Enter Norman England.
An avid writer, England has contributed pieces to several publications in east and west, including Hobby Japan and Figure-O. In addition, he's authored several books on cinema for the Japanese market and covered J-Horror and "kaiju eiga" for Fangoria magazine. He currently writes a monthly column for Eiga Hiho, a popular cinema magazine in Japan and subtitles motion pictures.
A lifelong Godzilla fan residing in Japan, England has spent considerable time on not one, not two, but five Godzilla sets as well as other kaiju films like Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris, Gamera The Brave and Death Kappa. An onset veteran of Japanese films, England has vast knowledge of not only kaiju flicks, but Japanese cinema and production as whole.
I recently spoke with England about his onset experiences with kaiju films, the various directors and suit actors he encountered, and of course, his contributions to the fandom.
Norman, first off, thank you so much for allowing this interview. What made you decide to learn the Japanese language?
During the Japanese economic boom of the 80's, a lot of Japanese were filtering into New York City which was where I lived and worked. I began dating a Japanese woman and thought it was only fair that I know some of her language. Even after we split, I stuck with it.
How long have you lived in Japan now?
I hit 26 years last July.
How did you become an observer for Gamera 3?
I had already done my first piece for Fangoria, which was a profile/interview piece with director Shusuke Kaneko. We hit it off during our interview at Nikkastsu Studio, which happened when he was overseeing the sound mix for his film, "F." With this film wrapping, he was also in prep for Gamera 3 and invited me to the set. My editors at Fangoria jumped at the chance to have a set report from a Japanese kaiju film, which I don't think had been done for a US magazine. Until then, it was articles about the films after they were released.
Speaking of writing for Fangoria, could you plug some of your work?
Writing for Fangoria was very exciting. I mean, I'd been reading the mag since issue #9. When I submitted my first piece (the Kaneko interview) I was nervous because, to be honest, I'm an unschooled writer. However, they accepted it immediately and, in their reply, asked for another piece. Over the years, if you collected all the writing that I did for them, it would fill at least 6, possibly more full issues. This doesn't include the pieces I did for their now-defunct webpage. I learned a lot about writing along the way, so I have many reasons to be grateful for the support and faith given to me by my editors Tony Timpone and Mike Gingold.
Tell me about writing for the Japanese movie magazine you currently write for in Japan.
I write for a magazine called, "Eiga Hiho." It's one of the top-selling movie magazines in Japan. I have a one-page column that I do each issue in which I write about anything I want. One month it could be about the deeper meaning of background starfields throughout the history of sci-fi movies, or another month would be seeing "Re-Animator" on opening night in Times Square. Throughout the 80's, I worked in the Brill Building on Times Square, which was at the tail end of the so-called Grindhouse era. I saw everything that came out back then. Japanese movie fans have an interest in that era of Time Square, so they like my stories. I also do set reports of movies I work on (when I do still photography work, another gig of mine), movie reviews and interviews with foreign actors. It's a good gig, and the magazine editors are very passionate about cinema.
While observing Gamera 3, did you have any idea that you were witnessing history in the making?
Was it really history in the making? That's the thing I had to learn. You never know what film you're working on is going to click, so you treat each one like a job. Besides, if you go on set and get all fanboyish, you're going to find yourself kicked out. That's something I saw happen to a reporter who was too excited about being on a Godzilla set. I was able to keep my open-door privilege at Toho by curbing my enthusiasm and just being professional about it. However, I also have a pretty good sense of humor, and a lot of the crew liked the dynamic I brought to the set. I strove to maintain a balance between the two.
(Norman England behind-the-scenes on Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris. Photo provided by Norman)
Around how many hours did you spend observing Gamera 3?
It was my first movie set in Japan. Basically, I spent three or four days at Kyoto Station and then a couple of days at Toei Studios in Tokyo when visiting the FX set.
What can you tell me about directing the Bringing Godzilla Down To Size?
Originally, it was going to be something small and without my involvement. Ed Godziszewski was over at my place in Tokyo one day in 2008 and showed me handy-cam footage he shot of art director Yasuyuki Inoue. I told him flat-out it was crap. The subject matter wasn't: it was the presentation that was lacking. So, after Ed talked it over with Classic Media, they decided to up the scale and produce an actual film. That's when I was called in. The budget wasn't horrible, but it also wasn't anything great. Still, having learned about film production, I knew how to make it work. I put together a professional crew. We shot everything in a week, and it was one of the best weeks of my life. Sometimes filmmaking can be a chore, this one wasn't. It went smooth and every day was exciting and different. I'm very proud of the film, of the people involved, and the many serendipitous things that occurred during shooting. Criterion wanted to include a remastered version of it in their upcoming Showa set, but bureaucratic nonsense got in the way, and so, it didn't make it in. I should probably be angry, but it's just another example of the dysfunctional film business in Japan.
