Saturday, January 23, 2010

Greg Shoemaker on The Japanese Fantasy Film Journal



While many Web sites have posted interviews with other Godzilla fans, no Web site has ever interviewed THE fan, the one and only Greg Shoemaker. The Godfather of Godzilla fandom, Mr. Shoemaker created the seminal Japanese Fantasy Film Journal in the late 1960s and continued publishing it into the 1980s, leaving a legacy of high-quality reviews and retrospectives from some of fandom's most knowledgeable writers.

Last fall, I contacted Mr. Shoemaker about doing an interview on JFFJ for my blog. He was happy to do it. However, Mr. Shoemaker's answers were so detailed and fascinating that I felt the entire interview should be showcased in G-FAN magazine. (Look for the entire interview in G-FAN #91, due out in the spring.) For now, here's a sampling of the interview. Enjoy!

Brett Homenick: How did you become a Godzilla fan?
Greg Shoemaker: I’d say I’m more an Eiji Tsuburaya fan. As a youth, viewing Battle in Outer Space in a theater on a large screen in 1960 was quite an experience! It blew my socks off. Never before had I encountered a movie so over-the-top with respect to visual effects and use of color. Tsuburaya and his technicians have to be thanked for persuading me to learn more about Japanese effects films and the personnel that worked on them, which ultimately led to discovering Kurosawa, Mifune, and so on.

BH: What led you to create The Japanese Fantasy Film Journal?
GS: My movie-going preferences as a youngster were fantasy and science fiction films, which included the works of George Pal, Ray Harryhausen, and Disney, among others. When nothing on the big screen intrigued me, to feed my interest in science fiction and fantasy films – and to a lesser extent the early horror films from Universal – I subscribed to quite a few fanzines (more often than not a fanzine was purchased a single copy at a time since the release schedule of fan-produced publications was inherently irregular), which included Photon, Gore Creatures, and FXRH, as well as prozines like Famous Monsters of Filmland and Castle of Frankenstein. I was a loner kid. Wasn’t much interested in sports and rather naive about things. So these magazines were important to me, offering an outlet for escape.

By 1968, I had the opportunity to watch a large selection of Toho genre films either through theatrical showings or television broadcasts, and I had made a judgment about them: I thought they were pretty cool. And I had come to the realization that whenever a Japanese tokusatsu film was previewed in TV Guide or reviewed in fanzines and prozines, negative adjectives usually littered the writer’s comments. And the films were never discussed in any detail. Coincidentally, I was envious of the editors of the fanzines I collected. An editor selected artwork, articles, and photos, expressed opinions in editorials, and manipulated these elements into a product to be shared with others, hoping the combined efforts of all who participated in the process would be appreciated. Being complimented for a job well done is a gratifying feeling, and possibly I was seeking the accolade, as well as being recognized as a unifying force behind a project. The Ed Wood syndrome, if you will. Situations in my home – which I won’t go into – and my lack of friends, probably explain some of this motivation. So with a cause under my arm and an egotistical drive to see my name in print, a determination arose to publish a fanzine devoted to the honest discussion of science fiction, fantasy, and horror films produced in Japan.

Naming the fanzine took little effort. Don’t know why. I jumbled a number of words around and settled on The Japanese Fantasy Film Journal. Combining the first letters — minus the article — resulted in, TADA!, JFFJ, a palindrome.

BH: Please describe the process of creating the first issue. In other words, how did you conduct research, how did you recruit contributors, what were your initial ideas, etc.?
GS: An article on Godzilla, King of the Monsters! was chosen to be the feature of issue #1. I wrote a filmbook of the movie and followed that with professional reviews of the film from books and magazines I owned. Lacking enough material on Japanese movies to fill the issue — there were no contributors on board — I fleshed out the eleven-page filmbook/review section with news of upcoming Japanese motion pictures I had obtained from Unijapan Film – a quarterly English-language magazine promoting Japanese motion pictures – and added editorial ramblings, my musings on rock music, and an article on my experience with 8mm moviemaking, with which I had been experimenting for several years. I must have thought myself some sort of cultural guru, but this material sprang from experiences that were important to me at the time.

