Japanese filmmaker Ishiro Honda (1911–1993) directed 44 films and served as assistant director on several more, including some of the classics of modern Japanese cinema. But he is known above all for one film: Godzilla, the 1954 release that became the king of all monster movies.
Godzilla was an international smash and even spawned an entire Japanese film genre, kaiju-eiga, or monster films. Honda became a celebrity in Japan for Godzilla and a host of sequels he directed, each of them, in the opinions of many critics, more ridiculous than the last. Yet despite the popularity of the original Godzilla, Americans knew the film only in a drastically altered version until a restored version was released in the United States in 2004. That restoration clearly revealed Honda's intention to make an anti-nuclear statement with Godzilla, an aspect mostly lost when the film was re-cut for McCarthy-era American audiences. It became clear that the strange power of the Godzilla films, despite their often second-class production values, resided in a subtext of violence and war, phenomena with which Honda had been quite familiar in his own life.
Watched Film Industry Grow
Honda (whose first name was often misspelled "Inoshiro") in Western publications, was born in Yamagata Prefecture, Japan, on May 7, 1911. His father was a Buddhist priest. The young Honda loved to go to see silent films, at first because he was fascinated by the benshi, the live narrators who were distinctive to silent film in Japan. As he grew older, however, he began to think in career terms about his love of movies. "I watched movie theaters being built and regular theaters being turned into movie theaters, and eventually I realized there could be a pretty well-paying future for me in the business," he said in a Tokyo Journal interview quoted on the Godzilla Shrine website. "It all came together. I enjoyed telling stories and could find work in an industry that was financially successful and artistic to boot."
At first, Honda enrolled at Nihon (or Nippon) University as an art student, but he soon signed up for a film apprenticeship program run by PCL (Photography Chemistry Laboratory), a studio that was an ancestor of the Japanese postwar moviemaking giant Toho. Honda did well in the program and was working as a cameraman by 1933, before he graduated. He made two key contacts and friendships at PCL. One, Kajiro Yamamoto, was a director and film teacher who inspired a number of younger Japanese filmmakers. Honda rose in the PCL hierarchy and remained with the company as it was absorbed into Toho. He worked as an assistant director for Yamamoto in the late 1930s and early 1940s on such films as Uma (Horses, 1941). The other important acquaintance Honda met at PCL was Akira Kurosawa, considered one of the greatest directors in Japanese history. Honda and Kurosawa met in 1937.
By that time, Honda had been drafted into the Japanese army and sent to China to participate in Japan's invasion of that country. He served three tours of duty as an infantryman, returning to Tokyo in between tours to resume his film career. On one of these trips, he met his wife Kimi, a Toho script assistant who would play an active role in his career, often discussing his films with him as they were made. They raised a son and daughter. Honda kept a close watch on new developments in Japanese film, and he was impressed by the special effects in a 1942 Japanese war film called The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya. The following year, he worked for the first time with the earlier film's special effects coordinator, Eiji Tsuburaya, as the two assisted Yamamoto on Kato's Flying Action Forces. They did not get along at first, as Tsuburaya criticized the way Honda had staged a shot of some model fighter planes. But it was the beginning of a famous partnership.
While serving in the military in China, Honda often had a fear of being ambushed by a large crowd, and that image showed up as a motif in many of his films. In 1945 his fears were realized as he was seized and held as a prisoner of war for more than a year. He heard about the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan from his prison cell. Released after Japan's surrender, he returned home and worked for a variety of studios.
Assisted Kurosawa on Stray Dog
In 1949 Honda was reunited with Kurosawa and signed on as assistant director for Kurosawa's Stray Dog, a police drama starring frequent Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune. "I had Honda do mainly second-unit shooting," Kurosawa recalled in his book Something Like an Autobiography (as quoted in the Independent). "Every day I told him what I wanted and he would go out into the ruins of postwar Tokyo to film it. There are few men as honest and reliable as Honda. He faithfully brought back exactly the footage I requested, so almost everything he shot was used in the final cut of the film. I'm often told that I captured the atmosphere of postwar Japan very well in Stray Dog, and if so I owe a great deal of that success to Honda." Honda also made two documentaries around 1950.
Successful work like this led to Honda's being given the chance, by the Toho studio, to step behind the cameras himself for a major studio release. His first feature film, 1951's Blue Pearl, was about female pearl divers. He became the first Japanese director to film underwater, and the unusual movie was well received. Among the five films Honda made over the next two years was The Man Who Came to Port (1952), which likewise had an exotic environment: set among Japanese whalers, it involved a sequence set at the South Pole. Eiji Tsuburaya, with whom Honda was now collaborating, did not film on location but simulated the Antarctic environment by using rear-screen projection. Honda and Tsuburaya reunited for the war film Eagle of the Pacific (1953), and they worked together again on the romantic war story Farewell, Rabaul the following year.
