Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters: Defending the Earth with Ultraman, Godzilla, and Friends in the Golden Age of Japanese Science Fiction Film
by August Ragone
A review by Gerry Donaghy
Drop the name Eiji Tsuburaya at the next cocktail party you attend, and I guarantee that you'll be greeted with blank stares. But, I could also guarantee that those same befuddled eyes have glimpsed some of his greatest creations. As the visual effects supervisor for Japan's Toho film studios, Tsuburaya is the man responsible for unleashing Godzilla upon the world. Sure, IMDB and Trivial Pursuit will tell you that Ishiro Honda was the director of the film, and he was certainly responsible for its compelling emotional content (largely absent from its Americanized version), but it was Tsuburaya who brought the monster to life.
In his biography Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters: Defending the Earth with Ultraman, Godzilla, and Friends in the Golden Age of Japanese Science Fiction Film, August Ragone lovingly illustrates a life that few outside of Japan were ever aware of. Displaying talent and imagination at a very young age, Tsuburaya was obsessed with the emerging sciences of cinema and aviation in the early part of the last century. Setting out to find his fortune in the motion picture industry, it was through a chance encounter while working at a toy factory that Tsuburaya was given the opportunity to train as a cameraman. After quickly proving his talent behind the camera, he achieved enough renown that he was pressed into service by the Imperial Government to make propaganda features. One of these, a re-creation of the attack on Pearl Harbor called The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya, was so realistic that the American Occupation forces believed it to be real footage of the battle.
It was in 1954, with the release of Godzilla, that Tsuburaya's career began to take off. Previously in science fiction features, effects gurus like Ray Harryhausen would bring creatures to life utilizing stop-motion animation. Faced with the prospect of taking years to film his vision of Godzilla using this technique, Tsuburaya decided to use actors in rubber costumes acting against a scale model of Tokyo. The film was a tremendous hit, spawning 27 sequels over the course of 50 years, and enshrined Tsuturaya as the Tokusatsu-no Kami-Sama (the god of special visual effects). He would continue to pioneer this field until his death in 1970. His films became a staple of matinee features and Saturday afternoon UHF monster-movie shows for years to come. And while more recent Godzilla films use Hollywood-level computer enhanced visual effects, the monster and his giant foes are still guys stomping on model cities in bulky rubber suits
Ragone clearly has a passion for his subject, and his knowledge of Japanese tokusatsu (fantasy special effects) entertainment is peerless. The author does an admirable job of detailing Tsuburaya's early life and career and thoroughly describes his cinematic career from Godzilla onwards. Anyone with a taste for reading about frantic production schedules and creative jury-rigging solutions will find much to enjoy in Ragone's text.
But at the risk of disparaging all of the research and care that went into the writing of this book, I have to say that the book itself is a visual treat, crammed to the rafters with stills and behind-the-scenes photographs of Tsuburaya's productions. I don't know if I'm the only person on the planet who delights at seeing pictures of daikaiju (giant monster) actors on the set, standing next to various crew members as both tower over highly detailed models of Tokyo or Yokohama, but if you or somebody you know does, your holiday gift-giving solutions just got a whole lot easier.
At the end of the day, Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters is a wonderful realization of content and design, suitable for fans not only of tokusatsu, but of filmmaking in general. It's the perfect coffee table book for your inner otaku.