Interview:
Brett Homenick

Patrick Galvan: For this Toho Kingdom interview, I am speaking with a gentleman who is not super well-known among tokusatsu enthusiasts but who has done a great deal to share information about this genre and the people who make it possible. Thank you, Mr. Homenick, for agreeing to do this interview.

Brett Homenick: Thank you very much for contacting me, Patrick.

Galvan: As usual with my interviews, I would like to begin with some general questions—the ones every fan gets asked at some point. Where did your fascination with Japanese science-fiction and fantasy begin? What was the first tokusatsu film—Godzilla or not—you saw? How old were you at the time? And did you see the film in a theater or on television?

Homenick: As I recall, my first exposure to Japanese science fiction was Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973). I saw a VHS copy of it for sale in a video store I was visiting with my mom and brother. I was about five or six years old at the time, and I'd somehow heard of Godzilla, but of course had never seen any of the movies. I thought it'd be interesting to see one. We bought it, took it home, watched it, and (to quote Ray Harryhausen), I haven't been the same since.

We saw King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) sometime thereafter. Beyond that, though, I'm fuzzy on the order in which we saw the Godzilla movies. I can remember watching pretty much all the Godzilla movies for the first time, but for the life of me I couldn't tell you if I saw Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) before Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975) or vice versa. I really wish I could recall those details.

Destroy All MonstersIn the early '90s, I had pretty much moved on from the genre. However, when I was 13, my brother found an ad in the magazine Filmfax for a mail-order company selling copies of Destroy All Monsters (1968) and all the recent Heisei films up to that time. For us, DAM was the holy grail – it was the one Godzilla movie we just never saw anywhere. That discovery rekindled my interest in Godzilla, which has more or less remained constant in all the years since then.

Galvan: You currently live in Japan, which has no doubt made it easier for you to meet people in the Japanese filmmaking industry and gather information. Did your fascination with Japanese cinema and your wish to interview the people behind it play a factor in your moving to Japan?

Homenick: It was pretty much the only factor in my decision. There was so much I wanted to do in Japan, and after all these years, there are still things I want to do! I just hope I can get around to doing them all.

I knew that I couldn't do all I wanted to do in Japan in a week-long trip, and I found life in the U.S. increasingly mundane, so I opted for a change. It was a big one, for sure, but the experiences I've had here have made it all worthwhile – and then some!

Galvan: For those who aren't familiar with your website, can you describe Vantage Point Interviews?

Homenick: Vantage Point Interviews is a website I launched in early 2015 after I decided it was best for me to showcase my own work. I had done many interviews in the fanzine world for about 10 years up to that point, but given the increasingly low circulation and influence those small 'zines had, I knew I needed a bigger platform. Besides, there's nothing quite as liberating as being your own boss!

The name of my site, of course, has nothing to do with Japan or science fiction. That was by design. If I ever decide to interview anyone not associated with Japanese movies and/or sci-fi, I could still use my site as the platform for those interviews, which is the kind of flexibility I could never get with a genre fanzine.

Galvan: What is your process for conducting an interview? What preparations do you take? Do you rigorously plan out questions and topics, or do you prefer to wing it? Has your process changed at all over the years?

Homenick: It's different for each interview subject, but generally speaking, it's easier to come up with interesting questions for directors and screenwriters than for actors because the former are likely to have better memories of the production and were involved in the creative process. It's not all that uncommon for actors to have very few things to say about specific credits in their resumes, I'm afraid. That said, there are actors who have incredibly detailed memories of their roles and are full of great stories.

Anyway, as you might expect, I approach actors differently from the crew. Most times, you can never be sure how much an actor might remember before the interview starts, so in situations like that, it's best to be "over-prepared" and have more questions ready than you'd have time to ask under normal circumstances.

Generally speaking, it's pretty easy to write questions for directors and screenwriters because you can ask them about their creative decisions, and usually they enjoy describing them. That can be true of actors, too, but it's a lot less common. Sometimes there will be an interesting backstory behind an actor's decision to wear a certain costume or use a specific accent, but it's definitely the exception. So you have to come up with questions the actor can reasonably be expected to answer in some detail.

On the other hand, don't be afraid to ask certain questions; you might get a surprising answer. I'll never forget sitting next to an "expert" Godzilla fan many years ago at an event, as we prepped the special guest from Japan for his interview. I threw out a question to the guest, and said "expert" openly scoffed at my question, stunned that I'd waste everyone's time by asking it. Much to his surprise, however, our guest from Japan immediately gave a detailed and informative answer to my question. I guess the individual seated next to me underestimated our interviewee's level of experience and recall. I sure hope he learned a thing or two from the experience!

Galvan: Of the many interviews you've done, which ones stick out as your favorites?

Homenick: I had a great interview with Yosuke Natsuki in his office. He had worked with so many people and was such an entertaining storyteller that I knew right away I had something special.

Linda MillerInterviewing Linda Miller was another highlight. I can vividly remember the feeling I had as she answered my questions over the phone. It was quite something to realize that I was the first genre fan anywhere in the world to hear her stories.

While not an interview per se, when I was able to arrange Rhodes Reason as the guest of honor at a convention, and he agreed to be interviewed onstage and have his answers published on the record, that was my biggest encouragement early on to keep going. I'll always be grateful to Rhodes for his kindness.

Galvan: Is there someone you haven't interviewed yet but would love to?

Homenick: I'd still love to interview anyone and everyone from Toho's Showa era. (That also goes for many of the actors from the other studios of that era, too.) Of course, as time goes by, it only gets more and more difficult to do. Beyond the Showa era, it's more of a case-by-case basis.

Galvan: Has there ever been an instance where you were speaking with an actor, director, writer, etc. on a friendly, informal level—just talking casually with no intent of transcribing the conversation—and found the exchange so interesting and insightful that you wish you had a recording/transcription to share? I ask because I've read some posts on your blog to the like of: "I had dinner with X, and we talked about Y and Z" and the fan in me cannot help but wonder what stories the guest had to share.

Homenick: In those situations, I always look on the bright side: At least I don't have to transcribe an interview!

Seriously, transcribing interviews is something I've never enjoyed. In the situation you describe, I usually take notes – sometimes in real time, but if that's not possible, then as quickly as I can after the fact. That doesn't mean I'm going to run to my blog and post everything there, but I do think these stories should be preserved in some form in case a formal interview never happens.

Galvan: I would like to preface this question by giving credit where credit is due. Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994) director Kensho Yamashita passed away in August last year, but word of his death didn't start spreading in the English-speaking fandom until you shared this very sad news on your blog. You met Mr. Yamashita a couple times prior to his passing. So little has been written about this man (in English, at least) so I was wondering if you could say a few words about him.

Homenick: He was an incredibly nice gentleman. He was a bit of a character, too, but in a good way. He sometimes wouldn't stand still for photos, as he'd start talking or would suddenly move his arms, which of course would result in a blurry picture. The first time I got to know him was at a special dinner event in 2015. A fan gave him a Godzilla book, and he asked everyone at the table to sign the book for him. I was one of them. It's a pretty rare experience for a Godzilla director to ask for your autograph!

Kensho Yamashita
image (c) Brett Homenick

In 2016, he attended a birthday dinner that was held for me. He was surprised to know how much I knew about his assistant-director career at Toho. After the dinner, we rode the train together part of the way back until I had to transfer. He was very much a regular guy, and he couldn't have been any friendlier to me.

Galvan: Could you say a few words about Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) director Yoshimitsu Banno, who passed away earlier this year?

Homenick: I don't think most fans realize just how much information he had about Toho and its history. I always enjoyed listening to his stories about his assistant-director days at Toho.

We often met at a café near his home, and sometimes we'd move on to dinner at a nearby Japanese restaurant. One evening, he asked me to share a bit of sake with him, and out of respect for him, I actually did! (I'm a committed teetotaler.)

I remember he told me he had seen the Francois Truffaut version of Fahrenheit 451 and didn't like it (which is an opinion I share), and just for fun he started writing his own adaptation. (No, this was never going to be made; it was not a movie for which he was seeking investors. It was just for fun!) As I recall, his script opened with a scene in which two firemen see a rabbit (or some other small creature) and make a bet about which mechanical hound would catch it and kill it first. I thought it was a pretty interesting idea.

I also remember an evening where he asked me the meaning of the title A Clockwork Orange, and the more I tried to explain it from memory, the more ridiculous I realized it all sounded.

We exchanged phone messages just days before he passed away. I really regret that I wasn't available to take those phone calls. I'll certainly miss those conversations about Toho's golden age. Most of all, I'll miss him.

Yoshimitsu Banno and Riichiro Manabe
image (c) Brett Homenick

Galvan: Some more fan questions. What is your favorite Godzilla movie from the Showa, Heisei, and Millennium eras?

Homenick: Picking a favorite from the Showa era is a big challenge for me, as there are films I like equally for different reasons. Megalon will always be a favorite, as will the two Mechagodzilla films, Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), and King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). But I think Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) might be the best representation of the series in terms of overall quality.