What was the critical reception for Godzilla films like in the 90's and 2000's? Was GMK received any differently?
I guess you mean in Japan. Godzilla films in Japan had been steadily declining in popularity since the early 90's. When I lived in Osaka in the 90's, and before I became involved with film professionally, I had a lot of movie fan friends. They all hated the Heisei films. Still, I would drag them to each new one come December. They came because they held out hope that Toho would surprise them. After each screening, we'd go to a late-night cafe in Umeda to talk about the latest Godzilla film. Unlike today, back then I was pretty easy-going with Heisei films, but my Japanese friends weren't. They ragged on them like modern Star Wars fans ragged on "The Last Jedi." However, when Kaneko's first Gamera film came out, it was different. Until then, it had been assumed that a good kaiju film was not possible anymore.
The Millennium Series was a mixed bag in Japan. The first entry came soon after the first US Godzilla attempt and Japanese fans were eager to reclaim their ownership of Godzilla. This was the moment the domestic Godzilla fandom became tainted with national pride. This one, like almost all the Millennium films, was not so positively received by mainstream audiences. None of them lost money, they just got by. GMK did the best box-office, but because Toho doubled it with a Hamtaro feature, no one can truly say it was GMK that pulled them in. Final Wars was a true disaster. I saw it opening night and it wasn't anywhere near sold out. I was hanging out with director Tomoo Haraguchi a week later, and he said he saw it in a major theater and there were ten people in the audience. He called the movie crap and said it offered audiences nothing.
Speaking of GMK, what was it like witnessing Mizuho Yoshida portray Godzilla?
Yoshida is a very friendly and enthusiastic man. The first time I met him was during one of my trips to Vi-shop when Shinada and his crew were making the Godzilla suit. Shinada introduced us and we spent the day talking, sharing laughs, and getting to know each other. Throughout shooting, Yoshida was always energetic and willing to do whatever was needed to get the shot. If he slipped and fell off the stage in the Godzilla suit, once the smoke cleared, you could hear him laughing inside it. I once saw him take a blast of fire while in the suit, after which he hopped out and said to me, "Hey, let's grab something to eat." Nothing seemed to dampen his spirits. I would bring friends to the set from time-to-time. Once one of my old film friend buddies from Osaka came by and Yoshida sat with him for an hour and just talked and made him feel welcome. He was always fair and approachable. I meet him from time-to-time even now and he hasn't changed.
What was it like observing Makoto Kamiya direct the effects for GMK?
Kamiya was very different from the other FX directors I've observed. It might have been because he had been an AD for a long time and was now the boss of people who had been his equal. It seemed to me that he had a lot to prove. He was also struggling to find his own FX voice. He had worked with Kawakita and Higuchi, so I think he was under a lot of personal pressure to measure up to these two. During the GMK shoot he could be aloof, but at other times he's suddenly want to talk about zombie films with me. I see him now and then and you know, I think he's a good guy. I probably enjoy talking to him more now than I did on set as I think it was a high-pressure situation for him.
How many hours did you spend on the set of GMK?
I don't know about hours, but in terms of days, it was a lot. A few years back, I was bored one day and tallied up all the days I spent on the Godzilla sets between Godzilla 2000 and Final Wars, and it came to 154. I guess this is some kind of record for a non-Japanese. Maybe I should have it etched on my tomb.
During the GMK era, *someone* notable in the fan community was quite critical of Mr. Kaneko. Did he ever hear of these criticisms, and if so, what was his reaction?
Well, without opening a can of worms, it was a pretty petty maneuver on the part of certain western fanboys. However, I think they were in the minority. What their motivations were, I can't say. I'm not their shrink. All I know is that while some guys were making stuff up on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, I was hanging out on Godzilla sets on a near-daily basis.
