DVD Savant Interview with
Steve Ryfle &
Icons of Sci-Fi Toho Collection
I secured an exclusive interview last week with Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, who are contributing two feature commentaries to Sony's new Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection disc. The August 18 release contains three classic-era fantasies: The H-Man, Battle in Outer Space and Mothra. Steve and Ed are personable writers and acknowledged authorities about everything related to Japanese Kaiju, Sci-Fi and fantasy pictures. I talked with them earlier this year before they flew to Topeka, Kansas to do a presentation at the Washburn University Godzilla Fest ... DVD Savant correspondent Bill Shaffer helps to organize the yearly get-together, and told me the appearance was a big success. Now I get to play professional interviewer!
Glenn Erickson: Hello Ed and Steve.
ED GODZISZEWSKI: Hi Glenn. It's a pleasure to talk with you.
STEVE RYFLE: Greetings. It is an honor to speak with the esteemed DVD Savant.
Glenn E: So, how did two American film writers and journalists become qualified as experts on Japanese cinema, and in particular, fantasy films?
ED: Like many people, I started out just as an enthusiastic kid that loved these films. Not until I found Famous Monsters #114 (the all-Japanese monster issue) did I discover other publications on these films, specifically the fanzine Japanese Fantasy Film Journal. Through the fanzine, I was able to get in touch with other people who shared my passion for these films; I always thought I was the only one who liked them, so it was a kind of social awakening. I also got the urge to contribute to the fanzine, so I started writing. I wrote articles for Japanese Fantasy Film Journal, the cover story for the premier issue of Fangoria, and I also published my own magazine, Japanese Giants (www.japanesegiants.com). That gave me the impetus to start researching these films, and so I started writing to people in Japan, and eventually I started traveling to Japan. With the help of some kind people, I was able to visit the studios and meet many of the people who worked on Japanese science fiction films. Although it was hardly my life plan, by chance I wound up marrying a Japanese girl and got a job that enables me to travel to Japan periodically and continue meeting with people. In the 90s, I continued to write for my own magazine as well as G-Fan and also I finally wrote my own book, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Godzilla (Note: now OOP; check Ebay). Around this time, Steve and I met and became good friends, and eventually we teamed up to work together on DVD commentaries that in turn led to the opportunity to make a documentary together. In the process we became acquainted with Ryuji Honda, the son of director Ishiro Honda. The Honda family has been great to work with and they have entrusted us with the English version of the Official Ishiro Honda website (www.ishirohonda.org) and we are now in the process of researching and writing a biography of Mr. Honda.
STEVE: I think we became qualified simply because we've spent far too much of our lives watching and thinking about these movies! Personally, I grew up on a healthy diet of Universal horror movies, Ray Harryhausen, Marvel Comics, Star Wars, the usual stuff, but the Toho films were always more intriguing to me than most anything else. It was a combination of things, but I think the fact that these films were set in Japan and they had invented their own mythology -- a world where giant monsters simply existed and had to be dealt with, and didn't require constant rationalization and explanation -- all of that really appealed to my 10-year-old mind. I wanted to learn more about these names that scrolled across the screen during the credits: who was Eiji Tsuburaya, and how did you pronounce his name, anyway? And when Famous Monsters of Filmland published a diagram of a Godzilla movie's SFX soundstage, I really wanted to learn more about how these films were made. But there was very little information available back then, and that was probably due at least in part to the fact that these films received little respect, as well as the language barrier and other factors. I remember asking a clerk at a bookstore if there were any books about Godzilla and he laughed at me, as if that were the stupidest question in the world. Later on in life I became a professional journalist, mostly writing hard news stories but also covering film more and more. And the curiosity about Godzilla never left me. One day I decided to ask another store clerk about Godzilla books (this was still pre-Amazon.com by a couple of years), figuring that after all this time somebody, somewhere must have written one. To my surprise, there still was nothing available, so I decided there on the spot to write one myself. Of course I had no idea what that would take. And I had no idea that there were people like Ed and Stuart Galbraith and Guy Tucker out there, writing their own books already, who were much better educated and informed about these films than I was. If I had known that, I probably wouldn't have gone forward with it.
I'm not comfortable with the word "expert". I consider myself a student of these films, and of films in general, and I just enjoy researching them and sharing what I learn. I believe one of the things that Ed and I share in common, and it's helped us to collaborate so well, is our sense of responsibility to treat these films fairly and with respect; to help establish and add to their historical record in the English language. I am sure Stuart Galbraith and August Ragone and David Kalat and all the other writers who cover this subject feel the same way. For too long these movies were not treated with any amount of seriousness, and part of our job is to correct that. But to answer your question, we've just been very fortunate to be part of some of the things that have been going on in recent years.
