I Ran From GODZILLA 2000, Part 1 (Mania.com)
Date: Thursday, August 17, 2000
The first Toho-produced Godzilla film to reach U.S. movie screens since Godzilla 1985, TriStar's release of Godzilla 2000 is being met by kaiju fans with a bliss akin to that experienced by their Star Wars counterparts last year when Lucas Films released a new entry to the successful space opera after an equally vast absence. For many, this will be the first time to see a Japanese Godzilla film in a theatera remedy of sorts to the calamitous TriStar-produced Godzilla of two years ago. Godzilla 2000 marks the twenty-third film in the series that, as difficult as it may be for younger fans to fathom, began nearly fifty years ago. What this means is, as with Star Wars, it's possible for your parents to be fans. However, in the case of Godzilla, don't be surprised if you find your grandparents playing with your imported Bandai kaiju figures.
As with many westerners, my discovery of Godzilla came through television. It was the mid-1960s, a time when the excitement of the then soon-to-be-fulfilled promise of astronauts pattering on the lunar surface was being intensified by a wave of sci-fi TV shows and films. My unearthing of Godzilla amongst the mostly trash fantasy offerings was something of a godsend. As a rather passive youth consistently hazed at school for my passion of things sci-fi, Godzilla represented a means by which I could live out some sweet counter vengeance on the worlda careful foot placed here and there eliminating the things that I, in my childlike god mind, deemed unnecessary.
Godzilla films ceased production in the mid-1970s. Additionally, with the space race over, the once strong grip of progressive sci-fi films on Saturday afternoon TV gave way to aggressive Hong Kong kung fu importsa prelude perhaps to the coming intensified military spending under President Regan. During this time Godzilla films faded from my mind. It wasn't until the theatrical release of Godzilla 1985 that the attraction was rekindled.
In 1993, in a chain of events unrelated to Godzilla, I moved to Japan. To my great surprise, I found that Godzilla movies had been revised a few years earlier, with new motion pictures gracing Japanese theaters annually. And as for Godzilla, he was as popular as ever in his native land, his image adorning ads and posters everywhere. Hardly a day would pass when I wouldn't see some picture of the dorsal finned behemoth. It was at this time that the cooled ember of my Godzilla fondness ignited fully.
Cutting out a niche as an entertainment writer specializing in Japanese fantasy cinema, I inevitably encountered Toho Studios, producers of some of the nation's best genre cinema and home to Godzilla. Granted a set visit to the first Godzilla film since the killing off of the king kaiju in 1995's Godzilla vs. Destroyer, I stepped with great personal delight onto the Toho Studio lot in the summer of 1999.
Toho is located in the town of Seijyo, a section of the Tokyo suburb of Setagaya. By Japanese definition it is a spacious lot. In addition to business, pre- and postproduction offices, nine large airplane hanger-shaped stages are spread about its grounds. After checking in at Toho's nondescript publicity office just past the studio's main entrance, I was led to stage one for the beginning of my G-2000 investigation.
In the large, heavily air-conditioned room (a welcome respite from the subtropical heat that plagues Japan during its summer season), three of the walls were covered by a massive, single-piece blue screen. The room itself was dominated by a three-meter tall mockup of the roof of a Tokyo sky rise. Positioned close to the lip of the roof was the film's main cast. Flanked by extras dressed in army fatigues, they waited for the next shot to begin.
In a corner was the film's large 'Tohoscope' camera. Manned by several crewmembers, it was pointed at the rooftop set. Inconspicuously seated on a small wood box beside the camera was director Takao Okawara. Dressed in light browns and wearing a tan fishing vest, he sat stoking his graying beard, his head sunk in a portion of the script. Off to a side were several extras seated on rusty folding chairs. Some had their heads tilted towards the ceiling, their eyes closed and mouths gapping openso much for the excitement of acting in a Godzilla film.
In contrast, the main actors were having a grand time, joking and kidding with each other between shots. At the farthest end stood the tallest of the cast, model-turned-actor Hiroshi Abe (Orochi, the Seven Headed Dragon); beside him was popular TV actor and occasional director Shiro Sano (Karaoke); next was Takehiro Murata, a rough and ready actor seen in several Heisei Godzilla films as well as Mothra 2; then there was the lovely Naomi Nishida (Gakko no Kwaidan 1 & 3); finally, beside her was child actress Mayu Suzuki.
The scenes filmed at this time were of great importance: the finale. During takes, the actors stood near the edge of the rooftop set. With eyes focused intently, they grimaced at the blue screen, which would later have superimpositions of Godzilla battling Orga, the film's kaiju nemesis. For the climax of the battle, the actors were submitted to the powerful exhaust of a large, cannon-shaped wind machine. It blew mercilessly across them as they cowered and fought against the harsh air blast.
Several shots called for the camera to be placed on the rooftop allowing closer access to the set. The military extras marched around maps tacked to boards resting under field tents. On a table sat an Apple G3 computer. For these scenes, the main characters stared at a blank computer screen (to be later filled with relevant information) while Sano dispensed dialogue. As they acted, two crewmembers operated crank controlled fans. I was later told that Toho is the only studio in Japan still using hand-operated fans. As is often the case in Japan, one can find a mix of old and new technologies coexisting side by side.
Between scenes I was introduced to the cast. Sano, I discovered, was a true kaiju authority, citing War of the Gargantuas as his favorite of Toho's giant monster films. Murata and Nishida were cheerful and talkative. With G-2000 marking Murata's debut as lead in a Godzilla film, he had taken it upon himself to be the unifying element for the cast. Murata took special care to see that the young Suzuki, who plays his character's daughter, was made to feel a part of the set. Between shots, he would sit and talk with her, coaching her about acting and the film process.
A deep stream cuts the Toho lot down the middle. It was on the half opposite stage 1 that I found the famous 'giant pool'. A wide, enclosed body of water a meter deep, it is where most of Toho's water effect scenes have been filmed. Raised behind the pool is a large mural of a slightly cloudy sky that runs the length of the water. Just before the pool stood a makeshift tent of blue tarp. Under its shade, I found effect director Kenji Suzuki leafing through a three-ring binder thicker than a Manhattan Yellow Pages. Convivial and sincere, he gave me permission to explore the area freely after speaking with him for a few minutes.
Walking to the edge of the pool, its splintering wood sides coming up to my waist, I scanned the surface. Across the gently rippling waves skated several gigantic water bugs. To the left of the pool a tall crane hung over the water. Following its steel cable down, I saw that it connected right into the back of Godzilla!
With water breaking around them, soaked crewmembers were helping G-2000 suit actor Tsutomu Kitagawa out of the Godzilla costume. The sky, in a few short minutes, had gone from blue to black, and a light drizzle had begun. With a typhoon blowing in, Suzuki had given the order for the shoot to move indoors. Godzilla was hoisted ashore. Water poured freely from the suit as the crane lifted and placed it gently onto a dock that jutted into the giant pool. Carefully, Godzilla was wrapped in clear cellophane and lastly secured by a blue tarp.
Toho's Giant Pool had years past been largera lot larger. In order to save on maintenance costs, part of it was removed and paved over. The area to the right of the pool, once submerged, now held many discarded props from G-2000: a half crushed schooner, the junked remains of the film's UFO, and an incarnation of the UFO covered in rock. I wandered about them while the crew relocated inside the adjacent stage 9....
Next week, follow Norman England as he goes within the walls of Stage 9, where Toho Studios films its kaiju effects scenes.