Saturday, August 23, 2014

Coming Soon: The Ninja War of Torakage

“It’s as difficult to make a bad film as it is to make a good one.”

This most likely paraphrased quote is one of my favorites concerning filmmaking. That’s because when working on a movie you have no idea how it’s going to turn out. You might have an inkling based on some performances or cool looking set pieces, but until you are sitting in a screening room watching the polished product it’s all pretty much anyone’s guess.

What sucks most is when watching a film you busted your ass on only to find the words, “Well, that was a major waste of time,” passing through your brain. Of course, the opposite is true too. Seeing a film you busted your ass on turn out well is a wonderful thing. This is how I felt the other night when I was over at Toho Studios catching the staff and cast screening of the completed version of director Yoshihiro Nishimura’s “The Ninja War of Torakage.”

Of course, you wouldn’t be wrong to call me biased. I worked on the film. And when I say worked, I worked, nearly dying from set exhaustion and I twisted an ankle so badly during shooting that I could hardly walk for the next two months. Set photo editing took forever (a job I will have to return to at some near point no doubt) and I’m subtitling the film now. At home. All by my lonesome. Which takes an insane amount of time and attention.

Full disclosure too: I am in no way an expert on ninja movies. In fact, I can’t even remember if I’ve ever seen a Japanese ninja movie in my life. Of course, I know something about ninja. I mean, everyone knows something about ninja! Director Nishimura did take it upon himself to inundate me with ninja related YouTube links (insert eye roll here), so I guess I can boost knowing more about ninja than my mom now.

With that said, despite whether I truly know what I’m talking about or not when it comes to ninja, I can say that I totally enjoyed “The Ninja War of Torakage” and found it a very entertaining movie, one that was able to hold my attention from start to finish. Trust me, this is no small feat these days. The older I get, the less tolerant I am for nonsense movies (this includes nonsense people too).

The real shocker for us who worked on the film was to learn that the rating board in Japan has issued “The Ninja War of Torakage” a “G” rating. This means viewers of all ages will be able see it. “When Tokyo Gore Police was rated they condemned it,” Nishimura said before the screening. “I finally have a movie that’s on the same level as Anpan-man and Doraemon.” Of course he put it this way for maximum effect as it’s not really anything like those kind of strictly-for-kids films. There are a few intense moments in the film, beheadings and such. Still, a Nishimura "G" movie... Who would have thought such a thing possible?

As for the fate of the film, it seems it will start making the rounds early next year, but don’t quote me on that. But until I get the subs done it’s not going anywhere… I’m working on it! I’m working on it!

In the audience for the screening was Ju-on director Takashi Shimizu. Afterward I noticed he was walking around clutching a copy of my book “Zombie Maniacs.” I asked what he thought of it and Shimizu was beside himself with praise. Honestly, I was quite surprised. Shimizu always plays things cool, often going so far as to hide behind silly observations and jokes. Uncharacteristically, he was full of compliments and said he was grateful to finally have this kind of information on Romero’s zombie films in Japanese. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it was the first time in the 14 years I’ve know him that he gave ME fannish eyes!

Once the screening was done, I went to the studio next door and crashed the “Attack on Titan” wrap party. Some of the Torakage staff and cast were also involved with it (Nishimura in particular), and of course since it’s basically a tokusatsu film I already know many of the staff. So, the first thing I did was get several ice-cold beers, a couple of slices of pieces, and a bunch of sushi down into my belly to start the night off right.

“Norman, I bet you’re wondering why I didn’t use you in the film,” director Higuchi said upon seeing me wandering around. “I mean, you are the first foreigner in any of my films. In fact, you are the first actor in any of my films!” Honestly, I was just hoping for some kind of post-production work. “It’s cool,” I said. “I don’t care about that. What I was wondering was if…” Higuchi cut me off. “I knew it. You are curious why I didn’t use you in the film, I mean, after all, you were the first…” etc etc. “No,” I insisted. “What I am hoping is…” This went on back and forth until it was clear we were both drunk and now was not the time to talk about anything serious.

Well, for various reasons, this year has seen me making the most trips to Toho since the Godzilla film “Tokyo SOS.” This is, of course, good. My years on the Godzilla set are an important part of my life and I want to have a good relationship with Toho.

In this vein, and to wrap this blog entry up, I was invited to an intimate Godzilla staffer get-together recently over in Ginza by one of my biggest supporters over at Toho. Put on by long-time Godzilla producer Shogo Tomiyama, the party had 3 Godzilla directors, a few assistant directors, an art director, a suit maker, marketing staffer, and one of my favorite scripters in the business, etc. Honestly, I was a bit embarrassed to be there. After all, all I did was hang out on the Godzilla sets. (Well, this isn’t necessarily true…) When I was at the “Attack On Titan” party I took some friendly teasing over my being invited. Especially by Nishimura. “Norman, can you tell me why in God’s name they let you into that get-together?” Nishimura asked, causing a ripple of laughter from some of the Titan / Godzilla staffers who had seen the photo on facebook.

What came to mind was a favorite "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" line: “Didn’t I tell you, baby? I am Zaphod Beeblebrox!”

Better judgment meant I responded with a, “Well, you know…”

Here’s the link to “The Ninja War of Torakage” webpage. Just a splash page now, but hopefully they’ll up some of my set photos soon. I can’t wait. I think it’s my best stuff to date.

Oh yeah, and after the "Attack on Titan" party I caught up with some of the "Torakage" staffers who were drinking by Seijo Station. Both Shu G (camera) and Ota (lighting) worked on my last film "New Neighbor". Two pals who are great at what they do and an inspiration to watch when on set.

Actor Mimoto was there too. One of the stars of Torakage, Mimoto is also one of the most decent people I know and an actor who always comes to the set with a high level of enthusiasm and love for the work and his fellow cast/staff members.

Well, until next entry...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I Will Never Stop Writing About Dawn of the Dead! A Personal Declaration by Norman England.

What kind of an oddball title is that for a blog entry?

Well, another "focused" update, meaning I have something to plug.
This time around I have a new "mook" out in Japan on George Romero zombie movies. Released by Tokuma Shoten, a Japanese publishing firm, it hit the stands on 8/4/2014, a little under two weeks ago.