Glenn E: I reviewed an elaborate documentary you did last year on Japanese special effects, Bringing Godzilla Down to Size. I hope you get to do more.
ED: Thanks. We have a few ideas for other projects, and working with the Honda family, we hope that things will pan out. Making our first film was a great experience, and it's gratifying that people have enjoyed it. We hope that people can walk away from it with a better appreciation for both the craft of Japanese special effects and the people behind them. It's one thing to watch movies, enjoy them, even to write and talk about them. But it's another thing to actually make a movie. It taught us a lot about the many processes that are easy to take for granted. A film like this isn't possible without the help and cooperation of many people, especially the on-screen talent. We were worried that it might be hard to get people to appear in our film, but rather than us struggling to get enough people, everyone we asked agreed to help out, so we actually had to cut our list down. We are especially grateful to Mr. Inoue and his assistants who volunteered to stage the special effects demonstration. It was their idea to do this, and they went to an awful lot of trouble to pull it off. We got to witness that first hand, and it was really a magical moment, like being transported back in time to Toho in its heyday. I think it's the highlight of the film.
STEVE: When we first approached Sony about working on what eventually became the Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection, we presented them with a list of possible special features. One of our ideas was for another documentary film, but I won't mention the topic because I'm still hoping we'll get a chance to do it at some point.
Glenn E: Do you keep up contact with the filmmakers from the Kaiju and Sci-Fi films of the 50s, 60s and 70's? Are they still considered celebrities? Do they welcome gaijin interviewers?
ED: Unfortunately, many of the people from that era have passed away over time. But of those who are still around, a few of them still have what I would call celebrity status, at least in fan circles. People like Haruo Nakajima, the original Godzilla actor, and special effects man Teruyoshi Nakano, are pretty well-known and still make appearances and do interviews and the like. Going back 20+ years when I started doing interviews, most of these people were a little surprised and somewhat amused that foreigners knew about these films, much less that we would want to learn about them. But I also met with people involved in making these films who never received any kind of notoriety for their work, even in their own country. One such person was Yasuyuki Inoue, who plays such a big part in our film. We were lucky enough to be introduced to him in 2003. It was one of the best things that could have happened. Visiting him several times over the next few years, I could learn about all the amazing things which he and his staff accomplished during the Golden Age of Toho films, and I could see a wealth of rare production art that he produced for many of these old films, much of which has never been seen outside of the staff room at Toho. I gained a great deal of respect for Mr. Inoue and his staff, and it is always a great pleasure to visit with them. I was thrilled that we could bring their story to the screen in our documentary.
STEVE: I first went to Japan in 1994 and 1996; on both of those trips I traveled with author Stuart Galbraith, as he and I were researching our respective projects. At that time it was still rather unusual for Western writers or journalists to approach the Japanese filmmakers, cast members, and so on for interviews. Until then, I believe the only people who had done so were David Milner, who did a series of interviews for Cult Movies magazine in the early 1990s, and author Guy Tucker, plus a few mainstream journalists such as James Bailey, who interviewed Ishiro Honda around 1991. Nowadays there are fewer surviving members of the original tokusatsu community of course, and because of the Godzilla conventions in America, the Internet, and some of the other things that have happened in recent years -- including our documentary -- they seem to be much more aware of the Western fan base. That said, these people haven't become jaded; they still welcome the chance to tell their stories to the rest of the world. And yes, to the extent possible, we do keep in contact with the people we've met. New Year's cards, that kind of thing.
Glenn E: These three Toho releases on the new Sony disc are all favorites, all classic-era pictures and all different -- a horror/crime film, a full-on space combat epic and a unique Sci-Fi fairy tale. Yet they were all made by the same director and producer. Diversity isn't the first thing we think of when Toho fantasy is mentioned. Any comment?
STEVE: That's because when people think Toho, they immediately think "Godzilla". Giant monsters are what Toho is known for, but this is the same studio that released The Seven Samurai and many great "serious" Japanese films. There was actually quite a bit of diversity within Toho's sci-fi, horror, and fantasy genre, especially in the early years. The H-Man is a fine entry from a cycle of "transformation" films about people affected by radiation or other scientific developments gone awry, that producer Tomoyuki Tanaka made during the late fifties and early sixties. The other films of this type, Honda's The Human Vapor and Jun Fukuda's Secret of the Telegian, have pretty much faded into obscurity so it's wonderful that Sony has not only exhumed The H-Man but given it such a great treatment.
Even within the confines of genre films, Ishiro Honda displayed quite a bit of breadth and versatility as a director. The original Gojira is a world apart from the fantasy of Mothra and the comic-book escapism of something like King Kong Escapes. Atragon is a war allegory, while King Kong vs. Godzilla is essentially a comedy. All Monsters Attack (aka Godzilla's Revenge) is a wonderful little children's film with silent-movie era comedy gags thrown in. So his range of influences and abilities is quite wide. And this doesn't even take into account the many documentaries and straight drama he made, which almost no one outside Japan is aware of.
