Conducted 30 years ago this month (December 1992) by journalist David Milner for “Cult Movies” magazine, this is what would be the original Godzilla film (and various sequels and other films) director Ishiro Honda’s final interview prior to his death in February 1993. When the interview was originally published in “Cult Movies” magazine in 1993, it was printed as a largely complete interview. Now, for the first time, the interview is being published in its completed form (although lightly edited for flow and no information lost).

In the interview, conducted at his home in Setagaya, Tokyo, Mr. Honda covers a wide range of subjects from the Godzilla series to his work in other films. Coming in at 17 pages long, there’s quite a bit of information to digest. For those of you who have read the old transcriptions of the “Cult Movies” Magazine either found online or have the older issues, there’s a bit of new information here in this new transcription, which has remained unreleased for 30 years. For those of you who have found Godzilla either by the Legendary Pictures films or the Toho films by yourself, via a friend or a loved one, and wanted to know more about Godzilla, I hope you find this interview educational and inspiring!

In addition to the interview text, I’m also adding the audio of the full interview which has never been released. The audio has been digitized from the original cassettes and while it isn’t the BEST quality, the interview is preserved (it does have a few hiccups here and there) and has a total running time of 3 hours 12 minutes and 9 seconds.

This interview is the first of many with other Toho luminaries, most of which will be posted with the original audio alongside each transcription. Because of the workload required, I cannot guarantee a time frame for releases but I will do my very best to post as quickly as possible.

Thank yous:

First off, I’d like to thank David Milner for entrusting me with his full interview archive for sharing on Toho Kingdom and for digitizing the original cassette tapes so the interviews would not be lost to time. I sincerely hope that you not only enjoy them, but find them useful as reference when writing/discussing the Godzilla franchise, and the words of those interviewed continue to inspire and educate for many years to come.

In addition, this re-translation was originally done by Yuuko Honda-Yun (granddaughter of Ishiro) for Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski as part of their research for their book Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa. VERY special thanks to Mr. Ryfle and Mr. Godziszewski for sharing this complete translation with Toho Kingdom, and to Miss Honda-Yun for giving permission to share it. Toho Kingdom also wishes to thank the interview’s original translator, Yoshihiko Shibata.


Ishiro Honda Interview

by David Milner

Translation by Yoshihiko Shibata

Translation Updated and Amended by Yuuko Honda-Yun 

(Conducted in December 1992)

David Milner: I was very sorry to hear about the recent death of Shinichi Sekizawa. What was your professional relationship with him like?

Ishiro Honda: Mr. Sekizawa was single for quite a long time. He was a model train freak, had them all over his house on the second floor. He especially loved steam locomotives. There is a film director named Hiroshi Shimizu, who made movies about vagrants and children, and is getting much attention in countries like France right now. Mr. Shimizu ran a large freight company in the Kansai area after he quit Shochiku; he came from wealth and was successor to the company. Mr. Sekizawa was his assistant director and apparently wrote most of his films. But since working solely for him wouldn’t get him anywhere, he started writing screenplays for Toho as well. At the same time, he also wrote lyrics.

Mr. Sekizawa was into sci-fi, which is why Toho had him write a few scripts. He and I would be in a room at Toho, writing and revising the screenplays. That was the sort of relationship we had.

Yoshihiko Shibata: Our image of the workflow is that producer Tomoyuki Tanaka comes up with the idea first. He speaks with Shinichi Sekizawa or Takeshi Kimura about whether a story—such as what he has in mind—could be written. Once the screenplay is written, they sit down with you and revise it into something movie-ready, correct?

Honda: Yes. But one thing that’s incorrect is the notion that all ideas came from Mr. Tanaka. The system of the 1950s and 1960s was different from the one today. Back then, the planning department at Toho accepted ideas from any Toho employee. Mothra (1961) is one such example. The planning department went around gathering ideas; four novelists were then commissioned to write a story about a big moth and two tiny fairies; the story was published in a special edition of Shūkan Asahi [a weekly publication]; and shortly afterward Mr. Sekizawa wrote a script based on their work. I only advised Mr. Sekizawa on the story’s cinematographic aspects.

Toho’s planning department was supervised by the producer—in this case Mr. Tanaka—but consisted of young people, who helped gather projects; there’d be 70+ stories gathered in a year. We came up with the overall direction of films for a specific year and selected a few that would get made. Of course, Mr. Tanaka’s ideas would get used, too, but the young people in the planning department helped put things together. In short: rather than a producer delegating and designating, the planning department put out orders and requests, and the producer was responsible for the entire department.

Shibata: You said that ideas were gathered by anyone at Toho. Does this include people such as large room actors and staff members?

Honda: Yes. For example, the idea for H-Man (1958) came from a rather unknown actor [named Hideo Unagami, who died of a heart attack before the film was made]. Once we have an idea, we decide who to hire to write the original story. The planning department had knowledge of hot writers at the time, and would do research and gather information. We were looking for new and unique ideas in the sci-fi field. Simply putting out Godzilla films wouldn’t cut it any longer.

Shibata: So they’d approach an author with the idea and ask them to turn it into a fictional story; that would get read and then the screenwriter would turn that into a screenplay. For Mothra, there was no other person to do that than Mr. Sekizawa?

Honda: Right. But we all were involved in turning the story into a screenplay. It’s not easy to turn a story into a movie. The issue with cinema is deciding how to make things visual. No matter how many great ideas you have, certain ones simply cannot be translated visually. The director must be able to see through these various issues and make a picture. As a story’s converted into a script, it gets completely re-built.

