Interview with Norman England: The social ramifications of the over-saturation of sexual imagery are pretty much ignored by Japanese filmmakers.

We speak with Norman England about his latest film, "New Neighbor", Japanese society and movie industry and many other topics in a truly disillusioned interview.

He started his career in] 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 devoted to horror, splatter and exploitation movies. As a journalist he has worked for a number of magazines such as Hobby Japan, Japanzine, Flix, Japanese Giants, the Japan 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 own 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.

He still continues to exercise all his roles.

On the occasion of his latest film, "New Neighbor" being released by Midori Impuls, we speak with him about the film, Japanese society and movie industry and many other topics in a truly disillusioned interview. 

The film is filled with sexuality, but the sex scenes are almost non-existent. Why is that?

My reason for doing this was because, while the movie is about sex, it’s not about the sex act. It’s more about the consequence of living in a sexually perverse society. Not a day goes by that people in Japan, especially those in the big cities, aren’t subjected to image after image of sexy young women and, as of late, sexy young men. The social ramifications of the over-saturation of sexual imagery are pretty much ignored by Japanese filmmakers. They tend to focus on the perverts themselves and deal with the subject as if the person is a pervert because that’s how they are rather than because society molded them that way. So, while “New Neighbor” is about an aspect of sex, it’s not a sexual movie; it’s about the effect of living in a society where there is an over-saturation of sexual imagery.

Can you explain a bit why Ayano does not feel comfortable having sex?
Well, I had hoped it would be obvious watching the film. Again, Japan is full of sexualized images. I used to ask myself why women in Japan tolerate it, but after living here for over twenty years, I’ve discovered that male perversion has been sold as normal male behavior. Even if women don’t like it, they’ve been raised to think, “Boys will be boys.” The sad thing is that this thinking has also been forced on men to the point that they too feel it’s normal behavior for men to have sexual fetishes and fantasies about female domination and rape. However, at the same time, there is equal pressure to be normal and to have a family and raise children. So, Ayano’s character is a woman I see as being caught up between the open prevision you see in Japan and the insistence that, despite it, you have to be “normal,” which I think is not possible.

Asami's character is full of sexuality and Ayano's completely void, at least in practice. Why did you choose to focus the film around this axis?
It was just to juxtapose polar opposites against one another: Ayano is suppressed while Asami is wild and free. In my mind, both women are victims of social conditioning. In Japan there is this thought that a person is pushing the boundaries of society if they engage in bondage or other kinds of kinky sex acts. The suggestion is that by doing this you are doing taboo stuff and thus challenging the norm. I think it is nonsense as it has zero effect on society. It’s just stuff adults do behind closed doors. So, for my characters, Ayano has been made crazy by it, while Asami has let it define who she is. Whether this is obvious in the film, I don’t know. But this is what was on my mind while writing the script and shooting the movie.

Ayano's mother seems to constantly bother her about using any means necessary in order to get married. Do you think this pressure actually exists in Japanese society, even not in so crude fashion?
I don’t know if it exists to this crude of a level, but the pressure on women to marry is much more apparent than in my home country of America. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to suffer listening to women in Japan talk about the pressure to get married. Worse, they don’t even have any particular guy in mind. It’s just a vague, “I have to get married and have a kid,” kind of complaint. I don’t even think they know why they feel this way. So, for the film, I thought to define exactly what that demand is on women, and why it is in so many ways just another social trap.

As the film reaches its finale, some elements of gore come into the picture. Why did you choose this approach?
It’s because I like gore. That’s all. I could have shot it without it, but I think gore is visually interesting and when done right, drives a point deeper than if it wasn’t there. Also, movie staffers like gore scenes. They are fun to shoot.

Who is the voice of the mother?
Hahaha. It’s Asami. I altered her voice a little in mixing to hide this. It’s just another clue that Ayano is insane.

Can you tell us a bit about the casting process in the film?
I’ve known Ayano ever since subtitling a film she starred in called “Natural Woman 2010.” As we became friends, we talked about doing something together. Working with her visual look and knowing her acting range (I’ve seen her in other films and have been to a number of her stage performances), I wrote the script. As for Asami, her part wasn’t cast in stone. While she was my first choice, I had a couple of actresses in mind in case she wasn’t interested. I was asked by director Naoyuki Tomomatsu to do a “behind the scenes” video for his stupid “Lust of the Dead” film and only agreed to do it because Asami was going to be on set. I thought it would be a good chance to ask her to be in my film. After arriving to the location, I spoke to her, and within two minutes she agreed to do my film. I wish I’d known it was that easy because then I had to stand around on set for the next thirty-two hours. Actually, I’d worked with Asami a number of times before this and knew her privately, so it wasn’t like I was just some creepy foreign guy crawling out of the woodwork.

