Ed Godziszewski: Regarding Ishiro Honda

Patrick Galvan: For this Toho Kingdom interview, I am speaking once again with Ed Godziszewski, author of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Godzilla, editor/publisher of the magazine Japanese Giants, and provider of several informative audio commentaries for tokusatsu films. He is also co-author of the new biography Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, which he wrote with frequent collaborator Steve Ryfle. And it is this biography we will be talking about today. Ed, thank you for joining me.

Ed Godziszewski: Thank you for having me.

Galvan: First of all, my congratulations on the release of the book. It is wonderful. As you and Steve have discussed elsewhere, the idea for this book came after the two of you met Ishiro Honda’s son, Ryuji, while working on the documentary Bringing Godzilla Down to Size. Why did Ryuji feel you and Steve would be the right ones to tell his father’s story?

Godziszewski: Well, I don’t know that he necessarily thought Steve and I were the right two guys, but when we talked to him at first, his main interest was to get somebody from the west who would write a book. He said all the information and writings that had been done about his father in Japan were basically all the same thing: they all had the same voice, they all had the same things to say. There was really no fresh perspective. So he wanted to see something different, and he also wanted to get the western view on his father’s work as well. But most important was just to get something to contrast against all the things that had been written about his father in Japan.

Galvan: One of the great things about the biography is that it covers Ishiro Honda’s entire filmmaking career in tremendous detail. Now we have an opportunity to learn about the other types of films Honda made, not just his science fiction and fantasy genre pictures. And that’s a treat since, as is discussed the book, most of these films are not commercially available, even in Japan. If you were to…I don’t know how realistic this is…but if you were to arrange a screening for a handful of these lesser-known films, which ones would you show to people?

Godziszewski: Well, there’s no doubt his first dramatic film, The Blue Pearl (1951), would be one of the main choices. Just the fact that it is his first dramatic directorial effort and he wrote the screenplay for that one. So that particular film has significance in a number of ways because it was his first film and it was also basically a solo effort on his part. It has insight into the man and his thinking; it gives you an idea of his early technique. He pretty much pioneered the underwater camera that was used in this film and that was the first time that kind of filming was done in Japan. So that itself makes it somewhat of a special experience.

Ryo Ikebe in Farewell RabaulOther films I would want to include? Certainly, Farewell Rabaul (1954) is one that comes to mind—that one being a war film that Honda made. But it’s a war film that’s basically an anti-war film. It very vividly illustrates his feeling on war and especially the Japanese military and their complete disregard for human life. It’s a very powerful film, and it has a lot of good performances in it, too.

And then for somewhat lighter fare…I would say one called Song for a Bride (1958), which is a nice ensemble piece with very nice, light, warmhearted comedy. And it has a lot of familiar actors—the Toho regulars appear in it—so it does have that little angle for people who are familiar with his special effects films. But it’s just a really cute, amusing film. None of his comedies are over-the-top, hysterical, or ridiculous. That’s not his style. They’re very nice, warmhearted films in which the comedy is derived from just situations and the personalities of the characters. It’s a really nice little film that I enjoy a lot.

There’s several others, but if I were to pick, you know, a couple from each different type of film that he made, those would probably be the three that I would select right off.

Galvan: Now, there were two Honda pictures you were not able to see when researching and writing the book. One was a film he made for Daiei called Night School (1956). That film actually got a DVD release in Japan a few months before the biography was published. I’m curious. Since it is now commercially available, have you seen Night School and if so, what are your thoughts on that film?

Godziszewski: Well, I have gotten a copy of it from Amazon Japan; and I actually brought it to L.A. this last weekend, hoping Steve and I would get a chance to watch it; but we never wound up having a chance to do that. So I’ve only seen about half of the film. And I have to say this is one of those films where it’s actually more difficult to understand without some kind of assistance from somebody who speaks Japanese. I know what the basic story is, but to really enjoy the film for what it is and get some of the nuance out of it, it’s something I think I need to see with my wife or discuss it—as we did with many of the other films—with Honda’s granddaughter, Yuuko. She helped shepherd us through a lot of the other non-special effects films that we were able to get copies of.

So, unfortunately, I really can’t offer you my informed about it yet.

Galvan: The other film you weren’t able to see was his second documentary Story of a Co-Op (1949), which I believe there are no known extant copies of—period!—right?

Godziszewski: That is correct.

