In Memoriam: Kenpachiro Satsuma (1947-2023)

    As a young man, Yasuaki Maeda—later known by the stage name Kenpachiro Satsuma—went to movies featuring singer/actor Yujiro Ishihara and resolved to follow in his footsteps by becoming a film star.1 But whereas Ishihara—known for pictures such as Ko Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit (1956)—reached the Japanese public through his boyish looks and melodious voice, Satsuma found wider (international) appeal without showing his face. He similarly performed before motion picture cameras on a set, but remained hidden inside the full-body costumes he wore. It was his manipulation of said costumes—and the monsters they represented—that made him an icon in his own right, as he brought fantastic creatures to life with menace, pathos, and occasional humor.

    Best known for playing Godzilla in a seven-film stretch spanning 1984-1995, Kenpachiro Satsuma—who died on December 16 (age 76)—came to that character via a long route. Born in the southern Japanese city of Kagoshima, he started professional life as a steelworker, after an unsuccessful attempt to enter the New Face acting program at Nikkatsu (the studio which employed Ishihara). Proving himself a dependable worker in hazardous conditions, he received a transfer to a plant in Chiba (close to Tokyo) and was bitten by the acting bug again. Another New Face application resulted in various bit parts in Nikkatsu action movies until he moved on to Mifune Production.2 Known around the lot for his stamina and martial arts training, Satsuma was eventually asked to interview at Japan’s largest film company, Toho, for what he assumed to be a big action role.3

    “When they told me I would be playing a monster, I became dejected,” the actor recalled, “because I knew I would be completely covered by the costume. No one would see my face. But I [accepted the part, because I] loved doing action scenes, and I thought it would be a unique experience.”4 The film in question was Yoshimitsu Banno’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), and the role was Godzilla’s titular adversary: a perpetually evolving blob-like creature that gorges on pollution. Right away, Satsuma was subjected to the hardships of suit acting. “The size [of the Hedorah suit] was, at first, completely measured according to the person who’d wear it. But after its completion, several problems cropped up—like this section is strange, or that is bad, or the artists are not satisfied with it. So, they later added urethane and then unrefined raw rubber.” What began as a lightweight costume eventually became an unwieldy mass weighing 330 lbs.5 Waiting inside the rubbery labyrinth for action to be called proved strenuous, and “the suit was so terribly heavy […] it was almost impossible to move accordingly as planned.”6

    Largely because of a strong working relationship with special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano, Satsuma returned to play another adversary monster, in Jun Fukuda’s Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972). While his character this time—a cybernetic space monster—sported a more humanlike build, movement remained challenging. Suit maker Nobuyuki Yasumaru, Satsuma felt, prioritized design over functionality, and the actor struggled to wield claw-shaped appendages composed of solid resin. Even hollowing the talons provided little in the way of relief. “[T]he feet were so big that they easily caught on other objects or on my opponent, and I tripped a lot.”7

    Setbacks notwithstanding, Satsuma both times imbued his roles with personality. On occasion, physical restrictions became part of the acting technique. Faced with Hedorah’s limited mobility, he opted to portray the monster as “spooky and grotesque. […] I just swung the arms quickly when Godzilla came at me, or walked slow as though crawling. I just moved this part of my body now, and that part next.”8 By contrast, his Gigan performance was nimble and vigorous (e.g., clapping the beast’s scythe-like appendages) and downright jocular when he reprised the role in Fukuda’s Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973). However, the career-defining part wouldn’t appear until 1984, when Godzilla returned to silver screens after a nine-year hiatus.

    Having not produced a Godzilla movie since 1975’s Terror of MechaGodzilla (a picture released at the end of a phase in the series defined by anthropomorphic creatures), Toho elected to give their flagship character a straightforward reboot. Gone were the campy monster antics aimed predominately at children, replaced by a ravaging force of nature intended to dazzle mainstream viewers. Satsuma’s involvement in The Return of Godzilla (1984) began as a consultant. “The first time director Teruyoshi Nakano asked me to [play Godzilla], I turned him down. I thought I was too old for that sort of thing.” Unwilling to relive the rigors of his ‘70s work, he instead assisted in the search for a stuntman—one who matched criteria set for this particular film.

