50 Famous People – Eiji Tsuburaya

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

Finally, a volume of the 50 Famous People that I really enjoyed reading. Eiji Tsuburaya was the special effects expert (later, SFX director) at Toho Studios, responsible for creating Godzilla and Ultraman for films and TV. According to the wiki film credits, he also handled SFX for Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. Born in 1901 in Fukushima (the prefecture with the nuclear reactor that melted down following the big quake in 2011), Eiji’s mother died when he was 3 and his father abandoned the family soon after (the mook doesn’t give further details; the wiki entry claims he went to China to take over the family business). He was raised by his uncle and his grandmother. At age 9, he became enamored with airplanes (the Wright Brothers had completed their first flight only 4 years earlier) and started making his own models out of wood with only photos to guide him. He was good enough at it to attract local news reporters. At 14, he graduated school and went to Tokyo on his own to learn to become a pilot. However, the school he enrolled in only had one plane and one instructor, and in less than one year the instructor died in a crash and the school closed. Instead, Eiji moved to Kanda (near Akihabara) to enter an electronics school there. To raise money for tuition, he started working part time at a toy company, and his design for a kick scooter turned out to be fairly popular. Then, during a company hanami (Spring cherry blossom viewing) drinking party, the toy company set up near the party site for a film company and the two groups almost got into a fight. Eiji intervened, and the second group offered him a job. He trained as a cameraman, and earned a living that way from age 18 to 32. In 1933, he saw King Kong, and vowed to become a movie special effects master. This led to his working on Hawai Mare oki Kaisen, a war movie featuring aerial battles Eiji staged using miniatures. This was followed in 1954 by Godzilla, and Ultraman Q (the predecessor to the Ultraman franchise, which he has sole credit for creating). He died in 1970 at age 68 of heart failure. As well as having won numerous awards for his special effects, he’s named as an influence on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, as well as having invented the “Toho Versatile System” optical printer for widescreen pictures.

The intro manga has Mohea being chased by two monsters and saved by Merrino, Mami and Utako. Turns out she’s just acting in Youichi’s and Daichi’s reenactment of an Ultra Seven movie scene, and is scarily realistic in pretending to be frightened. When told of the movie’s background, Mohea summons her spaceship to fly out to planet M-78 to thank Ultraman in person, as Youichi and Daichi shout out that this is just fiction. Merrino is so frustrated at being ignored (wanting to be a hero himself) that he orders Study Bell to start the lesson. In the end, Merrino, Youichi and Daichi prepare to face off in a rubber suit battle, but Mohea intervenes and tells them to play nice together – doing cat’s cradles with yarn (not an easy task if you have crab’s claws for hands).

The main manga is by Daisuke Higuchi, a female artist known for Go Ahead and Dokushi (which is still on-going in Comic Birz magazine). The artwork is very good, and Eiji almost looks like his photos (he’s not too westernized). The story is a bit preachy and shojo-ish, but not overwhelmingly so. It starts out in 1954, with Eiji, age 53, on the set with a miniature version of Tokyo, blocking out the shot for a scene for his new Godzilla movie. He’s describing how he wants the power towers to look, and gets into an argument with a young effects technician that claims that none of these things are possible. (I’m not sure if the tech is made up for the story, but a sidebar states that Eiji had nicknamed him “Denchi”, using the kanji for “electricity”). “Den” storms off, and Eiji is called over to the camera because the closeup of the Godzilla hand puppet isn’t convincing enough. Eiji asks for a pane of glass, draws some lines on it, puts it in front of the camera and voila – instant perspective with the puppet behind some power wires. Den meets up with another tech working on an outdoor set in a different sound stage, where the group is ridiculed by workers from Toho’s samurai drama division (at the time, Toho specialized in period dramas, and the special effects division was looked down on as “boys playing with toys”). Den is insulted and his partner tells him he sounds just like Eiji. The two go to the screening room, where Den gets to see “Hawai Mare” for the first time, with the realistic-looking aerial battles. The friend explains that scenes with one plane were shot with an operator holding a model suspended by piano wire from a bamboo pole. In squadron shots, the planes were suspended by fixed wires and the background set moved behind them, pushed along tracks by two technicians. Excited, Den returns to work on his power tower. Eiji had a practice of buying coffee for anyone he had a fight with, and the two of them sit down to discuss how to pull off the sequence where the tower melts from Godzilla’s breath attack.  When the final film is screened, the two guys that had scoffed earlier are scared out of their pants, which is the reaction Eiji had been striving for. The narrator comments that Eiji paved the way for the generations of SFX masters that came after him.

The textbook section details Eiji’s upbringing and career path given above. The last two pages are a listing of his most famous scenes (the power tower melting in Godzilla, the cocoon opening sequence on Tokyo Tower in Mothra, the volcano scene in Rodan, among others) plus brief descriptions of the monsters he made for his Ultraman franchise. Explanations of some of the effects tricks include shooting flying planes with the set upside down so the wires holding the planes from the bottom won’t be seen, shooting volcanoes upside down so the “billowing” smoke will hit the floor and spread out, and spreading gelatin along the pool floor to simulate the sea’s surface for ocean battles.

TCG cards include: I. H. N. Evans, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Alexander Graham Bell, Rama V, Van Gogh, Antoni Gaudi, Kang Youwei, Woodrow Wilson and Robert Edwin Peary.

Tsuburaya was a very talented man, with a non-linear job history. He deserves wider exposure to western audiences. This mook is highly recommended.

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  1. Review: USB FX Camera | threestepsoverjapan

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