Stuart Galbraith IV

Interviewer's note: Due to the multiple topics covered in this interview, I have taken the liberty of breaking up the discussion into sections for easy navigation.



Patrick Galvan: For this Toho Kingdom interview, I am speaking with a gentleman whom readers of this website will recognize as the voice of the audio commentary for the Classic Media release of Invasion of Astro-Monster—some of you might also be so fortunate to have heard his recalled commentary with Steve Ryfle for the Media Blasters release of Godzilla vs. Megalon. Stuart Galbraith IV is a Japan-based film historian who has written extensively about Japanese cinema over the years. He’s authored several books, including Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!, as well as the first English language biography on Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. We will be talking about all of that and more in the course of this discussion. Stuart, thank you very much for this interview.

Stuart Galbraith IV: Thanks for inviting me.

Galvan: In starting off, I would like to ask you about your background. Were you an avid movie fan from a young age? Did your parents share your love for cinema, or was it a passion you discovered on your own? What are some of the first movies you recall leaving a big impression on you? Did your interest in learning about the making of films develop early on? Were you an avid consumer of film books/magazines?

Galbraith: The first movies I vividly remember seeing were the musical Oliver! (1960) and Pinocchio (1940) — the latter, obviously, during one of its rereleases. Mostly, when I was a kid, my father would take me and my little sister to every Disney release, so I ended up seeing every live-action Disney comedy and animated feature of that period. My parents weren’t movie fans in the slightest — no interest at all — and my passion for film really began watching old movies on TV, particularly classic comedy films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, the Tarzan films, that kind of thing. Of course, I also became enamored of the science fiction films of the 1950s, as those were shown along with everything else.

The first film book I bought was Leonard Maltin’s Movie Comedy Teams, which fascinated me. Through that I was able to learn a lot about favorites like Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Bros., but I also became fascinated with teams I had no previous awareness of, like Olsen & Johnson and Wheeler & Woolsey. That book, I suppose, lit the fuse.

I also began making short films furtively from age ten, but this was an interest which really took off for me in the late 1970s, when I discovered several like-minded friends. We became more ambitious, eventually making a short that cost around $2,000 and was shot in anamorphic widescreen. Some of the people we encountered during that networking period, like Sam Raimi and ILM’s Doug Chaing, went on to bigger and better things.

Around this time, my folks shipped me off to “filmmaking camp,” as much to get a vacation from me, as they normally discouraged my filmmaking ambitions. It was a week-long seminar type of thing, sponsored by an organization called the Detroit Area Film Teachers — appropriately, DAFT. The idea was that each of us would have film and equipment at our disposal to each make a short film; but there were also film screenings in 16mm of various things. Someone there picked up on my strong interest in film, and when I went the next year, they surprised me by giving me a room all my own, with a 16mm projector and a huge stack of film about four feet high piled in one corner.

Most of this consisted of great National Film Board of Canada shorts and other miscellaneous titles distributed by a company called Pyramid Films, things like Saul Bass’s great short Why Man Creates (1968). But there were also lots of great features, including Duck Soup (1933), Night of the Living Dead (1968), Lord of the Flies (1963), and Citizen Kane (1941). After a marathon screening of stuff, I thought I should see Citizen Kane, given its reputation, but it was already late, maybe 1:30 in the morning, so I decided I’d watch just the first reel and finish it in the morning. I was so dazzled that not only did I stay up to watch the whole thing, I watched it twice, then two or three more times the next day. It was probably then that I became more interested in watching and studying films than making them.

Monster Zero

Galvan: Since you’ve made Japanese cinema your area of specialty, what were some of the Japanese films you recall impressing you early on? Were there any particular films, directors, actors, etc. which drove you to focus on films from this country versus others? Did science fiction play a part in your early interest in Japanese cinema?

Galbraith: As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, back in the 1970s, the ABC affiliate in Detroit, Channel 7, WXYZ-TV, used to run “The 4 o’clock Movie” Monday-Friday. Most of the time, it was movies from the ‘60s and early ‘70s like The Great Escape (1963) and Doris Day movies, but about twice a year they’d have a “Japanese Monsters” week where they’d typically run some combination of Godzilla and Gamera movies, as well as occasional oddities like Samurai Pirate (1963) — also known as The Lost World of Sinbad — or the Majin films. This was, of course, long before YouTube, cable television, and even home video, so you really had to burn these movies into your eyeballs and try to take it all in because you never knew when, or even if, these movies would ever be shown again.

Later, when I was in high school, I began driving about 20 miles to Ann Arbor, Michigan: a university town that ran movies in 35mm in regular repertory theaters and on campus in 16mm screenings. I watched movies of all kinds, including Japanese movies, whenever they were shown. This included then-contemporary films by directors like Juzo Itami, Shohei Imamura, Kaneto Shindo, and so on.

Galvan: Since you’ve been writing about Japanese cinema for a long time, let me ask you this: How accessible were Japanese films in the pre-internet days? For instance, let’s say you’re living in the 1980s and you learn Kurosawa made a film called Throne of Blood in the 1950s. How would you go about seeing a film such as that—in the days before you could simply order a Blu-ray off the web?

Galbraith: Well, except for those screenings, one was pretty much limited to what was available from video rental stores. In those pre-Blockbuster days, a Mom-and-Pop video store was considered pretty awesome if they had, say, 300 VHS tapes; so you’d be lucky if they carried more than one or two Japanese movies. When video superstores came along, the selection was a bit better; ironically, some of those earliest home video releases, things like Odd Obsession (1959), still aren’t available on DVD or Blu-ray. I still regret never watching a strange VHS tape of Green Horizon (1980), a Japanese movie directed by Susumu Hani that was filmed in Africa and starred, of all people, Jimmy Stewart.

