ON DIRECTING GODZILLA AND GAMERA! Shusuke Kaneko on Filmmaking the Kaiju Way!

Shusuke Kaneko answers questions about his career. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Shusuke Kaneko is an acclaimed Japanese director who rose to prominence internationally in 1995 with the release of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, a landmark kaiju film that still enjoys tremendous popularity around the world. Mr. Kaneko built on that worldwide success with Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion (1996) and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999). In 2001, Mr. Kaneko directed GMK: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, which is often cited by genre fans as one of the best Godzilla films of the Millennium series. In May 2012, Mr. Kaneko was interviewed by Brett Homenick about his celebrated contributions to the Godzilla and Gamera series.

Brett Homenick: My first question starts at the beginning. What did you appreciate or find influential (about films when you were going to school)?

Shusuke Kaneko: I didn’t go to film school. I went to an educational college to get the license for elementary school. I have a license of elementary school as a teacher.

BH: So when did you become interested in becoming a filmmaker as opposed to an elementary school teacher?

SK: When I was a 16-year-old, first-year high school student, I made an 8mm film with my classmates for a school festival. That was my first experience to make a film. Before that, I was a boy who liked cartoons, science-fiction novels – that kind of boy. But when I went to high school, an older student told me, “Last year, we made an 8mm movie, so our class built a strong sense of unity.” It was exciting to hear that. “Okay, I’ll make a film!” It was a 30-minute film: A high school boy loves his schoolmate, but he was shy. In the end, he drops out of school. That’s the story. But during the festivals, a lot of people came, so it was exciting. Therefore, I wanted to be a film director.

BH: During this time, as a fan of movies, what did you enjoy specifically? Were you into kaiju movies or just science fiction in general and maybe dramas?

SK: When I was a school kid, I loved kaiju movies. In my sixth year of elementary school, Ultraman (1966-67) began airing. I was 12 years old. Nowadays, Ultraman looks like a childish thing, but at that time, it was science fiction. The situation was very science fiction — the criminal kaiju came, and Ultraman was the policeman. So it was a cool story for boys like me at 12 years old. I was so excited, but at that time, I didn’t want to become a guy who made kaiju movies. I wanted to become a cartoon writer or novelist or something, but after high school, I wanted to become a film director. But the film industry was in a recession. No one was selected from the students. So I thought I had to get some kind of license, a teacher’s license, just in case I couldn’t become a film director.

BH: It was hard to break into the film industry if you were from the outside. So you pursued education in case you could not become a film director.

SK: Yes. I could enter the studio after university. I took an assistant director examination. Nikkatsu Studios gave assistant director examinations. Only two had passed out of 300 applicants. I began to work cleaning the floor of the set. That was the first step. After the training period, at last, I had become a director. Do you know the name of roman pornos?

BH:  Oh, yes. Pink eiga.

SK: Yeah. At age 28, I started filmmaking as a director. After that, I thought, “What is Japanese entertainment?” So kaiju movies came back to my memory after almost 15 or 20 years. In the mid-‘80s, videotapes began to be sold. So I went to a video store. I found a kaiju movie which I loved during my childhood. So I started to think about making a kaiju film after I became a director.

BH: When it came to the first Gamera movie, how did that come about? How did you get hired as the director for the first Gamera movie?

SK: It’s another long story! (laughs) The Daiei people asked me, “Do you want to make a film? How about Daimajin?” So at that time, I assumed it’s better to make Gamera than Daimajin. It depends on cost, the budget. But after that meeting, years passed, and Toho started the Godzilla movies again. Do you know Mr. Omori?

BH: Kazuki Omori.

SK: Kazuki Omori made two Godzilla movies. At the end of the film, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), a trailer for Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) played, and I got so nervous! (laughs) “Why can’t I make a Godzilla movie?” So I mailed the producer, Mr. (Shogo) Tomiyama, a greeting card, a “Happy New Year” card, and I wrote that I wanted to make Godzilla vs. Mothra.

