photograph of Ishiro Honda courtesy of Honda Film Inc.
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Image Courtesy of Honda Film Inc.

The creator of Godzilla is one of the most under-appreciated filmmakers ever

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Nov 6, 2017

Ishiro Honda often gets overlooked when lists of the world's greatest and most influential filmmakers are assembled, and it's a bit of an injustice. The Japanese filmmaker co-created Godzilla and directed the earliest (and best) installments of the franchise; along with the eight Godzilla films he directed, he also helped create the sprawing Toho monster universe, including characters such as Rodan, Ghidorah, and many more.

His science fiction work also went beyond monsters, and included such seminal films as The Mysterians (1957) and The War of the Gargantuas (1966). With the Godzilla franchise turning 63 this month, SYFY WIRE spoke with Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, authors of the new biography Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, to gain some insight on this visionary filmmaker, who passed away in 1993.

There have been many Japanese filmmakers who have worked in science fiction over the years, but Honda is the one everyone focuses on most. We talk about him more than, say, Jun Fukuda and Takao Okawara, just to name two other Godzilla directors.

Steve Ryfle: If you had to strip this entire genre down to one film, Godzilla (1954) is the one. It’s the only one that truly matters. Honda was recently described to me as a journeyman who captured the zeitgeist over and over in his films, and I think that's why Honda is so much more significant than a lot of these other filmmakers you're talking about. His films weren't just big action/science fiction spectacles. They often, and very consistently, captured something about what was going on at that moment in time in Japan and in the world.

Godzilla is a film that's very specific to things that were happening in Japan in 1954, but it's also a film about a global problem. And that's the second part of why I would say Honda has endured as the greatest filmmaker in this genre. In his films, there's this epic quality; there's this sense that something far greater is at stake than the immediate story about whoever the characters may be.

I do like the films that Jun Fukuda made very much. But his films are more confined to a smaller space. It's actually quite interesting that the two Fukuda films that are most talked about are the Godzilla films that are set on islands — Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966) and Son of Godzilla (1967). And that's a very clear difference from most of the Honda pictures, which are set not only in the big city but have this global element to them. Usually, all the nations of the world are united in some way against the common threat.

Ed Godziszewski: He was the first to table in this genre and he pretty much is responsible for creating it. That itself sets him apart from everyone else. But at the same time, I think one of the things that allow his films to be so enduring, to be so timeless, is — in almost all cases — the people populating these stories were much like regular people. And he treated the characters and the way they acted as: "What would any real person in the world do in these kinds of situations, no matter how fantastic the situation? How would a person react?" And I think that kind of genuine treatment of the characters helps keep these films something you can watch no matter what generation you're in. You can still appreciate the drama. That's what I think sets his films apart, especially from the films that came out in the '80s and '90s and even, more recently, in the millennium era. They have that more timeless quality than other films in the genre.

SR: Honda's output is remarkable. But also, when you look back at his career as a maker of science fiction and monster films, it's a relatively coherent body of work from beginning to end. You can kind of see this overall arc, and you can trace this change happening in Japan and in the world through his films. So I think that's another reason, even though it might not be something everyone is conscious about as they're watching the films. None of the other directors you mentioned — though, certainly, they've made some great movies — have such a remarkable output.

Godzilla (1954)

By the time Honda was assigned as the director on Godzilla, it had already been decided Godzilla was going to be awakened by the hydrogen bomb, by nuclear technology. How did he impact the nuclear theme in Godzilla (1954)?

SR: I would say the idea was there, but the theme was not. The theme is something I think he very much brought to that film. And I think of all the science fiction films he made, it's certainly the one that has the most evidence of his fingerprints — from the writing phase to the directing phase. It's a film, I feel, of overpowering sadness; and that's one of the reasons why the film continues to move me and why I continue to watch it. We all know, by now, that Godzilla is a metaphor — or a walking manifestation — of the bomb. It's also a walking manifestation of war. And there's certainly imagery in that film that looks a lot like photographs and imagery of the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the firebombing of Tokyo. As impossible as it might be, if you try to put yourself in the mindset of a person in Japan in 1954 with those relatively recent memories, I think that would've been a very moving experience. It's very much a movie about and for people who went through a common experience.

