The Unsung Heroes of Japanese Special Effects Cinema

As the twice-delayed Godzilla vs. Kong approaches its release date, now is a better time than ever to reminiscence about the Japanese monster film genre and the long history of its special effects style.

Special effects luminary Eiji Tsuburaya inspects a massive miniature of the legendary Yamato for the war film ATTACK SQUADRON (1963).

Tokusatsu is the Japanese art of special effects, meaning “special filming”. The luminary Eiji Tsuburaya (1901–1970) pioneered the process. He drew influence not only from Western pioneers like King Kong’s Willis O’Brien but from his culture’s native theater such as kabuki and bunraku. The process was perfected by Tsuburaya during World War II for use on propaganda films like Naval Bomber Squadron (1940), The War at Sea From Hawaii to Malay (1942) and Colonel Kato’s Falcon Squadron (1944). Used on the original Godzilla (1954), the Ultraman franchise and numerous other films and shows, this process has become something of a national post-war art form, along with anime. The classic process involves a myriad of cinematic techniques. These range from performers in monster suits, to meticulously crafted miniature models to heavy pyrotechnics and optical animation. In the post-war Japanese film industry, the special effects sequences were not supervised by the main unit’s director. The films were typically shot with two units, one supervised by the director who directed the actors. The other was led by the special effects director. Eiji Tsuburaya was so well regarded at Toho, that he was eventually given a special credit right before the name of the main unit’s directors he worked under. Tsuburaya was taken from the world sooner than he should have. Yet he had many apprentices, rivals and successors including Noriaki Yuasa, Sadamasa Arikawa, Teruyoshi Nakano, Nobuo Yajima, Koichi Kawakita and Shinji Higuchi.

The tokusatsu process explained in GODZILLA (1977) by Julian May (Ian Thorne).

In Japan, there’s a stronger social dynamic among professionals, called the kohai-senpai relationship. In workplaces and academic environments, an older student or worker, the senpai, will take the younger one, the kohai, under their wing. In the Japanese film industry, this dynamic is particularly prevalent, as one generation of filmmakers and craftspeople mentors the next. The tokusatsu art form has thus been passed down from one modern generation to another, from the early years of Showa to the new Reiwa era. Through the relationships these craftsmen formed with each other, the creative lineage can be directly traced from Tsuburaya’s work on the 1954 Godzilla to Shinji Higuchi’s stunning sequences in the recent Shin Godzilla. Yet among Western scholars, there’s a tendency to focus on the directors owing to the short-sighted auteur mindset. Film is a collaborative art form, especially in Japan. A good director knows how to assemble and handle the best talent. The people who designed the monsters, built the suits, painted the sets, constructed the miniatures and rigged the explosions are seldom written about in English. Here are 20 such figures, along with some underappreciated FX directors given little focus in Western writing.

WARNING FROM SPACE (1956)

1. Toru Matoba

的場徹, 1920–1992

Toru Matoba was the first head of Daiei’s special effects division, alongside Yonesaburo Tsukiji. An Imperial Army veteran who fought in China, after the war he and Tsukiji were mentored by Eiji Tsuburaya himself on films like The Rainbow Man and The Invisible Man Appears (both 1949). Tsuburaya had been forced to leave his position as head of Toho’s FX department as he had been targeted by the MacArthur’s Occupation. This was due to his involvement in propaganda films. Once Tsuburaya returned to Toho, Matoba would go on to supervise the special effects on Warning From Space (1956) directed by Koji Shima. He also worked on Mitsuo Murayama’s Invisible Man vs. the Human Fly (1957) and the prestige 70mm religious epic Buddha (1961) by Kenji Misumi. He then supervised the FX sequences in 1962’s The Whale God, directed by Tokuzo Tanaka. He left Daiei and worked for Tsuburaya Productions starting in 1965. He supervised the FX on such Tsuburaya Pro shows as Ultra Q, Ultraman, Ultraseven, Kaiju Booska and Operation: Mystery. Later on, Matoba worked on P-Productions’ Spectreman (1971–72).

Teizo Toshimitsu sculps the original Godzilla suit.