Yuzo Kayama, WakadaishoA bit later, for many of us, the best route to see Japanese movies was to import Japanese laserdiscs or buy bootlegs, and once I moved to Los Angeles in 1993, I discovered Little Tokyo and would rent the damnedest things from video rental shops there. These stores mainly catered to homesick Japanese living in LA, who’d rent Japanese TV shows taped over the airwaves. As a non-Japanese coming in and renting old salaryman comedies and Wakadaisho (Young Guy) movies from the ‘60s, I got a lot of strange looks.

For a time, in Chinese neighborhoods in LA, one could even occasionally find Hong Kong or Taiwanese laserdiscs of Japanese movies, and those even had English subtitles, so really it was a giant treasure hunt. Eventually, I discovered other enthusiasts like me, particularly Chris D, now one of the major authorities on chanbara and yakuza movies, among other things.

Galvan: Did you have any role models in terms of film historians? (This question is not limited to Japanese cinema specialists.)

Galbraith: Leonard Maltin’s books were an early influence, but for me, the big ones were Bill Warren’s two-volume book on 1950s sci-fi films, Keep Watching the Skies!, and the writings of Donald Richie, particularly the seminal work he wrote with Joseph Anderson, The Japanese Film — Art and Industry. Those really shaped my concerns and interests as a writer, and their respective writing styles were also major influences.

Galvan: You are currently based in Japan. Did your interest in Japanese film and your drive to conduct research play a factor in your decision to relocate?

Galbraith: Only indirectly. I first came here in 1994, and like every other foreigner, I was dazzled by the sensory overload that is Tokyo. I loved to visit but never really considered living there. But after I married my wife, Yukiyo, we spent a lot of time in Kyoto, and I really fell in love with that city. Ironically, though, if you really need to see Japanese movies with English subtitles (as I do, since my Japanese isn’t anywhere near good enough to catch everything), Japan is probably the worst place to live, because almost nothing is subtitled, and more obscure movies are more likely to turn up in places like New York or Los Angeles.

Galvan: Have you ever visited the set of a Japanese film?

Galbraith: Yes. I got to visit the set of Gamera 2: Advent of Legion (1996). On that trip, I travelled part of the time with Steve Ryfle. I tagged along for his interview with Shinji Higuchi, which was conducted on the second floor of this really wobbly temporary building. It looked like an ordinary office inside, but whenever anyone came up the steps, the whole building shuddered as though in an earthquake. Higuchi was very amused by our reactions to this. For reasons I don’t remember now, we were invited back to see them shoot some of the special effects, but we ended up returning on different days, so Steve and I each saw slightly different footage being shot.

Gamera 2

My memory is a bit hazy now, but outside they had set up the miniature cityscape of Sapporo with all the monster vines weaving in and out of the various downtown department stores and whatnot. It was all on a big wooden platform maybe five feet off the ground. Meanwhile, in an adjacent soundstage, they were getting ready to shoot the aftermath of the destruction of Sendai, with Gamera hunched over and lifeless after the big explosion. It didn’t look like much, but when seen through the camera’s viewfinder, it appeared exactly as it did in the finished film. The Gamera suits (two, if I remember correctly) were hanging nearby, and outside I ran into the suit actor from either the first or second movie, who posed for a couple of pictures.


Galvan: Let’s move onto your writing. Your first book (correct me if I’m wrong) was Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films: A Critical Analysis and Filmography of 103 Features Released in the United States 1950-1992. Had you written professionally about film prior to this book? Why did you choose science fiction and fantasy as the subject? Have you ever toyed with the idea of writing an updated edition?

Galbraith: I’d been writing professionally since around 1989, the first thing I ever wrote professionally being a profile of a conductor/music arranger who assembled scores for full orchestras that would accompany silent films. After that, I became a film critic and home video columnist for the Ann Arbor News, and it was around that time I began writing the Green Book (my shorthand way of referring to the Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror book). Basically, my goal was to cover Japanese science fiction, fantasy, and horror films in much the same manner Bill Warren had done with (mostly) American sci-fi in Keep Watching the Skies!

As for an updated edition, I’ve toyed with the idea on-and-off for many years, but that would entail an enormous amount of rewriting — throwing out a lot of writing that makes me cringe now, going into a lot more detail about each film, adding a lot of new movies, and so forth. So the end result would probably be a book at least twice as thick. Thousands of hours of work for too little money to justify the time. Still, it would be fun to do.

Galvan: In 1998, you published Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! This is not a typical book on the genre. It is basically an oral history, structured around quotes from many people who’ve worked in Japanese science fiction; and the quotes are grouped together based on topics. It’s a very interesting and unique way of structuring a book, so I’m curious why you chose this particular format for Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!

Galbraith: That one was very heavily influenced by Rudolph Grey’s superb oral biography of Ed Wood, Nightmare of Ecstasy, which of course became the basis for the 1994 Tim Burton movie Ed Wood. I suggested a similar book on Japanese sci-fi to Grey’s publisher, Adam Parfrey at Feral House, and didn’t get a reply. Some months later, David Milner suggested a bunch of us put together an interview book. I was happy to contribute to that, but David’s approach was very different from what I had in mind and I wasn’t overly thrilled with that project. Then, one year almost to the day after I sent off my query letter, I got a call from Adam saying he was interested in my original project, and it was back on again.