ED: The period in which these three films were made, the late fifties/early sixties, was the height of Japanese movie production. So many films were being made that studios were releasing two new films in theaters every week on average. So it was natural that the studios were looking for a lot of different films to keep audiences coming to the cinemas. Also as of this time, Toho had not yet committed exclusively to giant monster films. This variety in output was a good thing, as I believe it helped stimulate the creative spirit of the staff to reach its peak, and the result was what is often referred to as the Golden Era of Japanese film.
Glenn E: How do you rate these three against other Japanese sci-fi/kaiju films made during the same era?
ED: It's so difficult to rank these films against others from the same era. As a whole, the 50s-60s era is my favorite. Of course that's partially because it is the time during which I grew up and these films formed so many good memories, but it also represents a filmmaking era in Japan unlike any before it and which hasn't been equaled since. Each of these films is also from a different sub-genre...monsters, science fiction adventure, and science fiction mystery. Each one ranks very highly in its own category. I have to confess to being very partial to The Mysterians when thinking of alien invasions, but Battle In Outer Space still ranks as one of the most memorable films of my youth. I was never one who had much aptitude for drawing, but that film inspired me to fill the margins of my notebooks and school folders with countless recreations of spaceship battles.
The one thing that holds Battle In Outer Space back is that, out of these three films, it is the one that suffers the most in its Americanization. Despite the fact that Columbia did not edit any scenes, the dubbing is really sub-par, almost laughable at times, and as a result it becomes an easy target for derision.
STEVE: Mothra is a classic of the genre despite its flaws (the film just sort of falls apart at the end -- the aborted ending, which we discuss in our commentary, could have been far better), and it's really the point where Japanese sci-fi and fantasy adopted a more anything-goes approach and became its own genre. The H-Man is an anomaly, a great hybrid of gangsters and gun molls and radioactive mutants and a jazzy Masaru Sato score. I love the film because it feels as if Ishiro Honda is working on the boundaries of his comfort zone; it's eerier and sexier and jazzier and hipper than most anything else Honda did. Both Mothra and Battle In Outer Space have interesting and decisive female characters as well, a recurring feature of Honda's movies.
To be blunt, Battle In Outer Space is a poorly written movie. The story, if you want to call it that, is just a framework to string together a series of great special effects scenes. The work of Eiji Tsuburaya and his crew is the star of the film, and I was very pleased to rediscover how much I enjoyed watching all these great visual sequences, from the aliens' attack on the space station prior to the opening credits, to the battle between the flying saucers and the lunar rovers on the moon, to the final showdown with the mother ship and its amazing anti-gravity beam. In terms of both quantity and quality, the effects work in Battle In Outer Space holds up against any of the other alien invasion films of the 1950s, and yes, I would include in that comparison films like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. What makes Battle In Outer Space interesting, to me anyway, is that this was an attempt by the key architects of Toho's science fiction genre -- producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, director Honda, and SFX director Tsuburaya -- to make a space epic in the spirit of the George Pal films. There are scenes and sequences and ideas that seem to have been borrowed from Destination Moon, War of the Worlds, and When Worlds Collide, and although we don't know whether this is a true homage or artistic happenstance, we do know that Eiji Tsuburaya greatly admired Pal's films. You can find nods to
King Kong and other American sci-fi and monster films in many of the early Toho genre films, but this film seems to be an extreme example of that. And it doesn't contain a giant monster or robot or radioactive mutant, signature staples that were often inserted into these films, almost as if they were a required element of the "Toho brand" (i.e., The Mysterians, Gorath, etc.). But as far as the script is concerned, Battle In Outer Space is threadbare -- there's no rationale for the alien invasion, but the worst part is that the human characters aren't characters, they're not even caricatures, they're just cardboard cut-outs. And while I do agree that the English dubbing only makes things worse, the film itself contains a lot of unintentionally funny moments, regardless of the dubbing. The scenes with Dr. Ahmed are amazing.
Glenn E: I'm just well enough informed to know that Takeshi Kimura and Shinichi Sekizawa were the two main Toho fantasy writers on most of these films -- but what exactly distinguishes their work?
