Kaiju Kabuki: An interview with Tomoo Haraguchi
For decades, titanic creatures portrayed by dudes in rubber suits pummeled each other -- and the city of Tokyo -- in Japan's once-ubiquitous 'kaiju eiga,' or giant monster movies. But in an era of sophisticated computer graphics, the low-tech yet charming method of moviemaking is increasingly falling by the wayside.
Director Tomoo Haraguchi is one of the last of the 'kaiju craftsmen,' dedicated to keeping the artform alive. Hard at work on his upcoming new film, "Death Kappa," he spoke to us about a childhood spent in captivity on a movie set -- and why big monsters are bigger than pop culture.
CNNGo: What exactly is your job title?
Tomoo Haraguchi: I'm a special-effects makeup specialist. I also sculpt suits and miniatures, and I direct as well.
CNNGo: How does one get their start in that kind of thing?
Haraguchi: I've been involved with the film industry for a lot longer than I've been actually working in it. My grandfather was a sound man at Toho studios. I grew up during the 60s, right in the middle of the fad for giant monsters, things like Godzilla and Ultraman. He would take me to visit the sets as a kid, and the staff there took a liking to me. And my father was in broadcasting; he did a lot of work for NHK.
CNNGo: It runs in the family. I guess you didn't have any other choice.
Haraguchi: Well, you know, it wasn't really a choice per se; it was just that I liked hanging out around the props. I mean, any kid would. I'd hang out in the art department and ask them to let me help make buildings for the monsters to destroy, or repair the monster suits.
CNNGo: Not exactly the average Japanese kid's life.
Haraguchi: Yeah. And so when I started looking for a part-time job in high school to make some pocket money, it was only natural I gravitated back to that. They gave me the job of wearing the suits of the monsters that the heroes would beat up.
CNNGo: A part-time monster for hire? Now this is really not sounding like the average Japanese kid's life. What's it like inside one of those suits?
Haraguchi: Hot. Sweaty. Not exactly pleasant. But I enjoyed it. It wasn't only on the set, either; they'd send me out to theme parks for special events where the heroes would defeat the monsters in live shows for kids.
CNNGo: How did you get into the actual special effects production side of the job?
Haraguchi: It was this television show. "Star Wolf." 1978. The entertainment industry knew that "Star Wars," which came out in America in 1977 but wouldn't come to Japan until the following summer, was going to be a hit. So everyone scrambled to get their own versions onto theater and television screens. Tsuburaya was a TV company so they produced a show called "Star Wolf." I heard they were looking for help on the set and needed some pocket money, so I signed on. I was in high school at the time. Little did I know I wouldn't see my home for a month and a half. They wouldn't let me leave.
CNNGo: What do you mean?
Haraguchi: I mean captivity. Out of the group of kids that showed up the first day I was the only one who showed up for the second and from that point on my fate was sealed. They had me. That's how it was in the industry back then. Early mornings, late nights, overnights...
CNNGo: Come on, how did you eat? Or shower?
Haraguchi: I didn't shower the entire time. I couldn't! I tried escaping from the set twice, but I got caught both times. "Hey! Kid! Have some udon, we're going to start shooting again..." Looking back now, I can laugh, but man, it was the pits at the time. Then again, most normal people don't get to experience things like that.
CNNGo: I've always wanted to ask this, but why are Japanese so fascinated with monster suits?
Haraguchi: Well, the first Godzilla film, which was made in 1954, had a huge impact on the industry. A man named Eiji Tsuburaya created that suit and oversaw the special effects scenes, and the method basically became standard practice over here. But there's more to it than that. Back then, Americans tended to use animals, like iguanas with fins glued to their backs, or expensive stop-motion techniques. But in Japan, the industry felt that stop-motion animation was too slow and expensive, and animals don't always act the way you need them to.
CNNGo: Yeah, I can imagine an iguana not being particularly happy about having a fin glued on its back.
Haraguchi: But when you put a guy in a suit, you can direct him. From a budget standpoint, it's a lot more efficient and reasonable. And since Godzilla was such a success, it basically started a trend.
CNNGo: It almost feels like cultural heritage at this point.
Haraguchi: It's interesting you say that, because I think it also has roots in the Edo period, in the tradition of kabuki theater. Whenever an oni, or a tiger, or a giant snake, or some other kind of creature appears onstage, they're portrayed very similarly to the way Godzilla was -- by actors wearing suits. I definitely think that the idea of putting an actor into a monster costume came from that tradition.
CNNGo: So are you sticking with actors in suits in your new film "Death Kappa" out of that sense of tradition?
Haraguchi: No! I'm sticking to it because I don't have the budget for anything else! (laughs)