How to Make Godzilla Jump: An Interview with Kazuki Ômori, Director of Classic 1990s Godzilla
Kazuki Ômori wrote and directed some of the greatest Godzilla movies. In this exclusive interview, he gives rare insight into their making — at the same time discussing his gripes with modern film.
I conducted the interview with Mr. Ômori in May 2012, when I was working at German film magazine Screen. The interview has never gotten published in full— I want to make it available now to all fans of Kazuki Ômori, Japanese film, and Godzilla.
Since Mr. Ômori told various lengthy stories, I decided to compile them into one, removing my interview questions. What I ended up with is pretty much a chronological account of Mr. Ômori’s life and (Godzilla) career.
The interview was translated by Jumpei Yamamori.
Kazuki Ômori’s Early Days: Studying Medicine — Only to Become a Filmmaker
“When I was ten years old, I had already taken an interest in movies. I grew up watching the very early Godzilla movies. Then in high school (10th to 12th grade), I discovered the films of the French Nouvelle Vague. Those impressed me so much that I thought: ’Maybe I could make my own films later on.’
At that time, there was no set way to become a director in Japan, or special courses for it at universities. My father was a doctor, so I decided to study medicine first, that I could perhaps become a doctor later.
“When you get into medicine, you get more insight into people, and the field for creative work expands.”
Did you know that the famous manga artist Osamu Tezuka was also a doctor? At the time, I thought that as a doctor, you could afford to do all kinds of things. When you get into medicine, you get more insight into people, and the field for creative work expands. I was already shooting films on 16 millimeters during my studies, which meant that my studies took two years longer than usual (eight instead of six). After I graduated from medical school, I didn’t work a single day as a doctor.
“I don’t see my medical studies as a detour, but as a path to becoming a director.”
One of my first films, Disciples of Hippocrates (1980), was inspired by my student days. Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician, is considered the founder of modern medicine. The film is about a student who struggles with the path of being a doctor. He sees Hippocrates as his role model. You could say, I only studied medicine to make this film. Through Disciples of Hippocrates, I was confirmed in my achievement as a director. It opened up other avenues for my career. I don’t see my medical studies as a detour, but as a path to becoming a director. From then on, I worked exclusively as a film director.”
“Don’t You Want to Make a Godzilla Movie Yourself?”
“In the 1980s, the Japanese film industry was short of young directors. Studios no longer turned to their veteran directors as often for new films. Instead, they looked outside, for young talent who had made films on their own. I fell into this pattern: I had already established myself and made films that had brought in good sales and were reviewed well by critics.
At that time, Toho was ushering in a new Godzilla era. They, too, were looking for young directors. They approached me and said, ‘That’s who we want.’ For me, the whole thing came as a surprise. A Toho producer asked me one day if I liked the old Godzilla movies. I said, ‘Sure, I saw them when I was a little kid, I love them.’ Then he said, ‘Don’t you want to make a Godzilla movie yourself?’
My favorite movies at the time were Godzilla and James Bond 007, and I really wanted to do one of those two, that had always been my dream.”
Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)
Written and Directed by Kazuki Ômori
“For my first Godzilla movie, I was given five different stories. I was asked to tell the studio which one I liked the most. I chose the story with Biollante because I found it particularly interesting. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, co-creator of the character Godzilla, made a charming comparison between Godzilla and Biollante: Biollante springs from bioengineering, while Godzilla is the result of a nuclear experiment. Toho was also leaning towards the Biollante storyline, so we ended up agreeing.
Tomoyuki Tanaka is considered the father of Godzilla. Consequently, he had rather orthodox views on what constituted a Godzilla story. For Godzilla vs. Biollante, he favored the classic story of atomic monster Godzilla vs. bio-monster Biollante. Tanaka deliberately went in this direction, he did not want anything fundamentally new. He was also very satisfied with the result and thanked me very much for it. Godzilla vs Biollante is rated higher nowadays than it was back then.
“Godzilla vs. Biollante is actually my favorite Godzilla movie.”
I have a chair in the Film Department at Osaka Art University and recently screened the film to students. That means I saw it myself for the first time after 20 years. And I was surprised myself at how good the film actually is! That’s why Godzilla vs. Biollante is actually my favorite Godzilla movie.”
Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)
Written and Directed by Kazuki Ômori
“At the same time as Godzilla vs. Biollante, Back to the Future Part II was playing in cinemas. When my producer Tanaka actually went to a movie theater, he noticed that this film was better attended. He asked: ‘What’s that?’ I told him: ‘Yes, there are elements of time travel in it, which probably appeals to young people.’
“Okay, let’s try this thing with Godzilla and time travel.”
Tanaka was originally not into time travel, it was too much for him. He said, ‘If you allow time travel, anything is possible.’ Until then, Tanaka didn’t want to do anything with time travel. But when he saw how well Back to the Future Part II was performing, he changed his mind. He said, ‘Okay, let’s try this thing with Godzilla and time travel.’ I immediately followed Tanaka’s words; I was like that at the time. Among the Godzilla movies, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is the only one that features time travel.
“Maybe Spielberg copied from me!”
Other movies that influenced me during the making of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah were Terminator and Aliens. The storyline with the dinosaur that Godzilla emerges from was inspired by Jurassic Park. [When I asked how that could be, since Jurassic Park came out two years after Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Ômori-san said, ‘Maybe Spielberg copied from me!’].
