Book: The Making of Godzilla 1985


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

English Book Title

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


Steve Ryfle
Ed Godziszewski







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.



By: Nicholas Driscoll

Normally I would not do a second book review when another member of the Toho Kingdom team has already written a really quite excellent review of the same book, which is certainly the case with Patrick Galvan’s review of Ryfle and Godziszewski’s latest work Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa. There are so many books and manga and movies which have not been reviewed yet at all (sometimes they don’t have any reviews on the Internet in English), and I prefer to focus on those. Ishiro Honda is the rare exception, not because I disagree significantly with Patrick’s review, nor because I think this book (moreso than others) deserves multiple reviews. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great book (for the most part—look, I always have my qualms), and I do have some hopefully helpful comments that come from a different perspective than Patrick’s that may prove helpful to future readers or perhaps editors of a second edition!

However, the reason I am writing this review is to fulfill a promise. The situation is actually kind of amusing—basically what happened was that both Patrick and I were planning to review the book, and both of us also decided to interview Steve Ryfle in anticipation of the book’s release… but neither of us contacted the other about said plans. So I interviewed Ryfle and told him I was planning to review his book. Then I found out Patrick had obtained an advance copy in order to review it, and that he was interviewing Ryfle as well. I had preordered my book, but didn’t receive my book until after Patrick already published his review. And thus hilarity ensued as multiple interviews were published—and now multiple reviews as well. I really thank Steve Ryfle for being a real sport through the process!

Well, far be it from me to renege on a promise. I decided to finish reading Peter Brothers’ second edition of Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men first in order to offer an informed perspective on the English-language Ishiro Honda book landscape, plus watch the available Japanese DVDs of Honda’s movies which are unavailable in the USA (including Night School). I wanted to read some of Ed Godziszewski’s Japanese Giants magazines as well, but my attempt to purchase the magazines failed, so I am still mostly unfamiliar with Godziszewski’s work (no, I don’t own a copy of The Encyclopedia of Godzilla, either. Shucks.)

I recently wrote up a review of the second edition of Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men, but I can go over some of the strengths and weaknesses of each book quickly here as well. Both books feature biographical material on Honda and on other members of the Toho crew; Brothers features a longish biography of Honda at the beginning of the book, plus short biographies of Tomoyuki Tanaka, Eiji Tsuburaya, and Akira Ifukube. Ryfle and Godziszewski include biographical sketches of a variety of Toho crew, with (naturally) special attention given to Akira Kurosawa towards the end of the book. Mushroom focuses only on the fantasy films and thus goes into more detail on each of them, while Ishiro gives a more complete biography, and includes details and reviews of Honda’s non-fantasy films. Given that Mushoom is a longer book overall compared to IshiroMushroom can afford to go into much greater detail about individual films. However, the writing in Ishiro is much more professional, has fewer mistakes, and is altogether more incisive and entertaining to read than Brothers’ writing. Plus, Godziszewski and Ryfle had access to Honda’s family, who welcomed them into their house and gave them a lot of background detail unavailable even in the Japanese literature. Brothers, meanwhile, did not perform original interviews in preparation for his book. Overall, while I respect the significant work that Brothers put into Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom MenIshiro Honda is a much better book overall for fans and film historians—but completionists should take a look at both.

For me, perhaps the most fascinating part of Brothers’ book was the biographical section before the movie reviews began, and so I was greatly looking forward to reading the biographical matter in Ryfle and Godziszewski’s book as well. The first eight chapters are all biography before Honda became a full director. These chapters are very short, often just a few pages with pictures of Honda from the time period included. Nevertheless, the details are really interesting for those who, like me, wanted to learn more about the man and not just about his movies. We learn about his boyhood in the mountains, of moving to Tokyo, of watching his first movies, of going to film school and his friends at the time… and of going off to war.

