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


English Book Title

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

Authors:

Steve Ryfle
Ed Godziszewski

Language:
Genre:
Release:
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:
Pages:
ISBN:

English
Non-fiction
2017
Wesleyan
336
978-0819570871

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COMMENTS

By: Patrick Galvan

Over the last twenty-some years, Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski have consistently proven themselves to be the foremost English-speaking film historians to cover kaiju eiga: working separately or together (depending on the project), they continue to offer the most thorough and qualitative perspectives on this often-dismissed genre. Though perhaps best-known for their numerous DVD commentaries, both have authored (highly recommended) full-length books on these movies and the people who made them possible. Ryfle’s Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of "The Big G" remains one of the best resources for historical information on the Godzilla series; and Godziszewski’s rare The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Godzilla is an info-packed gem that, sadly, may never again see the light of day. And now, after many years of research, the two have released what could be their finest achievement: the first comprehensive biography on the life and career of the late Japanese film director Ishiro Honda. Packed with interview excerpts, rare photographs, behind-the-scenes information regarding Honda’s movies, and offering tremendous insight into the man’s life—his wartime experiences; his fascination with movies; his relationships with family and colleagues, including and especially Akira KurosawaIshiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa is a must-own title for anyone interested in Japanese science-fiction and, I would argue, Japanese cinema in general.

Perhaps the most enticing aspect of this biography is that it presents, at long last, a historical analysis—and lots of information—on Honda’s entire filmmaking career. As described in the book’s intro, Ryfle and Godziszewski, in the course of their research, tracked down copies of Honda’s non-tokusatsu movies, the ones most people haven’t heard of. The only films to elude them were: Story of a Co-op, a 1949 documentary which seems to have vanished from the face of the earth; and a Daiei production called Night School (1956), which finally saw a DVD release a few months prior to this bio’s publishing. (These two titles are nonetheless described with what info the authors were able to dig up; the section on Night School includes thoughts from director Shusuke Kaneko, who attended a rare screening at a film festival in 2009.) For years, fans have only read scant bits of info on Honda’s documentaries, war pictures, comedies, his biopic on the baseball player Kazuhisa Inao, etc. But now we have at our disposal a resource which delves into these pictures in tremendous detail and uses them to provide further insight into Honda as an artist, as a human being.

An example. In several films, Honda depicted young people deciding between following their hearts and what was expected of them. (The subject of love and marriage was quite common.) And in the biography chapters preceding his directing career, we learn how his engagement to Kimi, a script checker at Toho, may have influenced his outlook. Being a low-wage employee in a field of then-unproven certainty, Honda didn’t exactly fall into favor with Kimi’s well-off family when he proposed; her father, much more than her mother, was against the idea; and Kimi essentially gave up financial support in order to marry Ishiro. And a little less than twenty years later, Honda made a film called Good Luck to These Two (1957), about a young office worker (Hiroshi Koizumi) and his marriage to a co-worker (Yumi Shirakawa). The couple marries for love…in spite of the demurral of the bride’s father, who wanted his daughter to wed someone who met his approval—i.e, someone who could take over the family business. While perhaps not 100% autobiographical, plot threads in movies such as these deepen our understanding of themes that mattered to Honda, articulate how he dealt with them (some were handled more pessimistically than others), and extend tantalizing suggestions as to what sort of career he might’ve had had he not become more or less pigeonholed into making science-fiction. Numerous interview excerpts with the director clarify things he would’ve liked to have done had money and time not been an option (quite regularly, he complains about lackluster sets he had to settle for). In reading Godziszewski’s The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Godzilla, I was intrigued by the revelation that Honda, when making Destroy All Monsters (1968), wanted to expand further on the concept of the “marine ranch”—raising food for the kaiju—and this new book expands on that with an explanation from the director himself. All fascinating material.

Like all worthwhile bios on people in the moviemaking business, Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa does not focus solely on the eponymous director. (This is not a ‘celebration of the auteur.’) Ryfle and Godziszewski regularly salute Honda’s collaborators, providing info on their careers and highlighting what they brought to the table. For instance, I knew Godzilla (1954) had been photographed by Masao Tamai; but I knew not that Tamai had insisted, upon joining the project, he bring with him the same lighting crew he worked with on the films of Mikio Naruse. That said, it’s not at all surprising the movie has a visual texture similar to masterpieces such as Repast (1951) and Floating Clouds (1955). The authors also articulate strengths and weaknesses in the individual scripts: a fundamental aspect of filmmaking overlooked too much too often. Furthermore, there are plenty of details regarding how economics, politics, and related factors impacted not only Honda’s projects but the Japanese film industry as a whole.

And this brings us to the part of the book that, I feel, broadens its appeal. Through Honda’s story emerges a portrait of how the Japanese film industry changed over time. He was born in 1911, when cinema was still relatively new, and even though he didn’t see his first movie until grade school, his experiences discovering the art form and the evolution of his career—from an optimistic assistant (who refused to be killed in WWII so he could return home and make movies) to a somewhat reluctant television director and, finally, an old man helping out his best friend (Kurosawa) on a few last projects—provide tremendous insight and detailed history into a profession that, to this day, has never fully retained the splendor of its golden age. Even readers with a mere passing interest in Japanese cinema should find this an enlightening read.

