For this Toho Kingdom interview, I am speaking with Norman England, the director of the documentary Bringing Godzilla Down to Size and a writer/photographer with twenty-two years’ experience working on Japanese film sets. He reported on a number of kaiju movies for Fangoria magazine in the late ‘90s/early 2000s, many of his articles documenting set visits—including several for Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999). His time on this particular film will be the main subject of our conversation today.
Norman’s Fangoria articles on Kaneko’s Gamera trilogy will be reprinted in the upcoming Gamera Blu-ray collection by Arrow Video, so now is an ideal time to delve into what he saw on the Gamera 3 set and learn more about the production. We will also be discussing a science fiction film Norman himself directed, called The iDol (co-starring an actor from Gamera 3), available for preorder from SRS Cinema, LLC.
Patrick Galvan: In starting off, please tell us about the first time you met Shusuke Kaneko, and how you got onto the set of his third Gamera film.
Norman England: I met Kaneko in December 1997, when I interviewed him for Fangoria. At the time, he was at Nikkatsu, in the midst of post-production on F, a film he shot in-between Gamera 2: Advent of Legion (1996) and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999). To be honest, the interview didn’t start out particularly well. For example, when I asked why he became a director, he said something to the effect of: “I like movies.” The interview wouldn’t turn out very good if we kept this up. I’d learned beforehand that Kaneko had gone to school to be a teacher—his backup plan in case he couldn’t get a job in movies—so I changed tactics and asked him about the history of filmmaking in Japan. That got him out of his shell, and we ended up talking for hours.
Fangoria really liked the Kaneko piece. They also really liked my second article, in which I spoke with Haruo Nakajima and Kenpachiro Satsuma. Since I’d now interviewed people who’d worked in kaiju films, the next thing Fangoria wanted was for me to get onto the set of a kaiju film. And because I had a healthy relationship with Kaneko and I knew a Daiei public relations man from the first interview, I was able to visit the production of Gamera 3 in summer 1998.
Shusuke Kaneko and Norman England on the set of Gamera 3
Image Courtesy of Norman England
Galvan: Did Kaneko express interest in having a foreigner on his set?
England: During that first interview, we discovered we had a lot in common through our love of movies. We didn’t just enjoy movies, we also had similar sensibilities and ideas on the medium. And I think he appreciated that Fangoria was not just putting out fluff pieces on upcoming films. The magazine provided a platform where writers could document what they saw on film sets, interview actors, directors, make-up artists, etc., and report on how movies got made. Remember: this was before the internet took off, before you could easily learn filmmaking techniques just by hopping on your computer.
As for him being interested in having me on set. Japan has this reputation as being a homogenous nation; and to a point I think that’s true, because native Japanese tend to have near-identical cultural backgrounds. That doesn’t mean they’re all alike, but most have similar upbringings and understand the same unwritten rules in their society. This is reflected on movie sets, where it’s often preferential to have an atmosphere where everyone thinks the same way, speaks the same way, understands what to do and when, etc. They think it makes the job easier.
But some Japanese, like Kaneko, enjoy having a sense of diversity and want an expanded view on things. So when I arrived on the Gamera 3 set, Kaneko took me around and introduced me to everyone. I think he wanted me to feel at home, and he wanted the cast and crew to see that what they were doing wasn’t only for Japan. Still, as comfortable as I felt on the set, there were some moments where I got a crash course in Japanese set rules. One night, my assistant had to leave early, and she accidentally took off with my dinner still in her backpack. So here I was after midnight; all the restaurants were closed; and I had nothing to eat. The studio provided catering called roke-ben, but it was intended for staff members, which I was not. Kaneko knew of my situation and, being very diplomatic, told me I could have one. The studio usually throws in a couple of extras, anyway. But a PR man still yelled at me for taking food meant for the crew.
Actresses Ayako Fujitani and Shinobu Nakayama on location in Kyoto.
Image Courtesy of Norman England
Galvan: How many days did you spend on the live-action set for Gamera 3? What was the first scene you watched being filmed?
