From Academic Kids

Tokusatsu (特撮) (sometimes just called "Toku") is the Japanese term for special effects and often used to classify Japanese live-action sci-fi/fantasy/horror movie/TV productions.


Tokushu Satsuei (or Tokushu Gijutsu)

The term "tokusatsu" is a shortened term for tokushu satsuei (特殊撮影), Japanese for "special photography" which implies camera tricks (which is a basic principle for special effects in general). Usually, in movies or shows, the special effects director is given the title of tokushu gijutsu (特殊技術), Japanese for "special techniques" (this was a term they had for "special effects" in the old days), or even tokusatsu kantoku (特撮監督), which is Japanese for, appropriately enough, "special effects director"!

The Legacy of Eiji Tsuburaya

Eiji Tsuburaya (1901-1970) is perhaps the most famous tokusatsu kantoku in Japan, and is responsible for bringing the famous characters Godzilla and Ultraman to life. While he wasn't the first FX artist, he fought to make special effects in Japanese cinema truly special. When doing movies and TV shows involving giants (be it monsters, superheroes, aliens, etc.), Eiji's techniques usually involve expert miniature work, and the monster is usually either a stuntman in a full monster costume (a process later dubbed "Suitmation") or a marionette-like prop (Mothra, Dogora, etc.). Even with the support of digital effects since the 1990s, Eiji's tokusatsu method has been lovingly carried over to this very day, and has become a tradition like kabuki theater.

Some of Eiji's proteges include Teruyoshi Nakano, Sadamasa Arikawa, Nobuo Yajima (who also directed the FX for the majority of superhero shows by Toei), Koichi Takano, Koichi Kawakita and others. They have worked at Toho, Eiji's company Tsuburaya Productions, P Productions and other companies. Yonesaburō Tsukiji, Kazufumi Fujii (who directed the FX for the classic Gamera movies) and Yoshiyuki Kuroda (who directed the FX for the Daimajin trilogy) used the same techniques over at the Daiei Motion Picture Company (now owned by Kadokawa Shoten).

A new generation of FX masters include Shinji Higuchi, Eiichi Asada (who have both worked on newer Godzilla and Gamera movies), and Hiroshi Butsuda (who still works on the bulk of Toei's newer superhero shows).

The Power of Suitmation

Suitmation (スーツメーション) is the term used in Japan to describe the process in tokusatsu movies & TV used to portray a monster using suit acting. It is not known exactly where the term originated from; Some people in Japan (possibly staff members at Toho) coined the term to differentiate the suit work from Ray Harryhausen's celebrated Dynamation (stop-motion) technique. The term was at least used to promote the Godzilla suit from The Return of Godzilla.

What are those suits made of?

Usually, the monster suits from the classic Godzilla films were made of liquid latex, coated with all sorts of appliances (especially flame-retardant). The suit has the be thick so that the actor doesn't get burned much. The teeth were originally made from wood, but later, from resin. The actor usually sees through small holes in the suit's neck. The head is fitted with mechanisms that move the eyes & mouth (with the battery located somewhere in the costume), and is radio-controlled. Wires operated by overhead crewmen move the tail.

In any case, the suits were very, very gruelling, especially in the old days when studios were very hot. Three minutes was all the average stuntman could stand. There were some advantages, though, when the studios became air-conditioned, and when, starting with Godzilla 2000: Millennium, an oxygen hose was attached to Godzilla's tail, leading up to the neck so that the actor could breathe. But Tsutomu Kitagawa, who played Godzilla in that film, warned that "playing Godzilla is not for people who are claustrophobic."

In the case of superheroes, Ultraman usually wore a form-fitting latex costume similar to a wet suit. The helmet was made originally from latex, and later, fiberglass. And there were batteries in the suit that made the eyes and Colortimer light up. Toei superheroes had various sorts of costume materials, from leather to vinyl to cloth. Starting with Science Task Force Dynaman, the heroes of the Sentai Series wore spandex. The helmets were made of fiberglass, and had clips on the side to lock the helmets into place.

Do they use techniques other than men in suits?

