Nicholas Driscoll: First off, the usual: how did you get into Godzilla? First G-movie? Favorite G-movie? Favorite monster?
Steve Ryfle: I got into these films the way everybody did back then, by watching a lot of television as a child. I was a seventies kid. I loved KING KONG, the Universal horror movies, and anything with dinosaurs in it, such as One Million B.C., The Best from 20,000 Fathoms, Valley of Gwangi, King Dinosaur, all the usual suspects. I believe the first Godzilla movie I saw was Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) at about age four. In those days KTLA-TV (channel 5) in Los Angeles aired a lot of sci-fi and horror films, including many Toho titles. The station would play the same Million Dollar Movie in primetime five nights a week and again on Sunday afternoon, so it was possible to watch something like The War of the Gargantuas (1966) six times in one week. I hate to sound like an old man, but compared to the amount of content available today, we were living in the Dark Ages. This was well before the VCR, DVD, cable, Netflix streaming, or TIVO; you couldn’t watch whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted to, which in some respects was a good thing because when a film I was interested in played on television, I'd get very excited. This was not something taken for granted as it might be today. There were long stretches when none of these films was on television, but then suddenly I could watch Destroy All Monsters (1968) every night and by the end of the week my friends and I had memorized most of the dialogue, the monster battle choreography, and other details. All the other kids thought we were terribly weird.
It's difficult to pick a favorite, but of course Gojira/Godzilla (1954) is the genesis of it all, so that would be it. I have a fondness for Matango (1963), which used to air on TV quite often in my youth under the erstwhile title Attack of the Mushroom People; I remember my mother laughing hysterically at the mushroom men, but I was genuinely terrified. I don't really have a favorite monster, but I was always partial to Gaira, or the “Green Gargantua” as we called him. He appeared in a few early nightmares as well.
Driscoll: You are probably most famous for your excellent non-fiction book on Godzilla, Japan's Favorite Mon-Star. How did this book come about? Do you have any stories about its creation?
Ryfle: This is what it's like to be famous?
I decided to write the book in or around 1993 because I was rediscovering these films after several years away from them and wanted to learn more about them. At that time there was relatively little information available in English, other than fanzines like Japanese Fantasy Film Journal and Japanese Giants, which were excellent but rather difficult to find, and Markalite magazine, which unfortunately lasted just three issues. There was no Internet, no American fandom, no G-Fan, very little in terms of substantial background details. Again, the Dark Ages. I had read publications like Famous Monsters and The Monster Times while growing up, but those were never quite satisfying; they didn’t contain much in the way of serious information, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, what little they did contain was often inaccurate.
I had sought a decent book on the subject since my youth and I was frustrated that there was nothing, so I decided I would try to write one myself. The moment of inspiration occurred when I picked up a newspaper (I believe it was the Village Voice) at a newsstand, and the cover image was the famous shot of Godzilla with the train in his mouth, and it was used as a visual metaphor for government corruption or something like that. “The Monster that Devoured the City,” that kind of thing. It struck me that Godzilla was a universally recognized icon and yet nobody really knew anything about it. I didn’t know I’d be able to get it published, but I felt that writing a book would give me a reason or excuse to devote time and energy and money to the subject. I certainly didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and because I didn't speak or read Japanese I was at a tremendous disadvantage. I was also blissfully ignorant. Had I known from the start there were others like Guy Tucker and Stuart Galbraith and Ed Godziszewski, who were far more knowledgeable than myself, and who were already well on their way to writing their own books, I might not have even tried.