Galvan: And that’s very unfortunate. Jumping back to Night School, the book contains insight on that film from Shusuke Kaneko, whom tokusatsu fans know for directing the Heisei Gamera trilogy and Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001). How did you get Kaneko’s thoughts on Night School for this book?

Godziszewski: He had been at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, where Night School and a couple others of Honda’s earlier works were screened. So, I’d known he had seen it. In fact, I think it was on one of my trips, maybe three or four years ago, where I was in Japan and I just happened to meet him after dinner, when I was out with Norman England. So, knowing there wasn’t any other way for us to get some commentary on the film, I thought: “Well, he’s a very sharp individual and has good instincts about film. If we could get some comments from him, that would be the next best thing.” And I believe also—now as it comes to my memory—he did a Facebook post about the Yamagata film festival as well. And I think we got some of his comments from his Facebook post about that film.

Ishiro Honda at a museum

Galvan: Continuing the topic of contributors, I was of course very delighted to read all the original quotes providing insight into Honda’s personality and what went on during the making of his films. One guy who really stood out to me was Seiji Tani, who had been an assistant director in the later part of Honda’s career. Tani seems like a very outspoken, very opinionated guy. He minced no words when it came to Russ Tamblyn’s acting and behavior during the making of The War of the Gargantuas (1966), for instance. Would you say he was a very valuable contributor because he’s so willing to speak his mind?

Godziszewski: Oh, there’s no doubt about it. He definitely had a different approach to this kind of thing than most anybody else you’re going to find in Japan. A lot of people there are very reserved, and it’s hard to get some kind of comment out of them—especially something that might be perceived as being critical of other people. But Tani’s basically a straight shooter and if something was on his mind, he said it. He was very direct about it as well. And, of course, if you’re trying to get some information about a particular topic, it’s helpful to get that kind of person who can give you some good answers because, yes, we got good stuff from other people, but you always kind of feel maybe they’re couching their comments or you’re not getting the full story.

Although, maybe that’s more true of other topics. In the case of Honda’s personality, I honestly, very seriously, can’t imagine there was anybody out there who had anything ill to say about him personality-wise. None whatsoever. It’s amazing how universal everyone’s opinion is about the guy. And the stories they have to tell all basically give you the same kind of impression of who Honda was as a person. There is not a person—amazing as it may seem to believe—who had anything even remotely negative or unflattering about Honda’s character to say.

Galvan: Yeah, it’s funny he and Akira Kurosawa were so close. Temperamentally, they seem to have been total opposites of each other.

Godziszewski: Oh, yes. Yes. And in fact, one of the assistants in Kurosawa’s company was Masahiko Kumada, who was probably the second-most valuable source for information for the book. Because he—for reasons even unbeknownst to him—was somebody that Kurosawa picked to be one of his assistants. And he spent a tremendous amount of time with those two guys—Honda and Kurosawa—when they were in their little enclave in Gotenba. And he saw a lot of personal interaction between them, probably more than any other person around, including either guy’s wife. He saw those two together constantly, and he had an awful lot of interesting stories to tell us. (As you can imagine, there’s a lot more than what’s in the book.) But he was also quite invaluable in giving us a lot of insight into the dynamic between these two guys. And even in his estimation, he’s never seen anything like that in his life: two guys who were so opposite and yet they got along famously. And he actually did attribute a lot of that to the fact that Honda’s personality allowed that to be the case—just because he could absorb some of the tougher things that would go on between them and not lash out or anything like that; he was just that kind of guy who was able to take it in and deal with it rather than get into an argument or get to the point where there would be some hard feelings between the two of them. In Kumada’s observation, he never saw a single moment that was like that.

Galvan: And there is also that interview partially printed in the book in which Kurosawa said the reason why he and Honda never had any professional fallings-out was because of Honda’s good nature.

Godziszewski: Yes.

Galvan: Was there anybody you tried to interview but were not able to, for whatever reason?

Godziszewski: Well, of course, we reached out to a lot of different people, and two we were hoping to get some comment from—even if it was in writing—was The Peanuts (Emi and Yumi Ito, who played the Shobijin in their first three film appearances). Actually, they were number one on the list of interview subjects that I put out there when we first started coming up with: “Okay, who are we going to try and track down and see what we can get from?” I would’ve loved to have gotten some kind of comments from them. But they have always been very consistent since the day they retired many, many years ago. They basically have never taken on any interview requests of any type. They’ve never done any kind of personal appearances after they retired. And, you know, they just, unfortunately, didn’t make an exception for us. And I certainly respect that, but I was, at the same time, deeply disappointed.