The music in the film is quite interesting, with some jazz and violin themes. Can you elaborate?
The music was done by Kow Otani, a composer known for the soundtracks of the Heisei Gamera series and Shusuke Kaneko’s Godzilla film, among tons of other stuff. I’ve known Otani for almost twenty-years and this was the fourth time he’s scored something of mine. I know the word “genius” gets thrown around a lot, but the guy is a musical genius. Music pours out of him. So, when it came to the soundtrack, we had a meeting and I explained what I was looking for and then let him do his thing. I was expecting him only to do some piano and synth overdubs, which is what he did on my films “The iDol” and “Bringing Godzilla Down to Size,” but he took it a step further and invited a bunch of his studio session players to his home studio. Together, they whipped up an incredible analog soundtrack. In an age where everything, especially low budget films like “New Neighbor,” has rinky-dink sounding computer music, I was very luck to get a wonderful “living” score from Mr. Otani.

In general, how was the shooting of the film? Any memorable moments, good or bad?
Movie shoots always come with a high level of hardship. While “New Neighbor” wasn’t easy, it was for the most part enjoyable. Most of the so-called bad moments were just internal worry over if I could get enough money or get enough time or get all the staff and cast together when I wanted. Once we were together, things went smoothly. The most memorable time on the shoot was when shooting the interior of Asami’s apartment, which was shot in an SM studio in Shinjuku. The place came stocked with all these crazy sex devices that we could use. We were there working non-stop for over 24hours. As far as I know, everyone had a good time of it despite the long hours.

How come the movie was released by Midori Impuls, a German company, and not a Japanese one?
The main reason is because I’m not a very good businessman. I don’t like paperwork and I don’t like dealing with office people. It’s not because I think of myself as an “artist” it’s because of sheer laziness in that department. Along with playing a few film festivals like Fantasia, the movie played for a week at Uplink, a movie theater in Shibuya, which I felt was good enough for a film of this level. I suppose I could go out and knock on doors, but it’s especially difficult for non-Japanese to get taken seriously in Japan. The people at Midori Impuls approached me and asked if they could release it. I’ve always respected their work and the effort that they put into their DVDs. As it is, they released my first film, “The iDol” along with “New Neighbor” in a beautiful package. I don’t think I’d get anything of that quality in Japan.

What is the situation with the Japanese exploitation scene at the moment?
While some people might disagree with me, I think it’s pretty bad. Budgets have dropped to the point where exploitation films have to be shot in 10 days and at times within a week. This makes conditions on the staff brutal. You find a lot of young people and students working on these low budget films because they are cheap to hire and still can’t tell that they are being exploited. I like working on films (when not my own, I do set still photography) but I can’t be bothered to work on films that ask you to put yourself in harms way because the company financing them can’t come up with enough money to cover the basics of a film set. These days, I do mostly English subtitles and promotional writing. It pays a lot better than being on set and it means I don’t have to wake up at 5am.

What are your plans for the future?

It’s been a few years since I made “New Neighbor” and while I’ve got ideas for other films, I’m a little cautious to start a new production. First, Japanese studios are hesitant to hire non-Japanese as they feel obligated to give what little work there is to their own people. Second, I no longer want to use my own money to make films, which is what I did with “New Neighbor.” I also don’t really like Japanese style of filmmaking: Too many wide shots, not enough close-ups, and in general, their films have an ambiguous point of view. Sets themselves are run like boot camp, and there is a lot of mental and even physical abuse given to underlings, which is just Japanese culture at work. Of course it’s not always like this, and I have worked on some good films with filmmakers far sharper than I could ever hope to be. Still, by and large, most Japanese have a hard time recognizing new things and new approaches. Japanese movie sets tend to focus on seeing that everything is done according to established protocol, even low budget ones where you’d think they’d be trying to buck the system. Also, and this might sound stupid, but I hate the food served on Japanese sets. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it’s 80% white rice. When I shot “New Neighbor,” I got burgers and pizza for everyone participating. The Japanese staff loved it, as deep down, they are sick of all the rice too.

In addition, I write for the Japanese movie magazine “Eiga Hiho.” I have a monthly column in which I (mostly) write about cinema of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the cinema of my youth and try to impart how movies were perceived by audiences of those times. I just had a book released on George Romero, my favorite filmmaker of all time, and have two books scheduled for release next year in Japan. One is a compilation of my columns in Eiga Hiho; the other is a diary of my involvement with Godzilla films. So, for now, I’m focusing on writing for the Japanese market. However, if the opportunity to direct comes again, I’d be more than happy to take it and give it my all.



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Asian Film Vault: Interview with Norman England: The social ramifications of the over-saturation of sexual imagery are pretty much ignored by Japanese filmmakers.
Interview with Norman England: The social ramifications of the over-saturation of sexual imagery are pretty much ignored by Japanese filmmakers.
We speak with Norman England about his latest film, "New Neighbor", Japanese society and movie industry and many other topics in a truly disillusioned interview.
Asian Film Vault
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