In the early going I met a number of people who helped and encouraged me and influenced my approach to the material. One of the first people I contacted was Forrest J. Ackerman to ask his advice. I didn’t know him personally but I had attended his open houses at the old Ackermansion in the Hollywood Hills, and I knew he would be helpful. He let me spend about a week in his house, going through file cabinets full of old trade newspapers. I found old reviews and clippings on a number of the Toho films, including Donald Richie's review of Gojira from a Japanese newspaper, and an old Hollywood Reporter interview with Paul Schreibman, an attorney who had brokered deals between Toho and U.S. distributors; he also was the producer of Gigantis the Fire Monster. Donovan Brandt of Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee (an eclectic video store in North Hollywood) loaned me his subtitled VHS tape of Gojira (this was around 1993, and it was very, very difficult to find this version of the film then). Seeing Gojira for the first time was a turning point; I was already aware how, quote-unquote, “serious” it was compared to the Raymond Burr version, which is a rather typical 1950s science-fiction film. But until I actually saw it, I didn’t fully realize how completely the film had been sabotaged—perhaps out of necessity, but nevertheless it had been sabotaged by its American distributor in 1956 and the repercussions of that sabotage were still playing out, as they are still playing out today. Slowly I was realizing that part of my responsibility was not just to write a fun, nostalgic book about the Godzilla series but to put that first Godzilla film into proper context, and try to debunk the popular myth that all Godzilla movies are garbage rather than propagate it.
Around this time I also made contact with David Milner, who was publishing a series of interviews with Toho personalities in Cult Movies magazine, and David introduced me to Stuart Galbraith, who, as luck would have it, lived in the same city that I did. Stuart’s book, Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films had just come out, and it was inspiring to read such an intelligent and reasoned critical analysis of virtually the entire genre. Meeting Stuart was another turning point; not only was he incredibly helpful but the seriousness with which he approached researching and writing about these films was a positive influence. Then in 1994, I met Ed Godziszewski, who was very supportive as well. It was nice to meet people who embraced the films on their own terms rather than mocking them, MST3K style, which was in vogue then. Both Stuart and Ed eventually helped proof the manuscript for my book, and both remain good friends of mine.
In or around 1994, Guy Tucker became Stuart's roommate for a while, and I got to know him a little bit. I’d read Guy’s work in Markalite and was aware that he’d met many luminaries from the genre and was at work on the book that would become Age of the Gods; I was a total newbie by comparison. I sheepishly told him that I was preparing to write a book, and he asked me, “What will you contribute? What can you say that hasn’t been said already?” I don’t know if he intended it this way, but I took this as a challenge. I thought about the differences between Gojira and Godzilla, King of the Monsters and why the Japanese version had affected me so much more deeply than the Raymond Burr film, which I loved, ever had. I decided to focus on how and why the first Godzilla film was remade for American distribution, as well as on the sequels that were significantly changed, such as Godzilla Raids Again (1955) and King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). A lot of my original research for the project concerned this process of “Americanization”—why it was done, how it was done, and what sort of damage was inflicted upon the content. I was fortunate to be able to track down a number of the original participants, who helped me reassemble some of their stories. Among those I interviewed were Paul Schreibman about GIGANTIS and other projects he was involved in; Edmund Goldman, who originally purchased the U.S. rights to Gojira and is largely responsible for getting the American version off the ground; Richard Kay, one of the producers of the American version; and the renowned editor Peter Zinner, who cut the U.S. version of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). Many of the people I interviewed are gone now. And I wish I could have spoken to Raymond Burr, Terry Morse, Riley Jackson, Hugo Grimaldi, and several others, but they passed away before I could reach them.
No one had previously written about the "Americanization" process in much detail at all, and that’s probably my most significant contribution to the history of this genre. I was also one of the first writers, perhaps the first, to document in any detail the process by which the films were dubbed into English.
Years later I thanked Guy Tucker for his words of inspiration, but he just sort of shrugged it off; I don't think he realized how important it was. By the time the book came out in 1999, I was living in New York, and Guy was back home in Brooklyn. On the day my first copies of the book arrived by mail, I was to meet David Milner and Guy in Manhattan to see a movie. It was raining cats and dogs, a major downpour, so I decided not to bring any books with me because I didn’t want to get them wet. When I got to the theater Guy was standing outside soaked. He said, “No books?” He’d come all the way from Brooklyn just to pick up his copy; he didn’t care about the movie, in fact he didn’t stay. I felt terrible. I sent him a copy the next day. Guy died far too young. I hope his book Age of the Gods can someday be republished professionally, so that it might reach a wider audience. It’s a significant and ambitious work that’s unfortunately fallen into obscurity.