Another person we tried to get in touch with was the child actor from All Monsters Attack (1969).

Ishiro Honda at a museum

Galvan: Tomonori Yazaki.

Godziszewski: Right. And actually, as we found out, we’re not the only people who have tried to reach him. But…nobody, it seems, has been able to track that kid down where he is today. I think that could’ve made an extremely fascinating interview, because he was old enough, as a child at the time, to be able to remember his experience making films, even though he didn’t get into a film career. I think it would’ve been really, really insightful if we could’ve found out how it was on the set for him as a child actor working for Mr. Honda. But, sadly, we weren’t able to find him. And, to this day, nobody has.

However, we haven’t given up on that. We’re still trying to find him, and maybe someday we’ll be lucky and be able to track him down.

Galvan: That seems to be a common problem with child actors in these films. I remember when Steve and Stuart Galbraith IV did their audio commentary for the recalled Media Blasters release of Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), they tried to find Hiroyuki Kawase, the child actor in that movie, but he seemed to have vanished into thin air as well.

Godziszewski: Yes.

Galvan: Funny enough, since we’re talking about an actor in one of Honda’s films, that sort of segues into my next topic. I told Steve this story when I interviewed him. For the longest time, I didn’t have a very high opinion of the actor Ryo Ikebe. I’d seen him in Battle in Outer Space (1959), Gorath (1962), and The War in Space (1977), and he struck me, in all three of those films, as bland, dry, and inexpressive. I’d assumed he became a star because of his looks. But then, last year, I finally had the chance to see him in Honda’s Farewell Rabaul (1954). And his performance, simply put, blew me away. He was absolutely wonderful in that movie and gave a very powerful performance. And I’ve since seen him in other non-science fiction films, in which he’s regularly proven to be a very, very good actor.

Having said that, when you regard certain actors in Honda’s stock company—Ryo Ikebe, Hiroshi Koizumi, Yumi Shirakawa, etc.—would you say their non-genre work for Honda better displayed what they could do as actors?

Godziszewski: Well, I think this phenomenon you’re talking about—it largely depends on what the vehicle is that they’re appearing in. I mean, if you want to talk about Ikebe, for example: yeah, Battle in Outer Space is not a good way to judge his acting ability because even though he’s the star of that film, he really doesn’t anything much, at all, to do. At the same time, as you very clearly pointed out, Farewell Rabaul has a remarkable performance by him. He really has a chance to shine there, and you see it! So what could he have done in Battle in Outer Space that would’ve made him a more memorable character? I don’t know that there is really anything he could’ve done with that.

But, yeah, you’ll see terrific performances by him in some of the other films he made for Honda. If I look at his performance in The Blue Pearl (1951), I don’t think he’s especially remarkable. But then again, there’s a film called An Echo Calls You (1959), where he plays this real stiff-upper-lip bus driver, a real by-the-book guy. He’s always bantering and having some kind of conflict with the girl who’s the assistant on the bus. It’s a really nice little film where he gets to show off any number of different acting techniques: he’s really good at underplaying the role and he can even pull off a little bit of comedy.

As I said, I think it’s merely a matter of the vehicle and the writing of the character for him. Because, when he’s given the chance to shine, he does.

You bring up Koizumi and Yumi Shirakawa, and it’s pretty much the same thing. I mean, if you want to judge Yumi Shirakawa on The Mysterians (1957), for example: Okay, well, she’s basically just a damsel in distress and she doesn’t look like much of anything other than, of course, a beautiful woman.

Ishiro Honda at a museum

But you see her in other stuff…one of my favorite performances from her is in Good Luck to These Two (1957). And actually, Koizumi is in that film as well. They’re both really quite, quite good—very genuine and real people in ordinary situations. They have that “every person” quality that makes them very relatable to the audience. And I think that serves their performances very well, especially for the types of things that Honda would have them do.

Galvan: Good Luck to These Two is actually the film I really most want to see, because it sounds semi-autobiographical in terms of reflecting things in Honda’s personal life. His wife’s father wasn’t keen on the idea of them getting married and they ended up going against the wishes of her family in order to be together, like the two leads in this film.

Godziszewski: Yeah, the early part of that film, where they get married and the parents are, on the surface, very disapproving; yet, at the same time, they’re sneaking around in the background at the temple where they’ve gotten married—because they really want to see it personally but they outwardly can’t show that. So you’ve got Takashi Shimura and Shizue Natsukawa just kind of lurking in the shadows and watching and you can tell that it breaks their heart that they aren’t able to openly participate in that ceremony. And yes, that certainly has to have had a lot of resonance with Honda and the way things turned out in his personal life.

