Eiji Tsuburaya and the Age of Giants

More articles by Phillip López Jiménez

As a child of the 70s, I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved getting home from school pouring myself a bowl of Captain Crunch and flipping on the TV to channel 52 to watch the Japanese shows, this was before we were hip to call them Anima or Kaiju (Japanese for monster) shows. These were shows like the animated ASTRO-BOY, KIMBA THE WHITE LION, SPEED RACER, GIGANTOR, and my favorites the live-action JOHNNY SOKKO AND HIS FLYING ROBOT and my favorite ULTRA MAN. These shows were much different from American cartoons or live action shows, Sid and Marty Kroft had some strange shows but they were more humorous than the more “serious” Japanimation.

The ULTRA MAN show was the brainchild of special effects wizard and film director Eiji Tsuburaya.

Eiji Tsuburaya, like many boys, loved building models airplanes and later hoped to go to aviation school which he eventually did, the Nippon Flying School, unfortunately, the school’s founder was killed in a plane crash and the school was shut down. After this devastating blow, Tsuburaya enrolled in Tokyo Engineering School. Needing extra money while attending the school he landed a job at Utsumi Toy Company in their R and D department, where he drafted toy designs and had multiple successes. At a company party, he met director Yoshiro Edamasa who suggested he work in films and he hooked him up with a job as a camera assistant.

For the next few years after a short stint in the Imperial Army Infantry, Tsuburaya continued mastering the camera on top films, making him a highly respected cameraman as he brought a sophistication to his compositions and camera movements. In 1929 using his engineering skills he decided to improve on D. W. Griffith’s giant camera crane, making it lighter and more compact. This could be used for both indoors and outdoors. Constructed out of wood from scratch and without the use of blueprints or tech specs, variations of his crane are still used in film productions worldwide.


In 1936 railroad magnate Ichizō Kobayashi decided he wanted to get into the picture business and made a deal with a few studios and merging them to form the Toho Motion Picture Distribution Company, making it the largest studio in Japan. Head of production, Iwao Mori, was one of the few studio heads that championed more movie magic in Japans cinema and knew that Eiji Tsuburaya would make a great asset to the new studio. Initially, he was hesitant as he was a well-regarded cameraman. Tsuburaya, however, also thought that this would allow him to the opportunity to help advance the technology of cinema.

Shortly after signing up with Toho, the Imperial Government assigned Tsuburaya to the Imperial Army Air corps Kumagaya Aviation Acadamy to make training films. Again Tsuburaya’s cinematography was impressive and he continued to make more films, he would continue going back and forth between the aviation academy and Toho Studios. As the war progressed after the bombings at Pearl Harbor Toho Studios, under orders from the government started churning out propaganda films along with their regular fare. One of these propaganda films is extraordinary with incredible visuals….

D. Kaijiro Yamamoto

HAWAI-MAREE KAISEN, also known as THE WAR AT SEA FROM HAWAII TO MALAYA; directed by Kaijiro Yamamoto, with a massive effects budget for Eiji Tsuburaya it would be Japan’s most expensive picture ever at that time. It was made in the spring of 1942 just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The film tells the story of a young country boy who joins the Japanese army to become an aviator. The film overall is impressively epic, unfortunately, is not a subtitled version so the subtleties of the story are difficult to write about, but my overall impression of the film is one of a David Lean type epic, this isn’t the feel-good American (in this case Japan) Histrionics nor is it Leni Riefenstahl style of strength through terror of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL.

Eiji Tsuburaya and his team recreated all the U.S. battleships in the harbor with incredible accuracy. There are shots of the zeros flying in formation around the mountains of Hawaii these model shots are cut together with actual footage. Since the picture was one of propaganda the Japanese navy gave the filmmakers access to the actual aircraft carrier that was actually there. After the Pearl Harbor attack, the picture moves to the attack on the British Royal Navy’s battleship’s Repulse and Prince of Wales that were in Malaya on December 10th, 1941. Despite being a victory for Japan, the film is very somber about the events. When the Pearl Harbor attack occurs a third into the film, its much more epic and has better shots than the Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer CGI fest and it is interesting to see that there are no bucked toothed, bespectacled Japanese characters saying “ahhh soo.”

