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A History of Toho, Home of Godzilla

Japan's largest film studio created the kaiju genre that continues to this day.

By Norman England     August 24, 2000

A dominant force in fantasy filmmaking for nearly fifty years, Toho Co., Ltd is famous for gracing motion picture screens with such classic giant monster luminaries as Mothra, Ghidrah, Rodan, and the reptilian embodiment of unbridled atomic power, Godzilla, the undisputed King of the Monsters. For kaiju aficionados, the step into the Toho world of colossal creatures begins from the very first moment of screen time, when the company's colorful gem-like logo glitters radiantly around a pair of kanji spelling out the studio's name. Despite the best efforts of western studios to entangle their names with their creations, none enjoy the near synonymous connection that exists between Toho and its monsters.

The largest film studio in Japan, Toho was founded in 1936 by railroad magnate, show biz tycoon and politician, Ichizo Kobayashi. Innovative in his organization of industry, workers, and customers, Kobayashi was instrumental in the transformation of Japan from a feudalistic nation and into an economic power through his introduction of a unique brand of corporate socialism.

After establishing the successful Takarazuka Review Company (a female dance troupe named after the city where they perform), Kobayashi set his sights on the nation's growing film industry. In 1936, he purchased the movie studios PCL (Photo Chemical Laboratory) and JO and with them formed Toho Motion Picture Distribution Company. Kobayashi's plan was to circulate his new company's films along with American imports throughout a chain of theaters he had been gradually acquiring. Soon after, he bought two more film companies, combined them all, and renamed the group The Toho Motion Picture Company'Toho' being an acronym of 'Tokyo-Takarazuka', derived from the first kanji 'to' in Tokyo, and 'ho', an alternate reading of the kanji 'takara' in Takarazuka.

Erecting a large production studio west of Tokyo in the town of Kinuta, a section of the affluent Setagaya suburb, Toho was the first studio to abandon the then prevalent star system of film production, embracing instead a producer-based approach, giving more power to the studio in the process. With World War II looming, Toho became the leading makers of propaganda pictures, churning out films fostering nationalism amongst the nation's populace.

In 1940, Kobayashi was assigned the post of 'Ministry of Commerce and Industry' in the Imperial Government. However, his views on the direction of Japanese business did not mesh with that of the military led government, and he was soon dismissed. Three years later, Tokyo Takarazuka Gekijyo inc. and Toho Movie Company were combined to form Toho Co., Ltd, the name under which the studio operates to this day.

Following the war, the studio found itself in hot water with the US occupation force because of its involvement with the propaganda machine. Despite this, Kobayashi was able to acquire a position within the new Japanese government as a minister of state. He spent his remaining days helping to rebuild the devastated country, eventually passing away in 1957.

Toho, like many businesses after the war, became embroiled with its workers as the nation experienced intense political power struggles. Between the harassment by the Americans following the war and a drawn-out strike, the studio nearly went bankrupt. But the nation was soon to profit greatly from the coming war between Korea and the United States. As Japan prospered and movie ticket sales soared, Toho was back on its feet in no time. Toho began an unprecedented foray into filmmaking. While elaborate tales were often derived from Japanese literature, most films were quickie comedies made to appeal to the growing number of salaried workers across the nation. Included in Toho's catalogue of films of this time were most of the pictures of Akira Kurosawa, including his classics, The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Ikiru.

In 1954, Toho entered the world of science fiction cinema with Gojira (Godzilla). The creation of Tomoyuki Tanaka, Godzilla was a symbol of Japanese ineffectiveness in the face of American military might, notably atomic weaponry, and the perception of the nation as an insignificant gnat in the eyes of western power. The highest-budgeted film in Japan up to that point, the film proved successful beyond the studio's expectation, and Gojira became one of the top ten most popular films of the year.

Perhaps Godzilla's greatest contribution to the genre, besides its unique analogy to atomic devastation, was its use of the (relatively) simple but effective special effect technique of filming a man in a monster costume surrounded by miniature buildings in order to create the illusion of a towering, rampaging behemoth. This method was the brainchild of Toho effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, considered today the granddaddy of Japanese special effects techniques (who would later go on to create the highly successful Ultraman series). Toho originally went with the suit style of SFX in order to avoid the expense of the more costly stop-motion animation popular in the West since King Kong (1933). In doing so, Toho unwittingly gave birth to the Japanese tokusatsu (special effect) film industry that has since become a staple of the country's cinema.