Going by the somewhat idiotic sounding name of "Zombie Maniacs," the mook is a detailed look at all of the Romero directed zombie films (though a few of his others are mentioned too). Unlike the zombie mook I worked on last year that tried to appeal to non-zombie fans, this one makes no apologies and goes right for the jugular of Romero zombie fandom. This make-no-apologies approach seems to have paid off and the mook has been selling briskly and currently enjoys two 5 star reviews on Amazon Japan (the only two reviews up so far), and the comments on Twitter have been calling it a must buy. Oh, and cool too is that it has been fluctuating between the 1st and 3rd place in its category on Amazon Japan.
The book features several writers prominent in the zombie field in Japan: Yoshikazu Itoh, Jun Edoki, Takeshi Uechi, myself, etc. Each of us picked a Romero zombie film and took reasonability for covering it. Of course I selected "Dawn of the Dead", which turned out to be the main feature of the mook. I mean, look at the cover (see above). It's only images from "Dawn of the Dead"! It also happens to be editor Shinya Jiromaru's favorite film. While I feel a bit guilty about this - screw it - I love it!

My writing volume makes me the heaviest contributor to the book and as such I was generously given top billing. The truth is, this is something I wanted to make 18 years ago. At the time I put in a proposal to Gaga Communications (the company holding the Japanese rights to the film) and they expressed zero interest in the idea. So, this was a long time coming. Well, as they say, all's well that ends well.

Another thing that made this a dream job was editor Jiromaru letting me do whatever the hell it was I wanted. He had a few requests (the production of DAWN, something on Goblin), but his approach was, "Let Norman do his thing." It comes with great relief then that it's been selling so well because if it hadn't I would have begun to doubt the validity of my sensibility. (Now if only Toho would let me do my thing with Godzilla and not interfere with their screwball demands that actually hurt the integrity of my work in that field.)

What follows are my sections in the book:

Zombies by Romero - A piece on why Romero zombies are the best zombies around. Utilizing photos, I chose my favorite zombies from his first 3 zombie films and went into detail as to why they rule.

On Location - A visit to locations used in the first three Romero zombie films.

Dawn of the Dead: The Only Movie That Matters - A long essay on why DAWN is the be-all, end-all of filmmaking (to me, anyway). I had a blast with this one, and tried to convey what it was like growing up with zombies from the late 60s on.

Goblin & De Wolfe: The Music of DOTD - I wrote the section on Goblin and Christian Stavrakis wrote the section on DAWN's stock music.

The Making of Dawn of the Dead - An in-depth telling of how DAWN came to be and a look at the production of the film.

Monroeville and its Mall - Here's where it gets weird. I was originally going to do a piece just on the history of the Monroeville Mall, but as I got into it I realized that to do this I needed to tell the entire story of the town of Monroeville. So, Japanese zombie fans have just received a history lesson on the steel and coal mines of 19th century Pennsylvania. Hahahaha.

American Zombie Mania! - This is a piece about zombie cons and how Americans mingle with the actors and staff that turn out to them across the US, which is entirely different from how the Japanese do similar things. As I have been in the Japan for the past 21 years, I turned the article over to Lee Karr, who has just written a book on the Making of Day of the Dead. Lee's written for me before and always comes through with something interesting to say. I wrote an intro to the piece and a couple of notes here and there to make it easier for Japanese to understand.

The Varied Versions of Dawn of the Dead - A look into the various versions that exist of Dawn of the Dead. This one I handed over to Christian Stavrakis because I felt he was the best qualified to write on this subject, and I was tied up with the other sections.

Introduction - For this, I asked Taso Stavrakis to write something as I wanted to have at least one person from the Romero zombie world connected. Taso, as you may know, is the sledgehammer biker in DAWN and was stunt director and a soldier in DAY.

In addition, I supplied hundreds of photos to the book, many of which I received from pals Matt Blazi, Lawrence DeVincentz, and 'Spooky' Daz Sargeant. As I don't write in Japanese, all my translations were handled by Yoshiki Takahashi and Michika Kojima.

And there you have it!

All in all, I think it took me about two weeks to write. I spent my days sitting at a new Starbucks in Shimokitazawa listening to Goblin and typing on my (relatively new) Surface Two computer. Sure beats driving a cab (no offense intended towards cabbies).

(The photo on the left is something I took when in Kinokuniya last week of mags / mooks currently selling that contain my work.)

For anyone who might be interested, here's the link to it on Amazon Japan. Even if you don't speak or read Japanese, the book is filled with hundreds of photos, both color and black and white and has been lovingly designed by the staff at Tokuma Shoten.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Fangoria - Zombie TV

I know, I know. I just UPDATED this blog thing.

Actually, this is just a short update to link to an article I wrote for Fangoria about the Nishimura produced and co-directed film, "Zombie TV".

Here's the link:

I don't write for Fangoria nearly as much as I should. Honestly, I prefer writing for Japanese magazines these days and the audience here seems much more responsive to my work than readers back west. 

"Zombie TV" was a whole lot of fun to work on, although the schedule was a bit insane. I think I wrote a blog entry on this last summer. I can't recall just now. 

It's playing at Fantasia, some kind of film festival in Canada, I understand.

Oh yeah, and here's a trailer for Zombie TV. Don't blame me for the crummy English subs on it. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Is It Really July Already?

A few months between blogs…can I even recall enough to make a proper entire entry?
I do recall sitting endlessly in the dentist’s chair recently. I mention this because dental visits are different from those in the US. Back home, dentists and doctors greet patients with personal inquiries: “So, how’s it goin’ these days?” or “How’r things with the family?” In Japan, such questions are impolite and a dental visit begins with a direct, “Hello, now open your mouth.”

I’m fine with this because I don’t always feel like going through the motions and I doubt they even care about me that much, really. I’m sure in another twenty years I’ll have a change of heart and be like a great deal of over-70ers in Japan who try to stretch out their encounters at cash registers, information desks, or wherever it is they’ve got someone trapped, it sadly being their only human contact of the day.

