I’m very proud & flattered to be a part of this year’s WHAT A CHARACTER Blogathon, ramrodded by my friends Aurora (Once Upon a Screen), Kellee (Outspoken & Freckled) & Paula (Paula’s Cinema Club). If you haven’t stopped by their sites yet, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR??
At any rate, this is a celebration of actors who can handle leading roles, yet can always be counted upon to fill out a cast by providing their special talents in supporting roles. In keeping with the overall genre I work within here at Draconic Verses, I opted to opt out of the traditional Hollywood setting and instead showcase someone from Japan.
The gentleman in question can almost be called as much of a component of Toho Special Effects Films as Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, Director Ishiro Honda, Special Effects Director Eiji Tsuburaya or Composer Akira Ifukube. Why? Because he has appeared in no less than thirty Tokusatsu (live effects films) including Godzilla films of all three eras (Showa, Heisei & Millenium). I speak of Kenji Sahara.
He appeared in the very first Godzilla film, Honda’s GOJIRA (1954), but if you blink you’d miss him. He’s on the ship in Tokyo Bay, lighting a cigarette just before Godzilla rises from the depths of the bay. He was credited under his birth name, Tadashi Ishihara, so it went for many years with writers and film historians not realizing he’d been there from the start. With this credit, he joins Akira Takarada (who played Seaman Ogata in Gojira ’54) as actors in both the first and the last (so far) Toho-produced Godzilla film (Ryuhei Kitamura’s GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (2004)).
He changed his name to Kenji Sahara when he secured the lead in Honda’s SORA NO DAIKAIJU RADON (1956) (aka RODAN in the US, where he was incorrectly billed as Kenji Sawara). While watching the original version (as opposed to the more commonly seen US version), I discovered that Sahara has a quiet pensiveness in his portrayal of the hero, architect/engineer Shigeru, as well as an inner strength that is lost in the script’s translation/rewriting and in the (uncredited) dubbed vocal performance of actor Keye Luke. The most obvious indicator of this, comes in the form of Shigeru’s ‘whimpering’ during his bout with amnesia and aphonia (loss of speech). It is only present in Luke’s performance, and not in Sahara’s. Also, because of the cutting of non-action, character driven, scenes, you miss seeing signs that he’s truly frightened by having so many unfamiliar faces poking and prodding at him, as opposed to an extreme frustration with not knowing these people. The only vocal similarity between the two performances come in the tunnels just prior to his losing his memory, when he yells out in alarm, being surrounded by the giant insects (Meganuron, un-named in the US version).
His next two roles in Toho Effects films would also be as the heroic lead, in Honda’s CHIKYU BOEIGUN (1957) (aka THE MYSTERIANS) and his BIJO TO EKITAININGEN (1958) (aka THE H-MAN). Both were heroic young scientists, determined to save their girlfriends as well as the world. In MYSTERIANS, he has to rescue her (and other kidnapped girls taken by the invaders) in the midst of a final assault on the aliens. In H-MAN, his new love has been kidnapped by her dead husband’s criminal cohort in the sewers. He is determined to rescue her while avoiding the mutated radioactive ooze as well as the floating stream of flaming gasoline intended to end the monster’s reign of terror.
But Sahara was not limited to always being the hero. As a supporting ‘villain’ he got to flex his dark side occasionally. He was a (seemingly) quirky reporter in Honda’s KAITEI GUNKAN (1963) (aka ATRAGON) who turned out to be a spy for The underworld Mu Empire. His quirk of always being cold and wearing a heavy coat, even in the tropics, turned out to be due to his being from the so very hot underworld kingdom.
Another villainous turn came in 1970’s GEZORA GANIME KAMEBA KESSEN! NANAKAI NO KAIJU (aka SPACE AMOEBA aka YOG – MONSTER FROM SPACE), directed by (surprise) Ishiro Honda, though ‘villainous’ might not be the right term, as his character was possessed by the amoeba to get an idea of what the local authorities were planning to do to fight it, and then sabotage it.
Perhaps Sahara’s most famous turn as a ‘less than honest’ individual came in Honda’s MOSURA TAI GOJIRA (1964) (aka GODZILLA VS THE THING). He played Jiro Torahata, a greedy businessman who maneuvered the purchase of Mothra’s egg as the center of a planned amusement park and shot his partner, as he tried to take his own money back from Torahata’s safe. The killer got his though, as he was crushed as Godzilla walked through the hotel he was staying in.
He was also the lead in a number of dramatic and comedy films – many of which were directed by Ishiro Honda (who directed in many genres), but sadly, there is not much information available in the West about his non-genre films. He was one of Honda’s “family” of actors that he’d use frequently. These parts ranged from a helicopter pilot in MOTHRA (1963), to the commander of the moonbase in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968), to the always working father of the latch-key kid hero of GODZILLA’S REVENGE (1969) to the Prime Minister in 2004’s GODZILLA – FINAL WARS.
On a final note, in addition to his work in Effects films, he also appeared as the lead in the TV series ULTRA Q, from Tsuburaya Productions, It was about a defense squad that protected Earth from giant monsters! This first show eventually evolved into ULTRA MAN. Sahara also frequently guested on the various ULTRA MAN series over the last 40 years.
To some, he’s just one of the familiar faces you see in Toho movies, but to many of us, Kenji Sahara is THE face of Toho Effects Films!
Kenji Sahara. What a Character!
Kenji Sahara Toho Effects Films Filmography
The Mysterians (1957)
The H-Man (1958)
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Attack of the Mushroom People (1963)
Godzilla vs. Mothra (1964)
Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965)
War of the Gargantuas (1966)
Son of Godzilla (1967)
Destroy All Monsters (1968)
Godzilla’s Revenge (1969)
Space Amoeba (1970)
Godzilla vs. The Cosmic Monster (1974)
Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)
Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994)
Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)