ULTRA-DIRECTOR! Kengo Kaji on His Career at Tsuburaya Pro and Beyond!

Writer-director Kengo Kaji in 2012. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Kengo Kaji is one of Japan’s most prolific and celebrated writers of manga. However, it’s his involvement with Ultraman and other tokusatsu projects that fascinate kaiju fans on both sides of the Pacific. Mr. Kaji directed episodes of Ultraman Max (2005-06), Ultraman Mebius (2006-07), and Ultraseven X (2007), as well as Ultra Galaxy Mega Monster Battle: NEO (2008-09). Additionally, Mr. Kaji worked with celebrated tokusatsu innovator Keita Amemiya as a writer-director on the popular Garo series (2005-06). Moreover, Mr. Kaji co-screenwrote Eko Eko Azarak: Misa the Dark Angel (1998) and the recent splatter flick Tokyo Gore Police (2008). Mr. Kaji spoke with Brett Homenick in May 2012 about his TV and film career in the realm of kaiju and tokusatsu. The interview is translated by Asako Kato.

Brett Homenick: My first question is, how did you get started in the movie business?

Kengo Kaji: (in English) Long, long time ago! (laughs) I’ve been a film director for only 10 years. Have you ever heard of Kozure Okami or Lone Wolf and Cub? Kazuo Koike is the writer of this story. I started at his school, free of charge, on a very private basis. I joined that school after college. Thirty years ago, the film industry in Japan was declining dramatically at that point in time, so I wanted to boost it up again. The film industry was very slow, so we had to shift our gears toward manga instead of films. And then it should be followed by films if the manga stories are very interesting. It could lead to films after all. So I became a scriptwriter, or story creator, of Japanese manga first. I’ve been involved in this business for 20 years or so. One of my works became a video movie, or V-cinema, which is not played in the theater, but for a direct-to-video release.

Thirty years ago, at that time, they put a lot of money into it. The budget was small, but probably equal to low-budget films. It was a story I created for manga; it was actually adopted for this video cinema. That was how I got involved in the film business. It’s not strictly film, but also V-cinema.

BH: Right, right.

KK: Do you know Eko Eko Azarak: Wizard of Darkness?

BH: Yes.

KK: It’s a horror manga. It became a TV series. The producer came to me and asked me to do the screenplay. That was the start of everything.

BH: Actually, speaking of Eko Eko Azarak, please talk about that experience more — what it was like to write the script for the movie, what the process was like. Because you wrote Part III, so what was the process of writing the script, knowing that there had been two previous Eko Eko Azarak movies?

KK: Shimako Sato was the director for Part I and Part II, and she’s very famous now for her work. And she’s a friend of mine. I came across a producer who got involved in Part I and Part II, so this producer came to me, saying that we’re planning to make it as a TV series. So that’s how I got started.

The first thing he got involved in was the second season, which became popular. So they ended up creating Part III of Eko Eko Azarak. I was not a director but just a scriptwriter. That’s how I got started in the film business. Since I knew Shimako Sato, the director of Part I and Part II, and I also knew the producer of Part I and Part II, that’s how I got started for Part III.

BH: Overall, with the finished product of Eko Eko Azarak III, were you satisfied with how the movie turned out? Also, were there any ideas that you wanted to use that, for whatever reason, you couldn’t use?

KK: It’s a difficult question! (laughs) Actually, we put (together) all the ideas of the writers for the TV series’ second season, and based on those ideas of those writers, I created the story, but because of the budget restrictions, I couldn’t put everything in it. So I was not particularly satisfied with the finished product in that sense, but I did my very best. Considering the low budget and the efforts exerted by all the staff members and the cast, I’m pretty much satisfied with the finished product.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Moving ahead a bit, how did you get hired to direct Ultraman Max?

KK: The first assistant director of Eko Eko Azarak was the assistant director for Ultraman Cosmos, and at that time they needed more scriptwriters. So he identified me and asked me to come over. And then I wrote something for Ultraman Cosmos first.

There’s a director named Takeshi Yagi, who directed Ultraman Cosmos. And, a few years later, he became a producer for Ultraman Max. That’s how I got involved.

BH: When you were hired to write the scripts and to direct episodes of Ultraman Max, what ideas did you want to bring to the show? What approach did you take? What did you want to bring to Ultraman?

KK: I talked and talked about what kind of ideas and concepts to bring into the new Ultraman, Max. Both Mr. Takeshi Yagi and I are big fans of Ultra Seven. Ultra Seven was kind of an old-fashioned production, and we wanted to put the taste of Ultra Seven into Ultraman Max. But still, we wanted to make it a very entertaining new type of show, so we decided to be brand-new scriptwriters and directors who never experienced Ultraman before. So it’s very hand-made type of stuff, but still very new and old-fashioned at the same time. It emulated Ultra Seven, but still it’s kind of a new concept to be brought to Ultraman Max.