I had to deal with one hell of a deadline from publisher Tokuma Shoten writing about DAWN OF THE DEAD for an upcoming book on the Romero zombie series. Though it took over most of my past month, I’ve no complaints. It was pretty much a dream job. I got to delve into all sorts of DAWN subjects: production, soundtrack (both Goblin and library tracks), locations, and a wacky piece about the history of Monroeville, the town where DAWN was shot. I also had a lot of fun with a section where I picked out favorite zombies from the original trilogy and used them as examples of the awesomeness of the Romero zombie. This book was a long time in the coming for me. I tried to do a similar thing 18 years ago with Gaga Communications and, although they held the DAWN rights at the time, they passed on my proposal. But it’s just as well. I don’t think I’d have been able to write it as well as I can today. 

When I had the meeting with the Tokuma Shoten editor I think he came with everything I’ve ever written on DAWN. I mean this guy had stuff going all the way back to the 1995 pamphlet from the “Perfect Collection” laser disc set, which is still probably the coolest thing I’ve been involved with in my life. At least it felt so at the time and in retrospect it turned out to be the catalyst for my life today, it being the work that led to my being on the Romero directed set of the “Biohazard 2” commercial, which led to my hooking up with Fangoria, which led to… And here I sit in my tiny Tokyo apartment...

All in all, much of June was given to many enjoyable days and nights of writing while sitting in cafes with my headphones on listening to Goblin or the De Wolfe music tracks used in the film. The book is due out the end of this month, that’s how fast the publishing turnaround is in Japan, although I suspect it will come out in August due to my writing having to be translated into Japanese. It would be great if I could write in Japanese, but I can’t. That's life.

I went to see a short film I did subs on and was a zombie in called "Moratorium", directed by Takashi Hirose. It was nice to see Ayano, the lead in my film New Neighbor and some other people. It played here in Shimokitazawa so it didn't take any great effort on my part to walk to Tollywood, the theater it played in.

In other work related things, I subbed a couple of interesting things recently. One was a 40min film called “Actor” that I quite enjoyed. The film, about an actor on the lower rung of the acting food chain, captures some of the nonsense, pretense and hardship of the Japanese film set. We have a screening this coming Monday at Imagica and then an “after-party”. Those things are always fun. 

I finally went to see “Godzilla” at a screening in Tokyo a few weeks back. Going with writer-designer Yoshiki Takahashi, we met up with others from the Eiga Hiho clan to catch it at Toho’s Marion Theater in Ginza. It was the first proper theater screening of the film and as such a lot of Godzilla staffers came out, giving me a a chance to say “hey” to people I hadn’t seen in a while. 

As for the film, it was kind of a mixed bag. It wasn’t “Man of Steel” bad, but contained much of what I don’t care for in cinema, especially Hollywood cinema. For example, that American insanity over “the family”. Why is almost every genre film these days centered around “family”? I guess by doing this the producers can say things like, “Don’t like the film? What’s the matter, you hate families?” Sort of like being accused of “hating freedom” if you spoke out against that War on Terror nonsense. (My reply to this was always, “yes, you’re right. I hate freedom.”) Making a film like “World War Z” about family or the horrid “Thor 2” a Harlequin Romance in disguise is simply studios sucking up to non-genre audiences and pretty much insulting to those of us who have loved and supported genre efforts all our lives. 

Yoshiki pretty much hated the film and went so far as to say he preferred the Emmerich one because “at least that has some characters in it; everyone in this film is an idiot”. While I would never call the ’98 Godzilla a good film, I would agree that that film had characters with flare. The new Godzilla film suffers from that Lost / Game of Thrones syndrome where characters are so real you can’t put your finger on who they are. They are presented in such a full yet flat way you can’t see their motivations. The exception might have been the guy played by Bryan Cranston, but they killed him off almost right away. When that happened I was like, “oh great. The only character of interest was just surgically removed from the film.” Don't get me wrong, I didn't hate it and I'm happy that Godzilla is suddenly relevant again. I gave it a decent write up in the next Eiga Hiho.

It was Yoshiki's birthday the other day too and we had a party at Loft Plus One in Shinjuku. That was kind of a fun night. Here's a photo from after the show. 

I also went to the the first Godzilla in the theater with my awesome girlfriend Miyako. She doesn't really know much about Kaiju, but she enjoyed the film a lot. I think it might have been my first time to see it in a theater. Looked great and being the sap I am, I cried about 4 times. 

I finally made an unofficial set visit to the “Attack on Titan” set at Toho Studio yesterday. That was a lot of fun and I was VERY impressed with what I saw. I am in no way familiar with the manga (I have zero interest in manga) so I can’t be one of those purest otaku types and point out what was “right” and what was “wrong” with it. I can say that the things I saw looked interesting and brutal. Lots of weird imagery all of which were being attained in traditional “analog” ways. And it was a very happy set. Everyone was enjoying themselves and I got the sense that they felt they were working on something special. 

It’s always fun to go to Toho, if only to see some of the Godzilla crew from a decade-plus past. Working on ATTACK is one of my favorite people in the Japanese film industry, art director Toshio Miike. Miike took great care of me on the Godzilla sets, making sure I was always welcome and able to fully experience the Godzilla SFX set. Like then, he’s in charge of miniature sets, their construction and execution. It’s always a joy to sit and talk with Miike and ask him a few technical questions. For this kind of work there is no one better. 

By coincidence, Takashi Miike was shooting at Toho. I hadn’t seen him since the wrap party for “Yakuza Apocalypse” so I was able to chat with him for a few minutes in the cafeteria. I even made Miike laugh, which is no small feat! No, seriously, Miike is a fun guy who laughs freely at things. I’m not friends with the guy or anything, but my image of him is not those tough guy looking photos you see around the web, but of a guy who is constantly smiling and enjoying his work.

One of the shocking things about going to Toho was seeing that where Studio 1 and 2 once stood, now runs a road. I had thought those stages were under renovation. Instead, they were sold off, torn down, and in their place lies a freshly paved road. Ugh... Those were Japan’s oldest film studios and dated back to the 1930s. Man…while I can see why Toho would sell off the land, it still makes me sad as many of my best Toho memories were in studio 1, 2, the lunch room and the PR office (which in the way past was the payroll office). 

