Q: Previously you had directed such a wide array of movies – everything from erotica to an art film to horror. Why did you want to make a giant monster movie?

SK: Because actually I always wanted to make a kaiju eiga since I was a child. I felt that I would make one.

Q: When did you decide to become a filmmaker, and how did you get into the business?

SK: When I was a high school student I made an 8-millimeter film, and that was the first time I wanted to be a director. Before that, I wrote stories and also a manga cartoon, but I didn't feel that those things were right for me. Once I made that 8-millimeter film, I felt this was what I wanted to do. When I drew cartoons, I didn't feel quite right about the designs I was doing, but in film, I just had to shoot the film.

In the university, I actually majored in the educational department, and after that, I wanted to be a teacher. The reason was that Japanese films were not really commercially successful at that time, and I realized that when I was a high school student. After graduation from the university, I took the interview examination at the Nikkatsu studios, where they were looking for assistant directors. Back then, Nikkatsu was the only studio looking for those positions. At that time, 250 people took the exam, and only 2 people were accepted and I was one of them. I wanted to show my own 8-millimeter film work, but the Nikkatsu studio people didn't let me. They just accepted me for my passion towards filmmaking.

Q: What year were you hired by Nikkatsu?

SK: In 1978. I worked for five and a half years as an assistant director. I hated that kind of work, it's very hard. Back then, after the rehearsal of those erotic scenes, I had to fix the bed for the actors. I felt so depressed. Do you know how the actors have to wear the patch in front of (their genitals)? The actresses have to wear that patch, and actually they will put it on by themselves. But for the male actors, I had to put that patch on them, because sometimes there are some actors who don't know how to wear that patch. It's made of rubber tape, so it's kind of painful if they don't know how to rip it off correctly. [Note: Kaneko is referring to the maebari – a skin-colored patch worn by actors in Roman Porno films to prevent accident shots of pubic hair, and developed by Nikkatsu Studios in the 1970’s to comply with censorship codes]

Q: Were there any particular kaiju eiga that left an impression on you when you were growing up?

SK: The first one I saw was Mothra. Actually, Mothra was probably the first film I saw, not just the first kaiju eiga. Also Mr. Honda's films left quite an impression on me.

Q: Some people say Gamera, Guardian of the Universe looks as if it were influenced by Godzilla (1954). Was that your intent?

SK: Well, I really didn't make it a conscious tribute to the original Godzilla, but I just wanted to make a good kaiju eiga.

Actually the first day of shooting was the scene on Himegami Island, where Nagamine, the bird biologist, arrives and she sees all those broken houses. On the monitor, it was shown in black and white, and I suddenly realized it was looking like Godzilla. The crew men came to look at the monitor and shouted, "Odo Shima!"

Q: What was it about Mr. Honda's films that you liked so much?

SK: I really feel that high spirit in Mr. Honda's films. When I saw all of Mr. Honda's kaiju eiga, first when I was a child I just thought they were very extravagant compared to all the other kaiju eiga. But once I grew up, I felt that Mr. Honda was a great soul, a great spirit … Within the kaiju eiga genre, Mr. Honda's work really expresses all the beauty of human beings. The human characteristics are really expressed.

Q: As in Mr. Honda’s movies, your films have those light touches of comedy, and you similarly show your characters in ordinary situations. There are the scenes in Asagi's fathers house, the domestic relationships...

SK: Actually, it's rare to see such domestic situations as Asagi's house in the 1990’s in Japan. Because all the walls in the houses are more modernized now. So actually, I did research and I found that house, and I used it because it was kind of old style, more like orthodox, conservative.

Q: Like Mr. Honda, you seem to be similarly fascinated with ordinary people working at their job and so forth. Would you agree with that?

SK: The bottom line was, I wanted to make a kaiju eiga the “right way,” and so Mr. Honda's films were like a textbook for me. For example, during the film dubbing process, I worked with Mr. Higuchi. So, when we inserted music and so forth, we actually had conversations like, “If Mr. Honda were here, how would he do such a scene?” Such as, in that scene where Gamera comes ashore in Fukuoka, the music score originally played from the beginning to the end of the scene, continuously. But I felt that the music score might kill some of the sound effects, such as the ambulance siren. So I said, “what would Mr. Honda do if he were here?” Then, we actually cut that music in the middle, and the ambulance siren came through very clearly. I think if this was a Hollywood film, they might have run the music from beginning to end.

Q: What is your working relationship like with screenwriter Kazunori Ito? I understand that, prior to the Gamera films, you worked on several projects together.