Yes. Japanese special effects techniques are limitless. Even the first Godzilla film from 1954 used all sorts of ingenious techniques. Besides the Suitmation Godzilla, Eiji Tsuburaya's crew also used various puppet-like props, one was like a hand-puppet, another was basically an early example of an animatronic puppet (from the scene where Godzilla first appeared over a mountain in Oto Island), which shot a smoky spray from its mouth to create the illusion of Godzilla's white-hot radioactive breath. One shot of Godzilla's tail even used a stop-motion process similar to Ray Harryhausen's Dynamation technique (It's said that Tsuburaya wanted to use stop-motion for Godzilla, but Toho couldn't allow it, because it was too expensive and too time-consuming; Most Japanese studios had only allowed notoriously tight budgets/production schedules).

Later films use various techniques to bring Godzilla and the other monsters to life. In the 60s, aside from said close-shot puppets, they used mechanical miniatures in distance shots of Godzilla. Since the 80s, they used robotic animatronic Godzilla props to give him a more realistic, lifelike appearance (as is the case with the 20-foot "Cybot Godzilla" in The Return of Godzilla and the "Close-Up Godzilla" in Godzilla Vs. Biollante). They even actually lit up Godzilla's dorsal fins made of fibre reinforced plastic, and in more recent films, they used CG to create that effect.

The same principle applied to superhero shows; Some robotic-looking superheroes (like Kikaider and Gavan) used electronic props for close shots.

CGI in Tokusatsu

Of course, to compromise with Hollywood standards, CGI definitely played a major role as well. The Heisei Gamera Series has used it masterfully. And recent Godzilla films upped the ante with effects techniques. In some scenes, Godzilla swam underwater like a whale or a shark. CG no doubt played a major role in superhero shows also. From Ultraman flying smoothly in the sky, to Kamen Rider henshin-ing into animated armor, to the Sentai robots dramatically combining in one shot without the use of props like in older shows. Much like the old days, computer effects are also used for optical effects such as ray beams, missiles, falling debris and explosions.

Other tokusatsu films to use CGI include Kurosufaia and Casshern (based on Tatsuo Yoshida's 1973 superhero anime series).

Are those miniature city sets really made from cardboard?

No, this was a generalized misconception by American audiences who generally criticize said movies and shows.

Even in the classic Godzilla movies, the miniature sets were actually made from a thinly cut plaster and wood. The newer films do this as well (only some of the buildings are actually collapsible). Buildings that were not made to be destroyed are made from wood and plastic. Some miniature models were even made out of paraffin (this goes for the many tanks and electrical towers that Godzilla melted with his radioactive breath). But in movies such as Battle in Outer Space (1959) and The Last War (1960), the miniature sets were made from the same ingredients as those used to make children's wafers! Kinda' makes your mouth water, doesn't it?

The buildings in the classic Godzilla film series were constructed on a 1/25 scale.

Companies That Produce Tokusatsu Movies & Shows

In alphabetical order:

Popular Tokusatsu Subgenres

  • Metal Heroes (メタルヒーロー) - Series with metallic armor-plated superheroes. This can be considered as having three sub-categories:
    • "Space Sheriffs"
    • "Cyborg Heroes"
    • "Rescue Heroes"

Of course, many times, the lines have blurred. Many of these movies & TV shows use many or all elements of this genre. Some sci-fi/horror movies like Demon Heaven Ghost Hero (1988), for example, has elements of ancient Japanese horror tales and high-tech superheroes (it features a ravaging undead shogun and a synthetic "virtual reality" man). Even monster movies feature superheroes (like in the film Godzilla vs Megalon (1973)).

Famous Tokusatsu Monsters and Superheroes

Whereas Godzilla has become a worlwide household name, Ultraman and Kamen Rider are considered the two greatest influential model Japanese superheroes to this very day. All three characters have created countless sequels and imitations, few of which rival their popularity (the Sentai Series, for example, is an offshoot of the Henshin Hero genre started by Kamen Rider).

Metal Heroes (specifically Space Sheriffs) became a basis for the RoboCop movies. Toho and Daiei are well known companies in the Daikaiju category of tokusatsu. Tsuburaya is the company associated with Ultraman, while Toei is responsible for Sentai series, Metal Heroes and the Kamen Rider series.