Yes, much of Toho has changed, but that’s the nature of the beast. For example, when I was in S7 I looked up at the rafters. Where once they were made of rope and wood, now they are made of reinforced steel. As someone who has braved the legendary Toho rafters, I can tell you I’d rather work there now than go back to the old way. So, basically, while the fan in me is sad, the pro in me is happy. Here's a shot of the rafters as they used to be. 

Oh, and I also got to say “hey” to Ken Watanabe. I guess with Godzilla finally opening in Japan he’s over at Toho participating in the PR machine. While this kind of thing is no biggie, it just makes the feeling of going to a studio and stepping into the “movie world” all the more fun. 

Well, that’s enough blabbing for this entry.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

"Yakuza Apocalypse"

Well, that was intense too…

I just finished work on the set of “Yakuza Apocalypse,” a new film coming from director Takashi Miike. 

Much of the movie is under wraps so far be it for me to be the one who jumps the gun on its PR. This means, look elsewhere for hard information. I keep a blog as a place where I can sum up the things I involve myself with. If information is found in my writing then great, but that’s not my purpose here. I am, however, prepping a set report for Fangoria that will have hard information on the movie. It should appear there after the next  official press release and I'll link to my Fango piece when it’s on-line. I did write the first press release that was issued when the movie was announced a month ago. Here’s a Twitch piece based on that press release:

With that said, I will say that the “Yakuza Apocalypse” set was quite the experience. For starters, it was meticulously run. Sure, the schedule was kind of loose, but that’s to be expected. If the day before an AD says “your scene is up for 11am tomorrow so be here at 9am” you can bet that means 10pm and you won’t get out until 2am or later. This kind of thing happens because filmmaking is not an exact science. I've no problem with that. Trust me, there's plenty to see and do during the wait.
What is an exact science is setting up the environment in which to make the film. This is where producers come into play (YA had two of the best producers in Japan) and it means staffers who know how to do their tasks and do it in a way that plays well with others. Everyone was extremely focused and, with Miike leading the way, we all had the best time working on what may be one of the most outrageous storylines of all time. 

And as you can see from this shot one of the actors took of me, I was working very, very hard. X-) 
I celebrated my 55th birthday on the "Yakuza Apocalypse" set. When the clock struck midnight on April 24, adding another annoying digit to the ever growing number of my life span, I was seated beside director Miike. Both of us were focused on his playback monitor as an intense scene of violent weirdness was being enacted just a studio balsawood wall away. I didn’t say anything to anyone about it. I sort of glanced at the clock and the crazy setting around me in Stage 6 at Nikkatsu Studio, and thought to myself, “yeah, happy freakin’ birthday, me”. Of course I also thought about my mom, who passed on a little over a year ago, but then I think about her everyday.

As for Miike himself, I’m a little unsure if I should go there too deeply. For one thing, I came to sense that he’s a private person in a high-profile job. I will say that I think he’s one of the best if not the best director I have ever seen in action. His skill at crafting scenes was phenomenal and his focus never wavered. He threw himself into his work in a way I've never witnessed before. And through it all Miike-san looked like he was having the time of his life. Often I was struck with the feeling "if ever anyone was born to do something..."
The next night I was off and my girlfriend Miyako gave me a small party over at the Golden Gai bar Cambiare. Some of my best friends stopped by to help make it the awesome birthday it turned out to be. I drank lots and ate lots. And, hey, my buddy Yoshiki even splurged on some champagne. But the next morning it was right back to the Miike set...

Anyway, "Yakuza Apocalypse" has wrapped and I’m back writing and editing photos. Two movie sets in as many months is about all I can handle. Fortunately, I have some subtitle gigs to occupy my time with and I just got a job working on a book about Romero zombies, with the emphasis being “Dawn of the Dead.” I had a meeting with the editor from the publishing house the other day and, damn, this guy came by with copies of almost everything I’d ever written on zombies in Japanese: DVD booklets, magazines articles, the recent DAWN blu-ray booklet and even the old LD booklet from the "Perfect Collection" released in 1995, which was my first real writing job in Japan. More on this book when it takes shape, but it's looking good to me.

I was also interviewed recently by the website Asian They asked me a bunch of cool questions and it was enjoyable to speak my mind. The interview is presented in both English and Italian:



They also wrote a review of my movie "New Neighbor" that you can find here:

I really need to get some more bookings for this...
Oh, yeah, and here’s a poster for a film I recently subbed and did PR writing. It’s called “High Kick Angels,” an action film featuring a group of high school girls trying to make an action film in an abandoned school that gets taken over by a gang looking for a bunch of money hidden somewhere in said school. The movie is a bit goofy, but it’s charming as hell, and some of the fight scenes are really amazing. I’m happy with how the poster came out and, well, I think my catchphrase is pretty outrageous. Man, I love writing movie poster taglines.
Until next entry...

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Back on the Nishimura set.

