The Tokusatsu Network sat down with Godzilla: Final Wars and Lupin III director, Ryuhei Kitamura, at Stan Lee’s Comikaze during the last weekend of October. Kitamura talks about the challenges he faced with his very first film, Versus, and which Kamen Rider would he like to remake, if given the chance.
The Tokusatsu Network: Thank you so much for talking with us at the Tokusatsu Network. Were any of the directional decisions in Final Wars inspired by past Godzilla movies?
Ryuhei Kitamura: No, not really. I mean, my favorite past Godzilla movie is Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla; I thought that was a pure fan movie. I was a little bit influenced by that movie, but mainly I just had to make a decision when we were developing the story, developing the script because Godzilla is not mine. A movie like Versus is my baby, it’s one where I can do what I want.
The Tokusatsu Network: Right.
Ryuhei Kitamura: Godzilla is already there with 50 years of history, it’s not something that I can decide. I collaborated with my writer and my producer and we just kept on talking ideas and the overall concept of it being 50 years. It’s not true now but at that time 10 years ago they said it was gonna be the last. So we wanted to do this all-star kind of big scale Godzilla movie that no one had ever done before.
The first thing I decided was “Let’s do this, planet Earth is the battlefield for this final Godzilla and he’s just gonna fight every cool monster from the past,” It would be kind of like a greatest hit, a remix, that was the big concept we had. We started to figure out the story and how to make that possible and Godzilla is a very complicated character because the very first one, that is, in other words, the only true Godzilla, right?
This Godzilla worked 50, now 60, years ago because of the time and the circumstances. But as the franchise was getting bigger and bigger it became more like entertainment. Some of the Godzillas are very funny, right? So it was hard for us to decide which one to use. I mean, nobody has the answer. Which one is the right Godzilla?
Everyone has…Godzilla fans all over the world, they are basically crazy right? (laugh) They love the character, they love the movies. They love the franchise so much and everyone has a different opinion. We knew that we can’t really… we have to make decisions. But after this, I was with the original producer, Tomiyama-san, who has been producing the movie even before I got on board. I knew that as long as he and I are in synch, we are not getting off the rails that much.
We collaborated and we didn’t want Godzilla to just be an evil, scary monster because if [he’s] just that, I don’t think everyone would love Godzilla that much. But, on the other hand, I didn’t want to make Godzilla feel like a superhero again. We reverse-engineered from it but, yeah, I know that I wanted Godzilla to fight, to just beat up all those cool monsters. Then we came up with this idea, this Xillian idea, which is also from TOHO’s great movie.
So we were like, “Okay, why don’t we bring in aliens that control the monsters?” And you know, yes, alien can control monsters they are producing, but can they control Godzilla? No, it’s kind of like a Pandora’s box.
Godzilla is the only monster that they can’t control. He doesn’t really care about human beings and protecting the earth. Whoever picks a fight with him, he’s gonna beat them up. That was the big concept that we came up with, it was a fun process.
The Tokusatsu Network: So you talked about Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla being your favorite, did you grow up watching any other tokusatsu like Kamen Rider or Ultraman?
Ryuhei Kitamura: I mean, you know, around my age…whoever [is] born around the 70s, 80s, we grew up with that. It’s like, water, blood, air, something like that. Ultraman, Kamen Rider, Godzilla, all those things, we were just surrounded. I don’t even have to go back and look at those tokusatsu and revisit them because I knew it, I was born and raised with it, it’s in my DNA.
The Tokusatsu Network: Do you have a favorite series just off the top of your head?
Ryuhei Kitamura: When I was making movies at Toei, I talked to [the] producer and said “Why don’t you just let me make it, let me do Kamen Rider Amazon?” which is my favorite. In [a] serious way, dark, like The Dark Knight. It’s good and bad but the Kamen Riders, that franchise, is very popular in Japan among the kids and that makes enough money for the studio, so they don’t challenge anything. They won’t challenge it. I mean, look at Hollywood, come on. Yes, Batman used to be like that but then, come on, what they’re doing right now, they’re just maximizing the range. Kids love it, adults love it, why don’t we do the same with Kamen Rider Amazon? I still want to do it. I mean, I don’t know if they would allow me to do it. (laugh)
The Tokusatsu Network: It would be great your version of Amazon because Amazon is a little crazy and it fits with your same kind of wild style.
The Tokusatsu Network: You’ve worked with iconic properties before but with Lupin III, did you have any hesitation [with that property]?