And that's another thing that makes it so remarkable: it has this universal quality. Because even though Honda was making a film about something very specific, he was also making a film — as we said earlier — about a global problem. Something that I think everyone in the world was really concerned about and still should be concerned about. That's the other thing that makes this film endlessly relevant. I mean, we're in this time period now where our president is threatening to nuke another country, openly. The threat has always been there; we could always have done this at any time in the last 60-70 years, and the power only grows more immense; but now, we've kind of normalized this threat. If Honda were alive today, he'd probably be really dismayed at how the warning he issued in 1954 really hasn't been heeded at all.

EG: The only other thing I could add is: if you're looking for Honda's influence, all you have to do is look at Shigeru Kayama's original story. Outside of the character of Dr. Serizawa and his dilemma, it's basically more of a typical monster-on-the-loose kind of story. Honda and Takeo Murata, in writing the screenplay, took that framework and fleshed that out and added all the extra detail that adds the impact and the power of the story to what you see on screen. It was Honda and Murata's fine-tuning that made the film what it is.

Honda was a person highly interested in science. I think that also helped him embrace this topic… unlike other filmmakers such as Senkichi Taniguchi, who was originally in mind to direct this film and turned it down. Many people looked at science fiction as something you don't want to get pigeonholed into doing. Especially at that time in Japan, much less in the rest of the world, science fiction was not held in very high regard. So it was somewhat of a career risk for him to accept this project, but he had a very broad knowledge of science and embraced that. And I think he saw this as an opportunity to make a very profound statement on something he believed very strongly in.

So I think all the cards just lined up perfectly for this to happen and for Honda to make his mark on the world of cinema.

SR: And, you know, the chapter in the book about Godzilla (1954) is titled "No Laughing Matter." And that's because the three people at the core of this production — Honda, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, and special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya — were very conscious of the fact that if this film didn't come out in a convincing way that they could mocked for it and that it could be a very career-damaging setback. And so they were determined, from the beginning, that this was something they would treat in a very serious manner and that nobody would laugh at it.

One last thing I would add. To continue what Ed was talking about: this idea of science gone too far, the dangers of scientific advancement, is partly embodied in the character of Serizawa. But what makes the film so moving to me and to everyone watching it is: Serizawa is a human being. A deeply troubled human being. And when he makes his decision and when he gives his life to kill Godzilla at the end of the film, he is sacrificing himself for both the country and the world — and also because of this intense heartbreak he's going through. It's a very human catharsis and resolution to this story. And at the end of the film, there's this overwhelming sadness. It's, again, a very global story with very global implications, but it also has this deeply human element that still resonates with the audience. And I think that's one of the reasons why the film has survived so long.

Kayama's vision of Godzilla was less ferocious and apocalyptic than what we see in the movie. He attacked some ships, but mostly he was eating livestock and trampling things. And when the military tried to fight him, he grew irritated and just went back into the sea. But in the film, Godzilla is portrayed as unstoppable, attacking and killing out of cruelty and anger. Was that Honda's doing?

EG: Yeah, I think there's no doubt of that. Kayama had written stories about mythical creatures (Bigfoot-type creatures, that kind of thing) which you think of much more as ordinary animals. In this case, the way he wrote Godzilla was he just happened to be unusually large. But what transforms a story into something special is taking that basic image and saying, 'Okay, we've created this huge creature, now what do we do with it?' And Honda attaching the very overt symbolism — that's what takes it to the next level.

Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster (1964)

There is a quote in the chapter covering Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster (1964), where Honda's addressing the urban legend that King Ghidorah was created as a metaphor for China acquiring nuclear weapons. He says Ghidorah was just meant to be a modern take of the mythological serpent Yamata no Orochi. It seems that people overanalyzed his films to the extent where even he became amused. 

