There are moments that belong not only to the collective memory of a country, but also to the collective memory of the whole world. The monster or kaiju, Godzilla, rising over Tokyo Bay to unleash an uncontrollable chaos in the 1954 film directed by Ishirō Honda is a moment that has been engraved in the retina of millions of people, including actress Mari Yamamoto. But beyond having witnessed the battles in which this enormous creature has been involved, sometimes as an enemy and sometimes as a protector of humanity, Godzilla has served as an example for powerful metaphors camouflaged in action films about indestructible monsters.
Guilt, the need for control, power beyond our own capacity have been themes that this franchise has explored and now shows us its new chapter. Apple TV+ premiered at the end of 2023 the series Monarch: Legacy of Monsters captained by Kurt Russell and his own son, Wyatt. The acclaimed fiction has narrated an unpredictable adventure full of unforgettable characters. But one of them has especially stood out and that has been Keiko, played by Mari Yamamoto.
The Japanese-British actress has managed with her character to offer the audience a feisty woman, who strongly wants to understand what is happening around her and find the truth no matter what monster wants to prevent her from doing so. We chat with Mari who reveals the secrets of this successful series and helps us understand a little better why a fearsome monster has become not only the icon of Japan, but also a pop icon that will go down in history. And Mari can say it clearly, not like others, she has fought in the world of Godzilla and has come out victorious.
Mari, it’s a pleasure talking to you. Congratulations on the series, it's a great show. I would like to start by talking about the origin of everything, Godzilla, the creature created in 1954 by several Japanese artists. When was the first time you heard of this well-known titan?
Looking back I feel like I always knew of Godzilla. Growing up in Japan it’s so ingrained in our culture in a way, we see the image of it everywhere and the name Godzilla is used as a metaphor for so many things that are terrifying or intimidating. I remember singing the original theme song with my friends when something scary would approach and so on. That being said, I do remember watching the 1954 original film with my father as a kid and while I didn’t quite understand the enormity of it, the feeling of awe and grief and wonder has stayed with me.
As I understand it, Godzilla was created as a metaphor for nuclear weapons when the indecent Lucky Dragon 5 and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still very recent in Japanese society. Do you think he achieved his goal? What message do you think Godzilla conveyed to the Japanese people?
I’ve read stories of how when the film first opened in cinemas you could hear people weeping in the audience. Japan committed horrific atrocities during the war but at the same time when you think about the civilian experiences, the relentless air raids and the atomic bombs, they went through all kinds of hell. It’s said that seeing this humongous and merciless creature destroy their cities and lives in its wake was somehow like putting a face to the fear and trauma they experienced and that being a cathartic experience for them which I can understand.
I can’t begin to imagine how people emerge from such trauma and find the strength to move on but I think culturally too, Japanese people didn’t really talk about the war in the aftermath. In part because they desperately needed to find ways to survive but also perhaps because words sometimes don’t suffice. From what I’ve read and heard, that’s why films, literature and all kinds of art forms, in the post war era meant so much collectively to Japanese people, it really helped process, heal and find hope while serving as a reminder to never make the same mistake again.
Why do you think Godzilla, of all the kaiju, is the most popular of all?
I think Godzilla can stand for and mean different things to different people and that’s the beauty of it but I do think the origin of the character holds so much meaning and symbolism that will always be relevant. The fear and awe that we feel for its size and capability, is a reminder of our own mortality in a way. There are of course the comparisons to Mother Nature and I think that is a relationship that we as humans are constantly reassessing and at the mercy of, so many of us can relate to that I’m sure.
At the same time, I’ve heard people say that they relate to Godzilla in that there is something cathartic and satisfying about a massive creature destroying everything in its wake. Either way I think it speaks to something deeply primal in us while keeping us fascinated and on our toes.
Your character is driven by curiosity. Keiko is a woman who wants to understand what is happening around her. Do you share that curious attitude with her?
Definitely and that’s my favourite thing about her. You know how when we are kids we’re constantly asking questions, I often feel like I carry that childlike wonder with me still. I think it’s also to do with growing up outside of Japan for a little bit. In Japan, there is a kind of unspoken rule or social norm that you don’t ask too many direct questions, the conversation style is more about reading between the lines, sensing and sympathising. After having lived overseas my natural tendency to ask whatever comes to mind didn’t revert back to the Japanese rules and it was frustrating at times. It often felt so difficult to connect with people on a deeper level.