England: Three or four days on the location shoot in Kyoto Station. I stayed at the Kyoto Tower Hotel—that building Godzilla blows up in Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II (1993)—as it was right across the street from where they were filming. The first scene I watched was Yukijiro Hotaru and Yuu Koyama in the train car, reacting to the announcement that Iris has landed in Kyoto. This was filmed in an unused platform at the back of the station. Kaneko often casts Hotaru because he respects him as an actor. He’s very funny and brings a lot of energy to the set.
I also participated as an extra running through the station when the monsters are in the city. And later on, I visited several soundstages at Daiei in Tokyo to interview Ai Maeda, Ayako Fujitani, Shinji Higuchi, and suit actors Hirofumi Fukuzawa and Akira Ohashi; that same day, I watched Kaneko and his staff film shots of Maeda wrapped in Iris’s cocoon in the cave.
Galvan: Regarding the location shoot in Kyoto: How did filming work in a major transit area like Kyoto Station?
England: The staff wasn’t allowed to film on the main floor during working hours. So what they did was show up in the late afternoon to set up and film scenes that were more “out of the way,” such as Ai Maeda and the others looking out on Kyoto as the monsters battle. That was filmed in an open space on the fourth floor, and they could do more elaborate things like pour stage rain on the actors. But all the scenes on the main floor had to wait until the station closed around 12:30 a.m.
Galvan: Continuing on that note: Is it unheard of for a major transit area like Kyoto Station to shut down for a film company in Japan?
England: Outside of the Godzilla movies, I haven’t worked on very many big-budget films, so I’m not sure if it’s unheard of. But my understanding is that it’s extremely difficult to get cooperation.
I’ve also been told—this is all hearsay—that in the 1950s and ‘60s, Japanese film crews had better relations with the communities around them. But through systematic abuse of that relationship—going in and not being courteous of the area around them—they developed a bad reputation. So today, Japanese crews have to slip into an area they want to shoot and be as unobtrusive as possible. Pedestrians, people on bikes, and traffic have the right of way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the cops shut whole streets down for film crews back home in NYC. I’ve never seen this in Japan.
Of course you need permits to shoot on the street in Japan, but it’s more a formality. And as odd as this sounds, even a big film like Gamera 3 had to shoot guerrilla style. Once, in 2000, when I was in Shibuya with Kaneko, he gave me a Gamera 3 tour and pointed out all the locations they shot. Half the time he was saying, “We didn’t have permission, but we put the camera in the street and shot as fast as possible.”
Shusuke Kaneko directs Ai Maeda
Image Courtesy of Norman England
Galvan: In the Gamera 3 set piece that you wrote for Fangoria #185, actress Shinobu Nakayama is quoted saying the following of Kaneko: “At the beginning of [Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)], I often got upset because I didn’t understand him, as he gives almost no direction. Eventually, I came to realize that the thing about Kaneko is he has vision. […] If he doesn’t like a performance, he will say something, but when it’s right it just seems natural to him, thus requiring no comment.” Based on your talks with him and your experiences on his film sets, would you say this is true of Kaneko? Is he generally not someone who gives a lot of direction to actors?
England: Kaneko’s a very prepared director. He once told me that a director’s job is to be ready to answer everyone’s question. It’s something I learned the first time I directed a film. People don’t come to you asking how to do their job, they come wanting to know what you want as the director. I think in the case of Shinobu, he was mostly fine with what she was bringing to the table.
Like any good director, Kaneko’s always watching his actors and, when necessary, he’ll step in and correct them: “Do it like this. Say your line like this.” Especially with inexperienced actors. I worked as the still cameraman on his film Danger Dolls. That was a film in which all four lead actresses needed a lot of guidance. Kaneko worked really hard with them. But I’ve seen experienced actors come onto his set and breeze right though. Basically, if an actor gives a performance in the realm of what he’s looking for, he’ll accept it.
You know, certain actors are only capable of so much. It doesn’t matter what you do or what you say to them. So a director has to be able to recognize when a scene has reached its potential and just move on. Kaneko’s got a good sense for figuring out what an actor can or cannot do, and it’s more logical for him to save time for upcoming scenes that he knows will be difficult, rather than keep working on a performance that’s not going to get any better.
