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…


  1. I just finished watching a movie 'H Project' (2013) and the beginning credits had photos from the island. Not sure if they did any shooting on the island but I doubt it given Nagasaki stance on allowing movie production on the island due to safety.

  2. I wouldn't know about that film, but on occasion there is some shooting allowed on Gunkanjima. For instance, the upcoming "Attack on Titan" shot there, but to what extent, I don't know.