My relationship with the films of Ishiro Honda has always been a bit, shall we say, nonconformist. While I am certainly of the opinion that he was by and large the best and most capable director to work in kaiju eiga, I’ve never been able to rank him in the same league as the true masters of his generation (Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Ozu, etc.). His track record is simply less consistent and not as impressive as theirs. As far as his work in science fiction is concerned, Honda made, to my mind, one masterpiece—the original Godzilla (1954)—four or five outstanding pictures, a number of solid entertainments…and more than a few unfortunate misfires. As a matter of fact—and I say this at the risk of voicing blasphemy in the minds of fellow kaiju fans—it’s always been my opinion that only about half of Honda’s genre movies were truly any good and that for every worthwhile film he made, there was another that was incredibly dissatisfying. For every Godzilla (1954), there was a Varan (1958). For every Matango (1963), there was a Dogora (1964). For every Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), there was a Battle in Outer Space (1959).
Now, to be fair, Honda often had to deal with factors that were beyond his control (shrinking budgets, changes in business strategies at Toho), but I think one could fairly argue his poor handling of certain types of sequences (namely physical action) and his lack of a visual flair (it was his cinematographers and art directors who predominately created the look of his films) contributed to the failings of pictures such as Latitude Zero (1969) and Atragon (1963). More action-heavy films like these probably would’ve benefited from a director who could not only approve a decent-looking shot but also make it his own and coordinate moving components for exhilarating effect.
In general, Honda’s finer qualities seemed to emerge through his natural direction of actors and his attempts to address social issues. When he was matched with a strong script and situations that were within his range, the results were often absorbing: the long, grueling aftermath of Tokyo’s destruction in the original Godzilla; the depiction of a mini-society breaking down into anarchy in Matango; the three leads of Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) pleading with the residents of Infant Island to forgive the wrongs of the past; the real-world struggles of children (loneliness, bullying) presented within the context of one of Japan’s toughest socioeconomic times in All Monsters Attack (1969). These are highlights which used science fiction predominately as framework—or even didn’t use science fiction at all—in favor of cogent examinations of the human condition and showcased Honda playing to his strengths.
Because of everything described thus far, I’ve taken a keen interest in the last few years in exploring Honda’s lesser known films—especially after the release of Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski’s superb biography on the director, Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa. That book, in addition to painting a compelling picture of Honda’s life and the times he lived in, presented great insight into the man’s entire filmmaking spectrum and how some of his pictures related to his personal experiences. Not to mention: many of the “missing” films didn’t seem to require from him the building of compelling action set pieces or some kind of pictorial tour de force—instead depending on interesting characters, good performances, and stories about ordinary life.
As of the time of this writing, I’ve seen Honda’s two war pictures, Eagle of the Pacific (1953) and Farewell Rabaul (1954); his romantic comedy Come Marry Me (1966); and the 1961 gangster picture The Scarlet Man. (I also have a copy of 1956’s Night School, which he made for Daiei, but haven’t gotten around to watching it yet.)* And most recently, just a few days ago, I had an opportunity to watch a certain film that’s been on my radar for some months now: the non-genre film covered in the aforementioned biography that I most wanted to see.
1957’s Good Luck to These Two, starring Hiroshi Koizumi and Yumi Shirakawa and featuring a fine supporting cast (Toshiro Mifune, Keiko Tsushima, Takashi Shimura, Shizue Natsukawa, Yoshifumi Tajima, and Kamatari Fujiwara), tells the story of a couple whose love is tested by poverty, familial demurral, and ultimately each other. I was compelled to seek out this film because while Honda did touch on the subject of young people marrying for love in Godzilla (1954), a motion picture without a monster in it would allow the human element to take center stage and offer a more upfront examination of the theme under discussion. The fact that Koizumi and Shirakawa have always been two of my favorites in Honda’s “stock company” only amplified my curiosity. And finally, based on what Ryfle and Godziszewski described in their book, some of the events in Good Luck to These Two seemed to mirror trials and tribulations that Honda and his wife had endured themselves.
A note before we continue. The print of Good Luck to These Two that I saw naturally came with no subtitles, and my bare minimum understanding of Japanese permitted me to grasp only the gist of a handful of sentences; but thanks to the detailed plot descriptions in the Honda biography, I was able to connect some of the narrative dots/understand character motivations a little easier, and I feel confident enough to offer basic thoughts and observations (I shall reserve more in-depth analysis for when and if the film ever receives a subtitled release).
The screenplay for Good Luck to These Two was penned by Zenzo Matsuyama, whose credits include other melodramas such as Mikio Naruse’s Yearning (1964), and I suspect director Honda might’ve applied some touches of his own to the film’s story**. It might be a stretch to call the film “autobiographical,” but certainly a number of sequences would’ve reminded the director of things that had happened in his own life.
