Interview:
David Kalat

Patrick Galvan: I am interviewing author and film historian David Kalat. Readers of Toho Kingdom will know him for his two Godzilla DVD commentaries, a couple of books on Japanese cinema, and numerous articles contributed to publications such as G-FAN magazine. He is also the founder of the website All Day Entertainment. Thank you, Mr. Kalat, for agreeing to do this interview.

I would like to begin with a set of general questions. Every fan of tokusatsu gets asked these at some point: Where did it begin for you? What was the first Japanese science-fiction 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?


David Kalat: I was six. The year was 1976, and I saw Godzilla vs. The Cosmic Monster (AKA Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla - 1974) and Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) at a drive-in theater in Raleigh, North Carolina. It is the earliest memory I have of choosing a movie that I wanted to see, as opposed to being taken to something because someone else chose it for me. I distinctly remember seeing previews on TV and insisting my parents take me—and as a part of that memory, I also remember that the TV preview called the first feature Godzilla vs. The Bionic Monster. Now, I may be remembering that wrong—and unfortunately there's no easy way for me to fact check this, unless someone involved in distributing it back in 1976 wants to step forward and clarify.

Galvan: What is it about Japanese science-fiction, in particular, that appeals to you?

Kalat: Here's where my personal opinion will certainly deviate from a lot of your readers and my fellow G-fans, but you asked the question so I'll answer it honestly.

I love the delirious absurdist insanity of Japanese sci-fi. The loonier the better, in my view. The fact is, Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) is one outstandingly entertaining movie—I've easily seen it dozens of times now since that first encounter 40 years ago, and boy does it hold up. It makes no coherent sense whatsoever, and nothing about it is remotely plausible or believable or in any way relatable to the lived experience of any human being, but that's what makes it fun.

To put a finer point on it: there's something inherently magnetic about the idea of dinosaurs, that captures the imagination of every child. And even though dinosaurs never walked the earth at the same time as human beings, we all instinctively want that to have been true. Whether it's Arthur Conan Doyle writing The Lost World, or Willis O'Brien animating it, or Steven Spielberg re-invoking it close to a century later, the idea of having dinosaurs walking through cities is a basic instinctive piece of drama. There are only a handful of narrative structures—"man vs. man," "man vs. nature," "man vs. himself," and so on—and I would add "dinosaurs in the big city" is one of those.

Godzilla vs. MegalonClassic Japanese sci-fi takes this primal drama and just boils it down to its essence. Give a little kid toy dinosaurs and toy army men, and she will inevitably have them fight. Classic Japanese sci-fi recognizes that appeal and throws it up on the big screen in a joyful, childlike way.

I distinguish "classic Japanese sci-fi" here because there has been a tendency in recent years to weigh it down with undue seriousness. But that's my personal bias.

Galvan: You've written a good deal about cinema over the years—and not just about Godzilla, for that matter. Your writing encompasses cinema from all over the world. Did you have an interest in writing about cinema from a young age? Did your love for Godzilla play a factor in this ongoing passion?

Kalat: Oh, absolutely. That experience at the drive-in in 1976 was everything movie-going should be: I was transported to another world, and given images and sounds and music and ideas that kept my six-year-old brain happy and entertained for long afterwards, and compelled me to seek out more—to get books on Godzilla, to get toys, to watch more movies.

And my tastes in movies have followed that pattern ever since—I have always preferred something that is highly visual, that brings together the cumulative talents of different craftspeople (cinematographers, musicians, set designers, editors, special effects technicians, stunt people, etc.), and that inspire imitators. There's a line of thinking in film criticism that the "good" stuff is a solo artist expressing an individual vision, that small films are superior, that sequels and franchises are inherently suspect, that human drama is what matters most, etc. You see that ideology on display ever year at Oscar time. I take pride in having been successful as a film critic who openly and unrepentantly rejects that thinking.

Galvan: When did you start writing about Japanese science-fiction? What was the first tokusatsu-related piece you wrote, and where was it published?