I'm probably giving you a much longer answer here than you wanted, but researching the book took a couple of years and involved working with a translator to glean valuable information from Japanese-language books, interviewing as many people as I could in the U.S., and making two trips to Tokyo to conduct interviews there in 1994 and 1996 (though only the 1996 trip yielded much useful material). Some of the interviews were quite memorable. Henry G. Saperstein lit up a big, fat cigar—straight out of old Hollywood—and smoked it all through the interview. Peter Zinner thought I was crazy for wanting to ask him about King Kong vs. Godzilla (“a piece of crap,” he called it). Paul Schreibman would only allow me to call him at the Friar’s Club, and each time I called, he’d tell me, “I’m sitting here next to my good friend Milton Berle.” My first interview with Yoshio Tsuchiya lasted three hours, and we spent as much time talking about his UFO sightings as we did about film. Stuart Galbraith accompanied me to the late Akira Ifukube’s home for a lengthy interview, and I’ll always remember how welcome he made us feel and how generous he was with his time and hospitality. I couldn’t believe that he’d granted me an interview based solely on a letter I’d written to him—I had no introduction or recommendation, and certainly my credentials as a writer must not have been too impressive to him at that time. At the end of the interview, which lasted an entire afternoon, Ifukube brought out his actual handwritten score for the main title theme to Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), which he'd written just the year before, and played part of it on the piano in his music room. Unbelievable. Also, during my travels to Japan I was introduced to the writer Osamu Kishikawa, and he was very helpful. Among other things, he assisted me in acquiring a press credential to cover the making of Gamera 2: Advent of Legion (1996) for Cinefantastique magazine in 1996. I just found some of the photos from that trip the other day.
Driscoll: It has been about ten years since the release of your book, and six Godzilla films have been released since then. Have you considered updating Mon-Star, or publishing a supplement book? With another new American Godzilla movie in the works, the timing seems right…
Ryfle: I’d like to update the book. It would have to be considerably rewritten and revamped, rather than just expanded to include the newer films. I’d look at it as an opportunity to fix some things that were done incorrectly in the original edition. The book has been sold out for several years—the original print run was only 10,000 copies—but you can still get a new copy from the publisher’s print-on-demand service. It’s rather outdated, though, as you know.
Driscoll: I really hope your new book comes together! What are some improvements you would like to make if you get the chance? Other than the information about the newer movies, what sort of content updates would you consider?
Ryfle: I would correct factual errors (there are a couple that are even more embarrassing, in my opinion, than what you cited in your Toho Kingdom review) and add new interviews and other material. I’d delete content that is now outdated or unnecessary due to the proliferation of information available online. Also, I'd probably cut the chapter on the Tristar film in half and make room for other, more interesting material.
I’m not happy with the tone of the writing in some parts of the book; it’s rather immature and sophomoric in places. And of course the layout and graphic design is a joke, even by 1990s standards. So, my goal would be to rewrite, streamline, update, expand and expound. Who knows if it will ever happen, though.
Driscoll: I understand Toho tried to prevent the release of the original Mon-Star. What was their case against the book? Was there a lot of material that had to be changed because of their legal action?
Ryfle: Not really. Toho's three major conditions were that Godzilla's name and image not be included in the book’s title or on the cover, that no Toho movie stills be included, and that plot synopses be short. Toho also demanded that a disclaimer be included on the cover, which actually benefited me because otherwise the word “Godzilla” would not have appeared on the front of the book at all.
It's not correct to say that Toho tried to prevent the publication of the book, however their reputation for litigiousness had a chilling effect that almost prevented the book from coming out. It’s more accurate to say that during the 1990s, as the TriStar remake was approaching, Toho and its lawyers very aggressively protected the Godzilla trademark and all copyrighted works associated with it, and the actions they took made it very difficult for myself and other writers to publish anything about Godzilla in book form. I wasn’t singled out. There were a number of other people facing similar difficulties.