EG: Oh, I think there's no doubt about it. Even if you go back as far as the second Godzilla film, Godzilla Raids Again (1955) — which Honda didn't direct — people try to add symbolism to the film. I can see where a lot of this symbolism that people are trying to find in films comes from. But in many cases, especially in those later '60s films Honda made, they were created mainly as a form of entertainment. They did incorporate some things that were relevant to the time. But I think that, yes, especially in the case of film critics, they're looking for something profound to say; and if it's not there directly, they oftentimes will come up with things like this that are kind of a reach to demonstrate how clever they are and expose things the director has never said in public. That's not to say it's not valid to try to analyze films and find that symbolism (and maybe it's there subconsciously) but there's no doubt that Honda very strongly felt people overanalyzed and were finding things he never really intended to do.

SR: Perhaps because the first Godzilla (1954) is so universally understood to be this metaphor for the bomb, people are looking for similar themes and ideas in some of the other films. But the truth is that as time went on, the threat of nuclear war became less and less of an immediate concern as Japan kind of turned the corner after the war and after the Occupation. And the demand grew for mainstream entertainment films that would sell lots of tickets. And the kaiju eiga was a very successful genre. And there was pressure, conscious or unconscious, to make films that were more family-friendly like Mothra (1961) and King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and so forth. And when they're successful, there's pressure to repeat the formula.

We track this in the book. As these sort of societal changes and industry changes happened, the monsters essentially lost their metaphorical value. That's, you know, a big part of how they became "good guys." And also we track how Honda felt about this, when he was essentially pressured into doing things like the monster confab in Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster (1964) or especially something like Godzilla dancing the 'shie!' in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965). These are all products of the kind of thing we're talking about. This gradual but inexorable change in the genre away from what the original intent was and away from the type of film Honda felt most strongly about.

EG: When Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah came out the early '90s, there was a TV special that Honda was a guest on. And they happened to show that particular scene, the 'shie!' dance from Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. And right after that, they cut back to Honda; and I wish I could find that videotape to share with people, because the look of disgust on his face was the kind of thing that could freeze anybody's heart. I mean, he really was unhappy about that.

I'll say that this is strictly my speculation, but I don’t think it's a coincidence that after Monster Zero, Honda didn't direct the next couple Godzilla films. There're all sorts of rationalizations for that, but the fact that something like that had troubled him so much… I think his comment was "I didn't create Godzilla for this. This is not what I intended for this character." Something to that effect. It's no surprise to me that, whether it was him opting out or some kind of nonverbal communication between him and the studio, that that had a very big impact on the fact that he stepped away from Godzilla for a while.

godzilla-jig.jpg

Credit: Toho

When you consider Ishiro Honda's science fiction career as a whole, is there a certain range of years you think represent his 'Golden Era'?

EG: Well, there is no doubt the earlier films had bigger budgets and they were kind of working with a clean slate. So from a creativity viewpoint, pretty much everything they were doing at the time represented something new — some new path they could take, that they were able to explore, and create things that there was no precedent for in Japan, at least. And as you go along, things became more formulaic. And at the same time, you have the budget pressure, where things are being cut back, and he's got more limitations placed upon himself.

So the natural evolution of his career and the film industry in general would point to that, yeah, his earlier films are probably what you would consider his Golden Era. When I look at the films... they're all quite enjoyable… but I certainly feel like the peak was reached in 1963-1964. That's when you had Godzilla vs. the Thing (1964), Atragon (1963), Matango (1963), things like that. I think he reached the end of exploring new areas; and from a technical viewpoint, everyone involved in the production was at the peak of their powers. Tsuburaya was doing his best special effects work. Composer Akira Ifukube was writing masterful scores. The screenwriters — Shinichi Sekizawa and Takeshi Kimura — were writing their sharpest scripts. Honda's direction was on point. I mean, everything just kind of peaked out at that time.

SR: Yeah, I agree: the first decade is when you have the most energy and the most creativity. When you asked that question, the first thing that popped into mind was Rodan (1956), which was a very early film. Even though it might not be as 'serious' as Godzilla (1954), look how that film has endured over time. And it's because of the powerful imagery, the actual horror elements of the story, and also I think it has some of Honda's best direction in any of these genre pictures. I think the performance by a young actor named Kenji Sahara is actually quite convincing.

