I started corresponding with Norman England in the summer of 2015, previously knowing him for directing the 2008 documentary Bringing Godzilla Down to Size and authoring numerous articles on Japanese genre cinema for Fangoria magazine in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. We quickly struck up a friendship, our correspondence largely consisting of me delighting in his observations about Japan—where he’s lived since 1992—and his first-hand recollections of visiting the sets of kaiju movies that were an integral part of my adolescence. (Most detailed were the memories of Shusuke Kaneko’s Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack: that picture he’d followed starting with a private conversation wherein Kaneko sheepishly admitted to Toho offering him the next Godzilla film—before the news had been made public. Norman ended up visiting the live-action and special effects sets almost daily, following production up to GMK’s release in December 2001.) In addition to learning about the movies—and the people who made them—I gained insights on the culture present on a Japanese film set. So you can imagine my excitement when, in 2017, Norman told me about his plans to publish a book on his experiences. And the humility I felt when asked to assist with the editing of it.
Behind the Kaiju Curtain: A Journey Onto Japan’s Biggest Film Sets, available now for preorder on Amazon and other outlets (see list below), began in a very roundabout way: as a collection of emails that Norman had sent to genre historian Ed Godziszewski during the making of GMK. (After a day’s shooting—or sometimes in the middle of one—he would log what he’d seen, document his interactions with the cast and crew, describe how certain scenes were shot, and send them to Godziszewski—thereby creating a record of daily events.) The manuscript also recorded events and experiences predating Kaneko’s Godzilla movie: Norman’s coming to Japan; Fangoria assigning him interviews with former suit actors Haruo Nakajima and Kenpachiro Satsuma; the magazine requesting he next visit the sets of Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999), Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999), and Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000) and report on what he saw. Mixed with everything were interactions with the various personnel involved: directors, producers, actors, special effects technicians, PR men, etc.
When I was brought onboard to help with editing, Norman had whittled the emails—a whopping 500 pages when put together—into a more condensed form with the structure of a book. However, it wasn’t quite ready for publication: the text needed to be cleaned up. And so, over the next four years, schedules permitting, we separately read and re-read the manuscript, compared notes and asked questions. (What could be cut? What needed further explanation? What needed to be completely rewritten from the ground up?) In the fall of 2020 and again during the summer of 2021, we held video chats, sometimes daily, going over the text together page by page, Norman all the while rewriting and making edits as he saw fit. The result is something that evolved from a promising concept into an excellent and truly unique book that will be of immeasurable value not only to fans of kaiju eiga but anyone interested in Japanese filmmaking.
Books on Japanese giant monster pictures—and Japanese cinema in general—are hardly scarce. But until Behind the Kaiju Curtain came along, I would’ve been hard pressed to name one that documented the workings of a Japanese film set in such tremendous detail. (Even autobiographies—say, Akira Kurosawa’s memoir—generally summarize productions rather than itemize them.) This new book, however, goes a step beyond: capturing first-hand observations regarding pre-production, shooting of both live-action and special effects, post-production, public relations, etc. There are plenty of fun behind-the-scenes anecdotes, details regarding how certain iconic moments in the Millennium Godzilla films were pulled off, and the reader joins Norman as he undertakes something kaiju fans around the world have only dreamed of: donning the Godzilla suit and stomping around the Toho lot.
In addition to behind-the-scenes factoids and technical “how they did it” information, Behind the Kaiju Curtain leaves a vivid impression of the Japanese film set culture, presented from the viewpoint of an outsider learning the rules through experience. (Despite having been on a few Japanese film sets prior to GMK, there remained unspoken etiquettes Norman needed to figure out—such as how to properly ask Chiharu Niiyama to pose for a photograph with the Godzilla suit. The answer, as he found out, was more complicated than simply asking Niiyama.) An incident on the set of Gamera 3, wherein Norman found himself stranded at Kyoto Station at night, with nothing to eat, and the reaction of a PR man to him taking food meant for the crew—despite being offered by director Kaneko—is worth the price of the book alone.
All the while, the reader also comes to understand the personnel involved. One walks away, for instance, having learned what type of person Shusuke Kaneko is: his personality, his attentive directing style, how he views the role of a filmmaker in contemporary Japan—in contrast to what he describes as the “feudal” relationship between a director and his crew that existed in the bygone age of Kurosawa and Ozu. (As someone greatly fascinated in how the Japanese film industry has changed since its Golden Age of the 1950s and early ’60s, such insights were of particular interest to me. For similar reasons, I was also drawn to anecdotes from veteran actor Hideyo Amamoto, who talked to Norman about how the Toho studios had shrunk over the decades.) Unsung heroes such as still cameraman Takashi Nakao and Junko Kawashima—neither of whom, unfortunately, lived to see the publication of this book—are given their chance to shine; Heisei Gamera actress Ayako Fujitani shows up for a few adventures, and one walks away having learned about her personality, as well.
I don’t wish to summarize the book any more than necessary, and from this point simply encourage readers to seek out Behind the Kaiju Curtain when it becomes available on November 22, 2021.
Behind the Kaiju Curtain is now available for pre-order at the following venues: