Coinciding with the 55th Anniversary of the Ultra Series, Team TokuNet contributor Rex Xeno gives a brief overview of the history of Japan’s “Father of Special Effects” Eiji Tsuburaya.
Possibly the most influential figure in the Japanese film industry would be the country’s “Father of Special Effects,” Eiji Tsuburaya. Revered for his work in creating Godzilla and the Ultra Series, Mr. Tsuburaya was a pioneer of special filming techniques in Japan. His legacy lives on to this day through his creations and has had a large enough impact for him to be compared to Walt Disney.
Birth and Early Life
Eiji Tsuburaya (birth name Eiichi Tsumuraya), was (officially) born on July 7th, 1901 in Sukagawa town within the Fukushima prefecture. He was mostly raised by both his grandmother and uncle after his mother passed away when the boy was 3-years old. Eiji Tsuburaya was first exposed to film in 1911, when he saw documentary footage of a volcanic eruption. This sparked an interest in motion pictures in the then 10-year old boy. He was fascinated with the technical aspects of the film and was even inspired to build his own film projector. However, Tsuburaya’s primary passion in his early life was flying. He was very passionate about airplanes and flying. The boy would make model planes out of wood fairly often and enrolled in the Nippon Flying School in 1916. This dream of Tsuburaya’s was crushed however after a fatal accident caused the school to shut down.
Beginning with the Camera
Looking for a new path, Tsuburaya entered an engineering school and simultaneously began to work in the toy manufacturing business. It was at this time, Tsuburaya had a chance meeting with Japanese film director Yoshiro Edamasa, and was offered a cameraman position by the director. , Beginning his filmmaking career at merely 18 years of age, Eiji Tsuburaya became an assistant cameraman in the year 1919.
Although his career was briefly interrupted by military conscription in 1921, Tsuburaya was honorably discharged 6 months later and continued to work in the industry. He officially became a full-time cameraman in 1927 under Shochiku Kyoto studios, after being recruited to assist the shooting of A Page of Madness in 1926. He garnered respect in the studio for his various innovations: building his own camera crane. Tsuburaya also became known for his extensive usage of smoke on set, soon obtaining him the nickname “Smoke Tsuburaya.” It was also around this time, that Tsuburaya married his wife Masano Araki, and has his first son Hajime in the years 1930 and 1931 respectively. 1931 was also the year Mr. Tsuburaya met Akira Watanabe at Shochiku’s art department where he learned special effects techniques, namely miniature filming.
What truly sparked the special effects legacy of Tsuburaya’s career, however, was the release of King Kong in 1933. Greatly inspired, Tsuburaya obtained a personal 35mm print copy of the film, and began analyzing the intricacies of the work by Willis O’Brien frame by frame. Two years later, Tsuburaya became the chief cinematographer at the company J.O. Studios. While working for J.O. Studios, he worked on the film, Kaguya Hime. The 75-minute adaptation of the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter folktale; became the first of Tsuburaya’s many film works that employed heavy usage of miniature and optical effects. The film was long believed lost, however, very recently a 33-minute UK re-edit of the film was recently discovered.
War and Propaganda
…In 1937, J.O. Studios was acquired by industrialist Ichizo Kobayashi, who proceeded to merge it with some of his other companies, to form Toho Company Ltd. After the merger, producer Iwao Mori, gave Tsuburaya his own department in special effects to help the company in developing new special filming techniques.
In the 1940s, Tsuburaya came to working on various Japanese war propaganda films. His most infamous film of the time was Hawai Mare Oki Kaisen (The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya), which featured a re-enactment of the events at Pearl Harbour. Though it was highly successful at the time of its release, it led to Tsuburaya’s work being targeted by Allied Forces after the war’s end. The seeming realism of the footage stirred suspicion of Tsuburaya having been a spy, which caused him to be blacklisted from Toho. Following this, Tsuburaya created his own Special Effects Technique Laboratory and went to do freelance special effects work for Daiei’s The Rainbow Man and The Invisible Man Appears.
Master of Monsters
After the American occupation of Japan ended in early 1952, Tsuburaya was able to return to Toho. In the following year, Eiji Tsuburaya met director Ishiro Honda while working on two of his films. Both Tsuburaya and Honda’s careers would be defined in the next year when the two worked with each other on Project G, now known as Godzilla. When learning of the project, Tsuburaya jumped at the opportunity to create a monster movie like King Kong. To bring Godzilla to life, Tsuburaya initially envisioned the use of stop motion just like King Kong. However, a lack of time and resources forced Tsuburaya to instead get creative with an effects method more practical for Godzilla’s production. Eventually, Tsuburaya came up with the idea to create a monster suit to be worn by a stuntman that would be filmed from low angles on a miniature set. Pioneering the “Suitmation” method iconic to Japanese tokusatsu.
After the release and commercial success of Godzilla was when Tsuburaya’s career really took off. Although special effects jobs were not viewed with as much admiration as today, the continued output of Eiji Tsuburaya at Toho with Godzilla Raids Again, Rodan, The Mysterians, and numerous other films granted Tsuburaya respect from his superiors. This respect allowed Tsuburaya the opportunity to formally organize and endlessly advance the special effects department at Toho. In 1963, after realizing the potential of Japanese television, Tsuburaya founded his own production studio. He immediately began the development of a television series titled “Woo”, which went on to become Ultra Q. The massive success of Ultra Q birthed the Ultra Series, which continued later that year with the swift production of Ultraman. Both of which greatly contributed to the “Kaiju-Boom” of Japan in the mid-60s.
As Tsuburaya’s schedule became much more frantic between two studios, he soon gave his top protege Sadamasa Arikawa the role of special effects director on productions such as Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (though Tsuburaya was given an honourary credit on this film and some others). While the aging Mr. Tsuburaya was still working as a special effects director, he would begin to experience health complications. These issues progressively got worse across the year 1969. However, in spite of these issues, Tsuburaya was still intent on directing the special effects for Ishiro Honda’s Space Ameoba and was continuing to work on the scripts of his own personal projects, including the remake of Kaguya Hime.
Unfortunately, on January 25th, 1970, Eiji Tsuburaya died from a heart attack at 68 years old. Despite his death having occurred over 50 years ago, the Tsuburaya name still reigns as a beloved part of the Japanese film industry. Both Godzilla and Ultraman still stand as figureheads of Japanese pop culture with their increasing international presence. Godzilla vs. Kong has made the rounds in the international box office across this year and was finally released in Japan earlier this month. Alongside that, the Godzilla: Singular Point anime series was released to great fanfare just this June. Meanwhile, the premiere of Ultraman Trigger and the Ultra Series‘ 55th anniversary has finally arrived. Tsuburaya’s legacy has also been reaffirmed through the opening of the Eiji Tsuburaya Museum in his hometown of Sukagawa in 2019.