SK: When I was an assistant director, I wrote cartoon film scripts. At that time, Mr. Ito was in charge of correcting all those scripts and kind of summing up the story. That was the first time I worked with Mr. Ito. After I stopped writing those cartoon scripts, Mr. Ito made his debut as a screenwriter. Since then, I had asked Mr. Ito to write a screenplay for me, but he never had a chance.

Once I wanted to make a movie version of Ultra Q, and I asked Mr. Ito to write the screenplay, but it never materialized. I don't know about other genres, but for kaiju eiga, Mr. Ito and I are of the same mind and attitude. Actually I felt a little bit different when we worked together on Necronomicon compared to Gamera. But, when we worked on Ultra Q, I felt very close to him. Compared to other writers I have worked with, Mr. Ito is more flexible. And also, he understands when I ask him to change some parts and he grabs the idea quickly. And when we are shooting, if I ask him to change some parts of the script, Mr. Ito really doesn't get angry. Some writers get angry when their script is changed.

Q: Were there any major story changes in Gamera, Guardian of the Universe from the first draft to the shooting script?

SK: Well, I don’t know if this is major, but in the original draft there were five Gyaoses. And also, there was too much exposition. In the original draft, there were too many scenes before Yonemori gets to Asagi's house. He had to go through all these obstacles to get there. And in the original story, when Yonemori got involved with doing the research on the ship, originally Kusanagi didn't let him join. Actually, Yonemori blackmailed Kusanagi, threatened to expose this scandal in which the insurance company was responsible for this accident involving the strange atoll.

Also, in the original story, the Japan Self Defense Force immediately attacked Gamera once he came ashore in Fukuoka. After several conversations with actual defense force members in Japan, we learned that usually the JSDF never really attacks that fast.

In the original story, the atoll was submerged, and its surface was below the sea, and all these air bags were attached to the atoll to float it to the surface. And also, the bridge scene was not really in the original script.

Q: That’s one of my favorite parts of the film.

SK: Well, the original story was very interesting and very good, but still it didn't have enough dramatic flourishes. So, then we added the bridge scene. The biologist Nagamine was not in the original story; actually, I added that character. Also, Mr. Ito felt a little bit uncomfortable about putting in a scene in which the hero saves the girl and the child on the bridge. He felt kind of embarrassed to include such a scene, it felt kind of awkward.

Q: Why?

SK: Actually, this feeling of embarrassment about this type of scene is really why many Japanese films don't look that far-fetched. That usually doesn't happen, a person just saving a beautiful woman. It's rather obvious and fake. That’s why we kind of hesitate to include scenes of rescue or heroic action.

Q: That reminded me of the scene where Frankie Sakai saves the baby in Mothra.

SK: Actually, I told Mr. Ito that I wanted to have a scene where somebody saves another person's life. Then, Mr. Ito said to me, "maybe it's time to have a scene like the one in Mothra.”

Q: One of the reasons I love the bridge scene, and the scene where the Gyaos are captured in the dome, and the scene on the island where Gyaos fly over the trees, is that people are directly threatened by the monsters, so it creates horror. Most kaiju eiga aren’t really scary. Usually the monsters just fight other monsters, they don't attack people.

SK: When I was a child, seeing all those monster movies really scared me. So, that's what I wanted to bring back again. I really didn't refer to any 80’s and 90’s kaiju eiga, but I did watch a lot of horror films.

Q: Is it hard to create horror without really scaring the children?

SK: I actually feel I am quite good at striking a balance. Remember the scene where Gyaos nests in the Tokyo Tower? Originally, that was supposed to take place somewhere on top of a building. It was Mr. Higuchi's idea to switch it to the Tokyo Tower. He really has such great flashes of ideas. But also, he suggested we include a scene of cannibalism among the Gyaoses. From my point of view, that's kind of too much for children. So, maybe he doesn’t strike that balance quite as well as I do.

Q: Well, although primarily for children, the original Gamera series was very violent at times, compared to the Toho films.

SK: There was more blood. In the Toho movies, [SFX director] Eiji Tsuburaya didn't want to show the monsters’ blood.

Q: What is your opinion of the original Gamera series? Did you decide consciously to make your films different in tone and style?

SK: I really enjoyed the original Gamera vs. Gyaos, but there were other films, such as the one where Gamera does those flips on the iron bar [Gamera vs. Guillon]. Compared to Toho's special-effects films during that time, the effects were somewhat poor. Therefore, going into Gamera, Guardian of the Universe, I really wanted to make a kaiju eiga that would be convincing to today's audiences, which are much more sophisticated.