Milner: How good a writer was Mr. Kimura compared to Mr. Sekizawa? How significant was his contribution, especially to the genre itself?

Honda: It was not so much about whether Mr. Sekizawa was a better writer than Mr. Kimura. It was more of a question of who was better suited for a particular story. Mr. Sekizawa had a more humanistic touch and a very joyous—at times humorous—sensibility. As I mentioned before, he worked with Hiroshi Shimizu on films about children. So he was not the type to write about social issues. Rather, he handled stories about children or Mothra and “the small beauties.” He actually came up with the name “the small beauties” and characterized them as very cute beings. At first, we were all calling them dwarves/little people. This is completely Mr. Sekizawa’s world.

On the other hand, Mr. Kimura was a member of the Communist Party, so he was very good at writing about social and political problems. When it came to stories about human traits—in particular situations such as these—it had to be Mr. Kimura. But to get back to your question, I feel Mr. Sekizawa and Mr. Kimura were equal and—depending on the topic—naturally had their own strengths and weaknesses. To help prevent their weaknesses from interfering in the creative process, we presented them with materials and had them write stories that suited them best. I believe assembling a good combination of directors and screenwriters is key to being evaluated and appreciated as a good producer at Toho.

[Note by Yuuku Honda-Yun: after interpreting, the interviewer checks with Honda about what he previously said about Sekizawa working with Hiroshi Shimizu. Honda says that Sekizawa worked as his assistant director, but their working relationship went beyond that; Sekizawa did more for Shimizu than just serving as his A.D. For example, there was a film about children with PTSD after the war called Children of the Beehive (1948). Shimizu actually gathered real children with such experiences and took them in, started a school or sorts for them, and filmed the experience almost like a documentary.]

Milner: I have heard that on Godzilla (1954), you switched the roles of Akira Takarada and Akihiko Hirata before shooting began on the movie. Is this true?

Honda: It is unthinkable that would have been the case. Where did you hear this?

Milner: Guy Tucker.

Honda: I actually never talked to Mr. Tucker about this, but he’s interviewed Mr. Takarada and others on separate occasions. There are times when the company makes information about films available to the actors, so maybe somebody vaguely remembered an occurrence like that, or someone told someone else, “Hey, I heard you’re going to be playing a scientist next.” But I  have never said such a thing.

Milner: The entirely animated alternate version of the scene in which Ghidorah first appears in Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster (1964) is preferred by some to the one in the film. Do you know why the one in the movie was chosen over the alternate?

Honda: I have actually not seen the unused version nor did I choose it, so I can’t answer your question. In America, the editor has his own rights and can edit as he pleases, correct? That is not how things work in Japan. In the case of tokusatsu footage, if the animated flames look too weak and it is decided to cover it with real flames, that is Mr. Tsuburaya’s responsibility. I do not interject by saying one version looks better. I just watch the finished material and all is fine. Of course, there are editors in Japan who work similarly to those in America. But for me—as well as for Akira Kurosawa—as somebody who came up through Toho, an editor is in charge of simply connecting shots and putting the film together.

In making the first Godzilla, Mr. Tsuburaya did not call himself “director.” He was just a staff member specializing in special effects. However, everything that came from him to me was made the best it could be made.

Shibata: So he would bring you footage that was already reviewed and checked?

Honda: Yes. It was very rare that special effects footage came to me without being checked by the tokusatsu department first. I still had final say on all footage in the finished movie, including the tokusatsu parts, but the only time I had Mr. Tsuburaya cut footage was on the war film Eagle of the Pacific (1953). I had him remove quite a lot during the naval battle scenes and such. Aside from that, though, I trusted Mr. Tsuburaya and his work completely. I did see his rushes, but regarding the animated part in Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster—that was done in the tokusatsu department, and because the alternate take was not the final version, I was never shown it. That is how things worked.

Shibata: That alternate take never even got to Eiji Tsuburaya for him to check, so it never got seen?

Honda: Correct.

Milner: An original idea for Destroy All Monsters that did not make it to the final version of the movie was that the monsters were supposed to not only be studied on Ogasawara Island, but also bred and cross-bred there. What other ideas for the film were rejected?

Honda: Well, in the case of a project like Destroy All Monsters, the simplest thinking would be: “We have all these monsters. Why don’t we just put them all in?” But from my perspective as the director, two or even three hours would not be enough for such a film! We’d need so much time to show the appearance of one monster and tell its story, then do the same for another, and then another. We could make an entire movie just about one monster’s birth if we wanted to get into the details of a true sci-fi story.

Mr. Kimura and I were confined to write Destroy All Monsters together, and we agreed how nonsensical it’d be to have each monster appear one after the other. So we came up with the marine ranch scenario—which scientifically would now be called aquaculture—and asked what’d happen if that got developed on a super scale? We decided to put all of the monsters in one place, where they are scientifically “raised.” This is where we started to develop the storyline. It all started from the condition of having to show all the monsters in one film.

At the time, the concept of crossbreeding was not on my mind. In order to do so, I would’ve used another concept related to the micro world, like biotechnology. But that alone could be made into a single film, too. Not to go off topic, but Spielberg made a movie about this….

Shibata: Jurassic Park (1993), yes.