But I'm also fascinated by the second half of the 1960s. Because even if the films of that time period are considered more formulaic, I think it's still remarkable how many of those films are classics and continue to be enjoyed and be discovered by new generations. And it's fascinating to look at how he was working during that time period and dealing with the pressures of not only making films for Japanese audiences but also contending with the demands of overseas audiences and American producers who often came in and often put money into Honda's productions and then demand a say in how they were made and interfered with things behind the scenes and on the set. So that was a period during which he was working with a great deal of adversity at times and he still managed to put out some very memorable pictures.

The films I'm talking about from that time period are things like Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965), Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), The War of the Gargantuas (1966), Destroy All Monsters (1968), Latitude Zero (1969), and even something like All Monsters Attack (1969), also known as Godzilla's Revenge. I think that last film's unfairly maligned and is actually one of Honda's best-directed and most interesting and inventive films, for reasons that it's rarely given credit for. It's a film about a truly human story, about a boy who is going through something that's entirely relatable both then and now. You still have this phenomenon of kids coming home to empty houses. And in that film, the world of Toho monsters is actually a dream-state that helps this child grow up. It's a wonderful film.

Godzilla's Revenge (1969)

EG: Godzilla’s Revenge is kind of like an outlier, one that stands alone. And I think its reputation is largely affected by when you've seen it and the conditions under which you've seen it. In my case: when I first saw that film, I was 17-18, and I'm coming off Destroy All Monsters and Monster Zero and all sorts of amazing, exciting films that he'd made in the earlier part of the '60s. And suddenly, this thing shows up, which is out of left field, for me. This was the pre-Internet age, so when a film shows up, the first time you're aware it exists is when you see the ad in the newspaper. 'Oh, there's a new film!' And so my expectation going in was far different from what I saw! In fact, I was just… stunned. So it's not surprising that, at that time, I really had a lot of disdain for the film. But then, as time goes on and you revisit the film, you can see it in a different light. Certainly, after I had married and had kids and I showed this film to my daughter when she was about three years old… that was the eye-opening experience. Because I'm watching it with her and seeing it through her eyes. 'Wait a minute! This is something that's far better than I had given it credit for!'

Earlier you mentioned Honda was appalled by the famous dancing scene from Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and basically said 'This is not what I created Godzilla for.' Honda was offered the chance to revive Godzilla in 1984, by which time Toho had decided they were going to take the monster back to being serious and scary and destructive again. But Honda decided he didn't want to make the film. Why not?

EG: Well, he had retired from making films back in 1970 already. And even though he came back, for rather unknown reasons, to make Terror of MechaGodzilla in 1975, basically he'd retired as a filmmaker. And starting in 1979, when he re-hooked up with his longtime friend Akira Kurosawa, he started working with Kurosawa on his projects and advising him and they were having a great time making movies together — basically going back to what they were doing as young guys; just enjoying the life of making movies. And so, for him, there was very little reason to come back and revisit Godzilla yet again. He wasn't all that interested in making his own film anymore; he was very satisfied with making films with Kurosawa. It was an easy decision for him and he just recommended one of his prior assistant directors, Koji Hashimoto, for Godzilla (1984).

SR: I think it would have been a step backward for him at that point in time. He had moved on, and so it's understandable that he declined.

The project that eventually became Godzilla (1984) rose out of the ashes of several other announcements in the years prior to that. Toho had announced its intent to reboot Godzilla several times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and at one point in time, Honda was attached — at least in the press — to direct the film, but the project apparently stalled in development for several years. Honda was even quoted in an article published by an American wire service at the time, in which he talked about how the Godzilla series had strayed from its original intent and the studio wanted to make the monster relevant again. So, the story of Honda being offered the job of directing the 1984 film and then stepping aside carries a bit of added weight; if the project had come together just a few years earlier, before Honda became involved with Kurosawa, then who knows? He might very well have directed the 1984 film. It's a tantalizing thought.