2. Teizo Toshimitsu

利光貞三, 1909–1982

The man who built Godzilla, Teizo Toshimitsu was shy and reserved but one of the Eiji Tsuburaya unit’s most valued craftspeople. In his early 30s, he was recruited by Tsuburaya to help construct miniatures on The War at Sea From Hawaii to Malay (1942). From Godzilla (1954) on, he built maquettes and suits for numerous monsters. These also included Rodan, Varan, Yamata no Orochi, Mothra, King Kong, the Matango, King Ghidorah, Baragon, the Gargantuas and Minilla. Toshimitsu often built the suits’ heads while brothers Kanju and Yasuei Yagi constructed the bodies. He largely retired after building the giant squid Gezora for 1970’s Space Amoeba. His apprentice was Nobuyuki Yasumaru, who took over suit building for Toho’s special effects unit under director Teruyoshi Nakano.

THE SUPER INFRA-MAN (1975) which featured art direction and monster designs by Michio Mikami.

3. Michio Mikami

三上陸男, 1935-

Michio Mikami had one of the eclectic and storied careers in the tokusatsu industry. Mikami worked for nearly every FX unit. These included under Eiji Tsuburaya at Toho, Toru Matoba, Yonesaburo Tsukiji, Yoshiyuki Kuroda and Noriaki Yuasa at Daiei, Nobuo Yajima at Toei and Soji Ushio at P-Productions. He was first hired by Tsuburaya’s unit for Godzilla in 1954. In 1959, Mikami later moved to Daiei’s FX division. During the production of the aborted Giant Rat Horde Nezura, he almost died from a flea-borne illness from the live sewer rats used in the production. He later went freelance and joined the modeling company Equis Productions, led by the late Kanju Yagi’s son Masao. Mikami also participated in Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (1968) and was a major creative force in Toei’s Kamen Rider, creating the art motifs of the villains Shocker. The Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong hired him to design their film The Super Infra-Man (1975). Mikami was frustrated with how the Chinese crew built his designs, but soon founded his own company Cosmo Pro. Mikami then went on to do the art direction for Kinji Fukasaku’s Message From Space (1978). He supervised the Supermarionation-style show X-Bomber or Starfleet (1980–81).

MAJIN (1966)

4. Yoshiyuki Kuroda

黒田義之, 1928–2015

One of Japan’s greatest and most underappreciated FX directors, Yoshiyuki Kuroda was the head of Daiei Kyoto’s FX division. Kuroda entered Daiei around 1950 as an assistant director. Kuroda’s first FX job was assisting Yonesaburo Tsukiji in 1958’s Nichiren and the Great Mongol Invasion. He developed an interest in special effects photography from thereon and also assisted Toru Matoba in 1961’s Buddha. His first job as full-on special effects director was in the 1964 U.S./Japanese co-production Flight From Ashiya. Kuroda was next placed in charge of the special effects unit for Daiei’s Majin, along with its sequels Return of Majin and Majin Strikes Again (all 1966). Kuroda did superb work on all three films that nearly equaled the work of Tsuburaya’s unit at Toho. He next did special effects for One Hundred Monsters (1968). For its follow-up, Spook Warfare (also 1968), Kuroda was promoted to full-fledged director and handled both units. He co-directed Along With Ghosts (1969) with Kimiyoshi Yasuda. After the bankruptcy of Daiei, Kuroda focused on straight-up directing, paralleling the career of Shinji Higuchi. He directed the drama scenes on Mirrorman (1971) and Jumborg Ace (1972), along with the final Lone Wolf and Cub entry: White Heaven in Hell (1974).

5. Nobuo Yajima

矢島信男, 1928–2019

In late 2019, the tokusatsu film scene lost one of its greatest luminaries. A figure seldom talked about in the West, Nobuo Yajima was the former head of Toei’s special effects division and the Tokusatsu Research Institute which he established in 1965. Yajima was born in Saitama. He was studying chemistry in college but dropped out to join Shochiku in 1949 after seeing John Ford’s The Hurricane (1937). Yajima first worked under Keiji Kawakami before transferring to Toei in 1959 at the invitation of the company’s president Hiroshi Okawa. His first production was on the air disaster flick Altitude 7,000 Kilometers: Four Hours of Horror (1959), directed by Tsuneo Kobayashi. He initially had trouble with Toei’s more hectic production schedule compared to Shochiku’s, but created impressive destruction sequences in films like World War III Breaks Out (1960, aka The Final War) and Iron Sharp (1961, aka Invasion of the Neptune Men). After establishing the Tokusatsu Research Institute, he worked on many of Toei’s 1960s TV programs such as ‘Lil Devil (1966–67), Captain Ultra (1967) and Giant Robo (1967–68), better known as Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot stateside. He also helmed the effects unit on Hajime Sato’s Water Cyborg or Terror Beneath the Sea (1966). Yajima worked on a lot of tokusatsu television and as Toei was looser with their contracts, he even did work for Tsuburaya Pro.