I originally organized the material in a very unimaginative way, one by one — I suppose because I thought it important to profile each interviewee at length before quoting them — but Adam very wisely pushed me to cut it all up like Grey’s Ed Wood book, which was absolutely the right decision.

Monsters Are Attaking Tokyo

Galvan: How many trips to Japan did you need to take in order to acquire all of these quotes, and how long do you estimate you were in Japan each time?

Galbraith: Believe it or not, one. And just ten or twelve days. I was a starving writer, so getting to Japan at all was a minor miracle. Fortunately, in those days, the Japanese travel agency JTB offered a five-day-six-night package via Singapore Airlines that included an airport shuttle bus and five nights at the Tokyo Hilton in Shinjuku for $999. It was an insane schedule (one day, I think I interviewed six people), and I was all over Tokyo like a steel marble in a pinball machine. A few interviews were from an earlier trip; some were with stateside Americans; and a couple were conducted after I got back, by phone or, in Akira Kurosawa’s case, by fax.

Galvan: When you look back on these many interviews, are there any which stick out to you as your favorites?

Galbraith: I was extremely lucky on many levels, first and foremost my friendship with a woman named Yukari Fujii, who has zero interest in this stuff but who took on the job of translating all my letters to the various interviewees. She grew up in rural Japan and probably, for that reason, had a natural older-world type of extreme politeness. While I think my letters (which emphasized an eagerness to learn more about their careers in general and not just Godzilla stuff), helped somewhat, it was really Yukari who closed the deal. She translated all my correspondences into super-polite and formal Japanese, all done in traditional calligraphy, of which hers was exceptionally good. Because of that, almost no one turned us down.

That was 20-plus years ago and, sadly, the vast majority of the people I interviewed have since passed away, so I feel extremely fortunate that I got to meet the people I did. In a sense, they were all memorable. Everyone was extremely kind and generous, many of them inviting me into their homes, which was the case of Akira Ifukube, Noriaki Yuasa, Ishiro Honda’s widow, Kimi, and so forth. The common theme — and I think this comes across in the book — is that each and every person recognized how special it was to work in the family-like atmosphere of the Japanese studio system as it existed in the 1950s and ‘60s, and didn’t want that to be forgotten. Many were surprised that their films were even shown in America, let alone remembered and still popular.

Among the ones that particularly stand out would have to be my interview with Shue Matsubayashi, a man not especially famous among kaiju eiga fans, but who had been a major director at Toho and worked more with Eiji Tsuburaya than any director after Honda. He had been an officer in the Japanese Imperial Navy during the war. His ship was sunk by Allied Bombers, whose pilots he could see waving at him while he and the other survivors clung to floating debris. For him, it was important that, all these years later, he could sit and have a friendly discussion with an American researcher about movies that most Japanese had forgotten or didn’t really appreciate.

MAAT interviews

Another was Momoko Kochi, who made time to see me despite shooting a TV series while I was there. We met at a bar near the studio where she was working, and though the interview didn’t yield all that much, I was struck by how friendly and warm she was — by this time an obviously assertive, jobbing actress, but still recognizable as the ingénue in Godzilla (1954).

Conversely, meeting Mie Hama had an air of glamor as she insisted we meet at this swanky hotel. She was then in her early 50s and still looked really sexy, accentuated by the leather miniskirt she wore that evening. We only talked about the special effects movies for maybe 15% of that time, the rest of the interview concerning her experiences trying to learn acting in Europe, meeting European stars there, environmental stuff she was involved with and, of course, You Only Live Twice, the 007 movie she did. So while most of that talk didn’t end up in the book, it was still pretty memorable.

Galvan: Now, you published Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! in 1998 and your next book, The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, came out in 2002. I don’t want to jump too far head (we’ll talk about the Kurosawa-Mifune biography pretty soon), but I’m curious: since these two books came out within a few years of one another, did you pack interviews for both books into the same Japan trips in the ‘90s? In other words, were you doing research for two books at a time during these trips? One of the reasons I ask is because in your Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! intro, you mention you couldn’t interview actress Kyoko Kagawa for that particular book because she had no memories of working on Mothra (1961). However, in The Emperor and the Wolf, she has entire paragraphs of stories to tell about working on Kurosawa’s films.

Galbraith: I didn’t decide to write the Kurosawa book until about a year after Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! was released, so no, that wasn’t my plan. But when I did those earlier interviews, as is my practice, I did career-spanning interviews, covering as much ground as time would allow, and so I was able to repurpose that work.

Galvan: One of your interviewees for Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! was Jun Fukuda. Now, you did describe your first time meeting him in the audio commentary for Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973); so for those not fortunate enough to have heard that track, could you recount your meeting this wonderful filmmaker?

Galbraith: Mr. Fukuda’s response to the letter Yukari and I sent was basically, “I think all my movies are terrible, but since you wrote such a nice letter, I’ll be happy to meet with you if you think it’ll help.” We met at Toho Studios, in the old commissary, and his manner was much the same. He felt the movies he had worked on as an assistant director in the 1950s, especially those he made under Hiroshi Inagaki, were important, but that once he was promoted to director, none of what he made was any good, partly because the industry was starting its decline.

I then pointed to examples in specific films (his two ‘60s Godzillas but also various crime and spy films), where I thought his direction had been particularly imaginative. Eventually, I kind of wore him down a little, and he finally, sheepishly, became at least open to the possibility that maybe his movies weren’t so bad after all.

