Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, Ultraman, Garo. These are some of the shows that have become synonyms with the word “tokusatsu”. But, the history of the medium is deep and rich, going back all the way to kabuki theater, known for having outlandish fight and action scenes on the theater stage. For this history lesson, we’ll start with the modern inception.
Tokusatsu, from the original term tokushu satsuei, meaning “special photography”, is more commonly referred to as “special effects”.
Even if you’ve never seen one his movies, or if you don’t even think they’re tokusatsu at all, you can trace almost all of it back to one character – Godzilla.
Released in 1954, Godzilla, known in Japan as Gojira, tells the story of a giant monster’s attack on the cities of Japan. Doesn’t sound too innovative, does it? Godzilla‘s impact is multifaceted. Headed up by director Ishiro Honda and special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya, Godzilla introduced filming techniques still in wide use today. In addition, the movie was one of an allegorical nature. Rather than being just a monster movie, it was a movie about the dangers of nuclear weapons – told from the perspective of a country that had a nuclear bomb dropped on them just ten years before.
As influential as it was, Godzilla was a movie no one ever intended to create. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka’s current project had fallen apart. Desperate to fill the release window with anything at all, TOHO, the studio behind the Godzilla series, forced Tanaka into creating whatever possible, just so long as it was released on time.
Serendipity would strike when, on a plane, Tanaka read about the Lucky Dragon incident. The ironically named ship, Lucky Dragon 5, was at the center of the true story of a fishing boat overwhelmed by radiation from a US nuclear test, eventually leading to the death of one of its men. The nuclear test was intended to be top secret, but the exposure to the ship’s crew brought America’s actions to light and ushered in an era of widespread fear regarding nuclear weapons and testing of any kind. The story of the Lucky Dragon 5 is referenced in the movie during a scene in which a fishing boat is destroyed by Godzilla’s final attack.
Also inspired by the 1953 movie, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Tanaka decided that the movie needed to have a monster at its center. Enlisting Eiji Tsuburaya’s help, the team went to work on the monster. Before landing on the iconic design known to people all over the world, Tsuburaya created a plethora of designs ranging from a giant octopus to the perhaps not so subtle idea of giant ape with a mushroom shaped head.
While we think of Godzilla involving masterful suit work, history almost played out very different. Tsuburaya was impressed by the stop motion techniques seen in the original King Kong movie (1933) and intended to represent Godzilla in such a manner. Fortunately, this was a costly process far beyond the means of the budget. It was then decided that the monster needed to be suit acted.
Suit actor Haruo Nakajima volunteered for the role of Godzilla, a role he would reprise until he retired with 1972’s Godzilla vs Gigan. Being one of the first of its kind, the suit was bulky and awkward. The suit went through many redesigns before it was eventually worked into the slimmed down version seen in the original movie. Despite the redesigns, the suit was still treacherous. Nakajima reported going through dehydration in the suit and, to avoid suffocating, the suit could only be worn for three minutes at a time.
In addition to the story about the fears of nuclear testing, Godzilla featured something tokusatsu has also been well-known for – character drama. A love triangle was created to focus on the main cast of characters. The character of Daisuke Serizawa would also go on to become a fan favorite for his sacrifice in taking his knowledge of the oxygen bomb used to destroy Godzilla with him to the grave.
When released, Godzilla was a hit, doubling its budget in sales. Though for as well regarded as it’s become, it was initially met with negative critical reaction, accused of being exploitative. In the years since, Godzilla has gone on to spawn sequels and spin-offs, as well as creating the tokusatsu field as we know it today thanks to key players from the original movie who would remain influential throughout their careers, not least of all being Eiji Tsuburaya.
The History of Tokusatsu is a series of articles chronicling the progression of tokusatsu from its earliest roots to the modern day film and TV shows.