Kenpachiro Satsuma Interview III

by David Milner

Translation by Yoshihiko Shibata

Kenpachiro Satsuma

(Conducted in December 1995)

Kenpachiro Satsuma plays Godzilla in GODZILLA 1985 (1984), GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989), GODZILLA VS. GHIDRAH (1991), GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1992), GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1993), GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA (1994), and GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER (1995). He also plays Hedorah in GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (1971) and Gigan in both GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972) and GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973).

David Milner: How did you react when you found out that Godzilla was going to die in GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER?

Kenpachiro Satsuma: I saw very little of the first draft of the script while it was being written. That was unusual. I really saw the script only when the first draft was completed. I wondered why I wasn't being allowed to see the script. When I finally saw the first draft at the end of June, I learned that Godzilla was going to die. (GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER was written by Kazuki Omori. Mr. Omori also wrote GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA, and wrote and directed GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE and GODZILLA VS. GHIDRAH.)

DM: Were you surprised?

KS: I wasn't. However, I was quite concerned with the manner in which Godzilla was going to die.

I was surprised that Godzilla was going to die on land instead of in the ocean, which was his cradle. I think it's natural for Godzilla to die because he is a living thing, but I envisioned his death differently.

My idea was based on the legend of the tomb of elephants. According to the legend, when an elephant begins to feel that he is going to die, he secretly goes to the tomb. I envisioned Godzilla returning to the South Pacific when he began to feel that his end was coming. There then would have been some implication that Godzilla had died.

DM: Why was the script hidden from you?

KS: It was kept under wraps because Toho didn't want any information about it to leak to the press. The producers knew that there were many media representatives approaching me for information. (The last six Godzilla films were co-produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka and Shogo Tomiyama. Mr. Tanaka produced virtually all of the other science fiction movies made by the Toho Company Ltd.)

DM: Was the Godzilla costume used in the production of GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER the same one that had been used in the production of GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA?

KS: Yes.

DM: Was working on GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER more challenging for you than working on the other recent Godzilla films?

KS: Yes. I had to wear an oxygen mask both in the water and on land because of the carbon monoxide. (Godzilla is exposed to a fatal dose of radiation at the beginning of GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER. Smoke rises from his body throughout the movie.)

I fainted four times during the first day of filming. We were shooting the scene in which Godzilla emerges from the water as he approaches Hong Kong. I wasn't warned about the carbon monoxide, so I wasn't wearing an oxygen mask.

We were shooting in water, so nobody could just run up to me when they saw me acting strangely. We were filming a long shot, so nobody was very close to me. The members of the staff didn't realize I'd fainted that first time until they started opening up the costume so I could get out.

DM: Was the mood on the set any different from the mood on the set of the other recent Godzilla movies?

KS: Somewhat. We didn't express our feelings, but I sensed that there was a special feeling on the set.

DM: Did you try to do the best work you could since you knew that there were not going to be any other Godzilla films made for some time?

KS: Yes. I did. I think my performance is my best as Godzilla.

The script called for Godzilla to be much more violent than usual. So, I at first tried to portray him as if he were on a rampage. However, Koichi Kawakita felt that Godzilla's behavior should still be somewhat subdued. (Mr. Kawakita directed the special effects for the last six Godzilla movies. He also directed the special effects for YAMATO TAKERU (1994), MOTHRA (1996), and a few other science fiction films.)

DM: Do you think that you continuously got better at playing Godzilla over the years?

KS: Yes. I think my performances did keep getting better. I also think that I managed to give Godzilla a distinct character. I'm very proud of that.

DM: What was working with Haruo Nakajima on GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER and GODZILLA VS. GIGAN like? (Mr. Nakajima plays Godzilla in the first twelve Godzilla movies. He also plays RODAN (1956), VARAN - THE UNBELIEVABLE (1958), and many of the other giant monster characters created by Toho.)

KS: I did not especially want to play Hedorah. I had a prejudice against actors who played giant monsters.

About halfway through the production of GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER, I realized that Mr. Nakajima was a monster not only inside a costume, but also outside of one! I was affected by his spirit. He was very proud of being a monster actor.

I soon began to have respect for monster acting. That's one of the reasons why I accepted the role of Gigan. Another was the heartwarming treatment I received from Teruyoshi Nakano. (Mr. Nakano directed the special effects for GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, and several other Godzilla films.)

I remember that Mr. Nakajima and I went to cities such as Nagoya and Osaka to promote GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER. Even outside of the costume, he was Godzilla! It was Godzilla at large! On stage, in the street - everywhere! Mr. Nakajima wasn't concerned about what people thought. I tried to restrain him - Hedorah tried to stop Godzilla's rampage - but he was a monster!