When reading the film analyses, I was reminded of a compliment paid to the late film historian Donald Richie. Richie, despite being an admirer of Kurosawa and Ozu (and Honda to an extent), was not so infatuated with any director that he felt obligated to exalt everything they made without exception. The same can be said of Ryfle and Godziszewski, who bring a critical eye to their appraisal of Honda’s movies and do not pretend even the pictures they adore are devoid of blemishes. While commending The Blue Pearl (1951) as an impressive fiction feature debut, they criticize the inconsistent performances: Ryo Ikebe “lacks charisma” and “Honda would get better results” from him down the road. The Mysterians (1957), championed as an entertainment picture and an attempt to portray a new unified world, doesn’t quite reach masterpiece status due to its one-dimensional characters. Terror of MechaGodzilla (1975) obtains a favorable review, but Akihiko Hirata’s fourth-rate makeup and ham-acting are dismissed. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), a huge favorite of both authors, receives some light criticism for manufactured human drama in the third act.

A few movies—The Man Who Came to Port (1952), A Rainbow Plays in My Heart (1957), Space Amoeba (1970)—receive almost completely negative reviews.

And though the biography is packed with glowing testimonies to Honda’s character and storytelling, not every anecdote is a positive one. Tomoyuki Tanaka blamed Honda for the shortcomings of Latitude Zero (1969); Rhodes Reason, star of King Kong Escapes (1967), opined “Honda-san was a hack.” And sometimes Honda himself looked back unenthusiastically on a few of his own movies. It does not matter whether the reader agrees with any of these assessments: the analyses, excerpts, and quotations provide a diverse, encompassing outlook on Honda’s career that stimulates critical thinking and an exchange of ideas. And that makes the biography infinitely more compelling and comprehensive than if the authors had simply praised (and repeated praise of) every single movie as a bona fide masterpiece. In fact, as I recall, the word “masterpiece” is only applied once in the entire book, and not to the usual suspect Godzilla (1954).

That said, and continuing the practice of pointing out faults in noteworthy projects: there are some errors in the text worth mentioning. (None cripple the book, but they exist.) In the Godzilla (1954) chapter, stuntman Haruo Nakajima is described as having appeared in Seven Samurai (1954) as a bandit slain by Toshiro Mifune. This is only half-true. While Nakajima did play a bandit in the earlier mentioned Kurosawa epic, the one who sliced him wide open was actually the master swordsman played by Seiji Miyaguchi, not Mifune’s bumbling farmer-turned-samurai. George Pal’s 1953 alien invasion classic is incorrectly labeled War of the Worlds (the correct title is The War of the Worlds). In the chapter covering Varan (1958), the authors suggest the movie’s TV cut may have never existed, at all. To avoid confusion, I would’ve liked Ryfle and Godziszewski to address the “television broadcast version” which appears as a bonus feature on the Tokyo Shock Varan DVD. (An explanation, at least an acknowledgment, would have been appreciated.) And even though this perhaps descends into nerdy nitpicking, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes when, in the chapter covering Rodan (1956), Pterandon is incorrectly labeled a “flying dinosaur.” (Dinosaurs and pterosaurs were both prehistoric reptiles, but they were not of the same biological order. Just as, in today’s ecology, one does not classify a lizard as a legged snake.)

Toward the end of the biography, we reach Toho’s 1980s revival of the Godzilla series and Ishiro Honda’s decision not to direct The Return of Godzilla (1984), which was eventually realized by his former assistant Koji Hashimoto. At no point, however, is it mentioned Honda recommended Hashimoto for the job. After turning down Tanaka’s offer to revive Godzilla, the semi-retired director suggested his one-time assistant be given the reins. This little-known fact, which co-author Godziszewski has discussed on occasion, implies Honda had some faith in Godzilla’s future, or at least in the man he suggested make this particular film. Having said that, one cannot help but wonder: What—if any—thoughts did Honda have on his former protégé’s revival of the franchise, when it was released? Considering we later read his generalizing thoughts on the subsequent Heisei pictures, to glance over what he had to say about the 1984 reboot—plus his influencing who ended up in the director’s chair—is a bit of a missed opportunity.

But most of these faults are minor and do not negate the overwhelming volumes of information and insight populating the rest of the text.

In the end, Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa is a splendid achievement, an absorbing read, and it was well worth the many years of waiting it took to arrive. Beautifully detailing the director’s life and career, it shall remain a cherished piece in my collection and another valuable source of information in my own research and writing. And it leaves me with a strong hope that, someday, a few of Honda’s lesser-known movies will obtain a release in some form. Having read this book, I am especially craving The Blue Pearl (1951), Mother and Son (1955), Good Luck to These Two (1957), and Seniors, Juniors, and Co-Workers (1959).

Highly recommended.