An Interview with Minoru Nakano
Conducted by Guy Mariner Tucker
(Originally published in ULTRA-FAN Issue #1 Winter 1996)
SPFX Tech Extraordinaire
Minoru Nakano was handpicked by Eiji Tsuburaya to join his staff as early as 1958, but Nakano held off until he had finished university. He is best known today for his masterful optical work on such Tsuburaya Productions shows as Ultra Q and Ultraman. I first met the now 55-year-old Nakano while doing a series of interviews in Tokyo last March , and grew so accustomed to his lively interjections that it was clear he would be a prime candidate for an interview in our premiere issue. Listening to the tape we made on the last of my eight days there, 1 realized it was not so much of a real interview as sort of a loose, weary but friendly bar room chat, most of which hardly bears printing. All I can do is plead exhaustion on my part and my translaton. Nakano, on the other hand, I wonder if he ever needs to sleep. His style (blue jeans, close-cropped hair, motorcycle named “Bull- dog”?) is recognizably late-1960s Japanese macho (he would not look out of place in a Toei action movie, trading punches with Ken Takakura or Shinichi Chiba), but in fact he is amazingly perceptive and for a Japanese, even more amazingly outspoken about the industry he works in and its people. Alas, we only got to some of that in this conversation. Maybe next year. In the meantime, here’s the best of what we did get. -GMT
Minoru Nakano: I’m very interested in some of your American writers. You’re writing about things that are top-secret even among Japanese writers; some of what you’re writing is more detailed than what they are.
Ultra-Fan: Really? You see so much more writing in Japan that you assume they know what they’re talking about. Of course, there’s been a great deal of misinformation on both sides. That’s one reason a lot of us got into this field.
MN: Did you know about the SFX director of Power Rangers? It’s Nobuo Yajima (veteran SFX director for Toei TV; as well as for the feature Terror Beneath the Sea, 1966). I’ll be seeing him this Saturday. Tomorrow it’ll be Mr. Yuasa. (Noriaki Yuasa, director of most of the Gamera films.)
UF: Why was Mr. Yuasa asked to direct so many episodes of Ultraman 80?
MN: Well, it wasn’t just Ultraman 80, he started in TV well before that.
UF: What about Ultraman director Akio Jissoji?
MN: Akio Jissoji was a very special director who never drew storyboards. He would only write very meticulous notes. If he was hired for a project and found there were already storyboards drawn, he would quit. “I don’t need pictures on storyboards,” he would say. “What I need are words.”
UF: What do you remember about Eiji Tsuburaya?
MN: Tsuburaya once said that Ghidora was immoveable, so I asked why he had put three heads on the monster. Tsuburaya said, “I thought it would be more interesting that way, but I think I was wrong. It’s just immoveable.” That’s why Ghidora is hardly ever shown in the first two Ghidora movies. It’s hard work to operate Ghidora, both inside and outside. Tsuburaya was a terribly inventive personality. Every time Nakajima was inside the Godzilla suit, Tsuburaya would ask him to create an entirely new image for each movie. Another actor was chosen to play Ultraman, Bin (“Satoshi”) Furuya, who had the right proportions, but knew nothing about fighting monsters in the suit. So Nakajima went to Tsuburaya Productions to teach him how. (Nakajima eventually played Ultraman’s foe Jirass, a.k.a. Kira.) Tsuburaya always required an image that had never been imagined before.
UF: How did it happen that Ishiro Honda got started in television?
MN: That was for Return of Ultraman (1971). Eiji Tsuburaya’s eldest son Hajime asked him to direct the first episode, as homage after Tsuburaya died.
UF: Is it a coincidence that Honda then did nothing but television for a few years?
MN: I’m not sure about that, but Honda’s son Ryuji told me that right after Godzilla vs. Biollante came out (in 1989), there was much clamoring among the fans for Ishiro Honda to return and direct another movie in that series. But Honda had just about lost interest in Godzilla. However, a few years later, there was a project set up at Daiei to make a new film featuring Dai Majin. The producer offered it to Honda. Ryuji later told me that he thought his father looked very interested in making a Majin film. (The project is still in limbo.)
UF: That would have been wonderful, since he never made a period film.
MN: That’s true. But on the other hand, he worked with Kurosawa on Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985), and even before that, (he worked on period films) as an assistant director in the 1930s. Of all the new Kurosawa staff, you know, Honda was the closest to him and worked the hardest with him. The new staff might see “the Emperor Kurosawa” in the morning and wouldn’t dare say more than “Good morning, how are you today.” It was much different with Honda.
…You know Arthur Rankin? (producer of such Christmas-themed TV classics as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, virtually all animated by Toei, and coproducer of King Kong Escapes. ) He was a very skillful producer when it came to communicating with a Japanese staff. He came over to Japan because it was then the cheapest place to get the visual effects he wanted. If you ever want to know how to work with a Japanese staff, just ask Arthur Rankin! My friend Raymond Chow, president of Golden Harvest in Hong Kong, where Jackie Chan makes his movies, told me, “I could never match the way Arthur Rankin can work with such a huge Japanese staff” Rankin liked us for being cheap, hard-working and responsible.
UF: Speaking of Jackie Chan, I saw his signature on the wall of a men’s room once in Shinjuku. It said in English “I came from H.K.,” then his autograph.
MN: That could be. Jackie Chan loves Marui Department Store in Shinjuku.
UF: One last question. Was Ultraman the first Japanese superhero that did not have a human face?
MN: There was Gekko Kamen before that.
Editor’s note: Mr. Nakano visited New York this past October , where he was met, wined and dined by myself; John Roberto, and a couple of others. Among the more amazing facts he divulged this trip: that Tsuburaya Productions was originally named Tsuburaya Special Techniques Productions; but Toho so detested the word “tokugi” (special techniques), and the exclusivity it implied (that only Tsuburaya’s company could provide such techniques), that Toho refused to invest any money in the venture until the offending word “tokugi” was removed. Tsuburaya agreed, the better to win Toho’s backing. Toho never forgot or forgave Eiji Tsuburaya’s founding a rival company; when Ishiro Honda and his staff wanted to dedicate Yog Monster .from Space (1970) to Tsuburaya’s memory, Toho flatly refused to allow any kind of acknowledgement to appear onscreen. We look forward to learning more .from Mr. Nakano soon. -GMT
Interview © 1996, 2002 Guy Mariner Tucker/Daikaiju Publishing