This thinking is not uncommon in Japan, where time is a precious commodity. To show what I mean, there was a U.S. film shot here that I worked on called Temple, and the Japanese crew got annoyed at the American director because even if a take was good, he’d have them do it again. “That was perfect! But let’s do one more take.” And the Japanese crew would respond, “If it’s good, why do it again? We don’t have the time.” This is fine when you have several months to shoot, but Japan doesn’t have that luxury.
Kaneko’s method hasn’t changed much since Gamera 3. When I worked as a still cameraman on the set of his 2016 movie Scanner, he would rarely shoot anything more than three times.
Galvan: I’ve read a number of news stories about nationalist watchdog groups in Japan who view Kyoto as a city with an image to be protected—seemingly because it was Japan’s capital for many centuries and they equate disrespecting Kyoto with disrespecting Japan as a whole. To your knowledge, did Kaneko encounter difficulties with anyone because he set Gamera 3’s ending in the former capital?
England: Kaneko told me he’d been cautious in how he approached the final act, because he wanted to avoid trouble from those groups. He also said that’s the reason many kaiju movies don’t take place in Kyoto. But to my knowledge, no, he never had any encounters with the watchdog groups, and I don’t recall anyone complaining about the setting when the film came out. Even though Kyoto’s burning at the end, you don’t see close-ups of shrines on fire; and the monsters primarily fight in and around Kyoto Station. But those watchdog groups do exist. They operate as a sort of unofficial cultural police force, and they’ve gotten a lot worse in the years since Gamera 3.
On the subject of potential responses from nationalists: Kaneko originally wanted a scene in GMK (2001) where Godzilla destroyed Yasukuni Jinja. But, of course, Toho wouldn’t let him get away with something like that. The notion of trying to avoid offending certain groups has also reached a point of extreme self-regulation in Japan, with very little gray area. Also in GMK: Godzilla’s eyes were originally meant to be pure white. But since white eyes are a symbol for blindness in Japan, the suit staff added very faint veins to the edges of the eyes so that they weren’t totally white.
Image Courtesy of Norman England
Galvan: You also spent some time observing Shinji Higuchi’s special effects filming. Since Gamera 3 was your first set visit in Japan, what were your first impressions of Japanese special effects filming?
England: Gamera 3 was such an important chapter in my life because it was my first glimpse into how films like this get made. Most Japanese films are made in a couple of weeks, but special effects films are an exception because of the amount of time that has to be put into them. While the live-action set needs less time than the special effects shoot, it still needs to do lots of blue-screen shooting. This makes it a bit longer than a typical drama shoot in Japan, which takes anywhere from two weeks to a month and a half depending on the budget.
From my experience with Gamera and Godzilla sets, the effects set can only shoot about two shots a day. Sometimes only one. It’s a very tedious, time-consuming, and expensive process and one of the reasons you don’t see many special effects films in Japan today that require in-camera effects work.
For example, when I went to Higuchi’s set, I saw them film the close-up of Iris ramming one of his spikes into Gamera’s stomach. This shot alone required a great deal of time and work. Dozens and dozens of people on the set, and everybody had a specific job. The crew spent hours setting up the shot, lighting it, rehearsing it so that the spike could be rammed through a pre-drilled hole in the Gamera suit without injuring suit actor Fukuzawa, covering the floor with plastic for when the blood spurted. They did a test run with water just to see what kind of results they could expect. Then, after lunch, the actual shot was performed with the blood. On-screen, it passes by in just a second or two, but it took most of the day to get.
I also saw the huge Kyoto Station miniature when it was a week or two away from completion. I was bummed I couldn’t be around when they started tearing it apart during the monster battle. Still, I’m glad I got to be able to walk around it on my own and study its incredible detail.
Left: Special effects director Shinji Higuchi
Right: the adult Iris suit
Images Courtesy of Norman England
Galvan: Going back briefly to the subject of directing, the kaiju set you visited after Gamera 3 was the one for Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999). How would you compare the way Kaneko managed his set to the way Takao Okawara managed the one for the Godzilla film?
England: Well, I didn’t spend very much time on Godzilla 2000. I was an extra in the crowd that runs away after the UFO lands on top of the building, and I watched some filming of the live-action rooftop scenes from the third act; by the way, the rooftop where all the characters gather was built on a soundstage and had blue screens around it. So I didn’t get to watch Okawara very much, and he never directed a movie after Godzilla 2000.