The Heisei series has a much more obvious choice for me: The Return of Godzilla (1984). I love just about everything about it, and nothing else in that particular series comes close.

As for the Millennium series, well, there's really only one film I like very much at all, and that's Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).

Galvan: Favorite Godzilla suit?

Homenick: To be honest, I can't say I have a favorite suit these days. I just don't think about it in that way. But I'd probably say the '68 suit best represents Godzilla for me.

Galvan: Favorite Godzilla composer? If Akira Ifukube, who comes in second?

Homenick: Masaru Sato is my favorite Godzilla composer; Ifukube comes in at second. Sato didn't become my favorite composer until I started exploring the two maestros' respective non-kaiju music. I found Sato's music to be more versatile and lively. While I still love Ifukube, I'm amazed that The Blue Stigma (1978) and, say, Yojimbo (1961) used the same composer. The two scores are both great in their own way, but they are about as different as music can get. I'm not sure Ifukube could have achieved that.

Galvan: Thoughts on the two Hollywood Godzilla movies and Kong: Skull Island (2017)?

Homenick: I think it's time to move on from the GODZILLA (1998) hatred. It's not a very good movie, but if that's your go-to example of the worst Hollywood has to offer, well, it's safe to say you probably haven't seen all that many movies. I thought the 2014 reboot was bland and uninteresting – less a director's vision and more like what you'd get if a studio could make a movie in a petri dish. Kong: Skull Island (2017) fixes some of the problems of the Legendary Godzilla, but it ultimately felt more like an amusement park ride at Universal Studios than an actual movie.

Galvan: What did you think of Godzilla Resurgence (2016)?

Homenick: Does anyone still call Final Wars "self-indulgent"?

I think the movie is a mess. It's such a strange juxtaposition to have scenes of deadly serious, straight-faced drama inserted in between shots of something that looks like it could be David Lynch's favorite Sesame Street character scampering through the city. I found that in particular jarring and incongruous. In An American Werewolf in London, writer-director John Landis placed his characters in situations that the characters themselves knew were not just impossible but ridiculous, and a lot of the film's humor flows from that setup. It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me to put something as silly as Kamata-kun in your serious monster drama if the characters aren't even going to comment on how utterly laughable it is.

Godzilla Resurgence

I'll say this, though. It seems that most criticisms I've read have focused on the film "nationalist" message. I guess I subscribe to Roger Ebert's idea that it's not what a movie is about but how it's about it. I don't have to agree with a movie's message in order to appreciate it. I just found very little to appreciate there.

By the way, I do think it's amusing that some critics who disliked Shin Godzilla for abandoning "Honda's vision" were quick to fall over themselves with praise for Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001), which is almost as revisionist as Shin.

Galvan: Any expectations for Godzilla: Monster Planet?

Homenick: I keep forgetting it's coming out, so that ought to tell you something. Seriously, though, anime is not my bag, so I have to admit that my expectations are not terribly high. It sure would be nice to enjoy the film, and I hope I do, but I don't think there's a very good chance of that, I'm afraid.

Galvan: One of my goals since joining Toho Kingdom has been to expand, even if by a little bit, the readership's interest in Toho cinema outside of tokusatsu. So I would like to move away from Godzilla for now. What are your thoughts on Akira Kurosawa and what is your favorite film by him?

Homenick: Kurosawa was a great filmmaker, but I think the concept of "Japanese cinema" beyond the monster movies begins and ends with Kurosawa for most fans. As a matter of fact, I used to define a message-board Japanese "film scholar" as one who'd seen about three Kurosawa films and had heard of Ozu. Using a picture of Takashi Shimura as your avatar would be the ultimate cherry on top.

High and LowAs great and revolutionary as Kurosawa was, I do think he's given too much attention at the expense of other Japanese filmmakers, and I don't think his movies were quite as good as many other film aficionados do. For a while, my favorite Kurosawa was Dodes'kaden (1970), but I'm not sure I'd stick with that today. Truthfully, it's been a long time since I've seen most Kurosawa movies. But Dodes'kaden, along with High and Low (1963) and Kagemusha (1980), were the ones that impressed me most upon first viewing.

Galvan: Reading your blog, I've also gathered you are an admirer of the director Kihachi Okamoto. For instance, I've seen the title The Blue Stigma (1978), aka Blue Christmas, pop up a few times on your blog. What do you like about Okamoto, what are some of your favorite films of his, and since you have a particular fondness for it, could you describe The Blue Stigma for the readers?