ED: Most of the science fiction films up through the 60s were written by one of these two men...they sort of became specialists in this field. As a general rule, each one was assigned to a film based on the type of story that was to be told. When it came to topics that tended to be more philosophical or had a heavy or dark tone, usually Kimura got the job. His stories also tended to contain a lot more in the way of science, and as such his writing was a little more direct and serious. Sekizawa had the lighter touch, so simpler stories and those with fantasy elements were his realm. He preferred making things entertaining and wasn't so interested in delving too far into scientific details or over-explaining things. But what both of them possessed was the ability to develop narratives that were simple yet intelligent. They did not succumb to the idea that special effects were the main focus. SFX were one means to make the story attractive, but they were only there in support of the overall story. They respected the audience. Strip out the special effects scenes from these films and you still have simple, well-written stories. That's the big difference between those films and many of the films made today, and why I believe that the 50s and 60s films have a staying power that few of today's films possess.
STEVE: Simply put, Sekizawa's scripts tended toward the optimistic and light-hearted while Kimura's were pessimistic, dark, and mysterious, even depressing. Mothra is a great example of Sekizawa's style -- fast paced, tinged with humor and physical action, and an upbeat ending. Kimura's masterpiece, so to speak is his Matango script, which encapsulates his worldview: at the end of the movie you're left feeling that mankind is inherently corrupt and unredeemable. After a while, Kimura began writing under the pen name Kaoru Mabuchi because he felt he was just writing for money, and he didn't believe in what he was doing anymore. Even his scenarios for Frankenstein Conquers the World and War of the Gargantuas have a depressing vibe. Both movies end with two warring monsters -- symbols of good and evil-swallowed up in the fires of a volcano while they do battle, the ultimate deus ex machina. On the one hand it's depressing to think Kimura or anybody else couldn't come up with a better ending (not once, but twice!), and on the other hand it conveys a feeling of inevitable doom. Even Kimura's story for a kid's film like Godzilla vs. Hedorah is terribly grim, with the monster's toxic emissions literally burning people alive.
Glenn E: What's your take on The H-Man, when it comes to adult or edgy content? All that drug business and the saucy showgirls were not acceptable for kiddie matinees here in the states. Of the three, it seems the most changed in the American re-edit.
ED: Well, you have to understand that these films, especially The H-Man, were being made for general audiences in Japan. Kids were not the primary target for Toho during this era, so it wasn't at all unusual for a film like this to have a decidedly adult slant. It's really more of a horror-mystery film, and one that unfolds methodically, so it probably isn't the most appealing film for kids. I can recall seeing it on TV when I was young, and while I enjoyed it, it didn't have quite the same impact on me as more flashy Japanese films. In that sense, it's similar to Matango in that it's a good film that isn't so kid-friendly. I could appreciate these films a lot more as I grew older. The timing of the US release of The H-Man was pretty good, just at the tail end of the 50s when exploitation films were still targeted more at teenagers than at little kids. So the more mature themes of The H-Man probably resonated with that core audience.
STEVE: In the years following the success of Godzilla King of the Monsters in 1956, American distributors were acquiring most any monster film that Toho produced, and it's interesting to go back and look at how they sometimes struggled to repackage or re-edit or market a film to suit the teen and drive-in crowd. This is a case where Columbia's editors clearly felt that certain content wasn't suitable for the intended audience.
Glenn E: In either version, I'm never sure exactly what the H-Man's powers are, or the distinction between the one guy dissolving people and what seem to be other separate "H-things" in the sewers. Is there a quick explanation for that that I missed?
ED: There isn't a clear explanation for this in the film, and I think that's not such a bad thing. One of the traps a film like this can fall into is to try and explain everything in great detail, making it almost too realistic. When you do that, it tends to falls flat...you either wind up with some eye-rolling pseudo science, or you wind up with overly talky passages that kill the pace of the film. I think Honda strikes the right balance here -- his scientist characters explain the basics, what you need to accept that these things were the somehow the byproduct of atomic testing, and that they can absorb other living things. I always have felt that there were multiple creatures, but with a kind of communal identity -- each person dissolved becomes part of the whole, even though they are able to appear as separate beings. There is some implication that the creatures may also retain some rudimentary form of memory of their human life. In any case, I think it's more unsettling that you do not get a definitive answer to all of your questions, which makes the horror angle a little more effective.
Glenn E: Battle In Outer Space is the first of the three that I actually saw when new, with a theater full of delighted ten year-olds. I of course thought I was watching a sequel to The Mysterians, which I'd just seen the year before. I know it's not an official sequel, so what exactly is it?
ED: It's just another alien invasion movie, but with the main setting shifted to outer space. For some reason, a couple of the characters have the same name in both films, and Toho decided to re-dress some of the alien saucers to save money on building miniatures. These similarities give people the impression that the two films are somehow related, but they really aren't. The common characters are played by different actors and display different personalities, the aliens are a completely different race, there are no references at all in Battle In Outer Space to a previous invasion, and there is no carryover of technology or any other plot point from The Mysterians.
