Eiji Tsuburaya made it possible for Godzilla to stomp across the screen.
A director, cinematographer, and producer, Tsuburaya is best known for creating the special effects behind Japanese classics like Godzilla (1954), Mothra (1961), and many other films where the giant monsters called kaiju terrorize the good people of Tokyo.
And his legacy extends beyond those monsters — he built a foundation for film culture in Japan and special effects worldwide.
How Eiji Tsuburaya became a special effects master — with the help of King Kong
August Ragone tells Tsuburaya's story in his picture-packed biography Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, and he shows how Tsuburaya created definitive movie monsters that have stood the test of time. "Spanning decades of film work, when he shifted gears from cinematography to visual effects in the 1930s, not only did he capture the audience's imaginations with his work, he was peerless among his contemporaries in Japan," Ragone told me. But when Tsuburaya was born, the film industry didn't even yet exist.
Tsuburaya grew up about 125 miles north of Tokyo in Sukagawa, Iwase, a son of a prominent family of grocery distributors. A prodigy from a young age, as a kid he was interviewed about his model airplanes and credited in local newspapers as a "child craftsman." Shortly thereafter, he was captivated by a new technology called motion pictures — and he combined his two passions by taking pictures of planes.
Soon, he broke into film, as well, serving as a cameraman on his first movie in 1919. Though there were a few diversions (including an early Imperial Army stint), he quickly rose through the ranks while inventing new filmmaking tools, including more flexible camera cranes. But it was 1933's King Kong that led to his greatest professional epiphany.
King Kong's giant title character and phenomenal special effects opened up a new world of possibilities for Tsuburaya. As Ragone writes, "It is no exaggeration to say that the 'eighth wonder of the world' [King Kong] was responsible for changing Tsuburaya’s life and the course of his career."
By studying a copy of the film, Tsuburaya managed to reverse engineer how the effects were made. Then he was ready to begin creating his own legacy.
The post–WWII environment shaped the monsters of Japan
Being a film revolutionary wasn't easy. Ragone describes early battles over budget and setup, but when a new company called Toho Motion Picture Company was founded in 1936, Tsuburaya jumped on board to lead the special effects department.
After being drafted to work on propaganda films in World War II (and experiencing the napalm bombing of Tokyo), he returned to work at Toho after the end of US occupation in 1952, keeping a low profile because the US believed he'd committed espionage.
It was in that climate that producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was artistically inspired by the fallout of a US hydrogen bomb test in the Marshall Islands. The real story of a radiation-poisoned fishing crew inspired Tanaka to pitch a monster movie to Tsuburaya and Toho. After some creative wrangling, that monster became Godzilla.
For Godzilla, Tsuburaya made the bold choice to use miniatures and visual effects instead of stop-motion animation, which was a more obvious alternative. The idea to put an actor in a monster costume was going to be executed as never before, and with it a legendary monster was born.
Though Godzilla was the product of a large team, it came alive because of Tsuburaya's use of models, special photography, and, of course, those inimitable costumes.
Godzilla was a tough shoot. Actors were stuffed into a costume that was, at its lightest, 220 pounds. They breathed in kerosene from the fumes of a tiny "Tokyo" model burning beneath them, and actor Haruo Nakajima says he lost 20 pounds in the production because the costume was so physically strenuous.
The film was a financial risk, as well — it became the most expensive Japanese movie made up to that time.
But Godzilla was a hit, and it kicked off "monster mania." Some of Tsuburaya's many subsequent movies might not be as familiar — they include The Abominable Snowman (1954) and 1956's Rodan: Monster of the Sky. Still, film by film, these movies created a kaiju iconography that shaped an entire film industry's sensibility — and built a legacy for Tsuburaya.
Why Eiji Tsuburaya matters today
Tsuburaya's professional and creative successes continued through the 1960s, as he innovated with more intricate models and formed his own company, Tsuburaya Visual Effects Productions, in 1963.
While there, he created what kaiju superfans consider his landmark work, Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), as well as enduring Japanese television institutions like the heroic Ultraman (1966). "In Japan, even more so than Godzilla, first and foremost, is Ultraman," Ragone says. Though Tsuburaya died in 1970, his creations remain embedded in the culture today.
Even to those who aren't fans of Tsuburaya's distinctive style, his aesthetic, effects, and ethos permeate movies today. There are obvious influences, like the many Godzilla remakes and the kaiju fan letter that is 2013's Pacific Rim. "Godzilla and Tsuburaya are one and the same," Ragone says. The same influence goes for Ultraman: "Without Ultraman, there would be no Power Rangers."
Tsuburaya's influence can also be seen in every disaster movie's audacious carnage and ever-more-adventurous willingness to push boundaries using special effects.
That's probably why we still thrill to learn about the man who made all those monster suits really roar. Because even now, more than 50 years later, it's as exciting, outrageous, and thrilling as when Godzilla first hit the screen.