“People see Godzilla vs. King Ghidora with completely different eyes nowadays.”
The critics said that our film simply appropriated and merged the successful recipes of the time. So it was judged somewhat critically. That was 20 years ago. Like Godzilla vs. Biollante, Godzilla vs. King Ghidora is seen with completely different eyes nowadays.
“King Kong’s a macho.”
I worked on the script for two years, and it was still after that before we started shooting. So I worked on it from 1988 on, probably a little earlier. There was also the idea very early on that the film would be a remake of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). But by that time we had already lost the rights to King Kong. King Kong also has no special powers, like Godzilla’s atomic rays, I think he’s more of a macho type and muscular.”
Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992)
Written by Kazuki Ômori
“Making Godzilla movies is very time-consuming, it takes a good two years. So for Godzilla vs. Mothra, I asked to just do the script. The story is partly set on a South Sea island in the Pacific Ocean. We took inspiration from Indiana Jones for this one. Godzilla vs. Mothra is again a very classic Godzilla.”
Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995)
Written by Kazuki Ômori
“When we started production on Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, talks were already underway about the Hollywood adaptation of Godzilla. The contract required that no Japanese Godzilla movie could be released for about two years after Roland Emmerich’s American Godzilla. That’s when we decided to actually have Godzilla die in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah.
We racked our brains about how he would die. We were sure only of the fact that his death should be nuclear-related. We knew the word ‘meltdown’ but not what it was and how it worked. With Fukushima, just now we have learned how something like that actually works. Anyway, at that time we planned to have Godzilla die in a meltdown. What came out was ‘Red Godzilla,’ with smoke bubbling and billowing out of him.”
Godzilla Symbolized Postwar Concerns in Japan — He May Not Be Needed Anymore
“Godzilla as a character became popular when Japan experienced a large economic boom in the postwar years, the equivalent of the ‘Wirtschaftswunder’ (economic miracle) in Germany. During this euphoria, people developed a sense of whether it was all right this way. They wondered how far this economic development would go. Godzilla, as a destroyer of this new civilization, adressed these concerns quite literally.
But now, in today’s Japan, where the economy is not doing so well, which is shaken by catastrophic events, it’s a good question to ask whether such a destructive element like Gozilla will really be successful. Or we need a new interpretation of Godzilla.
Much like here in Europe, Godzilla movies have a cult following in Japan and are supported by hardcore fans. The companies behind the films naturally try to make new releases into events. Godzilla as a character, however, is of course old news to all Japanese. He even appears in TV commercials. In light of last year’s Fukushima disaster, it is perhaps questionable whether such a disaster movie will still be successful in Japan.”
Why Modern Movies Are So Uninteresting
“How do you make Godzilla jump? Back then, we thought about that for a long time. What’s the best way to do it? Then we all got together and lifted Godzilla up. Today, with CGI, it’s very easy to do. We also built and recreated entire cities like Tokyo in the biggest studio at Toho. That was a huge project and a lot of fun.
“Viewers knew and should also see that these were miniature cities.”
During my day, it was considered common knowledge that Godzilla was destroying tiny worlds. Viewers knew and should also see that these were miniature cities. Nowadays, they take real images and insert that destruction with computer graphics. To me, that’s not interesting at all. As a viewer, you’re no longer impressed or surprised, because anything is possible with computer graphics.
“Today, movies are produced by computers, not people.”
One of the charms of movies has always been that you’re surprised and you think: ‘How on earth did they shoot that scene?’ I was thinking at the time, ‘How did they do it that way?’ It was this mysterious, secretive quality that made film so appealing to me. And that’s completely gone now. When I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 — A Space Odyssey, it totally blew me away. Or Blade Runner: How do you get images like that? That was totally surprising. Today, movies are produced by computers, not people.”
The Problem With Japanese Film
“Filmmakers from South Korea and Hong Kong have learned a lot from classic Japanese works , from directors like Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirô Ozu, or Kenji Mizoguchi. They built upon the work of these masters. Contemporary Japanese filmmakers, on the other hand, no longer look at their own roots and learn from them.
The Japanese film industry is perhaps the one in the world that learns the least from its own history. Abroad, classic Japanese films have a much greater influence. At the university where I teach, we have many foreign students, mostly from South Korea — they all know the classic Japanese films. The Japanese students, on the other hand, not at all. For some reason, it’s their own country’s art that they neglect. It’s a bit like being at home when your own parents get on your nerves.
“There is no good remake.”
Film has a 120-year tradition. I think it’s important to study the history, to look closely at how film has developed. In my view, individual skills and talent alone are not enough. It’s important that new films build on the background of this long tradition. Among the many remakes, by the way, there is basically no good film.”
Kazuki Ômori’s Favorites
“In my experience, your personal favorite movies are the ones you see between 20 and 30. The older you get, the rarer you find films you really like. A great film has to impress and move you, of course. But the most important criterion for me is that you get that feeling right at the end: ‘I want to see this film again!’ Unfortunately, it’s usually the other way around and you think: ‘Finally, the film is over!’”
Kazuki Ômori’s personal favorites:
- French Nouvelle Vague
- New Hollywood (especially The Godfather)
- Early Spielberg