[Film/Culture] Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters (1901-1970)
The legendary Japanese master SFX director, cinematographer and producer responsible for pioneering a legacy of special effects while also creating some of Japan's most iconic and influential characters, films and TV series.
From behind the scenes of the silver screen, Eiji Tsuburaya defended the earth for over fifty years with the help of ULTRAMAN, GODZILLA, MOTHRA and FRIENDS, in the GOLDEN AGE OF JAPANESE SCIENCE FICTION CINEMA.
"My heart and mind are as they were when I was a child. When I loved to play with toys and read stories of magic. I still do. My wish is only to make life happier and beautiful for those who will go see my films of fantasy." - Eiji Tsuburaya (1965)
Eiji Tsuburaya is one of the most innovative and respected master craftsman in Japanese cinematic history. With an impressive career spanning over fifty years, he orchestrated all kinds of groundbreaking catastrophes for the motion picture screen. He has directed nuclear world wars, intergalactic alien space battles and terrifying otherworldly invasions upon planet earth, with his pioneering SFX techniques and child-like sense of wonderment paired with a life long passion for creating monsters and stories of fantasy.
Eiji Tsuburaya started his career as a assistant cinematographer during the silent film era in 1919 and worked his way through the ranks while experimenting with brand new filmmaking techniques and concepts, including the first use of a camera crane. Around this time, Eiji was heavily influenced by the original KING KONG (1933), which had just started screening in cinemas all over Japan. Eiji used to watch the tape of King Kong on repeat during his early career to study the film's groundbreaking special visual effects and pioneering use of stop motion. The 'eighth wonder of the world' was a real epiphany for Tsuburaya that opened up endless creative possibilities for him to pursue. King Kong was the film responsible for changing the trajectory of Tsuburaya’s life and the future of his career.
Eiji was hired by Toho Tokyo Studios in 1936 to be the companies head of special visual techniques, transitioning from a cinematographer to a visual effects artists, his first job was to design the companies new logo, which has evolved to become one of the world's most recognised production logos in cinema history, alongside Universal Studios & Paramount Pictures.
Eiji's time at Toho studios was soon cut short with the arrival of WW2, he was drafted by the Imperial Japanese government to create a series of propaganda films, which although gave Eiji invaluable technical experience as a director, these works subsequently stained him for many years, he found it difficult to land real directing work after his involvement with the war. He would not return to work back at Toho studios until the mid 1950's, after a horrible incident gripped the nation of Japan and gave birth to a future icon.
On March 1st, 1954, a group of twenty three fisherman found themselves near an American thermonuclear bomb testing site in the coral reef of Bikini Atoll. The group of fishermen were far away from the designated danger zone, but the atomic bomb's destructive power and radius was twice the size of what was expected. An immense atomic blast shook the planet as a giant mushroom cloud erupted into the sky. All of the men were stricken by nuclear ash and rain. When the fisherman returned to shore, it was certified that both the men and their fish were contaminated with serious nuclear fallout. This scenario caused a nationwide panic in Japan and resulted in over 500 tons of fish being destroyed. Around 856 fishing boats were exposed to the test and this incident later became known as The Lucky Dragon No.5 event, named after the first boat that returned after being exposed to the radiation.
The head producer at Toho Studios, Tomoyuki Tanaka, Inspired by The Beast from 20000 Fathoms (1953) and the recent Lucky Dragon nuclear tragedy, decided to approach Tsuburaya regarding a brand new monster movie concept, about an indestructible nuclear sea creature that terrorises Japan.
With over thirty years of extensive industry experience and a proper studio budget and Special Effects team to support his ambitious creative visions, Eiji signed up to this new Toho Studio production and devoted all of his time, energy, and sheer passion into bringing this new atomic monster to life.
Eiji Tsuburaya was responsible for masterminded the original, and most influential Kaiju Eiga (Japanese monster movie) in collaboration with director Ishiro Honda, on the original Godzilla film in 1954. Eiji served as the supervisor of special visual effects and was 53 old when production started, he was already a seasoned veteran in the film industry with nearly thirty years of experience. He was highly enigmatic and peerless to his contemporaries in Japan, a pioneer in every sense of the word. Eiji is the sole reason Godzilla was able to stomp and rage across the silver screen.