Mr. Nakajima had the great spirit of the older people in the movie industry. He began working in the industry during the 1940s. Whenever a young, inexperienced director would try to tell him what to do, Mr. Nakajima would reply, "Back off, you green boy!" He had that type of attitude.

DM: Did Mr. Kawakita treat you the same way Mr. Nakano did?

KS: He pretty much did during the production of the last three Godzilla films. Before that the treatment I received from him wasn't bad, but it was different.

THE MAKING OF GODZILLA 1985 was directed by Mr. Kawakita. Kenji Suzuki was the chief assistant director, and the camerman was Kenichi Eguchi. One day, while I was watching television, Mr. Kawakita asked me to put on the Godzilla costume so he could shoot some footage for the documentary. I said that I was too busy when I actually was just watching television. I was very arrogant at the time. Mr. Kawakita asked me to put on the costume several times afterward, but I always refused. (Mr. Suzuki and Mr. Eguchi worked on the recent Godzilla movies.)

Sometime after GODZILLA 1985 was released, GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE was announced. I initially thought that Mr. Nakano would direct the special effects for it, but then I heard that Mr. Kawakita was going to direct the special effects. I remember thinking to myself, "Well, this is the end for me." I'd treated Mr. Kawakita badly, so I didn't think that he would ask me to play Godzilla. However, he did. I think he did for two reasons. One was his open-mindedness. The other was the fact that he had never before directed the special effects for a Godzilla film. Mr. Kawakita probably felt that he needed to work with people who had experience working on Godzilla films.

I remember that I was supposed to sit next to Mr. Kawakita at the party held to celebrate the beginning of the production of GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE. He was late, but I reserved a seat for him right next to me. When he finally came, I offered the seat to him, but he took a different one. So, I began to feel that he didn't like me.

We did not have a very good relationship at first. However, after we worked on GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA together, our relationship began to be more like the one I had with Mr. Nakano.

DM: What exactly brought about the change?

KS: I think that as Mr. Kawakita and I worked together more and more, we began to communicate with each other better.

I still yell, "I hate you!" to Mr. Kawakita at parties. He always yells back, "I hate you even more than you hate me!" We do this in public, even in front of Mr. Tanaka. Of course, if we really hated each other, we wouldn't be saying that we did. We simply would avoid each other.

DM: I know that GIANT MONSTER PULGASARY (1985) has been released on VHS tape, but I haven't been able to find a copy of it. Is it available in stores? (The movie features a minotaur-like monster played by Mr. Satsuma.)

KS: You have to send in money for a copy by mail. The tape isn't being sold in stores. That is one of the conditions under which it is being made available.

The copyright matter still had not been resolved less than a week ago. It was settled in only a few days.

DM: How did you become involved in the production of GIANT MONSTER PULGASARY?

KS: It was a co-production between the North Korean government and Toho.

DM: Did Toho help finance it?

KS: No. The North Korean government paid for it to be produced. Toho only arranged for some of its special effects staff members to go to North Korea. (Mr. Nakano and Mr. Eguchi were among those who went.)

DM: Why did the North Korean government want to produce a giant monster film?

KS: Jong-Il Kim wanted to produce one. That's the only reason. (Mr. Kim's father was the head of the North Korean government at the time.)

DM: How much time did you spend in North Korea?

KS: Two months.

DM: What was working on the movie like?

KS: Although the North Korean members of the staff already had made a few war films, they'd never before worked on a monster movie. Their inexperience caused production to go very slowly.

DM: Were all of the members of the special effects staff Toho employees?

KS: Yes.

DM: Was the production budget very large?

KS: It was about four times larger than the average for a North Korean film.

DM: Was it difficult to work with people who spoke Korean instead of Japanese?

KS: Yes.

Since Korea had been part of the Japanese empire at one time, older Koreans could speak Japanese. However, younger ones could not. So, we had four interpreters working with us.

It took a large amount of time for the miniature buildings to be constructed because we always had to wait for the interpreters to translate our instructions. Shooting also took much longer than usual for that reason.

DM: Do you think the movie turned out well?

KS: There was a screening of it held at Toho's studios recently. The film wasn't bad. However, I remember that I saw one very strange blank spot in it that lasted for a few seconds. I don't know why it was there. I saw the same spot when I saw the movie on VHS tape about a year ago. I don't know if the spot appears in the home video edition that's now being sold to the public.

DM: Why did it take so long for the film to be released in Japan?

KS: Jong-Il Kim did not succeed his father until he died last year. The succession became a political issue here in Japan. Many newspapers and television stations reported that the new North Korean dictator had made a monster movie with the assistance of Toho employees. Toho became very nervous about the matter.