Galvan: When I interviewed you last year, we spoke about your magazine Japanese Giants which has been—and still is—on indefinite hold. You told me that if you’re ever able to continue the magazine, the next issue would cover Frankenstein vs. Baragon (1965) and The War of the Gargantuas (1966) and that you had a fair amount of research material on those two films. Did any of your research for that particular issue get repurposed for the biography?

Godziszewski: I wouldn’t say it’s been repurposed for the book. A lot of the stuff that I had prepared was more like background information on early versions of the story—I had the full Frankenstein vs. Godzilla script translated, so I have a lot of information on that. There’s a lot of special effects and technical stuff that I’ve been able to dig up on these two films. I also have seen a copy of the original English language script for The War of the Gargantuas, since apparently that was written in English first. It’s actually very, very similar to the finished version—just a few minor differences, really. So it’s things like that. I can’t say that I had a lot of background from Honda himself on these two films that got repurposed into the book. Probably a couple quotes; but beyond that, nothing significant.

Ishiro Honda at a museum

Galvan: Well, maybe someday the fans will look at their toy money and say, “Hey, I can actually spend this on more valuable things every once in a while, such as information about these movies!” and the magazine can continue.

Godziszewski: That would be wonderful, but I’m not holding my breath at the same time. I think the most likely place that we could ever use all the information I’ve gathered so far would be if anybody ever decides to put one or both of these films out on a new DVD release, or on a Blu-ray. There would be the opportunity for a commentary track. I think that’s probably the most likely scenario where this information would be something I could use quite extensively.

Galvan: Well, let’s keep our fingers crossed. Maybe that day will come soon.

Godziszewski: I hope so.

Galvan: This is a question I asked Steve, and I wanted to run it past you as well. Would you say All Monsters Attack (1969) aka Godzilla’s Revenge is currently the one glimpse western audiences have into the other side of Honda’s career, since it’s primarily a movie about ordinary people?

Godziszewski: Well, you know, at least in my opinion, a lot of the science fiction films feature characters who are basically ordinary people—they’re just faced with extraordinary circumstances. Honda always tried to have his characters be very true to life, very much somebody who the audience could identify with. And then he would take his drama from the way these people—ordinary people, like you or I—how they would react to these amazing situations. So I wouldn’t say it’s the only view outside of his non-special effects films of ordinary life.

But, at the same time, I don’t think it’s unfair to say: yes, as far as movies available in the west, this is probably the most complete look at him showing what ordinary people under ordinary circumstances are like. The monster part is all in the kid’s imagination, so that’s the only part that has to do with special effects and fantasy-type situations. So that’s a fair thing to say in that respect.

But I think it’s important to take note of the fact that Honda tried to make—in all of his films—the main characters ordinary people. And I think that’s why audiences take to his films a little better and why I think they’re a bit more timeless than, say, other films since the mid-70s that have come out in science fiction and fantasy. He really endeavored to make the audience identify with the people in the film, even if they were faced with these outlandish situations.

Ishiro Honda at a museum

Galvan: I was rather happy to see, in the book, a quote where Honda called Godzilla’s Revenge one of his favorite films that he made.

Godziszewski: Yeah, and certainly you get a feeling in watching the film and actually looking at some of the pictures from the set that he really had a great time doing this. And I don’t think that it’s easy for directors to work with kids. I can imagine how tough that must be. And there’s not too many people who can do it well. I mean, how many Spielbergs are there that can really deal with kids and kids’ mindsets and get good performances out of them? Not many. I think this is one case that shows Honda probably had it in him. It’s just that, in most of the films he worked on, he never really had the chance to do that with a child actor. Mothra (1961) is the only other film I can think of where a little kid played any kind of prominent part in the film.

Galvan: And then they decided to write him out of the last third of the film. [laughs]

Godziszewski: Well, yeah. But that’s okay. I think that, even if it had played out as originally written, that kid would’ve just been a child equivalent of a damsel in distress. He would’ve been the kid who happened to be the unfortunate kidnaping victim of Nelson.

Galvan: Yeah, he wouldn’t have had the character arc that Ichiro does in Godzilla’s Revenge.

