett Homenick.

The highlight for me was the skit that took place just after the intermission. Takahashi-san played a cat that communicates with a space alien using telepathy! It was just as silly as it sounds. The alien sure seemed surprised to hear about milk!

For those of you not aware, Takahashi-san starred in the Shochiku classic Journey into Solitude (1972), which was followed by turns in the Oscar-nominated film Sandakan 8 (1974), as well as Kon Ichikawa's The Devil's Ballad (1977).

After the performance, Takahashi-san signed autographs and posed for pictures with the audience. I was lucky enough to get a couple of photographs, as well as exchange a few words with her. I should mention that she came out to greet members of the audience before the show started, and she hung out with my friend (who's also a tokusatsu fan) and me for a few minutes. So I came away from the event more than satisfied.

Many thanks to Takahashi-san for such a wonderful evening!

Sunday, March 19, 2023

A Night of Tokusatsu!

Hironobu Hagimae and Takashi Naganuma. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Tonight (Sunday, March 19), I attended another tokusatsu event headlined by two familiar faces: Toho SFX crew member Takashi Naganuma and motorcycle stuntman Hironobu Hagimae.

Takashi Naganuma. Photo by Brett Homenick.

I spent most of the evening with Naganuma-san, who told me he enjoys seeing my reactions to his jokes and wordplay. Well, his jokes are always full of surprises, so I'm sure my reactions are as interesting as he says. Once again, there was very little tokusatsu talk; it was mostly about other things, especially about language (both Japanese and English).

Tonight was one of the few times I accompanied Naganuma-san outside for his smoke break (along with another attendee). After the show, the three of us walked back to the station together. They asked me if I wanted to join them for coffee, but I elected to go home instead. It was fun, but I was pretty exhausted.

Hironobu Hagimae. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Stuntman Hironobu Hagimae was also on hand. I overheard his answer to someone else's question about retakes of motorcycle stunts with explosions. He said that there usually would be and that there could be as many as four takes sometimes. So it wasn't always just a one and done. 

I didn't have much of a chance to talk to Hagimae-san this time. But I did learn that he had some involvement with the motorcycle stunts in The Last Days of Planet Earth (a.k.a. Prophecies of Nostradamus, 1974). Gotta find out more about that someday!

It was another fun, informal event, and I look forward to doing it again soon!

Saturday, March 18, 2023

An Evening with a Nikkatsu Legend!

Setsuko Ogawa. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Tonight (Saturday, March 18), I had the privilege of spending the evening with former Nikkatsu actress Setsuko Ogawa. Honestly, I'm not that familiar with her acting work, but she appeared in a couple of works that are quite interesting, so I was intrigued to meet her.

Ogawa-san was born on March 21, 1951, and began her acting career in 1971 at Nikkatsu. After getting married, she quit acting in 1975 but has since joined a talent agency and has started to pursue acting once again. 

She mostly appeared in the racier Nikkatsu movies of the era. One such title is Hellish Love (a.k.a. Erotic Bride from Hell, 1972) in which she plays the ghostly titular character Otsuyu. She also appears in the Toho jidai geki Slaughter in the Snow (1973), as well as the Lone Wolf and Cub (1973-76) TV series as Sayaka Idebuchi.

I arrived late to the event due to my work schedule. Ogawa-san was surprised to see an American at the event and gave me a brief greeting in English. A bit later on, she asked me why I was there, to which I replied that I'm a fan of Hellish Love. I also admitted that I'm not nearly as familiar with Nikkatsu's '70s output as others at the event. 

I found Ogawa-san extremely friendly and charming. Some actresses can be a bit snooty, but Ogawa-san wasn't that way at all. She seemed genuinely interested in me and asked me a bit about myself. I certainly appreciated that. As luck would have it, the Laputa Asagaya will be screening some of Ogawa-san's films starting next month. One of her fans gave me a flier for the film program, and Ogawa-san graciously signed it for me. One of the movies screened will be Hellish Love, which I hope to see there.

I got to ask Ogawa-san a few questions about her career, especially about Hellish Love. She said it took about a month to film the movie. I asked her how she felt about doing her love scenes, and she said she hated doing them. (I can see why she quit acting as soon as she did!) I pointed out the movie Legend of the Sex Thief in Edo (1973), in which she stars, will be playing at the Laputa Asagaya, but she told me she didn't remember it, reminding me that it was a long time ago. I would imagine those kinds of movies start to blend together after a while.

And there you have it! I really didn't know what to expect when I arrived, but I was pleased to find that Ogawa-san was a friendly guest who was well worth meeting, even if I wasn't all that familiar with her filmography. I certainly hope to meet her again in the near future!

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Brand-New Content on Vantage Point Interviews!

Atsushi Hagiwara in May 2022. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Check out my new interview on Vantage Point Interviews with Atsushi Hagiwara, a Japanese modelmaker who has worked on numerous Godzilla, Gamera, and other tokusatsu productions since the mid-1980s. In particular, Hagiwara-san goes into detail about his work on the ambitious SFX film Sayonara Jupiter (1984). Content continues to be king on Vantage Point Interviews!

Monday, March 13, 2023

James Hong Is Everywhere All at Once!

Yours truly with James Hong in June 2010.

At the 95th Academy Awards, 94-year-old actor James Hong took to the Oscar stage after Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) was announced as the Best Picture winner, celebrating the victory with his fellow cast and crew from the film. Naturally, Mr. Hong's acting career runs the gamut of decades, and his legendary list of credits even touches the Godzilla series. In particular, he provides the voices of Ogata and Dr. Serizawa in Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956).

