Obituary: Tomoyuki Tanaka
Friday 04 April 1997
Among his greatest successes was the fantasy science fiction movie Godzilla, made in 1954. At the time, the Japanese cinema had long since passed through its golden period and was in a decline, confronted by the waves of American blockbuster movies. Tanaka showed his daring in dreaming up the figure of a prehistoric monster that was to appear in a dizzying succession of 22 films. The Japanese name was "Gojira" - a conflation of the first syllable of "gorilla" and the last two of kujira, meaning "whale", and not, as many Westerners think, God himself in SFX form.
This awesome beast, spewing radioactive fire from dinosaur jaws, was the brainchild of the special effects genius Eiji Tsubuyaya, who in childhood had been spellbound by King Kong. He worked on all the Godzilla epics with the director Ishiro Honda until his death in 1970. But it was Tanaka's brainchild, and when the studio "killed off" his creature just 16 months ago the old man's heart was broken and he never really recovered.
His first Godzilla production had been the first Japanese movie to have a world-wide box-office success, and its drawing power pulled Toho and the Japanese film industry out of the doldrums. Tanaka made a deal with an American distributor, selling the copyright in the movie outright for only $25,000, at a time when the exchange rate was 360 yen to the dollar. Its primitive strangeness was Americanised by additional footage bringing in the Perry Mason star Raymond Burr as a hard-boiled investigative newsman, and thus making the movie even weirder than the original, but still ridiculously enjoyable. It also earned millions from trade offshoots: dolls, comics, T-shirts and all the other marketing ploys flooded Japan and then the West. There is ominous news of a Hollywood remake by Roland Emmerich in 1998 - the man who brought us Independence Day (1996).
In these days of boringly repetitive science-fiction movies with their interminable computerised explosions, it is refreshing to run a video of the first Godzilla classics, in which the clumsy beast with its cumbersome tail is animated by a stunt man inside the ungainly carapace. There is something unintentionally hilarious in the way the monster is made to stamp peevishly on papier-mache models of famous landmarks like Tokyo Tower or the Diet Building, or to melt electricity pylons (made of wax) with his scorching radioactive breath. He seems to take an almost childish pleasure in stomping on Dinky cars and trucks and later to snap up the carriages of the Shinkansen express like a string of beads. It is the most adorable kiddy kitsch, and spawned an ever more comical series of kaiju eiga or monster movies with rival creatures bearing archaic SF names like Mothra, Rodan, Gaigan, and Hedora co-starring in Godzilla vs the Thing (1964), King Kong vs Godzilla (1963), Godzilla vs the Destroyer (1995) and Godzilla vs the Smog Monster (1972) - all gradually becoming more sophisticated in animation techniques. That last-named opus hints at Tanaka's preoccupation with important human themes like ecology, war hysteria, natural catastrophes in what the Americans called "shake and bake" movies and, above all, the so-called "nuclear allergy" the Japanese were said to be suffering from - with good reason.
The first Godzilla appeared when the Japanese were still suffering from post-A-bomb trauma. Their sense of foreboding could be felt in the first movie made by Honda and Tsuburaya, the 1953 atomic war picture Taiheyo no washi ("Eagle of the Pacific"). Shortly after it appeared, on 1 March 1954, the Japanese were appalled by the tragic fate of a fishing-boat, Daigo fukuryu maru ("Lucky Dragon V"), engulfed in a rain of radioactive ash from a United States thermonuclear weapon test on Bikini Island. One crew member died. The others were all seriously contaminated.
The word "Dragon" in the boat's name was Tanaka's original inspiration for the future Godzilla, a dragon-like primeval monster wakened from the depths of the Pacific by atom bomb tests and coming to terrifying life to avenge himself upon the destroyers of his peace. Behind all the special effects, there was the very human preoccupation of Tomoyuki Tanaka and his production team with the menace of world-wide destruction by the Cold War arsenal of atomic bombs and missiles.
But Tanaka was not just the creator of Godzilla. Though he continued to collaborate profitably with the US companies in Godzilla adaptations like Invasion of the Astro-Monsters (1967, with Nick Adams "normalising" an all-Japanese cast) and a return of Raymond Burr in the remake Godzilla 1985, Tanaka distinguished himself by working with great Japanese directors like Hiroshi Ingaki, whose Rickshaw Man won the Golden Lion Award in Venice in 1958.
He produced great historical films like Kihachi Okamoto's 1967 Nippon no iciban nagaichi ("Japan's Longest Day"), Shiro Moritani's 1977 Hakkoda- san ("Mt Hakkoda"), and above all the superb Akira Kurosawa Toho-period works: Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), Akahige (Redbeard - a financial disaster in 1965). He was executive producer for Kurosawa's magnificent historical epic Kagemusha ("Shadow Warrior") in 1980, and he was in Cannes to see it win the Golden Palm Grand Prix Award - the first Japanese film to do so since Teinosuke Kinugasa's Jigokumon (Gate of Hell) in 1954.
Tomoyuki Tanaka, film producer: born Osaka 1910; married (three children); died Tokyo 2 April 1997.
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