Godziszewski: Yeah. Ichiro is a much more fully drawn character, and because of that, he can really shine and you get a really natural performance out of Yazaki. I don’t think any kid who’s ever watched the film ever said, “Oh, this kid is an actor.” No, it’s just like: “Oh, this is a story about a kid just like me.” Because he reflects that; he’s very good at evoking the “every kid” kind of character.

Ishiro Honda at a museum

Galvan: Would you say this film has been given somewhat of an unfair shake in terms of reception by fans?

Godziszewski: I don’t know if it’s unfair shake, but I think that’s a film in which everybody’s reaction to it is shaped by the circumstances under which you’ve seen it. My case is a great example. When I saw it, I think I was seventeen or eighteen years old, and it was just after seeing Destroy All Monsters (1968) and Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965) also known as Monster Zero. So here I am, in my late teens, and I’m ready to see another really amazing monster film; and instead, it’s this film about a little kid. When you’re a teenager and you’re watching this, you’re like: “What the hell is this? Where did this come from?” I was just stunned at what this movie was. And I was just not mentally prepared to see anything like that. And this is, of course, back in the pre-internet days: the first time you knew a film was coming out was the week the ad for it appeared in the newspaper. So nobody was prepared, nobody knew anything about it in advance. You just get the Friday paper and you open it up and “Wow! There’s a Godzilla movie! They made another one! It’s in the theater! Time to go see it!” That was how you learned about a film back in those days, and so I had no idea what this film was going to be like. (And they didn’t advertise it as the kind of film it actually was.) So I was expecting another Monster Zero/Destroy All Monsters-type movie, and that was what I did not get. And so I hated it as a result. And hated it for several years.

But, eventually, when I got married and had my own kid and I put the film on for her to see when she was something like three years old…I’m watching it with her and I’m thinking, “Wait a minute, this is really wonderful!” I can see it through her eyes and understand now what the film is really supposed to be all about and what I should have gotten out of it—but my mind was set against that at the time because I was coming at the film from a completely different angle. I didn’t consider what it was that this film was really all about. But, yeah, seeing it then with my daughter, I did a total reassessment of the film.

And for other people, this was one of the first films they saw when they were kids; and so, of course, they have a much more fond memory of it and a much higher opinion of it. So I think the circumstances under which you were exposed to this film really go a long way towards determining how you evaluate it.

Galvan: Yeah, that’s probably true. The first time I saw it was through a DVD bundle pack which also had movies like Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) and Rodan (1956), so it was sort of the black sheep of that group. It took me quite a few years before I became open-minded enough to judge Godzilla’s Revenge on its own terms and appreciate it for what it was trying to do in the first place.

Godziszewski: And it’s really funny, too, the circumstances under which I saw the film when it first came out here: it was on a triple feature at a drive-in. It was Monster Zero, The War of the Gargantuas, and Godzilla’s Revenge. And this had come out at the time where I did not have my own car yet. I didn’t have access to my brother’s car, so all I could do was ask my dad, “Dad, would you take me to see this, because I really, really would like to go see it. It’s a new Godzilla movie.” And, to make matters much worse, it was in the middle of January. It was a weekend, and on this particular night when we went, it was below zero! It was so damn cold! So we get there and, fortunately, Monster Zero was first, then there was The War of the Gargantuas. And we’re freezing, but I’m enjoying the heck out of it. And actually, my dad, to his credit, he really liked the first two films—especially The War of the Gargantuas he thought was really good.

And then, the last film! So we’ve been sitting there for three hours, freezing, watching these monster movies…and then Godzilla’s Revenge comes on…. “What is this? I’m freezing my ass off out here! My dad is being so nice to sit here for all this time with me, and then this thing comes on!” So not only am I embarrassed for myself, I’m embarrassed I have to put my dad through this while it’s below zero outside. And so, actually, about halfway through the film—I think it might’ve been after the second dream sequence—I just told my dad, “Let’s go home.” I thought I’ve got to have mercy on him because he’s really making the extra effort to do this for me, and I couldn’t subject him to that anymore with it being as cold as it was.

Ishiro Honda at a museum

So I didn’t even get to finish seeing the film until a couple weeks later, when it came to one of the regular neighborhood theaters. I dragged my sister to go see it; I thought maybe she’d find it at least funny. And actually, the real bonus of that was it was on a double feature with They Call Me Trinity (1970). I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that, but it’s really quite a funny Western. And even though we both didn’t like Godzilla’s Revenge, the whole evening was saved because They Call Me Trinity was wonderful. We both had a lot of fun with that.