Honda: Right. That story is very attractive: extracting cells from fossils and creating life from it. So our idea was one of the first along those lines. Initially, I had ideas for more underwater scenes in Destroy All Monsters. I was going to use special effects and set filming to depict them. But because of financial and time constraints, what you see is what we were able to do: the bare minimum. In a way, the scenes I wasn’t able to do were the scenes I wanted to film the most! [laughs] Back then, the notion of aquaculture and biotechnology were there. We knew the future was going in these directions. The marine ranch is a concept that is now more familiar even in Japan.

Shibata: In order to raise all of those monsters, one would need a certain amount of  protein and whatnot….

Honda: Yes, yes, protein, and all under the sea. I wrote all of that, but due to the  circumstances at the time….

Milner: Did financial constraints also prompt the inclusion of stock footage in All Monsters Attack (1969)?

Honda: Perhaps. Budgets were getting smaller and smaller around that time….

Milner: Did Mr. Tsuburaya take part in the production of All Monsters Attack?

Honda: Although Mr. Tsuburaya is only credited as a supervisor, I believe he was personally involved with editing and similar matters. The film may have been generally put together, but he definitely looked over the footage and instructed the staff to shorten certain scenes, etc. [Him not directing the effect scenes on this particular film] was not so much because he was physically too weak. He was our great respectable senior, and this may sound a little presumptuous but look at me or Mr. Kurosawa now; we are still working at age 80! [laughs]

Mr. Tsuburaya often mentioned that he was not doing so well health-wise, but he wished to raise the young special effects staff by passing his knowledge onto them. We had no idea that such a time would come where Toho would just throw away its sense of independence like this. [laughs] This is a very Japanese way of thinking and doing things, but they basically wanted him to stay and oversee Sadamasa Arikawa and other young guys as they took on more work. I’m sure things like this do not happen in America. Of course, contracts and deals changed over the years, but the mentality of ‘lifetime employment’ still existed. That also applied to Tsuburaya Production; after all, that company was established completely under the hands of Toho.

Shibata: So rather than physically be on the set, they wanted Mr. Tsuburaya to let his young staff handle it?

Honda: Right. As long as he was involved and would be there for them. The other thing was that the young guys eventually worked their way up and set out on their own. So, opportunities for him to work like that decreased. But it wasn’t because Mr. Tsuburaya was too ill to work. For me, it was more about having him involved in the project, for the reason I just mentioned.

Milner: I’d heard that you directed the special effects footage for All Monsters Attack. Is this not true? How was this different from working with regular actors?

Honda: I directed the majority of that film. One difference is visual perspective. The size of the monster is decided in advance, but it’s still a suit actor, no matter how many meters tall it’s supposed to be. Based on that size, we calculate everything backwards, starting with the camera positions to lens sizes. We’d use different lenses for scenes requiring composite work. If you just film the scene as you would live-action, the monster will look like a man in a suit, no matter what you do afterwards. That is one difference: these types of calculations and instincts—and an understanding for mechanisms of motion—possessed by the person filming. If you disregard this and film monster scenes as you would live-action, you cannot make a kaijū film. I always say this, but in cases of [indefinable]*, even if the camera moves around freely, as people in the same business, we can visually tell the size. Although the audience may not experience any sense of discomfort, the cinematographer needs to know and understand the nature of his camera. If he does not, you can end up with very unbalanced footage.
* Audio unclear

The reason I ended up directing much of that film was because they were able to work out things so that we didn’t need such a huge set. There was also a timing issue: not enough time for the live-action and special effects teams to film their own scenes separately.

Milner: So it was all done in the same general area, whereas in most other films they’re separate.

Honda: Yes. But when it came to filming the special effects scenes, we used a tokusatsu cameraman. We needed someone accustomed to techniques such as speeding the film up and down. Of course, it was not impossible to have other cameramen do the work, but we asked him to do it for these reasons.

Milner: What do you think of the most recent Godzilla movies?

Honda: Besides Godzilla, I don’t think Toho makes films with their own money these days. All other movies they release are funded by others. Their property has turned into rental studios. Toho must be making money with the Godzilla films. [laughs]

I cannot help but notice that Godzilla films nowadays tend to focus on destruction. But in the end, it just means that, from the audience point of view, they care less about the story and are just curious to see how the next monster will act in a rage. I think this is a sign of the times. Now, I will not negate this. It is up to the people who create the film, and I have no intention of criticizing the creators. I can only guess this is how this product called “Godzilla” sells today, whether it is well-made or not. The tokusatsu technology has progressed greatly. New visual images are being created using advanced techniques. The composite techniques have also improved greatly and are being used more and more. Aside from the Godzilla films, it seems impossible to spend big budgets on science fiction in Japan. I believe there’s a need for a leap in the actual contents of genre films as well.

Milner: Is that the generally agreed upon opinion? Do most other older Toho personnel feel that way about the new films as well?

Honda: You’d need to ask them directly. The way the Godzilla films are made has not really changed, including where they are filmed. The buildings are, of course, different, and I think it has gotten more difficult since I worked on these movies. The foundation of Godzilla’s existence—nuclear weaponry and its horror—remains, so it’s fine for that to be present. The issue is how that foundation is recognized and made aware. I feel that if Toho pushes a little further— such as the interaction with Godzilla as the counteraction/side effect of what humanity’s created in order to survive—they’ll be able to come up with a new Godzilla.

Milner: I have heard that Varan (1958) was produced at the request of an American television studio. Is this true?

Honda: That is what I was told. I personally never interacted with any American producers on that film, but there was a man named Mr. Mori [Toho Kingdom staff note: presumably Toho executive Iwao Mori], and he said we were to make a TV movie for America.