Nobuo Yajima on the set of 1994’s KAMEN RIDER J with manga and tokusatsu legend Shotaro Ishinomori.

He also had a good relationship with director Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale). Yajima had worked on one of Fukasaku’s very first films back in 1961 and went on to do FX work on Message From Space (1978), Samurai Reincarnation (1981), the hit Legend of the Eight Samurai (1983) and Shanghai Rhapsody (1984). Throughout the late 1970s to ’80s, he liked to employ a system called the “ECG System”, a video-based compositing unit also used on Gamera: Supermonster. The ECG System printed on video rather than film so allowed for unlimited layers to be composited together. The main drawback was that the footage tended to be fuzzier as it had to be transferred to video and then back to film. Yajima continued to work on Toei’s television shows into the ’90s. He also worked on Lady Battle Cop (1990) and Keita Amemiya’s Kamen Rider J (1994).

Kazuo Sagawa sits behind the Polar-Borer miniature from THE LAST DINOSAUR (1977) with suit builder Tomoo Haraguchi.

6. Kazuo Sagawa

佐川和夫, 1939-

Kazuo Sagawa is one of Tsuburaya Productions’ longest serving FX directors. In college, he visited Tsuburaya’s FX unit on the Toho backlot and was deeply inspired. After graduation, he began work as a shooting assistant during the production of Ultra Q. Mentored by Koichi Takano, Sagawa was promoted to cameraman under him for many episodes of Ultraman (1966–67) and Ultraseven (1967–68). His big break came in 1968, when he was promoted to FX director on episode 4 of Mighty Jack. He continued work on many Ultraman shows after Eiji Tsuburaya’s death. Sagawa also was involved in quite a few international and East Asian productions. These included Tsuburaya Pro’s collaborations with thieving Thai film company Chaiyo: Jumborg Ace and Giant and Hanuman vs. 7 Ultraman (both 1974). Sagawa also worked on the co-production The Last Dinosaur with Rankin-Bass and the Thai/Korean Crocodile (1978). Sagawa went freelance by the late 70s and did work for Toei shows such as Battle Fever J. He also worked on Hong Kong productions such as The Seventh Curse (1986) and The Wicked City (1991). Sagawa also acted as cinematographer for Keita Amemiya’s directorial debut Mirai Ninja (1988). He then returned to Tsuburaya Productions for Ultraman Tiga (1996–97) and helmed the special effects on many episodes of Ultraman Dyna (1997–98), Ultraman Gaia (1998–99) and Ultraman Cosmos (2001–02) before retiring.

THE X FROM OUTER SPACE (1967)

7. Keiji Kawakami

川上景司, 1912–1973

Keiji Kawakami was one of Eiji Tsuburaya’s very earliest apprentices, joining Toho in 1939. Kawakami worked for Tsuburaya on propaganda films like The Burning Sky (1940) and The War at Sea From Hawaii to Malay (1942). He transferred to Shochiku in 1943. After the war, he worked on Okinawa Kenji Corps (1953), Shochiku’s first post-war film to use tokusatsu-style special effects. Kawakami created the tidal wave sequence in the 1957 French/Japanese co-production Typhoon Over Nagasaki which netted him a “Special Technology Award”. For the production of Toho’s Atragon, Eiji Tsuburaya was faced with a logistical challenge. The brass wanted a quality film produced in time for the New Years holiday. Tsuburaya thus called upon his old friend Kawakami to direct a second special effects “B” unit. Kawakami was also hired to direct the effects on some of the very best episodes of Ultra Q, at Tsuburaya’s newly founded company, including “The Mammoth Flower” and “Balloonga”. Keiji Kawakami later was put in charge of the effects units on Shochiku’s The X From Outer Space (1967), The Living Skeleton and Genocide aka The War of the Insects (both 1968).

Rodan designs by Akira Watanabe and a maquette sculpted by Teizo Toshimitsu.

