One of the most prolific of all Toho’s science fiction actors, Kenji Sahara (born Tadashi Ishihara) first appeared in kaiju eiga (monster films) as an extra in Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1954). In 1956, he essayed the lead in Toho’s first color sci-fi film, Rodan, and has since portrayed a wide variety of screen heroes and villains. He appeared in 12 of the 22 Godzilla series films including King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Godzilla vs. Mothra (1964), Son of Godzilla (1967), Terror of MechaGodzilla (1975) and Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1994). Mr. Sahara’s other special effects film credits include The Mysterians (1957), The H-Man (1958), Gorath (1962), Matango (a.k.a. Attack of the Mushroom People, 1963), The War of the Gargantuas (1966) and Yog, Monster from Space (1970). Mr. Sahara also starred in Tsuburaya Productions’ television series Ultra Q (1966) and appeared often as Commander Takenaka in Ultra Seven (1967).
In July of 1997, Mr. Sahara traveled to Chicago to appear at G-CON, his first appearance at an American sci-fi convention. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to grant Kaiju-Fan readers this interview.
Robert Biondi: What was your reaction when you were asked to play the lead in Rodan?
Kenji Sahara: Rodan was made right after the first Godzilla movie. Since this time I got the chance to play the main role, I was very happy!
RB: What was it like to work with Ishiro Honda? (Ishiro Honda [1911-1993] directed eight of the Godzilla films and numerous other Toho science fiction movies, such as Rodan, Matango and The War of the Gargantuas.)
KS: Mr. Honda was very kind and gentle. He was almost like a father to me. When I couldn’t understand how to act in a particular scene, Mr. Honda would show me what to do. Mr. Honda also spent a lot of time rehearsing with his actors. He explained things in great detail, so he was easy to work with. Often, he would talk with me over drinks. He was full of dreams. Mr. Honda was my favorite director.
RB: What was Tomoyuki Tanaka like? (Tomoyuki Tanaka[1910-1997] produced virtually all of Toho’s science-fiction films.)
KS: After I joined Toho, Mr. Tanaka gave me a small role in the first Godzilla movie. Later, he gave me the main role in Rodan. Mr. Tanaka encouraged me to do a good job.
RB: Did you have any accidents during the shooting of any of your films?
KS: Something happened during the filming of Gorath. Originally, I was supposed to play one of the main characters. But while I was playing during a Toho baseball game, I broke one of my legs! They waited for me to recover as long as possible, but finally I was switched to a smaller role. I played that role with a cast on my leg. That’s why in Gorath, you can’t see me from the waist down.
RB: What was it like to work with Russ Tamblyn in The War of the Gargantuas?
KS: We went to film on location at Mt. Fuji. We used to drink and talk a lot. My wife came with us, and she could speak English very well. Mr. Tamblyn told me a story about West Side Story (1961). During one dance scene, everyone raised their hands, but only Mr. Tamblyn put his hands down. I asked him, “Why did you do that?” Mr. Tamblyn answered, “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have stood out.” Mr. Tamblyn was greedy about acting like that.
RB: How did you become involved with the Ultra Q television series?
KS: Mr. Honda told me that Eiji Tsuburaya was going to produce Ultra Q. (Eiji Tsuburaya)[1901-1970] directed the special effects for the early Godzilla films and many other Toho science fiction movies. He also was the founder of Tsuburaya Productions, which produces the Ultraman television series.) Since I had experience working on special effects movies, Mr. Honda suggested that I work with Mr. Tsuburaya on the series. Ultra Q was Tsuburaya Productions very first television series. 28 episodes were made. It took a long time to film each episode, much longer than usual. The first son of Eiji Tsuburaya, Hajime, died and the second son, Noboru, took over the company and became the president. He once said, “We should have filmed Ultra Q in color, because it was such a good show. But it’s in black-and-white!”
RB: Do you prefer working on movies or television?
KS: I have the same attitude toward acting in television and in movies. For me, the only difference is the size of the screen.
RB: Did you know Eiji Tsuburaya well?
KS: Mr. Tsuburaya was a very gentle person. He was also a very hard worker.
RB: Did you ever watch Mr. Tsuburaya and his special effects crew at work?