After the allied victory over Japan and the U.S. occupation, Eiji Tsuburaya was forced to leave Toho; since Tsuburaya’s models of Pearl Harbor were so incredibly accurate he could have only been part of an espionage ring, or so they thought. The footage of the attack was so realistic that it was seen as documentary footage of the actual attack and it was sent it to MOVIETONE NEWS. Practically every documentary on the bombings of Pearl Harbor uses Eiji Tsuburaya’s footage from HAWI-MARE OKI KAISEN, including the Emmy winning show VICTORY AT SEA.

As the 50’s started Tsuburaya returned to Toho as head of Toho’s Visual Effects Department after working freelance with his own company and he would become, along with director Ishirō Honda, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, and Akira Ifukube an integral part in the creation of what would become Toho’s and Japan’s most famous export…


Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka went to Indonesia to discuss the production of EI KO-NO KAGI-NI (IN THE SHADOW OF GLORY) this was to be a big budget joint venture between the two countries but politics interfered, Japan had occupied them during WWII, they couldn’t see eye to eye and visas for the Japanese filmmakers and actors along with the project, was terminated. On the flight back home Tanaka looked out the window of his seat and had to think quick about another film that would fill the void left by the cancellation of the film, but what could he do that would be a big hit, KING KONG had been re-released internationally and was a bigger hit than in 1933, another film has doing well too was the Ray Harryhausen film THE BEAST OF 20,000 FATHOMS. He thought how about a giant monster. The other thing that was on his mind was the very recent disaster of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru.

On March 1st, 1954 the U.S. Castle Bravo Hydrogen bomb test was conducted. This explosion at the Bikini Atoll was 1000 times more powerful than the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fifteen islands were contaminated residents were not evacuated until three days afterward. The tuna boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru 23 man crew were all exposed and suffered from acute radiation sickness, one crew member died not long afterward. Radiation from the explosion was found in Japan, Australia, India, United States, and even Europe. This test resulted in an international incident between The United States and Japan, with the U.S. having to pay restitution to the individuals infected. The Castle Bravo test would be the fifth largest recorded explosion in history. With this making headlines and monsters big at the box office Tomoyuki Tanaka had his story.

Tanaka got novelist Shigeru Kayama to pen a story outline for a script about a prehistoric creature that is brought to life by a nuclear bomb that he could quickly pitch to the studio, the working title would be THE GIANT MONSTER FROM 20,000 MILES BENEATH THE SEA and the film, with a security code of Project G (giant) was sent into pre-production.

Once the script was completed it was realized that due to the complexities of the film the entire picture had to be storyboarded, a first in Japanese Cinema. Due to the number of studio artists working on boards, it was decided to ask traditional artists to come up with a concept for the creature, one of these was manga artist Wasuke Abe, but none were suitable for Tanaka’s vision, Wasuke did, however, stay on to help with storyboards. Now it was up to Eiji Tsuburaya’s team to come up with a design for the creature. Toho’s art director Akira Watanabe drew up some concepts that were more appropriate, based loosely on an Iguanodon and a T-Rex. Watanabe drew up three different designs, one with scales which made him kind of serpentine, another with warts, the final one having a look of skin damage and that would be the one Tanaka signed off on. The name for this creature would come from a nickname for a guy who worked at the studio who was strong as a gorilla but had the physic of a whale and was nicknamed Gojira a combination of Gorilla and Kujira, Japanese for whale. This story though is more than likely a myth, I’d like to think its true.

Now Eiji’s team had to create the thing. Back in 1933 Tsuburaya saw KING KONG and wanted to someday make a monster like fellow effects artist Willis O’Brien had done with Kong and once he got the GOJIRA gig he was very excited about the project and the challenges it presented. The first challenge was that there were no stop-motion animators in Japan and since the picture already had a release date, time was not a luxury Tsuburaya had. Thinking over the project he came to the conclusion that a man in a suit would be the only solution to his dilemma, but this had never been done either. To say the suit was problematic would be an understatement, to say the least.

