An Interview with Yoshio Irie

An Interview with Yoshio Irie

An Interview with Yoshio Irie
Conducted by David Milner
Translation by Yohihiko Shibata

Conducted in July, 1996

Yoshio Irie took part in the designing and construction of the miniatures seen in GODZILLA – KING OF THE MONSTERS (1954), GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955), and all of the Toho Company Ltd.’s other early science fiction films. He also worked on miniatures seen in a number of the studio’s war movies.

David Milner: In what year did you begin working for Toho?

Yoshio Irie: 1953. The first of the studio’s productions I worked on was EAGLE OF THE PACIFIC (1953). I built two aircraft carriers for it at one-tenth scale.

DM: What were the names of the aircraft carriers?

YI: The Hiryu and the Akagi.   All of the real naval ships had been sunk or destroyed, so we had to build models in order to make EAGLE OF THE PACIFIC.

DM: What materials did you use?

YI: The models were made with wood and then covered with tin plates.

DM: How long did it take you to construct the aircraft carrier models?

YI: We spent two months drawing the blueprints and three months building the models.

DM: Did you base the blueprints on real aircraft carriers?

YI: I worked with a very famous ship historian named Shizuo Fui. He had blueprints of the two aircraft carriers, although they were basic ones.   Toho hired Mr. Fui, who’d served in the navy, as a consultant. The studio also hired many other consultants to work on its war films. They provided advice on equipment, uniforms, and so on.
By the way, Mr. Fui died a few years ago.

DM: What movies did you work on after EAGLE OF THE PACIFIC?

YI: FAREWELL – RABAUL (1954), GODZILLA – KING OF THE MONSTERS – all of the monster and war films.

DM: Were you a Toho employee?

YI: No. My contract came up for renewal every year.

DM: What was your title?

YI: Akira Watanabe was the art director, and I was the first assistant art director. Only the head of each department would be credited on screen, so my name never appeared. Only Mr. Watanabe’s did. Toho’s executives thought that crediting only department heads afforded them special status.   I remember that there were times when even some department heads weren’t credited. For example, the sequence in Akira Kurosawa’s THE THRONE OF BLOOD (1957) in which the forest seems to move was shot by Eiji Tsuburaya and his staff, but the on screen credit read only “special effects department.” (Mr. Tsuburaya directed the special effects for virtually all of Toho’s earlier science fiction and war movies.)   Shochiku’s policy was different. More of the people who’d taken part in the production of its films would be credited. (The Shochiku Company Ltd. produced THE X FROM OUTER SPACE (1967), BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL (1968), and a number of other science fiction movies.)  When I took my grandchildren to see some of the newer Godzilla films, I noticed that everyone who had worked on them was credited. I think they were credited because of the influence of American movies.

DM: Were the production budgets for the war films you worked on very large?

YI: They were about the same as the production budgets for the monster movies. They had to be big because a large number of people had to be hired to work on the films and a large number of miniatures had to be built for them. In addition, only about one-third of the pyrotechnics would end up appearing on screen. So, they always cost a lot of money.

DM: How many people did Toho have working on miniatures?

YI: About fifty. Some would be hired for a year at a time and others would be hired only for specific movies.

DM: What material was used to portray water in the shots of ships seen from the point of view of people flying in airplanes?

YI: Gelatin.

DM: How successful were the war films in comparison to the monster movies?

YI: I worked for New Toho part-time while I was still in art school. I took part in the production of several of its war films. They did very well. (In 1947, shortly after several major strikes at Toho, a number of employees left the company and founded the New Toho Company Ltd.).  I worked on many movies without Mr. Tsuburaya’s knowledge. One of them was Daiei’s FLIGHT FROM ASHIYA (1963). I drew the blueprints for the model aircraft seen in the mountain sequence. (The Daiei Company Ltd. also produced GAMERA (1965), GAMERA 2 – LEGION ATTACK (1996), and all eight of the other Gamera films.)   My wife’s family owned Gunji Model Craft, a company which made miniature buildings, aircraft, tanks and so on. It took part in the production of FLIGHT FROM ASHIYA and was credited at the end of the movie, so Mr. Tsuburaya must have known that I’d worked on it.