But Mr. Tomiyama called me and said, “I’m sorry, but the director is (Takao) Okawara.”  That rumor began to spread in the industry, so the Daiei people came back and asked, “Could you make a Gamera movie?” So I asked, “How much do you have now for the budget?” They said five million (dollars). So I said,” You should make a Gamera comedy!”  That was the start of Gamera. But I accepted the offer, and I asked Mr. (Kazunori) Ito, the scriptwriter, to write the Gamera story.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Given the limitations of the budget, what approach did you take to make sure that the film would still have good quality?

SK: We had many storyboards with Mr. (Shinji) Higuchi. Mr. Higuchi wrote the Gamera parts; I wrote the human parts. We discussed the shots, what was necessary or not necessary. I abandoned many shots, so I think the budget got condensed.

BH: When it came to casting the movie, what were you looking for in the actors?

SK: We had auditions. I met many people. A good actor or actress can believe kaiju. So that was the point I used to pick actors and actresses.

BH: Please talk about Mr. Ito’s writing process, especially on Gamera 3. How did you form and structure the story working with Mr. Ito?

SK: During Gamera 3, there was trouble because the president of Daiei chose another actress. The Daiei president, Mr. (Yasuyoshi) Tokuma was a great guy, but he ordered us to use Nozomi Ando instead of Ai Maeda. So we were opposed to the order. But by creating another role, we were able to overcome the difference.

Another producer didn’t like Ayako Fujitani. Ayako’s character is to connect emotionally with Gamera. That was her role. But Mr. Ito’s idea was to create another role, for another character to hate Gamera. So I thought the concept needed Ayako, too. So if Ayako disappeared, the story would be unfair to Gamera.  That was my opinion. But I battled with the producers! (laughs) With those kinds of things, the story is a little confusing. In the end, I wrote the story.

BH: Mr. (Kow) Otani is your composer that you’ve worked with the most in kaiju movies. What do you like about his music? What artistically works for you about his music?

SK: His music was so emotional and classical; it reminds me of old-fashioned kaiju movies, (Akira) Ifukube’s sound. His music makes me excited. It makes your heart beat.

BH: Between Gamera 2  and Gamera 3, your editor, Mr. (Shizuo) Arakawa was replaced by Mr. (Isao) Tomita. What were your thoughts on the change? Was there a story behind that? Please talk about that change.

SK: Mr. Tomita was the best editor. He has died already. I asked him to edit my first film. Mr. Arakawa was kind of a beginner.  So I ordered him to edit frame by frame. He obeyed whatever I said. He was very faithful to my requests.  But Mr. Tomita was creative in editing. He had ideas, so I worked with him to edit Gamera 3.

BH: So Mr. Tomita brought his own ideas to the movie.

SK: Yes. He was such an interesting guy. I miss him very much. Over 10 years ago, he died. Mr. Tomita edited GMK, too. GMK was his last work.

BH: When did you decide that kaiju were best used in fantasy rather than science fiction? When did you come up with that idea?

SK: We didn’t consider them science-fiction movies. We didn’t have that kind of an idea. But ever since the Godzilla movies in the 1950s, many kaiju movies were made after that. They became their own genre. They are kaiju movies rather than science fiction. In kaiju movies, some have science-fiction tastes. But the genre itself is not science fiction. It’s its own genre. Within the genre, there are science-fiction leanings, there are fantasy leanings, but the kaiju genre is a genre in and of itself.

The concept of science fiction started in America because America is a young country. Japan has such a long tradition, so it’s difficult for science fiction to root itself in this country. The genre of science fiction in Japan was influenced by the U.S., so that’s how it came to be. But it would probably be difficult for a country that has as long a history as Japan’s to create its own version of science fiction on its own, considering the long history that it has.

So the first Gamera was science fiction. Gamera 2 was a war movie. Gamera 3 was a little supernatural.  GMK had a supernatural taste with a war movie combination.