It’s a bit funny because the Japanese characters for my name means the truth, and I really do feel like I’m always looking for it everywhere. I’ve chosen careers where it comes in most handy though. I started in publishing as an editor for a travel magazine, journalism and now in acting and writing. There is a through line for me in that it’s always been about finding the truth. In journalism it was about the pursuit of the literal truth. In acting and writing it’s about finding the truth of a character, a moment, a story and allowing yourself to be absolutely honest with yourself through it. And in order to be honest, you have to be curious about yourself and dig deep as well.
A kaiju in one way or another represents conflicts that are beyond the control of ordinary people. Don't you think there is a strong connection between the current moment we live in and these titans?
I agree, I think the lasting appeal of these kaijus is that we as a species are always going through some kind of challenge or difficulty and consciously or subconsciously we can all relate somehow to the threat and fears they bring about. It’s a reminder of how small we are in the grand scheme of things.
A good friend of mine is also a gothic literature professor and she said that human beings have always created monsters and we’ve documented in one way or another the fear we have of something of our own creation taking on a life of its own and becoming uncontrollable. Maybe this is a fear we've always had as humans and it definitely feels more relevant than ever these days.
That also happens in Monarch, the characters are swept away by forces that are greater than them. Was it difficult for you to understand the universe in which the characters operate?
I had never really done any kind of fantasy or sci-fi, and certainly not on this scale so in the beginning I thought a lot about what these monsters represent to me and how I can make it real for myself as an actor so my character could believe in the circumstances completely. I think the interesting thing is that in my storyline of the 1950s we are just discovering the monsters in the world so there are no preconceived notions of what these monsters are and the relationship humans have to them. We had the freedom to discover and figure it out along with our characters, and I think that helped a lot, and a couple of episodes in it all clicked for me, in the way I think it would have for Keiko, what the monsters mean.
I think for her it’s not just about the miraculous nature of the creatures but also what they represent, it’s the possibilities. If monsters are real, what else could be real? And what a terrifying and wonderful concept that is. I felt that Keiko, who carries a past of so many losses, is always looking for hope, and I think the monsters in a strange way give her hope, about how we can exist in this world along with the monsters. I also loved that she is not skeptical that “dragons might exist” when we first meet her and the other characters in her storyline. It made me think a lot about people’s capacity to believe in miracles. I talked to a lot of scientists too and I realised, if anyone has the capacity to believe in miracles, it’s scientists. They study nature and the human body and the things they see are one tiny miracle after the other if you think about it. Their job is to break down miracles into logic, and while my character was doing that in her work, I think I was doing that for myself as an actor.
Something happens to Keiko throughout the story that completely changes her life and how she faces the passage of time. How would you feel if you experienced something similar?
The depth of loss and grief she experiences is unimaginable but I can only hope that I would be as brave as her and choose to face what awaits her in the future. And amidst all the grief, find meaning and purpose to carry on because I would imagine when somebody experiences that kind of loss and devastation, one would have equal depth of appreciation for the life they have to live and find it within themselves to make something of themselves.
I’m sure the filming was quite a physical challenge due to the big action scenes, how did you prepare?
In terms of physical preparation, I always work closely with my movement coach Dalel Bacre. We work on physical conditioning and also adopt different methods of using the body depending on the scenes. I also do a lot of breath work. The thing with action and very physical scenes I’ve learned, is that you need to be able to do them over and over with the same technical precision and level of intensity in your performance. This requires so much prolonged focus and trust in your body so being able to maintain a completely relaxed state during and in between the takes is key, performance wise and for getting through the shoot itself. This all comes down to the breathing.
You have shared scenes with Hollywood legend Kurt Russell, what has it been like working with him?
A dream. He has been doing this for 6 decades and he shows up on set and he’s still the person who cares the most and is the most excited to be there. I heard him say many times “we are the luckiest people in the world to get to do this.” He also is constantly thinking about the audience, what would be the most thrilling or satisfying experience for the audience, will they understand certain aspects. He is wonderfully generous as a scene partner too. He has the energy of a dad that wants everyone to succeed and do their best. It truly was a masterclass in how to be a leader on set and also how to stay connected to purpose and be grounded in this industry.
