So some preamble. For those curious they can check the progress I’m making over HERE. You’ll notice there are a few non-Japanese films on the list I haven’t gotten to yet. A lot of this string of Japanese releases are fairly minor, or not actually daikaiju films. The American and British films will be discussed at some point, I just thought the format would benefit if I waited and dealt with some of them in one fell swoop. You can also see further research led me to cross out one film. I had to make this list by cross-referencing a few sources, and in that case I had been mislead. Hopefully that won’t be a trend. Now to the article.
After Rodan, Eiji Tsuburaya and Ishirō Honda would briefly experiment with a variety of alternatives to the daikaiju starring tokusatsu films they’d been working on. Toho wanted to point their dream team towards a few different genres. After the success of Godzilla other Japanese studios wanted to jump on the science fiction bandwagon. Drawing on 50s American science fiction, like This Island Earth and Forbidden Planet, a wave of more cosmic effects movies came out. Daiei Studios released Warning From Space and Shintoho came out with Terrifying Attack of the Flying Saucers. This new trend was distinct enough from Toho’s kaiju films that they felt like they were being left behind and decided to make a film that would compete.
Of course they had something the other studios didn’t: Their “Golden Team.”
This new film was a massive project for Toho’s special effects team. The plot developed by Toho required alien architecture, optical effects, matte paintings, and more. However Tsuburaya felt this tale, depicting the battle between earth and a dying alien race, was missing something –kaiju. What had started as a shortcut, a compromise, had become a fond technique for Eiji Tsuburaya. His three forays into his pioneered suitmation technique had cemented it as his baby. Later Tsuburaya would talk about potential monsters filling his dreams at night. So at his behest Honda and his writers worked a new kaiju into the film.
The kaiju was christened Moguera. Moguera was envisioned as a robotic mining implement. A giant fossorial automaton with a series of conoid drills, one on each arm and one adorning his face like a nose. In the future the design would be reimagined as a UN built mech and appear alongside Godzilla himself. In this movie, known as Earth Defence Force in Japan and The Mysterians in the US, Moguera’s appearance is fairly minor, but still memorable.
One cast member in Earth Defence Force is perhaps of particular note. Character actor Takashi Shimura plays a small role in the film. Shimura frequently collaborated with Akira Kurosawa. He appears in The Bad Sleep Well, Ikura, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Rashomon, High and Low, Red Beard, Sanjuro, and Stray Dog (where he might very well have met Honda). Not only was he a frequent Kurosawa collaborator but he also became a fixture of Toho’s kaiju films. He appears in Godzilla, Godzilla Raids Again, Frankenstein Conquers the World, Mothra, Ghidora, the Three Headed Monster, and Gorath. Not only that but Shimura appears several times in another popular Japanese franchise – the Zatoichi series. He’s even in a few notable outliers, like Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan. This popular actor is hard not to notice, he plainly livens up the scenes he appears in.
Earth Defence Force is the start of an important transition in Ishirō Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya’s techniques, a transition that wouldn’t reach its peak until a new decade arrived. The bright and colourful space film required Eiji Tsuburaya to focus more on optical effects then he had to date. Space ships and laser beams and weaponized satellite dishes serve as the chief weapons in the film. This new intensive foray into animated components generally worked well, although not as well as the more tangible and real-world miniature-crushing Tsuburaya had done before. Earth Defence Force came out in 1957 and was very well received. Tsuburaya’s work in the widescreen format garnered him yet another Japanese Technical Award.
The next year Toho had their Golden Team work on a new project for an American broadcast company. After the phenomenal television ratings received by Godzilla, AB-PT Pictures Corporation contacted Toho about doing a film specifically designed for TV. The planned film was known as Baran, The Monster from the East. Rather than skimp on the lower-budget TV production Toho saw the potential for profit and kept their kaiju team together.
The team, especially designer Akira Watanabe, wanted to create a new kind of kaiju. They’d already done an ocean dwelling sea monster and an aerial beast, so they thought they’d combine elements of the two. The initial plan was to mix the stylings of Godzilla with the attributes of the kappa, a mythical Japanese water spirit that looks a little like an anthropomorphized turtle. Instead the final creature drew on the aspects of a Draco lizard. The Draco lizard is essentially the reptilian equivalent of a flying squirrel. They then added a series of osseous spines to the creation’s spine. The name Varan, sometimes rather confusingly referred to as Baran, comes from the scientific term Varanus, which refers to the genus that monitor lizards belong to.