Milner: Who made the decision to shoot the movie in black and white?

Honda: Mr. Mori made that decision. The decision was made because all television shows were in that format back then [with the exception of a few experimental color models]. The story was also written for television, and there is a difference in how TV movies and regular movies are made. I believe they had material that would’ve run about three cours [one cour equals roughly thirteen weekly episodes]. But in the midst of production, Toho decided it would be a regular movie, to be shown in theaters. We actually planned on re-shooting everything in the wider Cinemascope format, but since we were in a rush, we just cropped the existing footage. If this were in America, they’d have required everything shot again from scratch.

For me, personally, Varan is not a work I am happy with. But to our surprise, the people who saw it seemed to like it. If we’d been able to start over from the beginning, scenes such as those with the Self Defense Forces and whatnot should have been more grand. Everything was pretty much shot on set, with a tiny bit of location filming. If even one team were able to film on location, the entire movie would’ve turned out a little better.

Shibata: How far into filming were you when they told you to make it a Cinemascope film?

Honda: I think we’d filmed five or six scenes. The tokusatsu team started a little later than us. I believe the first scene the effects team shot was the lake scene where Varan appears. The live-action crew’s first scene was around the point where the protagonists enter the village.

Milner: Which of the films that you directed are your favorites?

Honda: Godzilla (1954) goes without saying—even though my ability as a director was lacking then. Looking back, the continuity between the drama and tokusatsu scenes seems amateurish, even though we had countless meetings during production. If I were to do it now, I’d make better use of things such as sound effects, too.

The Mysterians (1957) is another favorite. We faced many difficulties with that film, but the material is about things that do not exist on earth in real life. We looked for topics and materials new for people, kind of like when petroleum products first came out. I have felt that the concept of planets, the human race, nuclear weapons—or rather the terror of science, such as the power of radiation which nuclear weapons possess—are very important in sci-fi works.

I also like Gorath (1962). I prefer works that are more science-oriented.

Milner: Are you unhappy with the way any of the films you directed turned out?

Honda: As I said before, we worked within this particular Japanese film studio system; as a director, I had to be able to take on any project in any genre. Of course, we must think about whether the project is right for us. If it’s not, we should decline because there is no way we’ll enjoy making that film. It’s like what I mentioned before: about one story being more suited for Mr. Kimura than Mr. Sekizawa. There is a sense among the production people of what type of genre is most suitable for whom, and they pretty much have an idea of who to ask ahead of time. There are instances where they say, “This won’t work with him” or “He won’t be able to make a film like this.” At the time, Toho was flourishing and prospering as a company. There was a sense of passion between people like us—those who worked on the set and in the studios, and those who were in charge of the business matters—as we created films. I have never taken on a project and later regretted working on it. But I declined projects if I felt I was not suited for them; therefore, there are no films that I regret making or felt it was tough to make. Looking back now, I feel that I was able to handle any project the company brought my way. I have never regretted working on any of my films.

There are about three cameramen—Tadashi Iimura, Hiroshi Koizumi, and Isamu Ashida—whom I helped work their way up by having them on my films. The combination of staff members is key. It’s different if you assign a cameraman to a veteran director, but I feel that it’s impossible to make a good film if the director and the cameraman do not work well together. I took on newbie cameramen. New guys work hard, and they listen closely to the director. The same went for actresses. The company would bring me talent they wanted to turn into a star. I think I get along with people fairly well.

Shibata: So you’ve never been assigned a project, a cameraman or an actor that you disliked?

Honda: Correct. The decisions were always made by the company, but we would always have a meeting to discuss them first.

Milner: When you talk about cameramen becoming independent, what were they before that?

Honda: Assistant cameramen. And after working on your films, they became chief cameramen. The same went for actors and screenwriters. Oftentimes, the company asked me to take on people they wanted to grow.

Milner: Do you feel that you were fortunate to have Akira Ifukube scoring your films?

Honda: I feel very fortunate to have met Mr. Ifukube on the Godzilla (1954) project. He has written so much music for not only my films but for Daiei and other studios. I believe he really understands cinema as a musician and composer. I remember when we asked him to score Godzilla. What made me realize what an incredible composer he was is this. Here is a story about this being totally out of control, destroying everything it encounters, full of brutality and violence. What kind of sound and music would be suitable for this evil, illegitimate child of nuclear power? Can we actually come up with such a sound? When I saw Mr. Ifukube in deep thought, saying: “What have I gotten myself  into? What to do, what to do?” I thought, “This will be a success.”

I am not familiar as to how Mr. Ifukube worked with other directors, but when it comes to film music, especially for something like Godzilla, it’s not as simple as “put a loud noise here” or “play happy music here.” We thoroughly discuss what sort of sound effects we should use for various scenes with the sound effects engineer. There are cases where sound effects and music clash with one another and it does not work. When you watch the visuals, there are places where you hear things falling or cannons going off. And we try to insert music into places where you hear nothing. Realistically speaking, there are places where music may not be needed. But in the case of Mr. Ifukube’s music, he’s able to dig through and add into these spaces, which comes together with the sound effects and increases the volume and thickness/depth of the project.

We’d have [the sound effects and recording staff] review the rushes and meet about three times to discuss where we generally would like music and effects to be put in. Once the rushes are completely put together, they’d confirm with us saying, “This is where you wanted this to be put in, correct?” But once we view the footage again, there are times where we say, “Oh, there is no need for it here,” so we would then have another meeting. Of course, the compositions are roughly written before rushes are completed, but we’d have the compositions revised accordingly. The director, sound effects engineer, recording engineer, and composer would get together; and after that meeting, details about how many seconds a certain section is or how many seconds the sound or music will need to be would all be calculated one by one as we view the film.