DM: Was the manner in which New Toho produced its films any different from the one in which Toho produced its films? (New Toho went out of business in 1961.)

YI: It was pretty much the same. The company’s special effects director was an apprentice of Mr. Tsuburaya’s, so he worked the same way.   Another special effects director, Keiji Kowakami, also was an apprentice of Mr. Tsuburaya’s. Mr. Kowakami took part in the production of a number of Shochiku’s war movies and television series.

DM: I’ve heard that Mr. Tsuburaya secretly worked on some films that were not produced by Toho. Is that true?

YI: He worked on some of Daiei’s movies without the knowledge of Toho’s executives. So, he couldn’t reprimand me for doing the same thing.  At the time, there was an agreement between the five major film studios that prohibited employees of one studio from working for another. That’s why both Mr. Tsuburaya and I had to do our work for Daiei secretly.

DM: Did the United States government object to the production of movies about World War II so soon after its end?

YI: We were not allowed to make any war films until the agreement ending the occupation of Japan was signed in 1951.  By the way, Charleton Heston came to visit the set of EAGLE OF THE PACIFIC.

DM: How did you react when you heard that Toho was going to produce GODZILLA – KING OF THE MONSTERS?

YI: I was very skeptical about it at first. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like.

DM: Was that how most of Toho’s employees felt?

YI: We all had seen KING KONG (1933), but GODZILLA – KING OF THE MONSTERS was going to feature a dinosaur-like monster instead of a giant gorilla. So, we had no idea what it would be like.

DM: How much time did you spend working on the movie?

YI: Pre-production lasted for only a short period of time. I don’t think Toho’s executives realized how time-consuming a process building all of the miniatures would be. We were given only three months to complete our work. We started in April and finished up in June.    The only blueprints we had to work with were for Kachidoki Bridge and the Nichigeki Building, which was owned by Toho. The owners of all of the other buildings we were planning to reproduce in miniature refused to let us use their blueprints because they didn’t want their buildings to be destroyed by Godzilla on screen. So, we had several engineers measure the buildings in Ginza and other sections of Tokyo. After we got the measurements from the engineers, we drew our own blueprints and constructed the miniatures.   It was very difficult to complete all of the work in only three months. We had to stay late almost every day.

DM: Did you use the same materials and methods that you had previously?

YI: When you’re shooting a war film, all of the miniatures are destroyed with pyrotechnics, but when you’re shooting a monster movie, many of them are destroyed by the person playing the monster. This means that some portions of the miniatures have to remain intact after they’ve been trampled on. In order to make sure that happens, you have to use different kinds of plaster and pre-cut the miniatures so they’ll break the right way.

DM: I’ve heard that you had to rebuild the model of the Diet Building. Is that true?

YI: Yes. We did have to rebuild it. The Godzilla costume was very heavy and stiff, so Haruo Nakajima could barely lift his feet while he was in it. Because of that, Mr. Nakajima could not destroy the model the way Mr. Tsuburaya originally wanted. So, we had to rebuild it and shoot the scene over. (Mr. Nakajima plays Godzilla in the first twelve Godzilla films. He also plays RODAN (1956), VARAN – THE UNBELIEVABLE (1958), and many of the other giant monster characters created by Toho.)

DM: Were you surprised by the great success of GODZILLA – KING OF THE MONSTERS?

YI: I was very surprised by it.

DM: Why do you think the movie was so successful?

YI: It reminded people of the war. That was one reason. Another was the fact that it was seen as a film about fear, rather than a film about a giant monster. Finally, it was original. Nobody had ever before seen anything like it.

DM: Was any consideration given to producing a sequel before the movie proved to be a success?

YI: No.

DM: Were you surprised when GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN was announced?

YI: No. Film studios always produce a sequel when a movie does very well.

DM: How much time did you spend building the model of Osaka Castle used in the production of GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN?

YI: Fifteen days. It was going to be destroyed by the monster actors, so we had to do very meticulous work.

DM: The model was very elaborate. Was it expensive to build?