STEVE: During our research, we tried to find a definitive answer to this question in Japanese texts but weren't able to do so. I think it's quite possible, however -- and this is only an educated guess -- that Battle In Outer Space was originally intended as a sequel, but as writer Jojiro Okami fleshed out the story it became something entirely new and devoid of any direct connections to The Mysterians. That might explain why a few characters have the same name as in the previous film, yet there is no mention of the previous alien invasion or of anything else that happened in the past.
Glenn E: Having worked in miniatures, I loved the model work, of course. The twin moon ships are fantastic. Were the Earth Force fighters just X-15 model kits? Do you know if Japanese kids could buy toys of all this terrific space hardware? The mother ship looks suspiciously like a big colorful tin "spinning top" Japanese toy I got once ... but my toy wasn't space themed.
ED: Those earth fighters were definitely styled after the X-15...they tried to make this film believable in scientific terms, and the X-15 was a relatively new real world design that the public could easily recognize. Production designer Shigeru Komatsuzaki saw this NASA suborbital aircraft as something that the audience would easily accept as being adapted into a space fighter. The era of film merchandising was still around 10 years away, so there was almost nothing from the film that was licensed and sold in stores. Seems hard to believe today, doesn't it? And surprisingly to this day, there still remains very little from this film that has even been reproduced as toys or model kits, despite the vast array of interesting hardware this film contains. I have a prop-quality replica of a Natal saucer, which is one of the very few items from this film that I have ever heard of being produced.
Glenn E: I noticed the presence of Russian pilots (or I think they're Russian) in the defense armada. Is this because the film postulates that the UN will unite the world as a peaceful unit? What kind of international politics are these Toho fantasies pushing, and why?
ED: There's no doubt that this is the hand of Ishiro Honda at work. He was very much a man of peace, not of war, and he harbored great concern that humanity was damaging the environment with war and its irresponsible use of science. He looked at these kinds of stories as ways to express his optimistic view that all of humanity must put aside their differences and cooperate to ensure our survival, and that scientists could lead the way. He actually liked working on scientific themed stories more than on monsters, and as a result this film was one of his favorite works. When you think about it, this was made during the height of the Cold War when Russia was seen in the West as big villains who were out to destroy our way of life. Casting the Russians as ordinary guys who were working together with everyone else, and without any political hemming and hawing as to whether it should be done, that's a startling idea. Honda is truly international in his approach, even including the Chinese (seldom ever on good terms with the Japanese, and who Honda was held prisoner by during WWII), and smaller nations like the Philippines and Middle Eastern countries like Iraq. It's a similar kind of optimism like Gene Roddenberry put forth in Star Trek, that at heart, people were good and could cooperate for the benefit of all mankind. That kind of attitude permeates many of Honda's works, and it was one of the attractions of his films to me as a kid.
STEVE: It's almost as if these two films could have been made by a different director and screenwriter. It's kind of schizophrenic if you think about it. Battle In Outer Space takes a very optimistic view of the community of nations, showing first- and third-world countries, democracies and communist nations and everything else, all cooperating and collaborating to save the world. But Mothra seems to say that America's relationship with Japan, military and otherwise, is only for its own gain. The film's villain is a ruthless, obnoxious capitalist with no regard for human life, the environment, or even his own country. He even steals an old man's cane! Nelson makes Carl Denham look like a schoolboy. It's about as anti-American as you can get within a lighthearted sci-fi and fantasy movie.
Honda was very clear and consistent in his worldview, evidenced throughout his works. At the same time, many of his genre films are basically apolitical. While the original Gojira is a thinly veiled anti-war (and by extension, anti-American) statement, I would challenge anybody to find substantive political subtext in Destroy All Monsters or Terror of Mechagodzilla.
Glenn E: Any knowledge of why the Natalian invaders recite a countdown -- in English, even in the Japanese version?
ED: This is always something that never ceases to amaze me in Japanese films, the off-hand mixing of languages. It isn't unusual for a Japanese guy to talk to a Westerner in Japanese, and the Westerner answers in English...and neither character misses a beat, like this is ordinary conversation which everyone understands.
Anyway, the Natal are the ultimate foreigners, so why wouldn't they use a foreign language?? How's that for rationalization?
STEVE: I think the real question is, why do they recite a countdown at all? Why don't they just blow up the Earthlings? The Natalians are the most inept space invaders in the history of space invaders.
Glenn E: Akira Ifukube's mysterious space music is great in this picture, but for the defense force theme he reuses the jaunty military march that I first associate with some ships at sea in Gojira. The tune is reused in other pictures too ... does it have a name and does it come from some even earlier film?
