‘Ultraman’ helmer Jissoji dies

Director's later film work inspired by French masters

Akio Jissoji, a helmer best known abroad for his work on the “Ultraman” sci-fi series, but wildly eclectic in his directing career, died November 29 in Tokyo of stomach cancer. He was 69.

While studying in the French Literature department of Waseda University, an elite private college, Jissoji joined a film circle and wrote essays on French cinema. Graduating in 1959, he was hired by the predecessor to Tokyo Broadcasting System, one of Japan’s major webs and was promoted to director in 1961. A devoted fan of the French New Wave and cinema verite, he incorporated their techniques into his TBS shows and later, his films.

In 1965 Jissoji entered TBS’s Film Department, where he began his association with Eiji Tsuburaya, Japan’s premiere effects specialist. Jissoji worked with Tsuburaya on the “Ultraman” and “Ultra Seven” series, both of which were later widely distributed abroad.

In 1969 Jissoji launched his own production company and, soon after, left TBS to become an independent director — one of the first in the Japanese TV biz to make such a leap. With the sponsorship of the Art Theater Guild, he made his first full-length feature, “This Transient Life” (Mujo), in 1970. This drama of a young sculptor of Buddhist statues who has a passionate affair with his own sister inspired outrage, but became ATG’s biggest B.O. hit and won the Grand Prix at the Locarno Film Festival.

Jissoji continued to made films for ATG through the mid-1970s, with eroticism and spirituality central concerns and Godard, Bresson and other French masters as prime inspirations. In 1979 he directed an “Ultraman” feature and in 1988, after nearly a decade away from the screen, released “Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis” (Teito Monogatari), a sci-fi fantasy set in the early decades of the 20th century about a demonic soldier who tries to destroy Tokyo with the aid of super-powered samurai warrior, roused from his sleep of centuries. The pic became Jissoji’s biggest-ever B.O. smash.

Jissoji continued to work in the sci-fi vein in TV shows and pics, while exploring the underside of the erotic in pics like “La Valuse” (1990), with its “Rashomon”-like trial for rape.

In 1994, Jissoji released “A Watcher In the Attic” (Yaneura no Sanposha”), an erotic mystery based on a story by Edogawa Rampo, a popular writer who took his pen name — and much inspiration — from Edgar Allan Poe. Jissoji directed two more Rampo-based pics: “Murder on D Street” (D Zaka no Satsujin Jiken, 1997) and, together with three other helmers, the omnibus “Rampo Noir” (Rampo Jigoku, 2005). He also made “Ubume” (Ubume no Natsu, 2005), a period mystery based on a novel by Natsuhiko Kyogoku.

Jissoji’s last pic was “Silver Mask” (Silver Kamen), an omnibus based his own 1971-72 TV space opera, with Jissoji one of three helmers. Release in Japan is set for a December 23.

In addition to his film work, Jissoji was active in the theater for decades, staging plays, concerts and operas. He was skedded to direct a production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” for a July 2007 concert, but illness forced him to cancel.