The issue was a whopping 16 pages in length.

A junior in college in 1968, the year I began publishing JFFJ, I was drawn to psychedelia, which had been gradually insinuating itself into music and art since 1964 or 1965. The anti-Vietnam War effort also engaged me, and on several occasions I joined protesters on campus demonstrating against the war. There was a growing desire to challenge the status quo among some of the students at that time, and I decided to be a part of it. I wasn’t a radical, but the changes in politics, culture, and social mores taking place in that time colored some of the non-Japanese content of the fanzine’s first issue which I had written.

With little money at my disposal, I located the cheapest duplication method available, Ditto printing. The system used two-ply “spirit masters” or “Ditto masters.” The first sheet could be typed, drawn, or written upon. The second sheet was coated with a layer of wax that had been impregnated with one of a variety of colorants. The pressure of writing or typing on the top sheet transferred colored wax to its back side, producing a mirror image of the desired marks. (This acted like a reverse of carbon paper.) The two sheets were then separated, and the first sheet was fastened onto the drum of the (manual or electrical) machine, with the waxed side out. As the paper moved through the printer, the solvent would be spread across each sheet by an absorbent wick. When the solvent-impregnated paper came into contact with the waxed original, it would dissolve just enough of the pigmented wax to print the image onto the sheet as it went under the printing drum. This was a low volume method, as eventually the colorant would disappear to a point where copies were illegible. (I have to thank Wikipedia for the definition.)

I designed a tacky, black and white cover – I never claimed to be an artist – indicating a price tag of 25¢. The cover was printed by a cheap offset company. Onto one side of sheets of 8.5-inch by 11-inch, yellow paper, two publicity photos for Godzilla were also offset printed. The blank reverse allowed for the continuation of the remaining sentences of the Godzilla filmbook, which were reproduced by Ditto. The text was typed onto various color Ditto masters — using my two-finger method — and I drew amateurish illustrations and headings onto these same masters. It was an issue of many colors. Talk about psychedelic!

Twenty-five copies of JFFJ #1 were printed. The Ditto masters did not allow for additional legible pages to be replicated. Most of the copies, if not all, were submitted free to other fanzine editors. It was common practice at the time for an editor to publish reviews in his or her fanzine of fanzines received in the mail, and I was hoping mine would receive similar treatment.

That was the genesis of JFFJ #1. But the issue was unfocused, and my desire that the fanzine be a voice for the Japanese genre film failed to materialize because of insufficient planning and inexperience in publishing. I was in over my head, and it showed.

BH: How did you advertise the magazine?
GS: By using the method of obtaining free publicity for JFFJ as detailed in the previous answer and purchasing classified advertising in several prozines, the word was spread about JFFJ.

BH: One of your most notable contributors was Horacio Higuchi. Please talk about Mr. Higuchi, how you came in contact with him, and the sort of material he contributed to JFFJ.
GS: I believe Horacio’s initial contact with my fanzine was the review he submitted for Lake of Dracula which was published in issue #10. An intelligent and literate citizen of Brazil, Horacio attended a university there, studying ichthyology at the time of his first submission, if I remember correctly. Interestingly, his heritage was part Portuguese and part Japanese. Over a century ago, the Japanese began to immigrate to Brazil, and in that country resides the largest Japanese population outside of Japan.

Our correspondence lasted many years. But by the time JFFJ ceased publication, Horacio no longer responded to my letters. Yet later, he mailed me a copy of a magazine which had published an article he had written. In addition, the magazine had an article on an obscure Japanese film — we shared an interest in relatively unknown Japanese science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies. So, I believe, as his fascination for the obscure evolved, Horacio moved on to other genres, which may explain his eventual silence. This assumption is based upon his published article in the magazine he sent me which discusses Jose Mojica Marins – also known as Coffin Joe — a filmmaker of a series of outre horror movies filmed in Mexico.