Not all of Toei's group of hero shows are classified as "sentai" (Sentai shows are exclusively produced by Toei). Toei's non-sentai heroes include Akumaizer 3, Ninja Kyaputǎ [Ninja Captor] and Chojin Bibiyun. The most notable non-Toei group series is perhaps Toho's Sei Shin (Star God) series, which began in 2003 with Chō Sei Shin GranSazer (Ultra Star God GranSazer) and continues in 2004 with Gen Sei Shin JustiRiser (Phantom Star God JustiRiser). The Sei Shin series is Toho's attempt at competing with Toei's Sentai series.

One last category is the Heroine Tokusatsu, which consists of a fighting team composed by females, or an individual female. Examples include Vanny Knights, Dimensional Detective Wecker, and the new live-action version of Bishōjo Senshi Sailor Moon.

Beyond The Norm

There are tokusatsu movies and TV shows that either don't use conventional special effects, or don't star human actors. These include:

  • Shows like Majin Hunter Mitsurugi (1973), in which the monsters and the titular giant knight-like warrior are done with stop-motion effects, instead of suitmation.
  • Puppet shows like Uchuusen Silica (1960), Ginga Shonen Tai (1963) and Kuchuu Toshi 008 (1969). These shows (the three mentioned were produced by NHK) use the same tokusatsu techniques, but the cast of the show is made up of puppets/marionettes, as opposed to human actors. Similar to the famous Supermarionation shows by Sylvia and Gerry Anderson. A better known show in this category is Go Nagai's X Bomber (1980), shown in England as Star Fleet.
  • Similar to the above listed puppet shows, there are also tokusatsu shows that use the same special effects techniques, but the show's cast are anime characters in animated sequences. These shows include Tsuburaya Productions' Dinosaur Expedition Team Bornfree (1976) and Dinosaur War Aizenborg (1977), which were combined into compilation movies like Return of the Dinosaurs and Attack of the Super Monsters, respectively. A more bizarre effort was done for Tsuburaya by Go Nagai; Pro-Wrestling Star Aztekaiser (1976), which looks like a conventional tokusatsu superhero show, except when the title wrestler-superhero Aztekaiser is able to transform the show's live-action dimension into an anime sequence, where he is able to perform wrestling moves against the weekly villain, wrestling moves that are impossible to do in live-action!
  • In 1998, Buildup Entertainment, an independent company in Japan, did a direct-to-DVD OVT SF/horror miniseries titled Dark Soldier D, which completely used CGI for the title mobile suit and the monsters, instead of traditional effects.

Japanese Fan Films

As pop-culture fandom in Japan grew and grew in the 1980s, a fan-based group called Daicon Film, now called Gainax, was formed by Hideaki Anno, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, Takami Akai, and Shinji Higuchi. Besides their celebrated anime sequences, they also produced a series of tokusatsu shorts, usually parodies of monster movies and superhero shows, which have gotten lots of favorable media coverage. These productions included Patriotic Task Force Dai-Nippon (1983), Swift Hero Noutenki (1982), Return of Ultraman (1983) and The Eight-Headed Serpent of Yamato Strikes Back (1985). (See Gainax for more.)

In the turn of the new millennium, another tokusatsu fan, a comedian named Shinpei Hayashiya, produced a number of tokusatsu fan films. They include Godzilla Vs. Seadora and Gamera 4: Truth (2004). As of 2005, he has just completed his upcoming first original effort, Reigo Vs. the Yamato.

Tokusatsu Around the World

The tokusatsu technique has been copied around the world, thanks to the popularity of Godzilla films. One could say that this is the highest form of flattery.

Famous Examples

Fan Films

  • In 1993, an independent US company called Two Guys With A Camera Productions (TG2WAC Productions) produced a series of films starring a Godzilla-like giant monster called Raki.
  • In 2001, Buki X-1 Productions, a French fan-based production company, produced its own Sentai Series, Jushi Sentai France Five, which takes Toei's famous "Super Sentai" formula with a French twist!

