Steve Ryfle

Nicholas Driscoll: First of all, I really want to thank you for agreeing to this interview and for answering my questions! I am a big fan of your previous book, Japan's Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of "The Big G", and can't wait to read Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, which you co-wrote with Ed Godzisewski, and which is coming out October 3rd from Wesleyan. First can I just ask how this book came about in the first place? What is the history behind this book?

Steve Ryfle: Thanks, Nick. In 2007, Ed and I co-produced a documentary called Bringing Godzilla Down to Size, which was directed by Norman England and shot entirely in and around Tokyo. The two of us were in Japan for the shoot, and one day we were with Norman and the crew at the offices of Tsuburaya Dream Factory to interview Akira Tsuburaya, son of Eiji. I think I've told this story many times before, but while the interview was being filmed, I remember a lot of the office workers didn't make any effort to be quiet; they were talking at full volume, shutting drawers loudly, and so on, which was surprising because their boss was being interviewed just a few feet away. And then, in walked a gentleman who looked somewhat familiar, though I didn't know who he was. This man was very conscientious, tiptoeing over to his desk and turning on his computer very quietly so as not to create any noise while the camera was rolling. And when Akira's interview was finished, he told us, "You should interview that guy. He's the son of Ishiro Honda." And that's how we were introduced to Ryuji Honda, who looks a lot like his dad. Ed and I spent some time talking with him, and of course we told him how much we admired his father's work, and Ryuji mentioned that he felt that Honda was better understood and more appreciated in the West than in Japan, and he was interested in working with people like us on projects to tell his father's story. We all got along very well right from the start, and then we kept in touch via email in the months afterward, and the project grew from there. Ryuji also introduced us to his daughter, Yuuko, who as you'll read in the book spent a lot of her childhood at her grandfather's house and got to know Honda quite well. Yuuko lives in the U.S., and she is very interested in her grandfather's life and legacy, and so she became our partner. That was the genesis of the project. From there, we set about deciding the scope of the book, what type of research we needed to do, and so on.

Driscoll: It surprises me that Ryuji Honda said that his father's movies are better appreciated and understood abroad than in Japan. For example, there are many, many books about the Godzilla films published in Japan, although Eiji Tsuburaya gets the most attention from what I have seen. Meanwhile, in America, as you know, there are many in the west who treat Godzilla as a joke, especially with the popularity of MST3K. What do you think Ryuji Honda meant?

Ryfle: I can't speak for Ryuji Honda, so whatever I say is only my opinion or guesswork. There were several books published in Japan about Ishiro Honda in the early 1990s, around the time of his death, and it was our impression that the family felt that Honda was misrepresented in some of that writing. Also, while there have been a number of pieces written by noted Japanese scholars on Godzilla (1954) and other Honda films, some of those writers have seemed to imply that Honda may have been a right-wing nationalist, which is certainly not true. I don't recall that any of Honda's films have ever been on MST3K (have they?), but it's certainly the case that his films were treated rather poorly in the way they were released and marketed in the U.S.; as you know they were dubbed, re-cut, re-scored, re-titled, and so on. I do not know if any of these things figured into Ryuji's thinking at the time. But he must have noticed that in 2004, the director's cut of Godzilla (1954) received a national theatrical release in the U.S. for its 50th anniversary, the first time it had been made widely available in this country, and there were very positive reviews and analysis by some very respected writers. So perhaps this reappraisal of Honda's work in the West had some influence on him.

Ishiro Honda with camera
Image Courtesy of Honda Film Inc.

Driscoll: Sorry to make you speculate a little bit there—I have been curious about why Ryuji Honda might have thought that ever since our last interview years ago! By the way, I quick double-checked, and you are right—the MST3K episodes that featured Godzilla were both Jun Fukuda films. Changing the subject here, could you share some of your best memories from putting together the book so far?

Ryfle: We kicked off the work with a joint trip to Japan to conduct a series of interviews and meetings in 2010, and that was a very exciting time. Remembering that trip, what stands out most of all are the visits we made to the home of Kimi Honda, where we spent hours speaking with her and also with Honda's longtime assistant director Koji Kajita. Those meetings were more like long, friendly conversations than interviews. We sat around the dining table and talked at length, and both Kimi and Mr. Kajita seemed to have been waiting for years for an opportunity to share stories about Honda. Kimi opened up about their courtship and marriage, Honda's time away at the front in China, the long wait while he was away and the uncertainty about his fate, Honda's deep friendship with Akira Kurosawa, Honda's return home and the hardship of the postwar years, Honda's rise to becoming a director and the trials and tribulations of his career, and even his death. Kajita told the story of how he and Honda first became a team during the making of Godzilla (1954) and recounted episodes from the making of that film and others that helped to illuminate Honda's character and his interests as a filmmaker. And for Ed and myself to simply be sitting there, in the house where Honda lived for the last two decades of his life, that was an honor and also very helpful. This was the house where Yuuko had visited her grandparents as a child; later, I asked her to think back and describe the house as it was when she was young and Honda was living there. And it wasn't much different than it is now—there were not a lot of things in the house that would indicate a film director lived there. His home was not a shrine to himself or to his work, and that's very much indicative of Honda's character and personality. He made films for his audience, not for himself. Even so, he had ideas that he wanted to communicate through his films, even his genre films, and we explore that in the book.

