Ishiro Honda: A Life In Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
Few properties have enjoyed as much lasting success and appeal as Toho’s Godzilla, the flagship franchise of Japan’s biggest film studio as well as a larger-than-life character beloved by audiences around the world. This makes it all the more surprising that the story of Ishiro Honda—the very first filmmaker to bring the King of the Monsters to life—hasn’t received the attention that you’d think the father of Godzilla would warrant. Yet it’s precisely this story that Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, two of the most-renowned film scholars specializing in the Big G, tell in Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa. Part biography and part critical filmography, the book draws from Honda’s papers, notes, and interviews conducted by the authors or others to craft its illustration of the man and his movies, and even opens with a generous foreword by Martin Scorsese, who actually had the pleasure of meeting Honda on the set of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. Yet as weighty as Scorsese’s warm words are, the biggest endorsement has to be the involvement of the Honda family: namely, Honda’s son Ryuji, who helped facilitate much of Ryfle and Godziszewski’s research, and his granddaughter Yuuko Honda-Yun, who translated many of the texts and materials they worked with.
Unsurprisingly, the main draw here is the book’s comprehensive examination of Honda’s involvement with Godzilla’s Showa-era series. From the original 1954 Godzilla to the 1975 Showa finale Terror of Mechagodzilla, all of Honda’s Godzilla films as well as his non-Godzilla science fiction productions like Rodan, The Mysterians, and War of The Gargantuas are discussed and sized up by Ryfle and Godziszewski. While the two clearly have deep affection for these movies, their affection is borne of honest appreciation and critique rather than mindless fanboyism, with them noting instances of overacting, pointing out weak or underdeveloped plot points, and even labeling the 1958 kaiju offering Varan The Unbelievable a “poorly conceived film and arguably Honda’s weakest effort.”
Ryfle and Godziszewski also share a wealth of production and release information about each film, but what really makes their analysis so potent is their interpretation of many of Honda’s films as commentary or reaction to then-current events and issues. For instance, every self-respecting Godzilla fan knows the original was an attempt to process Japan’s collective grief over World War II in general and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in particular, but not many may know that King Kong Vs. Godzilla has its own sociopolitical subtext. As the authors explain, that film was partly intended by Honda as a satirical comment on the perceived excesses of the Japanese television industry at the time (whether said satire compels viewers as much as the primitively-pleasing sight of a colossal ape and giant lizard clobbering each other is another question altogether.) Readings like this give a much-needed sense of context and history to movies that were long dismissed by critics as mere distractions from real-life problems.
As stimulating as Ryfle and Godziszewski’s thoughtful treatment of Honda’s monster movies is, their coverage of his non-genre films might be an even greater achievement. With many of Honda’s other movies remaining unreleased on home media and streaming even in his native Japan, it is a mark of the authors’ dedication to their subject that they were able to track down and view all but two of them for their study of his work. From his early documentaries Ise-shima and Story of a Co-op to coming of age stories like Adolescence Part 2 and Young Tree, Honda’s penchant for interpersonal drama as well as his documentarian’s eye for nature and everyday life are analyzed in full. After decades of only catching glimpses of these qualities in the human action and cinematography of his sci-fi fantasies, Western readers will likely come away with new respect for Honda as an auteur thanks to the light Ryfle and Godziszewski shed on his dramas and documentaries.
This already-eye-opening analysis of Honda’s non-genre filmography is made all the more insightful thanks to the authors’ mapping out of how it laid the groundwork for his work on Godzilla and other sci-fi projects. For instance, we learn that Eiji Tsuburaya—the special effects director for many of Honda’s tokusatsu productions—first collaborated with him (albeit without receiving credit) on the 1952 drama The Skin of the South, crafting landslides for the movie’s climax. These effects are identified as “A preview of the more ambitious disaster scenes Tsuburaya would create in science fiction films”, and they trace the road to Godzilla even further through the war movies Eagle of the Pacific and Farewell Rabaul. Featuring the model planes and real explosions that would become famous worldwide as the distinctly style of special effects, the two films also try to address Japan’s role in WWII and its consequences, something that Honda would do more indirectly but no less seriously with Godzilla.
Indeed, it might even be said that the true measure of Ishiro Honda—the filmmaker, the boy born to a Buddhist monk in the mountains, the man—lies in his time in the Imperial Japanese Army as it rampaged across Asia and the Pacific. Ryfle and Godziszewski acknowledge that very few primary sources regarding Honda’s wartime service exist and that he rarely discussed it himself, but even so they reveal a man who hated the mad dreams of conquest and empire that his government forced him and his countrymen to kill or die for. “The images of combat and destruction that would appear in his films were, in a sense, Honda’s only real catharsis. Like so many veterans, he took his demons to the grave,” the authors conclude. And yet through their recounting of the mercy he showed his subordinates, the Chinese whose land he and his fellow soldiers occupied, and the comfort women (that is, women who were forced into sexual slavery by the IJA) he was at one point charged with managing, Ryfle and Godziszewski show that the monk’s son and reluctant soldier was “Somehow [able to salvage] his humanity.”
Further attesting to Honda’s humanity is the warmth and reverence with which those he knew or worked with spoke of him. Whether it’s loved ones like his wife Kimi or colleagues like Godzilla actor Akira Takarada, the people Ryfle and Godziszewski interview paint a picture of a gentle soul who rarely, if ever, showed anger yet worked tirelessly at his craft. This is demonstrated even more clearly through Honda’s relationship with Akira Kurosawa, his film school friend and late-life collaborator. Though Honda never received the critical acclaim that Kurosawa did during his lifetime, the Seven Samurai director is shown to have nothing less than the highest regard for his films and creative input, to the point of telling the crew of Kagemusha to treat his friend with the deference they showed him. Another illustrative contrast drawn between the two filmmakers is their differences in temperament: unlike the patient Honda, Kurosawa was notorious for being overdemanding and hotheaded, with it not being uncommon for him to fly off the handle over the smallest mistake. With crewmembers way in over their heads trying to placate “The Emperor” and his wrath, it says something about the respect Kurosawa had for “Ino-san” that he could only be calmed down and talked out of his towering rages by his trusted old friend.
With its keen analysis of Honda’s many-spectacled movies and invaluable sketch of his multifaceted life, Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa is likely to remain the definitive English-language biography of one of cinema’s most unsung artists for years to come.
Review By Reggie Peralta