Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa

Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa


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Ishiro Honda was arguably the most internationally successful Japanese director of his generation, with an unmatched succession of science fiction films that were commercial hits worldwide. From the atomic allegory of Godzilla and the beguiling charms of Mothra to the tragic mystery of Matango and the disaster and spectacle of Rodan, The Mysterians, King Kong vs. Godzilla, and many others, Honda's films reflected postwar Japan's real-life anxieties and incorporated fantastical special effects, a formula that appealed to audiences around the globe and created a popular culture phenomenon that spans generations. Now, in the first full account of this long overlooked director's life and career, authors Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski shed new light on Honda's work and the experiences that shaped it—including his days as a reluctant Japanese soldier, witnessing the aftermath of Hiroshima, and his lifelong friendship with Akira Kurosawa. Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa features close analysis of Honda's films (including, for the first time, his rarely seen dramas, comedies, and war films) and draws on previously untapped documents and interviews to explore how creative, economic, and industrial factors impacted his career. Fans of Honda, Godzilla, and tokusatsu (special effects) film, and of Japanese film in general, will welcome this in-depth study of a highly influential director who occupies a uniquely important position in science fiction and fantasy cinema, as well as in world cinema.

Together, the authors have provided audio commentary tracks and produced supplemental material for numerous home video releases, including Ishiro Honda's Godzilla for the British Film Institute. They co-produced the documentary feature Bringing Godzilla Down to Size (2008).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819570871
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 10/03/2017
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 523,560
Product dimensions: 7.10(w) x 10.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

STEVE RYFLE has contributed film journalism and criticism to the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Cineaste, Virginia Quarterly Review, POV, and other publications. He is the author of a book on the history of the Godzilla film series. ED GODZISZEWSKI is editor and publisher of Japanese Giants magazine. He is the author of a Godzilla film encyclopedia, and has written for Fangoria and other publications.

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Ishiro Honda's birthplace no longer appears on the map. It was a tiny rural mountain village called Asahi, the meaning of which, "morning sun," attests to the vivid natural beauty that appeared with each new day. Asahi was located within the Higashitagawa District of Yamagata Prefecture, a densely forested province of rolling mountains and deep valleys on Japan's main island of Honshu. Spanning 9,300 square kilometers and situated about 375 kilometers north of Tokyo, Yamagata is a world apart, a place of thousand-year-old cedars, ageless shrines, and rich agricultural land. Its abundant, unspoiled wonders have inspired poets, novelists, and artists: the fragrant rainbows of spring foliage; the serenade of cicadas and frogs cascading over rice fields during humid summers; the autumns that turn the mountains into a kaleidoscope of yellows, reds, and oranges; and the snow sparkling under winter moonlight. Located one hundred kilometers northwest of Yamagata City, the provincial capital, Asahi village was home to just a few hundred residents in the early twentieth century, when Honda spent his formative years there; it has since been annexed into Tsuruoka, a modern town of more than one hundred thousand. Indeed, signs of progress are evident throughout the entire region, which today is accessible by car, plane, or bullet train. And yet, it is not so completely different now than it was back then, when people lived off the land, were in harmony with their natural surroundings, and had little contact with the outside world. In this idyllic, remote setting, Ishiro Honda was born on May 7, 1911.

Honda was the fifth and youngest child of Hokan and Miho Honda. He was close to his brothers, Takamoto, Ryokichi, and Ryuzo, and he also had a sister, Tomi, who passed away in childhood. As was tradition, the kanji characters of Honda's given name, Ishiro, indicated his place in the family order. As Honda explained: "'I' stands for inoshishi, the boar, the astrological symbol of my birth year. 'Shi' stands for the number four, the fourth son. And 'ro' indicates a boy's name. Literally, it means the fourth son, born in the year of the boar."

Honda's father, like his father before him, was a Buddhist monk at Churen-ji, a temple located on Mount Yudono, the holiest of the three sacred mountains that lord over central Yamagata. This majestic trio, which also includes Mount Gassan and Mount Haguro, is the epicenter of Shugendo, a feudal-era folk religion of mountain worship and extreme ascetic rites. In centuries past, Shugendo's most dedicated practitioners would mummify themselves, a ritual involving a long, slow demise. Today, Churen-ji temple still houses the mummy of Tetsumonkai Shonin, a revered monk who underwent this process in the early 1800s.

Hokan, however, had no such aspirations. He studied more traditional Buddhist teachings and was content with the simple life of a monk. The Hondas lived in a dwelling on temple property with a chestnut grove, rice field, and gardens on the grounds. They grew rice, potatoes, daikon radishes, and carrots, and made and sold miso (fermented soybean seasoning) and soy sauce; they also received income from a silk moth farm run by one of Honda's brothers. Hokan earned money during the summers, taking long trips north to Iwate, Akita, and Hokkaido prefectures to sell devotions and visit temples. He would return home before the beginning of winter, when the village might be snowed in. Honda would liken his father to Koya Hijiri, lower-caste monks from Mount Koya south of Osaka, traveling peddlers who preached Buddhism across Japan.