The movie, because of its eventual home on TV, had a much smaller budget than the past kaiju films. It would have to be shot in black and white, making it the last kaiju film that would be shot without colour. The film also had a lesser cast than past kaiju ventures. Things changed however, shortly after shooting started. AB-PT Pictures Corporation dropped out of the proceedings, leaving Toho to sort out the film on its own. At the very least Toho got to change the film’s aspect ratio back to their preferred format.
In retrospect the smaller budget is a shame. The ShodaiBaran suit was one of the best suits Toho had made yet. It did a better job of breaking up Haruo Nakajima’s silhouette than any of the past costumes, giving Baran a much more animalistic quality. The limited destruction and occasional footage recycled from Godzilla hurts the excellent Nakajima performance and a wonderfully designed daikaiju suit at the heart of the film.
After Varan (released in the US as Varan, the Unbelievable), Toho decided to return to the success of Earth Defence Force. Work on the loose sequel, The Battle in Outer Space, started in 1959. This time featuring new alien opponents and no kaiju whatsoever the film still presented an important opportunity for Ishirō Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya to explore new techniques. The ineluctable deluge of spaceships and optical effects allowed Tsuburaya to perfect the techniques he’d experimented with in Earth Defence Force. Honda had a chance to experiment with his style. The film would prove an important training ground for both men.
The film follows the earth’s reaction to an unexpected and sudden assault from alien adversaries. The fast-paced spectacle-filled film includes alien landscapes, outer space dogfights, and many a laser beam. This all meant that Tsuburaya got to play around with more complex matte painting and sets, as well as an increased number of optical effects. These all bring a clear improvement to the film. The quality of the optical effects is incredible, and Tsuburaya’s climactic space-battle has to be one of the most thrilling pre-Star Wars spaceship scenes. The dynamic effects hold up shockingly well, upholding Eiji Tsuburaya’s incredible reputation. In fact the film garnered him the Special Award of Merit alongside none other than Yasujiro Ozu.
Tsuburaya also got to play with a whole new kind of miniature destruction for the film’s climax, which sees an anti-gravity weapon devastating an urban environment. The thin and lightweight models were made from pre-cut paraffin, which was then assembled. Some key pieces were attached to wires and pulled into the air, while others were blown around by large fans. The precarious effect, like all too many of Tsuburaya’s, had to be pulled off on the first take. The final effect is a phenomenally unique and skillful one, quite unlike anything else of the time. This climax floored audiences, and Columbia Pictures quickly picked up the distribution rights to the film.
Ishirō Honda too continued down the path he’d been travelling ever since Godzilla. By The Battle in Outer Space the last vestiges of Ishirō Honda’s docu-stylings had vanished. Gone was the rigid and static faux-realism of Godzilla. While the political nature of that film melded well with the dreary grit of Honda’s style it no longer seemed appropriate for the increasingly anodyne and entertaining films Toho was releasing. In The Battle in Outer Space Ishirō Honda’s more cinematic style was fully apparent. The film features many a dynamic wide screen composition, mobile camerawork, and just a generally thrilling and epic tone and style.
This newly developed flair for full-colour destruction the Golden Team had perfected would serve them beautifully when applied to future kaiju films.
At this point Eiji Tsuburaya was completely committed to his role as kaiju-maestro. The special effects genius had gotten to the point where giant monsters inhabited his dreams. Tsuburaya claimed Varan came from such a dream. Tsuburaya’s dream-notions hadn’t stopped stealing their way onto the silver screen. One memorable dream would go on to become one of Toho’s most iconic monsters – Mothra. Eiji Tsuburaya hired three novelists to write three sequential portions of a story. The end product was serialized and published before being transformed into a daikaiju film.
Production designs and storyboards slowly transformed the original visual concepts behind Mothra. Originally envisioned as a monstrous tussock moth, the fairy tale nature the story adopted suggested a more pulchritudinous approach to the monster’s look. The designers blended some butterfly attributes into the giant moth, playing up the mythical associations the moth suggested. Moths and butterflies have been associated with wisdom, nature, fairy tales, fire, femininity, good weather, thunderstorms, birth, death, marriage, good health, bad health, youth, old age, freedom, creativity, change, and more. This was powerful imagery the team deliberately wanted to play with, hence Mothra’s final numinous quality.