Kalat: Godzilla was also very directly the cause of my being a published writer. Back in the early 1990s, 1993-1994, I was a staff writer at a small arts journal, now defunct. The editorial stance was very aggressively that small indie films were good, big Hollywood films were bad, and because I tended to write positive reviews of action films a lot of my work wasn't getting published, and I got very frustrated. I could tell that the publishers loved articles taking some piece of pop cultural detritus and praising its hidden depths—there was a serious dissertation-style essay on how Scooby Doo treated scientific skepticism, for example. So, I decided I'd get published by taking my lifelong love of Godzilla and acting like it was a serious statement on war.

So, I'd been a fan of Godzilla for almost 2 decades at that point. I'd worked Godzilla references into most of my writing, and I'd made an award-winning animated film that adapted Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis into a slapstick comedy in which Gregor Samsa wakes up as Godzilla. But I'd never put any thought into studying it. It was something I enjoyed, and thought was funny.

So, to write this essay, which was called "The Importance of Being Godzilla," I started with what I'd intended to be a facetious premise, that these movies in which stunt men in rubber suits whale on each other was actually a thoughtful reflection on postwar Japanese political and economic development. And in the course of researching and writing it, I discovered my joke was true!

Galvan: Let's talk about the Godzilla writing project of yours most fans are familiar with: A Critical History and Filmography on Toho's Godzilla Series. For the record, there are two editions of this book. (The first was published in 1997, the second in 2010.) What inspired you to write this book? What differences exist between the two versions? Did your goals/criteria change any when writing the second edition?

Kalat: What happened was, I never submitted "The Importance of Being Godzilla" to that magazine. Instead I turned it into a book proposal and got a literary agent, and we started shopping it around in 1995.

What I discovered the hard way, though, was that Toho was not willing to let me use any illustrations in the book. I had a couple of publishers interested, but they wanted to do a trade paperback full of pictures—and in my personal collection I had plenty of posters and photos that we could have used, but Toho objected. Technically, I think that the principle of "fair use" would have protected that use, because the book was obviously and unequivocally a journalistic piece of nonfiction, but to make that argument in court would mean litigating, and no publisher was willing to take that risk.

So I got a lawyer, and on my own I negotiated a deal with Toho that allowed me to do to the book as long as there were no pictures, and a few other concessions, but it was a signed agreement and as long as I abided by its terms it was protection against the lawsuits Toho was bringing against other fan writers at the time.

McFarland Press was willing to publish the book without pictures, and they were incredibly supportive, and it turned into this big hit and kind of made my name and gave me entrée to a lot of other opportunities.

Godzilla 2000 Millennium

And the years passed, and Toho kept making more Godzilla movies, and I felt that I could go back and update the book to bring it current with the Millennium series entries and the 1998 American version. The original version of the book had included fairly extensive plot descriptions—because when I wrote it, very few of the films were commercially available in the US on video, so I couldn't assume the reader had seen any of the films, or seen them recently. I wrote those massive plot synopses so I'd have a basis on which to then base more close readings of the texts.

The new 2010 version would be coming out, then, into a world where nearly all of the films were readily available on a variety of home video platforms, so the plot synopses could be cut back to a few sentences—like the blurb on the back of a video box. That freed up a lot of real estate in the book for the Millennium entries, and it also opened up room for some new chapters altogether.

Along the way, I found my thinking had evolved since the first edition, such that I no longer agreed with some of my previous conclusions. For example, I'd taken a hard line against dubbing in the first edition, and basically called it racist. I no longer agree with myself on that—being a father and wanting to share these films with my kids when they were young showed me how totally wrong I was on that score. If all you've got is a subtitled version, you've just abandoned a massive percentage of your potential audience and hobbled the ability to cultivate new fans.

In the end, the 2010 book contains only about 15% of the content of the 1997 edition. I used one of those plagiarism detectors to check! I'd rewritten almost the whole thing.

