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I wrote this profile piece back in 2016 for an academic assignment that I was tasked to do in partial fulfilment for my Bachelor’s degree in Filmmaking, which required me to write about an artist/innovator who worked between 1930-1980, whose work would have been considered avant-garde at the time, but greatly influenced and impacted the industry he worked in. My chosen industry, is of course, cinema. I have posted this piece on my personal blog before, but on the 118th birthday of the man whose life’s work inspired me to start this community and eventually become a filmmaker, I thought it’d be fitting to repost it once again, here. There are plenty of references to August Ragone’s fantastic book, Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, which I highly recommend to anyone looking to study the life and work of Eiji Tsuburaya. I hope you enjoy this tribute to the late Eiji Tsuburaya, the Master of Monsters:
Eiji Tsuburaya (1901-1970) was a Japanese film director who pioneered the use of special effects techniques in Japanese science fiction movies and television series. He is best known for his work on the original Gojira (1954), as well as for being the creator of the long-running Ultraman (1966) franchise. The techniques employed by Tsuburaya in these films would eventually be collectively known as ‘Tokusatsu’ (Japanese for ‘special effects’).
Unable to pursue his childhood dreams of becoming a pilot, Tsuburaya chanced upon the opportunity to join the film industry as an assistant cameraman in 1919 while working in the research & development team at a toy company. By 1928, Tsuburaya was one of the top camera operators in Kyoto. It was this time when Tsuburaya started writing in motion picture journals and developing innovative filmmaking techniques, most often without any existing references. One of these innovations was a version of D.W. Griffith’s camera crane, which increased the range of camera movement possibilities.
In 1933, while working for Nikkatsu Studios, a film came from the United States that would change his life forever. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933) left a deep impression on the then-32 year old Tsuburaya. Recognising the enormous potential of the special effects techniques employed in King Kong, Tsuburaya acquired a rare 35mm print of the film and studied its technical design. While he managed to convince his bosses at Nikkatsu to allow him to experiment with his newly acquired technique, discussions about funding turned sour and Tsuburaya decided to leave the company.
Tsuburaya eventually found himself at the helm of Toho Motion Picture Company’s new Special Arts Department, but his skills would soon be utilised by the Imperial Government to produce propaganda films to assist in the World War II efforts. His extremely realistic miniature recreation of the bombing of Pearl Harbour (Viewer discretion advised) managed to fool even the American occupation forces, who believed him to be a spy, and he was unceremoniously sacked from Toho after the war. Tsuburaya then decided to start his own company, Tsuburaya Visual Effects Laboratories, while continuing to work in the film industry as an independent contractor.
Tsuburaya returned to Toho at the end of the American occupation in 1952. After a couple of war-related films where Tsuburaya was able to further showcase his capabilities in special effects, he would embark on the film which would eventually become part of his legacy – Gojira. Although heavily inspired by King Kong, Tsuburaya was convinced that stop motion was too time-consuming and costly, and decided that Gojira was to be shot with an actor wearing a monster suit. Gojira marked the dawn of the kaijuu eiga, or ‘giant monster movie’, which was a series of films that carried the Tsuburaya hallmark of realistic miniatures, monster suits and practical effects.
In the years leading up to his death, Tsuburaya worked less on Toho films, choosing to focus more on a new wave of television programmes produced by his company Tsuburaya Productions. While the first of these programmes, Ultra Q (1965), was a hit with children and adults alike, its indirect sequel, Ultraman (1966), introduced an iconic giant superhero, which would forever associate the Tsuburaya name with Japanese popular culture.
Bowyer, J 2004, The cinema of japan and korea, Wallflower Press, USA