8. Akira Watanabe

渡辺明, 1908–1999

The man who designed Godzilla, Akira Watanabe was one of Eiji Tsuburaya’s right-hand men. After graduating art school, Watanabe joined Shochiku in 1929. There he became acquainted with a young cameraman named Eiji Tsuburaya. When Tsuburaya became head of the special effects unit at Toho, he asked Watanabe to transfer so he could do the art direction for The War at Sea From Hawaii to Malay (1942). It was Watanabe who, working from photographs, created an intricate miniature reproduction of Pearl Harbor. This later came back to haunt Tsuburaya once Japan was defeated and Douglas MacArthur’s Occupation Forces came in. To MacArthur and company, the miniatures created for The War at Sea were just too realistic for comfort. They were convinced Eiji Tsuburaya had to have engaged in espionage. So Tsuburaya was let go from Toho during the early post-war years. Watanabe held down the fort as head of Toho’s special effects department until Tsuburaya came back once the American occupiers departed. Starting with 1954’s Godzilla, Akira Watanabe would go on to design many of the most iconic Toho monsters. These also included Anguirus, Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah and Baragon. Watanabe left Toho to start his own company, Japan Special Effects Film Inc., with the help of Keiji Kawakami and Yukio Manoda. Watanabe helmed the special effects for Nikkatsu’s Gappa (1967) and Toei’s The Green Slime (1968) before retiring.

A Japanese art book dedicated to Yasuyuki Inoue’s work.

9. Yasuyuki Inoue

井上泰幸, 1922–2012

Yasuyuki Inoue was Akira Watanabe’s apprentice and successor as head art director for Toho’s special effects unit. During World War II, Inoue had lost his left foot fighting in China. After the war, Inoue learned to walk with a prosthetic and attended a vocational school for disabled veterans where he learned furniture making. In 1952, he was hired as a miniature builder by Shin Toho, an offshoot of Toho caused by union disputes. A few years later, Eiji Tsuburaya brought him on board to assist Akira Watanabe for Godzilla. He become one of Tsuburaya’s most valued craftspeople and formally joined Toho. For years, he acted as Akira Watanabe’s right hand man. After the departure of Watanabe, he was made the head of Toho’s FX art department with Zero Fighter and The War of the Gargantuas (both 1966). After Tsuburaya’s death and Sadamasa Arikawa deciding to quit as head of the FX unit, Inoue stayed on board for Teruyoshi Nakano. He designed the monster Hedorah in Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971). He briefly left Toho where he did work on P-Productions’ Spectreman, before returning, fittingly, for Submersion of Japan (1973). One of Inoue’s proudest achievements was designing and creating a massive, 1/20th scale miniature of the legendary battleship Yamato for 1981’s Imperial Navy. Over 40 feet long, it was powered by a diesel engine. Inoue also worked from numerous photos to create a facsimile Shinjuku in 1984’s The Return of Godzilla. He also designed the Super-X, its shape a nod to Hedorah’s flying form. Inoue would largely retire after Tokyo Blackout and Princess From the Moon (both 1987). He returned to help protege Toshio Miike on the miniatures for Gamera 2: Attack of Legion (1996).

Fuminori Ohashi and his specialty: apes.

10. Fuminori Ohashi

大橋史典, 1915–1989

One of the few tokusatsu staff people to work in Hollywood, Fuminori Ohashi was an eclectic figure. He was an actor who specialized in portraying apes and an accomplished modeling technician. Born in Ehime, he graduated from the sculpting department of the Tokyo University of the Arts. He then joined Shochiku in 1935 as an assistant director. After the establishment of the studio Zensho Kinema, Ohashi switched to acting. He played a Japanese Tarzan in a 1938 film. He also constructed one of the first ape suits in Japanese cinema for King Kong Appears in Edo (also 1938), which he portrayed. Contrary to rumor and popular belief, it is not a proto-kaiju film as the ape is human-sized. Publicity stills showing a giant ape were inaccurate and created to entice more viewers. The film was tragically lost as much of Japan’s pre-defeat cinema was destroyed by Allied bombings and the Imperial Army’s lust for metal. After World War II, he helped Teizo Toshimitsu and the Yagi Brothers sculpt the original Godzilla (1954). The following year, he created the impressive Yeti suit for Eiji Tsuburaya and company on Half Human. Ohashi also portrayed the titular beast. He also had a professional relationship with Akira Kurosawa. He appeared in several of his films including Throne of Blood and The Hidden Fortress. Ohashi was the one who created the severed hand hanging from the dog’s mouth in Yojimbo’s early moments. He next helped direct and created the suit for Agon, the Atomic Dragon, a TV miniseries created by Shinichi Sekizawa. Agon was not broadcast until 1968 due to legal challenges from Toho who accused Sekizawa of violating the “non-compete” clause in his contract and Ohashi of plagiarizing Godzilla’s design. Ohashi next worked for P-Productions on Ambassador Magma (1966). Better known as The Space Giants stateside, it was based on a manga by Osamu Tezuka and many of the monsters were Ohashi’s work. For 20th Century Fox, he was recruited to help create the ape prosthetics on the original Planet of the Apes. His final job was in 1977, creating the titular beasts in Toei’s Legend of the Dinosaur and Monster Bird. Sadly, his work in that film is fairly lackluster.

