Talks with writers: Norman England (Behind the Kaiju Curtain, 2021)

Introduction

Norman England [New Neighbor (2013)] has delivered a book that every Japanese cinema fan should read. His book does not only offer an in-depth look on the set of GMK (2001), but also an exploration of certain peculiarities of Japanese culture. Yet, the major strength of this book does not lie in the intricate exploration of these sets, but that reading England’s personal diary puts you in his shoes – and the shoes of Godzilla at one point – and enhancing the viewing experience of Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera: Revenge of Iris (1999) and Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001). We duly recommend Behind the Kaiju Curtain (2021). But if you are not convinced yet, let Norman England, who gave us some of his time to answer our questions, persuade you.

Interview

Psycho-cinematography: Thanks for making time to talk to us about the release of your latest book, Behind the Kaiju Curtain. I must say, even though your book recounts your personal adventure on the sets of some of the best kaiju film ever made, your writing style really enables the reader to become a part of this thrilling and exciting journey.

Let me first start with a more personal question. In your introduction, you give us a short outline of the first phase of your love for monsters. Yet, could you explain in more detail what attracted you, as a child, in these giant Japanese monsters?

Norman England: First, thanks for reading my book and enjoying the approach I took with it. There are a lot of great books out there on Japanese cinema, but I felt none gave readers a sense of what being on a Japanese movie set was actually like. Although I’ve been involved with a wide range of productions in Japan, I choose to tell the story through the giant monster ones as they were my first sets and, you know, who doesn’t love Godzilla?

To answer your question, for me, it wasn’t only giant monsters; I’ve always been attracted to the unusual: aliens, monsters, superheroes, etc. I loved dinosaurs too and felt cheated as a boy because they seemed more interesting than the animals of our era. So, my attraction to Japanese giant monsters sprang from an overall desire to live in a world more fantastic than the one I was born into.

Behind the Kaiju Curtain (2021) by Norman England
Norman England with the one and only Godzilla.

P-C: In your first interview with Shusuke Kaneko, he talked about how the function of the director changed over the years. Did you notice any ‘cultural’ changes happening on Japanese sets in the years (1999-2004) you explored these sets? (If so, which aspects underwent a certain transformation, and which remained ceremoniously the same?)

N.E.: It’s easier by comparing 1999 to 2021. I feel the biggest change to the director’s role isn’t limited to Japan. The advent of cheap, digital photography has given us the iPhone director. So, whereas back then it was a struggle to climb the ladder to attain the title of director, today you get your friends together, pull out your phone, and suddenly you’re “director.” So, for better or worse, the market is flooded with would-be directors, which puts a lot of pressure on directors who established themselves through the studio system. What hasn’t changed in Japan – and what I wish would – are Japanese people putting too much emphasis on the position. Japanese people tend to over respect titles; thus, when hearing the word “kantoku” (director), they are in complete awe. It doesn’t matter if you’re a porn director, they fall over themselves at the sound of the word. The director should always be the person in charge, but the god-like reverence offered directors in Japan leads to inflated egos and the occasional abuse of power, which is not good for the mental health of a film set.

P-C: One very interesting interview in your book is with Shinji Higuchi, the special effects director responsible for the effects in the Heisei Gamera Trilogy. He tells you at one point: “It’s like having two monsters fight on a dusty field. Only the most hardcore fans can enjoy this. The illusion is created by the world around the monsters, not by the monsters themselves”. As a hardcore fan of Kaiju, what is your opinion on his statement?

N.E.: I absolutely agree. In 2008 I directed the documentary “Bringing Godzilla Down to Size,” which focused on the miniature work of Japanese special effect films. The research I did during post-production really opened my eyes to their importance in selling an effect. Of course well-made monster suits are a must, but it’s the world around them where the illusion exists. As far as art direction is concerned, Toho has always been the top. If you compare their effect films to the other studios the difference is striking. The only exception I feel is the ‘90s Gamera series from Daiei (now Kadokawa). Those effects, directed by Higuchi, rival anything Toho has done.

Behind the Kaiju Curtain (2021) by Norman England
Ryudo Uzaki, Chiharu Niiyama, Norman England, Shusuke Kaneko.

P-C: It is not only your love for kaiju that oozes from the book, but also your deep respect for the Japanese monster-phenomena. This respect urges me to ask the following: What do you think are the essential ingredients that any great Kaiju film should have?

N.E.: I think the best kaiju films start with a respect for the genre. However, though taking the kaiju subject matter seriously, it must be done playfully and the filmmakers should not be afraid to let their hair down. By this I mean, kaiju films are best when they offer surprises, which can’t be done unless a filmmaker is willing to take risks. As for a kaiju film’s SFX – as odd as it might sound – the aim should not be to mimic reality; it should be an artistic interpretation of reality. Finally, the integration between live-action and SFX is essential. The best directors in the genre strive to weave the human element organically around the monsters to make it all more than just a showcase wrestling match between giant creatures.

P-C: While reading the chapters on Godzilla 2000 (1999) and Godzilla VS. Megaguirus (2000) a strange idea about what these films aspire to be came to me. Reading the interview with Masaaki Tezuka, the director of the latter, only strengthened this idea. I felt like these films were meant as family films, in the sense that both children, kaiju-otaku, and adults can enjoy them. Do you think that this approach does right by Godzilla as pop-culture icon?