Milner: Is it true that Mr. Ifukube created the roar of Godzilla?

Honda: Yes, he did. He had a very hard time selecting a sound for Godzilla’s roar. He even grieved over it! Seeing him in that state showed me that he was very seriously thinking about the film, and that made me think that it just might be a successful one.

Milner: I have heard that you worked as a still photographer before going into films. Is this true?

Honda: No. I was a documentary director for a while, but I never was a still photographer. I still have no experience as a still photographer.

Shibata: Are the documentary touches seen in Godzilla (1954) a product of your earlier experiences directing documentaries?

Honda: Well, not exactly. It was more so that in making Godzilla, we had to really think about the basis of this work, the root of this movie. Of course, there was an original story by Shigeru Kayama, but making the film about answering this simple question: “What would happen if something like this really appeared?” I initially planned to write in a bit more about the government and whatnot, but more importantly, the film was about terror and shock. We decided to narrow it down to just having the scientists try to deal with it. But even with that, I think we could have done more. The bottom line is: “It appeared. What can we do? There is nothing we can do!” And we decided to depict the terror and horror of this realization. That is probably why the footage looks very documentary-like. There really was no room for [dramatic scenes].

If you want to get more into [the documentary feel of the movie], another reason is that there weren’t enough sets—or even an open set large enough—available for us. These were some of the other elements that came into play, which were aware of and prepared for from the beginning. “What would happen if something like this suddenly appeared? Well, it would be totally crazy!” This was what we wanted to show through the screen. Children who weren’t even born back then watch the film today and can still feel this sense of terror. This just shows what we, the staff, put in as we made this film.

Milner: Just as an aside speaking of that film, a subtitled print of Godzilla (1954) is now slowly making the rounds in the United States. And whereas the American version with Raymond Burr is thought of as a good monster film, when people see the subtitled print, they are very impressed with that film. Very impressed. I just wanted to say that.

[translator tells Ishiro Honda about a fan in Boston who illegally put English subtitles on a print of Godzilla]

Honda: Although it is an illegal act [laughs], I am happy to hear American fans are so devoted that they dig up these things. I’m thankful for that.

Milner: Were you surprised by the international success of kaiju movies, not only in the United States but all over the world?

Honda: We never imagined Godzilla would become what it is today. But what motivated us to make a film like that is American cinema and American special effects films. The obvious example is King Kong (1933). The Japanese felt we could also make films like that. During the war, we made war films using tokusatsu; that technique became the foundation, and it was all due to Mr. Tsuburaya. By him joining Toho, he and his staff started making these kinds of films. But there is no doubt that the aim and goal was to make films like those in America. Aside from the special effects, what really intrigued us about American films was the use of trick shots in slapstick comedies.

Milner: I certainly agree about Mr. Tsuburaya’s contribution. However, and this may surprise you, but many science fiction fans in the United States who have really looked at both King Kong (1933) and Godzilla (1954) feel that Godzilla is actually a much, much better film, although perhaps King Kong is more of an achievement, simply because it was made close to 20 years earlier. Certainly, that’s how I feel.

Okay, back to the interview. I’ve heard that actor Akihiko Hirata was very well liked. With which actors did you especially enjoy working?

Honda: Towards the latter end of my career, the person that comes to my mind is Kumi Mizuno. Miss Mizuno possesses something that allows her to effortlessly come into films such as mine. All actors would do what they’re told, but I think she was the best in expressing her interpretation and understanding of the story. I think she knew how to ‘draw the line’ and in that way, she is a true actress. She is ready to receive anything that comes her way and is able to get completely into the world of the story. Momoko Kōchi and Yumi Shirakawa were also good. Basically, actresses who cannot get into my films’ stories are simply actresses that cannot get into these types of stories from the start. If an actress said in the beginning, “I don’t know if this role is for me…” we would say, “Okay, thank you!” and move onto someone else.

Shibata: Were there actually instances where that happened?

Honda: I think there were a few instances, when the company asked us to use certain actresses. So there were times when it ended up not working out upon meeting with me. That is why there are many of the same actresses in my films. Those who are capable of playing these roles naturally came together. Apparently, it is not rare for actors to play roles against their wills. But you can totally tell, especially in films such as these. The lens is very honest, you know. [laughs]

Yoshio Tsuchiya also liked making these kinds of films. The actors in my films really made an effort in trying to understand the story. Along this line, you have actors who were in my films like Akira Takarada. Akiji Kobayashi wasn’t in any of my films, but I think people like him possess something within themselves physically that reacts to “earth-in-danger” situations. I feel that Mr. Takarada gained something by appearing in my films. If you look at some of the young actors who came after them, including those in the recent Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), I feel that they really have not fully taken in and embodied the true contents of the story. An actor must feel these things with their entire body. It does not work if they just logically decide what kind of expressions to make because the scene is such-and-such. As I said, the lens is honest; it exposes everything!

Milner: So would you say in general the actors such as Tsuchiya and Takarada were, I don’t want to say better but more involved, to use your word, than the actors and  actresses that have appeared in more recent genre films?

Honda: Yes, I think so.

Milner: Can you think of a reason why that might be?

Honda: Times are just different.

Milner: How did you like working with Nick Adams?

