Book: Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda - Revised and Expanded Edition


Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda

English Book Title

Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda - Revised and Expanded Edition


Peter H. Brothers







By: Nicholas Driscoll

After I completed my review of the first edition of Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men some years ago and had it published on Toho Kingdom, I felt guilty about what I felt was the overly harsh tone of the review. I believe that that older version of the book deserves much of the criticism which I gave it, but I still regret the tone of my review, which was somewhat snarky and a bit too sharp-tongued. Ever since that review, I have consciously tried to write reviews with a softer tone (with a few exceptions) because many of these books are written by dedicated fans who are pouring out their hearts on the page. Even if the books are not perfect, I felt I should show a bit more respect to my fellow fans and their hard work while still being honest in my assessment. When discussing these issues with another Godzilla enthusiast, he encouraged me to revisit my review. I intended to do so years ago with the release of the second edition of Brothers’ book, but just never got around to finishing reading the thing.

With the recent release of Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle’s book on Ishiro Honda, Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, I finally took the time to finish reading the second edition and finally now I am setting aside some time to write a review of Brothers’ book in preparation for reviewing Ryfle and Godziszewski’s work. I will endeavor to be fully honest in this review as well, minus the snark. Which does not mean I am not going to criticize, because despite the revisions, the revised and expanded edition still has some significant flaws.

 First, what are you getting when you buy this book? The basic outline of the content is the same as the last version, only more. The book starts with two chapters of background details, with one chapter featuring biographies of some of the other large players in the Toho fold—the Papa (Tomoyuki Tanaka), the Magician (Eiji Tsuburaya), and the Maestro (Akira Ifukube), plus some shorter details about other Toho stalwarts and Honda’s friendship with Akira Kurosawa. These details are followed by a lengthy discussion of some of the common traits to be found in Honda’s fantasy films—common themes and shots and such. Then we get a long chapter on Honda’s life, mostly focusing on details outside of the movie world (again, one of my favorite parts of the book, despite some embarrassing errors--Brothers refers to the essay Honda wrote about comfort women with what appears to be perfect ignorance as to what the essay is really about). However, of course the majority of the book focuses on the fantastic movies of Honda’s oeuvre, with one chapter dedicated to each movie (Brothers does not include a separate chapter for the re-edited versions of released in the West, such as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! from 1956). Each chapter is very detailed and very lengthy, and here in some ways Brothers has an edge on the newer book by Ryfle and Godziszewski.

In Ryfle and Godziszewski’s book, most of the chapters cover several films, and while the science-fiction films often get more detail than the dramas and romance films Honda did in R & G’s work, Brothers’ book goes into far greater detail concerning the science fiction film. Ryfle and Godziszewski’s book is 336 pages and has eight fairly short chapters before directly covering Honda’s films, and doesn’t get to Godzilla (1954) until page 83. Brothers, meanwhile, has a chapter on Godzilla by page 72. Ryfle and Godziszewski’s chapter on the original is actually longer than Brothers’ chapter (at least strictly counting pages). However, later chapters of Ryfle and Godziszewski’s book include multiple movies, with one chapter covering the final six of Honda’s sci-fi films over the span of 25 pages (King Kong Escapes from 1967 through Terror of Mechagodzilla in 1975). By contrast, Brothers’ book devotes an individual chapter to each of those films, covering 71 pages or so. Thus, for sheer detail on the individual science fiction films, Brothers’ book has the edge. How the content of those pages compares is another matter that we will get to shortly.

However, before I get to my criticisms of Brothers’ second edition, I want to take some time to go over the positives—and there are a number of impressive strengths to this book. As I was reading on my Kindle app, I often highlighted interesting stories, facts, and details included in the book, such as how Brothers reports that the lava in Rodan (1956) was made from dyed boiled oatmeal; or a dire story of the making of The Mysterians (1957) in which the crew suffered so terribly under the incredibly hot lights that salt was extruding from their pores, with the staff going so far as to provide salt for suffering crewmembers to lick in one corner of the studio! I also found my interest piqued by an anecdote attributed to Arikawa on Battle in Outer Space (1959) about the trickiness of using (and hiding!) the wires used to manipulate props, and a story gleaned from an interview with Teruyoshi Nakano in which apparently Kumi Mizuno fainted on set while performing a scary sequence in one of her films.These and many other stories and details add tremendous entertainment value for fans, and make the book a decent English-language resource.

Brothers also addressed some of the complaints I had from the first edition. There are fewer grammar mistakes and the like (though I still caught very many), and the naming conventions he uses for the movie titles are not as confusing. Though Brothers still insists on giving his own translations of the movie titles, they are not nearly as bewildering or inconsistent here. Brothers still inconsistently uses Radon instead of Rodan and Baran instead of Varan, while yet referring to Godzilla as “Godzilla” instead of “Gojira” and Mothra as “Mothra” instead of “Mosura,” but that inconsistency is a minor gripe. I complained about a lack of an index in the back of the first edition—and the second edition still does not have one. It’s not as big of a problem here, though, if you buy the Kindle version, which helps search for specific keywords more easily. I complained in my previous review that Brothers does not bother to give a synopsis of the movies before critiquing them, and that issue remains as well, though perhaps because I anticipated it, that issue did not bother me as much this time. It still made some aspects of Brothers’ critiques confusing at times.