Perception of Tokusatsu in America

The United States has seen almost every Godzilla and Gamera film, as well as many Japanese kaiju films up to the early 1970s, but mainstream America does not look at these films very favorably.

Even only a handful of Japanese superhero shows such as Ultraman (the most recognized Japanese superhero in America, of course) and Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot made it here, as well as Spectreman, which was the last major superhero production to be seen in the States, whereas ironically, it was just the beginning (in that exact same period, Kamen Rider, a low-budget TV series, began the "Henshin Craze" in Japan).

Of the American populace, Hawaii (and, to a lesser degree, San Francisco) was more familiar with the superhero shows made since the "Henshin Craze", and these shows were very successful there. Shows like Emergency Command 10-4-10-10 (the first tokusatsu series to be subtitled in English), Rainbowman, Android Kikaider/Jinzo Ningen Kikaida (perhaps the most popular show there), Kamen Rider V3 and Secret Task Force Goranger, as well as 1967's Ultra Seven (which, in 1975, became the first Japanese program to be dubbed in English there). The last tokusatsu series to be subtitled in English was 1979's Battle Fever J (the first "Super Sentai" series). But sadly, the rest of America has missed out on this milestone period of tokusatsu history (shows like 1983's Science Task Force Dynaman, which was comically dubbed, are a very rare exception).

This perception of tokusatsu in America can be chalked down to a few things:

It Doesn't Look "Real"

One of the things that Japanese live-action fantasy is usually criticized for by non-fans in America is that these productions don't look "realistic". Back in the 1950s, some people criticized the special effects in Godzilla movies, comparing them to Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion techniques (Ray was hurt by this, and instead started making fantasy films). When Star Wars was released in 1977 and made science fiction mainstream, a cynical American society began to forget the past and focus on the future. Even when some Japanese companies use their tried and true techniques for sentimental reasons (combined with Hollywood-style effects), Americans continued to label these films as "cheap", "cheesy" and/or "campy". In fact, many old Japanese special effects fantasies, no matter what regard they were held in Japan, were pretty much considered B-movie material by a cynical American public that raises itself on big-budget Hollywood films, nowadays strictly using CGI effects. That perception is also based on watching faded, worn-out fullscreen prints of these classic films.

However, American fans like August Ragone and reporter Steve Ryfle have enlightened a skeptical media on this subject countless times, and people were profounded. According to Ryfle, even classic Japanese special effects fantasies were not neccesarily trying to look "realistic", they were trying to make something that's colorful and spectacular. These were fantasies. Godzilla is not a "realistic" monster, because he's not a real animal. He is a fantasy creature, basically a god (not unlike the beasts from Chinese and Japanese mythology, like the Chinese dragon). This goes for many of the Japanese kaiju of the type. Rodan, Varan, Mothra, Gamera, etc. These hand-crafted fantasy monsters looked "real" to some fans. Some even say that, unlike stop-motion, these monsters looked very real, because they were filmed real.

Even the equally criticized Japanese live-action superhero shows (aimed mainly at children) achieved what American productions usually could not when making adaptations of comic books; A colorful, fantastic sense of wonder. After the original "campy" 1966 Batman TV series, superhero fans, even the American public, started to take their fantasies for granted, because color and fantasy became "silly", "stupid" and thus equated with "camp". Thus, superheroes became dark, grim and "realistic." These were no longer the comic-books kids grew up with, they were more "adult" and "cynical." Japanese superheroes, on the other hand, retain that colorful "comic-book" feel. Yes, some of these superheroes are altruistic, like Super Giant, Moonlight Mask, and Ultraman, yet others (of the Henshin variety, for example, like Kamen Rider) take their powers for granted, but the hero still must make do with their powers to help the innocent, even get along with children (who usually idolize these heroes). They have even long before experimented with "grim" and "ironic" concepts that would finally be utilized in American superhero comics by the late 1980s. And the villains in these shows included the kind of threats depicted in American comics that American movie & TV adaptations usually exclude; an evil empire, an alien race, a mad scientist and a weekly monster. Some would argue that Japanese superhero movies & shows, despite their "limited" special effects, are much better at emulating the style of American comic-books than the TV shows and Hollywood movies that are based on them.

