It is the Biggest, The Greatest and Most Legendary film production company in the history of Japan. If I was to say the word TOHO to some bloke in the street, they may have no idea what I am talking about, but if I say TOHO to a fan of Japanese Cinema they would instantly recognise the name. It is the studio where some of the world’s greatest films were made and to me my favourite films in the world. It is where films like Seven Samurai were made and is the home of Godzilla. And to think it all started with a Railway.
It may appear hard to believe but the history of TOHO started as a railway company. In 1907 businessman Ichizō Kobayashi founded the Mino-o Arima Electric Railway Company in Osaka. It was a struggling company but its fortunes turned around when Kobayashi combined the railway with Show Business. He built residential areas in the less populated areas and an amusement park as well as a hardware store at the terminus. In the 1930’s he founded the Takarazuka Company, an all-female opera troupe; this followed with a lot of fame for the company and as a result of this an entertainment city sprang up around it with attractions including a zoo, a circus and restaurants. From this major success Kobayashi made a fortune from his railway company.
Kobayashi would later become president of Tokyo Gasu Denki and in 1940 was put in charge of Minister of Commerce and Industry. He would later join the Taisei Yokusankai group. After World War 2 he was appointed the cabinet minister of the Shidehara cabinet. He was also appointed the president of the War Damage Rehabilitation Institute but was soon kicked out due to his previous political career. Ichizō Kobayashi died in 1957.
Today the railway company is still going under the name Hankyu Hanshin Holdings, Inc. and owns the original Hankyu Railway and Hanshin Electric Railway Co., Ltd. Hankyu Hanshin Holdings is not just centered around railway lines but also has businesses in retail, real estate and of course entertainment. They are also part of the Hankyu Hanshin Toho Group which centers around Hankyu Hanshin Holdings, Inc., H2O Retailing and Toho Group (despite the fact that they are the owners of the other two companies, it’s a bit technical).
From Rail To Film
Ichizō Kobayashi had hopes of building an entertainment empire and started buying theatres in the Tokyo area. It was part of a grand vision of a chain of cinema and movie houses nationwide. In 1937 he bought two film companies to produce films for his cinemas. These two companies were JO and PCL (Photo Chemical Laboratory), from these he founded the Toho Motion Picture Distribution Company to distribute the two company’s films and some American movies. Two years later he bought another two small companies and cemented all operations into one company, Toho Motion Picture Company. The name of the company Toho is actually an abbreviation of “Tokyo-Takarazuka”, the ho in Toho comes from Takara which can also be announced “ho”.
It was during the late 30’s and 40’s that Toho gained its initial success. During the war-time periods Toho became the foremost company producing War Propaganda films. Using miniatures and pyro techniques, the expensive productions were the initial foundations of the special effects department. The nationalist movement in Japan caused people to flock to the movies to see the elaborate war movies. Toho gained a huge early success from these films.
However when World War 2 finished things hit rock bottom. With the occupation of Japan there was a real issue on what film makers could and could not make. Many film directors and producers were forced to leave Toho and along with a recession and a new labor movement which in turn caused several strikes at Toho, Toho was nearly bankrupt and almost folded. It was not until the Korean War started that things began to turn around. Japan entered a time of prosperity with the country producing procurements for the United States. In 1952 when the occupation ended, a former producer for Toho who was kicked out for producing Propaganda Films came back, Iwao Mori and set his sights on making the company profitable again.
The 1950’s were a golden age for Japanese Cinema, during this time the country was making 500 films a year. That was more than what America (300) and Britain (100) were producing at the time. Everyday thousands of people would commute to Toho Studios who had become the Largest Film Company in Japan.
“In 1954, fuelled by a postwar economic boom, Japanese movie studios were entering a period of unprecedented productivity. The Toho Motion Picture Company, which had already established itself as an innovator in the film industry, was engaged in box office battles with its rivals’ (Shochiku, Nikkatsu, Shin-Toho, Toei and Daiei studios) as it attempted to solidify itself as Japan’s biggest and most ambitious moviemaker”.