Driscoll: For me as a long-time fan of these films, I cannot imagine how exciting it would be to hang out with the family of Ishiro Honda and casually chat about his life and films. I am really curious to learn more about Honda's life, such as how he was involved in the second World War, which I imagine is/will be controversial for some of his fans from the west. Could you share maybe a couple surprising highlights you found out about Ishiro Honda's life, to whet our appetite?

Ryfle: There was nothing controversial about Honda's military service; he was drafted (several times) and served his tours of duty by biding his time, making every effort to survive, and waiting to return home to his work as an assistant director at Toho Studios, where he was pursuing his dream of a career in the film industry. Although he did not openly protest or resist the draft—to do so would have meant criminal prosecution, at the least—he was nevertheless unenthusiastic about the war, and horrified by some of the brutal and cruel things he witnessed his superior officers doing. So much of what happened during the period of roughly 1935 to 1945, when he was sent back and forth to the war front, would shape the rest of Honda's life. For instance, in February 1936, when Honda was stationed in Tokyo, some members of his regiment took part in an attempted coup d'etat. The actual perpetrators were caught and convicted for their crimes, but the entire regiment was also tarnished with a sort of guilt-by-association and they were subsequently shipped out to China. Honda had no involvement in the rebellion, but he paid for it anyway: his term of service was longer than customary, and he was repeatedly conscripted, all of which indicated to him that he was being punished for his tangential connection to the criminals.

In a sense, Honda was among the lucky ones; despite all his time spent at war, he returned home alive, but nevertheless these were lost years, setting back his trajectory at Toho and separating him from his family for so long that his wife wondered if he would ever return. There were other key experiences too, one of the most important being a near-death incident during a battlefield skirmish; there were friendships he developed with Chinese villagers and the nationalists who would capture and hold him as a POW at the end of the war; and of course there is the famous story of Honda's passing through the ruins of Hiroshima en route to Tokyo while returning home after the war's end. The only thing that could be considered controversial, and I'm not sure that's the correct term, is the fact that Honda was for a time assigned to work at a comfort station, which is what they called the brothels set up by the military to provide prostitutes to the soldiers and officers. The "comfort women" were sex slaves, kidnapped or coerced or tricked into prostitution, many or most of them taken from occupied Korea. This remains a sensitive topic between Japan and South Korea; the two countries are still trying work out an agreement to put the matter to rest, including a formal apology from Japan and a payment of reparations to victims' groups, but it's a horrible part of Japan's war legacy and people are still uncomfortable talking about it. Honda later wrote an essay about his experience working there in an essay that was published in a movie magazine around the time that Seijun Suzuki's Story of a Prostitute (1965), a brutal film about life at a comfort station, came out.

Driscoll: Thank you for addressing the issue of Ishiro Honda’s war service in such a balanced way. For me, when I first heard that Honda was worked at a comfort station, I was pretty shocked—actually, I think you were the one to tell me about that fact! Frankly, what Japan did to those women still deeply troubles me. Have you read Honda’s essay about that experience? How do you and Godziszewski address that time in the book?

Ryfle: I suppose it could be surprising to learn that Honda, who is generally known to have been a very kind person and whose films have been described as "humanistic," worked in a brothel where women were forced into sexual slavery. But it's not as if he chose this assignment, and again, to resist or refuse to serve would have been a criminal offense. If you've read Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking or any number of other books about Japan's conquest of China, you know that the plight of the comfort women is just one aspect of this horrifying story. Yes, we have read Honda's writing about his experience at the comfort station, and we quote from it in the book. In that essay, he expresses empathy for the women and their tragic stories; some turned to drug use, one fell in love with an officer who abandoned her, and so on. He concludes by saying the women's lives were destroyed by the war. I suppose he could be faulted for not being more direct; after all, the war didn't spontaneously happen; Japan's conquest of China was methodical and sometimes brutal. However I really do believe Honda deserves credit for writing about this very sensitive subject in a mainstream magazine—and he did so more than 60 years ago, when the topic was even more uncomfortable and unspeakable than it is today. As I mentioned earlier, it's still a controversial subject today—just this week, the mayor of Osaka threatened to sever sister-city ties with San Francisco in protest of a statue honoring the comfort women being erected there; he said the statue amounts to "Japan-bashing." The book deals with this subject directly and fairly; there's no dancing around the subject.