Galvan: As of the time of this interview, there are two films in the series not covered in the second edition of your book (because both have been released post-2010). The first is the 2014 Hollywood film directed by Gareth Edwards. What are your thoughts on this film?

Kalat: So here's a great opportunity for me to indulge in another of my heresies.

The original 1954 Godzilla manages to be this dark, grim apocalyptic horror film for reasons that are very specific to its cultural moment, and it's very problematic for subsequent Godzilla films to try to recapture that atmosphere—and I think it's counterproductive and misguided for Godzilla fans to want modern Godzilla to chase that darkness.

What I'm talking about is this: in 1954 Japan, people like Ishiro Honda and his fellow collaborators were able to tap into this specific well of images and themes connected to recent events, from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the H-bomb tests that rained fallout on the Lucky Dragon. The imagery and plot points in Godzilla (1954) were conceived specifically to conjure up memories of those events. These were exceedingly painful and recent traumas that needed a cultural exorcism but the residue of postwar censorship more or less prevented open exploration of these ideas, so they had nowhere else to go than to sci-fi metaphors. The movie gains so much energy from this undercurrent of real pain, and the urgency of its expression.

But that is tied to a particular moment. You can't recapture that moment, not precisely. For everything that gets said about how the Americanization of Godzilla (1954) into Godzilla, King of the Monsters was driven by making this palatable to the victors of WWII, you can't lose sight of how crucial the difference is between 1956 and 1954. It just doesn't have the same impact in 1956 as 1954—you kind of have to shift the emphasis for it to land in the same way.

And that's a problem for the whole of the Godzilla franchise. Either subsequent iterations of Godzilla will be dissociated from the original context, or will try to invoke the original associations but with diluted effects.

The Return of Godzilla in 1984 does an admirable job of tying the Godzilla mythos to a 1980s Cold War context and using that very specific 1980s atmosphere to drive events—it works beautifully, in my opinion. By contrast, Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001) tries to put the emphasis back on the WWII era context, but lacks the visceral audience connection to make it really work.

Generally speaking, I think Godzilla movies shouldn't try to aim for that darkness anymore—it's too much of a reach, and embracing the silly fun of giant monsters is more rewarding…

Godzilla 2014

But Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014) proves me wrong. I was really surprised how much I liked this. When it was first announced, and the ComicCon pre-previews focused on the grimdark atmosphere, I just rolled my eyes. But of course I went, in the theater, with my kids (by this point my son's biggest draw was seeing Walter White, which says something I suppose).

And what worked most for me was how thoughtful Edwards and his team had been in figuring out how to find a modern American context for this imagery. And what they seized on was the weariness we feel a decade into the War on Terror—unlike Vietnam, there is broad popular support for the war and the troops, and no sense of having been duped into it on false pretenses (even though there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction to justify the war in Iraq, the public is still generally supportive of the whole endeavor). But that being said, as much as we support the troops, there is also a fatigue of seeing how little progress is won by their sacrifice, how endless the whole thing feels. This is a weird new sensation: the idea that our troops could be in the right, and motivated by goodness, and talented and competent and heroic, but also unmatched by the task at hand whose victory is not assured.

Edwards' Godzilla (2014) takes that concept and weaponizes it: we're used to seeing Godzilla movies where the military fails because they're stupid, but seeing them fail but be heroic while failing is new. It's also something the culture needs—and it's the kind of heretical idea that's otherwise hard to dramatize in pop culture, just like the original Godzilla's anti-American stance was so potent in 1954.

But the consequence of this is that the gravity of the story is all about Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Godzilla himself gets almost no screen time.

Galvan: The second film not covered in your book is Godzilla Resurgence (2016), currently in Japanese theaters, directed by Hideaki Anno and featuring special effects by the acclaimed Shinji Higuchi. What are your thoughts on these guys' past accomplishments? Do you have any expectations for their film?

