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I Ran From GODZILLA 2000, Part 2
In which our correspondent goes visits the Toho special effects stage.
By Norman England
August 24, 2000
The largest lot at Toho, stage 9 is where the majority of the effect scenes of the studio's kaiju films are shot. It is separated from the outdoors by two sets of heavy steel doors. The inside is kept dimly lit and suspended above is a spider web like crisscrossing of wood walkways. The Japanese film history in this room is impressive, with luminaries such as Kurosawa, Honda, and Tsuburaya on the roster of those who have worked within its walls.
The last into stage 9 was Suzuki. He went straight to a row of workbenches against the wall running beside the door. Here, tables overflowed with paints, gaffer's tape, cables and half-built miniatures. Spread across one of the tables were nearly two-dozen miniature tanks, a well-established staple of Godzilla films. Lifting a tank, he commented on some of its details with one of the film's model builders.
Walking across the vast floor, I came upon the mainstay of any kaiju effect set: the miniature city. Elevated a half-meter off the floor, it stretched from nearly one end of the room to the other. Despite the low light of the studio, I could easily make out block after block of highly detailed roads surrounded by buildings of all sizes. Surprisingly, the set's back was a simple, two-dimensional mural of distant buildings. Given the okay to walk about the miniature city and, I took a few steps, with great caution, into the exclusive domain of Godzilla. Up close, the detail was not as great as I imagined it would be; because most buildings were not made to be seen in close up, little time had been given to increasing their detail.
Exiting from the far end of the city, I was stunned to come face to face with the head of Godzillajust the head! Mouth shut, with a bizarre, zany look in its eyes, it was stuck on the top of a metal pole. At first I thought it some sort of Godfather
inspired in-joke perpetrated by the crew, but was later informed that it is for positioning Godzilla, the real suit being too heavy to move around freely.
At a workbench across from the city set was suitmaker Shinichi Wakasa. G-2000
marked his first stint as Godzilla suit builder. For Wakasa, a self-proclaimed Godzilla fan, this job was the payoff after years of hard work and planning. Well-known in Japan, his previous work can be seen in films such as Toho's Mothra series and Daiei's Gamera series. In addition to building the Godzilla suit, Orga, and the UFO models, he remained on hand to repair suit damage and to give instructions on ways to use his creations more effectively. Strapped up and hanging within a wood frame beside Wakasa was the Godzilla suit (there were two built for the movie, one for water scenes, and one for land). Pointing a finger at it, he offered a tour of the new suit.
The first thing that attracted me was the mouth, which was wide, stretching nearly ear to ear. Though Wakasa said it had been designed with a king cobra in mind, I felt it held more of a feline quality to it. I stuck my head close and let my eyes scan the ivory colored, jagged teeth. Its glass eyes were highly detailed, too, and the leathery texture of the body, a collection of ridges and valleys, ran from the top of the forehead to the tip of its long tail.
At Wakasa's insistence, I touched the suit. The torso was heavily padded with foam, yet the 'skin' around the arms was thin and felt as if it could tear easily. Wakasa said that in this area it fits tight around Kitagawa's own arms. Running a hand over Godzilla's shoulders, I was surprised to find that the King of the Monsters felt like a semi-ripe avocado!
Almost every Godzilla film features a new suit, each slightly different from the last. The one for G-2000
was the most radical departure between any two films so far, with the kaiju's trademark dorsal spines the greatest point of difference. Like pieces of shattered glass, they pulled far away from his body. A simple silver, their base was enhanced with touches of metallic red.
An hour later, the suit prepped for action, shooting commenced. It was a simple scene of Godzilla's face being met by the light of the four-wheel car driven by the story's GPN members. Using a cleared space in the back, Kitagawa, aided by three stagehands, climbed into the 75-kilogram Godzilla suit. Off stage, the camera was pointed up at Godzilla's face. Behind Godzilla, mist from a fog machine released large amounts of wispy, white smoke. Suzuki and a few of his staff gathered around a monitor fed from the camera. I was given the thumbs up to climb onto the stage and positioned myself about ten feet off.