Well, that was intense…
I’m back from two weeks on the set of the latest Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police, Helldriver) film, and, boy, am I beat to hell…
Film sets are always tough, but director Nishimura seems to take special delight in depriving his staff of shuteye. For more than a few nights we were lucky if we got in 3 hours of sleep. The worst was when getting back to our rooms at 3am, utterly wasted from the day’s shoot that began at 6am, with the call for the next day just a scant 3 hours later, the buses leaving for location at 6am on the dot, no exceptions. Faced with that, it’s pointless to even get undressed. Just jump into bed, get up at 5:59, and get right back to it.
Don’t take this as a complaint. A lack of sleep and a little bit of physical discomfort is a small price to pay to be involved with a director as exciting as Nishimura. Besides, it’s not like I didn’t know this going in. I’ve worked with Nishimura before. I know what his sets are like. On the “Sushi Typhoon: Tokyo Invasion” video I made for the US DVD/ Blu-ray release of “Helldiver” he even states in it that his secret is “no sleep for the crew”.
The shoot went before the cameras at the end of March and the day following the set “Oharai.” This is a ceremony in which a couple of Shinto priests bless the production with incoherent chanting that is capped off with some awesome tasting sake. Following this, the cast / staff climbed into location buses for a grueling 8 hour road trip over to the city of Iga in Mie prefecture (grueling because the seats are so small on Japanese location buses that they make the economy seats of an airplane seem like first class). Iga’s claim to fame is as the birthplace of ninja, or if not their birthplace, then where ninja got their act together through training camps in the area.
While the cast got to stay at the most posh hotel in the city, the crew roughed it in a building within a communal town run by people Nishimura described to me as “the Amish of Japan”. Some kind of communal living experiment, the town was a closed community populated by people who contributed to it with skills they brought to town, carpentry, cooking, sewing, farming, etc. On the wall of the room I shared with 5 other staffers was a handwritten sign reading something like, “be kind to each other and share the road of education”. In fact, one night on the way to the local bathhouse, I passed one of the community centers and from within heard a large group of town folk happily singing the song “Beautiful Sunday”. If you didn’t know a Japanese version of this song exists then check it out:
If I were to make a film about a cult, I don’t think I could come up with a creepier tune than this to show the wacky kind of blissful happiness cults seem bent on bringing out of the followers. Still, the people in the town were cool and when we left 8 days later they gave us a huge barbecue sendoff with some of the best vegetables I’ve ever had and tons of Iga beef and pork. So, who am I to judge? I hope they enjoy the Kool-Aid to their heart’s content.
Much of the shooting took place at Ueno castle in Iga. We spent several long days working on the castle grounds. One particular morning saw about 100 extras on hand from the crack of dawn. The area was blanketed in a very thick, picturesque fog. Looking up at the castle peeking through the mist and all the extras dressed in outfits from a hundred years back, I felt as if I had been suddenly thrust into feudal Japan.
For the castle interiors we shot at the home of some long dead aristocrat that had been turned into a museum. All its rooms were fit with tatami mats and sliding wood doors that when opened overlooked wonderful Japanese style gardens, pretty much standard stuff when it comes to Japan, but nice all the same. I set up my camera gear in a room and had this awesome view for a couple of days.
Perhaps the hardest day was when we went to a strip mining facility. It had been raining from before day break and the roads had turned to mud. I’d gone prepared to the shoot with a proper rain cover for my Nikon D800, but this doesn’t make it any easier. I still had to struggle to keep the rain off the camera lens, and changing large, expensive lenses in a downpour with only two hands is quite challenging.
This being a ninja film (not sure if I mentioned that), we had dozens of ninja extras on this day. Everyone was outfit in traditional ninja black, which the rain managed to make blacker. When shooting black on black, detail tends to get lost in shadows. If I pumped up the aperture to where I was able to see it, then I blew out the rest of the frame. I, of course, shoot in full manual mode, and between the rain and trying to get the right exposure on a large group of men in black, I found myself pushed to my mental limits. Complicating this, the shoot was split into two groups so all the shooting could be completed on schedule, with one group shooting on a ridge high above the main shoot. I had to shuffle up and down the mountain side between the two. With that said, I got some terrific shots this day.
Despite what was the toughest day of the shoot, by its end, when the night had set in and the rain finally over, while the mad rush to pack up was on, I was slushing through the mud between the trucks with the horde of ninja extras returning to their tent, plastic baggies in my sneakers to keep my feet dry, and all I could think was, “what a completely cool day!”
Trying to describe a film set, in particular, a Japanese film set is not easy. Japanese filmmakers deal with each other in a way that is deeply entrenched in the culture. There are many things that irk me about Japan, but there are also a great many things about Japan that don’t irk me. One of the things I appreciate is that despite the difficulty of the shoot not once did I see anyone lose their temper. I think this would be close to impossible in the US. I mean, 50 people living together for two weeks moving from forest to mountains on no sleep and not one person yelling? Not a chance in hell! In fact, it seemed that the more exhausted people got, the more pleasant they got. Go figure…
The closest to anyone getting upset would be Nishimura himself, but most of that was just a director trying to get the shooting pace moving quicker, as if it could get any quicker. I still have echoes of his “Are we ready to shoot?” and his repetitive “Things set yet? Things set yet?” ringing in my ears. When he got this way, us on the crew had to hold in our snickering. Not out of disrespect but just because his delivery is so funny, it’s like he’s just finished downing a pot of coffee and has no idea how it’s affected him.
Basically, Nishimura’s a very funny man with a dynamic way of directing and working with people. Most directors deal with the actors and their performance only. Nishimura is hands on when it comes to camera and lighting and how he wants it shot, framed, and covered. He wants his films to have a particular look, the Nishimura look. He also knows how to get everyone laughing, and every day we’d have to halt the shoot because none of us could stop from busting up. 
Another thing worth mentioning about Nishimura is that he never compromises. I mean, never once did I see him compromise the quality of a shoot or the acting. Every director I have worked with has gotten to a point where they have to take into consideration things outside the frame when calling a take “OK”. Nishimura wouldn’t call a shot “OK” unless he felt it had reached its maximum potential, even when we were running hours over schedule. At those points, when I could hardly stand up anymore, my camera feeling like a brick, and I just wanted to crawl into bed, all I wanted to hear from Nishimura was “OK”. But, Nishimura stuck to his guns, which in hindsight, was the right way. I have a lot of respect for him. And, moreover, I like the guy. He’s been an important person in my life.
I guess it’s kind of unusual to find crew guys like myself who are not Japanese on Japanese sets. Almost all of the time non-Japanese are actors (if that’s what you call them). But the short of it is, it’s neither here nor there being a non-Japanese on a Nishimura set, which is as I want. Like everyone on the crew, I’m there to do a job, a job I was given because I’m good at it. This is a business and as such all that matters is the quality of your work, followed by your on-set disposition. Also, I’ve worked for Nishimura for years and years now and this counts for a lot. We both know each other, which makes for zero surprises during shooting. I also know the main staff very well, and from the first shot we are all in sync.
However, Nishimura does like to yell out during the shoot, “Hey, where’s that second-rate foreigner?” To which I’ll respond, “The superior foreigner is over here!” So, yeah, although tough skin is necessary, the Nishimura set is an awesome place to be and I’m grateful to have the chance to work and experience Japan in such an unusual way.
Unfortunately, during the shoot at Iga castle I managed to fall out of a tree when trying to get a shot and hurt my foot. This was made worse by the relentless schedule we were dealing with and the last few days of shooting saw me limping pretty badly. Nishimura jokingly attributed it to my age (I admit I am the oldest staffer on the set) but this is another example of how he is. And, honestly, his chiding doesn’t get to me. The truth is, everyday Nishimura checked on me out of a real concern for my physical condition. (After getting back to Tokyo I went to the hospital and was told I’ll be limping around for a month or so.)
Now that the long shoot is finally over, I am editing photos, which is another huge undertaking. I’ve had to get a new monitor too, as the one I had just wasn’t cutting it in the color correction department. So, that should speed things up. Production photos should be on-line soon. I’m working on the English PR release of the film now as well. I’ll link to that stuff once it's on-line somewhere.
In other news, I’ve finished subtitling Noboru Iguchi’s new film “Live” (which is “live” as in “live broadcast”) and an action flick for Nikkatsu called “High Kick Angles”. I’ve also been working on the newest Takashi Miike film, “Yakuza Apocalypse”, which just started shooting a few days ago. I’ll be on-set off and on until shooting is over. More on that in the future.
Well, I have to go soak my foot and get back to photo editing.
Until next entry… Be cool.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