But, yeah, it actually took me two more weeks before I had the nerve to sit through the whole thing, but at least it was in the comfort of a nice warm theater.

Galvan: That’s a great story, thanks for sharing that with us.

One thing I really appreciated about the biography was that it’s not strictly a “Honda did this, Honda did that” type of thing. The book devotes plenty of page space to highlighting his collaborators and what they brought to the table. We all associate Honda with Akira Ifukube and Eiji Tsuburaya, but could you take a few minutes to talk about some of his less-talked-about collaborators and what they brought to Honda’s movies?

Godziszewski: Well, there’s no doubt his assistant directors were like his right-hand men. In fact, Koji Kajita, who worked on so many films with him, he was actually described as kind of like the director’s wife—he was almost like a second wife—because he’s got to understand the mood of the director and really try and anticipate what he needs and do what he can to help him focus on what he’s doing. And Kajita was especially good at that. We heard that from many of the other staff people, not to mention Mrs. Honda. Mrs. Honda had a great deal of respect for Kajita and how well he helped her husband out in his work.

And, of course, cameraman Hajime Koizumi. He worked with Honda on a substantial portion of his career. He was a guy Honda had great trust in. For the most part, Honda wasn’t the type of director who was always looking through the viewfinder and trying to control how things were being photographed: he left a lot of that up to Koizumi; the two of them had a very similar sense; and he got a very distinct visual style out of Koizumi’s camerawork. I really think that helps the look of his pictures throughout the late 50s and the early to mid-60s.

Ishiro Honda at a museum

And, of course, there’s the screenwriters, who maybe have the biggest influence on the director’s work, because they’re actually writing the stories the director’s going to film. And without a good story, you don’t have much of anything. You know, special effects only take you so far. I’m always saying basically the same thing: “Why do Honda’s films seem to be more timeless? Why do they age well? Why do people like them for a much longer period than, say, the films of the 80s and 90s or even the 2000s?” It’s because they had really good, basic, simple stories. They weren’t complicated Kurosawa epics of tremendous dimension, but they were solid stories. The solid story then was given to the director, who turned it into a solid film. I think those are the kind of factors that can easily get overlooked. But somebody like the screenwriter is indispensable to a director whose career is going to be successful.

Galvan: Having done several years of research for this biography and having worked on it for so very, very long, obviously you could not cram everything you found into this one book. So, having said that, are there any stories or facts or anecdotes—anything that came out of your research but could not fit into the book—that you want to share with us now?

Godziszewski: It was just like when we were making our documentary film Bringing Godzilla Down to Size. Your first cut winds up being ridiculously long. And so we have to start cutting and cutting and cutting. It’s hard to choose. I describe the process of editing the documentary as: Every time we cut something we had in the film originally, it’s like killing babies. How do you pick? You don’t want to do it. You don’t want to kill any baby, because they’re all things you helped create and you want to keep it all. But in the interest of making it something manageable and something people will stick with, you have to cut and you have to edit. You have to do that to make a compelling narrative. We’re not in the business of writing Encyclopedia Britannica. Editing is a talent, and it’s not an easy talent to come by.

So we couldn’t include everything, but here are some unused excerpts from interviews we conducted:

Hisao Kurosawa (son of Akira Kurosawa): He was always thinking about what was best for my father, what is the way that he can make a situation where Kurosawa would do the best to make his film. […] Godzilla actually is not my image of him. If I was older back then, and Honda was younger, as a producer I would definitely have loved to send him to make something like more heartwarming films.

Masahiko Kumada: [M]aybe Honda had a part of him where if he thought no, it was absolutely no. The yes/no was very clear and strong within Honda, although he never showed it on the surface. So oftentimes people misunderstand. But Honda would say things directly and firmly when needed. Kurosawa thinks this way too, but he tended to show it on his face. Honda would not show, but would react against what he did not believe in. He was so serious, including the way he lived his life. […] People who say yes even if they thought no, but Honda would say no.  This is probably one of the reasons why Kurosawa respected him…

Ishiro Honda at a museum
Image Courtesy of Honda Film Inc.