YI: Very.

DM: I’ve heard that it had to be rebuilt. Is that true?

YI: Yes. The timing of the first take wasn’t right.

DM: Did you have to reconstruct miniatures used in the production of many of the other monster films on which you worked?

YI: Yes. The monster actors often would make a mistake during shooting. In addition, since the cinematographers were shooting at high speed, the cameras would sometimes jam. I remember that one time Teisho Arikawa became completely pale when he sat down to watch some film he’d shot and saw that there was nothing on it. (Mr. Arikawa worked on THE MYSTERIANS (1957), WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966), and a number of Toho’s other science fiction movies as a special effects cameraman before directing the special effects for SON OF GODZILLA (1967), DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968), and YOG – MONSTER FROM SPACE (1970).)

DM: I’ve heard that you built Atragon. Is that true? (Atragon is the flying submarine featured in ATRAGON (1963).)

YI: I only drew the blueprints. I based them on drawings of the submarine by Shigeru Komatsuzaki. (Mr. Komatsuzaki drew the original design sketches for many of the miniatures seen in Toho’s films.)

DM: Who actually constructed the model?

YI: Gunji Model Craft. Most of the time, Toho’s own employees would build the miniatures, but some of the more complex miniatures were built by Gunji Model Craft.

DM: What materials were used to construct the model?

YI: The body was made of steel and the drill at the front was made of aluminum. Wood wouldn’t have been strong enough.

DM: Did Gunji Model Craft make the models of structures such as Tokyo Tower and the Eiffel Tower?

YI: No. They were made by a company called Toida Warehouse.

DM: Did you just reuse the blueprints for models of buildings that you had constructed previously when you were called upon to make them again?

YI: Most of the movies I worked on were set in different cities, so I didn’t have many opportunities to reuse my blueprints.   After monster films became popular, representatives from many cities asked Toho to set one in their city. So, we would have to go to Nagoya, Fukuoka and so on to take measurements.

DM: Did you travel to any foreign cities to take measurements?

YI: No. Toho couldn’t afford that.   By the way, since the destruction of the world’s cities was going to be such a crucial element of THE LAST WAR (1961), we tried to find a substance that would produce especially convincing results when blown up. We experimented with many different materials, but found that wafers worked best. Unfortunately, we also found that mice liked to eat the wafers.

DM: Did you use any other unusual materials to construct miniature buildings?

YI: Plaster generally worked best because it looked like concrete. However, we used styrofoam for the shots in BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (1959) in which aliens fire anti-gravity rays from their spaceships. In addition, we used coal to make some of the miniature buildings that were set on fire for THE LAST WAR.

DM: Did you construct the spaceships seen in THE MYSTERIANS, GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO (1965), and so on?

YI: I drew the blueprints for most of them after receiving the original design sketches. However, I designed the little aircraft seen in GORATH (1962) myself. Gunji Model Craft had to build it because the steel had to be hammered very meticulously. After GORATH was completed, the model was used in the production of one of the Ultraman television series. (All of the series were produced by Tsuburaya Productions, Inc., which was founded by Mr. Tsuburaya.)

DM: Did you design any other spaceships or planes?

YI: Designing is a very time-consuming process. I was always too busy drawing blueprints and building miniatures.

DM: How much time did you usually spend drawing blueprints?

YI: About three months.

DM: How much time did you usually spend constructing miniatures?

YI: About a month and a half. We were always very rushed.

DM: Which of the studios on Toho’s lot were used to shoot GODZILLA – KING OF THE MONSTERS, GODZILLA RAIDS AGGAIN, and so on?

YI: Eight and Nine were used most of the time. They were the two biggest studios.  We did have to set up in an independent studio once in a while. Toho’s studios weren’t always available.

DM: Why did Toho get rid of the Small Pool?

YI: Mr. Tsuburaya and Mr. Kurosawa were considered the emporers of Toho. Whatever they wanted, they got. That’s why the Small Pool and Studio Ten were built. When Mr. Tsuburaya died, Toho got rid of both of them. (The Small Pool was one of the two pools used to shoot scenes that took place in water. Mr. Tsuburaya died in 1970.)

