Steve Ryfle: Regarding Ishiro Honda

Patrick Galvan: For this Toho Kingdom interview, I am speaking with Steve Ryfle, author of Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G” and the voice of several highly informative DVD audio commentaries on Japanese science-fiction and fantasy films. He is also co-author, with Ed Godziszewski, of the newly released biography Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa from Wesleyan University Press. As of the time of this interview, it is the #1 New Release for Japanese biographies on Amazon. Steve, thank you for joining me.

Steve Ryfle: Thank you, and good morning! I appreciate it very much.

Galvan: First of all, my congratulations on the release of this book. How long has this project been in the works?

Ryfle: Realistically, we’ve been working on it for about…oh, about eight years. But the genesis of it was ten years ago. That’s when we met Ryuji Honda (Ishiro Honda’s son) in Tokyo, quite by accident, and that was how the whole conversation around doing something like this started. But it wasn’t until sometime after that that the actual work really started. I guess there was a trip to Japan that Ed took in 2009 to do an initial, kind of exploratory round of interviews. But, yeah, I would say work really started about 2010.

Galvan: I have read the biography—I whisked through it in about four days—and I cannot recommend it enough. It’s a very, very informative read on so many levels. One thing I really liked about the book was—as you and Ed have addressed elsewhere—you guys cover, pretty much, Honda’s entire directorial career. Not just the science-fiction films us fans already know about. What other genres did Honda specialize in?

Ryfle: Well, he modeled his career after that of his mentor to a large degree. His mentor was a director named Kajiro Yamamoto, who was—as you probably know—quite respected and quite commercially successful in the 1930s and 40s, and continued working into the 1960s. And Yamamoto was not only the mentor of Honda; as you read in the book, his three protégés at Toho in the 30s were Honda, Akira Kurosawa, and Senkichi Taniguchi; and it was while working under Yamamoto that Kurosawa essentially was promoted to the director’s chair. But Yamamoto was…I was going to say a genre specialist, but I guess what you really would call someone like that is a genre generalist. He did everything, from comedies to dramas to big special effects-laden war pictures. A lot of people who are fans of this genre have heard of—if not seen—The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (1942), which was a huge box office sensation during the war. That was directed by Yamamoto with effects work by Eiji Tsuburaya. And Yamamoto took these three gentlemen (Honda, Kurosawa, Taniguchi) under his wing and taught them as his assistant directors, and they rose up through the ranks. One of the things he really stressed was the importance of writing for a director—that even if you’re working with a screenplay by a writer other than yourself that you should be able to polish it and write it in your own image. Yamamoto had many, many assistant directors, but these three guys were considered really on their way up at that time. And because they were close friends, they were kind of semi-famous among the ranks of assistant directors, if an assistant director can be famous on the lot. And so, Kurosawa took what he learned from Yamamoto and then became Akira Kurosawa, who is very much an individualist and had his own idea of what he wanted to do with film. And Honda was much more in the mold of someone like Yamamoto. He was really interested in making all kinds of movies, and that’s what he did.

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

As you stated, Honda’s science-fiction films are fairly well-known in the west, and that’s what he’s known for. There’s a lot of people who would probably assume he never did anything else. But Ed and I wanted to know more about him. I mean, our whole reason for doing this project—for writing this book and wanting to work on it so long and so hard—was because we wanted to learn more about him. And we felt—and I think we were right—that if we had the chance to see some of these other films and study them, we would learn more about what made him tick as a filmmaker and as a person.

He started off his career during and right after the Occupation, making dramas that were kind of downbeat. His very first dramatic film, The Blue Pearl (1951), ends in tragedy, it’s a romantic tragedy. And everything up from The Blue Pearl until Godzilla (1954) is rather downbeat and somewhat pessimistic; and that fit with the tenor of the times. It was still the first decade after the war and Japan was really in dire straits for a lot of those years, economically and otherwise. And then, as things become more optimistic in the country as a whole, his films start to reflect that in the mid to late 50s. You start to see more happy endings and more optimism—and that’s in both his genre pictures and his non-genre films. You start to see comedy. The comedy you see in films like Mothra (1961) and King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), he first started experimenting with that and including that in his dramatic films. One of the first films he made right after Godzilla (1954) was something called Love Makeup (1955), and that is a Narusean drama about two lovers who were separated by the war and are reunited some years after. But the intervening years have basically ruined their lives, and it’s impossible for them to get back together. It’s not a happy ending, but the film does have some physical comedy moments, comic relief. And that was very different—you never saw that in his films prior to that. And we see it more and more and more. And in the late 50s he made Song for a Bride (1958), which is a family comedy—or a home comedy, as they call them—and that’s a delightful film. So, as his mood shifted and the national mood shifted, his films came to evolve and reflect the national mood.