– Steve Ryfle; The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G”.
It was in 1954 when the companies name would become a legend from not one but two films in the same year.
1948 saw the breakthrough for Akira Kurosawa in his film Drunken Angel which was also the first of 16 collaborations with Toshiro Mifune. From this film Akira Kurosawa would continue to produce several films which would become famous worldwide. It was particularly the case in 1950 with the release of Rashomon which revealed the work of Kurosawa to the world as well as Japanese Cinema winning a Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.
In 1952 after returning to Toho (after working with Daiei on films like Rashomon), Kurosawa took his writing team to a secluded residence for 45 days to write the script for his new film. The film was one and a half years late when it was released due to shoot problems, Kurosawa’s health and finance issues making it the most expensive film made to date when it was finally released. The film took a whole year to shoot and was shot on location. There was also some buzz going round on set about another film being produced by Toho. On April 26, 1954 the film was released under the name Seven Samurai. The film very soon made back the money that was spent on it, and that is not all. Today, Seven Samurai is regarded as one of the greatest films in cinema history (not just Japan but the whole World). It inspired a remake in The Magnificent Seven. It has been rated in several top films lists:
- “Ranked #1 in Empire magazines “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema” in 2010”
- 96% Audience Rating on Rotten Tomatoes
- 100% Rating on Rotten Tomatoes
- “voted number one in an audience poll conducted by MovieMail in 2000”
- “the highest reviewed movie at Rotten Tomatoes with the highest number of votes that is listed as an action movie on the site”
- “Cited as the greatest Japanese film ever; at number 12, it is the highest-ranked Japanese and Asian film on the Internet Movie Database‘s “Top 250 movies” list. It ranked, for the first time, at number 3 in the 1982 Sight & Sound Critics’ Top Ten Poll, appeared on the Sight & Sound Directors’ Top Ten Poll in 1992 (ranked number 10), and tied for the highest-ranked Japanese and Asian film in 2002 (ranked number 9). It is ranked number 2 on Rotten Tomatoes‘ top 100 foreign films, and number 1 on their top 100 action/adventure films. It was also voted the “Best Japanese Film ever” in a 1979 Kinema Junpo critics’ poll”
- “It is now regarded by some commentators as the greatest Japanese film ever made, and in 1979, a poll of Japanese film critics also voted it the best Japanese film ever made”
With the success of Seven Samurai Toho were about to make another Big Splash, a splash which would not only become famous with cinema but would also an icon for a whole country, how many films do you know of that has done that?
“I was an actor in a film by Akira Kurosawa – “The Seven Samurai”. It was a very long job; it took a whole year to shoot. But while were working on it, we kept hearing strange rumours. On set we would hear people talking about something called Godzilla. We kept hearing this name…..and none of us had any idea what it was. But nobody would tell us”.
– Yoshio Tsuchiya; Godzilla King Of The Monsters BBC Documentary (1998).
In early 1954 Toho was to produce a film called In The Shadow Of Honor. However things fell apart when the Jakarta Government prevented Toho from filming there. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka had to come up with a new film idea and fast. During this period in Japan there was a tragedy at sea involving a Fishing Boat called the Lucky Dragon 5. The ship was in an area where the H-Bomb was tested and even though it was many miles away the effects of the bomb spread to the ship and all the fish on board became contaminated and several of the crew died a few months later. It was while Tanaka was on board an airplane and reading about the incident that he also thought about the incredibly popular Sci-Fi film The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms which was released one year earlier. From these 2 ideas Tanaka had an idea for a film. Toho head Iwao Mori backed the project and a group of men (Ishirō Honda, Eiji Tsuburaya and Akira Ifukube with story by Shigeru Kiyama) worked on the idea and together created a film called Gojira. The name was later Americanised to Godzilla and it has stayed that way since.
The story premise behind the film is the idea that a Giant Monster has been awoken by nuclear testing and goes on the rampage, destroying Tokyo in the process. One way of describing the film is the idea of Godzilla being a force of nature as if Mother Nature is saying that she has had enough of man destroying the world and has put her foot down, and the destruction in this instance is Nuclear Weapons and as a result of this Nature releases a Giant Unstoppable Monster.