Q: Were you pressured by the company to make a children's film, or was it a company decision to make a serious movie?

SK: In the beginning, the Daiei production company couldn't make a decision as to what would be the best way. Did you know that there were two completely different scripts before Mr. Ito's?

Q: Does that include the one by Mr. Takahashi [Niisan Takahashi, screenwriter of the original Gamera movies from Gammera the Invincible (1965) to Gamera Super Monster (1980)]?

SK: Actually Mr. Takahashi wanted to submit his own work, but it wasn't a completed script. It was more of a treatment. But there were two other scripts before Mr. Ito's.

Q: What were they like?

SK: Terrible. They were completely for children … I think the company probably really wanted to have something in between those two discarded scripts and Mr. Ito's script. I kept hearing that “Gamera is the friend of children.” More than anything about those old monster movies, Mr. Ito disliked those children in the films who act like adults and boss all the stupid grown-ups around. The kids know everything! But Daiei's people didn't feel the same way Mr. Ito did about it. I believe Daiei did a great amount of marketing research before making the new Gamera, and they found that people expect Gamera to be the friend of children, and to work together with children to defeat the enemy.

Q: I had heard that before Daiei decided to make a new Gamera, they were thinking about doing a new Daimajin movie. Were you involved in that project?

SK: Actually, when Daiei was developing a new Daimajin, I was asked if I was interested. But it was too expensive to do a remake of Daimajin, so Daiei gave up on that project.

Q: Are you pleased with the critical reaction to Gamera, Guardian of the Universe?

SK: Actually I felt kind of weird, because all the critical reactions were more or less similar. My previous works, such as Summer Vacation 1999, received pro and con reviews, but with Gamera, every one was pro. So, that really felt weird.

Q: And what are your feelings about the way it did commercially?

SK: I expected more, much better commercial box office results, after it received such a great critical reaction.

Q: What are you doing differently as a director in G2?

SK: This time, I want to show the fatal circumstances human beings are facing. These circumstances are almost like a war situation. That's why Legion, the alien, attacks the Earth.

Compared to the previous film, Gamera's character also seems to have grown up, spiritually and physically. Before, it was kind of obvious that Gamera was fighting for Mankind, to save the people. But now, when the monster fights, the question arises as to why. I wanted to show what he is fighting for.

Gyaos was such an evil monster, but this time I had to show something different. Not evil, not really a hateful monster, actually this Legion character creates such great fear because it really invades the Earth, threatening everyone's faith in the planet and creating a global crisis. It’s not really just an emotional thing – Legion is different from anything on Earth, and it has its own social community which includes the Soldier Legion and the Queen Legion. Another difference is that Legion isn't inherently evil, the only thing it's trying to do is breed and survive, to live. That's another big difference from the previous film.

Q: Godzilla (1954) has been called a metaphor for nuclear war and death. What would you say your Gamera is a metaphor for, and also Legion and Gyaos.

SK: Well, right now, Japan doesn't really have enemies exactly. For example, the former Soviet Union, North Korea, they are different but not exactly enemy countries. So, if we had countries who were clearly our enemies, and we were in a cold war situation, I wouldn't make such a film. In that case, Legion would be a metaphor for our enemy country.

Q: Are you trying to illustrate Japan's insecurity in the international community, your vulnerability?

SK: I can imagine it's not unbelievable that we could be attacked and get involved in such a crisis. We don't really have that, but in kaiju eiga, we can show this imaginary creature. In that case, we can show all the Japanese people cooperating with each other to fight against such a creature. In the kaiju eiga genre, we can show the beauty of people cooperating. And people will be convinced of such a situation, and it's easy to follow and understand.

Q: You mentioned that in this film, Gamera's character develops and it becomes unclear why he is fighting. What does Gamera represent?

SK: In one way, Gamera reveals the real man. On the other hand, it also shows a boy who was bullied by all those other kids, having such a hard shell. I hope those children who are usually beaten up or bullied, it helps them feel better after seeing the film.

Q: When Daiei decided to remake Gamera, why not go back to the original story where Gamera was threatening mankind. Instead, what you have is something in between the original Gamera, where he’s a threat, and the later ones, where he is a hero.

SK: Because Daiei didn't want to copy Godzilla's ideas. Godzilla is such an evil monster.

Q: What is your working relationship with Mr. Higuchi like?