New Year 2014: The pen scribes on, the lens sees all.

The new year has come and gone. Thank god. Other than it being some agreed upon break from normal routine, I’m not the biggest holiday fan. I don’t work a conventional job so it doesn’t affect my lifestyle too much. Besides, I work based on deadlines, so holiday or not, the work has to get done even if it is Christmas or New Year’s Eve.

Actually, my “holiday period” was one of great work pressure. I had to wade through thousands of set photos for the Shusuke Kaneko film “iDolls: Battle in the Parallel World” (which is what I’m calling it until the company decides upon an official title), and I had two big articles to write. One of which was the annual “best/worst” write up for Eiga Hiho magazine.

First, since director Kaneko put this shot up on his blog, I'm guessing it's OK for me to do the same. This is a shot I took during the shooting of “iDolls: Battle in the Parallel World”. Can't wait to write about that set. It was a lot of fun.

As for Eiga Hiho... Honestly, it’s always hard to find ten films from recent years that I like. Not that they aren’t out there, just that I don’t watch movies in the volume I once did. And as an old fuddy-duddy, it’s much easier to come up with “worst” than “best”. As un-luck would have it, the “best” list requires 10 titles and the “worst” a measly 3. Oh, well.

My best list was topped by “Pacific Rim” and the worst by “Man of Steel”. In fact, the overall polling by all the writers put “Pacific Rim” at #1 in the best category, with “Man of Steel” as second worst. The worst film of the year, according to the average tally, was “World War Z”. I would have put that down too if I didn’t hate “Evil Dead” and “Star Trek Into Darkness” more. As I said, I wish I had 10 worst to write about.

My favorite section to write for is one called "He Who Must Die". In this you pick one person in the movie business you would like to see "dead". My choice last year was Seth Rogen, who would be my choice again this year if people "died" more than once. So, I went with Zack Snyder. Not only for "Man of Steel" but for, well, everything he has ever made. In all fairness, I didn't hate "Watchmen" and quite liked its opening sequence and thought setting Doctor Manhattan's background story to  music from "Koyaanisqatsi" quite brilliant. But as for the rest of his work... This section is kind of a joke, and I do not in any way shape or form want Seth or Zack to suffer from a lack of life.

The other piece I labored over during the holidays was for a mook on kaiju. It was a fairly big piece and I didn't have as much time to do it in as I would have liked, which can probably be said about any writing job. Still, I got to say a lot of things I'd wanted to about how I perceive the state of kaiju fandom in Japan. Not all of what I wrote about Japanese fandom is very pretty. Hahahaha... Ugh, I hope I don't get lynched when I attend Wonderfest next month. Mostly the piece is about what it was like as an American growing up on kaju films, both Japanese and American, in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Here's the link to the mook on Amazon Japan:

I'm back to subtitling films and finished two features this month. One is Iguchi's upcoming film, which I don't think has been announced so I'm not going to do it here. I'll say this, as always, I enjoy Iguchi's movies and although they seem a bit silly on the surface, there is always a decent life-philosophy running under the surface. I'm now working on the subs for an upcoming action film and once that's done and if I can remember, I'll post something here about it in the near future.
Speaking of director Iguchi, his new movie "Nuiguruma Z" opened in Japan yesterday. For this one I did the subtitles, naturally. I also have a small part in it as a priest. I guess it's a priest. They dressed me up in some religious garb that I'm sure means something to those into the Christian religion. In my scene I'm supposed to oversee the marriage ceremony between the film's bad guy and heroine. Shooting was way back in March of last year. As with all Iguchi sets, everyone was having a great time and just letting their hair down.

Best of all, I got to work with actress Rina Takeda again. We're even in a shot together! Rina is always fun to work with as she's totally down to Earth and a bundle of energy. In fact, she's one of the stars of Kaneko's “iDolls: Battle in the Parallel World,” so I got to work with her twice in one year!

As for "Nuiguruma Z", I made the set a couple of times and enjoyed taking photos and just hanging out, especially for the big zombie day. As a big chatter box, there are always lots of people to talk to, old friends and new ones. The latest issue of Eiga Hiho features a set report of mine on the film. 

Well, that's about it for this blog entry. I'm on my way to Akihabara tonight to see a friend I haven't seen in 15 years. Her daughter is singing at a club. I don't think I've ever seen anyone sing in Akihabara so this should be kind of interesting...

And finally... Here's a nice shot I took of Rina when the two of us snuck off set for a couple of minutes. "Nuiguruma Z" is an awesomely fun film. I hope everyone will have a chance to see it in the near future. And don't give me a hard time about my acting!!!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Shusuke Kaneko's New Film, Zombie TV, Still Photography, Dawn of the Dead Blu-ray, Gunkanjima and Ikejima. Need I Say More?

Two months between updates seems par for the blog course these days. Well, as I’m apt to say, social media should always take a backseat to  real life.

In any case, here I am and here’s “the rundown”...

First off, after over a decade of friendship, visiting dozens of his sets, and even appearing in several of his films, director Shusuke Kaneko got me the gig of still cameraman on his newest film, 『少女は異世界で戦った』or in romanized English, “Shojyo wa Isekai de Tatakatta”, which basically translates to “Young Girls Battle in the Parallel World”. The film wrapped two Mondays ago (12/9) – and not a moment too soon – I was near the edge of my energy reserves!