The film was a huge success in Japan and would also become a big success around the world. The film became the first of a whole series of 29 films and also sparked the Kaiju (Monster Movie) Genre in Japan which spawned many more films from Toho including Mothra, Atragon, The Mysterians, Space Amoeba and Rodan with some monsters from these films appearing in the Godzilla series. Monster Movies would become one of the studios Major output over the 1960’s and include a fight between Godzilla and King Kong.
Trouble was on the horizon though for Toho as one of its rival studios would become its biggest competition. In the 1960’s Daiei saw the potential of the Godzilla series and created their own Giant Monster, Gamera. The effects for Gamera were not as good and appeared to be more silly than Toho’s Monsters but they did put children in their film which was something Toho usually did not and so Daiei achieved that audience and even though it was not a worthy foe in terms of effects Gamera did become a cinema icon for Japanese Cinema, meaning Godzilla was not the only big guy at the Movie BBQ.
The Grim 70’s
The 70’s was not a great period for Toho. Their popular Monster Movies went into a decline during the period despite Godzilla staying strong for 5 years. Fewer people were working at the company and fewer films were made. Several reasons were behind this decline, two of the biggest were the rise of Monsters on Television which was created by Eiji Tsuburaya who was one of the founders of the Japanese Monster Movie. Tsuburaya set up his own production company for television and produced a series of shows which involved people fighting giant monsters. The idea worked brilliantly and eventually turned into Ultraman which is still going strong in Japan to this day. More and more people in the movie industry started to either leave or go to television. Toho managed to turn things around for themselves by training or “farming” crews to work in television and several other non-film use including conventions and expos. This side of the business became very profitable as a result.
One other reason for the decline came down to one use of special effects; Stock Footage. The effect was to use footage from previous films and put them into a film making the film a lot cheaper as a whole. It was used originally in Godzilla’s Revenge in the late 60’s but the result was more like a clip show than a film with only a few new scenes added. This quality improved but not greatly. During the 70’s Godzilla films (Gigan and Megalon) the shots were used primarily for scenes involving the military. These shots were actually very good but when you are using monster, not so good. If you look closely in Godzilla vs Megalon there is a clip where Megalon is attacked by fighters, but the close-ups of his hand swatting them is actually Gigan’s hooks and not Megalon’s drills. It was not until Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla was released that Toho stopped doing it and instead released a film which is widely seen as a classic by fans. Stock Footage was used once in the following film but only for plot use so it was not so bad.
One of the more grim parts of the 70’s came to Akira Kurosawa. In 1970 his rather odd film (I have only seen a clip of it) Dodes’ka-den was released. It focuses on the lives of people who happen to live on a rubbish dump. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film but the film was actually a financial failure and Kurosawa was finding it hard to finance his films despite the success of some of the films he previously made.
“Its critical failure sent Kurosawa into a deep depression, and in 1971 he attempted suicide. Despite having slashed himself over 30 times with a razor, Kurosawa survived his suicide attempt; however, he would not return to filmmaking for five years, releasing Dersu Uzala in 1975”.
The 80’s and 90’s was a great period for Toho. It was a real struggle but they managed to get themselves back on their feet. Since 1975 Toho had tried to bring Godzilla back but to the screen. There were several ideas including a 3D film but eventually Godzilla 1985 (The Return Of Godzilla) was released and it used a new story idea to recreate the series. The idea was to forget the previous films except the original. So in other words Godzilla had not been seen for 30 years. The move worked and during this new period several of the best films in the series were produced including the 1985 film, Godzilla vs King Ghidorah and Godzilla vs Mothra 2.
During the 1980 period Akira Kurosawa made his last Epic, RAN. The film was set once again in feudal Japan much like most of his well-known Samurai Films. The plot was based on several things including King Lear and was a co-production between Japanese and French film studios. While being his last Epic Kurosawa would direct 3 more films and help out on many others until his death in 1998.