BH: Some people think that Gamera 3 is a little ambiguous, that no one is sure if Iris is a male or female, or that Gamera and Iris are gods or not. What are your thoughts on these ambiguities?

SK: When you set out to create science fiction, you’re basically presenting something that doesn’t exist in the real world. As you pursue that, and as you look into the various aspects of their qualities, that’s sort of a byproduct of what happens when you begin to pursue something and really look into the depths of something that doesn’t really exist. It’s just the way things turned out.

I wanted to present an adolescent story in a kaiju movie. The girl in Gamera 3 and Iris made love, but I wanted to portray a relationship between the girl and Iris that is more spiritual. The more I wanted to depict the spiritual, the more it became ambiguous. So that’s my idea of how it became ambiguous.

Big monsters destroying buildings was always erotic for boys! (laughs) Not big monsters, but Dracula and the Wolf Man are more erotic for ladies. But big monsters are not much for girls.

BH: Do you think that Gamera 2 and Gamera 3 were not as well received in Japan as Gamera 1 was?

SK: I’m not in agreement with that.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Let’s talk about GMK. How did it come about that you got hired to direct GMK?

SK: I made Cross Fire (2000) before GMK. During postproduction of Cross Fire, Mr. Tomiyama invited me to dinner, and he said, “I want to see Kaneko Godzilla!” (laughs) So I was so excited. “Okay, I’ll make my Godzilla.”

BH: So just like that. Excellent. Well, how does editing a Toho film differ from working with Daiei Studios?

SK: Not so different. It’s almost the same editing system. But Toho has a big studio, so the special effects studio was very big. Daiei had a small studio, so the special effects studio was small. Because the Daiei studios were so small, the camera had to be set up in a single direction and only what was shown within the camera frame was what you can set up on the stage. There would be nothing on either side. Those were the constraints I had to deal with in the creation of Gamera.

In Daiei Studios, I directed based on continuity. With the Godzilla movies, they have a different system. They do not shoot based on continuity. They build the set and shoot without continuity. This system costs more.

So this system costs more. It sounds very flexible in shooting, but on the other hand, this way becomes looser. The continuity becomes a little more dubious. It gives impression of more freedom and flexibility, but from a continuity perspective, things don’t necessarily fit together as smoothly as they probably should.

GMK was based on our Gamera system.

BH: For the music, Mr. Otani used synthesizers for the music. Was this an artistic choice, or was it because of the lack of time to score?

SK: Artistic. Mr. Otani’s way of composing became more and more artistic. So he’s not a popular composer for movies anymore. He’s a little too artistic. That tendency started with GMK.  He has a wonderful talent, but now he moved away from films. His music sounds kind of contemporary — difficult to understand, too artistic. He said that he loves music so much, when he thinks about music, he cries. He’s an artist! (laughs)

BH: You were originally supposed to direct the SFX scenes in GMK. What were your ideas for GMK’s SFX, and what made the change to Mr. (Makoto) Kamiya?

SK: I drew the storyboards at first, a 300-shot kaiju cartoon. So first I drew the storyboards for GMK, about 300 cuts. Then Mr. Kamiya took it over. He rewrote the storyboards for the SFX direction.

He likes kaiju battles. He doesn’t have a sense of genre — fantasy or science fiction. He simply likes the battle sequences.

BH: What would you say are the differences between Mr. Kamiya and Mr. Higuchi, as far as being SFX directors?

SK: They are both excellent guys. Mr. Higuchi likes explosions very much. Mr. Kamiya likes fighting. I like the two guys very much.

BH: In GMK, you worked with a very legendary Toho actor, Hideyo Amamoto. What was he like as a person to work with?

SK: During shooting, the war in Afghanistan began. He said, “If I were younger, I’d want to fight the U.S. in Afghanistan.”

BH: (laughs) So he was a very sort of a strange person, maybe.

SK: He was angry with the U.S. invasion.

BH: So he would be fighting against America in Afghanistan?