Honda remembered his father as "a living Buddha," a gentle soul with a long, white beard and an ever-cheerful disposition. Hokan led by quiet example, rarely lecturing his children and never raising a hand to discipline them, and the boy was strongly influenced by the man's patient, peaceful ways. Later, as a film director, Honda would be described by colleagues as patient almost to a fault, and his hushed assurance was a product of Hokan's serenity and the Japanese cultural qualities of muga (selflessness) and kokoro (mind and heart). When asked, however, Honda would say he believed his own personality was closer to that of his mother, whom he also remembered as "a very patient person, never scary, and always nice."

* * *

Honda was born one year before the death of Emperor Meiji, who reigned from 1868 to 1912 and oversaw Japan's transformation from a feudal society under the Shogunate into a modern, highly centralized, Western-style state. During the Meiji era, most every aspect of the nation was reformed: government, politics, military, economy, industry, transportation, agriculture, and education. The formerly isolated Japan embraced ideas from Europe and the United States and became the dominant economic and military power in Asia, victorious in wars against China (1894–95) and Russia (1904–5) and taking Taiwan and Korea as colonies in the process. Many feudal ways were abolished, and a new, Prussian-style education system encouraged the study of science and technology.

Sons followed in their fathers' footsteps, but such customs began fading in the new era. Honda's three brothers received religious tutoring at age sixteen, but Honda never did. "None of us really wanted to take after my father and be a monk," he would recall. "So we started learning about science instead." Hokan did not try to persuade the boys to live monastic lives, instead urging each one to follow his own path. Though hardly well off, the Hondas made sure their sons were educated. Even with the new reforms, compulsory elementary school was just six years; after that, children from poorer backgrounds often worked to help support their families while students of higher economic or social status continued to middle school (roughly equivalent to present-day high school, spanning ages thirteen to eighteen), and then finally to high school, vocational school, college, or military academy. The Hondas were able to send their son Takamoto to medical school and pay half his tuition; the boy worked to pay the rest and became a military doctor afterward.

Asahi was an agricultural village of about thirty families, mostly rice farmers and silk makers. The roads to the nearest town were narrow and treacherous. There was no library or bookstore, and newspapers were rarely available. Takamoto, a product of the new Meiji ideals, encouraged his little brother to study and regularly sent him books and magazines such as Japanese Boy, Boys' Club, Kids' Science, and Science Visual News. Thus, Honda developed a lifelong love of reading and a curiosity about things scientific, despite being all but cut off from the quickly modernizing outside world.

Childhood was a time of simple pleasures. With two middle-aged parents — Honda's mother gave birth to him at forty-two — there was little supervision, and Honda played from dawn until dusk. When it was hot, he and his friends would swim in the river or build a dam; when snow fell, they went sledding. Sometimes they played hide-and-seek in the temple, ducking behind the mummy's tomb. There was folk music and dance at village festivals throughout the year, and the Honda brothers all performed with a local youth troupe. Honda was not mischievous, though he once hiked to his cousin's house across the mountain without telling his parents. When he returned days later, his mother was upset — not that he had gone without permission, but that he wasn't dressed properly for the visit.

With his stable and happy home life, Honda didn't develop a strong competitive streak. "I never thought that I had to beat someone else, only that I had to do my personal best," he recalled. "I never gave thought to being on top ... if someone else did better, I would still think and work at my own pace. I was very stubborn in that regard. [But] once I decided to do something, I just had to do it."



The city of Edo was already one of the largest in the world when, in 1868, Emperor Meiji took power and the capital's name was officially changed to Tokyo. Its modernization continued as Western influence increased; and by the early 1900s, the rapid expansion of railroads to the plains beyond the city center gave rise to suburbs, with residential neighborhoods "scattered in the fields and wooded hills around long-established farming villages," according to historian Jordan Sand. These developments became home to people from central Tokyo and, in large numbers, from other parts of Japan.

In 1921 the Hondas uprooted from their tiny village and transplanted themselves to this burgeoning metropolis. Hokan was appointed chief priest at a Buddhist temple in Tokyo, and the family settled in the Takaido neighborhood of the city's Suginami Ward, a fast-growing suburb on the western side. In 1919 Suginami's population was roughly 17,000; by 1926 it would soar to 143,000 as families of modest means moved into newly built homes, displacing the area's rural peasant population.