Honda: I totally think he was a person completely passionate about movies. He probably could’ve worked on two or three more films here if the Japanese film industry—or rather the Toho film production—lasted a bit longer. Even in something other than kaijū films. He was the type of guy who’d come up with ideas on his own.

Shibata: In working with foreign actors, whether it’s on Latitude Zero (1969), Frankenstein vs. Baragon (1965), or King Kong Escapes (1967), in conversation scenes, the Japanese translated dialogue is dubbed afterwards, correct? When directing such scenes, did you take any extra precautions to ensure lines from the two languages didn’t get in the way of one another? If they overlap, it would’ve been an issue when dubbing, no?

Honda: Right. There were times when we re-recorded lines afterward. When the actor’s speaking in English, I had them show emotion and express their feelings fully in English. Language and words are such that even if you do not understand what someone is saying, you can understand them as long as they truly emote feelings. Especially in scenes with Kumi Mizuno. She understands English a little, but she and her foreign co-stars acted with full emotions: she in English, they in Japanese. You can tell especially when their eyes glimmer as they interact.

Shibata: It must be a strange scene, watching from the side.

Honda: [laughs] But if you have them perform over and over, the human emotions start feeling very natural, even to the staff. I let them act in English to their heart’s content. I had them act and perform 100% in English, and made sure that the receiving end was able to take it in. There are rhythms to the performances of actors.

Shibata: So going back to what you mentioned before, the young actors of today seem to not be able to fully get into it like the actors you worked with.

Honda: Definitely, without comparison.

Milner: Moving onto two questions about symbolism. Guy Tucker speculated that in Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster (1964), King Ghidorah was meant to symbolize China’s acquisition of atomic weapons. Is this true?

Honda: I am not sure whether they went as far as relating it to China, because King Ghidorah is basically a modern take on Yamato no orochi, the eight-headed dragon from an old Japanese folk tale. And we wrote it as a creature that came from outer space. It is fine for the audience to think that way, but I believe it was not written with such a political notion. Mr. Sekizawa wrote the screenplay for Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster, after all.

Shibata: If this had been Mr. Kimura’s idea, then this could have been true.

Honda: [laughs] I guess so.

Milner: A bit of a more serious question. Toho has had trouble finding a United States distributor for last year’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). This is probably because many people in the United States were offended by the sequence in which the Godzillasaurus attacks the U.S. armed forces in the film. All sorts of WWII veterans came out against the film and just said, “This is offensive, we do not like it, ban the film.”  Do you think their offense is justified?

Honda: They actually did that?

Milner: Oh, yes. There was a call last year by the Pearl Harbor Veterans’ Association for the film not to be released in the United States. The film has not actually been banned from distribution, but some veterans groups were calling for it to be banned. Regardless, it’s been a year since the film was released, and Toho still has not found a U.S. distributor. That’s very unusual. They will usually find a distributor in 6-8 months. This was not done by anybody who had actually seen the film. A few clips were shown on CNN and they just heard about this and they said, “This is terrible, we don’t want it.” As far as I know, anybody who has actually seen the film recognizes that the way the film is played out: U.S. forces actually bring the Godzillasaurus on themselves because they attacked the Godzillasaurus first, and that people who have seen the film are not complaining. Just the people who had heard about the film feel that it might be offensive.

Honda: [note: the audio for Honda’s answer cuts off partway] Well, for the American veterans, those fight scenes must have been taken as half… [break in audio] It may be that there’s freedom in filmmaking, where we can portray pretty much anything. However, there also has to be a truth factor to a certain degree. Take Godzilla (1954), for example. The first scene in the original story started with the Dai Go Fukuryūmaru returning from the nuclear testing site. [This was the tuna boat that was showered by radiation from an H-bomb test in 1954, resulting in one of the crew dying.] But I felt that would be too raw and realistic for a movie. That rawness, and the characteristic of this thing called Godzilla which I wanted to depict, are different.

I did not want to bring out the Dai Go Fukuryūmaru. If I did, I’d have to go back to the atomic bomb going off, and show visually why a creature was born from that explosion. But the screenplay’s written with “the speculation” that this creature was a result of the nuclear testing explosion. I think visually showing there was this war and an incident such as the bombing, etc., that would’ve gone too far and I would not be surprised if people came out to protest. I cannot blame or call these protestors crazy. Personally, I cannot create such scenes. Sure, the story states that the creature “came out from the South.”

But I think [the war scenes in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah] went a bit too far in incorporating the fighting between the creature and the Americans.

Milner: I’ve heard that very little improvisation was allowed during production [of your films] for financial reasons. Is this true?

Honda: We frequently had cases where, although the content of the performance did not change, the behavior did. We would first write the screenplay on genkō yōshi [Japanese writing paper with the square grids], whereas in America you’d use a typewriter. From there, we’d create the drawing board. We’d assume that all is good and proceed to the filming. But during the rehearsals of the scenes and whatnot, we’d find that some actors simply cannot express the nuances of certain lines, or that certain lines are too difficult to enunciate for certain actors. As we realized that the line was too difficult for the actor, we’d re-write the line and oftentimes the revised version ends up working out very well. This kind of thing occurred often during filming. For example, no matter how many times we rehearse the scenes indoors in an auditorium-like-setting, once we get out to the location set, there’d be times when the actor cannot say certain lines or has difficulty doing so because of the environment or the ground they are standing on. Then we would have to change the lines. I would look into the camera and determine what would work based on what I saw through the lens.