The suit went through a few constructions until a suitable version was constructed, but at 6’ 5” and weighing in at an excess of 200 lbs, it literally was a beast to wear for actors Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka, the two actors alternated wearing the burdensome costume and it wasn’t uncommon for several cups of sweat to be poured out of the costume by days end.

For building models of actual locations production designer, Akira Watanabe took photographs and sketches of buildings and streets in and around Tokyo. When the models were done, always, the perfectionist, Tsuburaya had them destroyed as they weren’t precise enough and had them obtain blueprints of the buildings for better accuracy.

GODZILLA began principal photography in August of 1954 with Tsuburaya’s team handling effects, animation and on location with director Ishiro Honda shooting plates for compositing later. Both Honda’s principal photography with the actors and Tsuburaya’s Godzilla stomping were shot simultaneously to make the release date.

GOJIRA officially opened in Japan on November 3rd, 1954 and despite mixed to negative reviews it became the eighth most watched film that year. Critics felt that the filmmakers were exploiting the devastating H-bomb tests and thought a giant monster was “strange” this type of sci-fi horror picture and horror pictures, in general, were really not common at all in Japan at the time, but Toho Studios proved to the leader in Japanese Cinema that year because when it came to Awards time in Japan GOJIRA, believe it or not, was nominated for Best Picture as was Toho’s other big-budget epic Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI which took the top prize.

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For the U.S. market, Toho made GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS. This was a recut which lost most of its anti-nuclear testing subtleties. The added scenes with actor Raymond Burr, two years shy of his gig on PERRY MASON, were shot over a period of six days and usually consist of him gapping at the sky. These added scenes were written by Al C. Ward, he would later write for shows like RAWHIDE, 12 O’ CLOCK HIGH and was the creator of MEDICAL CENTER, he was given the opportunity to write these scenes for 2500 bucks or 5 percent of the profits, thinking the film wouldn’t play he opted for the cash. He eventually regretted this decision as he would’ve made about 5 million bucks over his lifetime in residuals, but hey, MEDICAL CENTER is not too bad.

GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS would be the version that would play in foreign markets and television for years to come until the big guy returned to the states in 2004 for his 50th anniversary as GOJIRA restored and played in its original Japanese version and this version as well as the U.s. version are available on home video. The esteemed Criterion Collection has released a Blu-Ray and announced that they have obtained rights for the rest of the Godzilla pictures, no longer relegated to the dollar bins of discount stores expect the G-man to be around for some time in pristine presentations.

The worldwide success of Godzilla led Toho to make more Godzilla movies most of which were made by the team of Eiji Tsuburaya, Ishirō Honda, Tomoyuki Tanaka, and Akira Ifukube, the next one being GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (in the U. S. GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER) All totaled there are now around thirty-nine GODZILLA pictures, in the words of the huge “Godzilla” fan Gomer Pyle “Shazam!”


In 1963 Tsuburaya started up his own studio Tsuburaya Special Effects Company and one of the first shows his company produced was 1965’s Ultra-Q. The concept and title were strategically thought through. With the success of the Godzilla pictures and other films like MOTHRA, GAMMERA, THE MYSTERIANS, Kaiju pictures were all the rage in Japan and the pictures where becoming more and more kid-friendly so it was only natural to transfer this success to the small screen, the only question was how. When Japan took the gold medal in the ‘64 Olympics, it was mentioned that one of the more difficult moves was the Ultra-C, C being the most difficult and during the broadcast of the games every time this move was performed the announcer shouted “Ultra!’ and the word Ultra instantly became a part of the vernacular. One of the most popular kid shows at the time was a black and white cartoon called LITTLE GHOST Q-TARO AND Tsuburaya Special Effects Productions new show would be called ULTRA-Q and be shot in black and white.

But it was the next show he produced that became legendary, ULTRA MAN.
During a galactic pursuit, a beach ball looking craft collides with Science Patrol officer Shinn Hayata’s (Shin Kurobe) aircraft. The alien, who comes from the nebula M78 which lies beyond the 40th galaxy, feels bad that he killed the pilot of the ship and decides to merge with him, saving him from certain death and whenever trouble arises Hayata must use a device called the beta capsule, that was provided to him by the alien to transform him into the giant Ultraman. Now, whenever earth is attacked by monsters Hayata can transform into the giant Ultra Man for some Kaiju fighting action.