But based on what little I did see: Okawara seemed very passive compared to Kaneko. He mostly stayed off the set. I never saw him interact deeply with the actors. He seemed to work with the assistant directors more than anyone else. When there was a break in shooting, the cast would come down and mingle with me. Except for Hiroshi Abe; he went off to his own corner. But I don’t remember Okawara ever approaching or talking to any of us. And when it was time to continue shooting, it was the assistants who told the actors they were wanted back on set. Okawara’s only direction that I saw took place from his chair as he talked through a megaphone.
Galvan: What’s something about Gamera 3 that most people wouldn’t know about? Any behind the scenes stories that haven’t been publicized much?
England: I recall there were some bad feelings behind the scenes regarding a making-of documentary about the film. From what I remember, Hideaki Anno, who directed the making-of, wanted it to be more complex by including some drama. And the drama angle he sought was one to play to otaku audiences who liked the idea of these films having “competition” between the live-action and special effects crews. So he edited the making-of for Gamera 3 in a way to emphasize division between Kaneko’s staff and Higuchi’s staff.
Kaneko didn’t like this approach. One of his goals in making the Gamera trilogy was to have unity between the two crews, as he felt that had been lacking in the on-screen results of the Heisei Godzilla movies. Obviously, he and Higuchi, because of the nature of special effects films, couldn’t be on the same sets at all times, but they did work together closely so their two parts matched and integrated well. Kaneko felt the way Anno edited the making-of created a false impression about Gamera 3’s production, and he was not happy about that.
Usually with these making-ofs, the guy directing them doesn’t even come to the set. They send a cameraman to collect footage, and the director puts it together afterward. I was only there a couple of days for Gamera 3, but I never saw Anno on the set. Only the cameraman, my friend Shu Kageyama, shot behind the scenes footage when I was there. He also shot the “making of” footage on GMK and one of Takashi Shimizu’s horror films. I also starred in one of his short movies.
Yukijiro Hotaru on the set of The iDol
Image Courtesy of Norman England
Galvan: Let’s now talk about the first film you directed, The iDol, which is now available for preorder from SRS Cinema. You had a number of people involved in this film who had also been involved in the production of Gamera 3, including actor Yukijiro Hotaru and composer Kow Otani.
England: I mention this in the audio commentary for the upcoming release, but Hotaru was the first Japanese actor I ever interviewed. He was also the first Japanese actor I ever saw perform on a film set. As I mentioned, my first day on Gamera 3 was when they filmed him in the train car. He is just as Kaneko described: highly energetic and very funny. And when I was working on the script for The iDol, I found myself imagining him as the homeless guy who opens the film. So I knew I wanted him from the start. Hotaru not only loved the script but he agreed to take the part at no charge! As for his performance, he was so dependable; he gave me everything I was looking for; and whenever we meet these days, he always tells me, “That was such a great script.”
As for Otani. I originally didn’t think he’d be interested in scoring my film, so I thought about hiring his daughter Hiroko, who was a music student at the time. She was also one of the vocalists in the score for GMK. I asked Otani if his daughter would be interested in scoring my film, and he said: “What about me? Aren’t you going to ask me?” He volunteered to write the music and, like Hotaru, agreed to work for free.
Galvan: Another recognizable face you have in the cast is Takako Fuji, best known as Kayako Saeki from the Grudge/Ju-On franchise.
England: Casting Takako happened when I was on the set of the 2004 Grudge film. When shooting went on a break, I went over to the concession stand to get coffee. Takako came over to say hello, and I mentioned I was going to make a film, thinking of a diplomatic way to offer her a part. And before I could, she just said, “Can I be in your movie?” When I said yes, she started jumping up and down. “I’m going to be in Norman’s movie! I’m going to be in Norman’s movie!” It was pretty funny. She was in her Kayako outfit jumping up and down saying this. She was really great to work with, and we’re still friends today. I like Takako a lot. Such a wonderful woman, very talented.
After she signed on, Takako asked if I had someone to do the make-up. When I said no, she recommended Sachie Munemura, her make-up artist on the Grudge films. Sachie worked for nothing, too. To this day, I’m very appreciative she brought her own make-up equipment and worked morning to night with us for two weeks.