But… this book still has some bigger issues, at least from the viewpoint of this reader. Enough that I highlighted dozens upon dozens of passages, sometimes just small mistakes (“white-color professionals,” page 107), but more often passages that were confusing, incoherent, overlong on description, or slavishly praising the movies to excess. Over and over again I highlighted particular sentences and passages with the note, “huh?” or “what?” or other expressions of confusion, and so my notes would swing back and forth between surprise at some interesting factual tidbit or story to annoyance with a poorly constructed paragraph and back again.

Just to be clear, I am not trying to be mean by saying that some of Brothers’ writing is incoherent or poorly constructed. Let’s look at an example of a paragraph without a clear topic, on page 132, concerning H-Man (1958) so you can get an idea of what I mean:

"Ideas would crop-up again in future films such as men investigating a derelict ship and discovering the vanished captain’s log (Matango), and for the first time in a Honda film we see reporters being barred from obtaining information form the authorities. One of the film’s oddest paradoxes concerns Chikako, a woman whose morals are no better than the gangsters; after all, she works in the same cabaret that houses and shelters several of them, and although both Tominaga and Sakata ultimately consider her as a “good woman,” the fact is that Chikako was not only on intimate terms with the deceased hoodlum Masaki, but also with waiter Shimazaki who works as a go-between and informer for the gangs."

The first sentence of this paragraph sets up the topic of the paragraph as “ideas that would crop-up again in future films.” We are given a couple of examples, and then the topic abruptly changes less than halfway through the paragraph to focus on the character of Chikako, and how she is a paradox—which has nothing to do with ideas that would later appear in future Honda films. The paragraph is incoherent—not that it makes absolutely no sense, but that the structure of the paragraph is flawed on a basic level which disrupts flow and lends the reading a disjointed, confusing flavor. There are quite a few paragraphs like this (with a particularly egregious example on page 337), and while many readers might not mind, for me again it marks the book as being dismayingly amateurish. For contrast, I only found one paragraph like this in Ryfle and Godziszewski’s Ishiro Honda.

Next, just as I noted in my review of the first edition, Brothers has a tendency to give long-winded descriptions of the musical scores of each movie. For me, these descriptions seem to be mostly pointless because often they are primarily descriptions rather than analysis. For example, on page 167, about The Human Vapor (1960):

"Low brass is countered with high-pitched violins, sinister horns, cymbals and drums marking the “Stark Terror at the Mikuni Bank,” while softly-tapped timpani and muted coronets are joined by short bowstrings in “Crime Wave” when the clerk’s dead body is discovered. Music is not heard again until Okamoto is walking to Fujichiyo’s house in “Solo Investigation,” amusingly scored with clarinet, muted horns and low oboe with a dash of coronets and tweeting flutes."

For me… I just don’t care which instruments are used in each song, and I don’t see why it is important to list them when writing about the movies. Just giving a list of instruments for particular songs does not give much insight into why that song was composed the way it was, or whether the song was appropriate or good or bad in any way. What little analysis Brothers provides often is not clear, either. In this paragraph, Brothers describes the song “Solo Investigation” as being “amusingly scored with clarinet.” Why is that amusing? Should it be amusing? That is to say, is this a critique? Did it fit the mood of the scene? Why should we care if the song includes tweeting flutes? Are the muted horns a thoughtful inclusion, or did they make the music worse? Was the “dash of coronets” emblematic of the composer’s style, or a departure? While I was sometimes interested to read about how an individual composer used the themes for different characters in imaginative ways in the soundtracks for the films, paragraphs like this one often struck me as wasted space, and every time I reached the music section of each review, I gritted my teeth and read through it as fast as I could.

I also want to spend just a moment on the tone of the writing. While it is perfectly understandable that Brothers is a huge fan of Honda’s movies, at times his praise of these films (and his disdain for science-fiction from Hollywood) came across as pandering. Sometimes his praise of particular films just feels completely over the top, such as when Brothers writes that the ending of The Human Vapor is “more tragic than any ever written by Shakespeare” (page 165). At other times, Brothers is absolutely disdainful of some of the best science fiction films coming out of Hollywood, such as a snide dismissal of Jack Arnold’s films (including such classics as 1954's Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1955's Tarantula, and 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man) as “flatly directed and quickly produced low-budget exploitation pictures made for the teenage drive-in crowd” (page 159). Having recently rewatched Creature from the Black Lagoon, I was surprised at just how much I was caught up in the tension of the film, and the costume of the Creature is in my view absolutely fantastic—there is a reason the Creature has become so iconic, even to the point of inspiring a certain recent Academy Award winning movie. Again, I understand that many Godzilla fans have long been frustrated by the brusque dismissal of their favorite films by many in the West, but this section just feels like an emotional reaction rather than a clear-headed critique.

When it comes down to it, I really admire all the hard work that Brothers has put into this book, even though I cannot heartily endorse the final product even in its revised edition. Especially with the release of Ryfle and Godziszewski’s Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, which is all-around a much more polished and professional effort, Brothers’ book falls short simply because it is still choked with errors and often just poor writing. Dedicated fans will definitely find a lot of anecdotes and facts that are surprising here, but I have to be honest—I just had a really frustrating time reading through this book again. I feel bad writing this because I want to encourage Brothers to continue writing and I really wish him the best—I just hope he gets a really good editor for his next book.