So, he worked in drama, war film, comedy…. He made a couple of pictures that were known as song films, which aren’t out-and-out musicals, per se—there’s no big song-and-dance numbers like in MGM musicals—but there are sequences where one of the characters will break out into song.

So, he was a genre generalist. He liked working in a lot of different genres of film. But as you know, eventually the success of the pictures he made in science-fiction (not just domestically, but internationally) coupled with this narrowing business strategy of Toho Studios and the Japanese film industry as a whole…those kind of factors closed in on him, career-wise, and made it more and more difficult for him to do other things.

Galvan: Since you compared one of his films to Naruse, one thing that stood out to me when I read the book was a quote from Tomoyuki Tanaka. He’s quoted saying that if Honda hadn’t become pigeonholed into making science-fiction, he probably would’ve become “a director like Mikio Naruse.” I’m a very big fan of Mikio Naruse myself. And I believe Honda was an assistant to him a couple of times, such as on Avalanche (1937), I think. Having said that—and I think you touched on it a little bit already—when you consider Honda's Narusean films, how is he similar to Naruse and how is he different?

Ryfle: Well, I think that quote you’re talking about from Tanaka is interesting. I think what Tanaka is copping to there is the fact that he was largely responsible for pushing Honda in the direction of science-fiction for the reasons we just talked about. (And by the way, that quote is from Tanaka’s biography. That’s where we found it: in the section where he talks about Honda.) And there’s also a quote in the book where Honda basically says he admired Naruse’s rhythm. Which is a big thing in Naruse films, the editing is oftentimes astonishingly beautiful.

Galvan: Yeah, Kurosawa said the same thing in Something Like an Autobiography.

Ryfle: Yeah, I think I do remember that. But I don’t think Tanaka was necessarily saying Honda would’ve been as great a filmmaker as Naruse; it’s hard to know exactly what he was saying other than ‘I changed the direction of his career.’ However, you know, Honda also said he felt he had a lot of the same things in himself that Naruse did. And what those things are, I think, are a sensitivity toward the plight of women in Japan and Japanese culture and Japanese society.

Honda wasn’t primarily a visual filmmaker. He left a lot of the visual aspects of his films up to his directors of photography and his art directors. That’s why something like Godzilla (1954), which is shot by Naruse’s crew, looks so different than anything else Honda ever did. And it’s also why the films that were shot by Hajime Koizumi have this sort of signature look that he and Honda developed together. But the films shot by someone like Taiichi Kankura—who shot Destroy All Monsters (1968) and Latitude Zero (1969)—look so much different than that, and are not as exciting to look at. Koizumi had a lot of interesting movement in the way he shot certain scenes, and he really understood the widescreen canvas a lot better than Honda’s other cameramen.

But anyway, it wasn’t just Tanaka. There was also the executive producer, Iwao Mori, who felt the same way about Honda: that he had this sensitivity toward stories about women. And that’s what Naruse movies are primarily about. One of the things about Naruse films from that time period—I’m thinking of things like When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)—these are films about women who are suffering romantically, they are suffering financially. There’s a lot of things in Naruse films about financial troubles. ‘How are these people going to make a living when the geisha house doesn’t have any more customers?’ And those things show up, too, in Honda films—and I’m sure in many other films—but in a similar way, where people are really concerned about how they’re going to get together and make a living in their day-to-day lives. But Honda expresses it in less stark terms. I was thinking of a scene in Good Luck to These Two (1957), a film which has this sort of doomed romance aspect to it (although, it’s a Honda film, so it ends up having a happy ending). But one of the things that happens when these two characters played by Hiroshi Koizumi and Yumi Shirakawa get together is they have a conversation. They’re trying to figure out how they’re going to marry against the wishes of the parents and get by on their own without any kind of dowry or inheritance or whatever it may be. And they are sitting at a table figuring out, down to the last yen, how they’re going to make their budget once they get together on his salary. They both work at the same company, but once they get married, she—as per tradition—will quit her job, and they’ll have to live on one salary. So it’s the same kind of thing and yet it’s not played out in such a dire sort of way.

