I was recently tasked to write a short profile of an avant-garde media artist/innovator who worked between 1930-1990 as partial fulfilment for one of my degree assignments. While I was extremely tempted to write something about Michael Mann (possibly an unconventional and rare choice no doubt), I eventually decided, sentimental reasons involving, to select Eiji Tsuburaya as my topic of study.
Those who know me well will know that I associate myself heavily with Tokusatsu (heck, my business is even called tokuAsia Pictures). A huge part of my motivation to become a filmmaker also stems from my love for Ultraman. As I have already received my grades for this particular module (I did pretty well, wee!), and given that Tsuburaya’s 115th birthday was yesterday (July 10), I decided to post up what I wrote as a tribute to the man, with just a few edits here and there to remove the in-text references. Read on if you like.
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 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
- Edmunson-Cornell, H 2015, Baptised in the fires of the h-bomb: eiji tsuburaya, Godzilla and the birth of kaiju, viewed 30 May 2016, http://sequart.org/magazine/56041/eiji-tsuburaya-godzilla-and-kaiju/
- Edwards, P 2015, Eiji Tsuburaya made godzilla come alive, and it changed film forever, viewed 30 May 2016, http://www.vox.com/2015/7/7/8903803/eiji-tsuburaya/
- Gojira 1954, motion picture, Toho, Japan, 3 November
- King kong 1933, motion picture, Radio Pictures, 7 March
- Ragone, A 2011, Eiji Tsuburaya: master of monsters, Chronicle Books, USA
- Tsuburaya Productions n.d., The founder – eiji tsuburaya, viewed 30 May 2016, http://www.tsuburaya-prod.co.jp/eiji/en/