Toho adopted a new screenwriter to transform the disparate story into a film. Shinichi Sekizawa, who had worked on Shintoho’s lost Fearful Attack of the Flying Saucers, was tasked with the job. His textured and political approach to the film would end up cementing him as part of Toho’s team going forward. What set him apart was the ability to blend some substance with a lighter overall tone, this especially suited Toho now that their dour days were thoroughly behind them. The movie skewed towards the fairy tale tone suggested by Tsuburaya’s concepts. This is the first kaiju film to be distinctly set in a fictitious world. The neologism Rolisicia, the name of a country intended as an amalgamation of Russia and America, definitively sets this world apart from other daikaiju films. While those tended to be disparate worlds in some manner, each ignoring the other kaiju movies, Mothra was firmly set in a fairy tale land. This, coupled with the nature of Mothra, the jungle settings, and the far cheerier score, lends the film a feel more akin to a Grimm’s fairytale or fantasy novel or King Kong than the original wave of Toho’s kaiju films.
In fact King Kong, ever the inspiration for Eiji Tsuburaya, was a clear inspiration for the film’s story. Treasure hunters in a strange foreign land inhabited by dangerous natives steal a pair of tiny twins. Instead of carting back King Kong to entertain the masses the two twins are forced to entertain the masses as pop-stars. It’s a strange take on the situation, a clear satirization of the entertainment industry. These two exploited miniature people have a telepathic link with their island’s god. In a dramatic thunderous scene an egg on the island hatches and a monstrous caterpillar emerges.
Mothra’s larval stage is pretty unpleasant. The ShodaiMosuLarva wasn’t actually a suit. In a rare exception to the suitmation rule, the four foot long contraption was more of a puppet than anything else. The ShodaiMosuLarva was a blend of remote control mechanics and man-operated puppet. Complex scenes of destruction needed seven operators to control the beast. This team was, of course, headed up by Haruo Nakajima, who had long been responsible for the way Toho’s kaiju moved. Nakajima felt honoured when Eiji Tsuburaya decided to almost completely delegate these actorly decisions to him, and even in a non-suit situation he was still the man behind the distinct personalities of the kaiju.
The movie is the culmination of the evolution Ishirō Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya started post Godzilla. The scenes of the larval Mothra have that ponderous Godzilla feel, as the lumbering limbless monster grinds through buildings, eventually affixing itself to Tokyo tower and spinning itself a cocoon. When the variegated moth (NankaiMosuImago) emerges, the ensuing mayhem feels much more like Eiji Tsuburaya’s work on Rodan. The aerial and wind based destruction is crafted with a variety of shots and heavy edited. Long shots of the soaring Mothra are intercut with frenetic close ups of miniatures being torn asunder by the wind. Smoke and rubble and dust fill the screen, generating the needed impact during the brief scenes of kaiju action. All this would be useless without the direction of Ishirō Honda. Mothra sees Honda fully committed to his newfound adoption of cinematic manipulation. The film is sweeping, epic, and emotional. Even more than Honda’s past films, Mothra is filled with dramatic tonal signifiers and communicative cinematography. It’s hard to imagine the director of Godzilla filling a movie with full colour guilt-hallucinations and manipulative thunderstorms. The film was Toho’s most grandiose.
The film also features one of the most complex miniatures ever created under Eiji Tsuburaya. The brilliant work of Yasuyuki Inoue has never been better displayed. Inoue is one of the more recondite members of Toho’s crew. He was hired right from the beginning for Godzilla. Inoue was a free spirited carpenter who was originally hired to design blueprints for the film’s miniatures, however he got himself a job actually building these models as well. Yasuyuki Inoue was single handedly masterminding the cityscapes built in Toho’s kaiju films. He obviously worked under Tsuburaya, and with a team, but his developing love of special effects took him a long way. Inoue and his committed team would frequently sleep in the sound stages where they were building their models, using plywood boards and newspapers as bedding; it allowed them to work for longer hours. This sort of love for the work eventually meant that Yasuyuki Inoue was the obvious choice to move up to special effects art director on later projects. His work was a key component of the Toho formula.
The quality Toho brought to this project did not go unnoticed. Nine million tickets were sold for Mothra, ensuring that Toho returned to their first kaiju as their thirtieth anniversary rolled in.