I originally sold the book to Bantam Doubleday Dell (now part of Random House) in 1994, when I was still writing it. Bantam’s plan was to put the book out at around the same time that TriStar's GODZILLA (1998) was released. The original title was Godzilla: The Unauthorized Biography, which was a bit snarky, I suppose. Bantam’s editors assured me their lawyers had vetted my project fully and they were confident the book could be published, including lots of movie stills, without legal issues. Then, in 1996 Toho sued author Robert Marrero for $50 million over his self-published book, Godzilla, King of the Movie Monsters. Apparently Marrero agreed to pull the book from circulation and the lawsuit was dropped, and this precedent scared Bantam's lawyers, who now did an about-face and concluded that there were legal concerns after all. And so, my contract was canceled. I then showed the manuscript to just about every publisher in North America, but by then Toho's protective legal actions had been in the news; nobody would touch a Godzilla-related book. Finally I found little ECW Press in Toronto and they fought hard to put the book out, patiently dealing with Toho’s lawyers. I can’t thank them enough for what they did.
Back in the 1990s there were a lot of unauthorized trade paperback books about Star Trek, X-Files and other properties. I think that's why I chose to pursue the project in the manner that I did. And to be honest I wouldn't have wanted to write an authorized book, one that Toho would have editorial control over. The Official Godzilla Compendium is fine for what it is, but I would never write a book like that. I can imagine how frustrated the authors must have been. In last decade or so, the “unauthorized guides” to TV and film franchises have become virtually extinct due to successful lawsuits filed by Fox and other studios. Those books really don't exist anymore, though they’ve been replaced by fan websites or Facebook pages and the like.
As for what was changed or deleted… I would have liked to include movie stills, but that was prohibited. Cutting down the plot synopses didn’t bother me because I usually don’t enjoy reading them anyway. Of all the things that were changed in order to obtain Toho's cooperation, the title was the biggest disappointment. It was impossible to create a satisfactory title without saying “Godzilla.” A few ideas were kicked around, and the publisher chose Japan’s Favorite Monster, which became Mon-star. It's a terrible title, but nobody came up with anything better.
Driscoll: Your relationship with Toho has improved considerably since then, though, right? You've been involved with several of the Classic Media DVD releases of Toho's films. How did you get involved with those projects?
Ryfle: It began with meeting Bruce Goldstein of Rialto Pictures, back when he was preparing the 50th anniversary theatrical release of Gojira in 2004. I believe I met Bruce through my friend Keith Aiken. Bruce asked Keith, Ed, and myself to help with that release in various ways, and later he recommended us to the British Film Institute when they were considering an audio commentary for their DVD of the same film. None of us had previously done a commentary, but based on Bruce’s recommendation they hired us. Later on, Classic Media hired us based our work for BFI.
Driscoll: Classic Media released Rodan and War of the Gargantuas on DVD on September 9th, 2008, and also included on that release is a certain documentary that you were involved in. That must have been exciting for you.
Ryfle: Making the documentary was an amazing experience and a privilege. My only regret is that it hasn’t been seen by more people. Many restrictions were placed upon its release. We would have liked to submit it to more film festivals, hold more theatrical screening events, and even show it on television. As it stands, it’s been shown at Fant-Asia and at the American Cinematheque, and a few other places, but it’s still a word-of-mouth effort. The DVD was released with virtually no publicity, and the documentary is practically buried on the disc.
Driscoll: How did Bringing Godzilla Down to Size come about? Was it your idea? Ed Godziszewski's?
Ryfle: We developed the idea together. We had talked hypothetically about doing some kind of documentary years before, but we got serious about it after Classic Media asked us to pitch ideas for extras to be included in their Godzilla DVD box. We were brainstorming, and I recall one conversation where we both essentially said, “Why don’t we make a documentary about Mr. Inoue?” Both of us were thinking the same thing. We had met Yasuyuki Inoue, who was Eiji Tsuburaya's SFX art director, when Inoue came to Los Angeles in 2004 as the American Cinematheque’s guest of honor. The documentary isn’t entirely about Inoue of course, but his arc provides a narrative spine around which we built the story of Toho’s special effects artists.