As the head of Toho's special effects department, Eiji Tsuburaya supervised over 60 craftsmen, cameramen and technicians to go above and beyond the call of duty to meticulously design the world and vital costume for Godzilla. Eiji originally wanted Godzilla to move in stop-motion just like the original King Kong, but he instead made the bolder choice to use miniature models, specialist photography and visual effects.
Most crucially, Eiji pioneered the technique of "Suitmation" - A type of character design whereby an actor performs inside of an inimitable costume with a sense of hyper realism, a style which made Godzilla look, move and feel like an authentic monster, making him one of the most iconic characters in pop culture and saw the dawn of the Daikaiju genre in Japanese cinema. This iconic cinematic sea creature would not exist without the expert skills of Eiji Tsuburaya and his talented team of craftsman, who designed all the life-size studio sets and all the ambitious costume designs for the film, they worked above and beyond on this intense 7 month shoot.
The storytelling in Godzilla and the design of the creature are closely intertwined, and creating the Godzilla costume was no easy task in post war Japan as materials like rubber were not available, so the costume was constructed using pre-mixed concrete. The production of Godzilla was a tough and physically strenuous shoot, the head actor Haruo Nakajima was stuffed into a dense costume that weighed 220 pounds and became a walking oven under all the intense studio lighting, causing the actor to blackout from heat exhaustion more than once on set during filming.
Godzilla (1954) is much more than just a horror film, it was a powerful and cathartic experience for Japanese audiences post WW2. The film was a meditation on Japan's place in the war ravaged world and posed some pivotal questions about humanity's responsibility during the atomic age. The character of Godzilla is considered to be an allegory for nuclear weaponry and the American occupation of Japan during WW2.
In the film, Godzilla is a manifestation of the destruction and collective fear of nuclear energy and weapons being used again in Japanese society in the wake of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Godzilla is depicted as a monster of limitless power who starts his rampage of destruction and vengeance after multiple nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific Ocean awaken the ancient creature from the depths.
Eiji's Tsuburaya's groundbreaking and award winning special effects paired with the intricate costume design is the reason Godzilla was such a bold international success, kickstarting the Japanese "monster mania" era. Eiji's meticulous attention to detail brought the giant radioactive sea creature to life in a hauntingly terrifying and yet strangely endearing style that captivated the imaginations of audiences across the globe. Eiji utilised the power of low camera angles and miniature sets to create the illusion of an enormous creature wrecking havoc on a real city. Godzilla was a truly game changing moment during the golden age of Japanese Cinema.
After winning his first technical film award from Godzilla, Tsuburaya's career only continued to blossom, during his fifty years in the industry he supervised SFX and worked on approximately 225 science fiction monster movies, many alongside director Ishiro Honda — including The Abominable Snowman (1954), Rodan: Monster of the Sky (1965), Mothra verses (1964), and Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster (1964).
One after another, these ambitious and visually striking monster movies began creating a strong kaiju iconography that would shaped the entire Japanese film industry's sensibility and built a legacy for Tsuburaya.
Twelve years after Godzilla, Eiji Tsubuyara went on to create his most enduring and successful creation to date, as one of the founders of the iconic ULTRAMAN franchise in 1966. Three years earlier, Eiji established his own SFX production company Tsuburaya Productions, in 1963. An intergalactic action series that focuses on the titular character, a metallic and futuristic humanoid space hero sent from beyond the stars to defend planet earth against a plethora of grotesque monsters and disturbing alien overlords.
The ULTRAMAN series soon became one of Japan's most successful sci-fi franchises and TV series of all time, the iconic central character is a representation of the space age and became a beloved hero around the world, serving as the inspiration behind the Power Rangers.
Eiji Tsuburaya and his cinematic legacy extend far beyond Godzilla, Ultraman and his other famous monsters, he built a foundation for film culture in Japan and special visual effects worldwide, his influence was immense.
It's hard to imagine what the Japanese cinema industry would have ended up being today without the contributions of Eiji Tsubyara, a man whose cultural impact matches the same level of importance as Akira Kurosawa. Both directors wielded tremendous power and originality, while Akira dwelled in the realm of the samurai, Eiji was busy creating fantastic and terrifying atomic monsters. The director's most iconic movie monsters have stood the test of history, and his landmark special effects ideas were truly ahead of their time, which is funny to consider given the fact that there wasn't a cinema industry established in Japan when Eiji was first born in 1901.
Check out this short film about the actor who played the original Godzilla in 1954! Listen to his fascinating experience of how he gained the role and how it felt to become the monster on screen!
~ Psychic Garden