Shibata: That means that you are on the set and as you notice these cases as you watch the actors, you would make the decision and change things on the spot?

Honda: Yes, I do. There are some screenwriters who demand that nothing be changed. But that is because they have no concept or understanding of the sense of sight or vision. You have to be able to determine whether the entire body can express and say the written line or whether the written line is in fact appropriate for the person saying the line. It is different when one writes the lines as they imagine the scenes versus actually being out on the set and physically seeing the bodies in motion. This happens all the time. Even as I work with Mr. Kurosawa now, we still discuss “Maybe we should do it this way” or “Perhaps that would work better here.”

It’s hard to say from where to where what is improvised and what is not, right? But it is not that everything is improvised on the fly, either. We go through rehearsals and prepare in advance, but still there are times when things need to be changed. In some of the worst cases, if an actress gets her period, then it is all over. We would simply stop filming.

Shibata: I recently read the screenplay of Gorath. There is a sequence where the astronauts party in the club once their departure is set. There is a scene where Hideyo Amamoto appears and interacts with the group. According to Takeshi Kimura’s screenplay, the other customers chat as they look onto the loud partying group with a very cynical view. But in the actual film, we see Amamoto making a sarcastic remark directly as Masanori Nihei comes in. Was that another example?

Honda: Yes. When you have one guy address a group of people in scenes like that, the  dialogue stands out too much within the atmosphere of that scene. Also, there are others who can hear what he says. So then it becomes an issue of how much of their reactions do you incorporate into the scene. Lines like that can come off as trying to explain something, so it sometimes works out better to have a guy who’s more or less passing by to simply make a comment. We would make changes like that as well.

Milner: Why didn’t you direct Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966) or Son of Godzilla (1967)?

Honda: Jun Fukuda filmed those. I think there was a schedule conflict where I had another project so I could not commit. There are cases where the release date is already set from the start, and other times where I had been pretty much the only one directing these kaijū films so the company probably wanted to use other directors.

Frankly, there is a part of me that felt I made too many of these films. Depending on the project, there were those that I would not have wanted to make. Son of Godzilla is something that I probably would have not been able to make. As you take a look back at my past works, you can see that I resisted personifying and giving human-like characteristics to the monsters. Even in Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster, I used The Peanuts as “interpreters” between Mosura, but even that was something I had to force myself to do. Those are things I truly have a difficult time making and filming.

Milner: Did you work on any movies that did not end up being produced? For example, the  original version of Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, which featured King Kong instead of Godzilla? The question is: were you involved in any projects for genre films that were not produced?

Shibata: There seems to have been a project titled Naked Spring/Fountain about a story which takes place in mainland China?

Honda: Ah. That basically fell through at the point when the proposal was submitted.

There were films [I wanted to make] that ended up getting canceled, but some were revived afterwards. One was called Itoman, about the fishermen in Okinawa. “Itoman” is a particular style of fishing still in practice, and I wanted to capture the fishermen in a complete documentary style. This project ended up being canceled after the screenplay was written but was later made into a film by Nichiei and it was called “[indefinable]* Islands.” This was after Godzilla (1954). If any materials remain on that film, it would have to be at Nichiei.
* Audio unclear

Another is Tiger Flight [which was eventually made by Kengo Furusawa in 1964]. The screenplay was also completed, but the company canceled my project and took it elsewhere. I had a lot I wanted to say to Mr. Tanaka about this. [laughs] My version was nothing like the film that ended up being made. Mine completely focused on the Japanese military airplanes and the development of Army airships. It was more like a history of Japanese aviation. I think the company had something going on with the Japan Self-Defense Force.

Shibata: Oh, like a tie-in!

Honda: Right. That is why they did not like my version. But this was never  communicated to me, not even to this very day. [laughs]

Shibata: Really? So yours was more like director Tsuburaya’s Nippon hikōki yarō, where it was more about the Army aviation unit and its growth and development?

Honda: Yes, in terms of the story, there are some similarities between mine and his. We asked a guy named Inomata to write the screenplay. Chuhachi Ninomiya, the pioneering Japanese aviation designer, is featured in my story. There are so many great stories about him, but it would’ve cost too much to depict them. I don’t think I still have the story, but I believe Toho went so far as getting ready to print copies of the scripts.

Shibata: Was that a film you personally felt you wanted to make, so you submitted the proposal to the production team?

Honda: Yes. There was also a film Toho wanted us to make in commemoration of the 50 years of aviation history, the basis for what we now know as Japan Airlines. Mr. Tsuburaya was involved with this one, as well. We had the Genesis and the red dragonflies around the Himalaya, and researched the machine guns atop the airplanes that fired between the propeller blades…. It was told as an evolutionary tale. I guess you can say that it would’ve been done with a documentary touch. I met with Yoshitoshi Tokugawa [a pioneer of Japanese military aviation] quite a few times to interview him. He had lots of great stories to tell. For example, he flew right into the rooftop of a farm building on his return from a test flight. An elderly woman witnessed the entire thing at her spinning wheel and was unable to stand up, due to shock.

I recently found in my belongings another story I wrote titled Ikotsu Sanpei-kun, about a guy who returns to his homeland as a ghost and travels around to various places.

Kimi (Honda, Ishiro’s wife): He gave that story away to director Nobuhiko Ōbayashi.

[everyone laughs]

Shibata: Itoman was meant to be a documentary?

Honda: No, we wrote a story. My version incorporated drama elements, such as the youth who yearns to go out to the city or an episode about some local girl.