100 Shot 100 Killed
Ichiro Arishima, Akira Takarada, and Mie Hama in Jun Fukuda's Iron Finger (1965)

Galvan: Even though Fukuda is internationally known for his work on the Godzilla series, he made plenty of other films, many outside the science fiction genre. When you consider his non-monster pictures, which ones stick out to you?

Galbraith: I’m glad that you bring him up, specifically because I’ve always felt Mr. Fukuda is deserving of the same kind of accolades as contemporaries like Kinji Fukasaku and Seijun Suzuki. Nearly all his imported films are lesser sci-fi — with the exception of the two ‘60s Godzillas, the first of which, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966), is exceptionally well-directed; better, I’d argue, than most of Ishiro Honda’s entries, even. But his real forte was crime and spy pictures. Hopefully, some day movies like The Merciless Trap (1961), Witness Killed (1961), and Counterstroke (1961) will turn up in “Outlaw Masters”-type U.S. retrospectives.

Galvan: Something which has become very clear to me as I’ve gotten older is just how much better the acting in the Godzilla series was in the 50s-60s. Back then, you had people such as Akira Takarada, Kenji Sahara, Kumi Mizuno, Takashi Shimura, etc. appearing in these films. By comparison, a lot of the acting in the ‘90s Godzilla movies I find to be pretty bland and unimpressive these days. When Ishiro Honda was asked to explain this in a 1992 interview with David Milner, the director’s response was: “Times are just different.” What do you think he meant by that and does it apply to the Japanese film industry as a whole?

Galbraith: Probably he was referring to the fact that Toho carefully groomed its actors with its New Face program and constant training not just in acting but dance and other theatrical arts. Back then, each studio had several hundred actors under contract, so you had “Big Room” extras and bit players who became experts playing certain types of parts. None of that exists now, which is why most movie actors today are culled from Japanese pops and TV.

Galvan: In reading the short critiques in Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!, I’ve gathered you consider the second cycle of Godzilla movies, known by fans as the Heisei series, to be pretty weak compared to the era which came before it. What are your general thoughts on the Millennium series, from 1999-2004? Does it strike you as better than the Heisei series? Worse? About the same? Any movies from that particular era that stand out to you?

Galbraith: Ironically, the first Godzilla movie I ever saw in a theater in Japan was Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994), which was truly awful on just about every level. Steve Ryfle and I saw it together, with maybe three other people in the theater. Steve sat a row or two behind me, and about halfway through the picture, I turned around and said to him, "For this we came to Japan?"

Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla

Fortunately, during that same trip, we were also invited (again, on separate nights), to cast and crew screenings of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995). This was in December 1994, three months before it even opened in Japan, so we had no idea what we were in for. I certainly assumed it was going to be something a little bit better than Gamera: Super Monster (1980). Of course, it was a revelation; more so considering it was made for a fraction of the cost of Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla. After the screening, I was taken to a bar that was a popular hangout for special effects guys, and who should wander in but Koichi Kawakita, the special effects director of SpaceGodzilla. He was totally blotto, could barely stand, and obviously had come from the same screening and realized his world had changed overnight.

Anyway, although The Return of Godzilla (1984) and the earliest Heisei ones directed by Kazuki Omori have their problems, Toho was trying to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, and there were a lot of interesting concepts, characters, and special effects mixed in with all the clunky and bad stuff. After that, though…pretty much everything that I liked about the Showa-era films was virtually absent in the later Heisei and certainly in the Millennial films. If they were unrecognizable from the Showa films but good in other ways, I’d certainly be interested. But I find them very unimaginative as a whole and even pretty dull to sit through.

I’m a big fan of the James Bond series and there’s a continuity still there that’s completely absent from Godzilla. Probably that’s because producers Harry Saltzman, Cubby Broccoli, and, later, Broccoli’s daughter Barbara and son-in-law Michael G. Wilson have been exceptionally good custodians, knowing very well what defines a James Bond movie while also realizing that one can’t make a 1960s-style 007 movie in 2018.

Perhaps producer Tomoyuki Tanaka held things together at Toho more than is generally acknowledged. Certainly the best films of the Showa era were primarily the work of four individuals: the producer, the director, the screenwriter, and the special effects supervisor. Nowadays, everything is decided at the corporate level via endless meetings with a lot of second-guessing and compromises being made. Good movies of any kind rarely come out of that.

Galvan: Do you have any thoughts on Godzilla Resurgence (2016) and the animated Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017)?

Galbraith: None, because I haven’t seen them and have almost zero interest in seeing them, for the reasons I just described.

Shin Godzilla

Galvan: Godzilla Resurgence proved to be tremendously successful in Japan. It was the second highest-grossing Japanese film of its year and it went on to win Best Picture at the Japanese Academy Prizes. This is quite a change from the Millennium Godzilla movies, most of which did pretty poor business. What do you think it was about this particular film that made such an impression on Japanese audiences?

Galbraith: Not having seen it, I can’t really say with any authority. From what I’ve read, though, Toho seems to have marketed that film much more aggressively than many of the earlier Millennium films, and it’s also packed with a cross-section of “talent” from pop culture Japan, so maybe those were big factors. I know some have read a resurgence of Japanese nationalism in that film, but until I see it, I can’t really comment on whether that might also have been a factor.

Galvan: Any thoughts on the recent cycle of Hollywood giant monster movies—such as Godzilla (2014) and Kong: Skull Island (2017)?.