Have you seen the Naruse film Late Chrysanthemums (1954)?

Galvan: Yes, I have! Great movie!

Ryfle: Yeah, and there’s a film by Honda made around the same time, also with Hiroshi Koizumi. Late Chrysanthemums and the film I’m about to mention are probably the two best films I can think of to compare and contrast Honda and Naruse, and to show how these similar themes play out in different ways depending on who’s behind the camera. Late Chrysanthemums is about a group of ex-geisha women who are now in the twilight of their years. And Hiroshi Koizumi plays the ingrate son of one woman, and he’s running off with some…I haven’t seen it in many years, probably 10-15 years….

Galvan: He’s living with an older, financially well-off woman.

Ryfle: Right, he’s with an older woman: she’s kind of his sugar mama. And so he’s really not helping to support his mother anymore, and she’s very resentful of that, and she’s hurt. And it causes great tension. And that relationship between the mother and the son is usually the central relationship in the household, you know.

Hiroshi Koizumi in Late Chrysanthemums
Hiroshi Koizumi in Late Chrysanthemums (1954) d. Mikio Naruse

But there’s a film called Mother and Son (1955) by Honda, also with Hiroshi Koizumi playing the son. And in that film, there’s a similar resentment because he’s leaving home to marry his sweetheart. And the mother, she’s lonely…the whole thing’s just upturning her world. And yet there’s this inevitability about it. It’s not the same sort of anger that transpires. There’s more of a sadness than anything else. But it doesn’t play out in the same sort of morose and pessimistic way as Naruse.

Then again, at the same time, a lot of Naruse movies end with this sort of ambiguous, ‘life goes on’ resolution—where the characters muddle through it all. And Mother and Son, at least for the mother character, ends in quite the same way. (The actress’s name is Yaeko Mizutani, and she’s great in the role.) She owns a fish stand in the Tsujiki fish market; she’s a widow; and it’s not as if the world doesn’t try to bring her happiness. At one point, while all of this is going on with her son leaving and the heartbreak she’s experiencing, this ex-lover from years ago returns. (He’s a businessman, and he’s been making a life for himself in South America. Which was not uncommon in the first half of the 20th century for a lot of Japanese.) And he comes back to Japan on a visit, and he finds her, and he realizes she’s a widow. And he basically offers her happiness: ‘Come have a life with me.’ But she just can’t accept it. She doesn’t feel she can live that life anymore, that time has passed. And the movie ends kind of beautifully where she’s at work, at the fish market: she’s alone now, her son’s not working with her anymore. And the plane (I don’t know how she would possibly know this; but it’s the beauty of film!) carrying her old suitor is flying back to South America, and the plane flies overhead, over Tokyo, and she looks up in the sky and sees it leave. And that’s the end of the movie, and it’s very Narusean. Life goes on. You don’t always get the happiness you might’ve hoped you would.

So there’s a lot of crossover there, and those two films made almost immediately after Godzilla (1954)—Mother and Son and Love Makeup—are probably Honda’s most Narusean.

Galvan: Last year, my colleague Nicholas Driscoll and I watched Honda’s war picture Farewell Rabaul (1954) together; and one thing that stood out to me was the lead performance by Ryo Ikebe. At the time, I’d only seen him in his science-fiction roles—Battle in Outer Space (1959), Gorath (1962), and The War in Space (1977)—and my impression, back then, was Ikebe was a guy who only made it in the movies because of his looks, not because he was a particularly good actor. But then I see him in Farewell Rabaul, and I realize he’s not only a good actor, he’s a really good actor! And I’ve seen him in some other films since then, in which he’s regularly impressed me.