In general, I don't associate myself with western fandom. A lot of the focus has shifted to toys and figures, which I have limited interest in. Also, and this isn't just the Godzilla fandom, but the whole autograph/selfie craze is not my thing. I can understand actors who get no residuals trying to find a way to make ends meet, but when fans talk about directors and actors that they waited on in a line to buy their signature from as if they were close personal friends, I get a bit confused. With the exception of the very top tier crew, fans also tend to have an "I only care what happens within the confines of the screen" mentality. Basically, everything has shifted to what you can boast about on Facebook. As I said, this isn't just the Godzilla fandom, but all fandoms in general. Also, this is just my feeling on the subject. Don't take it personally.
GMK was the first Godzilla movie to be released post 9-11, though shooting was done by September, Kaneko did have some thoughts to share about the tragedy and how he hoped his movie might be a positive influence in the post 9-11 world--Though those words seem to have been lost to time. (Originally reported by Monster Zero News.) Do you recall his thoughts on the matter at all?
After 9/11, Kaneko asked me if he should tone down the destruction of Landmark Tower in the film's climax. I asked him why he would feel that way. There are wars going on constantly with whole cities and villages being laid to waste all the time. I don't see American filmmakers saying things like, "Oh, something happened in such and such country and so maybe we shouldn't shoot a scene like this because it might offend them." A staple of kaiju films is city destruction. As terrible as the 9/11 attack was--and this is coming from a New Yorker who watched the Twin Towers get built--it shouldn't affect a Japanese film. Part of the "noise" over this was from the aforementioned fanboys trying desperately to find a way to critique the film before it came out.
Did Shinji Higuchi have any involvement at all with GMK? Rumors are he helped with the jet strike scene, but I wanted verification on that subject since you were there.
Well, I don't think anything I say can lay this rumor to rest but, here it goes... The FX scenes for the jet strike were the first ones shot in Studio 9. I was there for them, and Higuchi was not on set. What Higuchi did for GMK was to help with some of the storyboarding, since that's always been one of his skills. I have a copy of the storyboard script (which focuses on the FX scenes), and you can clearly see where Higuchi did work and where Kaneko did work. Kaneko's artwork is what you'd expect from a non-artist, with Higuchi's, that of a professional storyboard artist.
What were your thoughts when twins Ai Maeda and Aki Maeda from Gamera 3 showed up in GMK?
I knew in advance that the Maeda sisters would be in the film, so their presence on set didn't come as any great surprise. It was a fun night shoot over in Hachioji. The crew arrived in the late afternoon and began dressing a shopping street to look as if it were set in the Kyushu city of Kagoshima. Godzilla actor Yoshida does a cameo in the scene standing behind Ai and Aki Maeda. After it was over, I introduced him to the young women. He was very nervous because both of them are stars in Japan. When the shoot was over, Kaneko, Yoshida, and a couple of us went to a nearby restaurant and spent the rest of the night drinking beer.
Tell me about Rie Ota portraying Baragon.
Unlike the other suit actors in GMK, Ota had no prior experience. She was chosen by Shinada because of her size. Still, from the start, she showed she had the right attitude by not bitching about small things. The crew was very aware of her lack of experience, so they were always checking that she wasn't hiding discomfort just to show her stamina. That is, an experienced suit actor would know when something was amiss and call attention to it. She didn't have that experience, so the crew had to constantly make sure things were in working order. Her first day on set was a lot of fun mostly because she looked so bewildered by the whole thing. She and Yoshida hung out a lot and he helped her to relax and to acclimate to the shoot. Chatty me spent a lot of time with her throughout her month-plus on set and early on, when she had several hours to kill before a shot, I pulled her over to the live-action shooting to introduce her to Kaneko. By the end, she was a real pro. I haven't seen her since a promotional event for the film in Shibuya. Actually, no one seems to know where she is today.
How did your cameo in Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S come about?
One day on the set, Tezuka jokingly said, "So, Norman, are you going to be a runner again?" I replied, "Do you have anything sitting down? I'm sick of running!" He laughed and said, "Actually, we do." It was a lot of fun shooting my brief moment and after being on-hand for five Godzilla productions, I was finally able to get my name in the credits.
Tell me about Tsutomu Kitagawa portraying Godzilla and Hirofumi Ishigaki as Kiryu.