Kalat: I'm a little leery of this, but I haven't seen it yet and don't want to have my expectations too firmly set. Higuchi is brilliant—the 1990s Gamera films are marvels. More to the point, Higuchi's work updating the 1970s classic Submersion of Japan (1973) for modern audiences is precisely the kind of thoughtful "how do we make this great idea work in a completely different cultural context" way that I've been talking about.

I don't have an opinion on Anno, one way or the other.

But overall, it worries me that Toho felt the need, in the midst of an effective American reboot of the series, to undermine it by directly competing, and by emphasizing Godzilla's size as the distinguishing detail that makes theirs "superior."

But as I said above, I was skeptical of Gareth Edwards' film and then loved it, so I'm approaching this with an open mind.

Galvan: Moving back to Godzilla. You've provided DVD and Blu-ray commentaries for many, many films. Tokusatsu fans know you best for two, in particular: the Classic Media release of Ghidorah, the Three-headed Monster (1964), and Criterion's release of the original Godzilla (1954). What was it about these two films, in particular, that made you want to talk about them?

Kalat: I would have happily done commentaries for any or all of the DVDs or Blu-Rays, but those were the two that asked me.

But as it happened, they ended up offering me the two titles that gave me the best platform to share my thoughts.

Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster (1964) is a perfect example of the mid-sixties absurdist take on Godzilla at its finest—it is a wonderfully appointed production full of talented people at the height of their powers, making something memorable and fun. It is also notably one of the films most altered for American consumption—the US version is edited very differently from the Japanese version, and that allowed me to comment on that process. I actually think the US cut is the stronger of the two, which is another little heresy of mine. I know I'm not "supposed" to prefer a bastardized version cut by anonymous American distributors over the version created by director Ishiro Honda, but if you look past ideology and actually evaluate how the different scenes work together in sequence and how the story builds, I think you'll agree the US cut is very thoughtfully assembled. So I enjoyed having the chance to explore that heresy in public.

Obviously Godzilla (1954) is where it all starts, and the one where I had the most to say. When Criterion told me I would be able to do commentaries on both the Japanese and US versions, I realized I could structure the two commentaries like mirror images of each other, and use each one to play off the other. There's only a few people who've ever listened to both tracks back to back and noticed the mirror structure, but it was fun to do.

I'd actually written some extra material for that project that explored how Godzilla (1954) had been adapted into other countries like Italy and Spain, which kind of challenged this received wisdom that the US version was this mean-spirited bastardization of a Japanese masterpiece. I talked some about the German cut of Godzilla (1954), which I have a copy of, and how it showed that some of what people think of as American-inspired cuts to the film were actually coming from Toho. Weirdly, Toho objected to that passage and we had to drop it—they had right of refusal on my scripted commentary.

I ended up using that material in my blog at Turner Classic Movies instead.

Galvan: Classic Media and Criterion are two very different companies with very different audiences. Having worked with both companies, would you say there are any big differences between the two? Any differences in atmosphere, work procedure, etc.?

Kalat: Yes, very different.

I recorded my own track for Classic Media, at All Day Entertainment, and provided the finished track to them.

Criterion booked a studio and I just showed up, and their producers were in charge the whole way.

I don't have a preference of one approach over the other, it's just a different experience. Criterion definitely earns their reputation for perfectionism, and they don't do anything by halves.

On both projects, though, Toho approved the script ahead of recording—and in both cases, their edits were a mix of fact checking and steering the discussion away from certain topics.

Galvan: Any chance we'll see future commentaries on Japanese science-fiction from you? Any films, in particular, you'd love to talk about?

Dark WaterKalat: I'm not scheduled to do any at this time, but I'd probably say yes if asked.

I did just write the liner notes for Arrow's upcoming Blu-Ray of the J-Horror film Dark Water (2002). All your readers should rush out and get that. It's an awesome disc.