BH: So you wanted to combine the old and the new to create the latest Ultraman; it was about bringing the best of the old and the new.

KK: So respecting the spirits of the old creators of Ultra Seven and so forth, we made the most of their spirits in order to create something new for the Ultraman Max series.

BH: When you were directing Ultraman Max, what memories do you have of directing the show, and what type of direction would you want to give the actors to get the performances that you wanted from them? So please describe your directing of Ultraman Max.

KK: (laughs) I was regarded as an avant-garde type of director, very different from the ex-directors of the Ultraman series. But they let me do whatever I wanted because the series has a variety of elements, like love/romance, suspense, and many different entertainment elements in it. So I could venture (out); I could do whatever I wanted in there.

As far as actors go, I made lots of friends there, and it was a team (that wanted) to create something new. I still have lots of friends from this production.

BH: What other memories do you have from working on Ultraman Max, like perhaps any stories from the set of the (series) or just any interesting memories that stick out of the production of Ultraman Max?

KK: (laughs) Too many to tell! As you may know, there’s an army to protect the earth called Chikyu Boeigun (Earth Defense Force). There are rules and regulations which say that directors and scriptwriters are not allowed to depict the private lives of the soldiers. But I wanted to because they have private lives. So I proposed, “Why don’t we have a scene where one of the soldiers is eating gyudon (a bowl of rice topped with beef) at Yoshinoya on off-duty days?” But it was rejected and turned down after all.

There’s another story that I proposed, “Why don’t we let one of the female soldiers wear a mini-skirt instead of a uniform?” In order to do that, I created a story that this soldier got injured and could not put on the uniform, so she had to wear a mini-skirt because of all bandages. And it was okay; it was accepted after all.

BH: Actually, why is it that you couldn’t depict the private lives of the soldiers? Was that Tsuburaya Productions? Did they say no? Why couldn’t you do that?

KK: I guess that probably in old times there were some episodes which depict the private lives of soldiers, but these days there are voices from the audience saying, “Don’t break the children’s dreams.” They are the heroes of children. Even though they have private lives, they don’t want to see it on the screen.

BH: So it humanizes the heroes too much, to show them out of uniform, not looking heroic, looking like regular people.

KK: That’s correct.

BH: With Ultraman Max, what do you think of how it rates with Ultra Seven (and) Ultraman? How do you think it rates among all the Ultraman shows? Give yourself a grade.

KK: I’d like to rate Ultraman Max as number one, but Ultraman Max was based on and emulated Ultra Seven, so I think Ultra Seven is the best.

BH: After Max was (Ultraman) Mebius, and please talk about how you got hired to work on Mebius as well.

KK: Actually, on the day when the filming of Ultraman Max was over, on the day we finished filming, we came back to the staff room, and there was a script of Ultaman Mebius with the name of the director being me. So I was kind of surprised. I knew that they were going to produce Mebius after Max, so I wasn’t surprised much, but I was surprised at the fact that my name was already there before confirmation. So the staff members and cast were almost the same as Ultraman Max, and I really enjoyed being there. But, privately, I was not as heavily involved mentally or invested as I was in Max.

I made friends there, and we are still friends. I got some very nice friendships from this production.

BH: With Mebius, with the work that you did on it, how did you try to make it different from Max? What work went into trying to make it a different series from what you did with Max?

KK: As I said, I was not as invested this time and didn’t put as much energy into it as Max, but the basic difference between the two is that the concept of Mebius is more like trying to copy the old-fashioned Ultraman’s world as much as possible. So it’s more loyal to the original concept. On the other hand, Ultraman Max is something new, even though we emulated the spirits of the old team of Ultra Seven. So it’s very different in that sense. But I was probably not as mentally attached to it as much as Max.

BH: What else do you remember about working on Mebius? Any other memories that stick out? What else can you tell us about working on Mebius?

KK: Actually, I was trying to be avant-garde again in this series as well. Usually there’ a rule that when the leading actor is transformed into Ultraman, there’s a pre-shot scene which is where the leading actor stopped and then transformed into Ultraman. But I hated it. I didn’t want to use it. It’s a pre-shot pattern, and it’s always used over and over, so the audience is used to it. But I didn’t want to use it. So I actually asked the leading actor not to stop but just keep running and then transform while running. And he did.

The president of Tsuburaya didn’t like it at all because this is the pattern that we have to stick to. I apologized, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to do it my own avant-garde way, so it was actually not accepted, but it was there.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: So did it actually make it into the show?

