Norman England started his career in the show business as a guitar and keyboard player for the New York based band Proper iD. In 1993 he moved permanently to Japan, where he began working as a journalist. In 1998 he spent a week on the set of George A. Romero’s TV commercial for the video game Resident Evil 2 and in 1999 became the Japan correspondent for Fangoria, a U.S magazine dedicated to horror, splatter and exploitation movies. As a journalist he has worked for a variety of magazines such as Hobby Japan, Japanzine, Flix, Japanese Giants, theJapanese Times, Eiga Hiho, e.t.c.
Since 1999, he has visited over 35 film sets in Japan, including The Grudge, Gamera 3 and the entire Godzilla Millennium series, with an extended stay for Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah, where he visited the set almost continuously from April to October of 2000.
He has also played bit parts in a number of movies including Godzilla 2000, Death note, Tokyo gore police, Helldriver, e.t.c.
In 2006 he wrote the script and directed his first movie, The iDol, which played in festivals like Fant-Asia, in Montreal and Yubari Fantastic Film Festival. In 2008 he directed his first documentary, Bringing Godzilla down to size: The art of Japanese special effects, about the pioneers of analog special effects in Japan.
He has frequently collaborated with Yoshihiro Nishimura, who in 2009 asked him to subtitle in English the Vampire girl vs Frankenstein girl movie, a fact that initiated a new career for the prolific Norman, who then went on to subtitle movies from directors such as Noboru Iguchi, Kazuya Shiraishi, Hideo Nakata , e.t.c.
In 2013, he wrote and directed the short movie New Neighbor.
He still continues to exercise all his roles.
As you are about to see, the following interview is also an in-depth analysis of the Japanese movie industry.
Mr England, thank you for taking time to answer my questions. Let me begin with a biographical question. What made you leave New York and your music career to move to Japan?
The band I was playing with broke up around 1991 and I wasn’t happy with the company I was working for at the time. My bosses weren’t bad guys, but they were getting richer while us workers, there from the beginning, were not sharing in the success of the company. So, I decided to quit and head to Japan. Why Japan? I got interested in its pop culture during the mid-80s and visited the place a few times. Moving seemed like an extreme thing to do, which I like, so I came out with no goal other than to get my ass in Japan. Honestly, I had no idea what I was going to do once I got here.
Apart from being present in a lot of Japanese directors’ movie sets, you have also been in a George Romero’s one. Are there any differences between the way American and Japanese creators work?
My experience is nearly entirely Japanese productions. The Romero set was probably not so typical of the way US productions work because it was Romero, a known maverick director. The Grudge productions were probably where I saw the biggest difference in the filmmaking mindset. Having been on director Shimzu’s earlier “Ju-on” sets I noticed that he was under pressure by the American side to stick to the letter of the script. Normally, Japanese directors enjoy total on-set freedom, especially on low-budget films.
You have cooperated with some of Japan’s most influential movie makers, like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Miike and Takashi Yamazaki. Can you tell us a little about them?
Of these three, I’ve only had limited contact with Kurosawa. But from what I saw, he struck me as a deep thinker with a strong analytical mind. In contrast, Yamazaki is more like an excited sci-fi fan happy for the chance to express his love of the genre. Miike, on the other hand, is the consummate director. When the camera is rolling he comes to life in a way I’ve not seen before. I got the feeling that if he had been born before film existed there wouldn’t be any job he could do.
For his upcoming film “Yakuza Apocalypse” I had several responsibilities. One was creating an English version of the script. Two of the actors in the film speak English so I had to write their dialogue and direct their speaking on set. The shoot was a lot of fun and being able to sit beside Miike and interact with him one-on-one was a fantastic experience.
Tell us a little bit about the experience of being in a Godzilla set. Do you think that the whole kaiju genre is mostly addressed to younger audiences?