During the 1950s, with a growing number of sci-fi, comedy, drama, and action movies, Toho Studios was wildly successful and enjoyed a solid reputation at home and abroad. The studio employed hundreds of actors, technicians and office personnel. But, by the end of the 1960s, the Japanese audience's taste had shifted, becoming more in line with that of America film ideology. Finally, in 1972, the entire Japanese cinema industry crashed. All at once, every salaried actor at Toho was let go, to be used only on a film-by-film capacity.

While production of Godzilla films continued until 1975, their budgets were severely scaled back, and many effect scenes were blatantly lifted from past movies. Fantasy pictures such as War in Space, House, and Bye Bye Jupiter were evidence of Toho's commitment to stay in the genre. Nonetheless, compared to the SFX advancements going on in the US, it was a struggle for Toho not only to stay current, but just to stay afloat.

In spite of the hard times, Toho refused to follow other Japanese studios that had resorted to making 'roman-porno' films, exploitative movies spiced up with sex and violence. Toho, instead, downsized its operation and pulled in its belt as it waited out the dry spell. It was not until the early '80s that Toho's downward trend began to reverse itself. In 1984, after a nearly ten-year absence, the studio chose to revive Godzilla.

The new Godzilla did modest business, and Toho eventually returned fulltime to the costly kaiju business, starting full production in 1989 with Godzilla vs. Biollante. Under the guidance of effect director Koichi Kawakita, Toho experienced a mini-boom of creativity. Armed with a more realistic SFX look, Kawakita more or less successfully reinvented Godzilla, along with several other classic Toho monsters, who once again took their turn at trying to defeat the King of the Monsters. (After killing Godzilla in 1995, Toho filled the gap in their release schedule by bringing back seminal monster bug Mothra in a slightly puerile, kiddie-oriented trilogy.) Despite the more convincing visuals, the films of Kawakita lacked the strong personal touch of former director Tsuburaya. Moreover, although the Toho kaiju films of Tsuburaya were often chided for being unreal looking, they contained a certain sui generis, endearing quality, one less evident in the works of Kawakita.

In a much-anticipated move, Toho sold the foreign rights of Godzilla to Tri-Star Pictures in the early 1990s. The result was the Roland Emmerich-directed Godzilla released in 1998. While a box-office success with world ticket sales approaching $375-million, the film failed to please critics and Godzilla fans. In almost every instance, the American Godzilla went against the very things established by the original. Rather than a reworked homage utilizing cutting edge effects, audiences were instead given an irradiated iguana that ran and hid from the military. Quite pathetically, too, was its being killed in the end by a missiles. Toho's official stance is of pleasure over the US filmmakers reworking of Godzilla; however, this may be due to their having received in excesses of twenty-eight million dollars in royalty checks in 1999 alone.

Today, Toho Studios is in many ways a shadow of its former self. While films continue to be produced, business is maintained through careful management aided in part by land holdings and business interests unconnected to the film industry. Budgets for the roughly four films made each year average four to five million dollars. Only Godzilla movies, such as last year's Godzilla 2000: Millennium and the now-in-production Godzilla X Megagiras receive slightly higher ones of up to ten million. Many films are now often co-produced through TV companies such as TBS; the burden of budget is shared along with rights, ticket sales and broadcast revenues. Godzilla, however, remains entirely under the Toho banner.

In addition to being the main distributor for many smaller film production houses (such as the Ring series from Asmik Ace, and the Gakko no Kwaidan series from Sandansu Company), Toho remains committed to fantastic cinema, coming out with last summer's hit horror thriller Saimin (The Hypnotist) and their just released sci-fi bid, Cross Fire. Directed by modern Gamera series director Shusuke Kaneko, Cross Fire is being heralded as a return to a time when Toho films were the touchstone of Japanese sci-fi.

With ticket sales second only to the US, it is unlikely that Japan's filmmaking industry will ever completely dry up. And, as with the rest of the nation, Toho is now undergoing yet another restructure process. Indications are that with a new breed of filmmakers moving in, a revitalization is occurring, one that could very well usher in another age of quality Japanese filmmaking. For fans of Japanese sci-fi and giant monsters epics, such a prospect maybe the best news to hit the fantasy film genre since the initial shot of Godzilla raising from behind a mountain top in what was to be the first in a long line of Toho fantasy films.


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