Honda was in third grade when his life abruptly shifted from the bucolic mountains to the bustling city; he'd never even seen a train before boarding one for Tokyo. Still, he adapted quickly to his new surroundings. When his classmates at Takaido Elementary teased him about his mountain dialect, he took it in stride and learned to speak like a Tokyoite. He'd been an honors student back home; but the city schools were more difficult, and he faltered briefly before his grades rebounded. His favorite subjects were Japanese, history, and geography; and he continued to cultivate a love of the natural sciences, saving his allowance to buy more science magazines. (Later, in middle school, he would struggle with chemistry, biology, algebra, and other subjects involving equations, but he still liked the scientific mindset.) Despite a drastic change of scenery, many things in his life — family, school, play — were basically the same.

Then he experienced something entirely different. Before Tokyo, Honda had never heard of eiga (movies), but one day at school the students were assembled to watch one. Though Honda would forget the title, it was likely one of the Universal Bluebird photoplays, a series of mostly Westerns that were considered minor pictures in the United States, but were extremely popular in Japan from 1916 to 1919. Honda described the film this way: "It was the story of a girl who was kidnapped and raised by Indians. She grew up and found out that she wasn't one of them. There was a dispute over her, who[m] she should live with ... she got on the back of the horse and went off fighting ... against her real brother, something like that. I saw it at the schoolgrounds. I still remember that girl, she was a little on the chubby side, not quite pretty, she had long dark hair, sort of looked like an Indian, and there was a situation where she was surprised by being told that she was actually a white person, not Indian ... That was quite shocking, a machine that projected something like that, and people were moving around in there. I was so interested, and I definitely wanted to see more."

Tokyo offered a multitude of ideal diversions for a "science boy," such as air shows and invention expos, which Honda would sneak off to see all by himself, without his parents' permission. But more and more, he was drawn to the movie houses. By the third and fourth grade he was reading newspaper critiques and asking friends which movies were worth seeing, and begging his big brothers to take him. "If you had the money, you'd just go to the movie theater and watch whatever," he said. "It was that kind of time."

* * *

Two minutes before noon on Saturday, September 1, 1923, a seismic fault six miles beneath the sea floor off Tokyo unleashed a magnitude 7.9 temblor, mercilessly shaking the Kanto Plain. A forty-foot-high tsunami came ashore and swept away thousands of people, and fires engulfed the city's wooden structures for days. Nearly 140,000 of Tokyo's roughly 2.5 million residents were killed and about half the city was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake, Japan's deadliest natural disaster. Fortunately, the Hondas lived in the low-density western suburbs, where many people survived by escaping to nearby forests and farmland, away from burning debris.

Tokyo's rapid postearthquake reconstruction created a cosmopolitan, urban environment, where leisure activities now included jazz clubs, modern theater, and cinema. Film was by this time known as daihachi geijutsu (the eighth art), and its form and content had greatly evolved since Thomas Edison's kinetoscope had arrived in Japan in 1896. The earliest Japanese movies were essentially filmed stage plays that borrowed the conventions of Noh, kabuki, and Shinpa (a style of melodrama popular in the late 1800s) and featured stars of the theater. By the 1920s filmmakers were embracing new narrative styles, and their movies ranged from lowbrow sword-fighting adventures to high-minded studies of the human condition. The quake had leveled all but one of Tokyo's studios, resulting in a shortage of domestic movies. Films were imported from abroad to fill the void, and Japanese audiences and filmmakers were influenced by Western methods, techniques, and stories.

Thus, the first films Honda saw ranged from ninja shorts starring Japan's first movie star, Matsunosuke Onoe (nicknamed "Eyeballs Matsu" for his big, demonstrative eyes) to the German expressionist horror masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920). Honda's parents forbade him from going to cinemas alone, but he often did anyway, usually sneaking away to the nearby Nikkatsu theater in the Sangenjaya neighborhood of Setagaya Ward. Japan's silent-movie cinemas, unlike those in the West, did not employ screen titles; instead there were benshi, narrators who stood beside the movie screen and provided live running commentary. Some benshi were such great orators that they were considered artists, as popular as movie stars. "I was more interested in them than what was happening on screen," Honda later recalled. After spending an afternoon at the cinema, he would often visit the nearby home of a young male cousin, who was blind. Honda recounted each movie for the boy, acting out the story and describing the actors, the action scenes, even the backgrounds and sets; it was his first real experience as a storyteller. Sometimes he'd perform this routine for his father.

One of the benshi whom Honda admired was Musei Tokugawa, among the most famous in Tokyo, known for his erudite delivery and for working in finer movie houses where foreign films played. It was at the high-class Musashinokan cinema in Shinjuku, during a showing of F. W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (Der letzte mann, 1924) narrated by Tokugawa, that young Honda experienced a small epiphany that helped him begin to understand how films were created. The Last Laugh follows an old doorman at a fancy hotel, who is demoted to washroom attendant. Ashamed, the man hides his plight from family and friends, but soon everyone finds out and he is ridiculed. In the surprise happy ending, the doorman inherits a fortune from a hotel patron. Explaining this turn of events to the audience, the benshi Tokugawa said the filmmaker, Murnau, had taken pity on the protagonist.