    Because of the multiple skyscrapers erected in Tokyo by 1984, the staff anted Godzilla’s height from fifty to eighty meters: an illusion achieved through a larger monster costume and miniatures built at a reduced scale. The new suit’s projected size necessitated a taller actor, and so Satsuma introduced associate Hiroshi Yamawaki. Alas, Yamawaki backed out ahead of suit construction, supposedly objecting to both the job’s demands and (recalling Satsuma’s pre-shooting reservations on Hedorah) that his face wouldn’t be shown. In an interview published in The Making of Godzilla 1985, Satsuma remembered multiple candidates declining before he at last took the role out of respect for Nakano. “If it had been some other director, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”9

    The decision was made to continue building a costume according to Yamawaki’s proportions. Filming cost Satsuma a considerable amount of weight (he averaged twenty minutes inside the suit) and put him through several perilous experiences. A rampage set in Yurakucho involved numerous fires that grew out of control; he was nearly poisoned by a CFC gas leak; and there was the strain inherent in operating a suit made for someone taller. Satsuma regarded his performance as hampered and restricted (“I felt that the […] costume controlled me”), though he remained proud of the movie’s finale, wherein Godzilla plummets into the volcanic crater of Mount Mihara. “That is where you can see the pathos of the monster.”10

    The actor’s second round as Godzilla—in Kazuki Omori’s Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)—proved easier (relatively speaking). Shorter periods inside a new, properly tailored suit allowed him to conserve energy and act with greater nuance. “[W]hatever Godzilla does [, …] I always try to add little movements that will show his emotional state, like moving his fingers.”11 New effects director Koichi Kawakita’s modus operandi was to provide basic instructions, allow the performers to work out the monsters’ movements, and then incorporate minor changes across each take. Satsuma remembered: “Even if he had a sequence shot OK, he made the camera roll again and again. Filming the same scene over and over, he made changes here and there every time. The scene had been shot OK, but he wondered if he could get something different out of the actors.”12

    Satsuma continued playing Godzilla under Kawakita’s supervision into the 1990s, in shoots that remained arduous. Water scenes, filmed in a waist-deep tank, presented the greatest risks. Slipping forward on the algae-coated floor would practically guarantee drowning; and in one instance an underwater explosion opened a four-meter-deep storm drain from which Satsuma couldn’t have escaped had he fallen in. City scenes were only somewhat safer: he suffered a concussion on the set of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) following a stunt wherein the monster crashed through an underground shopping center.13

    The ‘90s Godzilla movies proved consistently successful at the Japanese box office—in particular, Takao Okawara’s Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), which sold 4.2 million tickets and topped charts for the 1993 movie year. However, by the time of Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994), certain staff members felt the series had run its course. Conversing with Cult Movies journalist David Milner, Satsuma recalled telling Kawakita: “I think it would be good for us to stop soon.”14 The market seemed to agree, as attendance for Godzilla, while still healthy, was on the decline. (SpaceGodzilla attracted 3.4 million spectators compared to Mothra’s 4.2.) In what likely constituted an attempt to rejuvenate box office, the staff proposed killing Godzilla in his next movie.15 That concept led to Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), with the death of Toho’s monster serving as both a marketing stunt and an excuse to put the series on hiatus before the numbers fell again.16 (There was also pressure to make room for a still-developing Hollywood reboot.)17