Galbraith: Again, no interest. Another big reason for my complete lack of interest is two things I find depressing in high-concept filmmaking in general: CGI and the jadedness of the scripts.

I think CGI can be a great tool. I used to say the best use of CGI I’ve seen was in the TV miniseries John Adams, because its use was so de-emphasized as to appear invisible. The current series The Deuce uses CGI in a similarly judicious manner. When it’s upfront-and-center, though, I’m thoroughly bored; I feel like I’m a spectator at a video game tournament. No subtlety and often no awareness for basic concepts like gravity and mass. To me, movies like the Peter Jackson King Kong (2005) were lost opportunities to do something really great. Couldn’t get through it. Here they had the tools to recreate 1933 New York, for instance, and Jackson ruins any sense of reality with all those swooping “aerial” shots, the sky full of dirigibles and all that shit. It’s not that I’m suggesting they go back to stop-motion and glass paintings, but for decades now, everything has been so overdone: Why create 5,000 CGI extras when we can show a million?

The jadedness is another thing, less so in Japanese sci-fi/fantasy than Hollywood films, but depressing nonetheless. Warts and all, I like the 1978 Superman: The Movie because Richard Donner, more than anyone else, understood that he was making a movie about the Great American Myth and made sure Superman/Clark Kent was played with absolute sincerity. Since the Tim Burton Batman (1989), which I think is responsible for all the terrible high-concept superhero movies than have come since, characters almost never express real human emotions, even the awesomeness of superpowers bestowed upon them. Movies today are afraid to feel, which I think contributes to or is at least emblematic of the decline of empathy and other singularly American problems we’re experiencing now.


Galvan: Let us now turn to your 2002 book The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. As the title indicates, this is a joint biography covering the lives and careers of both Kurosawa and Mifune. For those who haven’t read it, why did you set out to do a joint biography? Why not separate biographies on both men?

Galbraith: Well, Kurosawa and Mifune were bound together for something like 17 years, during the most fruitful phase of their respective careers — more intertwined, I think, than even John Ford and John Wayne, Scorsese and De Niro. You couldn’t write about one without writing half a biography of the other, so it just made sense. Plus, it was an opportunity to cover Mifune’s career outside of Kurosawa, which was very interesting in its own right.

The Emperor and the Wolf

Galvan: Since you were writing a joint biography, were there any previous books that served as inspiration for you in terms of writing and structuring?

Galbraith: Not in terms of the joint biography aspect, but in general terms, a big influence was a book by Shawn Levy about Jerry Lewis called King of Comedy. I wanted to avoid a “then he made this film, then he made that film” style and Levy’s book is really clever in the way it paints such a vivid picture in the reader’s mind about Lewis’s surroundings and his personality. Steve and Ed Godziszewski asked me to read their manuscript for Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa and offer suggestions, make corrections, and so forth; and at one point, the book describes Honda’s house, which reminded me of a particularly vivid passage in the Levy book. I suggested to Steve he read that particular section as it might give him some ideas about how to describe Honda’s house, which he did. Little does Shawn Levy know that his work about a Catskills comic is influencing books on Japanese movies.

Galvan: In your introduction, you mentioned you were unable to interview Mifune because his health was already very poor by the time you started making trips to Japan. Was there anyone else who were hoping to interview for the book but were unable to, for whatever reason?

Galbraith: Several. On an earlier trip, I had interviewed the composer Masaru Sato, whom I greatly admired. He was a bit prickly at first, until he realized I was familiar with dozens upon dozens of other scores he wrote outside the sci-fi genre; and that while not particularly musical, I knew enough about film scoring to ask him reasonably intelligent questions about his choice of instruments, the recording sessions, and so forth. By the end of that interview, he had really warmed up, and we looked forward to meeting again when I returned to do interviews for the Kurosawa-Mifune book. Yukari accompanied me on that trip as my interpreter, and as soon as we reached Tokyo, we called one of the interviewees, who informed us that Sato-san had gone to a party near Toho the night before and promptly dropped dead. So, that was unfortunate.

I also had a series of really frustrating experiences trying to interview Yuzo Kayama, who starred in Sanjuro (1962) and Red Beard (1965). We sent him what I thought was a really compelling letter, explaining that we wanted to talk with him not only about those films, but also about his actor-father, Ken Uehara, the Wakadaisho movies, his films with Mikio Naruse, etc. — as well as his major musical career as a songwriter-singer-guitarist heavily influenced by The Ventures and the surf music movement of the ‘60s. However, Kayama was still much in demand and, try as we might, we could never seem to get past his gatekeepers and handlers.

Yuzo Kayama in Red Beard

After the book came out, I tried once more, again with no luck, to set up an interview when he was in Los Angeles to perform a rare concert there. The interview didn’t happen, but I did get to attend that really great concert and afterwards met him briefly and had him sign my laserdisc of his 1966 concert film.

Galvan: In the Seven Samurai (1954) chapter, it is mentioned that Toho, at one point, was considering replacing Kurosawa with a director named Kunio Watanabe. What are your impressions of Watanabe as a filmmaker and how do you think replacing Kurosawa with him would’ve impacted Seven Samurai? Obviously it wouldn’t have been the same movie, but did Watanabe, in your estimate, have what it takes to make an epic with the humanity and visceral action necessary for Kurosawa’s masterpiece?

Galbraith: No. Kunio Watanabe, from the films of his that I’ve seen, was a competent hack, a Japanese Norman Taurog. I can’t really imagine anything approaching the greatness of that film in other hands, even hands far more skilled than Watanabe’s.