You were born in Japan but grew up between London and Tokyo. What was it like living between two cultures that are so different?
I was five and I didn’t speak a word of English when I was thrust into school in London, but I do remember some things really viscerally. I think one of the first things that struck me on my first day of school in London was how diverse it was. It’s slowly changing now but Tokyo when I was little was very much a homogenous place so seeing kids of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds was so exciting to me. I also think it was a relief, because in some ways I think I was already feeling the pressure to conform in Japan and being in an environment where everybody was so different felt like permission to just be myself, being different was okay. I also remember being surprised by how affectionate people were to each other. I remember being upset on a playground one day and a friend holding me and comforting me, something that my friends and I in Japan had never really done.I also noticed how different education was. In England a lot of the schoolwork focused on individuality, like creative writing or discussing your opinions while once back in Japan, it felt like a lot of memorisation and importance was placed on form and uniformity. These are just some examples of how I felt changed by my time in London.  At the same time, going back and growing up in Japan was also such a beautiful experience. I think there’s a lot of emphasis on respect and being considerate of others and your surroundings which I miss whenever I’m not in Japan. You clean up the classroom together at the end of the day, you take turns every week serving each other school lunch. This combined with animism, which is also a big part of our culture, makes us treat each other and our surroundings with a certain kind of gentleness which is a quality I find so specific to Japan and appreciate deeply. I’m grateful I got exposed to different worlds and ways of thinking so young because it taught me to hold all kinds of dualities at the same time and it expanded me in a multitude of ways.
You studied International Relations, why? At what point did you decide to focus on acting?
I grew up thinking I would be a violinist until I was about midway through high school, so when I started college I didn’t really know what I wanted to be. I did know that I would want to work overseas in some capacity so the versatility of the degree appealed to me. After graduation I worked in publishing and in advertising and I became severely burnt out, the overworking culture was still very intense then and watching films and series was a form of escape for me since I didn’t have time to see friends.
I started watching Grey’s Anatomy and I became mesmerised with Sandra Oh’s character and performance. I think it was the fact that I had never seen a fully fleshed out Asian woman in a Hollywood production before combined with how real and captivating Sandra Oh was, that fascinated me. I felt like I was slowly dying inside at this office job and acting somehow seemed like a way to really live. I’d never acted before in my life but I went to take an acting workshop on my summer vacation in New York and that was it. I was hooked.
I went back to Tokyo and told my parents “mum, dad, I’m sorry I’m going to be an actor,” and they said “you’ve suffered enough, go do what you love,” which isn’t what you normally hear. I moved to New York after that to go to acting school and pursue this career and they’ve been so supportive. I’ve always felt so lucky for that.
Now Japanese cinema is experiencing a time of great success, and Godzilla Minus One is one of the highest-grossing Japanese films of all time. What films and series do you think best reflect Japanese culture?
When I look back on growing up in Japan, some of the films that I watched over and over and still return to a lot are Hayao Miyazaki’s films. We all watched them growing up so they feel like a part of our cultural identity in a way. They often take place in fantastical worlds but the way the characters interact feel quintessentially Japanese. I also think his films allowed girls in Japan to see themselves as heroes and leaders and taught us it was okay to do what we felt was right, to be brave. I don’t think I would be who I am without his films and I know a lot of people who feel this way.
I also have read that in his films, there are moments of quietness that don’t advance the plot, but these moments of reflections for the characters feel uniquely Japanese. I feel the use and interpretations of pauses and silence is very much part of the Japanese sensibility and his films really capture that amongst many other things. Another series would be Tokyo Vice on Max. It’s inspired by an autobiography of Jake Adelstein, an American crime journalist who has lived and worked in Japan for over twenty-five years. Jake is a good friend and collaborator of mine and I was in the writers room for the two seasons streaming now so yes, I may be biased, but the showrunner J.T. Rogers, who is a master storyteller, and everybody involved was so committed to making it the most authentically Japanese show.
Because it takes place in the world of journalists, police, gangs and the nightlife, the themes are often of the underworld, so it may not exactly be a representation of what an average Japanese person’s life looks like but it offers such a rich tapestry of intriguing characters and stories. I can say with certainty it’s a fantastic lens into the realities of people who live in certain corners of Tokyo and it will definitely transport you deep into a lived experience of contemporary Japan.