N.E.: The thing is, there isn’t just one kind of or one style of Godzilla. Godzilla films are sometimes serious (G54, GMK, Shin Godzilla), sometimes goofy (Godzilla’s Revenge), and even psychedelic (Godzilla vs. Hedorah). Since he was a child, Director Tezuka has been a big fan of Godzilla and made his entries enjoyable for small children and adults. I usually prefer the more serious, science-fictiony films, but Tezuka is wholly justified in the approach he took.

Behind the Kaiju Curtain (2021) by Norman England
Norman England posing with the lovely Mothra

P-C: Would you argue that the struggle of some of the Heisei Godzilla films is the continued attempt to appeal to kids? Or do you think other elements caused the inability of these films to truly please audiences, like the influence of the production committee or the ill-placed trust in the gullibility of the fanbase?

N.E.: I don’t think the ‘80s & ‘90s Heisei Godzilla films were aimed at kids, more like young adults and the otaku types who were kids during the Showa era of the ‘60s & ‘70s. I think the Heisei films aimed to catch box office runoff from the success of Hollywood sci-fi films of that time. Their only crime was not having the budget and production time to match their ambition. Personally speaking, I loved them when they came out but later grew to hate them. Today, I’m back enjoying them for what they are and how they are products of the age in which they were made. They aren’t examples of great filmmaking, but they are a hell of a lot of fun!

P-C: Isao, an SFX staffer worked on Kaneko’s Godzilla, makes an interesting comparison between Japanese and American effect films. In America, they offer a “large slab of steak with a mountain of mashed potatoes” while Japanese films offer a little bit of everything, like in kaiseki-ryori. Do you think this is true today as well? 

N.E.: Unfortunately, what Isao said is no longer true of Japanese special effects cinema. Today, Japanese cinema is more star-oriented than ever. I subtitle Japanese films for a living and am shocked by how visually uninteresting they have gotten. Many movies I work on seem to end with a couple of people in a room talking. The story ideas are solid, but it’s as if the studios are toeing the bottom financial line. Spectacle is no longer found in ambitious effects; instead, the lead actors are the spectacle that draws in the domestic audience. I subtitled Takashi Miike’s recent “The Great Yokai War: Guardians” film, which I really liked and which I thought was an exception to what I said above. However, it didn’t do good business. This hasn’t helped the cause of domestic SFX cinema, which is a shame.

People might disagree with me, but I think Japanese cinema has a real identity crisis going on and has had one since the J-Horror genre ran out of steam. The films keep getting smaller and smaller, with Netflix and Hulu stepping in wanting domestic programming that fits their non-domestic mold. On the Asian mainland, Korea and China are making productions that make Japanese films look like home movies. Even so, you still get Japanese who think Japan is the pinnacle of non-Hollywood filmmaking because Japan made “The Seven Samurai.” Well, the sad truth is that that was over 60 years ago. It’s great to have a history you can be proud of, but if that history doesn’t aid the present, then it’s just the writing on a tombstone of a past, better age.

Behind the Kaiju Curtain (2021) by Norman England
Watch out! King Ghidorah is here.

P-C: As you well know, many people enjoy the American Hollywood takes on Godzilla and other monsters. Do you think Hollywood succeeds in showing respect to the essence of the Kaiju?

N.E.: To be honest, I’m not a fan of Hollywood Godzilla films. It’s because I like the miniatures. They might not look completely real, but the miniature homes, buildings, bridges, landscapes, etc., were constructed in the real world – my world – and offer great aesthetic pleasure at their best. I find CG sterile and uninteresting, and, stylistically, it all looks the same no matter who makes it since their goal is absolute realism. I have this issue with almost all films that overly rely on CG, not just the Legendary giant monster films.

P-C: And what about Toho’s most recent Godzilla film, Shin-Godzilla. Some would argue that this film betrayed what Godzilla symbolized, while others surely would praise the combination of VFX and SFX. What is your opinion? What did it do wrong and what did it do right?

N.E.: Both directors Anno and Higuchi have been advocates of miniature effect work. Yet, they literally threw out most of what they shot at the 11th hour and replaced it with CG. Whether they realized it or not, they set precedence in Japan to go with CG over suits. Politically, I think the film is wrongheaded. It wallowed in popularism by bashing the so-called career politicians, which I’m okay with, but then it went on to usher in the new patriots, the ones who place country over self types. Is it any wonder the right-wingers in Japan were all over the film? This is at direct odds with the first Godzilla, which illustrated how war devastates the lives of regular people. “Shin Godzilla” turned into a rallying cry to dismantle Article 9, and, in fact, the military was at one point using the popular image of a claws-up Shin Godzilla to promote military recruitment.

Behind the Kaiju Curtain (2021) by Norman England
Norman England and Shusuke Kaneko.

P-C: What if you needed to recommend some Kaiju films to a non-kaiju fan. Which films would you recommend and why?

N.E.: “Gojira” (1954) is a must-see. Although dated in some ways, it’s stood the test of time. For “Showa era” films, “Mothra vs. Godzilla” (1964) and “Destroy All Monsters” (1968) are my favorites. A non-Godzilla kaiju film I love is 1966’s “War of the Gargantuas.” Dipping into the Heisei Era of the ‘80s and ‘90s, I’d recommend “Godzilla vs. Biollante” and director Kaneko’s “Gamera” 1 through 3. For 21st century films, I can really only recommend “GMK.” While Godzilla anime is sort of a different thing, the recent “Godzilla Singular Point” series on Netflix featured an intriguing story I quite enjoyed. I should point out that you can ask ten fans this question, and you’ll get ten different responses.

Behind the Kaiju Curtain (2021) by Norman England
Calling Godzilla angry is an understatement.

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