DM: In what year did you stop working for Toho?

YI: The last Toho production I worked on was ZERO FIGHTER – BIG SKY BATTLE (1966). It was directed by Shiro Moritani, who also directed TIDAL WAVE (1973).   The president of Toho, who’d worked for Mr. Tsuburaya during World War II, founded P Productions to create his own superhero television series and asked me to work for the company. That’s the main reason why I left.   Shortly before I left, I brought a designer who’d just graduated from art school into the company. His name was Hiro Toyoshima. He ended up designing both the P-1 and the Moonlight SY-3. (The P-1 is the spaceship seen in GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO. The Moonlight SY-3 is the spaceship seen in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS.)   It was very gratifying for me to see Toho hire Mr. Toyoshima as a full-time employee. At the time, the company’s executives were very reluctant to hire people. They instead would be made independent contractors.

DM: What work have you been doing since you left Toho?

YI: Shortly after I left P Productions, I worked on the Mitsubishi Future Pavilion at the 1970 World Expo, which was held in Osaka. Mr. Tsuburaya was originally going to work on the Pavilion, but Teruyoshi Nakano did instead because Mr. Tsuburaya’s health was failing. (Mr. Nakano directed the special effects for GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (1971), GODZILLA 1985 (1984), and a number of Toho’s other science fiction movies.)

DM: What was the Pavilion like?

YI: It featured miniature undersea cities and space colonies.

DM: What have you been doing since 1970?

YI: I’ve been drawing blueprints for miniatures for other special exhibitions. I’m currently blueprinting miniature cities and castles for an exhibition that the government is going to hold in the near future.

DM: Is Gunji Model Craft still in business?

YI: Yes. My wife’s younger brother is running the company now. It makes miniatures for the Ultraman series.

DM: Which of the science fiction films you worked on were most challenging for you?

YI: THE MYSTERIANS, BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, and GORATH. I did a lot of work for those movies.

DM: At what point did you begin to feel confident about working on monster films?

YI: We were still experimenting during the production of GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN, but by the time production on RODAN got underway, we had enough experience to know what we were doing.

DM: What was Mr. Tsuburaya like?

YI: He introduced me to my wife. He acted as a go-between for us. I was the only member of his staff for whom he did that, so I felt very honored. (It is traditional in Japan for someone to act as a go-between for a prospective couple.)  Since Gunji Model Craft built some of the miniatures used in the production of Toho’s movies, Mr. Tsuburaya and I would go to visit the company from time to time. That’s how I got to know my wife.  I was the person Mr. Tsuburaya always blamed when something went wrong. He never blamed Mr. Watanabe!
Mr. Tsuburaya had a great interest in aircraft. I did as well.

DM: I’ve heard that Mr. Tsuburaya was very shy. Was he?

YI: Yes. I was always very impressed when Godzilla did something funny because Mr. Tsuburaya was so shy.

DM: What was Mr. Watanabe like?

YI: He always worked very meticulously. He somehow never failed to render his designs exactly the way Mr. Tsuburaya wanted.

DM: What was Mr. Komatsuzaki like?

YI: I never worked with him directly. I would just be handed his design sketches.

DM: Which of Toho’s older science fiction films are your favorites?

YI: THE MYSTERIANS, BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, and GORATH. I like them better than the monster movies.

DM: What do you think of the war films?

YI: I wanted to be a naval officer when I was a boy, so I really enjoyed them.

DM: How do you think the more recent Godzilla movies compare to the earlier ones?

YI: The special effects are far more sophisticated, but the plots are very limited. All we see is monsters fighting with each other.

DM: How do you feel about TriStar Pictures producing a Godzilla film in the United States?

YI: I think the movie will be much more enjoyable than Toho’s recent Godzilla films.

DM: Why is that?

YI: Hollywood has produced a lot of good movies that aren’t serious dramas lately.

Yoshio Irie Interview © 1996, 2005 David Milner. Used with permission of the author.
Photo © 1996 David Milner.
Format © 2005 Daikaiju Publishing.