James Hong writes a congratulatory message to Akira Takarada. Photo by Brett Homenick.

In June 2010, Mr. Hong wrote a congratulatory message on the back of a receipt at the Corner Bakery Cafe (see the above photo) in Los Angeles to Akira Takarada, whose performance he dubbed in 1956, who would be presented with a fan award the following month. I asked him to write the message, as I couldn't think of anyone better to congratulate Mr. Takarada than the man who helped bring his performance to the attention of international audiences. Besides, Mr. Hong's legacy speaks for itself, and (as the Oscars showed) it has only grown in leaps and bounds since then.

Seeing James Hong onstage at the Academy Awards after Everything Everywhere All at Once won the Best Picture Oscar was extremely gratifying, as he is a heck of a nice guy who deserves all the attention and success he's currently getting. I wanted to share this happy memory of the first time I met the legend himself in person. Here's to your continued success in Hollywood, good sir!

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Feeling the Wrath of 'Gorath' in 35mm!

The National Film Archive of Japan. Photo by Brett Homenick.

Today (Sunday, March 12), I had the distinct privilege of seeing the Toho classic Gorath (1962) in 35mm on the big screen for the first time. It was screened as part of the National Film Archive of Japan's Women Who Made Japanese Cinema [Part 1]: From the Silent Era to the 1960s program. 

Which women in Japanese cinema does this screening honor? In particular, the pamphlet singles out Reiko Kaneko, who edited many of Ishiro Honda's films from the late 1950s through the '60s, as well as Kiyoko Ishii, who specialized in editing tokusatsu for the Tsuburaya group. Also noted in the pamphlet are SFX scripter Keiko Hisamatsu, costume designer Etsuko Yagyu, and costume staff member Setsuko Asaki. 

The screening was actually a double feature. The first movie screened was Female Detective Story: Woman S.O.S. (1958). This is a 58-minute, black-and-white comedy directed by Hisanobu Marubayashi, starring Yumi Shirakawa, Kenji Sahara, Yoshio Tsuchiya, and Akihiko Hirata. This movie marks another pairing of Shirakawa and Sahara, but, unlike their previous outings together, this is truly Shirakawa's movie, and Sahara is basically her sidekick.

As the title would suggest, the story centers around a female detective played by Shirakawa. While she was often cast as an Audrey Hepburn-style leading lady around this time, here she gets to show her acting range, playing a plucky, resourceful investigator named Nobue Ogawa of the Imperial Secret Detective Agency. In fact, her role sort of reminded me of the ones Yuriko Hoshi played in Godzilla vs. the Thing (1964) and Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster (1964). She isn't even afraid to dole out a few slaps when getting some sass from a young female she's trying to help.

Shirakawa is asked by a prominent family to look into the background of the man their daughter Midori wants to marry. The daughter's suitor seems to be the character played by Akihiko Hirata, who also goes against type in this film, playing a crude and somewhat slovenly louse. In one scene, Hirata uses a child's dart gun to shoot a dart at the rear end of a female co-worker. However, in a surprising twist, it turns out that it's playboy Yoshio Tsuchiya who's the real villain of the film.

And what a villain he is. The film pulls no punches in showing what a cad he is with women. I won't go into details, but let's just say that Harvey Weinstein probably saw this movie and took notes. Shirakawa is hot on his trail, though, and even gets an assist from her partner, Tsuyoshi Kinoshita (played by Kenji Sahara) in her pursuit. Sahara plays a character who is good-hearted but bumbling and jealous, hardly the stuff of the leading-man roles he usually got around this time.  

Today's movies screened at the National Film Archive. Photo by Brett Homenick.

The film ends when Shirakawa and Tsuchiya enter a hotel room together with a hidden recording device planted there to record Tsuchiya's misdeeds. Sahara is monitoring the encounter in an adjoining room, but his aforementioned jealousy often crops up when listening to their rendezvous. The movie gets a little dark during the climax, as Tsuchiya tries to "MeToo" Shirakawa. Sahara comes to the rescue, and a big brawl ensues. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, it's not handled quite that seriously and ends with Tsuchiya's jilted lover breaking a vase over his head to comedic effect. 

What an unusual movie! I'm really glad I saw this one, as I got to see all four leads playing against type. It was also fun seeing Shirakawa play a character who drove the story but was still able to maintain her femininity and sensuality. Very well done.

Almost immediately after the movie ended, Gorath started. I should point out that both films were screened in 35mm, and both films looked fantastic. I hardly noticed a flaw. They almost looked like 4K digital remasters, but they were advertised as 35mm, so I'm going to take their word for it.

I hadn't seen Gorath in many years -- maybe more than 20. I watched it quite a few times in the 1990s, and I guess you lose the impulse to watch a movie when you know it like the back of your hand. I still think the movie is quite good, but I did find that it was just a bit too talky with a few too many bland characters (played by Ryo Ikebe, Ken Uehara, and even Takashi Shimura) taking up too much screen time. I also found Magma's death scene surprisingly sad. I'm not sure how the filmmakers wanted me to feel seeing the bloody carcass of a creature that was hardly a monster lying dead after getting killed by laser beams, but it sure wasn't good. 

Overall, though, I did enjoy it. I just don't find it as success as The Mysterians (1957) or even Battle in Outer Space (1959). It's got a great cast, and Akira Kubo really shines in it, but it gets a bit bogged down too often in talkiness to be considered one of the greats, in my humble opinion.

Oh, and while I was checking out the National Film Archives' horror movie poster gallery, I saw this sign posted as I was buying my ticket. It's for this kaiju-themed letterpress card collection. I didn't buy it, but I thought it was worth sharing.