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

Kalat: That is a seriously tough question. The Showa series is the one I grew up with, so its dearer to my heart than the ones I encountered as an adult. Picking my favorite Showa film is like picking my favorite child—and I love all of them more than I do the Heisei and Millennium era ones

So I'll refuse to answer favorite Showa, but the best Heisei is The Return of Godzilla (1984). I'm so thrilled that one is finally getting a proper US Blu Ray release (with a dub track!!) this fall. I could watch that on a loop.

And Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) is as bonkers as it gets. My son Max loves that one too. One year at his birthday he showed it to a group of his friends in our home theater, as they played with his collection of Bandai toys, from the DVD he had carefully collected autographs from the main cast on. That's as rewarding as life gets.

Galvan: What is your favorite Godzilla movie?

Kalat: Jeez, you're not letting this go, are you?

Monster Zero (aka Invasion of Astro-Monster - 1965) is one of the best balanced entries—full of wild imagery, colorful characters, memorable dialogue, lots of monsters. If I were trying to indoctrinate a new fan, this is probably where I'd start…

Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) is the one I've seen the most, made me a fan in the beginning, and calling it out as a favorite would probably annoy lots of people so that's very appealing…

But when I think about the sheer joy in that room as my son shared Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) with a gaggle of his friends, I can't conjure up any experience in any other Godzilla movie that made me half as happy. So, Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) wins.

Galvan: What is your favorite Godzilla suit?

Kalat: The 1968 one. That nailed it.

Galvan: Akira Ifukube excepted, who is your favorite G movie composer?

Kalat: Masaru Sato. That one was easy.

Galvan: One of my goals since joining Toho Kingdom has been to expand—if even by a little bit—the interest of the audience in Japanese films outside of science-fiction and fantasy. Another one of your books is J-Horror: The Ring, The Grudge, and Beyond, which is just one of I believe three books you've written about horror, although this is the only one focused on horror films from Japan. What interested you in writing this book?

The RingKalat: As I tell the story in that book, I was at a horror convention selling my DVDs and books shortly after the original 1998 Ring came out on video, and a bunch of people were trying to recommend it to me, and I looked at that cover art with the distorted eye and assumed it was another of the Guts of a Virgin sort of ugly misogynistic Japanese cult horror, and I refused to listen to them.

It wasn't until years later when the Hollywood remake opened and critics were going gaga over it, that I went to a matinee out of curiosity and was blown away. I immediately sought out the 1998 version, then the Korean version, then the book… then I got confused about the chronology. The whole thing seemed to be a chicken-and-egg story with no actual beginning, so moment where it properly "started." The release of The Grudge made it worse, with so many conflicting alternate versions.

I couldn't find a proper account explaining what J-Horror was and how it all started, so I went and wrote it myself.

Galvan: What is your favorite J-horror film?

Kalat: Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse (2001). I saw that in a theater, but unlike the rest of the crowd I'd seen it before. I think it screwed everyone else up. My publisher of the J-Horror book hadn't seen the films and while I was working on the project they decided to watch Pulse (2001) at the office—and called me up afterwards to complain how upset the staff was.

But if you want a recommendation for your readers that will send them down a rabbit hole, I urge everyone to seek out the TV series (and associated films) of Trick. It stars familiar faces—Hiroshi Abe (Katagiri from Godzilla 2000: Millennium - 1999) and Yukie Nakama (a bit player in Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris - 1999).

The premise is that as the world nears a millennial apocalyptic moment, more and more unnatural events will start happening, augering the End of the World… except there are these two magicians who are professional competitors and will they/won't they romantic aspirants who use their street-smarts and knowledge of the professional magic trade to investigate these supposed supernatural happenings and debunk them as hoaxes.

Imagine Penn and Teller's Foul Us cross-bred with The X-Files and Fringe and pitched as a comedy. It's awesome.

Galvan: What are your thoughts on Akira Kurosawa, and what is your favorite film by him?

Kalat: Obviously he's a master, and you don't need someone like me to sing his praises. I like his modern-day thrillers like The Bad Sleep Well (1960) or High and Low (1963).