Now, what could this Ultra Man look like? First, production designer Tohl Narita looked to Greek and Egyptian concepts (I found this interesting as another kaiju show from about the same time had an Egyptian looking robot in JOHNNY SOKKO AND HIS FLYING ROBOT) Instead Narita ended up going with something at home…the Buddha Bodhisattva! The face giving him a calm otherworldliness and combined with the fighting skills of the legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi. With the sketches approved it was time to make Maquettes. here they noticed that the nose made him look too human. They then made the nose more aquiline and going up and over the head likes fin. So that he wouldn’t be entirely invincible a light was added to his chest, blue when he’s all pumped up ready to fight and red when he’s running out of energy, his energy only lasts for three minutes. All this combined with the silver body with a red accent you had one very 60’s Modern Space-Age pop icon. As an added touch, Tsuburaya who had converted to Catholicism after marrying his wife in the 30s wanted to have him form a cross with his arms to show that he was on the side of good. Berms of light would then shoot out. The suit was sculpted by Tohl Narita and built by Bin Satoshi Furuya who also performed in it as well. The costume underwent some changes through the course of the series which lasted for 39 episodes.

ULTRAMAN was to premiere on July 17, 1966, on the Japanese channel TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) but the station wished to premiere the show earlier as their competition, Fuji TV also had a kaiju show on the air, AMBASSADOR MAGMA. Eiji Tsuburaya had to inform them that this was impossible as the shows were in shot sequentially. To remedy their problem Tsuburaya, the network’s sponsors and the network decide to do a live show instead, that would introduce the character to their television audience. This show was called THE BIRTH OF ULTRAMAN: AN ULTRAMAN PREMIERE CELEBRATION. This last minute decision was a great success and helped ensure ULTRAMAN’S hit premier a week later.

ULTRA MAN became an instant success and now Tsuburaya’s company was successfully competing with other studios. This didn’t go over well with Toho Studios as Eiji Tsuburaya was still creating visual effects for them, Toho felt the name of Tsuburaya company implied that only he could make visual effects and not Toho Studios. So Tsuburaya Special Effects Company became just Tsuburaya Productions.

ULTRA MAN was so successful that United Artists Television grabbed up the worldwide rights along with ULTRA-Q, though ULTRA-Q never aired because color was the new thing and the show had been made in black and white. The dubbing was handled by actors and voice actors Peter Fernandez, Corrine Orr and Earl Hammond with Fernandez writing the scripts as well. It’s interesting to note that these actors also voiced and wrote the new scripts for other anime classics like SPEED RACER, GIGANTOR, ASTRO-BOY, and MARINE BOY.


My favorite film from Eiji Tsuburaya, Tomoyuki Tanaka, Inshiro Honda, and Akira Ifukube is WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. This picture used to be on all the time on KTLA’s Movie For A Six O’ Clock evening when I was growing up and I would never miss it! It features WEST SIDE STORY and TWIN PEAKS’ Russ Tamblyn as the hip Dr. Paul Stewart. WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS also features my favorite Akira Ifukube soundtrack. The score is epic with a loud gargantuan brass section, I can still hear those horns Duh, Duh, Duh, Duuuuh and a haunting theremin.



WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is a story any child can relate to…fighting siblings. The picture was originally called SANDA VS. GAIRA and is a sequel to FURAKENSHTAIN TAI CHIETI KAIJU BARAGON released here in the states as FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD with TV’s THE REBEL Nick Adams, who tragically died of a drug overdose a couple years after making the film. Like WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS like its predecessor was a co-production with theUnited Production’s of America (UPA, which is now Classic Media and owned by NBCUniversal) and Toho Studios.

WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS like ULTRA MAN was made in 1966 and like ULTRA MAN the creatures were designed by Tohl Narita. Unlike other creatures in the Toho line of Kaiju, these costumes used the actor’s eyes and mouths in their Neanderthal-like make-ups. Underneath their costumes were football shoulder pads to make them look strong and agile. To differentiate between the two gargantuan, one was brown, the kind and gentle one, and the other was green since he was mean, at least that’s what I used to say when I was a little boy.