At that, Honda's brother Ryuzo, sitting next to him, remarked, "Wow, I'm really impressed by this director." That word — director, kantoku — immediately grabbed Honda's attention. He knew directors were important because their names were prominent in the credits; he enjoyed the comedies of director Yutaka Abe or the action films of directors Yoshiro Tsuji and Minoru Murata, but he didn't know what these people did. He'd always thought movies were made by the actors, but now he began to understand there was someone else offscreen. (The benshi Musei Tokugawa would go on to become one of Japan's most famous actors of the 1930s; Honda, perhaps recalling this pivotal childhood moment, years later would choose Tokugawa to narrate his documentary film Ise-Shima.)


Excerpted from "Ishiro Honda"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface by Martin Scorsese
A Boy from the Mountains
Film School Lessons
A Reluctant Soldier
Forging Bonds
Starting Over
Allegiances and Alliances
The Documentaries: Ise-shima (1949), Story of a Co-op (1950)
Sea, Land, and Sky: The Blue Pearl (1951), The Skin of the South (1952), The Man Who Came to Port (1952), Adolescence Part 2 (1952), Eagle of the Pacific (1953), Farewell Rabaul (1954)
No Laughing Matter: Godzilla (1954)
Obligations: Love Makeup (1955), Mother and Son (1955), Half Human (1955)
Youth Movement: Young Tree (1956), Night School (1956), People of Tokyo, Goodbye (1956), Rodan (1956)
Lovers and Aliens: Good Luck to These Two (1957), A Teapicker's Song of Goodbye (1957), A Rainbow Plays in My Heart (1957), A Farewell to the Woman I Called My Sister (1957), The Mysterians (1957)
Brides, Blobs, and a Bomb: Song for a Bride (1958), The H-Man (1958), Varan the Unbelievable (1958)
Marriage, Money, and the Moon: An Echo Calls You (1959), Inao, Story of an Iron Arm (1959), Seniors, Juniors, Co-workers (1959), Battle in Outer Space (1959)
Accidental Monsters: The Human Vapor (1960), Mothra (1961), A Man in Red (1961)
Going Global: Gorath (1962), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Dangerous Waters: Matango (1963), Atragon (1963)
Monsters and Gangsters: Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), Dogora (1964), Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
East Meets West: Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), The War of the Gargantuas (1966), Come Marry Me (1966)
Monsters or Bust: King Kong Escapes (1967), Destroy All Monsters (1968), All Monsters Attack (1968), Latitude Zero (1969), Space Amoeba (1970), Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
Rhapsody in Autumn
Afterword by Ryuji Honda
Ishiro Honda Filmography

What People are Saying About This

John Carpenter

“I first saw Godzilla in 1956 at the tender age of eight. Something about the film filled me with a somber dread—not the giant, fire-breathing monster destroying Tokyo, but the overall tone, an underlying sadness, a sense of grief and horror. Japan is the only nation to suffer atomic bombs dropped on two of its cities, and Godzilla gave powerful expression to this emotional ambience disguised as a giant monster movie. The director of this seminal motion picture was Ishiro Honda, the creator of an astonishing output of science-fiction and horror films from Toho Studios and one of my personal cinematic gods.”

Stuart Galbraith IV

“Exhaustive researchers, Ryfle and Godziszewski delve deeply into the entirety of Honda’s sometimes harrowing life while defining his films within Japanese studio system and his later collaborations with Kurosawa. Filling a huge vacuum of needed scholarship, it’s required reading for genre fans and serious students of Japanese cinema alike.”

From the preface by Martin Scorsese

“This carefully researched and detailed book gives us a full picture of the man and his life.”

From the Publisher

"This carefully researched and detailed book gives us a full picture of the man and his life."—From the preface by Martin Scorsese

"I first saw Godzilla in 1956 at the tender age of eight. Something about the film filled me with a somber dread—not the giant, fire-breathing monster destroying Tokyo, but the overall tone, an underlying sadness, a sense of grief and horror. Japan is the only nation to suffer atomic bombs dropped on two of its cities, and Godzilla gave powerful expression to this emotional ambience disguised as a giant monster movie. The director of this seminal motion picture was Ishiro Honda, the creator of an astonishing output of science-fiction and horror films from Toho Studios and one of my personal cinematic gods."—John Carpenter

"Exhaustive researchers, Ryfle and Godziszewski delve deeply into the entirety of Honda's sometimes harrowing life while defining his films within Japanese studio system and his later collaborations with Kurosawa. Filling a huge vacuum of needed scholarship, it's required reading for genre fans and serious students of Japanese cinema alike."—Stuart Galbraith IV, author of The Emperor and the Wolf

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