Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters Defending the Earth with ULTRAMAN, GODZILLA and FRIENDS in the GOLDEN AGE OF JAPANESE SCIENCE FICTION FILM
by August Ragone
Chronicle Books: San Francisco, 2007
ISBN: 9780811860789 0811860787
Reviewed and recommended at 5 stars by Gordon
EIJI TSUBURAYA: MASTER OF MONSTERS is a tribute book to the man who brought Godzilla, Ultraman, and many classic Japanese fantasy films and TV shows to life either directly or indirectly via his production company. While the many behind the scenes photos and stills of Godzilla and company were like eye candy to me and drew me to the book, it tracked his development from being an engineering student to being an aspiring filmmaker, from cameraman to founder of a very big marketable character empire.
His effects work is probably on a par with Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen, despite the lower budgets necessitating larger-sized model cities and men in monster suits. However, he is very much considered to be as much of an inspiration as Harryhausen and O'Brien to modern filmmakers, including George Lucas.
He also worked a lot in non-monster and non-space films, to much acclaim. These included fantasy films based on Japanese legends, other types of science fiction, and historical dramas. During the Occupation of Japan, his highly regarded World War II films were believed to be real war film of such events as the bombing of Pearl Harbor and The Battle of Midway. Because the government hired him, he ran into trouble during the American Occupation after the War--just like all the actors, writers, directors, etc. who were blacklisted in the US during the McCarthy era! --and had to lay low for a while.
Interestingly, he had served in the military as a young man, so both the service and his war-era propaganda filmmaking parallel that of Ray Harryhausen. The paths of Tsuburaya and Harryhausen crossed twice, indirectly. First, the inspiration for Godzilla came from Harryhausen's "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms," kicking everything off. Second, attempts by Willis O'Brien to get a King Kong sequel made eventually led to Toho's "King Kong vs. Godzilla" and "King Kong Escapes." (Eiji had also been intensely inspired by O'Brien's work on the original King Kong--just as did Ray Harryhausen.)
Tsuburaya had worked with a number of people who also worked with Akira Kurosawa. Director Ishiro Honda met Martin Scorsese while working on Kurosawa's "Dreams" in 1990, and as he related in a 1991 interview, Scorsese (who played Vincent Van Gogh), Scorsese would go see Godzilla films wherever they were playing in New York.
He received much praise and several awards for his work, and films around the world became larger box office draws when his name was in the credits and on the movie poster.
Even luminaries such George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were influenced by Tsuburaya. Lucas visited Toho to see if they could handle his special effects needs. Like Eiji, he eventually developed his own effects company. Spielberg paid tribute to Godzilla in his introduction to THE MAKING OF JURASSIC PARK.
This book serves as a good introduction to the man. It also introduces us to an era of Japanese filmmaking that is a golden era, as well as Japanese culture. It's a nice look at a people who have been all too often demonized because of the War though they are no different than you and I. Perhaps the book tends to cover up his shortcomings--he could have a temper, and many of the photos that he is in show him with a lit cigarette in his hand or he is actually smoking, and there was the questionable propaganda connections with the government during the war--but it is very definitely a tribute book.
I heartily recommend this book. I learned a lot about Eiji and some of his most famous characters. Heck, I knew nothing--NOTHING--about Ultraman, except his name, until I read this book. Then there's Booska, a friendly cartoonish suit-monster (think Barney, as he was intended to be) who became as popular as Mickey Mouse in some circles. I had never met Booska until I studied this book.
This book is a worthy addition to the collections of Godzilla fans, but it is also worthwhile to borrow a library copy, as I did. Worldwide, 161 libraries have a copy of it.
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