Nobuyuki Yasumaru sculpts Jet Jaguar’s head for GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973).

11. Nobuyuki Yasumaru

安丸信行, 1935-

Nobuyuki Yasumaru was Teizo Toshimitsu’s immediate successor. He was hired by Tsuburaya’s unit at Toho in 1960. His first major job was on Storm of the Pacific, largely a color remake of The War at Sea From Hawaii to Malay. Yasumaru assisted Teizo Toshimitsu for many years until 1967. Yasumaru was put in charge of building the Gorosaurus suit in King Kong Escapes. Under Toshimitsu, he also built the Kamakiras marionettes in Son of Godzilla, the new Anguirus suit in Destroy All Monsters and Kamebas in Space Amoeba. Yasumaru was soon in charge of the Toho unit’s modeling division and also worked on Return of Ultraman. For Teruyoshi Nakano in the 1970s, he built Hedorah, Gigan, Megalon, Jet Jaguar, King Caesar and Mechagodzilla. This was along with the 1973 Godzilla suit and the Soft-Bodied Humans in Prophecies of Nostradamus. For 1984’s The Return of Godzilla, he constructed the new generation suit for actor Kenpachiro Satsuma from higher tech materials such as fiber reinforced plastic. Yasumaru worked on the North Korean production Pulgasari where he created the titular monster. Thankfully for him, he did not have to travel to the Hermit Kingdom. Yasumaru built Godzilla once more on Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989). His protege was Fuyuki Shinada, who helped him construct the Godzillasaurus suit on Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah.

Mechagodzilla illustration by Akihiko Iguchi.

12. Akihiko Iguchi

井口昭彦, 1943-

One of the 1970s Toho unit’s best designers, Akihiko Iguchi was born Akihiko Takahashi in Nagano. After graduating Musashino Art University, he joined Tsuburaya Pro as a designer under Noriyoshi Ikeya and Toru Narita. His first credited work as designer was for some of the mecha on 1968’s Mighty Jack. He next designed many of the monsters on The Return of Ultraman (1971–72) and Ultraman Ace (1972–73) along with Spyler and Wargilgar on Toho’s Zone Fighter (1973). Iguchi next was hired by Teruyoshi Nakano’s unit, where he designed Mechagodzilla, King Caesar, Titanosaurus and the nuke-deformed Soft-Bodied Humans in Prophecies of Nostradamus (1974). Amusingly, it was Iguchi’s design for these creatures that got the film put under a self-imposed studio ban after a group of Hiroshima survivors complained to Eirin, Japan’s rating board. After working on many shows including Star Wolf and Megaloman, Iguchi would work with Keita Amemiya. He acted as art director for many of Amemiya’s films including Mirai Ninja (1988), Zeiram (1991), Kamen Rider J (1993), Zeiram 2 (1994), Mechanical Violator Hakaider (1995) and Moon Over Tao (1997). Iguchi was active until 2008.

The Taiwanese production HEROES OF THE EASTERN SKIES (1977) which a Japanese FX crew led by Toru Suzuki worked on.

13. Toru Suzuki

鈴木昶, 1930–2012

Toru Suzuki (also known as Akira Suzuki) is another figure who, like colleague Michio Mikami, worked for nearly every FX team in Japan plus on East Asian productions. His long career stretches from post-war Shin Toho to Shinji Higuchi’s 2005 Lorelei. He joined Shin Toho in 1948. After a bitter experience there, he intended to leave the film industry behind but was invited to be part of Eiji Tsuburaya’s unit at Toho for Godzilla Raids Again (1955). He took part in many of Tsuburaya’s productions at Toho until 1965’s Retreat From Kiska. Suzuki took part in 1965’s Gamera, the Giant Monster under Yonesaburo Tsukiji and joined the modeling company Equis Productions. In addition to taking part in many Daiei productions including the Gamera and Yokai films, he worked on Yongary (1967) in South Korea. Going freelance, in the 1970s he participated in numerous Toei shows including Android Kikaider (1972–73) and Goranger (1975–77). He went to Taiwan in 1977 where he led the Japanese effects team on the Kuomintang war flick Heroes of the Eastern Skies. Suzuki and his team built around 360 miniature planes. More recently before his death, he worked on Takashi Yamazaki’s Returner (2002) and Lorelei, where he helped build the film’s submarine miniatures. Katsuro Onoue and Toshio Miike were both mentored by him.