SK: Yeah, that’s what he said. (laughs)

BH: Overall, other than that, do you have any other memories of Mr. Amamoto from the set of the movie?

SK: He lived in a family restaurant. (laughs) Do you know Mishuku, next to Setagaya Park? Film staff members, like the assistant director, went to the family restaurant, bringing him the script. He was always there. (laughs) He was always staying at the same family restaurant, so my staff members went to bring him the script.

He loved Spain. During the wrap party, he sang Spanish songs. He bought the bag in the film in Spain. So he used the bag he bought in Spain in the movie.

BH: One person who was in all your Gamera movies and in GMK was Mr. Hiroyuki Watanabe. What was it about Mr. Watanabe that led you to cast him in every Gamera movie and GMK? Did you like working with Mr. Watanabe?

SK: Yeah, I like him. He looks like a soldier more than real soldiers! (laughs) He had a team that practiced war games. In Gamera 2, his team members came to the studio as actors, playimg the Self-Defense army.

Mr. Watanabe formed a private army for fun. They don’t use actual bullets, but they’re not just going through the motions. They play war games. So he brought the members of the war games team to the studio, and we used them as extras in the film.

The extras aimed at the monsters, and they looked very cool. They looked really great, and we actually had Self-Defense Force members in the film, but these guys looked better than the actual SDF troops.

We received cooperation from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. They were loaned to the film for free, free of charge. They used that opportunity as an exercise with citizens. So it was almost like a joint exercise with citizens and also provided an opportunity for them to portray themselves accurately as a PR opportunity through the film. Looking at the Gamera film, it looks like a very expensive film. There are tanks in there, there are Self-Defense Forces, but that was all provided for free. So it looks like a very expensive film, but in fact all those elements were provided for free.

In GMK, there was no Self-Defense Force army. We had to create the army, so actually quite a bit of money was required to do that. In (Godzilla) vs. King Ghidorah and vs. Mothra, the SDF was there. But in Mothra, the SDF attacked Mothra. The little girl asked the SDF, “Why did you attack the good monster, Mothra?” So the SDF stopped cooperating with Godzilla films.

Do you know G-Force (from the Heisei Godzilla series)? The SDF stopped cooperating on those films, so Toho created G-Force. During that time, Daiei asked to cooperate with the SDF. So we could accurately portray the SDF.

In the Gamera story, the Self-Defense Force kind of became nervous during the sequence where jet planes were shot down. So in Gamera, there are no attack jets that go down in the film. None of them actually go down. In GMK, Godzilla burns a jet that goes down and actually goes into a private home. That wasn’t an issue on that film.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: In GMK, was that a parody of Haruki Kadokawa (played by Shiro Sano)?

SK: No. (laughs) Shiro Sano was doing a parody of a director he knew.

BH: Overall, what did you think of GMK? What did you think of the final outcome of GMK? Were you satisfied with it as a film?

SK: Yeah, I was satisfied. But at the beginning, I wanted other kaiju — Angilas and Varan.  I wanted to do a different kaiju movie, but then it didn’t happen, so I kind of regret that. It was unfortunate. GMK started at the beginning of 2001, in January. In December 2000, Godzilla x Megaguirus failed at the box office. Toho’s president, Mr. (Isao) Matsuoka, ordered to stop making Godzilla movies. So I went to Toho’s office. Mr. Tomiyama said, “I’m sorry, but Mr. Matsuoka has said to stop making Godzilla movies. But if you use Mothra and King Ghidorah, you can continue the series.” So I thought for 15 minutes and changed the idea. Instead of Angilas, I used King Ghidorah, and instead of Varan, I used Mothra. So GMK started.

They thought these monsters (Angilas and Varan) were not appealing enough to the Toho executives. When I attended my elementary school class reunion, we talked about monster topics. Those monsters were forgotten among my old friends! So those monsters were not impressive enough and lacked appeal. There was nothing you could do about it.


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