KK: Well, actually, it was used. I apologized, but this is what I wanted, and it’s there. After Mebius, I was not involved in the series of Ultraman anymore. But, after this new style of transformation, they emulated the running transformation! So it was good. I’m happy about it.

BH: Overall, what did you think of Ultraman Mebius?

KK: It’s a very serious Ultraman – very, very serious work, and very different from Max. The taste is very different. I don’t dislike it, but it’s too serious.

BH: Please talk about your work on Ultraseven X.

KK: Mr. Yagi, who directed Ultraman Max, was the producer again, so Mr. Yagi asked me to join the production. I love Ultra Seven, so I was very happy that we could do Ultra Seven finally together! But we were told to make it geared toward adults. That’s how I started.

BH: What memories do you have from Ultraseven X? Also, what ideas did you want to bring to the show, since it was more for adults rather than for children?

KK: Yes, the basic concept is for adults. Even though it’s geared toward adults, we didn’t want to make it too adult. So we wanted to make the story itself and the images of the show to be of high quality, genuinely high quality, even though it’s a low-budget show.

BH: And when the show was finished, how satisfied were you with what you did and the final product?

KK: Actually, I’m pretty much satisfied with the finished product because this is what I call the result of my friendship with Mr. Yagi. We are big fans of Ultra Seven, so we were kind of a dream team. We did everything we wanted to do, and we put all our energies and ideas into it. But still, the budget was limited, so if there were more of a budget, it could have been better.

BH: Another Ultra project you worked on was Ultra (Galaxy Mega) Monster Battle: NEO. Please talk about how, once again, you got hired on that, and your ideas, and so forth.

KK: This is an even lower-budget production! (laughs) There was one set in the studio, and everything was done on that set. The battle of the monsters and the inside of the spaceship, everything took place on that set. The fact that it was a lower-budget production, and there was only one set, was the most difficult part.

But at the same time, it was kind of enjoyable because there was a limited number of people there, and the team, the staff members, including the cameraman and lighting and sound, those guys were very, very good because I had been working with them for a long time on other Ultraman series and the Garo series. So we knew each other very well so that I really had a fun time. This cameraman could do the fighting scenes with monsters, so I could direct the fighting scenes as well. Usually, a different person would do that. So I really enjoyed it, the VFX filming.

BH: That’s interesting you mention that. So what was it like to direct the fighting scenes with the monsters? Did you bring any new ideas that you wanted to do but never got to try before?

KK: Actually, in the fighting scenes, I created a fake Ultraman, who was actually transformed by spacemen. It’s a fake Ultraman, so anything goes. So there were lots of comical scenes while fighting. I put lots of comical scenes in. The regular Ultramen are not allowed to do that. So it was fun.

BH: Gomora was the main monster. What approach did you take, knowing that Gomora was the main monster in this?

KK: This production was for children, so Gomora is one of the top-ranking, most popular monsters for the audience. The idea here is that the producers said, “Why don’t we put the most popular monster in here?” So we did. And Gomora is one of the first monsters that appeared in the Ultraman series. So why don’t we have Gomora on our side to fight against space monsters? That was the concept.

BH: Away from the Ultraman universe, (let’s talk about) Garo. Did you work with Keita Amemiya? Talk about that collaboration with Mr. Amemiya.

KK: I’ve known Mr. Amemiya for quite a while because one time, a long time ago, I asked Mr. Amemiya to design the hero character that I created in my story. I created a manga story, and for one of the heroes there, I wanted Mr. Amemiya to create the character design. Then one day Mr. Amemiya asked me to join Garo.

BH: Please talk about the work that you did writing the script, the ideas that you wanted, and directing as well. How was it different from Ultraman and Tsuburaya Productions?

KK: Totally different! (laughs) It’s a totally different ball game. It’s very hard to explain.

BH: In terms of creative freedom … because you mentioned that Tsuburaya Productions had very strict rules about heroes, how the show portrays them. So did you have more creative freedom with Garo and Mr. Amemiya in charge?

KK: There were some strict rules because Garo is something Mr. Amemiya created, so I had to stick to “Amemiya World.” Within Amemiya World, as far as it goes, I have a freedom, but I can’t go too far.

BH: Talk about directing the show, what approach you took, and what you wanted to get when you were directing the show, from the actors, and what sort of an atmosphere you wanted to create with the show.

KK: Actually, the number-one rule for Amemiya World is to be cool, stay cool; everything should be cool. Number two is, there are lots of night scenes. So his world is always in nighttime. Number three is, use lots of CG. Number four is, lots of action scenes. So it was kind of difficult to balance all four elements all the time, but that’s how we struggled and tried to make a very unique world. It’s called Amemiya World.