Shibata: So it was a documentary-based-drama-piece, just like The Blue Pearl (1951) or The  Skin of the South?

Honda: Yes. I had even gone down to Amami Ōshima for location hunting and wrote the  screenplay. The company was 100% ready to make this film, but for whatever reason, it fell through. Back in those days, they tended not to like films that were too serious. But I did, and I really loved stories involving the sea, such as The Blue Pearl. I’d been thinking about establishing myself in the sea and underwater filming genre and increasing my repertoire.

You have heard of “Itoman Swimming” club, right? The origin of the name is different, but phonetically, it is the same. They dive for a very long time and they drive the fish into the nets. And I wanted to capture them using underwater filming techniques. The story has conflicts between the veterans and the young fishermen. I wrote a draft stage of the script. Right when we were ready to make the scripts, they told us to stop. [laughs] Then somebody found the project intriguing, took it over to Nichiei, and made the film there. Once it went into the hands of Nichiei, it became 100% a documentary film, but it did not focus on the “Itoman” fishermen. It was more about fishermen in Okinawa. I believe there were 2-3 shots of the fishing scene in the film, but no underwater filming.

Shibata: Tight Flight was the result of producer Tanaka’s decision, and it was released as a completely different film?

Honda: It was either the producer, or Toho telling him to halt the project. But in any event, the screenwriter, Mr. Inomata, and I were hired for this film, which was to be produced by Mr. Tanaka, and the two of us went to Izu to write for a couple of weeks. Whether this was the  decision made by the producer based on what was written or something else, I have no idea. Perhaps it was because he anticipated a big budget.

Shibata: Ikotsu Sanpei-kun returns to his homeland during the period of rapid economic growth?

Honda: No, that was a story I thought up right after I returned from the war.  It was never made into a screenplay. It was just a story I had come up with, that I  wanted to turn into a screenplay one day. I never submitted a proposal for this.  Before it got to that point, it was kind of forgotten about and I got too busy with work . I should stop before other top secret stories start coming out! [laughs]

Milner: Do you feel that there should not have been any sequels to Godzilla (1954) produced? That they should have said, “This is a great film. Let us not diminish  it with sequels.”? And I ask that because of King Kong, which is respected in the United States. Many people feel that it was diminished by Son of Kong (1933).

Honda: I feel that the original Godzilla was a product of the times back then. Sure, they have brought it back to destroy more cities. But having Godzilla come to Tokyo, to Shinjuku, and start destroying buildings that are the same size as the monster does not have the same impact and effect today. Sure, people comment on how much better made the destruction scenes are now or that the beams look more realistic. But what matters is that the people watching the film are touched and moved. And I think that these films are not making them feel this way. The spirit and intentions may all be there, but I believe that science fiction films are meant to be made  with what fits and applies to today, or something that surpasses that. Watching the way they make films out in the U.S., for example, I notice that things are starting to change. As for the possibilities for Godzilla, I feel that there is absolutely no need for following that up.

Let us say that Godzilla appears right now. The people simply would not be as horrified as they were back then. The impressions and emotions are not the same. As time passes and things change, they should create new and more unique monsters.

Milner: Were you surprised by the international success of your films?

Honda: I am always amazed by the enthusiasm of the fans in the United States!

Milner: Godzilla was created in reaction to the development of nuclear weapons. Since nuclear war is no longer as great a threat as it once was, many fans feel that Godzilla should now instead be used to address environmental concerns. Do you agree with this?

Honda: If the next Godzilla film was to be about something like that, then I think they should definitely go ahead and make it. Yes, the cold war has ended politically. But “war” still exists, perhaps in another shape or form. If even one of the nuclear reactors we have out along the Eastern Sea malfunctions or if there is a huge accident, then about half of the Kantō area would be destroyed. Similarly, if they try to get rid of all nuclear plants in the Soviet, how much can they really accomplish? And although  this is not yet all factual, there is the issue out in the North of what to do with the Soviet submarines. It was just mentioned yesterday but there also are problems about if we were to dismantle chemical weapons, how are we to go about doing so? Horrific things such as these are all Godzilla in my mind. We also have Mother Nature. My son lives out in New Jersey, in America, for example, and recently there was a huge storm in the  New York area of a scale not seen in 20 or 30 years. Last year, there was the threat of a tsunami out there. For me, natural disasters are also Godzilla in a different form. If  they continue to make Godzilla films like they are now, where it simply appears and comes to Japan, I feel that the meaning of Godzilla is greatly reduced. I think they should make it by utilizing this idea of the presence of a global matter for planet Earth.

Milner: TriStar Pictures is planning to produce a Godzilla movie in the United States next year.

Honda: Oh, really?

Milner: Well, they’ll begin producing next year and the scheduled release is December 1994 for the first film.

Honda: They should go right ahead! They may be able to make a really interesting film. There are people like you who love them and are huge fans. You all should get involved and make it into a really great film.

Kimi: They probably would be able to make a better Godzilla film in the United States. In Japan, you can make money by just making “Godzilla” appear on the screen, and that is the sole reason why Mr. Tanaka continues making those films. Enough with such hackneyed thinking. Now, I think it’s more about ‘how one can cook with the same ingredients.’ I think it’s a good thing.


Ishiro Honda Interview © 1998 David Milner
Full translation by Yuuko Honda 2013


Part 1 – 00:47:51 (109MB)
Part 2 – 00:47:53 (109MB)
Part 3 – 00:48:12 (110MB)
Part 4 – 00:48:11 (110MB)