Ishiro Honda smiling
Image Courtesy of Honda Film Inc.

Driscoll: I honestly don't know how to respond—I had not heard about the uproar over the statue in San Francisco, and it really saddens me, and frankly makes me mad that the mayor of Osaka would respond in such a way. I guess it underscores even more how important it is to address issues like the comfort women directly and frankly even today—and makes me wonder if Ishiro Honda's essay caused any controversy at the time it was published! At any rate, I am glad that he could bring some sympathy and attention to that tragic time through his essay. I would like to change topics a bit here, and get to what many fans probably want to know. So far we have discussed mostly Ishiro Honda's life, but of course Honda's fans became fans due to his movies. How do you and Godziszewski balance biographical detail and detail about the movies themselves in Ishiro Honda?

Ryfle: The subtitle of the book is "a life in film," and there really was no separation between Honda's personal life and his work. He became interested in film at a very young age, and he chose to make film his career over more traditional, reputable and stable occupations. We didn't feel it would make sense to write about his life and his films separately, so the story is told chronologically, from birth to death, and from the time he becomes a feature film director until his retirement that story is very much about his work. The book weaves together biographical details about Honda's personal life with analysis of the films and production information, as well as the big-picture background of changes taking place in postwar Japan that influenced his films, and of course changes in the Japanese film industry that affected his career. One question I personally wanted to answer was: was Honda really satisfied making science-fiction movies? Was it his choice to focus on this genre? Or did he have other ambitions that went unfulfilled? I do think the book goes a long way toward answering those questions.

Driscoll: The reason I asked about the balance between biography and film analysis is that I am currently reading Peter H. Brothers' second edition of his book, Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men, which is about Honda's sci-fi and fantasy films. Brothers essentially includes most of the biographical material in an extended introductory essay, and the rest of his book consists of lengthy analysis and background details about the productions, so I was curious how you were handling that in contrast/comparison to Brothers' effort. One of the things I really love about your book with Godziszewski is that you are covering ALL of Honda's films, not just the fantastical ones—many of which are not available on DVD even in Japan. Did you get to see all of Honda's films? If so, could you tell us a little bit about how you got to see them? And did you have any favorites among them?

Ryfle: I can't speak for Ed, but the number one reason why I decided to undertake this project, and it was something of massive undertaking, was the opportunity to see Honda's other films. From the very beginning, I think we were in agreement that this was something very important to us; we wanted to look at Honda's entire career and analyze the entire body of work rather than only revisit the films we were already familiar with. Now, this was going to be a challenge; other than Eagle of the Pacific (1953), Farewell Rabaul (1954), and Come Marry Me (1966), none of Honda's films outside the genre were ever put out on home video. (A fourth one, Night School, just came out on DVD in Japan this year.) But Ryuji Honda did have copies of several of the other films, mostly on VHS tapes recorded when the films played on television in Japan. And he made it clear that he would track as many of the other films down as possible. Our research assistant, Shinsuke Nakajima, was instrumental in this. It took a couple of years, but eventually we obtained and were able to watch all but two of the films: the documentary Story of a Co-Op and the aforementioned Night School. And even though the films were not subtitled, we worked with Yuuko Honda-Yun (Honda's granddaughter), to translate major portions of the dialogue and closely study the context of each story.

Watching these films, Honda's career phases become more clearly delineated and they tend to coincide with the changes to Japan's postwar outlook. Most everything from The Blue Pearl (1951), his first feature made in 1951, to Godzilla (1954), made two years after the Occupation ended, is rather grim and downbeat. Then, from about 1955 to 1960, give or take, is Honda's most productive period and my personal favorite time of his career. He made a good number of mainstream commercial dramas and a couple of comedies that show a great deal of empathy for young people in postwar Japan, particularly women. It's an interesting time because Japan was starting to get back on its feet and although things were still difficult economically you see a growing consumer culture, the influence of western culture everywhere, the young people influenced by Western values in conflict with their more traditional parents, and so on. These ideas run throughout Japanese films of that time but I like the way Honda handles these conflicts with a sort of warmth and hope that contrasts with filmmakers such as the great Mikio Naruse, for instance, whose works cover some of the same themes but are much more pessimistic.

You also get a greater sense of how Honda worked with actors in these movies because the stories are about characters living in the real world, as opposed to caricatures in a science fiction movie dominated by special-effects set pieces. Many of the same actors are in these films: Hiroshi Koizumi was one of Honda's favored leading men, as was Ryo Ikebe. My favorites are probably The Blue Pearl, which is set in roughly the same area where the Odo Island scenes in Godzilla (1954) were later shot, and which is a beautiful and tragic love story; and I also like Love Make-Up (1955), Mother and Son (1955), Good Luck to These Two (1957), and Song for a Bride (1958) a great deal.