But I expected it to be tough. Due to budget limitations, Japanese films pack their shooting schedules tight. Mornings start at 6 and run until 10pm or later. Often, if it’s a two-week shoot like this one was, you’ll get but a single day off. You're also standing all the time. When shooting, it’s considered bad manners to sit unless you’re the director (or soundman). For this film, we spent half the shoot in woods around Mt. Fuji. While it wasn’t subzero weather, it was cold enough.

I wonder… Is it like this in the US film world too? I wouldn’t know since I’ve only ever been involved with Japanese films. I do remember that when visiting the set of “The Grudge” the non-Japanese staff and cast had it easier than their Japanese counterparts because of US union rules. Unions pretty much don't exist in Japan, and when they do, they have no influence.

Set still photography remains the challenge. Setups move at lightening pace, giving you mere seconds to get a money shot. In almost every case, the film camera (naturally) takes up the best camera position, meaning you have to find creative ways in which to fit your body into the gaps between the various crews in order to get the shot. Maybe you see a good spot only to be yelled at by the lighting director because your perfect view turns out to be between a light and an actor. Or you’re all set to snap away when the boom mike goes between the actor’s face and your lens.

I try to take shots during rehearsals, but this being a winter shoot, the actors were bundled up in jackets that they only took off during actual shooting, which meant I couldn't just shoot as the "click" of the shutter would be picked up by the boom mic, ruining the shot. Instead, it's the game of "shot just as the director calls "action" and then the moment he yells "cut". And of course, despite all the limitations, everyone is expecting you to take tons of exciting, action packed photos that will draw the audience into the theater. Ugh...

I feel like adding to this list of “challenges” that the sets I work on are in Japan. Everything is in Japanese and everything is gone about in accordance to Japanese culture. I can’t say I always agree with how things get done but I do know that the last thing anyone enjoys hearing is an arrogant foreigner saying, “Well, in my country, we do it this way…” I hated hearing foreigners tell me what was wrong with my country when I lived in New York City, so I can only imagine it's the same with Japanese. Really, it’s up to me to adapt, not the other way around. So yeah, given all that, working on film in Japan isn't any kind of a picnic. But, it’s the work I want to do so when you boil it down I have little to complain about. Actually, I kind of like being the stranger in a strange land...

By the way, my photos came out great! I think it's the most pro work I've done to date. I can't wait for them to be made public!

For now I’m not allowed to disclose too much information about the film, so I can’t upload any photos or write about the cast. I can say it’s a science fiction action film that deals with parallel Earths and a wormhole setup between the two. I can also say that it is directed by Shusuke Kaneko, who directed the '90s Gamera films and "Death Note" pt1 and pt 2, among many others. The film also stars four adorable young women, one of whom is my absolute favorite actress in Japan. This marks our third time to work together and I consider it one of my life joys to work with her and am entirely honored when she tells people that we're friends.

Oh, and since Kaneko put up a photo of the "iDolls" van, I guess it's OK for me too. Get a load of that thing. Right in the middle of the shoot I had to zip over to Kyoto to give a presentation before the Kyoto Film Commission and the next morning, upon arriving back to Gotemba, I was picked up in this thing by one of the assistant producers. That was a bit embarrassing. 

We had the wrap party last week. That was a lot of fun. Parties like this are always interesting because the permeating tension of the shoot is suddenly gone and everyone looks as light as a feather. Serious faces are now replaced by smiling ones. And the strictness of the set is replaced by a strong sense of camaraderie. It's also nice to finally be able to sit down and drink without worrying about the next day. During the shoot I would usually take a hot bath in my hotel room and down a beer after shooting, but then I'd pass out as soon as I could (after making sure I'd triple backed up my data for the day), as I had to get up at 5:30am. So, I wouldn't call that "drinking"...more like numbing myself so I can get to sleep.

Well, all in all, the shoot on Kaneko's new film went 100% smooth. No accidents. No weather issues. At worst, little things here and there, but overall it was smooth sailing from first to last day of shooting. And for me as well. I only dropped my camera once, with the worst accident being a scratch on the protective lens for my 70-200mm Nikon lens. I had to buy a new one, which cost me $50! Crap!

Well, I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this production in the coming months so check in later if you’re interested.

I’ve also been subtitling like mad. I just finished up the Yoshihiro Nishimura produced and co-directed “Zombie TV”. I was set photographer on this one as well. But as it was only a five-day shoot it was tolerable enough. I enjoy working for Nishimura despite the fact he seems to like nothing more than to tease the hell out of me.

An episodic piece, "Zombie TV" features three directors: Yoshiro Nishimura, Maelie Makuno and Naoya Tashiro. This kept me busy because at some points there were two shoots going on at the same time and I'd have to rush between locations to get shots. One thing I was happy about was that I was finally able to photograph Luchino Fujisaki. OK... So, 1/2 her face was covered in stage blood, but I still got to work one on one with her, and that was a lot of fun. 

When I was on the set, the esteemed Mark Schilling from The Japan Times came by and did an interview with me for a piece connected to the Japanese release of "Pacific Rim". While I'm 100% thrilled to be in the pages of The Japan Times - it meaning I've actually accomplished something newsworthy as a non-Japanese in Japan - it wasn't the best condition in which to do an interview. It seemed like every time Mark and I hit our stride Nishimura was yelling, "Norman, get your ass over to the set!" I was, after all, working, you know.

You can read the piece here:

Speaking of “Zombie TV”, it just had its world premiere at Monster Fest in Australia and played with my film “New Neighbor”. I have absolutely no idea how the screening went, although I did find one lukewarm review of my film on the web somewhere. Hahahaha.

Here's the cover to the "Zombie TV" DVD / Blu-ray, which goes on sale Dec 18, 2013. After the image was put up on the web I called up Nishimura.

Me: Nishimura! What the hell?
Nishimura: What do you mean?
Me: That cover... Bad taste all the way.
Nishimura: You think so?
Me: Yeah... It's great!
Nishimura: Hahahaha.