On the set of ULTRA Q, from left to right: Kazuo Sagawa, Koichi Takano, Hajime Tsuburaya, Tokoku Shishikura and Keiji Kawakami.

14. Koichi Takano

高野宏一, 1935–2008

Koichi Takano was one of Tsuburaya Productions’ main FX supervisors on the classic Ultraman shows. He joined Tsuburaya’s FX unit at Toho for Godzilla Raids Again (1955). Takano was the one responsible for the fast paced fighting scenes in that film as he accidentally undercranked the camera. He burst into tears with humiliation but Eiji Tsuburaya liked the effect and ordered it all shot like that. Between gigs with Tsuburaya, he worked as a freelance news photographer. He was next hired as a special effects cameraman for Tsuburaya Pro’s flagship show Ultra Q. He was soon promoted to special effects director on the following Ultraman and Ultraseven. After the death of Eiji Tsuburaya, he went freelance. Takano often took work in Taiwan such as on films like The Founding of the Ming Dynasty (1971) and The War God (1976). Takano also worked on a myriad of shows for Tsuburaya Pro and other companies. He formally returned to Tsuburaya Pro in the late 1970s, working on most of the Ultraman shows up until Ultraman Cosmos in 2002.

Keizo Murase with the titular monster costume from VARAN (1958).

15. Keizo Murase

村瀬継蔵, 1935-

A suitmaking legend, Keizo Murase was brought on board as an apprentice to Teizo Toshimitsu for 1958’s Varan. He helped to build the spines and back for the titular monster. Murase would go on to help sculpt numerous monsters at Toho, Daiei and Tsuburaya Pro. He joined Equis Productions alongside Masao Yagi, Michio Mikami and Toru Suzuki. After the retirement of Toshimitsu, in the 1970s Murase began to supervise the construction of suits including Ultraman monsters, Titanosaurus and the titular The Mighty Peking Man in the Shaw Brothers production. Murase also led the modeling of King Ghidorah and Mothra on Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) and Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992). Murase is still active and created the monster Nebula in Howl From Beyond the Fog (2019), the indie production directed by Daisuke Sato. Murase has his own directorial debut, Brush of the God, currently in production.

Various backdrops painted by Fuchimu Shimakura in INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER (1965), DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968) and BYE BYE JUPITER (1984).

16. Fuchimu Shimakura

島倉二千六, 1940-

A longtime painter of the backdrops for tokusatsu sets, Shimakura has had an illustrious, over 60 year career. Called the “God of Clouds”, he also had particular specialty for painting starscapes. He began working for Tsuburaya’s unit for The Three Treasures and Battle in Outer Space (both 1959). The impressive Mount Fuji backdrop featured prominently in Destroy All Monsters (1968) is his work. After Space Amoeba (1970), he went freelance but has made occasional returns to tokusatsu cinema. He painted the stunning space backdrops for Koichi Kawakita’s unit in Bye Bye Jupiter (1984) and worked for Eichi Asada on Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). His most recent credits include Shinji Higuchi’s God Warrior Appears in Tokyo (2012), Ultraman X: The Movie (2016) and Daisuke Sato’s Howl From Beyond the Fog (2019).

Various elements in DOGORA, GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (both 1964) and ULTRAMAN (1966) animated by Sadao Iizuka.

17. Sadao Iizuka

飯塚定雄, 1934-

If you’ve ever wondered who animated the monster beams in most of these films, that would be Sadao Iizuka. The Toho Tsuburaya unit’s optical animator, Iizuka joined the studio at the age of 19. At first, he helped paint miniatures and make them look lived-in, but began drawing animated rays in 1957’s The Mysterians. Iizuka animated many of Godzilla’s rays, Dogora’s tentacles, King Ghidorah’s beams, Ultraman’s Specium beam and many more. Koichi Kawakita often worked under him in his early days on Tsuburaya’s team. Perhaps this is where Kawakita got his love of beams. After the death of Eiji Tsuburaya, Iizuka went freelance and then retired. Iizuka has made the occasional comeback, however, such as on Kiyotaka Taguchi’s Gehara, the Long and Dark Haired Monster (2009).