BH: What would you say is the main difference between working with Tsuburaya Productions and Amemiya World?

KK: Actually, there is something in common. For Tsuburaya Productions, the most important thing is tradition. So we have to respect what they have done in the past. That’s why there are some rules and regulations. On the other hand, Amemiya World is a unique world, but bound by that world all the time, even though there is some freedom. Within that world, we can do whatever we want. But we have to stick to Amemiya World rules. So they’re very similar in that sense.

BH: Also, please describe your working relationship with Mr. Amemiya while working on Garo. What was it like to work with Mr. Amemiya on this show?

KK: As far as Garo goes, Mr. Amemiya is the master producer, so I’m one of the staff members who tries to reflect Mr. Amemiya’s ideas and concepts in the production. So I’m basically managing and directing what is written in the scriptwriting, but overall I’m one of the hands or one of the staff members Mr. Amemiya used.

On the other hand, on the Ultraman series, I was jointly putting my energy together with Mr. Yagi. So it’s a very different type of work.

BH: So Max was more of a creative endeavor for you than Garo because on Garo you were carrying out Mr. Amemiya’s ideas, but with Max, it was your ideas and Mr. Yagi’s ideas.

KK: Exactly.

BH: Maybe one of your most famous works in America is Tokyo Gore Police.

KK: Tokyo Gore Police! (laughs)

BH: Please talk about how that started for you, how you got involved in Tokyo Gore Police.

KK: (laughs) It’s a long story! (laughs) One of the producers of Eko Eko Azarak was Mr. Yoshinori Chiba. Now he’s working for Nikkatsu. Another director and VFX artist named Mr. Yoshihiro Nishimura, they were working together on some new production. They have a very clear idea about what they want. But they were looking for a scriptwriter. That’s why they approached me, to ask me to write a script for this movie.

BH: Were you allowed a lot of freedom with the scriptwriting because it’s kind of a crazy movie, very wacky movie, so were you allowed to do anything you wanted, or were there any sort of restraints?

KK: Actually, being asked if there’s some freedom or not, yes and no. There’s a plot already created by Mr. Nishimura, so I have to be loyal to that plot. But, as long as the plot is there, I can do whatever I want. So I did. The movie was fun for me because the taste of the plot is very different and unimaginable for me, so it was kind of fun to play with it.

BH: And so what was the process like of writing it and just talk about writing the screenplay and talk about the fun that you were able to have with it. So what did you bring to the script?

KK: Mr. Nishimura is a very talented VFX artist, so the crazy ideas and innovative stuff he came up with were his original ideas. But what I put into it was the characters’ movements and dialogue, which were lacking originally. So I put lots of ideas into each one of the characters.

BH: Ultimately, when the movie was finished, what did you think of Tokyo Gore Police?

KK: (in English) It is a crazy movie! (laughs) The first (thought) I got from the finished product was, it is out of my league! I understand this, but this is not from myself. I don’t dislike the taste, but this is a taste created by the VFX artist, Mr. Nishimura.

BH: That’s all I have, as far as questions go. The last thing is, do you have any closing comments you’d like to make, or would you like to talk about what you’re working on now. Please make any final comments you’d like.

KK: One of my roles now is college professor, and being a college professor I’ve found lots of excellent talents among my students, so I’m trying to put together their talents and try to make very interesting short movies and planning also some feature-length movies as well in the future. So I’m trying to introduce these new, young talents to the film business first, including actors and producers and directors, CG designers, and so forth. Not only in Japan, I want to let them venture out internationally. So what I’m doing right now is trying to put subtitles in English on short movies, to try to put them in the international film festivals.

I wrote an anime series script. I just finished creating scripts for anime films for Iron Man and gave it to the director. It’s going to be released at the San Diego Comic Con (2012). That’s the latest work I’m involved in. I had a lot of fun!

Marvel Entertainment and Sony Pictures are producing it. So that’s the American side. The anime films are produced by Madhouse Studios in Japan. Actually, one of the major differences between the Japanese film industry and the American (side), in this case Marvel and Madhouse, my writing is translated in Sony Pictures and presented to Marvel, and they made some harsh comments about it, but still it’s very, very easy to understand because it’s written in a very constructive way. It says: I like this part, but this part is not coherent with our original concept. So even though it’s a negative comment, it’s written in a very constructive way so that I’m encouraged to rewrite it. But, on the other hand, the Japanese say: No, no, that’s not what we want! (laughs) That’s not the way you should do it! So it’s very negative and very discouraging. So that’s the major difference between the two. That’s the last comment I wanted to make. Thank you very much!

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