Kitagawa was the main Godzilla actor throughout the Millennium series. I met him on Godzilla 2000 for an interview for Fangoria, and again on Megaguirus for another interview. For GMK, it was Yoshida in the role of Godzilla. So, I really became friendly with Kitagawa from Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla on. During our first two interviews, he was a little hard to connect with. However, getting to know him, I discovered him to be a warm and friendly man. We had a thing going where I would teach him a new English word every day on the set. I can't say he was a great student, but he did his best to learn English. Other times, we'd sit and just talk about things while the crew prepared a shot. When he learned I had worn the SokogekiGoji suit (GMK suit), he wanted me to try on his Godzilla suit, but he was shorter than me and I could fit inside. Like all professional suit actors, he had the right stuff, which was an ability to get along with everyone and to work with the crew and not hinder them with trivial complaints.
(Norman England behind-the-scenes inside the SokogekiGoji suit. Photo provided by Norman)
You have written the subtitles for these films, correct? Could you tell me how that came about?
I didn't do the subs for Godzilla films. The closest I came was giving what is called a "native check" to GMK. Kaneko asked me to look them over before the premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2001. Today, I am a professional subtitlest, but at the time I didn't know squat about subbing. Be that as it may, I made a bunch of changes, and then sent them to producer Tomiyama. When I saw the film at the TIFF screening, I noticed that about 1/3 of my suggestions made it on-screen. I don't know what's become of that set of subs because in the US, the English subs on the DVDs and Blu-rays are dub-titles.
What is next for Norman's future?
I turned 60 this year, which kind of sucks, but that's life. I still work every day doing some sort of writing: Magazine articles, subtitles, film promotion, etc. When I get the work to be on-set, I do that too. I haven't had the urge to direct because I don't like the hassle of searching for a budget. I don't involve myself with micro-budget productions anymore because they are too rough, and I've learned everything I can from the ones I've done in the past. Even mid-size productions can mean only an hour or two of rest between days. One thing I'm thinking to do is give Godzilla tours around the Tokyo area to foreigners. After a quarter-century here, I know Japan very well, and I also know Godzilla from the viewpoint of a set veteran and as a fan since I started watching Godzilla movies when I was four years old. I have an incredible workload for the next half a year, but once that's done, maybe I'll put some real thought into it. My only stipulation would be that I wouldn't allow anyone to wear a Godzilla themed t-shirt. We wouldn't want to appear like a bunch of weirdos to the locals.
Finally, based on your set experiences, can you briefly sum up your time on each of the Millennium productions?
When I think back on Godzilla 2000, I cringe at how naive I was about how things worked at Toho. But I had a great time. I went over with Kaneko the day before my official set visit was to start and he introduced me to the cast, which helped a lot when I had to do my interviews with them later on. It was my first time to see the actual Godzilla suit in action. It was a straightforward shot, but I couldn't believe I was looking at the real thing. My best memory is bringing lead actress Naomi Nishida over to the FX set as she hadn't yet seen the Godzilla suit. For whatever reason, she didn't know Godzilla was a man in a suit. When Godzilla moved on stage -because Kitagawa was in it - she screamed. It was kind of cute. It was also my first time to be a runner in a Godzilla film. I flash by in a yellow shirt during the scene where the UFO lands on a building's roof.
(Norman England with Naomi Nishida on Godzilla 2000. Photo provided by Norman)
(Norman England with Shusuke Kaneko behind-the-scenes on Godzilla 2000. Photo provided by Norman)
By this production, I was more acclimated to film shoots, having been to other film sets in the interim. It was my first time experiencing the "huddle," which is what I call the space around the film camera where you have the cameraman, focus puller, camera assistants, and the collection of still cameramen. Since modern FX are built up in front of the movie camera, still cameramen need to get as close to the camera's line-of-sight to get a decent photo. So, even though Studio 9 is spacious, we all have to huddle as close to each other as possible. I still recall my first time being squeezed in with everyone, Godzilla up on stage, and FX director Suzuki right behind me. It was incredible! My most embarrassing moment on set was when trying not to get too familiar since I was still a newcomer. To get out of everyone's way, I hopped on a platform near the rear of Studio 9, only to hear someone say, "Norman, you need to get down from there." It was producer Tomiyama! He was telling me this because right behind my head was the flying Megaguirus and they were about the release it to sail down wires into Godzilla. I looked around and the entire staff was staring at me.
