Godzilla Director Masaaki Tezuka Interview

Editor's Note: This article was originally timed with the week-long Godzilla Fest at the Castro Theatre in November 2004. Being a San Francisco event, it was more than a little bit out of our jurisdiction; however, the festival was (with a few exceptions) essentially the same as the American Cinematheque's Godzilla festival, which had played at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood in July, a short time before Hollywood Gothique began its long and illustrious career, covering horror, fantasy, and science fiction events in Los Angeles. The timing of the Castro's festival provided an excuse to use material that we had gathered in the weeks and months prior to our website's debut.

Also, Godzilla was very much on our minds, because Toho Studios had announced their plan to promote their latest - and at the time, last - film in the series: GODZILLA FINAL WARS was scheduled to premier at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and Godzilla himself was set to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on November 29 (which honorary mayor Johnny Grant proclaimed "Godzilla Day"). In honor of these events, we posted this article about director Masaaki Tezuka, who had directed three of Toho's recent Godzilla films: GODZILLA X MEGAGUIRUS, GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA (2002),* and GODZILLA TOKYO SOS (2003).

Mazaaki Tezuka
Director Masaaki Tezuka

After GODZILLA 2000, which was directed by series veteran Takao Okawara (GODZILLA VS DESTROYER, etc), Toho Studios, the company behind the world's most famous radioactive reptile, was looking to breath fresh air into the franchise, so they entrusted GODZILLA X MEGAGUIRAS to Masaaki Tezuka.

The first-time director managed to make the film feel reasonably fresh and entertaining because of its fast pace and fanciful military-scientific hardware. The film featured faster action in the battles and more physical contact between the monsters. (In one infamous moment, Godzilla body-slams his opponent by leaping in the air and falling on the prone Megagairus—a tribute to Tsutomu Kitagawa, the stuntman inside the Godzilla suit, who performed similar action for TV shows like DYNAMAN an POWER RANGERS). All of these characteristics, with some variations, would persist in Tezuka’s subsequent two Godzilla films.

‘I actually never dreamed of getting to direct Godzilla films ever,’ Tezuka told the audience during a July appearance at the Cinematheque's Godzilla festival in Hollywood. “As a kid I watched Godzilla films, but I never dreamed of actually getting a chance to direct one. I was an assistant director for 22 years for Toho, and I was actually beginning to think, “I’ll never get to direct anything!” I finally got a break as a Godzilla director.’

Tezuka had to work hard to maintain a high level of quality on the film, thanks to budgetary problems that plague the Japanese film industry, which has never regained the heights it achieved in the 1950s and 1960s. In particular, Tezuka found it difficult to recreate the familiar panicky evacuation scenes of the civilian population fleeing before Godzilla’s onslaught.

Godzilla Vs Megaguirus 2001
Godzilla Vs Megaguirus directed by Masaaki Tezuka

‘They’re actually hard scenes to shoot,’ Tezuka said. ‘Back when Ishiro Honda was shooting the original Godzilla movies, they were able to gather about 500 to 600 extras, with payment. But, with the ever declining Japanese movie budget, we have to ask for the die-hard Godzilla fans to show up, and we would give them the little lunch box and the t-shirt with Godzilla on them.’

Ironically, despite putting Godzilla somewhat more clearly into the antagonist category, Tezuka admits that he always rooted for Godzilla when watching the old films as a child. Apparently, the attitude rubbed off on his star: ‘The actress in [GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA], Yumiko Shaku, even though she was playing the operator for MechaGodzilla, during the film she started to root for Godzilla,’ Tezuka said.

The monster fights in this film and its follow-up, GODZILLA TOKYO SOS, were a deliberate attempt to recapture some of the over-the-top excitement of the older Godzilla films. For example, at one point the cyborg Godzilla swings the real Godzilla by his tail—an action previously seen in KING KONG VS GODZILLA, which ranks high on Tezuka’s personal list. ‘The first GODZILLA definitely is a masterpiece,’ he said, ‘but KING KONG VS. GODZILLA is my favorite.’

Unfortunately, the script is marred by some overly sentimental elements apparently added to broaden the film’s appeal to family audiences. Perhaps the worst example is a plant belonging to motherless child, which is asked to bear a heavier symbolic burden than it can handle. ‘The plant definitely symbolizes the missing mother’s presence in the little kid’s life,’ Tezuka explained. ‘Originally, we did the research, and there’s a plant called “the Dancing Plant,” but after we got it, it didn’t move at all, so it couldn’t play that character!’

One interesting bit of trivia about GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA is that, in sequence filmed shortly before he signed with the New York Yankees, baseball player Hidek Matui appears as himself, hitting a long home run just as Mechagodzilla is being flown over the stadium on its way to confront Godzilla. Not coincidentally, Matui’s nickname is ‘Godzilla.’

After GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA, Tezuka had to sit out the next Godzilla film, which was given to Shusuke Kaneko, who had directed the much-improved Gamera films for rival studio Daei in the 1990s. The result was GODZILLA, MOTHRA, KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK, a stand-alone film with a redesigned Godzilla that ignored all the recent films and created its own mythology.

Although demoted from the director’s chair, Tezuka still worked on the film, supervising the composite footage. When asked whether he learned anything from working side-by-side with Kaneko, who is highly regarded by fans for his serious approach to the giant monster genre, Tezuka betrayed perhaps a hint of directorial ego aimed at his rival:

‘I didn’t learn anything at all,’ Tezuka said. ‘It was more like giving him the support, because we are the same age and we assistant-directed on the same movie together. So I just went there for ten days, and we shot about two hundred shots to help him out. But personality-wise, we’re totally opposite: he’s very serious; I’m not so serous.’

Asked about the influence that Kaneko’s highly regarded Gamera films had on the Godzilla series, Tezuka added: ‘I can say this now because Mr. Kaneko, the director for GAMERA, is not here. As far as GAMERA 2 and GAMERA 3, I thought, “Ah…so-so, it’s average, enjoyable.” But GAMERA 1, I was envious because it was such a good movie. The reason was that there were things I was dreaming and hoping of doing if I ever got to be a director myself. All those things Mr. Kaneko did in GAMERA 1. Up to that point, Toho was acting as if the Gamera series didn’t exist. But if you look at GODZILLA VS SPACE GODZILLA [1994] or GODZILLA VS DESTROYER [1995] or even GODZILLA 2000, you can see how Toho has been very aware of the Gamera series.’

Godzilla Tokyo SOS directed by Masaaki Tezuka

Tezuka returned to the director’s chair with GODZILLA TOKYO SOS, which was a direct sequel not only to GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA but also to the original MOTHRA, with actor Hiroshi Koizumi returning as Dr. Shinich Chujo.

In another amusing piece of continuity, Godzilla’s presence off the coast of Japan is first suggested when the dead carcass of a giant sea turtle washes ashore, obvious killed by something even bigger that itself. The visual joke is that, at first glance, the turtle appears to be Daei Studio’s rival monster Gamera, but it’s actually from a less well-known Toho production, 1971’s SPACE AMOEBA (known in the U.S. as YOG, MONSTER FROM SPACE).

Said Tezuka, ‘Initially, I wanted to bring back Angilas, but the producer at the meeting said, “No.” He said, “Because Angilas is such a famous monster, if we just show him as a carcass, the fans are going to be mad!” So I decided instead, “We’ll have the Space Amoeba. But,’ Tezuka insisted with a laugh, ‘it’s not Gamera!’

The monster battles in TOKYO SOS benefit from a return to emphasizing old-fashioned miniature and man-in-a-suit effects. Unlike GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA, there are no ridiculous CGI shots of Kiryu leaping through the air, looking like a videogamer character who wandered onto the big screen by mistake. Asked if this emphasis reflects his personal preference, Tezuka said, ‘As a kid, after watching Godzilla films, I would go home and play with the plastic Godzilla toys and dolls. Because the Godzilla special effects are not computer-generated, they are “real,” so I can relate to the toys being real and the movie Godzilla being real. I think computer graphics takes away from that. Especially in [TOKYO SOS], the answer to your question can be seen.’

With its exciting actions sequences and improved screenplay, GODZILLA TOKYO SOS is probably the best of Tezuka’s three Godzilla films, even if it is not as distinctive as Shusuke Kaneko’s GODZILLA, MOTHRA, KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK. It’s the high note in what may be Tezuka’s swan song with the Godzilla series. Toho handed next film, GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, to up-and-coming director Ryuhei Kitamura, and its apocalyptic multi-monster scenario promises to be the last Godzilla film for the foreseeable future.

Tezuka professes to know little about the new Godzilla film (which will have a private premier at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre later this month), even though he had ample opportunity to learn. ‘Our offices are next to each other, so I go get coffee from their office, so we talk occasionally,’ he said. ‘To be honest with you, I haven’t read the script, because I’m looking forward to seeing it. But I heard a rumor that it’s going to be about fourteen monsters against Godzilla.’

Godzilla may no longer beckon, but Tezuka will continue to direct other films. ‘I’m currently working on a film called G.I. SAMURAI, which is a remake of a movie that was made twenty-five years ago,’ he said, providing no other details except that the ‘new title will be G.I. SAMURAI 1549.’

Footnote:

  • The somewhat awkward title is an attempt to distinguish GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA from two previous Toho films title GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA.


Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.