Honda's participation in Godzilla, known in Japan as Gojiro, came about almost by accident; he had been slated to direct another film called Sanshiro the Priest, but plans for that film fell through and he was moved to Godzilla, the idea for which had been hatched by Tsuburaya. The movie features an unstoppable dinosaur that had languished in hibernation since the era of the dinosaurs' extinction but is awakened and mysteriously strengthened by a hydrogen bomb test explosion. Godzilla is first seen attacking a small fishing boat—a scene with strong resonances for Japanese audiences who had just recently heard about the illnesses of Japanese fishermen who had found themselves too close to the American H-bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific.
More generally, Godzilla was seen as a symbol of the atomic bomb. Honda himself, as quoted by Brent Staples of the New York Times, said that he conceived of the fire-breathing dinosaur as a way of "making radiation visible," and he hoped to make an explicitly anti-nuclear statement. "Believe it or not, we naively hoped that the end of Godzilla was going to coincide with the end of nuclear testing," he was quoted as saying by Staples. The famous scenes of Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo are primitive by modern special-effects standards, but they made a strong impact in a country that had experienced total devastation just nine years earlier. The film became a huge hit, and analytical articles in mainstream publications discussed the film for decades afterward in Japan.
Drew on Wartime Experiences
Honda was in many ways the ideal choice to direct Godzilla. In making the film he drew not on Japan's rich tradition of fantasy but on the plain, unsentimental style of military dramas, and on his own impressions of World War II. "Most of the visual images I got were from my war experience," he was quoted as saying on the Godzilla Shrine website. "After the war, all of Japan, as well as Tokyo, was left in ashes…. If Godzilla had been a big ancient dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn't know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla."
Until the re-release of the original in 2004, Godzilla was seen only in a distorted form in the U.S., with an entire new character, a reporter played by Raymond Burr, added in and most of the references to the nuclear menace excised. Nevertheless, enough of the compelling quality of the film remained to make Godzilla a reference point in American popular culture. The film's sequels were dubbed into English as quickly as Honda could make them and were staples of American movie theaters and then late-night television for decades.
The high point of the monster craze Honda created came in the 1960s. He introduced another memorable monster with Mothra in 1961, pitting monsters against each other in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), and Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965). Later Godzilla films were straight monster movies, lacking the nuclear commentary. Occasionally Honda rebelled against filling the Godzilla-director slot for Toho, making the romantic comedy Come Marry Me in 1966. He refused to direct Godzilla films when he did not like the scripts, taking a break from filmmaking completely in the 1970s. "I'm not sure if the success of the Godzilla movies was a good thing or not," Kimi Honda was quoted as saying on the Godzilla Shrine website. "They were so popular that Mr. Honda became trapped. He had to work on them." Honda was a favorite among Japanese film-industry people, some of whom wished he could be given the chance to work on more artistic projects.
Honda got that chance to a degree in 1980 after several years of working in television (directing episodes of such series as Return of Ultraman) and returning to the Godzilla series in 1975 with Terror of MechaGodzilla, a film centered on a robot Godzilla double. He reunited with his old friend Kurosawa, becoming assistant director on some of the Japanese master's most acclaimed films; Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985), Dreams (1990), Rhapsody in August, (1991), and Madadayo (1992). He directed a segment of Dreams, a set of eight short stories; Honda's section was a fantasy sequence in which a man meets figures from Japan's military past in a tunnel. It was perhaps as close as Honda came to returning to his wartime experiences as a filmmaker. He died of respiratory failure in Tokyo on February 28, 1993, and was honored at a memorial service crowded with hundreds of his cinematic associates and capped by a eulogy from Kurosawa. Despite his ambivalent attitude toward his most famous creation in later life, he considered Godzilla his greatest film, and as the monster's second half-century of existence began it was still his most familiar creation. The Godzilla Series rolled on with the release of Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004.
Daily Yomoiuri (Japan), March 2, 1993.
Guardian (London, England), March 5, 1993.
Independent (London, England), March 3, 1993.
New York Times, May 1, 2005, section 4.
Times (London, England), March 12, 1993.
"Ishiro Honda," Godzilla Shrine, http://wwww.gojira.20m.com./ishiro-honda.htm (January 5, 2006).
"Ishiro Honda," Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0393094/bio (January 5, 2006).
"Ishiro Honda," Kaiju Headquarters, http://www.kaijuhq.org/directors.html (January 5, 2006).