“In 1990, he accepted the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Posthumously, he was named “Asian of the Century” in the “Arts, Literature, and Culture” category by AsianWeek magazine and CNN, cited as “one of the [five] people who contributed most to the betterment of Asia in the past 100 years“.
“I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him”
Trouble was on the horizon however in the shape of an old foe. In 1971 Daiei went into Bankruptcy but were bought out by Shoten in 1974. During the 1990’s they started to remake Gamera Films. This time they employed Shusuke Kaneko to direct the films. The films had better production values and even starred Steven Seagal’s Daughter. The films had better special effects than before. The Gamera films could at long last truly rival the Godzilla series. Three Gamera films were made in total, each one being an excellent example of Japanese Independent Monster Movies. The third one in particular is highly regarded as one of the greatest Monster Movies of all time. Many believe it is the best Kaiju film since the original Godzilla. One interesting point about this series is that the films were actually distributed by TOHO.
The end of the 90’s was a great time for Toho. In 1996 they made headlines worldwide that they were going to kill Godzilla. The move was planned not to be permanent though as an American film was being produced and they felt that the new century should have a new Godzilla. While the 1998 American film did very well at the box office it did not sit well with fans of the series, or Toho. After the film was released Toho started to make plans to bring back the monster in 1999.
One monster from the Godzilla series got their own series; Mothra had three films to herself with no sign of Godzilla but with the sighting of a new monster in Desghidorah and several varieties of King Ghidorah. Mothra started her career as her own film and now she had her own film again.
As the century drew to a close Toho gained the Japanese Distribution rights to the Pokémon film series and have distributed the films since.
One month before the Millennium Toho brought Godzilla back in Godzilla 2000. The new series had a good start but fell a bit with the release of Godzilla vs Megaguiras. This time the major driving force behind the series was producer Shogo Tomiyama who would later become President of Toho. A new story premise was brought in with the idea that once again the previous films except the original did not happen, this was the case of all the films except Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. which was a direct sequel to Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla; however the films did have continuity from other Kaiju films. New guys were working on the series and after Megaguiras Toho released two highly successful films with Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (My Favourite film) which was directed by Shusuke Kaneko and Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (Directed by Megaguiras Director Masaaki Tezuka). The series finished with Godzilla: Final Wars which celebrated 50 years of the King of the Monsters.
“No Japanese director would ever dare to say “no” to Godzilla films. I can make any Hollywood-style film but only a few can make Godzilla films, plus this is the 50th anniversary of Godzilla. I think this is the greatest challenge of my life to make this Godzilla film”.
– Ryuhei Kitamura interview
Daiei made another Gamera film in the period however they were bought by Kadokawa Pictures in 2002 and Gamera while still being a lot better quality than the original series returned to its more childlike routes and focused mainly on Children Actors.
Today and Tomorrow
Toho has produced fewer films these days than its glorious period when it first started and during the 50’s and 60’s. Toho is now more than just a film studio. The original studio had shrunk in size as some parts were sold off in real estate and moved into a new office in 2005. While Films is still their main output, they now also have work in real estate and real estate management. Toho is still one of the major parts of that old railway line but works more independently and is the largest shareholder of Fuji Television.
While the company is in a more quieter state than its older days, history has shown that they won’t stay quiet forever. Hopefully in a few years their Big Monster will resurface and cause havoc once again. After all Tokyo has a new building for him to smash. Godzilla is not only the icon for the company and Japanese Cinema, he is an icon for Japan and you can’t keep him calm for long. Samurai Epics Films like the films of Akira Kurosawa have also begun to make a sort of comeback with critically acclaimed 13 Assassins which was both produced and distributed by Toho.
With a new era of film comes a new era of film makers and Toho still holds its ground as the greatest Film Company in the history of Japan with aspiring film makers flocking towards Toho to have their films produced and while it may be quieter than it used to be, Toho’s painstaking and dedicated style to making films still goes strong to this day. And let us not forget that all this came to be when a young business man decided to combine a Railway with Show Business.