Takashi Koizumi (assistant director on Ran [1985]): Honda loved beer before, during, and after dinner. Kurosawa would get red after a glass of beer, then whiskey for him. One with beer, one with whiskey. Honda rarely stayed up all night to drink, but they understood each other’s pace, so that was not a problem at all. No arguments either, just conversations and discussions. They loved baseball too. After dinner, Honda would voice out his feelings to the TV. Kurosawa would just watch quietly. After the game, Kurosawa would say “so let’s now drink” and Honda would join him. They really did not discuss business together actually. They never watched movies together in Gotenba. Just baseball, or they’d listen to music. Classical music was both of their preferences… They would blast it in Gotenba because they cannot in the city. Vivaldi, Karajan…

Seiji Tani: It was just around [1963] that the quality of movies started to decline. There was the Musekinin (Crazy Cats) series with Hitoshi Ueki, which were successful. But those were not “major box office hits”. Rather, [special effects films] was the only sort of films Toho had left to make. They made things like double feature films also, but nothing else they put out succeeded. This is something we didn’t dare say back in the days, but you know what us staff were all thinking? Of course, everyone wants to make a hit film. We all want to make it succeed. But the staff then didn’t feel this way. We were saying, “A film like this is better off not succeeding.” Every single staff member was saying this. Which also means that everyone felt these types of film were not what we were really there to make. So I can’t even call them successes. They were so flimsy. And because the schedule was tight, they’d just tell us to make them quickly. It’s different if you see these movies now, or to review them as a part of that time period. But for us who were working on them back then, they weren’t even B’s, they were completely C movies. Of course, there is nothing wrong with entertainment films and it is natural for the company to pursue this genre, in order to bring in more audiences. The problem lies more in the system. We never did this in Toho, but let’s say there’s a person here, and the lighting over here. Naturally, there would be a shadow here. A shadow appearing already means that the communication between the cameraman and the lighting crew is off. Toei had no qualm about things like this. If you watch their period films, you can see the microphone behind the wall! They didn't care at all.  Fortunately, no matter how quickly we made a film or no matter how busy it got, this never ever happened at Toho. If the audience is pulled out back into reality during the film, it’s all over.

Koji Kajita: The way Honda made decisions was what distinguished him from other directors. Again, the war experience probably was the reason. If you do not make the decision, your soldiers will die. The things we learned in the army helped in these areas, no words needed here.

Galvan: Thank you so much, this is all wonderful to read! Once again, Tani really comes across as a very free-spoken guy and a fantastic source for information.

My next question actually points to another little factoid. As some people know and as is relayed in the book, Honda was offered the chance to direct The Return of Godzilla (1984), but turned it down. But something you found out in your research that was not mentioned in the text was: Honda actually recommended Koji Hashimoto, a former assistant of his, to make the film. And I’m curious if you know the answer to this question. Honda had many assistants—he had Tani, he had Kajita, he had some other people. Do you know what it was about Hashimoto that made him say (paraphrasing), “You should give this guy the job of bringing Godzilla into the next generation”?

Godziszewski: Well, I don’t know that there’s anything you can point to. Certainly, he never made any comment as far as why he recommended Hashimoto. If I’m going to speculate? At that point, Kajita was pretty much up in his years; he was probably in or close to his sixties; and he was pretty well-established at that point working in TV. So I don’t think Kajita was really a candidate at that time. And I’m not sure what some of his other assistants, such as Tani, were doing at the moment. But Hashimoto was somebody who did work with him on several monster films. So my guess is Honda was looking at him just as: “Okay, who worked for me? Who do I think could have done it? And who’s in a position to do it?” And Hashimoto, having also worked on Bye-Bye Jupiter (1984) just before that, I think that made him a somewhat logical choice for Honda to pick. But there is nothing that I know of that is a specific reason why he was picked over anyone else.

Ishiro Honda at a museum
Koji Hashimoto

Galvan: In the book, it’s also mentioned that Honda was not particularly dazzled with the subsequent Heisei films. He didn’t think that highly of Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), or Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992). But in regards to Hashimoto, since Honda actually recommended him to make the 1984 reboot, is it known what he thought of his former protégé’s film when it was finished and released?

Godziszewski: I don’t know what his specific opinion might’ve been about the film. Since he had recommended Hashimoto and Hashimoto was one of his associates, if he had something critical to say, I don’t think he would’ve said it publicly. You know, especially among professionals in the field—in general—they try not to comment on other people’s work…especially if it wasn’t all that good. I mean, if you want to see that taken to the nth degree: there’s plenty of people in the Japanese film industry who hated Shin Godzilla (2016), but no one feels like they can/should speak out about it. It’s a measure of professional courtesy and, in some cases, some people are just intimidated by the studio and the people who did like it. Nobody wants to be caught making a negative comment on something when their future employment might depend on somebody who was associated with that film. So you see a lot of that.