Galvan: As is covered in the book, a number of legal battles rose out of Toho authorizing MGM to remake Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven in 1960. The end result of this back-and-forth tussle was: Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters retained remake and sequel rights while MGM retained the rights to produce remakes and sequels to The Magnificent Seven under that particular brand, in the Western genre. Has the situation with these rights changed in the years since? The reason I ask is: I have sporadically read rumors about a Seven Samurai remake being in the works. Does Kurosawa Production still own the rights to the Seven Samurai story, or is it now possible to remake the film without their authorization? Since he is still with us, does screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto still retain his rights to the story?

Galbraith: I haven’t kept up with all the legal stuff, but Kurosawa’s heirs do seem to hold a lot of rights. At the time I was writing the book, there was some obvious acrimony between Kurosawa’s nephew, Mike Inoue (who regarded Kurosawa almost as a father), and Hisao Kurosawa, the son who was somewhat estranged from his father for a long time, only to take over Kurosawa Production after his father’s death. Mike, whom I liked enormously, objected to Hisao’s branding of the Kurosawa name: the Japanese remakes, the Kurosawa restaurant, and so forth. Kurosawa’s legacy is those 30 movies he directed and the screenplays he wrote for other films (and the screenplays which weren’t produced at all). It certainly isn’t a sukiyaki dish named after The Hidden Fortress (1958)!

Like a lot of legal issues in Japan, issues regarding ownership of creative properties is in a real gray zone that seems to be worked through on a case-by-case basis, rather than a precedent-setting ruling that impacts everybody. I know when Steve and Ed were writing their Ishiro Honda book, they ran into all sorts of roadblocks because the Honda family was persuing a similar case over rights to the Godzilla character, based on Honda’s contributions to the screenplay for the first film, which put everything on hold for a long time in terms of Toho’s willingness to cooperate with the production of the book as far as use of photos and such were concerned.

Galvan: One thing I find interesting about Kurosawa is that even though he made a number of films celebrating what individuals could accomplish, his best movies seemed to have benefited greatly from group collaboration, especially in regards to the screenplay. Would you say men such as Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto were key components in what made Kurosawa’s best films, and do you think some of his other movies were diminished a bit by their absence?

Galbraith: Absolutely they were key. As much as Kurosawa wouldn’t tolerate interference from the front office, he also had a core circle of collaborators he deeply trusted and whose suggestions he enthusiastically incorporated into the movies — including Honda’s, obviously. His writing collaborators, mainly Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni, and Ryuzo Kikushima, were never “Yes Men.” Oguni, for instance, was probably the least talented of the four (including Kurosawa), but because he was the oldest and most experienced and prolific, he had veto power over even Kurosawa’s ideas. If he said something was no good, it was thrown out, no matter who wrote it.

In a sense, I don’t think the later films Kurosawa wrote solo are better or worse than those he wrote in collaboration with others, just different. Mike Inoue put it best, comparing Kurosawa to Picasso insofar as Picasso’s style changed radically over time. The later films reflected Kurosawa’s views as an old man in his seventies and eighties, which were different from the man in his 40s working on pictures like Seven Samurai.

Galvan: There is an often-repeated story amongst Japanese cinema enthusiasts that Kurosawa wanted to make a Godzilla movie of his own, but Toho rejected the idea for fear of the money such a project would cost. It’s a nice story, but based on your research, is there any truth to it?

Galbraith: I found no evidence that he was ever remotely serious about doing one. He genuinely admired Honda’s 1954 Godzilla film, but I don’t think even in the best possible world a project like that would have interested him much.

Akira Kurosawa Dick Cavett Galvan: On a slightly different note: in a 1981 interview with Dick Cavett, Kurosawa revealed he wanted to make a film about Hiroshima. He wanted to adapt the Masuji Ibuse novel Black Rain, but Mikio Naruse had already taken an option on it. Unfortunately, Naruse was unable to get a satisfying script and thus neither man wound up making the film. When you consider both directors, who do you think would’ve been more successful at bringing this story about the Hiroshima experience to the big screen?

Galbraith: Shohei Imamura! Seriously, though, I’d probably have to go with Naruse. But it’s hard to know when Naruse had the rights: presumably late 1965 or early 1966, after the novel’s publication and before Naruse’s death. So maybe, back then, Kurosawa’s film might have been excellent, too.

For me, though, the real “What If…?” of Kurosawa’s career was Runaway Train. Having read the Kurosawa script with an awareness of how he planned to shoot it, I’ve always believed that had he gone ahead and filmed that, the picture would likely have been a huge international critical and commercial success. It’s totally different from the awful Andrei Konchalovsky film made in the ‘80s. Kurosawa’s version was shrewdly commercial, very clever, very tense. Imagine a fusing of Kurosawa and the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and you’ll get some idea of what he had in mind.

Galvan: Thank you for bringing up something I forgot to mention: even though Kurosawa and Naruse never got to work with it, Black Rain was eventually adapted, in 1989, by Shohei Imamura. (Not to be confused with the Japan-set Michael Douglas film of the same title, which also came out in '89.)

Another great thing about the Kurosawa-Mifune biography is that you explore Mifune’s career outside of Kurosawa. This makes it especially valuable for readers interested in checking out the actor's lesser-known works. For instance, when I read the book, my interest was piqued by a film called Life of a Horse-trader (1951), which actor Yoshio Tsuchiya opined features Takashi Shimura’s greatest film performance. After reading this, I determinedly tracked down the film and was grateful I did—it was an absolutely wonderful movie. When you consider Mifune’s lesser-known, non-Kurosawa work, what titles stick out to you as ones you would recommend to people.