The film has some incredible effects work from Tsuburaya, like the opening attack. An octopus latches onto a ship only to have the green Gargantua come along and Kung fu the octopus, trash the ship and swim after its survivors all during a rainstorm, it’s a great intro to the film. Since the Gargantuas are gargantuan and not behemoth’s like “Godzilla” the model could be much larger with more detail and it shows, especially in the airport scene. And who cant forget the lounge scene attack with that wonderful song “Feel in My Heart” sung by actress Kipp Hamilton, who was Carol Burnett’s sister-in-law, making her final film appearance, Devo used to sing it as their opening number at concerts.

UPA’s then head of production, Henry Saperstein, didn’t much care for the look of the creatures, they’re supposed to be spawns from the original film’s Frankenstein creature who died at the end, sorry for the spoiler.) so he had Toho remove all references to the Frankenstein creature of the previous picture and had them change the names to Brown Gargantua and Green Gargantua (pretty clever) and to change the name from FURANKENSHUTAIN-NO KAIJU SANDA VS. GAIRA to WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS thus whipping away any link to the original, but in Japan, it retained its original title.


In 1967 Toho Studios and Rankin/Bass productions co-produced KING KONG ESCAPES (KINGU KONGU-NO GYAKUSHU) again with Toho’s golden team of Eiji Tsuburaya, Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ishiro Honda, and Akira Ifukube. Rankin/Bass, as I’m sure most of you are aware, are the makers of the stop-motion animated Christmas classics RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER, SANTA CLAUSE IS COMING TO TOWN and many more. At the time they had produced the Saturday morning cartoon THE KING KONG SHOW. They had compiled two episodes into an hour show, SEKAI NO OJA KINGU KONGU, for the Japanese market and it was very successful. Eventually, they packaged the show along with their other cartoon Tom Thumb and this played well too. So this lead Rankin/Bass Productions to approach Toho Studios with their Kong franchise and a deal was made. The first of these pictures was EBIRAH: THE HORROR OF THE DEEP, but Rankin/Bass were unhappy with the script and bowed out. The picture was still made though as Toho just replaced King Kong with Godzilla, it was released in the states as GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER featuring Mothra.

The two companies finally came to an agreement on their next try, the fun, if a bit silly, but often beautiful looking KING KONG ESCAPES. The film is loosely based on Rankin/Bass’ THE KING KONG SHOW. The plot is about evil genius Dr. Who, no relation to the time lord, who is in search of element X found only at the North Pole, Dr. Who is dubbed by the legendary Paul Frees and sounds just like the Burgermeister from SANTA CLAUSE IS COMING TO TOWN. To accomplish this job he constructs a Mecha-Kong to dig for it but radiation freezes mecha-Kong’s brain. So Dr. Who must go to Mondo Island where Kong lives, this really pisses off his superior Madam Piranha (Mai Hamm best known as Kissy Suzuki in the Bond film YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) once at the island Kong wrestles a big dinosaur and befriends the cute Lt. Susan Watson (Linda Jo Miller, who was an American model living in Japan at the time, she was also in the Japanese/Italian production THE GREEN SLIME) Eventually Mecha-Kong and King Kong battle it out in Tokyo.

Looking at the models as a kid was always the best part of watching these pictures and again Tsuburaya’s model work is impeccable, to say the least. Since its more cartoonish than earlier Toho productions, the models and sets are more dynamic. I’ve always loved the shots of mecha-kong in the snow.
Universal Pictures released the Rankin/Bass and Toho Studio co-production on June 19th, 1968 on a double bill with THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST starring Don Knotts.

On January 25, 1970, Eiji Tsuburaya passed away in his sleep at the age of 68. His influence and innovations mad a lasting impression in the world of cinema to the delight of children and cinema fans everywhere.

Obviously, I couldn’t go over every Eiji Tsuburaya production but if you wish to read more on it I highly recommend reading up on it and most importantly watch the films.

Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters by August Ragone