Would you say that’s true also of Koizumi, Shirakawa, etc.? That their work for Honda outside of science-fiction better displayed their talents?

Ryfle: Well, I think that’s true universally. When you talk about big genre pictures where the action set pieces or the special effects set pieces are one of the main attractions, the actors in those films generally are going to have more one-dimensional type roles—whether it’s something made today or something made sixty years ago. The acting and dramatic roles get crowded out. I’m speaking in very general terms. The first example that popped into my head is probably a really bad example and doesn’t prove the point I’m trying to make here. [laughs] I was thinking: Marlon Brando’s part in Superman: The Movie (1978) is very small, and he took the role for the money! But then again, actually, that’s a really good part, and he has all these great speeches that he gives, and he’s still being quoted in that role all these years later.

Ryo Ikebe in Farewell Rabaul
Ryo Ikebe in Farewell Rabaul (1954) d. Ishiro Honda

But you’re right. Those actors, by and large, were very good actors who were appearing in all kinds of films; and the science-fiction pictures generally didn’t give them a lot to do as actors, but they were lending marquee value and box office appeal to those films. And Ryo Ikebe was a big star dating back to the 1940s. But in something like Battle in Outer Space, he doesn’t get really much of a chance to do anything but just kind of stand there and be stoic and heroic.

Have you seen Pale Flower (1964)?

Galvan: I have, yes!

Ryfle: That’s a film pretty accessible to anybody who’s interested in trying to find something beyond the science-fiction realm and explore what he could do as an actor. That’s quite an interesting movie for a lot of reasons, but he’s very, very good in that. He’s in Honda’s first dramatic film The Blue Pearl (1951), and he’s okay in that. That’s a very good film; I think he’s a bit overshadowed in that film by people like Takashi Shimura, who was one of the greatest film actors, ever. But Ikebe was in a number of Honda pictures, and one that I like very much is a romantic dramedy called An Echo Calls You, from the late 50s. He plays a bus driver. The bus conductor—the person who takes the tickets and gets everybody oriented on the bus and calls out the stops—is a young singer/actress named Izumi Yukimura. She was about half his age, although he’s able to play younger…I think around the time of Pale Flower, he was probably in the mid-40s then, if I recall correctly, and he’s starting to look a little bit more his age then…but through the 50s he still could play a character maybe ten years younger than he really was. (The actress was about nineteen, and I think she’s supposed to be playing somebody in her young to mid 20s.) It sort of works, though, in An Echo Calls You because he’s supposed to be somebody whose heart was broken and he’s kind of secretive about his life; and then he meets this bus conductor who’s young and perky and funny and a little bit rebellious. And they’re sort of a mismatched couple, but of course they end up getting together. That’s a wonderful film, and Ikebe’s actually really funny in that film. He plays this sort of grouchy, stuck-in-the-mud, set-in-his-ways kind of guy. And she’s this free spirit, and she’s kind of interested in him; and you can tell he would be kind of interested in her if he wasn’t so stuck in his ways and wasn’t still brooding over things that have happened to him in the past.

To give a brief summary of the film. This is about a girl from a small town—Izumi Yukimura’s character—she feels stifled there, and she wants to see more of life, experience more things, she wants to break out of this tiny town and this job that she has. She spends the day on the bus, working on the bus that travels up and down these beautiful mountains, going to these little villages, picking up people, bringing them to the town at the bottom of the hill. And that’s where she lives, and in that town, there’s a rich family that owns a store; and the son of that rich family is played by Yu Fujiki. Fujiki’s—from Honda’s films, anyway—known for providing comic relief. And he was in a lot of those Salaryman comedy films where he kind of did the same thing. But in this film, An Echo Calls You, he plays a really awful kind of character. And he’s got this domineering mother. She says “Jump!”, he says “How high?”—that kind of thing. And when Ryo Ikebe’s character doesn’t come around and propose to Yukimura, she feels like that’s never going to happen; and this other guy—the rich guy—proposes to her, and she accepts an arrangement where she goes and lives in their home; it’s kind of like bridal training, where she’s under the tutelage of the would-be mother-in-law. And she’s in this big house and she’s being taught social graces and how to behave at parties and all kinds of things…and she just hates it. That’s not her; she’s a free spirit. She’s a free-spirited person, and this is basically a cage with golden bars, you know? And she ends up going back home, and the film has a thrilling climax with some action folded into it that I won’t give away.