It’s difficult to sum up my Godzilla experience in a few sentences because it is fairly vast. It seems my entire life between 1999 and 2004 revolved around the Godzilla set. Each day was an adventure. On the busiest days at Toho both the live-action and the special effects teams would be working on separate stages. I spent my days running between the two, snapping photos, and talking to everyone. Being a longtime Godzilla fan, it was the kind of experience I never expected to have in my life. I’m grateful for it.
I wouldn’t say Godzilla films address a younger audience, but a general audience open to concepts not bound by the constraints of reality, something children are better at than adults. I never saw anyone on set say, “We gotta do this for the kids.” The filmmakers’ mindset has always been to make Godzilla for people of any age who get it, and hopefully win new fans at the same time.
How did you come to appear, even in bit parts, in all those movies? Was it a kind of token of appreciation from the filmmakers?
I am in no way an actor, although I think I’ve gotten better at it over the years. Most of the time it’s just been a right place / right time situation. For example, I was over at Nikkatsu during the shooting of “Death Note” when an assistant director said, “Norman, we need some foreigners. Can you help us out?” The same thing with Higuchi’s “Lorelai” movie. I was visiting the “Godzilla Final Wars” art staff and bumped into Higuchi on the Toho lot. “Norman! I need foreigners! Can you help me out?” So, most of the time I’m on set doing something else when asked to appear. While I have been hired just to act, I have a hard time memorizing lines, especially Japanese ones. I can’t say I really enjoy it.
You have stated that you have made a lot of super 8 films when you were young, so it seems to me that you always wanted to become a filmmaker. How hard was the path towards fulfilling that dream and are you satisfied by what you have accomplished so far?
It’s not so much wanting to be a filmmaker than just wanting to make things. Even when I direct I don’t think of myself as a director but more like a guy making something, hopefully something interesting. Recently I’ve put directing on hold because, honestly, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Almost all the directors I know are depressed over the state of filmmaking in Japan. There is no money to do anything interesting. When there is money they are forced to use idol actors who are basically walking mannequins. As someone who doesn’t want to do anything half-assed, I am kind of in thinking mode over how to do something I don’t have to make excuses for later. But all things considered, I’m happy about how three of my films came out: “The iDol”, “Bringing Godzilla Down to Size”, and “New Neighbor”. But I can’t help wondering how they would have come out if I had had more resources.
How is the experience of a foreigner making movies in Japan? Is it easier to make a movie in Japan than in other countries?
I think it’s easy to make movies anywhere. I mean, you can shoot a movie with your phone! But most are junk and not worth watching. To make a film with proper lighting, sound, acting, scoring, and making a set where people aren’t wishing you dead by the end of shooting, that’s a challenge anywhere. There seems to be a growing base of non-Japanese making films in Japan, but I don’t see them on the sets as they are shooting in their foreigner bubble. Honestly, I don’t think non-Japanese can handle the grueling conditions of a Japanese set. I don’t mean being an actor, but being staff. However, there are a few who do actual things within the industry here, but not as many as you’d expect.
I believe my experience to be fairly unique. I’ve been here a long time and when I got into the film world here there were even less foreigners in Japan, a lot less. I also don’t think people here think of me a foreigner, although often during shooting director Nishimura will yell out, “Where’s that damned foreigner?!” My writing for the movie magazine Eiga Hiho has increased my domestic profile considerably too.
Which are your most important influences, as a director?
It would be George Romero. Ever since I learned of him in the early ‘70s I have been fascinated by his socialistic way of working. When I do my own films I try to evoke the Romero way and how he sees himself as a part of a group and not the set dictator. When I worked with Romero I was happy that he confirmed all the suspicions I had of how he operates. He remains the person I most admire in the world.
How important was the fact of your first film, The iDol, being in a double feature screening with Death Note and how did that came about?
Honestly, it wasn’t that important! It’s not like anyone kicked my door down to distribute it afterward. I guess this is my biggest flaw. I just don’t like business in anyway and I’m not very good at selling myself. But the show of “The iDol” and “Death Note” in Vancouver was a lot of fun.
What are the technical differences between making a documentary and a feature film?
