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The Birth of Japan: Japan's answer to The Ten Commandments

Contributed by
Mar 29, 2018

For fans of classic cinema, watching Cecil B. deMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) is something of an Eastertime tradition. Renowned for its exorbitant special effects and cast of thousands, the film regularly turns up on American television screens this time of year and, in its day, drew in crowds by the million. Audiences in 1956 hungrily soaked up three-plus hours of lavish sets and big-name actors, eagerly awaiting the highly publicized special effects scenes — namely when Charlton Heston's Moses spreads his arms and parts the waters of the Red Sea.

The Ten Commandments was a true movie-going event. It was also a product of its time. Earlier films based on religious stories, such as David and Bathsheba and The Robe, regularly prospered at the box office.

1950s Hollywood executives recognized a pattern: choose a story from the Bible, imbue it with a huge budget, pack it with stars, and you likely had a success on your hands. (And if you could find an excuse to squeeze in some special effects — a la The Ten Commandments­ — the profits might be even higher.) This formula proved lucrative in the United States and surely didn't go unnoticed in other parts of the world, least of all by Japan's Toho Studios when they produced The Birth of Japan in 1959.

Heavily promoted at the time as the studio's 1000th production, The Birth of Japan is a three-hour, star-studded epic based on Shinto myths found in the Kojiki and the Nippon Shoki, the oldest known chronicles in Japanese literature. It tells the story of a prince named Osu (later rechristened Yamato Takeru) who is framed for murdering his brother and sent on a series of perilous journeys to (he believes) prove his loyalty to the emperor. Along the way, he encounters cruel barbarians, armies of swordsmen, assassins, and devastating typhoons summoned by the gods. Interwoven with his tale is the mythological origins of the Japanese islands and deity Susano-o's battle with the eight-headed dragon Yamato no Orochi with special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, the resourceful technician who co-created Godzilla five years earlier.

Even though The Birth of Japan is primarily a period piece, it was hardly a routine picture for Toho. The film was shot over the course of twelve months and cost a whopping $1 million (by comparison, the original Godzilla's shooting schedule lasted three months and its total cost — including promotional expenses — equated $275,000). It goes without saying that a decent portion of the budget went into Tsuburaya's plentiful effects.

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Indeed, the mid-movie battle between Susano-o and Yamato no Orochi, despite lasting a mere handful of minutes, was one of the film's major selling points, clearly highlighted in the trailers and posters. In it, the eight-headed dragon, seeking a human sacrifice, emerges from a lake. To achieve a unique entrance, Tsuburaya filmed the Orochi puppet with its multiple heads poking out of the lake surface and then dumped gallons of water upon it from above, before submerging the creature. When the footage was played in reverse, the illusion was that the lake water suddenly rose, as though sucked up from above, before the serpent's heads broke the surface. A nifty way of building up the dragon's power.

As the scene continues, Orochi presses closer to land and instead of coming upon a native girl to devour, it dips its mouths into huge kegs filled with sake. Once the monster has fallen asleep, Susano-o springs into action. Orochi awakens in a furor, snapping with its multiple sets of jaws, before ultimately getting tangled in the branches of a tree and strangling itself.

Examined today, the sequence is appealing primarily as a prototype for better things to come. The Orochi puppet is more wobbly than menacing and the heads are all too clearly manipulated by overhead wires — and not too proficiently, as they oftentimes bump into each other. Still, viewed in retrospect, the scene has a certain charm: we realize, as we watch, this was the stepping stone Tsuburaya needed to perfect his technique of a multi-headed dragon. Without Orochi, he might not have realized King Ghidorah with such stunning virtuosity five years later.

And even though Orochi doesn't look so good here, Tsuburaya's other effects — the eerie mythological formation of Japan; the typhoon; a spectacular volcanic eruption reminiscent of the Rodan (1956) finale; an enormous flood — deliver in spades.

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The Birth of Japan also gathers strength through the contributions of another Godzilla veteran: maestro Akira Ifukube. As is described in Erik Homenick's magnificent online biography on the composer, Ifukube meticulously researched indigenous Japanese instruments in preparation for his gargantuan score.

For instance, he dug into the background of the yamatogoto (a six or seven-stringed instrument believed to be native to Japan) to achieve a truly "native" and antiquated tone suited for the time period in which the film takes place. The composer also wrote choir lyrics in ancient Japanese dialects to further evoke the feeling of a bygone age, and this comes through particularly well in his breathtaking main title cue.

Ifukube ended up writing more than 160 pages of sheet music and utilized an orchestra so massive that seven microphones were needed for recording. The result is one of the most grandiose film scores in his career.

An interesting side note: Ifukube would later return to the story of Yamato Takeru in the Toei animated film The Little Prince and the Eight-headed Dragon (1963), his only foray into composing for animation.

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Finally, there's the all-star cast: another cue ostensibly borrowed from Hollywood's big religious epics. As with films such as The Ten Commandments, part of the fun in watching The Birth of Japan is pointing out recognizable faces. Toshiro Mifune, one of the greatest Japanese film actors in history, tackles the roles of both Yamato Takeru and Susano-o and does so with his usual magnetic screen presence. He's supported by a number of other reputable talents including but not limited to Eijiro Tono, Yoko Tsukasa, Kinuyo Tanaka, Setsuko Hara (unfortunately wasted as the sun goddess Amaterasu), and Ganjiro Nakamura.

Fans of kaiju eiga will also find appeal in the casting of Godzilla veterans Akira Takarada (Mothra vs. Godzilla), Akira Kubo (Son of Godzilla), Akihiko Hirata (Godzilla '54), Jun Tazaki (The War of the Gargantuas), Kyoko Kagawa (Mothra), and others. Perhaps most enjoyable of all is the great Takashi Shimura, juicily hamming it up in the small part of a barbaric clan leader, a drastically different piece of acting from the somber, serious performance he gave in Godzilla (1954).

Billed as "The Greatest of Toho's Great Films of Special Effects Photography" upon its November 1 release, The Birth of Japan proved profitable at the box office, becoming the second-highest grossing Japanese feature of its year. It came to the United States, via a 111-minute truncated version in 1960, receiving fairly upbeat reviews — though the film has sadly never turned up in any American home release.

Since then, the original Shinto myths have inspired other media adaptations, such as the earlier-mentioned animated film, a mid-'90s television series, and an utterly dreadful 1994 film (also produced by Toho) called Yamato Takeru. Realized by many of the same crew members behind the later Heisei Godzilla movies, the '94 film features a livelier rendition of Orochi (plus a few extra monsters) but ultimately suffers from an inexcusably poor script, made worse by its miscast leading actor, Masahiro Takashima, and second-rate directing from Takao Okawara.

This lousy adaptation is far more accessible stateside than its 1959 counterpart, which is a shame. For The Birth of Japan, while not one of the great films in Toho's repertoire, is a picture of tremendous historical interest; and its impressive cast and lavish production values certainly warrant at least one curious viewing.