Despite his status as one of the most commercially successful Japanese film directors of his day, Ishiro Honda has been somewhat neglected when it comes to discussion within critical circles. His science-fiction classics — which include Godzilla (1954), Rodan (1956), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), and The War of the Gargantuas (1966) — have reached and dazzled audiences all over the world; and yet his name has only on occasion appeared in serious film studies. But now, from noted kaiju eiga historians Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski comes the biography Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa. Assembled from years of meticulous research, and detailing the entirety of Honda's filmmaking spectrum, this prestige book offers an in-depth, revealing portrait of the man — as well as his movies — on a level previously unseen by western audiences.
To whet your appetite with what the biography has to offer, here are seven things you might not have known about Ishiro Honda.
Godzilla's Revenge (1969) was one of his favorite movies
Regularly dismissed as "the worst Godzilla movie ever," this quiet 1969 gem is a film director Honda held with great affection. "We decided to take on one of the social problems of that time, the latchkey kid," he recalled. "We set it up that the kid liked monsters, so he pretends and makes it all real [in his dreams]. [I]t is one of my favorites as well."
Indeed, Godzilla's Revenge is not so much a monster movie but rather the story of a child growing up in a very tough time in Japan's economic history. The boy, Ichiro, is arguably one of the most complete and well-rounded characters in the Godzilla series. He has few friends and comes home to an empty house every day, his parents regularly absent due to needing to work long hours. (To provide context, the biography details why latchkey children became prevalent in 1960s Japan; a fascinating story in and of itself.) Ichiro loves pop culture. He prefers playtime to homework. When lonely or scared, he lets his imagination run wild, escaping to a fantasy world influenced by the very things which fascinate and trouble him. And deep down, he wants nothing more than to be accepted by his peers.
In other words: he's a regular kid, like those in the audience.
Honda was a director who specialized in more than just science fiction, and he became frustrated when external forces more or less pigeonholed him into making one special effects extravaganza after another. (Another fascinating — and pretty complex — story.) Thus, it’s not surprising that Godzilla's Revenge, a film about normal people and real-life issues, appealed to him in the twilight years of his time at Toho.
He worked in numerous film genres and with a wide variety of people
Continuing on that note: even though Ishiro Honda garnered international recognition through his science-fiction movies, the man's output was not limited to monsters and aliens. Of the twenty-six features he directed in the 1950s, only seven were science-fiction; the landmark picture itself, Godzilla (1954), was merely part of a very diverse spectrum. The remainder consisted of comedies, romantic dramas, war pictures, and even a biopic on a famous Japanese baseball player. As the decade progressed, Honda regularly returned to familiar subject matter, but his treatment would change with time. For instance, his first dramatic feature, The Blue Pearl (1951), ends on a note completely unlike later romantic pictures such as Good Luck to These Two (1957). Both are about young people in love. Both resolve their conflicts differently.
And by the way, a number of these films star not only Honda's "stock company" — Hiroshi Koizumi, Ryo Ikebe, etc. — but legendary acting figures such as Toshiro Mifune, seen above in Honda's Eagle of the Pacific (1953)!
The new Honda biography addresses and analyzes these lesser-known movies in tremendous detail. A genuine treat since most are unavailable on DVD.
Many of Ishiro Honda's films are not commercially available, even in Japan
That's correct. Even in their native country, the films of Ishiro Honda not featuring giant monsters and/or alien invaders are, for the most part, difficult to come by. Some have made appearances on Japanese television, some turn up at film festivals; but go to a DVD store in Japan seeking these titles, and you're likely to go home empty-handed. To date, only four — Eagle of the Pacific (1953), Farewell Rabaul (1954), Night School (1956), and Come Marry Me (1966) — have been made available on DVD in Japan. And before you order them from overseas, be warned: none of them come with English subtitles.
His movies were sometimes semi-autobiographical
When it comes to human stories in Honda films, many fans are quick to point out the love triangle in Godzilla (1954), in which two of the participants break from tradition — arranged marriage — and marry for love. But what you might not have known is that this was a recurring subject in Honda's films and it stemmed from his personal life.
Honda met his wife, Kimi, at a time when both were working in the movies. He was a low-wage studio employee (still an assistant director at the time); she was a script checker and the daughter of a well-to-do family headed by a very tradition-bound father. (Also bear in mind: filmmaking was not considered a respectable profession in Japan at the time.) And so, when Honda proposed, Kimi’s father objected to the marriage. As a result, the couple started off virtually on their own, Kimi having given up her dowry in order to marry the man she loved. (The nature of their wedding starkly reflects the circumstances under which they entered wedlock.)
Storylines similar to this filtered its way into a number of Honda’s pictures. Though certainly present to an extent in Godzilla (1954), it’s even more central in movies such as Good Luck to These Two (1957) and An Echo Calls You (1959). The former, in particular, comes across as semi-autobiographical, its leads essentially substituting for Honda and Kimi.
Akira Kurosawa wanted Honda to direct one of his own movies
You might've heard about Honda's friendship with legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, but the true extent of their long association has never been presented in a more detailed account than what’s in the new biography. For instance, did you know Kurosawa originally intended one of his own masterpieces be directed by someone else? Throne of Blood (1957), essentially a Japanese take on Shakespeare's Macbeth, is widely deemed one of Kurosawa's best and was reportedly the favorite movie of poet T.S. Eliot. But Kurosawa didn't initially set out to make this film on his own. He planned to produce a few pictures in the late '50s, designating directorial responsibilities to colleagues. And the individual he initially wanted to realize Throne of Blood was none other than Ishiro Honda.
Their friendship had some notably unhappy moments
Honda and Kurosawa were distinctly different people personality-wise and yet they maintained a very close friendship over a course of several decades. But like all human relations, their friendship was not pure ecstasy — not every memory was a happy one. This is particularly true of a roughly 10-year period when both men were growing older and slowing down in terms of productivity, especially since their industry was rapidly changing. It was a time in which Honda grew somewhat resentful of his old friend, for a number of reasons. One such reason spawned in the mid-1970s when Kajiro Yamamoto, the filmmaker who trained them both, passed away. Honda was already saddened by this loss; and his feelings were not alleviated in the slightest when his best friend, Kurosawa, failed to attend the funeral.
Also: we won't spoil it for you, but Honda's way of reacting to Kurosawa's famous 1971 suicide attempt was anything but expected.
Ishiro Honda did not direct any of the sequences in Dreams (1990)
As some people know, Honda joined forces with Kurosawa on the latter's last few films, made from 1980-1993; and one of the most popular stories filtered among Kurosawa-Honda enthusiasts concerns their third collaboration, the anthology film Dreams (1990). It has been speculated, and even passed off as 'fact' in some places, that Honda actually directed a few sequences in this film. In particular, some people are convinced he took over for the sequence known as The Tunnel, in which a homeless combat veteran encounters the spirits of his platoon, who perished in World War II.
But—as revealed in the biography — this claim is largely a myth. While Honda's personal experiences (as a combat veteran) clearly had some impact on the material, Kurosawa was still the one calling the shots and making the final decisions.