Galbraith: The ones that leap out just now are Snow Trail (1947) his starring debut; Samurai Saga (1959), in which he plays a kind of Japanese Cyrano de Bergerac; Animas Trujano (1962), in which he convincingly plays a Mexican peasant; Samurai Assassin (1965), in which he’s effectively cast against type; Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion (1967); and, oddly enough, the mini-series Shogun. He’s really great in that. A lot under the surface. He’s also done some good salaryman-type comedies and contemporary dramas, but sadly, few of those are available.

Toshiro Mifune in Samurai Rebellion

Galvan: Had you the opportunity to sit down with Toshiro Mifune and/or Akira Kurosawa in person and ask about their lives and careers, what sort of questions would you have asked? What areas of their lives would you like to know more about?

Galbraith: I suppose, in both cases, Mifune’s particularly, their early lives, because so much documentation was lost during the war. Mifune’s war experiences — what I was able to discover, that is — are particularly enlightening. It drives me crazy that, even now, writers still repeat the falsehood that Mifune was an “aerial photographer” during the war, which he definitely wasn’t. Mostly, though, it would have been great just to watch them: to see first-hand particulars of their personalities I’ve only heard or read about from others who knew them.

Galvan: You are credited as co-writer of the recent documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai (2015). How did you get involved in this production and what was the extent of your contributions?

Galbraith: The director, Steven Okazaki, contacted me and I took him to dinner at a favorite izakaya of mine, here in Kyoto. He told me about the project and I offered to help in any way that I could, suggesting and providing contact information for people he should interview. We talked about various things, like the problems of licensing film clips from Toho and so on, but afterwards, I felt I had kind of botched that meeting. I’m less articulate in person than I am in print, I think, and here I was with an Oscar-winning filmmaker, most of whose films I had seen and admired.

However, some months later, he contacted me again and basically said he wanted to give me a co-screenplay credit on the show because he’d culled so much of it from The Emperor and the Wolf. That was overly generous, I thought, but I was able to continue assisting him in terms of viewing his evolving cut of the film, offer suggestions, make corrections, and so forth. Later, when the film premiered in Japan, I was able to be on-hand with Rikya Mifune, Toshiro’s grandson and introduce the film and so forth.


Galvan: This is sort of piggybacking off an earlier question of mine, but there seems to be a general consensus among film historians that the 1950s-60s marked the “Golden Age” for Japanese cinema. Not only was this the time when directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Mikio Naruse, and Yasujiro Ozu were turning out some of their most famous work, but it was also the time when Japanese science fiction and fantasy hit its all-time high. This was the time when people such as Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya were turning out classic after classic. What do you think accounted for this nationwide artistic pinnacle in Japanese film? What factors made this generation something special compared to the generations of films and filmmakers which have followed?

Galbraith: Over lunch one day, I was re-reading parts of Richie’s The Japanese Film — Art and Industry, the section discussing movie theaters and audiences as they existed in the late 1950s, when the book was written. Richie talks about theaters showing domestic films being so regularly packed that filmgoers were sitting in the aisles and generally crammed in like sardines. The audience was there and so the studios were bustling, with Toho making 80-100 features every year. That kind of pace and assured patronage allowed for long-term training programs for actors and directors and other production personnel. It also allowed studios to supplement their bread and butter movies with chancier or more expensive films like those Kurosawa made.

None of that exists now. Toho makes one or two or three movies a year and distributes another eight or nine, and that’s it. People don’t have the opportunity to learn a craft from established filmmakers — over many films — in a studio environment anymore; and the studios, the ones that are left, are ghost towns most of the time, except for Toei-Kyoto, which is a Universal Studios-like theme park. It’s all gone, sadly, never to return.

Setsuko Hara in Repast
Repast (1951), dir. Mikio Naruse

Galvan: Why do you think it is so many incredibly talented directors—Mikio Naruse, Tadashi Imai, etc.—remain so obscure outside their home country?

Galbraith: What Japanese companies think is exportable, and what American distributors think is importable have no correlation with what’s actually good. As you know, Donald Richie struggled for years trying to convince Shochiku to export Ozu’s movies. Shochiku believed foreigners wouldn’t like or appreciate his films, which of course was nonsense.

Today, the main problem is that big and little distributors basically ignore certain filmmakers while others are exhaustively available on home video and in theatrical retrospectives. Anime aside, for the last 25 or so years, the new titles being imported have been almost exclusively crime films — particularly those of Kinji Fukasaku and Seijun Suzuki. Not to diminish those directors, but there were plenty of others making equally good movies, even within those genres. In addition to Fukuda, Kihachi Okamoto actually specialized in those kind of pictures — as well as wonderfully cynical war movies — during that same period. And yet, from the American perspective, one would think Okamoto’s specialty was samurai films, Sword of Doom (1966), Red Lion (1969), and all that. Those are, in fact, among the least interesting films of his career — pictures he made because Kurosawa was away from Toho, busy trying to establish an international reputation, so Toho pegged Okamoto to be their new guy for such pictures, ill-suited though he was. It amazes me that films as fine as Okamoto’s Desperado Outpost (1959) and The Age of Assassins (1967), as good as any by Fukasaku or Suzuki, are almost totally unknown in west.