I think for many readers, Honda’s war time experience will be the most difficult chapter to read in the book. As I mentioned when I interviewed Ryfle last year, I was really troubled when I found out that Honda had actually fought in the war and especially that he was put in charge of a comfort women station—in other words, he was forced to be complicit with a war crime. That meant that he had overseen and helped to maintain and support a place where women were raped repeatedly, dozens of times, every day—possibly even teenagers or younger—and that he apparently did nothing to stop it, but rather just the opposite: he helped make sure that the institution would run smoothly. Of course, as Ryfle said in his interview, had Honda protested or rebelled, the punishment would have been severe… but not as severe, I would say, as the lives of those women, most of whom statistically, after enduring such torment day by day, were then executed by the Japanese to cover up the crime! I do respect the fact that Honda wrote openly about the comfort station later in the 1960s (as recounted and partially translated in the book), reporting its devastating effects on the women, and even admitting that some of the women were tricked into becoming comfort women, which so many Japanese conservative politicians have refused to admit for years. Nevertheless, something inside me recoils with disgust when I read that he helped the women to accept their plight rather than helping even one to escape. In the current atmosphere of the entertainment business, with the Weinstein scandals and widespread attacks on powerful figures and entertainers for abusing their power for sexual favors, reading this far darker story about one of my favorite directors hits hard. When discussing Honda’s war experiences with a Chinese friend of mine, she immediately condemned Honda, even though I never mentioned his work with the comfort women. It’s hard for me to discount her perspective entirely, despite how much Honda hated the war and respected the Chinese. Still, Ryfle and Godziszewski write unflinchingly about the comfort women issue. They also write very positively about Honda fighting in the war; he comes across as something of a saint on the battlefield, doing his best not to kill, and even befriending Chinese and considering living out his days among them after the war was finished. Nevertheless, as Ryfle and Godziszewski note, Honda had collected a great many documents from his wartime experiences, including old diaries and letters and more, and had meant to put together a memoir that never came to fruition. His family has chosen not to make these documents public, so it’s hard not to wonder if the full story might be much darker.

We may never know, and I suppose all of this is a reminder of the darkness in humankind, and how in war time especially that darkness runs wild. I cannot say I am a better man than Honda—I have never been in his situation. But nevertheless, reading those stories fills me with sadness and anger.

Turning to brighter topics, outside of the biographical materials at the beginning of the book, I was really looking forward to reading about Honda’s other movies—the ones without monsters, robots, aliens, and creatures. Though personally I love fantasy and SF, I have read SO MUCH about the Godzilla movies that frankly the Godzilla films were pretty much the least interesting part of this book for me. (Yeah, yeah, the fans are going to crucify me this time.) Ryfle and Godziszewski were extraordinarily fortunate to be able, in the course of researching this book, to view and at least partially translate all of Honda’s movies except for one documentary and the 43 minute movie Night School (1956), released by Daiei under rather strange circumstances. Bizarrely, Night School was released last year on DVD for the first time—but not in time for Ryfle and Godziszewski to properly view the film for the book. Nevertheless, they were able to piece together what happens in the film through other sources, including the testimony of director Shusuke Kaneko who saw the film at a festival in 2009. And having purchased the DVD myself, I can say that their reconstruction, even down to the camera movements, is pretty accurate! I might quibble a little bit in that Ryfle and Godziszewski claim that the two protagonist boys never “truly meet”… which I guess is kind of accurate. The two boys, named Senta and Ryohei, have one scene in which they technically meet one another at Senta’s workplace. Senta and Ryohei had been exchanging letters for some time before this encounter at the post office, but only Ryohei realizes that the boy hard at work at the desk before him is his pen-pal from night school, and he leaves without revealing himself, moved by the boy’s industriousness and the social gap between them. Still, Ryfle and Godziszewski’s research is really impressive—if they could describe Night School so accurately without even watching it, I can’t help but have even more faith in them on the films they actually did watch!