Technically they are similar. Like a feature film, a documentary needs lighting, good sound, special effects (graphics), original music, and solid editing. They only real difference is that when shooting a documentary you don’t really know what you’re going to get from the people you’re interviewing or from the location you’re visiting. When I made “Bringing Godzilla Down to Size” I stressed to the staff the idea that it wasn’t a documentary, but a narrative film. I hate documentaries where it’s just people sitting around talking. Sure, interviewing is a part of documentaries, but it’s important to find ways to turn it into something visual. This is why I had people demonstrate their skills and not just talk about them.
How complex is the making of English subtitles from the Japanese language?
It is very complex, more so than you would think. Most people think translating is a process of swapping a word in one language with that of another. In languages that are similar culturally and grammatically it might be easier, but Japanese and English are extremely dissimilar languages.
If you want proof, drop Japanese text into Google translate and see what comes out. More often than not it will spit out gibberish. Because of how different Japanese and English is, I view translating as creative writing. I use the Japanese as a guide for the English text and rely on my understanding of both cultures to make a film that is assessable to people who know nothing about Japan.
Yoshihiro Nishimura is one of my favorite directors and you have cooperated repeatedly with him. How is the experience of working with him, in all these splatter movies?
Nishimura is kind of an enigma. I admire a lot of things about him and I’ve learned a lot from working with him, but his sets are brutal. I was set photographer for Shusuke Kaneko’s “Danger Dolls” and the workday started at 7am and ended at 8pm. Nishimura’s start at 6am and end at 1am, or later. Every time I work with him I vow it will be the last time, but after the shoot is done and I’ve gotten some rest I feel differently. This isn’t just me. Everyone on the staff jokes this way. I share a love of stage blood and movie violence with Nishimura. I hate it in real life, but in film it’s fun. So, I always look forward to those Nishimura blood showers and getting covered in it.
You have exercised a number of roles in the production of a movie. Apart from filmmaker, which one do you enjoy the most?
As I like being on-set and working, I’m mostly interested in shooting set stills now. While I love subtitling, it’s really just deskwork far removed from the set. I like the speed of a Japanese set and knowing how to squeeze through the staff to get the shot. It’s a job that is more than just knowing how to use a camera. You need to know how to navigate the set – a Japanese set. The most frustrating thing is the lack of time. Quite often when I see a shot I think might be good as the main photo to represent a film I have about ten seconds to get it after the director calls cut. But I like having to be on alert from morning to night, although after 16 hours I start to drop off, which happened on the “The Ninja War of Torakage” set one night. We were going on 19 hours and I had sprained my foot a few days earlier. I was dead tired and in considerable physical pain. It took all my energy just to hold my camera over my head and snap blindly. The funny thing is, one of those shots is slated to be one of the main ones when the PR for the film begins.
What are your professional plans for the future?
My plans are, like anyone working in the film, to get as much work as possible! For the moment I’ve decided to take a break from directing and am focusing on set still photography and subtitles, two jobs I feel are important to the success of Japanese films. By this I mean, uninteresting subtitles can make even the best movie seem dull. And, to be honest, I’m not a big fan of Japanese movie set stills. They used to be some of the world’s best, but now they are just dull, overly clean and bright shots of the actors. I envy US still where they actually allow shadows to cross the faces of actors!
I recently finished a two-month still job for Toei Studio on a film titled “Scanner,” that was directed by Shusuke Kaneko. This was my first studio gig and the pressure was a lot different from the independents I’ve worked on. I’ve also subtitled a slew of films recently, including Hideo Nakata’s upcoming “Ghost Theater,” Masayuki Ochia’s “Ju-on: The Final Curse,” and Mamoru Oshii’s “Nowhere Girl.”
Other than subtitling films, my next production will be a US horror film shooting in Japan from late October. I don’t really know how much I’m allowed to comment on it now, but it seems to be a decent production with some good filmmakers involved. It will be a Japanese crew with a US director, and me in-between, I guess.