Keyed for the scene to begin, I was jolted by a gentle tap on my shoulder. It was actress Naomi Nishida. Finished for the day, she had come to catch some effect scenes. Looking at Godzilla standing in the white smoke, she asked if that really was Godzilla. 'It's so small,' she commented. Quiet was called, and the shot commenced.
Tight twin beams of light shot at Godzilla. Running over his tough, rock-like body, they traveled up to his face. Breaking into a toothy grin, Godzilla turned to meet them. Opening his mouth, Godzilla's head fell to a side then rolled upwards to the sky.
With mist obscuring the stage and everything around, scale became difficult to judge. Looking at Godzilla as the scene filmed it honestly appeared that what I was seeing was a towering beast a kilometer away. Helping to heighten the illusion, too, was Kitagawa's talented suit operation. Despite the simplicity of the scene, it was kaiju magic to behold.
Sitting with me afterward, Kitagawa talked freely about his debut stint as Godzilla. A quiet man with a well-toned, dancer-like body, he admitted to being apprehensive at first about taking the role. However, after accepting, he had been doing all he could to make it his own, working out at style he hoped would distinguish him from the two Godzilla greats of the past, Haruo Nakajima and Kenpachiro Satsuma. As he spoke, with a knife in hand, he whittled a remarkably accurate likeness of his Godzilla out of plaster. Against his desk's lamp rested a single photo: a shot of the Power Rangers
cast. Kitagawa had played the costumed Power Ranger Green and referred to the other masked actors as his family.
Leaving the effects stage, my studio escort asked if I'd like to appear in a running scene that was to be shot on stage 5. Without hesitation I sprang at the offer. I was led to a meeting being held in the cafeteria facing stage 1. Within the room was an assortment of Godzilla fans gathered by Toho to take part in the scene. An assistant director aided by co-scriptwriter Wataru Mimura set the scene for the group of twenty. In the shot, we were told, a giant UFO will be descending upon a building in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo. Being midday, the area is filled with businessmen and office ladies. We are to run in a panic as the UFO descends upon us. The crowd nodded their heads in approval.
The assistant director suddenly pointed my way. With everyone dressed in business suits, it came to question whether my bright, yellow Star Wars shirt was appropriate. Grasping for straws, I contended that as a foreigner I could pass myself off as a tourist, one who had obviously lost his way. Against such a logical counterpoint, there was little they could do but agree, and, thankfully, I was not barred from the shot.
By now the typhoon had hit, and rain was pouring relentlessly. Forming a line and with umbrellas overhead, the group dashed over to stage 5. A smaller studio than the others, it had been readied with a green screen backdrop. Placed before this was a long, rickety looking wood plank. At the base of the walkway was a camera-fed TV monitor drawn over with marker to show the extras where the building and UFO antagonist would be inserted after the composite work was done. Assembling us in the center of the room, a crewmember thrust a long wood pole high into the air. Pointing to its tip he informed us that this is where the UFO will be and for us to keep our eyes here when running. In a quiet corner of the room director Okawara sat hunched over his copy of the script.
Situated in the middle of the line, I did my best to imagine what kind of face one would make supposing a UFO really were to come down upon them. Following a few dry runs, action was called. As we fled over the plank, I somehow did managed to convince myself that a UFO was truly descending from above and tore across the board with a look as if I had the Queen Alien hot on my heels. After several takes, Okawara called the shot a wrap. Both cast and crew burst in to unrestrained applause.
Several months later, when the film finally opened in Japan, I was able to see the effort of my mad dash. It was brief and not very impressive. Yet, watching my slightly blurred image rush across the middle of a Godzilla film and considering how long I'd been mesmerized by such scenes, it filled me with a considerable amount of personal satisfaction. And while Godzilla 2000
may not be the best in the series, it is, nevertheless, Godzilla. And for that, it will always be held dear to me.