ED: I don't know that this theme has a specific name, but like much of Ifukube's music, it finds a basis in some of his classical music. It's part of the motif for his classical piece Ronde in Burlesque, for example. Ifukube often rewrote his own works for use in different films. I believe he used it in several of his previous film scores as well, though the titles escape me at the moment. This particular theme surfaces in yet another form in Monster Zero.
STEVE: And of course a good portion of his score was replaced in this film, as it was in other pictures. This is yet another way in which American distributors cheapened Japanese special effects films. Ifukube's music is very distinctive and even if he can be repetitious at times, he has a signature sound that creates a consistent atmosphere throughout any given movie. When they plucked out one of his themes here, one of his themes there, and replaced them with library music from any number of other composers, then suddenly you've taken that atmosphere and changed it entirely, and what's worse, you've now got this hodgepodge of mis-matched musical cues. Of course Ifukube was not the only composer to suffer this indignity.
Glenn E: Mothra is sort of a cross between a fairy tale and King Kong with a streak of mild anti-American satire -- those gangsters from "Rolisica." I see it's from a book ... do you know if the book has the same satiric agenda?
ED: Mothra comes from an original story that was written in three parts, each part done by a different writer. There was a lot more political commentary in the original story, which screenwriter Sekizawa omitted from the final film. This was supposed to be a family film for New Years, so Sekizawa consciously tried to lighten the tone. Mothra was written shortly after a mutual defense treaty had been signed in 1959 between Japan and the US, and there was considerable dissent in Japan about the continued presence of America on Japanese soil. So there was a definite critical undertone against the interference of foreign powers in Japanese affairs. The original story has the villain hailing from the country of Roshilica ... a combination of Russia (Ro-shi-a in Japanese) and America (A-me-ri-ka in Japanese). That name was changed to the less obvious Rolisica for the final film. The original story contains student protests against Roshilica, mirroring the student protests over the defense treaty that was in the news at that time. The story also contains a fair amount of political handball between Japan and Roshilica over Nelson's treatment of the small beauties. And the Roshilican government's decision to help Japan by lending the atomic heat ray canon is not motivated by a desire to help the Japanese but instead in hopes of limiting Mothra's damage to Japanese soil...it is more important to them to kill Mothra before it can come to Roshilica. Finally, it is no coincidence that in the original story, Mothra cocoons itself on the Diet Building, the seat of the Japanese government.
STEVE: From what we've read in translated source material from Japan, the original treatment was far more heavy-handed in its approach, whereas the finished film is far, far subtler [laughs]. It's worth pointing out that the clamor over the U.S.-Japan security treaty, vaguely referenced in the original Mothra treatment, was depicted in a number of other films released around the same time, including the early Oshima film Cruel Story of Youth.
Glenn E: The miniatures in Mothra look enormous and the picture even more expensive than usual for a Toho fantasy. Any comment on this?
ED: Mothra is almost unmatched in its scale by any other Toho SFX production. There are probably more miniature setups in this film than in any other film Toho ever made. The lavish scale of the film was partly because it was to be Toho's big release for the New Years season, and they also were looking to make something special so as to expand the audience by appealing to entire families. If you watch closely, you'll see that there are several scales in which the miniatures were made, mostly depending on how which Mothra prop was to appear. There were several Mothras of varying scale. The largest Mothra was the caterpillar which was a suit operated by 6-8 people...it was seven meters long. So the miniature sets it destroyed were built very large, and as a result contained an enormous amount of detail. Then there's the adult Mothra, built to 1/100 scale that destroys much of Newkirk City, an enormous set, though built on a much smaller scale. If you study the film closely or examine stills taken on the set, you will see all sorts of intricate details revealing that the model crew went all-out to make things as realistic as possible. All of the Tokyo sets duplicated actual locations. The art staff went out and photographed each locale and those photos were their guide in making sets. Every feature is duplicated in exacting detail, whether it be signage on buildings or railings bordering the street. There's one street that had an underground construction site, and the hole and the surrounding barricades and debris were even built into the set. Many of the rooftops of buildings have soldiers on top, posted as spotters. These details mostly fly by on screen, you may not consciously notice them, but they all contribute to building a believable reality. If you like miniatures, this film is paradise for your eyes.
STEVE: This was a big production in many ways, not just in terms of the special effects. Frankie Sakai and Kyoko Kagawa were two of Japan's big stars; in Anderson and Richie's The Japanese Film, originally published in middle of the Showa 30's, the biggest decade in Japanese film history, there's a section near the end of the book in which the authors profile about a dozen of Japan's top box-office actors, and Kyoko Kagawa is one of them -- that ought to tell you how big she was. The singing duo The Peanuts were at the height of their popularity, and it was a major coup for producer Tanaka to cast them as the Infant Island fairies. When we say this film was a major release, it's not an exaggeration.