Furthermore, it also has to do with conservative budget reasons. Japanese studios, unlike those of Hollywood, are not union-based. Some Japanese studios still allow a notoriously tight budget and schedule, while others are liberally taking a chance on things. And actors/staff are paid a smaller salary, yet they work together like a family.


As is evident since the 70s, Japanese superhero movies & TV shows became increasingly violent. Even as kid shows in Japan, American audiences were overly concerned over violence in America, and by the 70s, censorship against violence on American childrens' television had grown more and more strict. This mainly includes Japanese superhero TV productions, many of which were very dark and violent, and had grim and ironic stories. This goes for anime shows as well. Superheroes like Kamen Rider were created surgically by the villains, and turn against them. Superheroes like the title team of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (an anime series) ruthlessly beat villains to a pulp. Superheroes like Mirrorman chop the monsters' heads off. Shows like Android Kikaider and Robot Detective had the monster of the week demonstrating their powers by slaying an innocent victim (an expendable character) at the beginning of each episode (not unlike the victims of the weekly monsters and alien threats featured in Star Trek). Needless to say, even Godzilla movies had followed suit in the same period.

In the 1990s, Power Rangers, which was Americanized from the Super Sentai series, made the shows more palatable to American TV standards by removing the excessive violence, and it differed dramatically from its original version. This is still a highly debated topic even among fans.

Anti-Japanese Sentiment

Anti-Japanese sentiment, as well as racism in general, is another issue in the negative perception of tokusatsu in America. Obviously, Americans were at odds with Japan, even long after the end of WWII.

But to make the original 1954 Godzilla palatable to American audiences, actor Raymond Burr (who would later gain fame from playing the famous TV lawyer, Perry Mason) was added to help the audience accept the Japanese characters from the original version. When Godzilla became a success, we started to see more dubbed films, and Americanization of Japanese films had slowly died down. In the mid-1960s, Hollywood actors like Nick Adams and Russ Tamblyn actually appeared in some of these films alongside the Japanese actors (thanks to the collaboration between Toho and UPA, best known for their animated movies & TV shows like Mr. Magoo). The Gamera films, aimed at children, started to include Caucasian children alongside the Japanese children to appeal to the American market, upon the success of the first Gamera film there. And Tsuburaya Productions had co-produced two Ultraman shows (one in Australia and another here in America), starring a multiracial cast (as opposed to the usual all-Japanese cast) to reach an international audience, as well as market Ultraman in North America (a market Tsuburaya has been trying to hit for a long time).

But this was not to be the case for shows like Power Rangers, which, as mentioned above, were completely Americanized to fit the mainstream agenda, as the public does not consider anything with Japanese (or even Asian) actors to be bankable. Needless to say, even many Japanese special effects movies & shows portrayed America in a bad light.

A Growing Fandom

Thanks to the Internet, tokusatsu fandom and acceptance in America is growing, slowly but surely. For years, we've had fanclubs all across the world, as well as countless dealers and collectors selling merchandise directly from Japan. Even imports and illegal bootlegs of Japanese movies & TV shows have become all the rage. Because of this steadfast phenomenon, the American mainstream has finally started to take notice, especially companies like Sony, Media Blasters and ADV. Although it may not yet have the same level as anime or manga, tokusatsu is just as important and influential to Japanese culture, as well as all of pop culture.


  • Grays, Kevin. Welcome to the Wonderful World of Japanese Fantasy (Markalite Vol. 1, Summer 1990, Kaiju Productions/Pacific Rim Publishing)
  • Yoshida, Makoto & Ikeda, Noriyoshi and Ragone, August. The Making of "Godzilla Vs. Biollante" - They Call it "Tokusatsu" (Markalite Vol. 1, Summer 1990, Kaiju Productions/Pacific Rim Publishing)
  • Godziszewski, Ed. The Making of Godzilla (G-FAN #12, November/December 1994, Daikaiju Enterprises)
  • Cassidy, John Paul. The Perception of Tokusatsu in America, 2005 (Blog Essay).

See Also

External links

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