Tsuburaya described his childhood as filled with "mixed emotions." He was the first son of Isamu and Sei Tsuburaya, a Catholic family. His mother died when he was only three. He attended Sugugama-Chori Elementary School beginning in 1908 and graduated in 1916 at the age of 15. About the time he entered elementary school, he took up the hobby of building model airplanes, an interest he would retain for the rest of his life. His love of aviation led him to enroll in flying school at the age of 14. He was A Christian.
His first job in the film industry was as an assistant cinematographer at the Nippon-Tonnenshoku-Katsudo (Kokkatsu) Studios in Kyoto in 1919. After serving as a member of the correspondence staff to the military from 1921 to 1923, he joined Ogasaware Productions. He was head cameraman on Hunchback of Enmeiin (Enmeiin no semushiotoko), and served as assistant cameraman on Teinosuke Kinugasa's ground-breaking 1925 film, Kurutta Ippeiji (A Page of Madness).
He joined Shochiku Kyoto Studios in 1926 and became full-time cameraman there in 1927. He began using and creating innovative filming techniques during this period, including the first use of a camera crane in Japanese film. In the 1930 film Chohichiro Matsudaira, he created a film illusion by super-imposing an image. Thus began the work for which he would become known-- special effects.
1930 was also the year of his marriage to Masano Araki. Hajime, the first of their three sons, was born a year later. During the 1930s, he moved between a number of studios and became known for his meticulous work. It was during this period that he saw a film that would point towards his future career. After his international success with Godzilla in 1954, he said, "When I worked for Nikkatsu Studios, King Kong came to Kyoto and I never forgot that movie. I thought to myself, I will someday make a monster movie like that." 
In 1938 he became head of Special Visual Techniques at Toho Tokyo Studios, setting up an independent special effects department in 1939. He expanded his technique greatly during this period and earned several awards, but did not stay long at Toho.
During the war years he directed and produced the special effects for a number of propaganda films, including Kaigun Bakugeki-tai (The Naval Bomber Fleet) and Hawai-Marei Oki Kaisen (The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay). Tsuburaya's work on the latter film was so impressive that General MacArthur's film unit is said to have sold footage of the film to Frank Capra for use in Movietone newsreels as actual footage of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
As Japan tried to abandon militarism after the war, Tsuburaya's wartime association with propaganda films proved a hindrance to his finding work for some time. He went freelance with his own production company until he returned to Toho in 1950.
As head of Toho's special effects department, he supervised 60 craftsmen, technicians and cameramen. It was here that he became part of the team, along with director Ishiro Honda and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, that created the first Godzilla film in 1954.
For his work in Godzilla, Tsuburaya won his first Film Technique Award. In contrast to the stop motion technique most famously used Willis O'Brien to create the 1933 King Kong, Tsuburaya used a man in a rubber suit to create his giant monster effects. This technique, now most closely associated with Japanese monster movies, has come to be called suitmation. Through intense lighting and high-speed filming, Tsuburaya was able to add to the realism of the effects by giving them a slightly slower, ponderous weightiness.
The tremendous success of Godzilla led Toho to produce a series science fiction films, films introducing new monsters, and further films involving the Godzilla character itself. The most critically and popularly successful of these films were those involving the team of Tsuburaya, Honda and Tanaka, along with the fourth member of the Godzilla team, composer Akira Ifukube. Tsuburaya continued producing the special effects for non-kaiju films like The H-Man and The Last War, and won another Japanese Movie Technique Award for his work in the 1957 science-fiction film The Mysterians.
In 1963 Tsuburaya started his own special effects laboratory, and later that year founded Tsuburaya Productions. In 1966 alone, this company aired the first 'monster' series for television, Ultra Q beginning in January, followed it with the highly popular Ultraman in July, and premiered a comedy-monster series, Monster Booska in November. Ultraman became the first live-action Japanese television series to be exported around the world, and spawned the Ultra Series which continues to this day.
He worked on around 250 films in total.
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