I am thinking predominately in terms of how the couple in the movie falls in love and gets married, and the reactions to their getting married. In the beginning, Wasao (Hiroshi Koizumi) and Masako (Yumi Shirakawa) are presented as platonic colleagues who exhibit no especially strong feelings for one another. The first time we see them together is when Wasao steps into the office where they both work and Masako casually informs her co-worker the branch manager wishes to see him; he thanks her and heads for the manager’s office while she returns to her desk, neither so much as glancing back at the other. Now, long before this film’s making, Honda and the woman he married, Kimi Yamasaki, were employed at the same company (Toho) and were, by all accounts, completely unromantic in their friendship for many years. They spent time together and were fond of one another but were not involved on any particularly deep level. That is, until one day, when Honda and Kimi were standing alone on an overpass and he abruptly asked if she wanted to marry him.
In Good Luck to These Two, the first indication that Wasao has any special interest in Masako comes when we see him waiting for her outside a subway station on the way to the office. They spend a day together and it’s when walking her home—crossing an overpass—that he confesses he’s in love with her. And just as Honda and his wife survived on very little money in the early years of their matrimony (him drawing a meager salary from the studio, her giving up her livelihood per tradition), Wasao and Masako agree to live on one income and consciously enter poverty.
Overt similarities extend to the reactions of Masako’s parents. Just as Kimi’s well-off father was adamantly opposed to his daughter marrying a low-wage salaryman, Masako’s father (Takashi Shimura) vocally and fiercely refuses to give his blessing to Masako becoming engaged to anyone other than a man who could take over the family business. Like her real-life “counterpart,” Masako gives up financial support to marry the man she loves; and like Honda and Kimi, Wasao and Masako go through an utterly anti-exorbitant wedding: simply making the arrangements, paying their respects at a shrine, and beginning their life together.
One nice little touch that, as far as I know, doesn’t bear any overt similarities to events in Honda’s life: when Masako gets married, her parents quietly watch from outside the shrine—heartbroken not to participate but too proud to show themselves. When a crowd of people approach the shrine, they retreat and look on from a hilltop as their daughter gets into a car with her groom and is driven away. To alleviate some of the sadness, Honda adds a bit of whimsy, with Toshiro Mifune, as the musician brother-in-law, playing an impromptu wedding march on his French horn.
Once again, it’s difficult for me to offer deeply analytical thoughts on an un-subtitled film whose language I can’t really understand, but in terms of basic technicalities, Good Luck to These Two is well made and features some nice black-and-white photography by Hajime Koizumi (no relation to Hiroshi), who would remain Honda’s regular cinematographer for the next ten years. Honda and Koizumi make great use of their Tokyo locations, most notably in a scene where Masako meets a friend at a diner and we can see, through the window behind them, the distortions of sunlight bouncing off a hidden water source, the warbling light effect plastered on the infrastructure outside. Scenes set in darkness are lit quintessentially: showing just enough of what we need to see while drenching the rest of the frame in shadow.
As for dramatics: watching the film, I was reminded of a quote in Ryfle and Godziszewski’s book in which producer Tomoyuki Tanaka compared Honda to Mikio Naruse***, a director whose films very often depicted the hardships of life in poverty. Tanaka’s words came to mind because while Honda’s film isn’t nearly as pessimistic and morose as those by Naruse, he does tackle a number of the same issues that were of interest to Naruse and other directors of shomin-geki (films about ordinary life). In a key scene, Wasao loses his job trying to break up a fight between two of his company’s managers and returns home with a bandage around his head; his attempt to do something noble backfired and left him for the worse; Masako tearfully cleans the stains from her husband’s jacket, realizing they’ll be plunged even deeper into poverty now that they’ve lost their only source of income. Continuing on that note, much of the film’s third act follows Wasao’s unsuccessful quest to find work—at a time when there weren’t nearly enough jobs for everyone despite the lush economy the country was enjoying. Also akin to a Naruse film, the couple in Good Luck to These Two remains childless—likely because they can barely afford to feed themselves.
The performances are uniformly good. As mentioned before, Hiroshi Koizumi and Yumi Shirakawa were always two of my favorite regulars in Honda’s sci-fi filmography. Even though the former was generally cast as a stoic science type and the latter as a milquetoast love interest, there was always something immensely appealing about both of them which managed to shine through; and I certainly enjoyed the more dynamic characters they respectively enacted in Matango and H-Man (1958). However, in Good Luck to These Two, they play average, everyday people living under ordinary circumstances and are utterly natural and believable as such. And this comes through especially well—along with everything else—in the movie’s incredibly touching finale.