(Norman England behind-the-scenes of Godzilla vs. Megaguirus. Photo provided by Norman)
I refer to 2001 as "My year of Godzilla." Both Kaneko and the PR guys at Toho were very accommodating and allowed me to come and go freely. The staff too was terrific and made me feel welcome every step of the way. Both leads Chiharu Niiyama and Ryudo Uzaki were terrific throughout shooting too, especially Chiharu, who would tease me when hearing me speak English. She'd make these odd noises that kind of resembled English chatter. It's impossible to pin down any one specific moment that outshines all others, but I fondly remember the night when the Yokohama bay set was blown up in the big pool. I was on a ladder with my camera perched above director Kamiya and a few feet to me left was veteran Toho still cameraman Takashi Nakao on another ladder. When the blast went off, it gave off a wave of heat that was so intense I had to feel my eyebrows to make sure they were still there. Nakao mentored me on how to shoot kaiju. It was his last Godzilla production, having started on King Kong vs. Godzilla. He passed away a few years ago. I miss him loads. The same for actor Hideyo Amamoto. Whenever he was shooting, the two of us would have lunch together at the cafeteria. He was wonderfully blunt and shared a lot of Toho stories with me. He, too, passed away. I miss him loads too.
(Norman England with Hideyo Amamoto as Professor Hirotoshi Isayama of GMK. Photo provided by Norman)
(Norman England with Chiharu Niiyama as Yuri Tachibana and Masahiro Kobayashi as Teruaki Takeda in GMK. Photo provided by Norman)
(Norman England with Takashi Nakao behind-the-scenes of GMK. Photo provided by Norman)
By this time I had fallen into a pattern where my summers were dedicated to the Godzilla set: Wake up in the morning, ride the train, and take the walk over to Toho. For this film, I spent most of my time on the FX set and only met up Tezuka's live-action crew when they were shooting at Toho. Like the previous films, I was still writing for Fangoria, but I had expanded to include reports for Hobby Japan. I was also writing a bi-weekly report for Toho's Godzilla page called, "The Norman Report." My fondest memory is when the art staff unveiled a roof-top sign that read "Norman's English School." I was speechless. It makes appearances throughout the rest of the Millennium Series and even appears in "Kill Bill pt.1"
(Norman England with Masaaki Tezuka behind-the-scenes on Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla. Photo provided by Norman)
(Norman England behind-the-scenes with the Kiryu suit on Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla. Photo provided by Norman)
(Norman England behind-the-scenes with the Maser Canon on Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla. Photo provided by Norman)
(Norman England with Kana Onodera of Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla. Photo provided by Norman)
G: Tokyo S.O.S.
Like GxMG, I spent most of my time on the FX set, although the dynamic changed a bit with previous FX director Yuichi Kikuchi being replaced by Eiichi Asada. Still, Asada was easy-going. I spent most of my time either hanging out with suit maker Shinichi Wakasa or helping the art staff, who would give me minimal tasks like cutting out windows or gluing things to buildings. Yumiko Shaku was also gone (for the most part) from this production. She was very bright and approachable, and I missed her. I didn't develop a rapport with the actors on this one in the way I had on previous productions. I would say that the most memorable part of this production was the Mothra suits. They were gorgeous, even the larva ones. My most embarrassing moment was the time I got covered with Mothra webbing during a take while snapping a photo. The photo came out great, but my shirt was ruined.
(Norman England behind-the-scenes of Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. Photo provided by Norman)
(Norman England's cameo in Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. Photo provided by Norman)
(From left to right: Koichi Ueda, Takeo Nakahara, Akira Nakano, Norman England, and Toru Minegishi of Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S' wrap party. Photo provided by Norman)
By the time Final Wars came around, I was kind of burnt out on Godzilla, having spent the past five years coming and going on set. Also, a lot of the upper crew changed because of director Kitamura. It felt a lot different from the other Godzilla sets. I would pop by every now and then when I had the time, but at this point, I was more interested in making my own films or working on productions rather than just reporting on them. Oddly, my best memory of this set is not actually related to Godzilla. It was just before shooting began and I was at Toho visiting the Godzilla art department when they were preparing miniatures. When I stepped outside to go home, I saw Shinji Higuchi. He looked at me and said, "Norman! I need foreigners for my film Lorelei! Please be in my film!" How could I refuse? A month or so later, I shot my scene and have the distinction of being the first human you see in a Shinji Higuchi movie.
(Norman England behind-the-scenes of Godzilla: Final Wars. Photo provided by Norman)
Thank you for the insight and memories on these sets, Norman. Looking forward to more.
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This article was written By Huge-Ben and published on 2019-10-04 16:25:13
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