Many reporters asked me about my experiences in North Korea while GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA was in production. I had to try to keep what I said to a minimum because Toho was trying to keep GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA completely separated from GIANT MONSTER PULGASARY in people's minds.

DM: I've heard that GIANT MONSTER PULGASARY originally was going to be released in theaters. Is this true?

KS: The producer, Sang-Ok Shin, and a film distributor in Osaka made a deal to release GIANT MONSTER PULGASARY on home video. Soon after they made the deal, a committee representing North Koreans living in Japan claimed rights to the movie. So, the distributor agreed to allow the committee to show it in some theaters before it was released on home video. Eventually, the theatrical release was canceled, and the distributor backed out of the deal. Some time after that happened, the company that is now distributing the film on home video reached an agreement with Mr. Shin.

DM: What prompted you to write NORTH KOREA AS SEEN BY GODZILLA?

KS: I kept a diary about the making of GODZILLA 1985. When it was published in a magazine, it proved to be very popular.

When I went to North Korea to work on GIANT MONSTER PULGASARY, I thought that it would be interesting to keep a diary about my experiences there. When I returned to Japan, I cleaned up the notes I'd made and brought them to the Nesuko Publishing Company. Its editors thought the notes were very interesting and decided to turn them into a book.

DM: What prompted you to write INSIDE GODZILLA?

KS: There was a party held to celebrate the publication of GOOD MORNING, GODZILLA. It was at that party that I spoke with Ishiro Honda for the first and last time. An employee of the company that had published the book and I talked for a while, and he became very interested in my stories about the making of the Godzilla movies on which I'd worked. So, he asked me to write a book on the subject. I didn't think he was serious until I received a formal offer from him a few days later. (Mr. Honda directed GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS (1954), GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO (1965), TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975), and many of Toho's other science fiction films. He died shortly after the publication of GOOD MORNING, GODZILLA, which is about his career.)

DM: How much time did you spend working on YAMATO TAKERU (1994)? (It is a period movie that features several different giant monsters.)

KS: Toho spent three months shooting the film. I spent about a month and a half working on it.

DM: What was playing the eight-headed snake of Yamata like?

KS: I didn't enjoy it. I couldn't give a performance. Anybody could have done the job.

DM: I've heard that you had to use a walkie-talkie to communicate with Mr. Kawakita while you were inside the costume. Is this true?

KS: The third assistant special effects director and I used walkie-talkies to communicate with each other. He was in charge of the eight-headed snake of Yamata.

DM: Are you happy with the way YAMATO TAKERU turned out?

KS: No. The standard footage is okay by itself, and the special effects footage is okay by itself, but I don't think the continuity between the two is very good.

I do think the continuity between the standard and special effects footage in GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER is good. That's one of the reasons why I like the movie so much.

DM: Was YAMATO TAKERU successful?

KS: No.

DM: Has Toho decided not to produce any sequels to it? (The film was intended to be part of a trilogy.)

KS: I don't think that any sequels will be made.

DM: Which of the Godzilla movies you've worked on are your favorites?

KS: I think I did my best work on GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER. It's the nature of actors to pay attention to their own performances, rather than entire films. That's why I also especially like the first battle in GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE and the final battle in GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA.

DM: You mentioned that shooting GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER was very difficult for you at first. Was working on any of the other movies in which you play Godzilla especially difficult for you?

KS: The most difficult scene for me to shoot was the one in which Godzilla comes out of an erupting volcano in GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA. The scene was shot at night. We didn't shoot it during the day and use a filter to make it seem as if the scene were taking place at night. Many bright lights, gasoline, gun powder, and napalm were used. I had to climb up the inside of the volcano, which was very steep. Pyrotechnics were going off everywhere. There were cables and ropes everywhere. A moment after each explosion that took place in front of me, some staff member would have to pull the shell out of the way so I wouldn't step on it. Fortunately, the first take turned out well.

DM: Have you decided to retire from playing Godzilla?

KS: I'm dead. I'll come back only if I see that the person who is playing Godzilla when production on the series is resumed sometime at the beginning of the next century isn't doing a good job.

I began to feel that it was time for me to retire at the end of production on GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA. I noticed that I was beginning to lack the three powers needed to play Godzilla. My physical power was diminishing because of my age, and my spiritual and performance powers were diminishing because of budgetary constraints and interpersonal problems. It was difficult for me to approach my work with enthusiasm and energy. It didn't matter how much kendo I did. (Kendo is one of the martial arts.)

DM: Do you think that the decision to put the Godzilla series on hiatus for a number of years was a good one?

KS: The decision to stop production on the series was made because TriStar's GODZILLA is going to be released soon.

DM: Do you think that it would have been a good idea to put the series on hiatus anyway?