Homenick: Kihachi Okamoto's movies are visually appealing, exciting, rebellious, and a lot of fun. One actor who often worked with Okamoto likened him to Quentin Tarantino, and while that's an overused (and often empty) comparison these days, I guess you could say that Okamoto was Tarantino before Tarantino was. Okamoto is known for his quick cuts, which his actors didn't always appreciate. (After all, it's hard to focus on acting when the scene is always cutting.) But his films are visually rich, even more so than Kurosawa's (in this writer's opinion).

Desperado Outpost (1959) and The Big Boss (1959) are good places to start for folks who've never seen an Okamoto film before. The former is a war film, and the latter is a yakuza picture. Desperado Outpost is not your typical war film, and it's quite subversive (especially for its time). The Big Boss is an example of how good a genre picture with a standard yakuza premise can get and features a familiar cast to most Toho monster movie fans. Both are highly recommended.

The Blue StigmaThe Blue Stigma might very well be the best Japanese science fiction film ever made. But because there are no special effects shots, and because its minor sci-fi elements aren't the point of the story, you never hear anyone talk about it.

It's more about a government conspiracy that results from UFO sightings, and it's completely unlike most people's idea of Toho "tokusatsu," but if you can get past that, you're in for a great film.

Galvan: Besides tokusatsu, are there any genres of Japanese cinema you are fond of?

Homenick: I can get involved in just about any genre, and I've at least sampled a bit of everything. My preferences are for the Showa era, as that was the golden age of Japanese film. The major Japanese studios were versatile back then, and they were run like the old Hollywood studios of the 1930s and '40s. They made musicals, comedies, war films, family dramas, romantic fare – you name it, they made it. Some genres I enjoy more than others, and some films hold my attention better than others. I do have to admit that my interest in Japanese movies starts to dwindle if it was made before the early 1950s or after the 1970s.

Galvan: Since you live in Japan, you no doubt have access to a great many Japanese movies which haven't been released in the United States. Having said that, are there any—old or new—you really wish could reach a wider audience? (This question is not limited to Toho cinema, either.)

StationHomenick: I think the movie Station (1981) is a genuinely great film. It's a fairly quiet, slow-moving drama, but it's absolutely gorgeous (looks like it was filmed yesterday), and it's very emotional. Ken Takakura movies tend to be ignored in the U.S., despite his enduring popularity in Japan. I'd say that this is the biggest example of a great Japanese movie that most Westerners have never heard of. I hope Criterion releases it someday.

I recently saw a movie called Elephant (1957), directed by the old master Kajiro Yamamoto. It's an anti-war story about how the zookeepers at a Tokyo zoo had to poison and kill their most dangerous animals (lions, tigers, elephants, etc.) during wartime so that these large creatures wouldn't escape and harm human beings if their enclosures were destroyed in the bombings. It's certainly not a visually exciting film, so self-styled auteur theorists would likely get bored. But I thought it was moving, and it's a movie both children and adults could enjoy.

Galvan: Briefly turning back to Godzilla, are there any modern Japanese directors who you think would be an ideal candidate for making a new Godzilla movie?

Homenick: Not at all. I realized a long time ago that the reason I liked the Godzilla movies that I do is because of the people who made them and the context in which they were made, not because the name Godzilla was slapped on the product. Anything made today would be so different from those original interpretations that it might as well not even belong to the same series. It's sort of like expecting a fan of The Mummy with Boris Karloff to get the same charge out of seeing the recent Tom Cruise reboot just because some studio exec decided to grab even more cash with Universal's bankable properties.

Galvan: Any future projects—Godzilla or not—from you we can expect?

Homenick: One or two new interviews are in the works as of this writing, but things are never set in stone, so we'll see what happens. In any case, I'll continuously update my blog with the latest happenings in Japan as well as Vantage Point Interviews with more Q&As from the vault.

Galvan: Thank you so much, Mr. Homenick, for taking the time to do this interview.

Homenick: Thank you for giving me this opportunity, Patrick.

Images of Kensho Yamashita, Yoshimitsu Banno, and Riichiro Manabe (c) Brett Homenick

PERSON DETAILS

Interview: Brett Homenick (2017)

BRETT HOMENICK

Brett Homenick has conducted numerous interviews with people in the Japanese filmmaking industry, several of which you can read on his website, Vantage Point Interviews. He also has a blog, Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker, where he chronicles his experiences at tokusatsu-related events and the like

Date: 08/03/2017
Interviewer: Patrick Galvan

 

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