Ishiro Honda biography

Galvan: Was it your hope to one day see some of these movies receive a western release?

Ryfle: The primary reason we did all this was to learn about Honda: to create and give the reader a sense of who he was as a filmmaker, in total; give a picture of the entire artist, the entire craftsman, the entire filmmaker. But also, we felt and hope that by writing about these films and exposing readers to them that we’ll create some sort of interest, and that hopefully some of these films—some of the better ones—will be distributed here in some form or fashion. Because it seems to me that the world of film distribution is diversifying in such a way that a distributor doesn’t have to go to the expense of producing physical media anymore. And, as much as I would like to have physical media for everything, it’s no longer really necessary. And so I’m hoping that—maybe through Filmstruck and the Criterion Collection or Eclipse or some avenue in the future—someone will recognize that there’s some treasure here that needs to be preserved and shown to us in the west. And I’m sure you’ve noticed the Criterion Collection online has introduced a number of films (not just Japanese films but films from other countries as well) that have not been distributed through DVD or Blu-ray; they went straight to the streaming service. I support that. I think that’s great, because the market might be such that you can’t justify putting it out on disc, but if you can put it out through the streaming service and give us a chance to see it with subtitles…. Something like Iron Finger (1965) also known as 100 Shot 100 Killed.

Galvan: Oh, I love that movie!

Ryfle: Yeah. I stumbled across that a couple years ago. They also have the sequel, Booted Babe, Busted Boss (1968) also known as Golden Eyes, on there. Those are fun films; and thing is, back in the day and even now, the foreign films we’re exposed to, by and large, are the films that win awards at film festivals or are from artists who are perceived to be pushing the boundaries or are doing something new and exciting. But, you know, for the most part, we don’t—or we haven’t—traditionally been exposed to, say, the mainstream commercial cinema of Japan. Something like 100 Shot 100 Killed or Golden Eyes. That’s mainstream cinema. And so back in the day, those things, if they came to the United States at all, they would’ve been at the theaters specializing in Japanese films for Japanese American communities. (Toho had a number of theaters in places like Los Angeles and Honolulu.) But those films catered toward the Japanese American communities there. They weren’t necessarily arthouse theaters that were exposing film enthusiasts in general to these movies.

So I’m grateful to whoever is behind all that. And I hope that Honda will be part of the mix at some point.

Galvan: Absolutely. Since we’re talking about the other side of Honda’s career: When I was reading the biography, I was delighted to learn Honda considered All Monsters Attack (1969) aka Godzilla’s Revenge to be one of his favorite movies that he made. Would you say Godzilla’s Revenge is the one glimpse western audiences have into Honda’s non-tokusatsu work, because it’s not so much a monster movie but a story about ordinary people?

Ryfle: I think that's a fair thing to say. I don’t really liken it to the dramas and comedies and other off-genre type films he made in the 50s…only because it has this sort of fantasy or dream-state element to it. And that’s very different. But it does have this similar sensitivity to the plight of ordinary people. You know, this takes place after Japan’s economic resurgence. There was a great buildup of economic development leading up to the 1964 Olympics; we write about that a little bit in the book, because it’s reflected in the films and how the attitude toward things like monsters changes, surprisingly enough. But Godzilla’s Revenge/All Monsters Attack takes place after that, and it’s a film about people living on the edges of that economic resurgence. It’s kind of a bleak existence. The father works all the time. One of the things I noticed—and it’s in the book, I think; pointed out anyway—there are no shots of the boy and his father really together. They’re always separated. When the son and the father are talking, the son is on the ground, and the father is in the workplace (which is his train). And there’s one later in the film when the boy’s running away from the sign painter and the father gets out of the train; but they’re separated by a great distance. And I don’t know if they thought about this consciously, but the effect is that it sort of underlines and reinforces the kid’s separation from one of the most fundamentally important relationships of his life at that time. And he and his mother are always apart, except at the end.

