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Introducing - Ishiro Honda


I suppose it is inevitable that Japanese director Ishiro Honda (sometimes incorrectly credited as Inoshiro Honda) will forever be eclipsed by his creations. This is after all the man who, along with special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya, gave the world such durable characters as Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah, and most famous of all, Godzilla, the undisputed king of the Japanese Kaiju-eiga (monster movie) genre. Of course, Honda only directed a small number of the dozens of Kaiju films that were made at the height of the genre’s craze, roughly between the release of the original Gojira (1954) and Honda’s final film Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), but the genre’s highlights of that period almost always had Honda’s name in the credits.

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Ishiro Honda had a prolific career as a feature film director, with 46 credits as principal director to his credit in only a 24-year span, between 1951 and 1975. He also worked as an assistant or second-unit director for other filmmakers, directed three documentary short subjects, and made over two dozen episodes for a number of television series. Most famously, Honda worked with Akira Kurosawa, with whom he remained lifelong friends, and did significant amounts of work on Stray Dog, Ran, and Akira Kurosawa‘s Dreams, among others. For Dreams, Honda reportedly directed the segments “The Tunnel” and “Mt. Fuji in Red” based on Kurosawa's detailed storyboards. Of the 46 films Honda directed, 25 of them fell under the fantasy/science fiction banner. The others, unseen by myself and unavailable in the west, fall under a wide range of subjects and genres from light comedies and family melodramas to more serious war films. Ideally, an ambitious company like Criterion would see fit to make some of these pictures available for English-speaking audiences so that Honda’s entire career may be given a fuller appraisal. Fortunately for fans, nearly all of Honda’s 25 science fiction and fantasy films are easily available in the U.S.

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Criterion’s Blu-Ray release of Gojira is the latest development in the reassessment of the film’s worth in the canon of classic foreign films; a reappraisal that, in the west at least, is over a decade in the making. The original 1954 film, in its uncut Japanese-language form, is an unrelentingly bleak parable about the dangers of nuclear testing and warfare, a theme that Honda would return to again and again throughout his career, though he would never explore it as fully or with such dire results. Unlike the vast majority of its Kaiju counterparts, Gojira is a film in which the monster’s mayhem has real-life consequences. The film is littered with haunting scenes depicting the bloody aftermath of Godzilla’s rampage. Among the most chilling occurs when a widowed mother pulls her children close to her, comforting them with the promise that they will soon be with their father. Tiny sub-stories like this are what make the film more than just a monster-on-the-loose extravaganza, and for contemporary Japanese audiences they would have hit very close to home in the shadow of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a decade prior. In many ways, Honda never made a film like Gojira again. While he did occasionally dip into that darker, more despairing territory that he explored so effectively in Gojira in films such as The H-Man (1958) and Matango (1963), the tone of even his other Kaiju-eiga is decidedly lighter and grew increasingly friendlier - at times even bordering on childishness. This direction was met with poorer results and as the years rolled by Toho became more and more protective over the image of its top commodity, limiting Honda's ability to infuse the films with the morals he held so dear. After the enormous success of Gojira, the studio produced a hastily-made sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, released barely six months after the original without Honda’s involvement and with none of the original feature’s dire apocalyptic themes. The film was nevertheless a financial success in Japan, and featured several traits - such as the battle between two giant monsters - that would become staples of the genre.

It would be seven years before Honda would again answer Godzilla’s call for 1962’s crossover hit King Kong vs. Godzilla. Between the release of the first film and this "monster vs. monster" movie, Honda would direct some of his very finest films dealing with fantastic themes and introduce the world to other unforgettable giant monsters. The next Kaiju film to emerge from Toho, Rodan, was also the first color film for Honda, and only the second overall from the studio. The sources of destruction this time were twin pterodactyl-like monsters leaving a path of destruction in their wake in an extraordinarily beautiful showcase of Eiji Tsuburaya’s breathtaking miniature work and “suitimation” techniques. Narratively, Rodan marked a decisive turning point in Honda’s monster films. Rather than making the flying dinosaurs into uncaring beasts desiring only destruction, he chose to "humanize" them and give them real motivation. The creatures still lay waste to countless buildings and destroy thousands of lives, but the final minutes of the film are bizarrely touching in the depiction of the two Rodans' unwillingness to leave each other - even in death. It was about this film that Honda made his most famous and telling quotation about his giant monsters, in an interview with Roland Lethem:
“Monsters are tragic beings. They are not evil by choice. They are born too tall, too strong, too heavy, that is their tragedy. They do not attack people because they want to, but because of their size and strength, mankind has no other choice but to defend himself. After several stories such as this, people end up having a kind of affection for the monsters, they end up caring about them.”*
From this, Honda’s Kaiju dogma, it becomes clear that he was not willing to simply unleash the wild beings on fake cities. Throughout his career he would infuse his rubber-suited beasts with distinct personalities and even emotions in a way that series such as Gamera never attempted.

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Throughout Rodan and indeed all of Honda’s Kaiju films, an important theme emerges in the importance of cooperation and teamwork in the face of adversity. Time and again in Honda’s films we see humanity thriving only when collaborating to overcome whatever it is - usually space invaders or giant monsters - that is trying to keep us from peaceful survival. This even extends to Honda’s more straight-faced science fiction offerings, like the sister movies The Mysterians (1957) and Battle in Outer Space (1959), where Japan and the United States join forces to stop the invaders and prevent the enslavement of mankind. This Japanese/United States cooperation is an extension of the theme that Honda would later come to favor, as in films like Frankenstein vs. Baragon (1965), Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), and the all-out insane War of the Gargantuan (1966), among others. In Mothra (1961) - another sublime blend of fantasy, science fiction, and even a bit of horror - a fictional country called Rolisica is an obvious stand-in for the U.S. The giant moth even levels a metropolis known as “New Kirk City”. It’s obvious that international relations were something that were near and dear to Honda’s heart. It is no coincidence that in the films where the human characters cannot get along - such as The H-Man or the brilliant and bleak (and my choice for Honda’s greatest film) Matango - things turn out decidedly less positively.

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Upon exploring the work of Ishiro Honda, possibly the most prolific director of fantastic films in the history of the medium, a recurring image arises from the rubble and rubber. Strangely, it isn’t the sight of one of his and Eiji Tsuburaya’s many memorable creations, and it doesn’t involve miniature cities or special effects of any kind. In Honda’s films, the key image that crops up time and again is that of a small group of his human characters walking up a steep incline of some sort, usually a mountain; Honda’s entire primary theme of multigenerational, multinational, and most importantly, peaceful cooperation against adversity condensed into one perfect, beautiful image. Ishiro Honda left us a strange and remarkable body of work in his fantastic films, and there is no more perfect introduction than with Criterion’s release of Gojira and Godzilla, King of the Monsters.

by Izo


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*The full-length, correct quote and source comes from Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Films of Ishiro Honda by Peter H. Brothers

3 Comments

I suspect, after finally watching the new Godzilla blu-ray tonight, I may have something to say about all of this.
Well what did you think, Vesten?
Godzilla, which is currently the only Honda film I've seen in the past twenty years that I can accurately comment on, was absolutely stunning. Bleak, dark, and intensely character driven, the human drama was so strong it was almost easy to forget that a 165-foot-tall semi-aquatic reptile was wreaking havoc across the country side. I'm looking forward, sometime over the weekend, to watching the Americanized version to be able to compare the two. Regardless, more Honda is definitely in my immediate viewing future.