And it is a true revelation to read about Honda’s many other, non-fantasy films. While fans can get a small taste by watching the two war films, one romantic comedy, and one school drama available on Japanese DVD, there are so many more films that Honda made, and it feels a dreadful shame that they have been so forgotten and neglected even in Japan. War films, romance, “kayo eiga” (pop song movies), documentaries, even a sports biopic—Honda tried his hand at a great many different genre. Before this book was published, finding even basic information about many of these films was difficult or impossible in English, and would not have been easy even in Japanese. Given that Honda is one of the most influential and successful directors of Japanese movies on an international level, for film historians and those interested in the development not just of Honda, but of Japanese film history in general, this book is a valuable asset. Unsurprisingly, the sections of the book covering these non-fantastical films tend to be shorter than those covering the more popular monster and sci-fi flicks, nevertheless Ryfle and Godziszewski were able to unearth many fascinating details about these “lesser” films as well. In addition to the “kayo eiga” (a genre I had not heard of before—a kind of musical, but without the big dance numbers), Honda also directed several SP films—“short program” films, about an hour each in length, that were often paired together or sometimes given triple-feature showings during the booming late 1950s in Japan. He even directed one based on a radio drama long before Latitude Zero (1969)—A Rainbow Plays in My Heart, from 1957. Thankfully, the authors provide readers with enough context to ensure that we are not lost despite having never seen such films.

Of course, the SF and monster films also receive due attention, with many trivia treasures unearthed. Some of my favorites include an anecdote about how Honda hoped for an animated Mothra movie in the Disney style (oh my gosh—the twin fairies as Disney Princesses!), and the fact that Ryfle and Godziszewski actually include a translation of some of the lyrics from that absurd song played over the radio on Faro Island in King Kong vs. Godzilla! Also, the book includes many behind the scenes photographs from Honda’s life and the making of all his films, which is a real pleasure to see—most I had never seen before.

I want to take a few moments here to discuss the way that the text is laid out on the page in Ishiro Honda. Like in Kalat’s Critical History book (which I also recently reviewed), Ishiro Honda features two columns of text on each page. However, I found Ishiro Honda much easier to read—not only because of the inclusion of pictures, but also because the pages feature more white space than Kalat’s book, allowing the text to breathe. Also, while Kalat’s book features two columns with justified text, the columns in Ishiro Honda are both aligned to the left, which makes them (again) feel more open and easy on the eye. So, kudos to good book design—it makes a difference!

Of course there are issues with the book as well, in addition to the minor errors that Patrick listed out in his review. While the book has relatively few grammatical errors, some creep through, and there are occasional awkward sentences. A somewhat larger miscalculation (at least in my view) was including a section on the Americanization of several of Honda’s films on pages 147-148. The section seems to come out of nowhere, and the Americanization notes on each individual film would have seemed more natural to include with the chapters on those specific films. Sometimes I wished there was a bit more to the book (ultimately a good sign)—one chapter covers SIX Honda tokusatsu films! This section also covers eight years, and so breaking the chapter into at least two would have given more space to give the films a proper treatment. Perhaps my biggest disappointment with the book, however, was that Honda’s TV career was glossed over so briefly. All told, Honda directed 29 episodes of television, mostly from tokusatsu shows such as Thunder Mask (1972) and Zone Fighter (1973), and while Ryfle and Godziszewski at least briefly touch on the content of some of these episodes, and spend a bit more time on the Return of Ultraman (1971) pilot episode Honda directed, nevertheless the overall attitude one picks up from the text is of disdain towards TV—from Honda, yes, but also perhaps from the authors themselves. Ryfle and Godziszewski note that television at the time was not highly thought of… but given the low opinion many both in the West and East have had about Honda’s films, I would have thought a frank and honest appraisal of his television work would have also been in order. I certainly would have found such an endeavor worthwhile, and given that the authors afforded the unusually short film Night School the full treatment, I sure wish the TV shows could have received similar attention.

Also… the book is just kind of big. Ishiro Honda is big enough that I found it something of a pain to tote around with me, and so reading the book became a skosh inconvenient. To be honest, though, many other kaiju books have size issues, so this is just a minor quibble—and folks can just purchase the book on Kindle now anyway.

So… do I have to say more? Ishiro Honda is really a great book. While I can’t speak for Godziszewski, this work is also a huge improvement over the already great work I have read from Ryfle in the past. No, it’s not perfect, and there are some aspects of the text I would like to see edited and built upon, but overall, really, this is the kind of serious, competently put-together literature that Godzilla fans dream about. August Ragone’s Eiji Tsuburaya may have the better visuals, but Ryfle and Godziszewski have the better book overall. A landmark achievement with admiral scholarly acumen, this is really the kind of high-quality work on the field I would love to see more of.