In today’s interview, we are going to have a sit-down with Boston-based filmmaker J. L. Carrozza. Carrozza, who actually wrote for Toho Kingdom briefly, has directed a number of his own films, including the short “Little Red Riding Hood,” the documentary “Black Sunshine: Conversations with T. F. Mou,” the TV series Micro-Shocks, and the Matango-influenced “Fungus.” A long time fan of Japanese cinema with a unique perspective, we will be discussing his recently released book, SF: The Japanese Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia, among other projects.
Nicholas Driscoll: I like to start with just some lighthearted questions if that’s ok! How did you get into Japanese cinema and science-fiction specifically? What’s your favorite kaiju? What’s your favorite Godzilla suit design? If Minilla got in a fight with Godzooky, would anyone care who won?
J. L. Carrozza: The first Japanese film I saw was The Adventures of Chatran (1986), or Adventures of Milo and Otis. Of course, I was three and had no idea the movie was Japanese. When I was around five, my stepfather brought home a rented VHS copy of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! because I was into dinosaurs. I was utterly hooked. Honda and Tsuburaya’s black and white images really burned their way into my brain and never left. I was floored by the effects scenes and pretty unsettled by the scenes in the hospital of Godzilla’s victims dying. It was my first keen understanding that the world was kind of a messed-up place. Of course, I then watched every single Godzilla movie that the local Blockbuster had. Destroy All Monsters (1968) was a particular holy grail that I didn’t get to see until it aired on the Sci-Fi Channel. As I got older, Godzilla led to other tokusatsu franchises like Gamera and eventually I began to watch other types of Japanese films, especially cult movies. When I was a teenager I got big into anime and Neon Genesis Evangelion. A fun thing about the ’90s and early 2000s is that you had to order bootlegs online to see many films. I would order tapes and later DVDs almost weekly. There was a real novelty to getting a tape or disc each week and not really knowing what the hell was on it. At the risk of sounding old, kids nowadays don’t know that feeling.
I got into other science fiction films as a kid too, thanks to Godzilla. I saw Alien and Blade Runner when I was a little too young and they also burned their images into my impressionable brain.
I don’t really have a favorite kaiju, but I’ve always felt Titanosaurus was very underrated, like Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975) is, period. He’s beautifully designed by Akihiko Iguchi and that suit really shows Keizo Murase’s genius as a builder. My favorite Godzilla suit is the one from Mothra vs. Godzilla (MosuGoji). It’s pretty much peak Showa Godzilla from the classic Tsuburaya design and modeling team headed by Akira Watanabe and Teizo Toshimitsu. And to answer that last question, *I* certainly wouldn’t.
Driscoll: How did you first start writing for Toho Kingdom back in the day, and what was that experience like? Any fun memories from that time?
Carrozza: It was a lot of fun, Anthony is super easy going. I believe he kinda picked me because I’m pretty knowledgeable about weirder Japanese films, not just the classic kaiju stuff. I got some good feedback for my early Toho Kingdom reviews. My netiquette wasn’t great back then, though.
Driscoll: Tell us about your experience making films. Which films are you most proud of, and how have Japanese tokusatsu films influenced your own work?
Carrozza: I have fond memories of making Little Red Riding Hood back in 2006, though most of the people I made that movie with were quite insane. I was friends with Neil Cicierega (Animutations, Potter Puppet Pals) back then and he assisted me with most of it. His contributions elevated things. My feature film Alison was a creative disaster, though. It took me five years to make, was mainly ridiculed and caused bad burn out. I also worked on a documentary about a Chinese propaganda director named T.F. Mou.
My film Eater I’m more proud of, though I feel a little guilty about how deranged it is. A bunch of things influenced it including “feeder subculture” and a friend of mine who is obsessed with drawing fat anime girls. I just really wanted to make a darkly transgressive movie about both American excess and what I was going through at the time. What’s hilarious is that feeder and weight gain fetishists, the very people I was mocking, discovered the movie and loved it. They posted it on a big community and it started getting a lot more views.
My favorite movie I’ve made is Fungus. Fungus is an apocalyptic horror film about a prehistoric pathogen that is released into the atmosphere and kills humanity in a day, all from the perspective of a depressed Millennial everywoman. There were a bunch of ideas that spawned it including John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, Honda’s Matango (1963), George Romero’s films and a scientific study about how climate change may release viruses into the air. Also the idea of someone just having a normal day and then bam, the world ends.
At one point, we actually did use a technique kind of borrowed from Eiji Tsuburaya. For the shots of the fungus growing, we buried balloons in the soil, inflated them and my DP Adrian shot them at 120 frames per second. Tsuburaya shot the Matango sprouting in a similar fashion. There are also subtle Gainax-style onscreen nods to Toho films throughout. On the news ticker, you see the fungus was first spread by a Japanese fishing boat called the “Yahata Maru”. Two Japanese guys named “Takeshi Kimura” and “Shinji Higuchi” are also having a depressing Facebook conversation about dying as Amy doomscrolls her phone.