KS: During the filming of the one the episodes for Ultra Q, Mr. Tsuburaya was trying to create a weird sort of special effect. It was of a plane going into a fourth-dimensional world, but Mr. Tsuburaya couldn’t get the smoke effect right. Then, Mr. Tsuburaya had an idea. He used a washing machine to generate a swirling smoke effect. He then said, “Ah! Why don’t we drop a (miniature) plane in there!” (This effect can be seen in Ultra Q episode #27, “The Disappearance of Flight 206.” A complete episode guide to Ultra Q appeared in Kaiju-Fan #4.)
Mr. Tsuburaya was always teaching his staff new techniques. For the climax to Rodan, Mr. Tsuburaya created the scene of Mt. Aso erupting. Some years later, I watched a real volcano, Mt. Mihara, erupting. The real lava I watched at Mt. Mihara looked just like the artificial lava that Mr. Tsuburaya created for Rodan. I was so impressed by this, that I thought that Mr. Tsuburaya was truly a great man.
RB: What was it like to work with Jun Fukuda? (Jun Fukuda directed Son of Godzilla).
KS: Mr. Fukuda was very detail oriented. However, he wasn’t an easy-going man.
RB: You worked with three different directors on the recent Godzilla films; Kazuki Omori, Takao Okawara and Kensho Yamashita. How did their methods of directing differ? (Mr. Sahara worked with Mr. Omori on Godzilla vs. King Ghidora , with Mr. Okawara on Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla  and with Mr. Yamashita on Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla .)
KS: Mr. Yamashita was very dedicated to his work, while Mr. Omori was indifferent. Mr. Okawara was technical in his direction. In those three movies, I played the same character and each director changed the character slightly.
RB: You have portrayed many types of roles. Which types do you like the most?
KS: When I was starting as an actor, I would be cast as bright and nice-looking guys, like technicians and newspaper reporters. Later, in middle-age, I started playing more mature characters. In the recent Godzilla films, I have been playing commanders, which always used to be played by big Toho stars, like Susumu Fujita and Jun Tazaki. So, I feel very fortunate and honored to keep working in monster movies. (Susumu Fujita [1912-1991] portrayed generals in Godzilla vs. Mothra and Dagora, the Space Monster . Jun Tazaki [1910-1985] portrayed generals in King Kong vs. Godzilla and The War of the Gargantuas. He also plays the fiercely nationalistic Captain Jinguji in Atragon .)
I have played many memorable characters. One of them is Shigeru in Rodan. Shigeru sees Rodan hatching, and then Shigeru loses his memory. Later, Shigeru’s memory comes back when he sees a bird hatch. That was a memorable role for me. Another memorable character for me is Koyama in Matango. At the time that Matango was being filmed, I went to a dentist and was fitted with a false tooth. But during the filming, I removed the false tooth to give more realism to my role as Koyama. I also wore dark glasses for that role. Koyama was the first “dirty” character that I portrayed. The other characters in Matango were high-class types, but Koyama was a low-class type. Everyone in that film went sailing on a yacht to have fun, but suddenly found themselves in a desperate situation. They had to eat mushrooms to survive. Mr. Honda pointed out that Matango was a movie about drugs and how drugs can affect one’s mind.
RB: Which actors have you enjoyed working with the most?
KS: Akihiko Hirata. He was a gentleman. He never spoke ill of anyone. Mr. Hirata is gone now and I miss him very much. (Akihiko Hirata [1927-1983] appears in numerous Toho sci-fi films. His most famous role is Dr. Serizawa from Godzilla, King of the Monsters! .)
RB: Have you ever been to America before?
KS: Yes, three times. The first time was 35 years ago for the filming of None But the Brave with Frank Sinatra. I stayed in the U.S. for three months. The second time was for a Japanese TV series, Attention Please, which was about the stewardess of a Japanese airline company. I went to Hawaii and San Francisco to film it. The third time was for a car commercial.
RB: Did you enjoy your guest appearance at G-CON?
KS: Yes, very much.
RB: What is your impression of the American fans that you met?
KS: Japanese fans are more quiet. American fans are very enthusiastic and speak openly.
RB: Do you think that Japanese and American audiences will like Tri-Star’s Godzilla?
KS: I think that Japanese audiences will be amazed by American computer graphics (special effects).
RB: When Godzilla films are made in Japan again, what direction should they take?
KS: They should go back to the first Godzilla film and pursue what the Japanese mind is and what the Japanese heart is. Only then will they be able to make a serious Godzilla movie.