Glenn E: I love the film's fantasy approach to neo-colonial politics, with major powers paying a stiff price for exploiting the Polynesian island. Being female, Mothra is sort of an Earth Mother figure striking back and is thus doubly motivated. We're on the side of the twin fairies, the giant moth and their Japanese friends. Have you seen any reactions from Japanese filmmakers when critics like Phil Hardy psychologize about deeper meanings in the films? Do they own up to reaching for greater significance or do they downplay any such notions?
ED: In researching our biography, I have heard from several people that director Honda was always amused by how deeply some people thought about his films, inferring all sort of hidden meanings in various things. For the most part, he was very direct, and when there was some kind of symbolism or message he wanted to get across, he made it pretty clear. He did not deny that maybe some things came across subliminally, but he seldom would consciously try to do that to the audience.
Glenn E: Dumb detail question: The Mothra caterpillar is seen doing the butterfly stroke in the ocean, but when first spotted in Japan, she's in a lake formed by a dam. How'd she sneak up there?
ED: Well, probably the correct answer is to say "Relax, it's just a movie!" I would agree that intuitively this doesn't make sense if you really think about it. There's nothing in the film to imply what kind of path Mothra takes to get to this point, and if Mothra is coming from the ocean, if anything it should have come to the dam from the opposite direction, i.e. upstream. But they had the idea for a big set piece at the dam, and it was a plot device to give Frankie Saki's character a chance to play hero by rescuing the baby from the bridge, so they did it. So I think the audience needs to file this under suspension of disbelief.
Glenn E: The score in this picture is just terrific, really magical. Who is Yuji Koseki? Did he do other scores of note? How'd he get the assignment over Ifukube, mister giant monster specialist?
ED: Koseki, much like his colleague Akira Ifukube, was largely self-taught in music. Musical composition wasn't exactly looked at as the kind of career that normal people pursued during the early decades of the 1900's. While he started as a classical composer, he was quite versatile and composed a lot of different styles of music, including radio and stage plays, films, and a lot of very successful pop tunes. This may have been one reason why he was tapped for scoring Mothra...the pop singing sensation The Peanuts were to star in the film. Ifukube didn't think he was up to writing that kind of music, so it would have made sense to get someone like Koseki who could do pop music as well as orchestral scoring. History proved that to be the right choice as Koseki's Song of Mothra became immensely popular and is instantly recognizable to almost everyone even today.
STEVE: Over the years I have met people who know the Song of Mothra tune, yet they have never seen this movie. That song has become something of a pop culture reference. As for Koseki, even though he isn't as well known as other composers he did score many films and work with a number of major directors including Kon Ichikawa, Nobuo Nakagawa, and Toshio Sugie. Koseki was chosen to compose the theme song for the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, so that ought to give you an idea of his stature.
Glenn E: I'm looking forward to this new disc set, which features both the Japanese originals and the American dubbed versions of these films. It's great that Sony-Columbia has gone to the trouble. What major differences in the versions can buyers expect to see and hear?
ED: Battle In Outer Space was kept intact as far as scene content between the U.S. and Japanese versions, but the sound was extensively re-edited in some parts. Ifukube's main battle march, which you referred to earlier, was removed and replaced by some unidentified music for U.S. release. Ifukube's score for this film is quite good, but this one theme seemed to be the target of the music editors. In a way, I can almost understand what they were thinking, as it is repetitive, and doesn't really have anything that signifies ebb or flow. It just plays on at the same relentless pace, and it never signals that one side or the other is getting the upper hand. Unfortunately, what they replaced it with doesn't address the problem...it's so bland that there is no improvement. It does make you wonder why they would even go to the trouble of doing this.
STEVE: In The H-Man, the main difference you'll notice is the exotic dance sequence in the Japanese version. We're not sure why this was cut out of the American edit -- it could have been considered too racy, but more likely it was an attempt to quicken the pace; although Yumi Shirakawa is easy on the eyes, the scene does nothing to propel the plot forward. The Japanese version of Mothra is roughly ten minutes longer than the American version, but surprisingly, the deletions don't really affect the film all that much. There are three sequences that come to mind, all of which were truncated in the U.S. version. The first is the scene where Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) is exploring the cave on Infant Island and discovers the tiny fairies. The second is the hatching of Mothra's egg. And during Mothra's attack on New Kirk City there was some footage removed. And there are a few other scenes that were shortened.
ED: There is one amusing scene that was cut at the end when our heroes are on the church steps to discuss how to deal with Mothra. When they decide on a plan and get ready to leave, Frankie Sakai's character tries to offer a prayer in the Christian manner. He awkwardly tries making a sign of the cross, but gets it all wrong. I guess the American editors didn't understand why this was funny or maybe they thought a 1960 audience would find it somehow offensive.