Fungus looked like it was on track for a good festival run in the horror circuit. Then, in February and March 2020, a pathogen broke out and started killing people. Unfortunately that’s right when most festivals make their big decisions and every single one from there got spooked and cut the movie. What’s most darkly funny is that Fungus was intended as a film about where Donald Trump’s politics were taking us.
Driscoll: Let’s move on to your book! What made you decide to write SF: The Japanese Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia?
Carrozza: So the honest to goodness truth is that I was in a very transitionary period of my life when the pandemic hit. I don’t have any roommates and was between relationships. So the lockdown hit me hard and I was forced into a near-complete solitude where I could only see a handful of my friends on rare occasion. Also my short film Unsaved, set to start shooting in spring 2020, got canned and most of my work dried up for a few months.
So I figured, either I could go crazy and drink boxed wine every night or come up with a fun project to occupy my time and keep myself going. Of course, this book is that. Plus I always wanted to write a book about specifically Japanese science fiction. I’ve done writing for Anthony, for Patrick Macias and others so I figured I could write a book that was at-least competent. I also was keen to write in depth about filmmaking as I couldn’t really make films for a while.
Also, COVID ravaging Italy before the U.S. made me think very strongly of Kinji Fukasaku’s Virus (1980) so Japanese sci-fi was on my mind anyway.
Driscoll: What are some of the things you found more surprising in the process of putting together your book?
Carrozza: I used a mix of both Japanese and English sources, often cross referencing them to get a clear picture. I can read some kanji and understand some Japanese so I combined machine translations with my own knowledge of the language to get the gist of what was being said.
Finding out that Akira Takarada has a pretty tragic past, growing up Harbin, China where the Japanese Imperial Army did medical experimentation and getting shot by an invading Russian soldier as a teenager was quite something. Another interesting thing I learned from Japanese sources is the whole Yoshimitsu Banno-Tomoyuki Tanaka feud narrative is somewhat misunderstood by Westerners. From Japanese sources, it’s apparent Tanaka felt Banno was not managing the shoot’s budget well and it was not that he didn’t like the flying scene. He was angry at Banno for going around him to get approval to shoot it while he was in the hospital.
The other aspect I did a lot of research into was tokusatsu technique and production; as a filmmaker, that stuff interests me ridiculously. From watching behind the scenes footage and going down Japanese Wikipedia rabbit holes, I found out about a lot of tokusatsu personnel who haven’t been written about in English much or at all. Guys like Toshio Miike, Michio Mikami, Toru Suzuki and Izumi Negishi. This research really made me see how tokusatsu is an artisanal art form passed down from one generation to the next. It spawned my second book: Japanese Special Effects Cinema: Godfathers of Tokusatsu. Thankfully most of my research for SF has come in handy for it.
Driscoll: Why did you decide on science fiction specifically, but not horror or fantasy?
Carrozza: Despite the fact that I kind of specialize in making horror, science fiction is my favorite genre. My five favorite movies are pretty set-in stone and are Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner, the first Star Wars (I consider it a fantasy film really, but still) and the 1954 Godzilla. I felt like a book focusing entirely on Japanese science fiction films and how it very much reflects Japan’s disaster trauma needed to be done. I didn’t want to just write another Godzilla book and all. Also in Japan, where “SF” is a major buzzword in advertising, sci-fi culture is seen as more separate from horror and fantasy.
Also, science was on my mind in 2020 given COVID-19 and the development of the vaccines and all that. The poor handling of the disaster coupled with science kind of racing to save the day really made Shin Godzilla (2016) resonate for me.
I am contemplating writing a similar Japanese horror encyclopedia, but some stuff like the Guinea Pig movies I’m not keen on subjecting myself to even for research.
Driscoll: What do you think makes your book especially stick out from the competition?
Carrozza: As I said, I didn’t just want to write another Godzilla book. I wanted to approach Japanese sci-fi from some fresh angles, discussing distinctively Japanese aspects uncommonly talked about by film scholars and also analyzing the cinematic technique from a filmmaker’s point of view. I tried to get inside the directors’ heads, especially favorite figures of mine like Tsuburaya, Fukasaku and Anno. You’re not going to find that in most other books. My next book Godfathers of Tokusatsu will be an even deeper study of the filmmaking. I’m including a glossary of film industry in the back this time, at least. As said, there’s also some novel Japanese info taken from places like commentary tracks I did rough translations of. I think the book will broaden anyone’s understanding of Japanese science fiction history and its tropes.
A common criticism is that the book only covers some films in depth and not others. I’d like to address that. If I were to write a book giving every Japanese sci-fi film a 10-page entry, it would be well over a thousand pages. That does sound kind of amazing, but it would take me years to write. A selective approach had to be taken if this book was ever going to be finished. The book was originally going to be called SF: 25 Essential Japanese Science Fiction Films, but I thought Encyclopedia sounded better.