Galvan: When I interviewed Ed Godziszewski, I asked him about the famous story of Akira Kurosawa trying to make his own Godzilla movie and Toho balking at the idea for fear of the money such a project by him would cost. Mr. Godziszewski's understanding is this tale's probably nothing more than a misunderstanding of what actor Yu Fujiki said in a DVD commentary—an urban legend. But, nevertheless, a Godzilla film directed by Kurosawa sounds interesting. What do you think? Would Kurosawa and his ideas have been a good fit for the genre?

Kalat: I think a Kurosawa-Godzilla film would probably be somewhat akin to Gareth Edwards' take—a story of human frailty and redemption, with giant monsters barely visible in the background.

Galvan: Outside of science-fiction and horror, are there any specific Japanese film genres that you are a big fan of? If so, what are some of your favorites in these genres?

Kalat: I recently spent several weeks on TCM's Movie Morlocks blog going over 1950s era Japanese "Sun Tribe" films—things like Crazy Fruit are probably the best known standard bearers of that genre here, but if you have an all-region player you should rush over to Eureka's Masters of Cinema site and get Yuzo Kawashima's Bakumatsu Taiyo-den.

This was voted the 4th Best Japanese Film Ever Made by a critic's poll from Japan's leading cinema journal, and personally I think that may be even underselling it a bit.

The title translates as Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate, or The Sun Legend of the End of the Tokugawa Era. The Masters of Cinema disc opts for A Sun-Tribe Myth From the Bakumatsu Era. None of these are especially compelling, although the Masters of Cinema title comes closest. I'm generally in favor of translating titles into English—back in the days of video stores, it always used to drive me crazy when I browsed the "L" shelf to find all the French films thoughtlessly alphabetized there as if "Le" or "La" was the important word. A title is meant to be a marketing tool—a come-on to the audience, a label identifying the contents. If that title is incomprehensible, it cannot serve that purpose very well. A title like Bakumatsu Taiyo-den is hard to pronounce, hard to remember, hard to spell, and meaningless to most English-speaking viewers. But there are subtleties and nuances to the Japanese title that don't translate well at all. In just seven syllables, Bakumatsu Taiyo-den efficiently signals (in Japanese) what you're about to get: a mash-up of the "Sun-Tribe" genre of youth problem films and the sword-and-topknot cycle of Samurai films, specifically drawing the connection between the dawning of modernism at the end of the Samurai era and the uneasy postwar world of 1950s Japan. Oh, and did I mention it was a sex comedy?

Galvan: As I mentioned earlier, you are the founder of All Day Entertainment. For those who have not visited, could you give a basic rundown of your site? What can readers expect to find when they visit?

Kalat: I founded All Day in 1997 as the first independent DVD label, and my focus from Day One was to give proper respectful home video treatment to "movies that fell through the cracks." That included foreign or arthouse films whose distributors completely dropped the ball on marketing them, films that were blacklisted for political reasons, films that were suppressed for legal reasons, films that belonged to forgotten genres, or old movies whose physical elements had deteriorated.

Most of my original releases are now out of print and no longer directly accessible through my site, but I do still have several outstanding silent comedy collections I'm incredibly proud of.

Galvan: Any more projects—Godzilla or not—we can look forward to in the future?

Kalat: As I mentioned, I just contributed liner notes to Arrow Video's Blu-Ray of the J-Horror classic Dark Water (2002). Definitely go check that out.

Galvan: Thank you, Mr. Kalat, for taking the time to answer my questions.

PERSON DETAILS

Interview: David Kalat (2016)

DAVID KALAT

A historian and noted author, David Kalat has written such books as A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series while also writing for several publications. Kalat has also provided commentaries for home video releases of Godzilla titles, including Criterion's Godzilla and Classic Media's Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster.

Date: 08/07/2016
Interviewer: Patrick Galvan

 

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