KS: Yes. I remember that during a conversation I had with Mr. Kawakita at the end of production on GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA, I said to him, "I think it would be good for us to stop soon," and he agreed with me.

DM: How do you think the films in which you play Godzilla compare to the earlier Godzilla movies?

KS: The special effects are more sophisticated. The materials and techniques used to construct the monster costumes and miniature sets have improved, and we now use computer graphics. However, the earlier Godzilla films are much more profound. I think the reason for this is the fact that the people who worked on them experienced World War II firsthand. Shinichi Sekizawa served in the South Pacific, and Mr. Honda was a prisoner of war in China for quite some time. (Mr. Sekizawa wrote the screenplays for VARAN - THE UNBELIEVABLE, GHIDRAH - THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (1964), GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, and many of Toho's other science fiction movies.)

The earlier films also are more detailed. For example, there are more reaction shots in them. The expressions on people's faces are shown more often, and the effects of the monsters' actions are shown more often.

On the other hand, the newer movies are more contemporary in that they address current issues such as bio-technology and environmental destruction. The earlier films didn't do that as much.

DM: How did you like GAMERA - THE GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE (1995)?

KS: I haven't seen it. I'm a little afraid of it. I've heard that it's a masterpiece. (GAMERA - THE GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE and GAMERA 2 - LEGION ATTACK (1996) were produced by the Daiei Company Ltd., which also produced all eight of the earlier Gamera movies.)

DM: Did any of the people who worked on GAMERA - THE GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE ask you for advice?

KS: The main staff members did.

By the way, Shinji Higuchi worked on the Godzilla series. He tried to learn everything. I was amazed by him. (Mr. Higuchi directed the special effects for GAMERA - THE GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE and GAMERA 2 - LEGION ATTACK.)

I talked with Mr. Higuchi many, many times. He was very critical of the Godzilla series. He must be extremely critical of it now!

I was amazed that the miniature set constructed for GAMERA - THE GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE was so tiny. It's hard to believe that a film made with such a tiny set could receive such good reviews!

DM: What was working with Hurricane Ryu like? (He plays Ghidrah in GODZILLA VS. GHIDRAH, Battra in GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA, Baby Godzilla in GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA, the Kumaso god in YAMATO TAKERU, and Godzilla Junior in GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER.)

KS: He hasn't quite mastered playing monsters yet. His fighting spirit is good, but he should think more before doing what Mr. Kawakita asks him to do. A monster actor has to prepare for shooting.

After Godzilla Junior rises above the water near Omaizaki Beach, a strong wind comes up behind him. Hurricane Ryu was not prepared for that, and so he lost his footing.

The intentions of the staff members don't matter. All that matters is the final footage. So, I always try to think backwards from the final footage to the beginning of filming when preparing to shoot a scene.

DM: What was working with Wataru Fukuda like? (Mr. Fukuda plays MechaGodzilla, the battle god of outer space in YAMATO TAKERU, and Mobile Operation Godzilla Expert Robot Aero-Type (MOGERA) in GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA.)

KS: He's in very good shape and has good sense. However, he doesn't understand the difference between working on a movie and appearing in an exhibition at a show or a convention. You have to pay attention to the continuity when you're working on a film. It's not just a matter of shooting one isolated scene after another.

Mr. Fukuda begins acting right at the moment the director yells, "Action!" and stops at the moment the director yells, "Cut!" It's okay to work that way when you are appearing in an exhibition and just moving from one pose to the next, but that's not the way you should work when you are shooting a movie. You have to begin acting before the camera rolls and continue acting after it stops.

If Mr. Fukuda began to understand this, I think he would be a great monster actor.

DM: What was working with Ryo Hariya like? (Mr. Hariya plays Space Godzilla and Destroyer.)

KS: He is very earnest and straightforward. He certainly learned quickly. I think he should be the next person to play Godzilla.

DM: What are your plans for the future?

KS: I'll be making many public appearances. For example, I'm going to give a speech in Norioka on Youth Day. (Youth Day is January 15th.)

I recently gave a speech at the elementary school I attended. The school is in the town of Takano, which is in the Izumi district of Kyushu. I was supposed to speak only to the school children, but their parents and grandparents came to hear me as well! It was a very heartwarming experience.

I'm currently working on a book that will be published by the Kindai Yumei Company. I haven't chosen a title yet, but the book will be about Godzilla-do, which really isn't all that different from some aspects of kendo and judo.

I hope to get a lot of offers to work on period films.

DM: What advice would you offer to the next person who plays Godzilla?

KS: Be Godzilla. Don't do anything else. Write books about playing Godzilla, talk to reporters about playing Godzilla, but don't do anything else. Just be Godzilla.

Kenpachiro Satsuma Interview III © 1998 David Milner