The documentary isn't so much about how they did this or that effect—although it does contain some of that information—as much as it is the story of the people who created those effects, from Eiji Tsuburaya to the present day. We tried to capture the passion and the dedication and nostalgia that these artists have for their craft, even in the face of changing technologies and popular tastes that threaten their livelihood. But to answer your question, it truly was a joint idea and it really did not change much from that initial stage to the finished film. The basic outline that we wrote and submitted to Classic Media for funding is very similar to the film, minus all the finer details, of course.
Driscoll: What was it like working with Mr. Godziszewski and director Norman England?
Ryfle: The three of us have been friends for a long time, so it’s a lot of fun. At the same time, all of us are very serious about a project like this. I don’t consider our film to be a “fan project” whatsoever. Norman is a professional independent filmmaker, and our entire crew was made up of professionals working in film and television. I don’t think Alex Cox would have come aboard as our narrator unless we’d demonstrated that we were making a serious project. Bruce Goldstein told me that the first time he saw Bringing Godzilla Down to Size, he thought it was an NHK production. That was a nice compliment.
Driscoll: I understand you traveled to Japan for the production of the documentary. I know you and Godziszewski wrote the documentary and produced the film. What did your job look like while you were over in Japan?
Ryfle: Our main purpose for being there was to work with our translator, Joko Mizukami (who was also the production manager), to prepare for the interviews. Because of the tight schedule and low budget, we were not able to conduct long-form interviews wherein the questions and answers are translated on the fly. Instead, we had to prepare all our questions in advance and have them translated into Japanese and written out so that the interviews could be conducted in an efficient manner. But a professional translator is not necessarily a fan of these films and likely doesn’t know the subject matter in depth, so there is some discussion and direction before the interview takes place in order to ensure we have a good chance of getting the answers and information we’re seeking. Having said all that, Joko is a professional documentary filmmaker in her own right, and she was an excellent interviewer.
Our other main job was making sure people got paid, and we also occasionally carried equipment or whatever was needed. We certainly weren't there to lord over the production—far from it. Norman and his director of photography, Hiroo Takaoka, had total creative control over the look and feel of the production and they did an amazing job.
Although Ed and I are credited as writers, the film sort of wrote itself. We did write the story outline, the interview questions, and the narration, but the story is told in the interviewees’ own words. After the interviews were filmed, they were translated into English and transcribed, and then it was our job to go through the transcripts and form the sound bites into a structure that helped tell the story we had outlined. It was difficult because there was so much great material and we had to omit a lot of things we’d have liked to keep. We really could have made two or three films with all the material we had.
I should mention that the shoot, which lasted about a week, was an amazing time and it went so smoothly because of all the preparation that Norman and Joko did in advance. There were no significant problems. At every location, we would arrive, the crew would set up the shot and go right to work. We’d shoot, do the next setup, then move on to the next location. Considering how small a budget we had, Norman and the crew got a hell of a lot of shooting done that week.
Driscoll: A real highlight of the documentary was special-effects guru Yasuyuki Inoue and the recreation of the volcanic eruption in his workshop. But I read that the recreation sequence wasn't originally planned for the film. What happened?
Ryfle: When we were making arrangements to interview Mr. Inoue, he and his colleagues proposed the demonstration scene, so we ended up shooting at his house for two days, instead of just one as we originally planned. One day for interviews, and one day for the demo.
A number of things in the film weren’t originally planned. As people learned about the project they offered to do this or that, or to participate in some way. Kow Otani, the composer, was so enthusiastic about the project that he wrote, performed, and recorded an entire original score for us. (By the way, the score is one of my favorite things about the film. Otani wrote it very much as an homage to the music of classic tokusatsu movies.) Shiro Sano, the actor, wasn’t originally on our list of interviewees but he really wanted to be in the film. Things like that happened.
Driscoll: I loved the sequence showing Godzilla suit actors Haruo Nakajima, Kenpachiro Satsuma, and Tsutomu Kitagawa hamming it up, marching together down the street, pretending to be Godzilla. They each have such distinct personalities. Whose idea was it to film them together like this?