Galvan: Tell me about writing a script for Japanese actors. Was it difficult to make the dialogue feel natural for the people who had to perform it?
England: I worked on the Japanese version of the script with Jiro Kaneko, Shusuke’s younger brother. Jiro’s a professional scriptwriter and teaches classes on the subject. His first idea was a literal translation of my English script; but when we tried that, we realized it didn’t work. A lot of people who don’t speak a second language think translation’s just a matter of matching one word for the other. But especially when converting Japanese to English, it’s really not. If you match up a sentence using words that correspond to their equivalents in the Japanese dictionary, no one’s going to get it. So I worked hard with Jiro to convert the dialogue into something that got across what I wanted while also sounding natural to native Japanese speakers.
Yukijiro Hotaru and Norman England on the set of The iDol. “An advantage of being a non-Japanese director in Japan is that actors tend to listen a little more closely, fearing that they might not be able to understand your Japanese,” director England told Toho Kingdom.
Image Courtesy of Norman England
Galvan: What are some of the things you learned from your collaborators?
England: I learned a lot from Hajime Matsumoto, who worked on Gamera 3 and GMK as the special effects supervisor—a liaison between the effects and live-action crews, whose job is to blend it all together. I’d tried unsuccessfully to interview him on the Gamera 3 set. Kaneko later told me he doesn’t like talking about his work. But during the production of GMK, we had a wonderful conversation about Bernard Herrmann’s music for Journey to the Center of the Earth. He was more open and friendly toward me after that.
When it came to The iDol, I asked Matsumoto to help out with the effects. He said, “Normally, what I do costs $500 per shot, no matter how long or short. But I’ll do it for you for free.” Had he been charging, it would’ve probably amounted to a $25,000 bill just for his work. I was so fortunate I had so many professional people agree to work on the film at no cost. Matsumoto also looked over the script and my storyboards and gave me pointers on things to avoid. Things like understanding how audiences can potentially misinterpret what they see and how to get your point across to them clearly.
I also learned a lot from my DP (Director of Photography), Hiroo Takaoka, who also shot my documentary Bringing Godzilla Down to Size. Hiroo’s the kind of DP a first-time director needs, because he made sure I got the coverage I needed to complete each scene. The way I work is I let the DP set up the shot and then I come in and make adjustments, like tell him to use a wider lens or get tighter in on the actor’s eyeline. We did the same thing on BGDTS too. We work very well together.
Director Norman England on the set of The iDol
Image Courtesy of Norman England
Galvan: What’s been your favorite feedback on the film?
England: When the film played at the Fantasia Festival in 2006, Ultraman producer Takeshi Yagi told me the movie looked like it had been produced for $250,000 and not the $10,000 it had actually been produced for—or the $70,000 I probably would’ve paid had so many people not volunteered to work for free. He also said, “Why didn’t you tell me you directed movies? I would’ve had you direct an Ultraman Max episode.” At the time, Yagi was trying to push the envelope, getting people like Takashi Miike to direct episodes and bring something new to the table. I don’t know if I would’ve been up to the task of directing an episode at the time, but it was a wonderful compliment.
Galvan: We hinted at it over the course of this interview, but you live in Japan and have for quite some time. So in wrapping up, could you give us some insight as to how you earn your living as a foreigner in Japan? Also, do you have any other projects you want to mention?
England: Because the Japanese film industry is so fickle and because I don’t like to be tied to any one particular job, I do a number of things to make ends meet. One of my main gigs has been subtitling Japanese films into English. I’ve subbed over a hundred features so far. I’ve been writing a full-page, monthly column for Japanese cinema magazine Eiga Hiho for the past seven years, too, and am working now to release this in book form in English. I also supervised a book covering George Romero’s zombie films called Saga of the Dead that came out in Japan last December. I’ve also finished an in-depth book on my days on kaiju sets, but it’s been in limbo for the past few years because of photo issues with Toho. I hope that gets worked out and if not, I’ll just release it as text. Other things I put my time into include writing and designing booklets for blu-ray releases in Japan and hosting movie screenings and film events in Tokyo. I just turned 61 this year and even though I’m not as energetic as I was 20 years ago when I started to involve myself with Japanese cinema, there is still a lot I want to do and say.
Preorders of The iDol can be made here.