With the latest incarnation of Godzilla in theaters this weekend, it’s a good time to look back on the history of Gojira – and immerse ourselves in the achievements and genius of the tokusatsu (special effects) master: Eiji Tsuburaya. And there’s no better way to do that, short of hosting your own mini film festival, than luxuriating in the amazing illustrated biography by August Ragone: Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters – Defending the Earth with Ultraman, Godzilla, and Friends in the Golden Age of Japanese Science Fiction Film.
Tsuburaya was fifty-three years old when Godzilla was released – hence his nickname of “Oyagi” – “the old man” — but as Ragone takes us from his not-so-humble beginnings as part of a shouya family in Fukushima to his eventual success in the Japanese film industry in Tokyo, it’s clear that he was a visionary even as a youth. In fact, his first dream was of flying and designing planes – very reminiscent of the dreams of Jiro Horikoshi as depicted in Hayao Miyazaki’s film The Wind Rises.
I would compare this book to the way it feels when you slap some vinyl on the record player – it has such a nice warm tone in our world of hyper-realistic digital special effects. Looking over the copious photographs and reading all the stories, I was amazed to read about how they executed their ideas – for instance, Tsuburaya’s original vision for Gojira was to bring him to life with stop motion effects – but declared it would take seven years to shoot it to his exacting standards – so they revamped the vision to take advantage of his department’s expertise in miniatures and visual effects. This also meant an actor in a 220 lb suit losing over a cup of sweat in a costume, along with many cuts and bruises, but it was all in the name of art — and celluloid history.
Godzilla aside, I think many people will also love this book for it’s extensive coverage and history of Ultraman. (Holla if you watched and loved this show as a kid! Or adult! And then put your arms in that perpendicular salute!) Birthed from the series Ultra-Q, Ultraman found international success thanks to United Artists Television, the fact that it was filmed in color, and the practical-immortality transformation of syndication.
Whether you are a Cinephile, Japanophile, Gojira fan, Sci-Fi freak, monster lover, or casual fan – you’ll find this book to be an inspiration and a fascinating, detailed look at the life of a true visionary. I’ll say this: the kid in me who lounged on a typical ’70s orange shag carpet watching all of these films and TV shows over and over again certainly enjoyed having a granular look at how it all came to pass.