But in any case, Honda was certainly not the type of guy who was going to go and make any overtly critical comments about the films. In general, he talked about the Heisei series as just too much flash, and not enough interesting characters. And I think where he was really going with a lot of his comments was they just weren’t using Godzilla as an effective image to address topical subjects and important issues like they had done back in his time

Galvan: And my final question. What do you hope people will take away from this book?

Godziszewski: Well, what we really set to do was to bring the story of Mr. Honda to the world—not only to special effects fans, but to everybody; people who are fans of movies, maybe even people who aren’t. His story is a very, very interesting one—I think, actually, a very compelling story. And we’d like people to understand there was much more to him than just science fiction. Yes, most of us came to Honda through his science fiction films, and that is certainly an important part of his career; but there is just so much more to the person than just that. He has an equally large body of work outside of the genre. And what informed that work? What made that work what it was? That’s what his life story does for us: it gives us the context of what really influenced him to make films in the way that he did.

I also think that he’s a very highly underappreciated personality in the Japanese film community. They always pay attention to the big names of Kurosawa and Ozu and Naruse. In the film critic world, everybody knows them. But Honda was probably the most commercially successful filmmaker in Japan up until maybe the days of Miyazaki. I think Honda also needs to be given credit for the fact that he helped open the door for the western world to see that Japanese films exist and that Japanese films can be sold and displayed overseas. Without Godzilla, I think it probably would’ve been quite a long time before Japanese films ever saw any kind of mainstream release in the western world. I think that’s an important contribution. And certainly, yeah, people like Kurosawa and Ozu and those guys—they get all the notoriety, but were they nearly as successful as Honda? Actually, I would have to say no. The people of the world, whether they know his name or not, the world knows Honda’s films. I think almost every person has some awarenessof a film or a character from one of his films. That’s, I think, something quite remarkable that deserves a lot of credit. And it’s credit that has never been given where it’s due, even when these films got released overseas. A lot of times, as you know, if you look at European materials—especially those from Italy—they even try to hide Honda’s name or the fact that these films were made in Japan. He never got credit even though people knew his work and lots of people around the world have enjoyed it—probably more than any other Japanese director in history before, as I said, Miyazaki’s time, at least.

Ishiro Honda at a museum
Image Courtesy of Honda Film Inc.

And, again, the simple fact that this guy, being the director of some of our favorite films, we knew there was going to be a lot more to his story. And we’re hoping we can give people an appreciation for his films—and not the popular perception of his films, and Japanese films in general, as being cheap garbage or things worthy of making fun of. That’s not at all the case. There’s a lot behind the films. A lot of thought. A lot of care. A lot of hard work. And a lot of dedication by Honda and other people he worked with. That these films are something that, upon reexamination, should be able to garner some respect they haven’t been given in a long time.

Galvan: Yeah, even people who are not fans of Japanese science fiction are at least aware the Godzilla movies exist and can probably recognize the general aesthetic of a Godzilla film. But when the latest The Magnificent Seven (2016) came out, I wondered how many audiences were aware it was 1) a remake 2) a remake of a remake of a Japanese film. I wonder how many people in the theater were even aware Seven Samurai (1954) exists.

Godziszewski: Yeah, I would think that probably half the audience doesn’t have any idea it is actually a remake of a Japanese film.

Galvan: Yeah. Okay, Ed, that reaches the end of my questions. I want to thank you very much for talking to me about your new book. My congratulations to both you and Steve on its publication. I agree with you that Ishiro Honda is a very, very important filmmaker; and I really do hope western audiences will one day have the chance to see some of the other films he made, so we can see for ourselves and experience for ourselves what you and Steve uncovered.

Godziszewski: And we both hope that, perhaps, this book might be one step in that process of getting some of his non-science fiction films to have some kind of release, even if it’s on specialty video or whatever it is. If the world can see more of his work—that’s another thing we would love to see be the end result of this book.

Galvan: Thank you again, sir, for talking to me today.

Godziszewski: You are welcome. Thank you.

Images of Ishiro Honda Courtesy of Honda Film Inc.


Interview: Steve Ryfle (2017)


One of the most prominent writers on Japanese science fiction and fantasy, Ed Godziszewski is the current editor and publisher of Japanese Giants magazine and has provided audio commentaries for numerous Japanese science fiction and fantasy films. He is co-author, with Steve Ryfle, of the biography Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa.

Date: 11/5/2017
Interviewer: Patrick Galvan


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