Ryuhei Kitamura: When I did Godzilla, I was surprised that the producer approached me. It was right after Azumi and the producer said, “Are you interested in getting into this…very specific ring? Which is called Godzilla,” (laugh) So it was like, you know, kind of like a boxer challenging the MMA. Like “Oh? You want me to get into that ring?”
I mean, of course I’m happy to do it. But Lupin III…when the producer called me, the first thing I said was, “Don’t do it,” Lupin III is an even bigger franchise in Japan than Godzilla. I mean, everyone knows it, everyone loves it and Godzilla is more like…it’s a monster but Lupin III is them. It’s live actors.
But whatever we do, they’re gonna attack us. I know this is the war we can’t win, but we can’t lose. What are we gonna do? So I told the producer, “No no no no no, you shouldn’t do it and I don’t want to do it,”
This producer I know very well, we made Azumi together so, he’s kind of like my mentor and my dad in the movie business. He said, “I know this is mission impossible, so that’s why I’m bringing you back. I need you to get to Tokyo and do this,” And I was like, “Okay.” I like challenging. I’m not the kind of the director who wants to do the same thing again and again. So I was like, “Alright, if you think I’m the only one that can do it, of course I have to do it.” So that was the hardest, of course, no doubt. Making Godzilla, that was fun because it was hard; because it was a huge property. Lupin III was very hard, but it was a huge payoff. I’m very proud of that movie.
The Tokusatsu Network: This question is about Versus: Since you said it was your baby, what challenges did you find when creating Versus and what inspired you to create Versus in the first place?
Ryuhei Kitamura: The challenge when I created Versus was that I was nobody. Nobody, no money, no future. There was no one like you coming to interview me. I was a nobody. All the crew and the cast were basically amateurs, street fighting kids I picked up in the streets and I didn’t have any sound division so no mic, nothing. I didn’t even have a slate. It was just this old super 16mm camera, that’s it. Silent film, shoot, shoot, shoot after we shot we just had to put the words in the film. We didn’t know how we going to edit this. We had no sound, no editing seat, nothing. So I don’t even remember, “What is this shot? What is this microsecond shot? I don’t understand, what did you say? I don’t remember, nobody remember[s]” [laugh] They would say “You asked me to do it improvised!”
So that was tough, that was like 15 years ago and I thought that I knew that the only person who can edit this is, you know, the only way to edit this movie was using this special computer. But 15 years ago, nobody in Japan really had it, [only] one person had it. So, I didn’t know this guy, I went knocking to this big editor, carrying all the amounts of film and he’s like, “What is this? What is this?” “I’m an independent filmmaker and I shot this crazy movie and…I don’t know how to edit this and I need your help. And I don’t have money. But this movie is going to change my life and I need your help and I’m going to pay you back,” And he said “well, some people say that but I’ve never seen the one who actually does it,” So, I said “I’m gonna be the first one” and I kept my promise, so he was the editor all the way to Godzilla Final Wars.
The Tokusatsu Network: That’s amazing.
Ryuhei Kitamura: So, that was the challenging part. When you have nothing to prove and when you’re nobody and you still have to do something. But when you are [an] amateur or independent filmmaker and you only have low budget, there’s a million things you can excuse yourself with– “I didn’t have time. I didn’t have [a] big crew.” But I’m the kind of director who won’t allow that for myself.
So it doesn’t really matter, because the audience is gonna pay the same amount of money and you take out two hours of their life. It doesn’t really matter if it’s an amateur or the big budget blockbuster, that’s not going to be the reason. I don’t know why but I was only like 28 or 29 when I made that movie, but this is my ticket to Hollywood and I’m glad that I did it. (laugh)
The Tokusatsu Network: So this is the very last question: Someone who’s worked for so long and created so many things, what do you do to stay inspired and kind of refresh yourself?
Ryuhei Kitamura: I’m just…that [being inspired] doesn’t really change. I grew up watching movies, all kind of movies. Every day, I watch movies.
The Tokusatsu Network: Do you have a favorite or current favorite?
Ryuhei Kitamura: I mean, that’s hard to answer… Highlander, Alien, all the James Cameron movies. I still believe in the Silver Age of movies, so I watch all kinds– it doesn’t matter, romantic movies, whatever. Just making movies– I get inspired.
For the full audio of Ryuhei Kitamura’s panel at Stan Lee’s Comikaze, listen to the Kaiju Kingdom podcast Episode 34.
Special Thanks to Kaiju Kingdom and Kazuki Hirata.