Driscoll: I am so envious—and it figures that your favorites are ones that are NOT available on DVD! I would love to learn more about Honda's non-fantastical fair, but in the interest of time, let's turn a bit to Honda's monster and sci-fi filmography. Most fans of his are most excited about Honda's monster films especially, so for those fans who are ever clambering for more information on Godzilla and company, what can they expect from this new book that they may not be able to find in other books? Can you give us some hints about some of the interesting or surprising things you found out about the making of or background of Honda's tokusatsu films?

Ryfle: One aspect of Honda's story that I found fascinating was his struggle with the forces conspiring to box him in as a science-fiction director. Between roughly 1955 to 1960 Honda was making a fairly diverse mix of dramas, comedies, kaiyo eiga (song films), and science-fiction, but as you know he almost exclusively made genre films after that. Right after King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) he was in what would appear to be a position of strength. That movie had made an enormous amount of money domestically, and his films were also generating more revenue from overseas sales than those of any other Japanese director. He took some time off and tried to pitch a number of ideas for film projects that he wanted to develop, but none bore fruit and eventually he returned to the studio and resumed making mostly genre pictures. This period is fascinating to me because, on the one hand, Honda was making some of his best-loved pictures such as Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster (1964), Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), The War of the Gargantuas (1966) and so on, but you get the strong sense that he did so at the expense of his own dreams. The landscape of the Japanese film industry had changed by this point, and Honda was most valuable to Toho as a director of science-fiction pictures. There were people who encouraged Honda to leave the studio and go independent, as both Kurosawa and Eiji Tsuburaya did, but he did not want to do that. He wanted always to be a filmmaker, not a businessman, but to stay at Toho meant accepting this compromise, and it clearly affected him.

Ishiro Hond at museum
Image Courtesy of Honda Film Inc.

Also, Honda's pictures were now being made for the overseas market as well as for Japan, and other conflicts arose during this period because American co-producers wanted a say in terms of scripts, casting, etc., and they brought with them a bit of Hollywood arrogance, an assumption that their way of making movies was superior and the Japanese system was backwards. It was interesting to learn how Honda dealt with this. There are some examples in the book of incidents with actors or producers while making various films, but one thing I want to mention here is the comments made by Rhodes Reason about working with Honda on King Kong Escapes (1967). A number of years ago, Rhodes was quoted in the book Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! by Stuart Galbraith IV, and some readers were upset by those comments because Rhodes did not mince words. We included some of those same comments in our book because, while some people might find Reason's quotes offensive (the comments toward Honda and the whole experience of making King Kong Escapes are flat-out dismissive), they indicate the kind of American-style bullshit that Honda dealt with repeatedly while shooting these films. The irony, in this instance, is that Honda apparently liked and respected Rhodes, even if the feeling was not mutual.

Driscoll: Before we end, could I just get your quick take on the latest kaiju movies that have come out around the world? Pacific Rim? Godzilla (2014)? Kong: Skull Island? Shin Godzilla (2016)? Colossal? Others?

Ryfle: That’s a big question. I've written elsewhere about Godzilla (2014), which I had disagreements with, and Shin Godzilla, which I thought was interesting for its unconventional approach and its right-wing leanings, though it's a bit of an endurance test. I like to see filmmakers breaking out of genre conventions, and I am interested in films that create a relationship or connection between the human characters and the giant creature; it's something going all the way back to King Kong (1933) and even All Monsters Attack/Godzilla’s Revenge (1969), and the possibilities are still being explored. So, I liked Colossal for that reason, even if it is a very flawed movie. Kaneko's Gamera: Revenge of Iris (1999) is certainly my personal favorite film to create that kind of connection.

Driscoll: Finally, what's next? Do you have any other projects that you are working on that we can look forward to, such as a movie commentary, a documentary, or another book planned that you can tell us about? If you could do another kaiju-related book of any kind, what would it be?

Ryfle: I have an idea for a book of essays that looks at the politics of the Godzilla films and some related titles, and I might explore that in the near future. But right now I hope to focus on Ishiro Honda. My hope is that Ed and I can encourage the release of one or more of Honda's off-genre films in the U.S.

Driscoll: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview, Steve! I can't wait to read the actual book!

Ryfle: Thanks, Nick!

Images Courtesy of Honda Film Inc.


Interview: Steve Ryfle (2017)


Previously interviewed by Toho Kingdom in 2011, Steve Ryfle is the author of the book Japan's Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of "The Big G" and has provided DVD audio commentaries for numerous Japanese special effects films. He is also co-author of the new biography Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa.

Date: 10/8/2017
Interviewer: Nicholas Driscoll


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