Ryfle: Originally we weren't going to ask the three suit actors to demonstrate their Godzilla walk. The plan was simply to shoot them walking together, side-by-side; we called that our “Right Stuff” scene. Personally I was reluctant to ask them to do the Godzilla walk because every time I’d seen it in other documentaries, it was kind of embarrassing. For instance, Satsuma and Nakajima were interviewed for a documentary program on the Independent Film Channel several years ago, and the filmmakers had them stomping through toy buildings. It just plays into the old notion that these films are silly, and I didn’t want to do that. Norman gets all the credit for what happens in that part of the film. On the day of shooting he was making small talk with the three suit actors and he sort of subtly coaxed them into wanting to do their Godzilla walks. And they really got into it; every man not only did the walk but narrated it, described his own personal style of Godzilla movement. It was very exciting while it was being filmed, and I think it’s easily the most fun scene in the documentary.
Driscoll: Anything else you want to say about your experiences making that film? I have to say, you're the envy of many Godzilla fans, getting to meet all those visionaries!
Ryfle: If you haven't seen the film yet, please seek it out. I believe it can be downloaded for free from a number of torrent websites, which can be located via Google. Or you can buy the Rodan/War of the Gargantuas DVD on Amazon.com.
Driscoll: I understand you also did some work on the Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho in 2009 with Ed Godziszewski. I read the interview over on Scifi Japan. I usually don't think about it that way, but it sounds like putting together an audio commentary is a great deal of work! For you personally, what was most challenging about that process? What was most rewarding?
Ryfle: Yes, a good amount of work is involved, especially when you’re contractually bound to pre-script the entire 90-minute commentary track. I suppose the most challenging thing is to conduct your research, decide what you want to say about the movie, and then organize everything into a coherent dialogue that flows well, and then record and edit it--and then, finally, turn it all in on time. These projects, for whatever reason, seem to always have very short deadlines. What was most personally rewarding for me on Sony’s Toho Collection was that I was officially the producer of the two commentaries, and therefore I was able to supervise the entire process from start to finish, including the final mix. The budget for the Sony project, while still low, was a bit healthier than what I’ve worked with in the past. I was the (uncredited) producer of all the commentary tracks in the Classic Media Godzilla DVD line released in 2006-07, and that was interesting because the budget was quite small and we had to get creative in order to make it work. Classic Media’s original plan was to put audio commentaries only on Gojira and Godzilla, King of the Monsters. We took the budget for those two commentaries and stretched it to pay for eight commentaries, plus a lot of the production work on the featurettes. It was kind of like the miracle of the seven loaves and fishes. Some sacrifices had to be made.
Driscoll: When putting together a commentary, what is your main goal for the finished product? Do you think you usually meet that goal?
Ryfle: I think we’ve gotten better at it over time, but then again, out of all the commentaries we’ve done my favorite is probably the first one, the track that Ed, Keith Aiken, and I recorded for the British Film Institute's Gojira disc. Maybe it's because we had two days to record it, in a posh studio with comfy chairs. The Godzilla, King of the Monsters audio commentary was recorded in my bedroom!
As for what makes a good audio commentary, there's no rulebook or set of standards. Each one is different and the results depend upon the participants and their level of knowledge and enthusiasm. Cineaste magazine recently published a long article about what makes a good audio commentary, and the writer as not able to come up with a definition, only to cite examples of good ones and bad ones. As a viewer, I prefer commentaries by the filmmakers or other creative personnel, but even those can be problematic if the commentator has trouble remembering details or tends to go on long and uninteresting tangents. One example I often cite is the DVD commentary by Blake Edwards, one of my favorite directors, on Days of Wine and Roses. He hadn’t seen the film since it came out in 1962, and spends a lot of time saying things like, “I don’t remember this at all,” or worse yet, remaining silent for long passages. A moderator or interviewer can help by filling in the gaps or prompting the filmmaker with questions or stories. Then there are the "expert commentaries" by film historians and authors, which succeed or fail based on the commentators’ skill in synthesizing everything they know about a film into a flowing narrative. Some people are very, very good at this kind of thing. I’ve enjoyed Tom Weaver's commentaries a lot, as well as the team of James Ursini and Alain Silver, who’ve done a lot of noir films together. Glenn Erickson is very good, and there are many others.