The monstrously large final form Biollante suit from GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989), one of Fuyuki Shinada’s first major jobs.

18. Fuyuki Shinada

品田冬樹, 1959-

Fuyuki Shinada is one of Japan’s greatest living suitmakers and a protege of Nobuyuki Yasumaru. Born in Gunma Prefecture, he built his first Godzilla suit for fun at his apartment in Tokyo. Early modeling jobs included for Shizuo Nakajima’s fan film Wolfman vs. Godzilla (1983) and various Metal Hero shows. Shinada also built the “Kerberos” armor for Mamoru Oshii’s live action films The Red Spectacles (1987) and Stray Dog (1991). His first major suit building job was creating Biollante on Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), followed by the Godzillasaurus in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). For Shinji Higuchi’s team, Shinada built Legion on Gamera 2: Attack of Legion (1996) and Iris on Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999). Shinada went on to build the monster suits, including a memorable Godzilla, on Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001). He also supervised the special effects on Minoru Kawasaki’s X From Outer Space sequel/parody Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit (2008). Shinada is still quite active to this day on tokusatsu productions.

Art director Toshio Miike touches up one of his miniature worlds in 2001’s GODZILLA, MOTHRA AND KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK.

19. Toshio Miike

三池敏夫, 1961-

One of Shinji Higuchi’s right-hand men, Toshio Miike is Japan’s greatest living miniature builder and an acolyte of Yasuyuki Inoue. He entered the tokusatsu industry through Toei television shows under Nobuo Yajima. Starting with 1989’s Gunhed, Miike worked for Koichi Kawakita’s unit at Toho. He also worked for Keita Amemiya on Zeiram (1991). Shinji Higuchi soon hired him as art director for his tokusatsu unit in Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995). The two faced a challenge in that Daiei’s special effects sound stages were far more cramped than Toho’s. Miike and Higuchi devised an ingenious technique where they built scaled models to the storyboards instead of full-on miniature cities. This process also tended to save money. Miike’s miniature work in Gamera 2: Attack of Legion (1996) and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999) is arguably even more impressive. He then worked on Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001). Quentin Tarantino used his miniature Yokohama cityscape from that film for the Bride’s tokusatsu-inspired plane landing in Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003). Miike designed and built models for the subsequent Millennium Godzilla films as well as for Higuchi’s Sinking of Japan (2006), God Warrior Appears in Tokyo (2012) and live action Attack on Titan duology (2015). For 2016’s Shin Godzilla, the decision was made to make Godzilla entirely CGI. Miniatures by Miike were still used, including for an impressive bit showing an office building crumbling from inside. Miike’s most recent credit was 2020’s Fukushima 50. It’s likely but unknown if he worked on the upcoming Shin Ultraman.

An impressive explosion created by master engineer Izumi Negishi in GAMERA 2: ATTACK OF LEGION (1996).

20. Izumi Negishi

根岸泉

Izumi Negishi is an engineer who worked for Keita Amemiya and Shinji Higuchi. His most notable creation is the impressive pyrotechnic work for Higuchi in the Heisei Gamera trilogy. Negishi was particularly proud of the ferocious Kyoto Station conflagration he created for Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999). Mentored by Toru Suzuki, he also helped create the mechanics of the titular Mikadroid (1991) and worked on Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack.

Practical special effects have been falling out of favor on both sides of the Pacific in favor of computer generated imagery. There are, however, many in both Hollywood and Japan who still choose to use traditional, handcrafted techniques. Recent films like God Warrior Appears in Tokyo and Howl From Beyond the Fog remind us that tokusatsu-style special effects are still a viable and exuberant art form. They will hopefully be here to stay, in some form, as the next generation of Japanese filmmakers produce future genre films.

J.L. Carrozza (1986-) is the author of the book SF: The Japanese Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia (2021) and the upcoming SF 2: Classic Sci-Fi Anime. Carrozza has written for such publications as Asian Cult Cinema, Monster Attack Team and Otaku USA.

Jules L. Carrozza (1986-) is a film director, video editor, writer, graphic designer and general crazy person.

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