Horacio visited me three times, twice staying overnight, once spending part of one day, only to be whisked away on a Greyhound bus on a cross-country tour to visit friends and correspondents. His visits were short but informative and stimulating.

In addition to the Lake of Dracula review, Horacio supplied a filmography of the Supergiant (a.k.a. Starman) films as well as Toei’s Man in the Moonlight Mask series for a follow-up to the Japanese superhero article I had written for JFFJ #11. He also contributed a review of Terror of Mechagodzilla for issue #13 and one for Mighty Peking Man for issue #14.

9 comments:

  1. Seems like I need to make it a priority now to buy issue 91. Very well done interview, I must say.

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  2. Brett,
    Nice! I'm so happy to see Greg getting his due — I thank you for that! Now, the other 'zine that Greg mentions Horacio writing for (we also exchanged correspondence, but in the 1990s), was "Monster! International". In various issues, Horacio wrote about VARAN, WAR OF THE INSECTS (aka GENOCIDE), and GOLDEN BAT, IIRC (I'll have to dig those issues out). Horacio and the editor of Monster! International also issued a grey-market version of the original GODZILLA with English subtitles by Mr. Higuchi -- this is still the best subtitled script ever done for the film. Period.

    Looking forward to reading the rest of the review! Greg was my foremost inspiration in researching and writing about these films. Bar none, JFFJ set a bar that few have even reached to this day. All hail Greg!

    Cheers,
    August

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  3. Evan,

    You should make getting every issue of G-FAN a priority. ;) But, seriously, the interview is great, and I think you'll enjoy the whole thing.

    August,

    Thank you for your kind words. Greg, as you know, avoids the spotlight as much as possible, so I didn't think he'd want to be interviewed. So I was pleasantly surprised when he not only said yes but gave me such thorough responses. I don't think Greg has ever talked about JFFJ in print before, so I'm thrilled that he agreed to break his silence in an interview with me.

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  4. I carried my JFFJ issues with me everywhere when I was a kid. I learned more about anime and tokusatsu from those magazines than anywhere else. Getting an issue of JFFJ in the mail was a highlight of my childhood.

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  5. Great interview. Can't wait to read the whole thing. There's so much history in fandom itself that gets overlooked, and will be lost if interviews like these aren't done.

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  6. I only ever owned one issue (#13) and it made quite an impact on me. So much so, that more than a quarter century later, when my co-worker, Greg Shoemaker, mentioned something today about Godzilla, I asked if he had ever heard of The Japanese Fantasy Film Journal.

    You can imagine how surprised we both were!

    It's been twenty years since I misplaced that issue, but I always recalled that the masthead mentioned that the magazine was published in my hometown of Toledo. Not knowing anything about press runs or frequency of publication, I have tried sporadically over the past few years to track down back issues at local comic stores. Though I still don't have issue 13, a bizarre sort of closure has been achieved today!

    Anyway, I'm keeping my mouth shut here at work, because Greg likes to stay under the radar, but I think what he's accomplished is remarkable.

    Thanks for the blog and the interview!

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  7. That's a great story, Steve! Thanks for your feedback. I'm sure a copy of #13 will show up on eBay eventually. Just keep your eyes peeled.

    Thanks again for stopping by!

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  8. I got to know Horacio fairly well when we worked on MONSTER! and MONSTER! INTERNATIONAL together. Sadly as of 1997 or so I haven't heard from the man...no doubt he's immersed (literally) in his studies of Amazonian catfish.

    An awesome guy.

    Tim Paxton

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  9. How I loved JFFJ! I remember writing a long positive critique of MANTAGO for an issue, and film-maker Fred Ray wrote a counter-critique slagging the film. I lost all my copies of JFFJ from water damage, alas.

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