And that’s within the established market as of present. As you mentioned, Imai and Naruse — not to mention Susumu Hani, the films directed by So Yamamura and Kinuyo Tanaka — and so many others are just languishing, despite their stellar reputations in Japan. A shame, really.

Galvan: I’ve gathered one of Toho’s major money-making genres back in its day was a genre myself (and probably many of the readers) have not had sufficient exposure to: the salaryman comedy. If you were to indoctrinate a curious moviegoer, what titles would you recommend?

Crazy Cats in Las Vegas Galbraith: I’m particular to Kengo Furusawa’s The Age of Responsibility in Japan, any of the Crazy Cats films from director Tadashi Tsuboshima, and various “Company President” films starring Hisaya Morishige. They’re all good. I’m also a big fan of the Crazy Cats’s Las Vegas Free-for-All (1967), a real epic, all-star comedy, the Japanese It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

Galvan: You contributed to the Region 1 release of the first four movies in the Tora-san series, available through Animeigo. Are you aware of any future plans to release the remaining 44 films in this series to western audiences?

Galbraith: I’m highly doubtful that’s ever going to happen, unless another distributor picks up the rights. It’s a series with the potential for a finite but fiercely loyal following, and requires a lot of special handling to properly introduce it to the American market. But it’s a truly great film series, and Yoji Yamada is another filmmaker whose work is ripe for discovery. Hopefully, the recent Blu-ray release of The Yellow Handkerchief (1977) will help a little.

Galvan: When you consider the current Japanese cinematic landscape, are there any directors, actors, etc. you are a fan of?

Galbraith: Not really. Some years back, when I was asked who my favorite hot Japanese directors were, I’d answer Yoji Yamada, Shohei Imamura, Kaneto Shindo, Kon Ichikawa, Nagisa Oshima…. In other words, the best ones working in the early 1990s were the still-active masters from the ‘60s, rather than the current crop. Now Yamada’s the only one left. As with American movies, there are still good ones being made, if only a tiny handful. It’s partly my own fault that I cannot give examples, because I don’t regularly see new Japanese movies, as I’d rather watch old ones I’ve not seen before.

I liked Departures (2008), didn’t love it, as I found it manipulative in the obvious Japanese manner; but I was pleasantly surprised that, as directly as possible, it addressed the burakumin aspects of Japan’s mortician industry and the social stigmas associated with that. Ironically, that was something I dare say most foreign audiences weren’t even aware of.

Galvan: Any unreleased Japanese films you have a particular interest in seeing someday?

Galbraith: Too many! So many I’ve held off on, hoping that a proper Blu-ray edition with English subtitles would turn up. One that comes to mind is a Susumu Hani film called Bwana Toshi (1965), starring Kiyoshi Atsumi. I’m particularly interested in Toho’s comedies and musicals, and Yoji Yamada’s pre-Tora-san work, a lot of which I’ve seen without subtitling, so the list is really endless.

Galvan: You’ve done a number of audio commentaries for films from various companies. Toho is notoriously litigious and controlling when it comes to their products (feel free to share any horror stories of your own). Would you say the level of control they enforce on DVD labels releasing their films is normal for a film company in Japan? Do companies like Shochiku and Toei bring the same attitude to the table?

Galbraith: I’m not usually involved directly with any of the legal aspects; but, indirectly, yes, Toho is far more difficult than Toei and the others to deal with. On the Classic Media Godzilla DVDs, for instance, all of us doing commentaries had to have our scripts sent to Toho’s legal department; and as I recall, they objected to my mentioning the circumstances surrounding the death of Nick Adams in the commentary for Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965). I objected, noting that everything I said was a matter of public record, and they relented. I don’t recall ever hearing a peep of complaint from any other film company.

Toho Studios history book Galvan: You’ve also written some reference books on Japanese cinema, including The Toho Studios Story: A History and Complete Filmography. Do you have a preference in writing books such as these versus historical/critical books on cinema? If so, why?

Galbraith: Those were written before or during the infancy of sites like IMDb, which have since killed the market for such books, and while they were arduous projects at the time they were written, that kind of raw data also yielded all kinds of invaluable information. Organizing such material in the way that I did allowed for a different kind of perspective, making it possible to observe trends and career paths not as easily observable other ways.

Galvan: In wrapping up, do you have any upcoming projects we can look forward to?

Galbraith: Not really. The Internet killed the publishing industry and streaming is now doing very much the same as far as the market for audio commentaries, documentaries, essays, and other value-added stuff for Blu-rays goes. Recently, an old Japanese contact I hadn’t heard from in 25 years messaged me, asking me to write an essay about the American producer Henry G. Saperstein for his photo-heavy book on Frankenstein vs. Baragon / The War of the Gargantuas. With help from Steve and my old pal from my MGM days, Gary Teetzel, I was able to dig up a lot of new information about UPA and its relationship with Toho, which was a lot of fun and really the first time I’d done original research on the genre in a long time.

Mostly, though, I’m contentedly “retired” from this kind of genre study, instead concentrating my energies raising my 10-year-old daughter and restoring the 200-year-old Japanese minka (farm house in the mountains) I live in now.

Galvan: Thank you very much, Stuart, for this interview.

Galbraith: Thank you!


Interview: Ed Godziszewski (2017)


Stuart Galbraith IV is the author of several books on Japanese cinema, including Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! and The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He has also done a number of audio commentaries for Japanese films, including the popular Godzilla movie Invasion of Astro-Monster.

Date: 3/7/2018
Interviewer: Patrick Galvan


Back to interviews