Following an argument with her husband, Masako goes to visit her sister and brother-in-law before returning home—just as Tokyo experiences a citywide blackout, a rather common occurrence at the time. She steps inside her cramped apartment to find Wasao attempting to cook dinner over a grill, the only illumination in the room stemming from a single candle. The couple talk through their problems and gently hold one another, foreheads touching, speaking softly. Honda then cuts to a beautifully composed master shot of Wasao and Masako standing in the middle of their dark, shadow-laced apartment, the score by Yoshinao Nakada swelling in the background. As our protagonists embrace, the power comes back on—in what could be read as a symbol for their newfound hope. They throw their arms around each other again and the picture fades to black. I cannot think of an ending I would’ve wanted more for this film, and it also offers a distinction between Honda and the director I’ve compared him to thus far. Whereas Naruse’s pictures typically concluded with the protagonists accepting their unhappiness and moving on in spite of it, Honda gives us an ending that, while not a total victory for the heroes (Wasao is still unemployed), is nonetheless cheery, hopeful, and optimistic.
Of the five non-genre pictures directed by Ishiro Honda that I’ve seen, Good Luck to These Two might be my second favorite, coming in behind Farewell Rabaul. Part of the fun for me might’ve been in drawing comparisons to Honda’s life as I watched this film—and also in seeing two of my favorite kaiju eiga regulars tackling a more emotional story—but it’s movies like this which really make me wonder what sort of director Honda might’ve been had he not gotten stuck making science fiction almost exclusively throughout the later parts of his career. The lack of monsters and spectacle allows Honda to exhibit his genuine talent for directing actors and his interests in the struggles of ordinary life. I’m not sure if the film would rank with the best of what shomin-geki has to offer, but I have a feeling that if I ever got to see a subtitled print (thereby obtaining a stronger understanding of the characters and the dialogue), I might find myself ranking it favorably in the company of films made by people such as Kozaburo Yoshimura and Heinosuke Gosho.
Regardless, even with the language barrier that will exist for some, Good Luck to These Two is a very nice little film. And again, that ending with the couple reconciling under that “ray of hope” lingers in my mind still—one of the sweetest and most satisfying denouements I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Eagle of the Pacific: Well-meaning but somewhat static picture about Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto that comes alive mostly in its flashy air battle sequences composed of special effects (both new and recycled) from Eiji Tsuburaya. Veteran actor Denjiro Okochi is uncharacteristically dull as Yamamoto. The most memorable performance comes from Toshiro Mifune, who has a small part as a fighter pilot. It is very talky, so it might be easier to enjoy for someone with a solid understanding of Japanese.
Farewell Rabaul: The best of the lot; a riveting antiwar drama with interesting characters and a remarkable leading performance by Ryo Ikebe. Those who only know Ikebe for Battle in Outer Space, Gorath (1962), and The War in Space (1977) owe it to themselves to see this film, for his performance is completely unlike the wooden, resolutely inexpressive “acting” he gave for Honda and Jun Fukuda in their science fiction pictures.
The Scarlet Man: I would give a good deal to learn more about how Honda worked with whoever it was that choreographed the action in this colorful and very entertaining gangster movie. The fistfights and shootouts are surprisingly well executed, much better than I expected from a Honda movie. Excellent color photography by Hajime Koizumi, another nice performance from Yumi Shirakawa, and a great leading man in the form of Makoto Sato, who had also acted for Honda in H-Man but was most memorable for playing smart-alecks in the films of Kihachi Okamoto, such as Desperado Outpost (1959) and The Big Boss (1959). Highly enjoyed this one.
Come Marry Me: Interesting little romantic comedy about marrying for love rather than gain. As a huge fan of actor/singer Yuzo Kayama, this one was also on my radar for a while. Kayama, of course, gets a chance to show off his magnificent vocal talents a couple of times.
** Ishiro Honda’s mentor during his days as an assistant director for Photo Chemical Laboratories (a laboratory service provider which later started making films of its own and was subsequently merged with other filmmaking companies into Toho) was Kajiro Yamamoto, who also trained directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Senkichi Taniguchi, and Motoyoshi Oda, the director of Godzilla Raids Again (1955). One of the filmmaking principles that Yamamoto taught his apprentices was the value of rewriting screenplays. As is documented in the Ryfle-Godziszewski book, Honda sometimes reworked screenplays written by other writers to suit his own image.
*** In Tomoyuki Tanaka’s biography, the producer is quoted saying that if Honda had not become pigeonholed in making science fiction throughout much of his career, he probably would’ve become a director “like Mikio Naruse.”