Glenn E: After your great commentaries on the American Gojira and Godzilla King of the Monsters disc, I'm really happy you guys got the nod to do these pictures. How'd you make the choice of which two to cover?
ED: Mothra was a must...there is just so much to be said about it and it holds a very important place in the history of Toho films. There is a fabulous wealth of special effects work on display, lots of innovative techniques used. It is also the first fantasy monster film, one where the monster is not defeated, and it marks a change in direction at Toho for its monster films. There is also a great back story as to how the scenario developed from the original to its final form, so this one cried out for a commentary. With access to the original story as well as pre-production meeting notes, and with interviews that Steve had already done with some of the actors, doing Mothra was an easy choice.
STEVE: While it would have been great if Sony had budgeted commentaries for all three films, we're fortunate to have had the opportunity to do these two. We did have some input as to which two films were the best candidates for audio commentary, and I think both of us probably would have liked to do The H-Man in a perfect scenario. We certainly would have lobbied harder for The H-Man if there were more source material available on the film, but unfortunately there is relatively little in the way of production information, not even in Japanese texts, for it. Our style of audio commentary is to cover a little bit of all aspects of the movie, from story development to production, from cast and crew bios to special effects and so on. For each project we try not to simply rely on our previous work, but we go back to Japanese source materials and do more research, and also try to uncover other materials -- such as excerpts from new or previous interviews -- that might make the track interesting. If we were academics then we could probably sit for ninety minutes and pontificate and bloviate about The H-Man, but that's not our style. If we had felt we could have done the kind of job we like to do, then we certainly would have pushed harder for that title. That said, it might have been nice if Sony could have hired another commentator for that film, to provide a different point-of-view.
Glenn E: Do you believe that the availability of classic Japanese kaiju and sci-fi films on American DVD in their original languages has helped change the negative perception of those films outside of the established fan base?
ED: I wish I could say that is true, but I am not sure if that has happened to any great extent. If you can get people to watch the original versions, I think that negative perceptions can be eroded, but getting people outside of the fan base to watch a subtitled version in the first place isn't easy. If people just take the time to watch these films in their original form, and through something like a commentary they can come to understand and appreciate how much effort and care went into making these films, I think a lot of minds can be changed.
STEVE: I do believe that the 2004 American theatrical release of Gojira helped to change the perception among film enthusiasts, at least the perception of that one film, because you had reviews in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Village Voice,and other major mainstream publications singing its praises as a serious work. But while it's great to have Japanese-language DVDs of films like War of the Gargantuas and Atragon, I don't think it's realistic to expect anything more than a cult following for the genre.
Glenn E: Any plans for the future you want to tell me about? I'm still hoping for an R1 disc of the third Toho space epic, Gorath. Any chance of that ever surfacing? Any opinions about the possibility of R1 Blu-rays of Japanese Sci-Fi beyond September's Gojira?
ED: With the centennial of Director Honda's birth coming in 2011, we hope that some enterprising company will do just that. There are still a few Japanese sci-fi films that remain unreleased, Gorath and The Human Vapor to name two of the best. The timing would be perfect. We are working with the Honda family to try and stage special screenings and events in North America to commemorate the centennial, and we hope our publisher will be able to release our Honda biography at that time. The events are all in the idea stages, so nothing is for sure yet. If we are successful in making this happen, I am hoping that we can show films that few of us have seen theatrically. Gorath is prime among them, and an especially important choice considering that it was one of Mr. Honda's personal favorites. I do know that Japan is just starting to get on the Blu-ray bandwagon, and we will probably be seeing Toho's library reissued yet again in Japan. But whether or not anyone here will deem it worthwhile issuing current DVD titles on Blu-ray is a business decision yet to be made. I just hope that if it is done, that these films are properly mastered in high definition to take full advantage of the format.
STEVE: Our immediate plan for the future is to dive deeper into our Ishiro Honda biography, which as we said is being written with the cooperation and blessing of Honda's family. We'll be going back to Japan for more research at some point, and our publisher, Wesleyan University Press, is very excited about the possibilities. As for R-1 Blu-rays, that's hard to predict. The home entertainment market isn't doing so well at the moment, and if Blu-ray doesn't take off then we may be headed toward digital downloads or some other format. Whatever the format, we do hope Japanese science fiction and fantasy films will remain in the mix. Sony has been a major proponent of these films and the Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection is the latest example. It's exciting to see three of these films afforded a major digital restoration. The films look great, they've been treated with care and respect, and that's what matters most.
3 generations of Godzilla with Steve and Ed: L to R--Ken Satsuma, Ed Godziszewski, Haruo Nakajima, Steve Ryfle, Tom Kitagawa
Interview: August 8, 2009
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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