Ishiro Honda: The master behind Godzilla

by

Contributing Writer

Everyone knows “Godzilla,” the 1954 film that introduced Japan’s most famous monster to the world. But the name of its director, Ishiro Honda, was for a long time only mentioned by foreign critics and fans in passing, if at all.

Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski.
336 pages
WESLEYAN, Nonfiction.

Even today some write of him as “Inoshiro” Honda, a decades-old error that stubbornly lives on. If Honda had become a world-famous auteur like his long-time friend and Toho colleague Akira Kurosawa, the world would have sooner learned the correct reading for his first name.

In “Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa,” the first (and, given its thoroughness, probably last) full-length biography of Honda in English, “Godzilla” series experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski build a passionate and persuasive case for their subject’s importance.

Neither a Kurosawa-like auteur nor a faceless hack, Honda was instead a quietly competent professional who even put his own stamp on formula work. A Toho loyalist, who followed studio policy even when he found it wrong-headed, such as turning Godzilla into a scaly clown for the amusement of the under-12 set, Honda also had strong beliefs, forged in three stints in the Imperial Army, starting in 1934. When he returned home in 1946 after being taken prisoner by Chinese troops, he was firmly anti-war.

Also as a director, starting with the 1951 drama “The Blue Pearl,” his first fiction feature, Honda was a fervent humanist fascinated by science and the natural world, from creatures in the oceans (he was the first to use underwater photography in a Japanese film) to possible life on alien planets.

These views and interests took concrete form in “Godzilla,” with its anti-nuclear message and story of conquering the monster with not brute military force but a gadget that sends it to a watery grave. Godzilla’s fire-breathing, heavy-hipped look was the creation of effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya and his team, however.

The film’s international success and enormous impact — it launched the kaijū (monster) genre and made the world enduringly aware of Japanese popular culture — also became a trap for Honda, if one he entered voluntarily.

A serious type who valued realism over flashy sensation, Honda tried his hand at everything from nature documentaries to romantic dramas.

But in the 1950s and ’60s Honda became Toho’s go-to director for its growing slate of sci-fi/fantasy films, most featuring monsters of one sort or another. Honda went along not only to stay on the good side of his studio bosses, but also because he was at heart a populist entertainer and did not regard films like “Mothra” (1961) and “Matango” (1963) as slumming expeditions.

And he made them well: “Mothra,” whose title character was a giant flying female moth, became an often-revived box office smash, while “Matango,” with its creepy story of shipwrecked humans turning into mushrooms, became an influential cult classic. But they also limited him as a filmmaker, while making him a punching bag for critics for whom sci-fi and fantasy were kids’ stuff by default.

As box-office revenues fell off a cliff with the advent of television in the ’60s, Honda found himself forced by shrinking budgets and a changing company policy to cut corners and appeal to school kids with pro-wrestler-like monster battles, not deep-think metaphors about nuclear destruction.

After making “Terror of Mechagodzilla” (1975) a flop that ended the Godzilla series until Toho rebooted it nearly a decade later, Honda never again directed a feature film. He did have a second career, however, as an assistant to Kurosawa on his last five films, concluding with “Madadayo” in 1993. Honda died of lung cancer that same year.

Ryfle and Godziszewski flesh out this story with not only detailed plot descriptions of Honda’s 49 films as a director, including ones never screened abroad, but also critiques, interviews and Honda’s own words about his work, many sourced from his memoir “Godzilla and My Movie Life.”

The authors are obviously fans but their biography is not a fan rave. Instead they can be unsparing about their subject’s artistic shortcomings. They slate “Terror of Mechagodzilla” for its “humorless tone and gloomy themes” and for having a “depressing vibe.” No wonder audiences stayed away.

At the same time, they paint an affectionate portrait of a director who had a reputation among his cast and crew of regulars (the “Honda family”) as a firm but fair type who got the best from them more with soft-spoken words than outbursts of anger.

If this biography were just for core kaijū fans, the authors could have saved themselves years of labor by focusing solely on Honda’s output in that genre. Instead the book is a wider, deeper and more valuable examination of not only one man’s career, but also the life that produced it and the system that nurtured it — and almost destroyed it. It’s for anyone interested in Japanese cinema and the art of film.