When Ed and I record commentaries for the Toho films, our main goal is to tell “the story behind the film,” and that includes the background of the production, information about the filmmakers and cast, and behind-the-scenes details and stories. When it’s appropriate and required, we also critique various aspects of the production. And it’s important to us not to come across as condescending. We’re professionals, but after all these are science-fiction films that we’ve been enjoying since childhood, and we don’t want to lose that connection that sparked our enthusiasm in the first place.
It's a bit constraining to write everything out in advance and read the DVD commentary from a script, which is a requirement when working on a Toho film. We’re not great orators to begin with, and using a script probably makes us sound less natural than we normally would. Recently I recorded an audio commentary for an obscure film called Georgia, Georgia [from 1972] with the director, Stig Bjorkman, and actor Dirk Benedict. It was done totally off-the-cuff and it was rather liberating.
Driscoll: Do you have any new Toho-related DVD projects in the works?
Ryfle: Not at the moment, but now that Media Blasters has announced plans to release Destroy All Monsters (1968) and Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), Ed and I just submitted a business proposal to produce special features for those discs. If there's an opportunity to be involved, we would certainly like to explore it.
Driscoll: I know there have been some reports that you’re working on an Ishiro Honda biography with Ed Godziszewski as well. How is that coming together?
Ryfle: Very well, thanks. It happened rather by chance. In May 2007, while we were shooting Bringing Godzilla Down to Size in Japan, Ed and I met Ishiro Honda's son, Ryuji Honda. We hit it off with him and within a few months we decided to collaborate on an English-language biography of Honda, with Ed and I as the authors and Ryuji acting as an adviser and representative of the Honda family. Yuuko Honda, Ryuuji’s daughter and Ishiro Honda’s granddaughter, is also a key collaborator and has assisted with our research. It was quite organic in the way the project came together, and Ryuji said he preferred that his father’s biography be first written from an American perspective. In his opinion, and I hope I am paraphrasing this accurately, his father’s work is more highly regarded and respected in America than in Japan.
We signed a publishing contract with Wesleyan University Press a little over a year ago, which hopefully speaks to the quality of the project. (Wesleyan has published books by Jeanine Basinger, a prominent film historian, and other writers.) Since inking the publishing deal, Ed and I have been to Japan and conducted interviews and research. It’s coming together slowly, but surely. As far as the scope of the work, in addition to covering Honda’s science fiction films we plan to discuss his non-genre output in some detail. We are attempting to show that Honda was more than simply a successful director of science fiction films; he was also a very capable chronicler of the social changes affecting traditional Japanese society in the years after the Occupation. Most of Honda's films of the 1950s were mainstream contemporary dramas or dramedies, focusing on young people trying to make it in a fast-changing Japan. Even though he was a Meiji Era man, Honda had great empathy for the younger generation and their plight. Unfortunately very few of Honda's films from this time period are available on video in Japan but we've managed to get hold of most of them, and a significant portion of the book covers this aspect of his career, which has never been written about in much detail before, not even in Japan. And, if all goes according to plan, the book will have some wonderful photos, many of which haven’t been seen previously.
Driscoll: You’re also working on an English version of Ishiro Honda’s official website, correct? What does that process look like? It must be difficult with all the translation work.
Ryfle: Ed Godziszewski and Jeff Horne oversaw the launch of the English version of the site. Yuuko Honda is handling a lot of the translation work. The English version of the Honda website will continue to be updated with biographical and credits information, slowly but surely.
Driscoll: Do you have an approximate release date you can share for your Honda book?
Ryfle: The book is slated for publication in 2013. No precise date yet.
Driscoll: Peter H. Brothers recently released his own Honda biography in Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda. Have you read that book yet? Any thoughts on how your book will differentiate itself from Brothers’ work?
