Interview: Steve Ryfle, of Kaiju Masterclass

Most fans of Japanese monster cinema will, at some point, find out about G-Fest; the annual Godzilla convention held in Chicago, Illinois. For many U.S. fans, it’s a regular pilgrimage and cherished event. For international fans, it’s sometimes felt just out of reach.

With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, G-Fest was cancelled for 2020, and fans and organisers stepped into the breach to offer Kaiju Con-Line instead. Featuring livestreams and interviews with the likes of James Flower (of Arrow Video), Matt Frank (artist for IDW’s Godzilla comics), and Steven Sloss (director of the Godzilla Unmade audio-dramas), it was a welcome alternative – and one accessible to fans all over the world.

Following this comes Kaiju Masterclass, a three-day online convention featuring some of the biggest names in Japanese monster cinema. Between the second and fourth of October, Kaiju Masterclass will offer an array of interviews and panels with some of the filmmakers behind this rich cinematic legacy. Among them are director Shusuke Kaneko (director of the ’90s Gamera trilogy), Shinji Higuchi (special effects director behind Kaneko’s Gamera trilogy, as well as the live-action Attack on Titan films and 2016’s Shin Godzilla), Bear McCreary (music composer for 2019’s Godzilla King of the Monsters), and Michiru Oshima (music composer for 2000’s Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, 2002’s Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, and 2003’s Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.). These guests are just the tip of the iceberg.

One of the founders of this endeavour is Steve Ryfle, co-author of director Ishiro Honda‘s biography. Our Culture reached out to Steve to speak about Kaiju Masterclass; about the mechanics of putting together an online convention like this; and what’s next on the horizon for him.

Thanks for speaking with us, Steve. Please introduce yourself for our readers.

I’m a writer in Los Angeles, California and I’ve taken a longtime interest in Japanese science-fiction and fantasy films. I co-authored, with Ed Godziszewski, a biography of filmmaker Ishiro Honda titled Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa; I co-produced the feature documentary on the art of Japanese special effects, Bringing Godzilla Down to Size; and I’ve recorded a lot of audio commentaries for this type of film, most often in partnership with Ed.

How did Kaiju Masterclass get started?

It actually started as a germ of an idea in a Facebook comment thread. Matt Burkett had posted a video about the dearth of new kaiju eiga “experts,” and my friend Erik Homenick, who is the webmaster of akiraifukube.org and the official biographer of composer Akira Ifukube, and I both said it would be interesting if we could organize a small convention on the west coast (Erik is a PhD candidate at UC San Diego) with something of a more serious side, emphasizing the creative process behind these films and the themes underlying them. Although we didn’t envision a true academic conference we did think of maybe having it on Erik’s university campus. But it was just talk at this point. COVID-19 had already hit the U.S. pretty hard (this was in April) and we initially thought our con idea was something we’d do after the pandemic. But as I recall, we shifted pretty much immediately to the idea of doing something online. Erik and I asked a few colleagues and friends to join us in the effort: John DeSentis (a composer and conductor behind Kaiju Crescendo and other genre film music concerts); Patrick Galvan (a writer for syfy.com); Matt Parmley and Kyle Bird (Kaiju Transmissions podcast) and Kyle Gilmore (a filmmaker and graphic artist). We sort of figured it out as we go, dividing up the work amongst ourselves and playing to our individual strengths. This is an entirely volunteer, roll-up-your-sleeves kind of effort.

The calibre of guests is remarkable. Names like Pat Saperstein really stand out, as the importance of the English-language versions of these films (which her father helped bring overseas) is seldom discussed. How easy was it to get in touch with some of these people?

In the age of social media you can get in touch with most anybody. But the truth is that we already were acquainted with most of them in one way or another, which is probably why this thing came together so smoothly and so well. One of the great aspects of studying and writing about these films, and about the fandom that surrounds them, is that it’s possible to make contact with and even develop friendships with the creators of the genre. As you know, a lot of personalities from Japan, people who worked behind and in front of the camera, have come to the U.S. to participate in conventions and events over the past 20-plus years. Many of them are active on social media as well. The guest roster represents people that I’ve interviewed and stayed in touch with over the years, people who other members of the team have developed working relationships with (John DeSentis, for instance, conducted a concert with Michiro Oshima), as well as colleagues, and people we admire and want to give exposure to. I had interviewed both directors Shinji Higuchi and Shusuke Kaneko back in 1996 in Japan; Shinchi Wakasa was in a documentary that I worked on with Norman England and Ed Godziszewski, who are also both giving presentations. So, you can see the connections. In that sense, composers Bear McCreary and David Arnold were the two biggest “gets” for us, because we didn’t have those kind of connections with either of them. John DeSentis worked his tail off to get McCreary to join us, and I have to thank my friend Tab Murphy (who is also a presenter) for putting in a good word that enabled us to have Arnold on board.

Some areas of Japanese monster cinema have been discussed more than others. More people might be aware of Eiji Tsuburaya than they are of Koichi Kawakita, for example. Is there an area you’d like to see get more attention?

Because it is such a visual genre, and because the classic films were more or less handmade, there is a great deal of emphasis on special effects, particularly on the “how” – the techniques and materials used to achieve a certain effect or scene. What I hope we can get into is more of the themes and ideas underlying the films and the creative process by which the filmmakers, writers, composers, and artists go about their work.

What benefits are there with staging a convention online?

Again, this is an all-volunteer event. We’re dipping into our own pockets a little bit, to be honest. But we didn’t realize we could do something so special and so big, so we didn’t even try to monetize the event with sponsors. We do have a merchandise store at Red Bubble, which is linked on our website (kaijumasterclass.com), and if anyone wants to support us by purchasing something that might help offset our costs a little, and we’d appreciate that. But if this were an in-person event, it would either require a budget in the many many thousands of dollars, or it would have to be something much smaller in order to minimize the expenses for guest travel and appearances. What we are doing is only possible because it’s online. It also makes it possible for many more people, who would not be able to travel, to attend. Of course we’ll miss the in-person camaraderie but in this year of quarantines and time spent away from friends and family, this is a nice substitute and a way to give something back to the fan community.

Do you think we’ll see future Kaiju Masterclass conventions?

Let’s see how well we do this time before we think that far ahead. I’d certainly be open to it, and with a little experience under our collective belts, who knows what we’ll be able to do?

What’s next for you on the horizon?

As far as my interest in this genre is concerned, I am writing a new book titled Godzilla vs. the World: The Politics of Japan’s Disaster Monster for University of Texas Press. Also, Ed Godziszewski and I recorded a new audio commentary for The H-Man, to be released on bluray by Eureka in the UK.

Thanks very much to Steve Ryfle for speaking with Our Culture. To view the line-up of events on offer, please visit the Kaiju Masterclass website

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