As Shiro Tsutsumi in GAMERA VS. GYAOS (1967) ©Kadokawa Pictures
Kojiro Hongo was born February 15, 1938 in Okayama, the eldest son of a hardware store owner. Hongo became intensely interested in Judo from an early age, and it became his passion. His father was acquainted with Hideo Matsuyama, a producer at Daiei’s Kyoto Studios, who happened to see a photo of the 20-year old Hongo (in his Judo uniform), belonging to his mother. After seeing this photo, the president of Daiei, Masaichi Nagata, immediately insisted on meeting the young man.
Daiei had been producing several Judo films, and they were interested in the handsome Hongo, who was also actually adept at the martial art. Hongo said, “Then, I met with Mr. Matsuyama, the director, and actor Raizo Ichikawa. I didn’t know Ichikawa’s name, let alone his face, as at the time, I recall thinking Japanese films were really boring. I still remember having no interest in becoming an actor, but everyone I knew kept telling me to do it. I thought, ‘Well, at least it’s a Judo movie’, and that is how it all started, and I made my film debut in THE SUN RISES OVER THE KODOKAN (1959).”
Before his career had even taken off, two huge stars gave him advice: Raizo Ichikawa (star of SHINOBI-NO MONO said, “It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you remember the script.” Shintaro Katsu (best known for ZATOICHI), on the other hand, told him, “The script never matters; it’s all about the acting.” This caused Hongo some considerable confusion early in his career, getting such contradictory suggestions from two of Japan’s biggest stars. But, eventually, Hongo got the hang of it.
He moved up the ranks quickly in films like Yoshio Inoue’s KAMIKAZE SQUADRON (1960), and was soon cast second-billed to Ichikawa in Kenji Misumi’s three-part screen adaptation of “Daibosatsu Toge”, SATAN'S SWORD (also made by Kihachi Okamoto as SWORD OF DOOM). The next year, Hongo was the top-billed star of Misumi’s BUDDHA (1961), a 70mm spectacle produced to rival Cecil B. DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), in which he was cast as Prince Siddhartha. Several other spectacles followed, such as Shigeo Tanaka’s THE GREAT WALL (1962), as well as playing Sanshiro Sugata in Shunkai Mizuho’s EAGLE OF THE KODOKAN (1964).
It was during the height of his meteoric rise as a star, when Hongo was chosen for the part of Keisuke Hirata in GAMERA VS. BARUGON (1966). Much like the American Studio System, the actors were contracted to the studios as employees, and as employees, the producers and directors assigned them to their jobs. The actors could not turn down the parts, whether they liked them or not. Being produced as an A-Picture, Nagata wanted Hongo to star in the film, much to his consternation. “I was sort of taken aback that someone thought that I was suited to star in a monster movie. When the part was announced, I guess that the other actors had scurried away, and that left me holding the bag. At first, I really thought that they were crazy to choose me for this project.”
Originally, considering himself a serious actor, Kojiro Hongo felt as if he was stuck with making this movie, and tried to get out of it any way he could, confessing: “The truth is, I faked an illness, and delayed the shooting for a month. I’ll never forget that. I remember calling from my hotel in Osaka saying that I was horribly ill. They assumed I was lying and decided to pay me a visit. Both the production manager and section manager were coming to see me. So, I called over a doctor and nurse that I knew, and begged them to give me some cold shots. I told them that I needed to look as sick as possible, so please just give me anything; I think they gave me a placebo.
Then, we placed lots of bloodstained gauze in the wastebasket; I got under the futon, and pretended I had the chills, moaning over and over. I remember the producer came in, saw how ‘sick’ I was, called the studio, and said ‘Wow, Hongo’s really ill,’ and they said they’d wait until I was back on my feet. Then, I realized there was no way out of this, and felt really awful about it. I feel nervous even talking about it now!
I remember receiving the screenplay for BARUGON, but never bothered reading it. I thought, there was limited acting involved, since my fellow actors were monsters, and I decided that I didn’t need to prepare for it beyond, ‘So, the monsters are a few hundred meters over there?’ Initially, I wasn’t instructed further than where the monsters were supposed to be. ‘The buildings are going to be destroyed this much’ or ‘The monsters are peering over from that direction’, is about all I was ever told.
That’s pretty much the only instruction I got from Director Yuasa, so at the time, I didn’t think there was much acting going on. But, I hadn’t realized that there were two directors, one for the visual effects and the other for the acting scenes! So, when Director Yuasa had to handle both chores on GAMERA VS. GYAOS (1967), I realized that it must have been very hard for him." Hongo received top-billing in three Gamera films, total, concluding with Yuasa's GAMERA VS. VIRAS (1968), as well as Misumi's THE RETURN OF DAIMAJIN (1966).
"I’ve said this many times since then, that I’m extremely grateful for having been a part of all of this. Of course, I never thought that these films would’ve been around long as they have. Sometimes, when I have a profile written about me, generally, they fail to include the Gamera or Daimajin films, but I make sure to include them in my own filmography. I believe that it was my good fortune to have been involved with them, and I’m proud to be a part of the Gamera legacy.”
Hongo appeared in over fifty films at Daiei, including Satsuo Yamamoto's THE BRIDE FROM HADES (1968), Kimiyoshi Yasuda's ALONG WITH GHOSTS (1969), and Tokuzo Tanaka's THE HAUNTED CASTLE (1969), before switching gears to television following after the studio's bankruptcy in 1971, where he continued with an extremely successful and prolific career. Perhaps his biggest television role was his incredible run as Detective Takeshi Tachibana in a whopping 457 hours (Episodes 53-509) of the long-running, all-star Toei crime drama, SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: FRONTLINE (1977-87). His series co-stars included Hideaki Nitani, Hideji Otaki, Hiroshi Fujioka, Toshiyuki Nishida, Yusuke Natsu, Naoya Makoto, and Shigeru Araki.
While he slowed down his career in the 1990s, Hongo continued to act on stage, television, and in films, including a cameo in Shusuke Kaneko's GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE (1995), until he retired completely from show business in 2003.
The following was excerpted and amended from the Rondo Award-nominated audio commentary for Shout! Factory's release of GAMERA VS. BARUGON, by the author and Jason Varney.