Ryfle: I haven’t seen it. It’s inevitable that there will be some overlap, just as there is overlap between almost any two books on the same subject. I can't make comparisons to other works, but I am confident our book will stand on its own merits.
Driscoll: As a writer for Toho Kingdom, I am always trying to promote lesser-known Japanese movies so that more people might watch them. Are there any non-kaiju Japanese films that you would recommend?
Ryfle: There are many great films I could name. If I may, allow me to plug two recent DVDs that I had the privilege of working on in a minor capacity, both of which are released in the U.S. by Animeigo. The Tora-San comedies are the longest-running series of movies in Japan (48), following the trials and tribulations of Tora (Kiyoshi Atsumi), an irascible street peddler. There’s really nothing quite like the Tora films; they're a bit on the sentimental side, and it’s easy to become attached to the characters as you watch them grow, and grow older, over the decades. I also recommend the recent DVD boxed set of Tomo Uchida’s Musashi Miyamoto films starring the great Kinnosuke Nakamura as Musashi. This is a different interpretation of the legend than Hiroshi Inagaki’s earlier films starring Toshiro Mifune, and I dare say that Uchida's version is superior in some ways.
There were innumerable great Japanese films made during the 1950s and 60s, as well as in decades before and after that period, and we’ve only seen the very tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s been released on home video in the U.S. to date. Even something as well known as Kinji Fukasaku’s amazing Black Lizard, one my favorite films, has yet to get a DVD or Blu-ray, though it was on VHS tape many years ago. But the situation is improving steadily. Netflix has a lot of classic and contemporary Japanese films in their catalog, including their streaming service.
Driscoll: Okay, last question. As an ardent Godzilla fan, what do you think of Gamera? Would the turtle ever have a chance against the Big G?
Ryfle: No way!
I have a great deal of admiration and respect for both the late Noriaki Yuasa, who directed most of the original Gamera films, and for Shusuke Kaneko, who made the 1990s Gamera trilogy. I’ve met and spent time with both filmmakers, and I love each man’s work, for completely different reasons. The original Gamera films connect with children in a way that Godzilla never has. My four-year-old son is a big fan; these films are completely successful on that level. But Godzilla, particularly the first film, brings a certain amount of gravitas that still resonates powerfully today, especially in light of recent events in Japan.
Driscoll: Anything else you want to add before I let you go?
Ryfle: Believe it or not, this is the first time I have ever been interviewed at length about the writing of my book. I have had numerous interviews about Godzilla in general, and about the DVD projects and documentary, but never specifically about Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star. And so, even though it’s been more than 10 years since the book was published, I would like to thank Addie Kohzu, my translator, for all of her help. I really could not have done it without her, and fortunately she has become a great friend. She also worked on Bringing Godzilla Down to Size. I want to thank Yukari Fujii, who translated books and interviews and was instrumental in arranging interviews, and Atsushi Sakahara, who translated my interview with Ifukube, as well as all the people who gave me photographs and other materials for use in the book. A project of that kind requires a lot of help.
Driscoll: Thank you so much for your interview!
Ryfle: Thank you, Nick. Also, I should apologize for taking so long to complete the interview. No one who reads this would know, but you sent me the first set of questions well over a year ago. Thanks for sticking with it.
Steve Ryfle is a prolific writer of film and has written for such notables as the Los Angeles Times, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Chicago Tribune, and Creative Screenwriting, among many others. Ryfle is the author ofJapan's Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of "the Big G" and has worked on commentaries for a number of DVD projects on titles as diverse as The Ultimate Samurai: Musashi Miyamoto to Georgia, Georgia. Of particular interest to Toho fans, Ryfle also did audio commentaries on several Toho fantasy films, including several releases of the original Godzilla, as well as Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection. He also co-wrote and co-produced the documentary Bringing Godzilla Down to Size: The Art of Japanese Special Effects, which was released as an extra on Classic Media's Rodan/War of the Gargantuas DVD set. Ryfle has his own website at www.steveryfle.com, and is a really nice fellow, as well as a pleasure to work with in putting together this interview.
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