    “I have now done seven films as Godzilla,” Satsuma said when promoting Destoroyah, “and I believe I have achieved most everything I have wanted to do inside the costume. Most importantly, I have always felt Godzilla should express its emotions, which is very difficult given the range of movements and expressions the suit can make.” Conveying emotions is among the finest qualities of his final Godzilla outing; visually aided by a suit covered with translucent patches and venting gouts of steam, Satsuma enacts the monster’s pain with wrenching body and limb movements—most notably when witnessing his son’s death and expiring in a display of light and smoke. “He is very animalistic, always in motion. But I believe Godzilla is a very emotional creature.”18 This bravura act came through despite new filming hazards. “[The vapor emitting from the suit] is carbonic-acid gas. […] When they used the gas, I’d inhale that and faint. [I] nearly died six times.”19

    Although Satsuma’s suit acting tenure ended with Destoroyah—and while he played other monsters in intervening years: an eight-headed dragon in Yamato Takeru (1994), a metal-consuming beast in the North Korean film Pulgasari (1985)—Godzilla remained the character most associated with him. In no small part because of personal enthusiasm. His book Inside Godzilla became a success in Japan,20 and his connection to the monster fueled a famously caustic response to the eventual Hollywood Godzilla (1998). After seeing his Occidental counterpart flee from rockets and machine gunfire, Satsuma walked out, commenting at the American convention G-CON: “It is not Godzilla. It doesn’t have his spirit.”21

    Satsuma’s convention appearances in Japan and abroad were many. One of this writer’s most vivid memories is the actor’s entrance at a 2018 gathering in Chicago. In contrast to his fellow Japanese guests, who stood to the side and waited for fans to approach, Satsuma immediately marched across the room, shaking hands along the way. That same weekend saw him sharing set stories and giving impromptu acting lessons to costumed kids—delighting in the impact his work’s had worldwide. Kenpachiro Satsuma may have joined the film industry hoping to become the next Yujiro Ishihara, but he arguably—in some respects—surpassed his idol. “Godzilla has had a profound effect on my life,” he told Fangoria magazine in 1998. “I’m proud of having played him and enjoy talking about the experience.”22

    1. Kenpachiro Satsuma (Godzilla) Interview Panel at G-FEST 25
    2. Ibid
    3. Godziszewski, Ed. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Godzilla. Published by Ed Godziszewski, 1996, p. 136
    4. Ryfle, Steve. Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G.” Toronto: ECW Press, 1998, p. 261
    5. “Interview with Kenpachiro Satsuma: Godzilla’s Filming Witnessed by the Monster Himself” in Ragone, August and Bob Johnson (eds). Markalite 1 (Summer 1990), p. 52
    6. Godziszewski, p. 136
    7. Ibid, pp. 136-7
    8. Ibid, p. 136
    9. The Making of Godzilla 1985. Tokyo: Shogakukan, 1985, p. 101
    10. Ibid; Milner, David. Translated by Yoshihiko Shibata. “Kenpachiro Satsuma Interview I.” Accessed 17 December 2023
    11. Ryfle, pp. 263-4
    12. Godziszewski, p. 138
    13. Ibid, pp. 138-9
    14. Milner, David. Translated by Yoshihiko Shibata. “Kenpachiro Satsuma Interview III.” Accessed 17 December 2023
    15. Milner, David. Translated by Yoshihiko Shibata. “Koichi Kawakita Interview II.” Accessed 17 December 2023
    16. Ryfle, p. 306
    17. Cheng, Scarlet. “Godzilla Returns to His Japanese Stamping Ground.” Los Angeles Times, 18 August 2000
    18. Ryfle, pp. 263-4
    19. Ibid, p. 310
    20. Ibid, p. 263
    21. Ibid, p. 334
    22. England, Norman. Behind the Kaiju Curtain: A Journey Onto Japan’s Biggest Film Sets. New York and Tokyo: Awai Books, 2021, p. 11
    Patrick Galvan
    Patrick Galvan
    Patrick Galvan is a film journalist who specialises in Japanese and early Chinese films. In addition to Our Culture, he has contributed to such online & print publications as SYFY WIRE, Toho Kingdom, and The Lost Films Fanzine. Author of the biography Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career (2022).

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