Norman England has been a lifelong fan of Japan’s giant monster movies, including Ishiro Honda’s “Godzilla,” the iconic 1954 film that kicked off the kaijū (monster) genre worldwide. His obsession led him to become the Japan correspondent for Fangoria, a U.S.-based horror film fan magazine.
In 1997, the year he joined the publication, England interviewed Shusuke Kaneko, who had directed “Gamera: Guardian of the Universe” (1995) and “Gamera: Attack of the Legion” (1997) — two films that revived a series featuring the titular giant flying turtle that the Daiei studio had launched in the 1960s. The original films had been entertainment for kids, but Kaneko took the series in a scarier, more adult direction that intrigued England.
His interview with Kaneko slowly developed into a friendship that lasted through the director’s work on “Gamera: Revenge of Iris” (1999) and two films in the “Godzilla” series, “Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack” (abbreviated as “GMK”) in 2001 and “Godzilla: Final Wars” in 2004. With Kaneko’s backing and encouragement, England spent months on the sets of these and other “Godzilla” movies, taking thousands of photos and emailing detailed reports to friend and fellow kaijū film fan Ed Godziszewski in the United States.
These emails and England’s extensive set reports for Fangoria form the basis for the new book “Behind the Kaiju Curtain: A Journey Onto Japan’s Biggest Film Sets,” an insider’s account of Japanese monster movie-making that delves deep into everything from its techniques to its unspoken rules, while bringing its personalities to life. The book also captures a time — the late 1990s and early 2000s — when the Japanese film industry was transitioning from traditional practical effects, such as those involving man-in-a-suit monsters, to green screens and computer graphics.
“The way they made ‘GMK’ is not done anymore,” England tells The Japan Times. “Even then, the crafts they brought to that, the miniatures and so on, were starting to fade out. At the time I didn’t realize that I was there at the pinnacle of it.”
The process of writing the book took nearly four years of sifting, cutting and rewriting with the help of editor Patrick Galvan, and England says his aim was to “tell my story, but not just make a list of who I met and so on. I tried to bring across the essence of the experience so that the readers are there with me.” This goal, he adds, had been there since the beginning of his reporting career: “It was always in the back of my mind when the opportunity arose to be on the set. So I tried to keep really accurate notes of what was going on. And I took a ridiculous number of photos.”
His original plan was to write a conventional “making of” book focusing on the “Godzilla” series, but when he first shopped the proposal around in the early 2000s, no one was interested. “Godzilla was really at one of its lowest points then,” he says.
Also, by that time, England’s relationship with Toho, the studio behind all of the “Godzilla” films, was beginning to fray. “They had really come down on me,” he says. “Like why the hell is this guy on the set so much? But I already had enough.”
Nonetheless, he describes the experience of being on kaijū film sets as “mostly fun — I met a lot of great people.”
“There were a few that resented my presence,” he adds. “Generally, though, people were excited by my interest. And they knew that I was writing for Fangoria, which was really the key. Everybody wanted to be recognized in the West so they saw that as my function.”
During the production of “GMK” — an experience that is the centerpiece of the book — England started an English-language web page for Toho filled with set photos and news. “I still have fans today,” he says. “I still get people saying ‘I loved your reports.’ But Toho took down the page two years ago.”
To England, being on set and working behind the scenes firsthand was addictive. “Every day was different. Every day was some new challenge, something new to see, like explosions. And I like explosions,” he says with a laugh. “Of course, some days were boring, such as when they were doing the green screen stuff, but I find the filmmaking process very interesting.”
As the only non-Japanese on the set, however, he had to tread carefully so as not to upset the sensibilities of the staff, some of whom had worked on the series for decades. He mentions one veteran kaijū book author who visited the “GMK” set and got excited when a light threw Godzilla’s shadow on the wall. “He was going ‘Oh my God, that’s the shadow of Godzilla!’” England says. “He was really making the staff nervous by being too much the otaku (obsessed fan). They ended up banning him from the set for being too nerdy. I’m a Godzilla nerd, too, but I knew not to take it that seriously.”
Instead, England cracked jokes to lighten the mood. He recalls a producer telling him, “When you’re on the set, the staff is really excited. You have a really good effect on them.”
“But then he asked me to tone it down,” England adds.
Especially in the early days of his on-set reporting career, England would occasionally overstep what to him were invisible boundaries. Once he was scolded by a film publicity rep for taking a box lunch, which was normally reserved for the crew. “But Kaneko had told me to take it,” he explains. Another time an assistant director yelled at him for speaking to an actor between shots — another no-no — but the actor had spoken to him first. “I said ‘I’m going home. Don’t yell at me.’ I just went home.”
Soon enough, though, he was “down in the trenches” again. “It wasn’t all fun and games,” he says. “I was very aware that at any moment I could do something wrong and get my a– kicked off the set.”
Ultimately, England found himself accepted less for toeing the line and more for his own love of film. “That’s the way that I got through to the filmmakers,” he says. “It wasn’t so much about how I respected them. It was showing a passion for film and showing them that film was a part of my being.”
This included Kaneko, a reserved and scholarly type that England found to be less than forthcoming when they first met. “He was not as approachable as some of the others, not as open,” he recalls.
Then, one day, they began talking about Steven Spielberg’s 1984 film “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” of which they were both big fans. England’s description of one scene, in which a seemingly dangerous threat to Indiana and his companions turns out to be a clever visual gag, delighted Kaneko and broke the ice. From there, a beautiful friendship began.
For England, this encounter was also a lesson in what really motivated the people working long hours under harsh conditions to make Godzilla and his scaly foes come to life: “Their goal is not to make buildings explode but to make the audience feel something from seeing the explosion.”
Or, for that matter, from seeing the ‘king of monsters’ terrorize Tokyo.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.