"You can tell your son about it when he's born..." sez Kent Gilbert (left) to Daniel Kahl in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991).
Originally published in G-FAN #76
The name Daniel Kahl may not register with many G-fans, but his memorable role in 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah certainly does. In the film, Mr. Kahl played Major Spielberg, a naval officer during World War II, whose sighting of the Futurians’ time machine would inspire his son to change the cinematic world forever. Fifteen years after filming it, Mr. Kahl discussed his role with G-FAN’s Brett Homenick.
Brett Homenick: Please tell me about your background before you moved to Japan.
Daniel Kahl: Born in Southern California in 1960. Been intrigued by Japan since I was a kid. Had several Japanese-American friends. Started learning karate after watching Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon. This experience especially got me hooked on Japan.
BH: What made you decide to come to Japan?
DK: I wanted to find out what made Japan tick. I knew that Japan was becoming an economic powerhouse, so I thought I'd come and see how. Maybe it would lead to an interesting career. I first came as an exchange student to a high school in Nara Prefecture. I wanted to continue learning karate there, but most Japanese high schools don't have karate teams. So I did judo instead which, as all its practitioners are aware, is also a great sport.
BH: How'd you get your start in acting there?
DK: Long story. After Nara, I lived in several different places around Japan -- all way out in the country. I learned Japanese the hard way. No teachers, just picked it up from the locals. So my Japanese is -- how shall I describe it -- nuanced. I guess you could say my Japanese is considered very rural, with a definite twang. Very few foreigners living here have spent as much time out in the countryside as I did. And even fewer have picked up the dialects.
Anyway, I started working as a TV reporter for several of the Japanese networks. Mainly human interest stories -- food, travel, etc. Somehow, my funny Japanese clicked with the viewers, and I've been working on TV now for 18 years. It's hard to explain why I have been so lucky and have such a fun job. But if you imagine a Japanese guy who learned all his English in Alabama, you might be able to approach my "image.” The incongruence of the face and the accent just makes people smile. Acting, as in the Godzilla flick, however, is very much a sideline to my main work. Things are a bit different in the TV industry here.
There are lots of full-time and fully dedicated "movie actors" in Japan, but on TV, dramas usually throw in a few famous personalities (pundits, celebrities, talents, or whatever you would call the "famous for being famous" crowd). I've been in half a dozen TV drama series where I usually play a character very similar to my actual self -- a sort of clueless but funny foreigner who speaks hopelessly messed up (yet still perfectly correct) Japanese. Godzilla (vs. King Ghidorah) was a totally different experience for me. Number one, all my lines were in English. I seldom use any English at all in my regular work. Number two, it was a movie, made for theaters. Real celluloid versus the video technology I always work with. Hence, very bright lights, heavy make-up, CG (where you can't actually see the UFO flying overhead), and lots and lots of waiting around for the sun to be at the right angle.
BH: How'd you land your part in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah?
DK: The Godzilla series also often uses famous personalities from Japanese TV. One day, my agent got a call. Kent (Gilbert) and I were in the same agency at that time. I strongly suspect that they wanted Kent real bad, and I got thrown in to sweeten the pot, like the whistle in the Cracker Jack box.
BH: What was your reaction to the infamous "Major Spielberg" line when you first read it?
DK: What an honor! It blew me away.
BH: What was it like on your day of shooting? What happened that day?
DK: It's pretty much a blur now. We traveled by train down to Yokosuka Naval Base, south of Tokyo. Got there about eight in the morning, I think it was. After being admitted to the base, one of the staff directed us to board a destroyer of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces. In the hold, we changed into uniforms and got made up. Mind you, this is on a destroyer, so there is not a lot of room, and you have to watch your head everywhere you go. Hatch door frames are pretty low. Not much of a problem for me, but Kent is pretty tall. Anyway, we were ready to roll by eight-thirty. Didn't start shooting till maybe four that afternoon. Spent a lot of the day exploring the destroyer. That was cool. Ate in the mess, talked to the sailors. I'd never been on one before, so I made the most of it. Kent did, too.
BH: How was Kazuki Omori as a director?
DK: Hm. That's a toughie. I only "worked” with him for less than an hour, and he had a lot on his mind right then. Of course, the guy is a pro and thinks of everything. Like most Japanese directors, he's pretty obsessed with perfection. But when you're working with guys like Kent and me, you have to make exceptions. He did, and everything was over quickly.
BH: The movie made waves in the West for allegedly being anti-American. What do you think about that?
DK: As I'm sure all your readers know, every Godzilla movie is anti-American. That 's what makes them so much fun. But Japanese artistic anti-Americanism is like French artistic anti-American. They do it because it's chic, not because they hate Americans. Japanese people like America and Americans just fine. They may not be too happy about the Iraq situation and would definitely have done it differently, but hey, they've got troops there. That's loyalty. That's friendship. But thumbing your nose at America is almost a prerequisite to get any movie produced nowadays, especially in America. Because filmmakers at least have to appear as though they have some political integrity, they take their jabs at America, and the masses pronounce it cool. It's pretty sly when you think about it. Movie-makers don't have to make tough, real decisions in life. But it is oh so easy to appear like you are serious about an issue. Nuff said.
BH: What did you think of the film?
DK: I wish I had had a more involved part. But just being Mr. Spielberg's dad for a day was a story I will tell my grandkids.