Actually, as a set photographer, I'm pretty happy with the cover as it's made up almost entirely of photos I took on set.

"Zombie TV" is pretty out there. It's intentionally offensive (a zombie vs an African cannibal in a wrestling match) and silly (an old man zombie out for a walk who is unable to keep his dentures in). I enjoyed working on it and despite its low budget, really like how it came out. I was also happy that during shooting I could enjoy being in the center of a "Nishimura Blood Shower". I think this was my third or fourth time to get wrapped up in plastic and get into the thick of Nishimura's overt love of stage blood.

In the “my life as a zombie” department, I just worked on two zombie projects. As a first generation Romero zombie aficionado, one who spent a major part of his youth tracking down all things zombie, it’s a rather nice spot to find myself in. I mean, getting paid to write about “Dawn of the Dead”? What can be better than that?

The first is the upcoming Blu-ray release of “Dawn of the Dead” in Japan. Basically, the releasing company gave me carte blanche to fill 16pgs of content for the program book. Looking to do something new for the Japanese DAWN audience, I contacted several of the people involved with the making of the film. I don’t mean director Romero and the four leads. While their voices are important, I thought that would be too obvious. I wanted to delve deeper into the film, to bring information heretofore unknown to the Japanese audience. Basically, I wanted to get the Japanese audience something mind boggling unexpected and blow their friggin' socks off.

To accomplish this, I contacted several of the people who played memorable zombies in the film as well as DAWN’s cinematographer. Between these reports, which I’m happy to report are delightful and insightful pieces detailing their work on the movie, and a few others, the booklet came out fantastic. Gone are the typical Japanese "essayists" going on and on like essayists tend to do. Probably the most meaningless piece is the introductory piece that I wrote, since it has the least amount of solid information. I mean, I had NOTHING at all to do with the DAWN production.

I have no doubt that Japanese fans who buy the set will be having their asses handing to themselves it's that impressive an accomplishment - and I say this without a hint of pride! All the translations were handled by Yoshiki Takahashi, who, as usual, did masterful work.

I also worked on a zombie “mook” (a type of publication that falls in between a magazine and a mook). While I didn’t write anything for it per se, I did oversee a few of its articles and, as with the thinking for the DAWN Blu-ray, I got an actor from each of Romero’s first four zombie films to write a piece about their association with the film. If I had been contacted a bit earlier by the publisher and if I had had more time I would have liked to have written something, but that's what it's like in the world of short deadlines.

While these past six months have been nothing but work filled, I did manage to take a few days off and used the time to travel over to Nagasaki for a trip to Hashima Island, popularly known as “Gunkanjima”.

Cause I’m too lazy to write one myself, here’s how Wiki sums up Gunkanjima:

“The island was populated from 1887 to 1974 as a coal mining facility. The island's most notable features are the abandoned and undisturbed concrete apartment buildings and the surrounding sea wall. The island has been administered as part of Nagasaki city since the merger of the former town of Takashima in 2005.”

Getting on the island is easy enough to do, but because of their frail state, getting into the buildings themselves is a different story. I joined a group that was headed by the artist Yuji Kaida and his wife Aya. Long time friends I met on the "Gamera 3" set back in 1998, they had arranged permission with the Nagasaki government and under its supervision we were able to enter into buildings, poke around abandoned rooms, and even go up onto the roofs. Let me tell you, it was quite the experience.

Maybe you're thinking, "what the hell, it's just a bunch of abandoned buildings." In a way, this isn't wrong. That is what Gunkanjima is. Everyone's been in an abandoned building at least once in their life. The thing is, it's the scale of Gunkanjima that boggles the mind. The entire island was from one end to the other under human supervision and then, one day, they were gone, leaving the whole place to ruin.  It is like no place I have ever been to in my life.

For starters, a very eerie atmosphere permeates what was once a thriving, workingman’s community, but one that stands today like a long forgotten tomb. Much of it looks as if everyone had just picked up and left at the same instant in time. TVs, phones, dishes, cups, shoes, toys…many items such as this are still in their rooms untouched for the past thirty plus years. It was so overwhelming at the time that the impact of it didn’t really set in until I was home going through my photos. And now, all I can think is, "How in the world do I get back on the island?!"

After this, I traveled by boat over to Ikeshima island, where I spent the night and then the next day touring an abandoned mine shaft and an abandoned apartment complex, one which used to house the hundreds of families that worked at the mine during its time.

That, too, was a total blast, and I got to wear a hardhat with a light on top, like the Quake character from Quake cereal… You know, Quisp and Quake? No? Guess you have to be over 50 to get the reference.

I also got to use some big ass hand drill that set my cavities rattling. The coolest was this weird drill head (see picture of me with it) that made me recall a scene in the film "Total Recall".

I have to add that I have now had my fill of boat riding. I rode more boats in those three days than I think I have in the past 25 years put together! The water was insanely rough too, causing the boat to go straight up at times and rock to the sides to the point that my window was at sea level. When I asked someone in our group where the life preservers were I was told, “Oh, you don’t need one.” I asked someone working on the crew of one of the ships and was met with a, "uh, in the back...I think." All I can say is: welcome to Japan, land of zero disaster preparation.

I also spent a day (the first day) exploring around the site of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb blast, going to the peace museum and hanging around the ground zero point. As I did at the impact spot in Hiroshima when I visited it with my brother back in the mid-90s, I got myself some sake and shared a cup with Miyako, trying to imagine that 60 years prior the very spot I was chilling out at was as hot as the surface of the sun.

All in all, between the two exploration days I must have gazed upon several thousand tons of abandoned steel and concrete. Actually, I played a little game in my mind. I imaged myself to be an alien explorer who had come to Earth years and years after the demise of the human race trying to figure out what these nut bag were all about.

Here’s a small selection of photos I took at Gunkanjima. I'm required to put up a notification about the trip and these photos as the tour was a special arrangement between the Nagasaki government and our group:

Gunkanjima photo shoot by permission of the City of Nagasaki.

Man… I have to get my ass back there. It was that great.

I think this is going to be my last blog update for the year. I have around 20,000 set photos to edit through, five magazine articles to write and a movie script to finish. So much for enjoying the holiday season...

I leave you with a photo from my awesome Halloween.

Until next time…