SK: Starting from the story of how I met him, Mr. Higuchi was introduced to me by Mr. Ito. Actually, I saw Mr. Higuchi's work when he was an amateur, and I was very impressed. Later, I found out Mr. Higuchi was working on one of my erotic comedies. In that film, there was also a small special effects scene. There was a five-story tower in that film, and Mr. Higuchi was building the miniatures for this tower. But at that time he was just working, not really a professional yet.

Q: He seems sort of wonderfully eccentric.

SK: His character is eccentric too.

Q: Gamera, Guardian of the Universe looks like it was directed by a single person. The continuity between drama and SFX is seamless. How do you work together with Mr. Higuchi, as far as editing and so forth?

SK: It was a really good relationship. In the first place, we drew all the story boards together. As I mentioned earlier, I am really good at keeping the balance. Also, Mr. Higuchi really showed great respect to me, so it was a good relationship.

Q: In Gamera, Guardian of the Universe there were some effects we had never seen in kaiju eiga before. What types of new things do you expect special effects director Higuchi to bring to Gamera 2: Advent of Legion?

SK: First of all, I expect Mr. Higuchi to show how evil Legion is, and how cool looking Legion is. Also, this time the story takes place mostly in the countryside. Not in the center of Tokyo, or a metropolitan city. That also gives it some uniqueness. Also, you already know, the flying Gamera uses his fins this time.

Q: We heard the other day a little bit of information about screenwriter Ito's idea for Gamera 3. What can you tell us about that? [Note: at this point, rumors were circulating that the third installment in the trilogy would pit Gamera against mankind; the story that eventually surfaced three years later in Gamera 3: The Awakening of Irys is different]

SK: Well, it's not really in the serious phase at this moment. It's almost more like a joke. But of course, if there is an opportunity, I would really like to do that. I am basically working as a freelancer and I am not under contract with Daiei, so I don't know what's going to happen.

Q: What are your hopes for the U.S. release of Gamera, Guardian of the Universe?

SK: I want as many people as possible to see the film. But also, I know it's going to be difficult for American audiences to watch all these Asian actors. On the other hand, when I was in Los Angeles, I saw War of the Gargantuas in the video store. So, I hope many moviegoers will love Gamera, Guardian of the Universe.

Q: I think it has a good chance of success in the U.S. video market. Many kaiju eiga are popular on video.

SK: In American monster films, there are only a few scenes with the actual monsters. Japanese monster films may look a little bit cheaper, but still there are many more monster scenes. So I'm hopeful that American audiences will enjoy watching this kind of film.

Q: Now that Godzilla is dead, Mothra is coming back and Gamera is reborn, what does the future hold for kaiju eiga in Japan?

SK: In the future there might not be just kaiju eiga. It might be better to have robot films too. Also, a really great Ultraman movie should be done sometime in the future, but it's going to be difficult to make a great Ultraman.

Q: Is this a good time to be making kaiju eiga in Japan?

SK: It's a good time, because now, anything can happen in Japan. We experienced a big earthquake, and the subway gas attack. So, people think it's not really strange at all to have such monsters. But of course, if a monster really appeared in today's Japan, there would be nothing we could do after all.

Q: Have current events affected your filmmaking? In other words, was there any concern after the Kobe earthquake, and then with the gas attack, about having similar sequences [i.e., the Soldier Legions attacking passengers in a subway] in your film?

SK: Actually, it wasn't really related. Just some journalists, when I was shooting in Hokkaido, were concerned a little bit, because of the similarity of these subway scenes. For example, in Gamera, Guardian of the Universe, I heard that victims of the Kobe earthquake actually enjoyed the film.

Q: Did you feel constrained by the budget, and how did you make such a lavish-looking movie for this amount of money? [Note: Although Daiei officials have stated that the budgets for the Gamera movies are in the $10 million range, insider sources claim the actual budget of Gamera, Guardian of the Universe was about $4.5 million]

SK: I did feel I was constrained by such a small budget, because I had to delete some great scenes and sequences from the film. Right around pre-production, they estimated the budget at around $15 million for the first film. But then they had to lower the budget, so the [producers] started to negotiate to lower the fee for each staff person. Also, for extras, they are never paid, they just get a souvenir.

Gamera 2: Advent of Legion probably looks much more extravagant (than the first film), but the reason for that is that there are many Self Defense Force scenes, and actually those people were working for free.

Q: One last question. Did you accomplish what you wanted to with Gamera, Guardian of the Universe?

SK: Yes. I really felt that I climbed up to the top of the hill.

Interview conducted 1996 in Tokyo by Steve Ryfle.
© Steve Ryfle. Reprinted by permission.
Translation by Haruyo Moriyoshi.