When we walk into special effects master and director Tomoo Haraguchi's office, "Mighty Jack" is playing on the TV. Perhaps it never stopped playing here. Surrounded by the props from a hundred classic movies, it's easy to imagine Haraguchi simply willed time to stop in the Showa era. It's one of those moments that makes me happy I live in Japan.
While there are other collectors of vintage movie props in Japan, what sets Haraguchi apart is his skill at restoring them. He, as a rapper might say, "lives this shit." He grew up on Toho soundstages as a child, spent his teens working part-time as the bad guy monsters who the heroes trounce in every episode, and directs his own films today. He is a living repository of wisdom from the "golden age" of Japanese special effects -- called tokusatsu -- that made Godzilla and Ultraman and their countless rivals great.
Everything in his collection was essentially junk before he restored it to mint condition, damaged both in the original shooting process and by decades of neglect. If Haraguchi didn't study and and practice these techniques on his props, both the objects AND the knowledge would most certainly disappear. One of the most interesting pieces we encountered wasn't even a prop at all, but rather a test, a sheet of strangely mottled material that looked like a carpet sample from a death-metal singer's house. Haraguchi explained that it was a re-creation of Godzilla's skin, created by ripping up sponges by hand, gluing them to a special backing, and then coating the entire surface in liquid latex to create supple yet durable kaiju-epidermis. The technique is all but forgotten today, as its innovators have long since retired or passed away. He'd asked one of the original creators of the first Godzilla suits to make it for him so he could confirm how it was done.
I'd been in what I call "the vault" once before, when Hiroko and I interviewed Haraguchi-san for CNNGo, but Patrick took the experience full-on like a blast from a giant monster's radioactive breath. For his part Haraguchi obviously enjoyed watching our otaku meltdown immensely, pulling out ever-more-obscure props in a largely unsuccessful attempt to stump Patrick. And in a demented twist, he actually let us try on the a vintage Ultraman Ace TAC ("Terrible Monster Attacking Crew") jacket. The real deal. This wasn't cosplay. It was like take-your-kid-to-work day, and your dad just happened to be a Science Patrol member.
We concluded the evening in Haraguchi's home theater room, getting a running commentary from the man himself as we queued up scene after scene from the films the props had appeared in. Accompanied by his two Japanese bobtails who -- I am not making this up -- actually sat and watched right along with us. I don't mean sitting in the same room passed out cold, like normal cats. I mean like sitting there, watching the screen, transfixed.
Anywhere else but the Studio Where Time Stopped, this would have seemed really, seriously weird. But it quickly started to make perfect sense. Surrounded by alien rayguns and spacecraft and titanic monsters, is it any wonder cats turn otaku too?