Driscoll: What was it like working with Patrick Galvan, John LeMay, and Kevin Derendorf?
Carrozza: All were joys to work with. I’ve met Patrick and Kevin at G-FEST where we had long conversations. Patrick is a real hardcore film scholar and John is super laid back and was very supportive of this project. Kevin has an amazing knowledge of the deep cuts of anime and tokusatsu and like me, he enjoys doing research into how the various industries are operated and intersect.
Driscoll: One of my favorite features in your book was all the information about the dubbing artists. How did you go about researching them? Would you consider taking a look at the subtitle translators as well in a future edition?
Carrozza: I’ve been part of a private group for years on Facebook dedicated to Japanese monster and cult film ephemera. While not everyone is on good terms with each other anymore due to inter-group drama, we’ve done a ridiculous amount of investigative reporting into the distribution and dubbing of these films. Cody Himes and Camilo Garcia are a good friends who are part of that and our group helped get a 35mm print of Godzilla 1985 scanned in 4K.
Mainly, we just found some of the dubbing people on Facebook and talked to them. Of course, they’re pretty normal people just living quiet ex-pat lives abroad and they definitely thought it was a little weird to be contacted by weebs asking them about dubbing work they did 40 years ago. A few though, like Simon Broad and Warwick Evans, were quite generous with their knowledge. We’d send them video and audio clips and be like “Who was that?”.
Another friend, Michael Calliari, has a New York Public Library card and did a scour through of the South China Morning Post’s archives which was very illuminating about the Hong Kong dubbing scene. I’m going to scour some English language Japanese newspapers for my next book.
I might be interested in including a little more info about subtitle translators in a future pressing. That’s something I don’t know much about, I confess.
Driscoll: Were there any features you really wanted to include in the book but weren’t able to?
Carrozza: I would have loved to have included anime and done a book that was about half anime, half tokusatsu films. Akira (1988), The Angel’s Egg and End of Evangelion are three more favorite films of mine. Few books have combined them and sci-fi anime is just as big, if not bigger, a part of SF culture in Japan. Again though, including anime films would have led to the book becoming too ambitious to complete.
Of course, that’s why I’m writing a second volume focusing entirely on animated Japanese science fiction films. The Akira chapter is already done, but it’s gone a little on the backburner because I’m working on getting Godfathers of Tokusatsu out first.
Driscoll: What are some of your future projects—books, movies, and otherwise?
Carrozza: First up is a new pressing of SF, coming in the next month. The book’s far from perfect in its current state and could have used a few more months in editing. My pal Tyler Martin helped me do some editing to it and it’s getting cleaned up prose, reorganization and some movies and people added. Tyler is doing a new Ifukube bio. I’ll probably do an updated pressing each year or two. Also there have been some new graphic design flourishes added to make it more fun to read, especially to the print version.
After that, I’m focusing my efforts on a second book I’m already well into writing called Japanese Special Effects Cinema: Godfathers of Tokusatsu. It will not be a collection of reviews, but a straight-up history book, though my thoughts on each movie will creep in a little. It’s going to document the tokusatsu industry from the foundation of cinema to today’s digital age. One lens the Japanese film industry is seldom seen in by Americans is the kohai-senpai mentorship that these guys gave each other. Eiji Tsuburaya mentored Sadamasa Arikawa and Teruyoshi Nakano, both of whom mentored Koichi Kawakita. Nakano and Kawakita went on to mentor Shinji Higuchi who is now mentoring a whole new generation. There’s also a lot of obscure figures like Toru Matoba, Yoshiyuki Kuroda, Keiji Kawakami and Nobuo Yajima who were surprisingly influential. Godfathers of Tokusatsu will also analyze the filmmaking technique and include all the information I can find on how they did things. Those guys sure liked their piano wire and gunpowder. I’m doing an Indiegogo campaign when the first draft is written to polish it up for publication, probably this fall. The money will mainly be spent on getting about ten Toho audio commentaries translated for more novel info, along with some nice cover art and a professional editor so the book is as good as it can be.
Unsaved is still happening, too. I’ve got two really good actors cast in the main roles: Pat O’Hara and Adam LaFramboise who is playing Lucifer. It’s about an older woman being haunted by the devil himself who has come to take her to hell. I’m excited to see where Adam will take his performance and have always wanted to make a good devil movie. I have a few other ideas in the pipeline too, like a film about the last night of a trio of Imperial Japanese pilots who are being sent on a suicide mission the next day. Also I want to make an adaptation of Yotsuya Kaidan set in medieval Europe and a speculative film about Jesus Christ and Buddhism.
Driscoll: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! Is there anything else you would like to say to the readers?
Carrozza: Thank you. Surprisingly, I thought Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) was a big improvement over King of the Monsters. Adam Wingard’s visually stunning monster sequences made me really think of Shinji Higuchi’s.