Ichiro and bullies from Godzilla's Revenge

I don’t know if it’s such a window into what you’re talking about, but I do think it’s a film that is much, much better than people give it credit for. And I do think it’s one of his best-directed genre films. Primarily because it’s about people rather than, you know, monsters destroying things and people trying to figure out how to get out of that situation—which offers limited opportunities for drama. It’s a human story. What do little kids do when they’re lonely and they’re sad and they’re bullied? They escape to fantasy worlds. I mean, I certainly did this, and you might’ve done it, too; I mean, it’s pretty universal. And yet they combine that sort of universal theme—that universal experience—with the Toho “monsterverse.”

And what I like about the film is it’s sort of a meta-film about the genre. And that’s one of the things I think I had trouble with as a child, watching it. This is a film that if you’re already a fan of the genre, even as a child, a young child—probably ten, eleven years old; however old I was when I saw this thing—I had trouble accepting it. And on a surface level, it was just simply that I knew those scenes all came from other movies that I had seen before, and I rejected that. I thought, “Okay, well, this not anything new.” And at that age, you’re really just watching the movies, primarily, for the monsters to show up, unfortunately. I kind of wish…if that had been the first Godzilla movie I had ever seen, then I probably would’ve better been able to accept it right away as a story about this boy and the things he was going through—which were very similar to the kinds of things that I was going through; I was a kid who was bullied, too. And to have, you know, a place to escape to, where your best friend is Godzilla’s son; and he’s going through things just like you are; and you’re being tutored, essentially by proxy, by Godzilla. I mean, it’s a wonderful script and a wonderful idea. And I really love the way the story of the boy is handled, because it’s not terribly sentimental, either. I don’t consider it to be a treacly movie, at all. And at the end of the movie…. Boy, he really learns how to fight for himself. [laughs] I mean, today, in this sort of post-PC culture, I don’t even know if that film gets made the same way. Maybe it does. But it seems to me there’s a lot of people who would reject that message and write some other ending where he comes to some sort of truce with these kids.

So, for all of those reasons, I really like it. I still see people, all the time, rejecting that film, primarily because of the issue of stock footage. Which is totally beside the point. If you really think about it, the use of stock footage…even though it was originally suggested as a way to make a movie for less money…it’s also a brilliant approach to this story, because this is a kid who has seen all the same movies you have. If you’re a child going to see this movie in 1969 in the theater, your experience is the same as Ichiro’s. You’ve seen all those movies—Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966), Son of Godzilla (1967), etc.—as he has. And so, those things he’s experiencing in his dreams are memories of the movies he saw—and you did. So the stock footage, on that level, makes perfect sense. And it’s brilliant. So I just think anybody who gives that film an open mind will see it’s a wonderful story…and, really, I do think it’s one of his better-directed films.

But I don’t think it’s terribly similar to the films he made in the 50s. Like I said, the early films from the 50s are very pessimistic because they came during and after the Occupation. The economic situation in Japan was pretty bad, especially immediately after the war but even continuing into the 50s, it was pretty difficult for a lot of people. And also, in the wake of the Occupation, Japan is forcibly changed in a lot of ways. And so people are still reconciling with that. And so that turns up in not only Honda’s films. That clash between East and West—which really started during the Meiji Era in full force—that’s kind of like a common theme in all Japanese film, literature, etc.

I’m glad you brought that film up. It’s one of my favorites.

Galvan: Yeah, I rather like it myself. I didn’t so much when I was younger, but with time, I’ve really come to like it and appreciate it for what Honda was going for with that story.

Ryfle: Have you seen the Oshima film Boy (1969)?

Galvan: Oh, Nagisa Oshima?

Ryfle: Yeah.

Galvan: No, I don’t think I have.

Ryfle: Okay, well, here’s something that’s interesting. I’d have to look at the date of it, but I believe Boy was released about six months or thereabouts before Godzilla’s Revenge. If I gave you this synopsis, you’d probably think I’m talking about Godzilla’s Revenge. It’s a story of a bullied boy whose parents are absent much of the time, who escapes his dreary world by playing in garbage dumps and dreaming of a world of giant monsters. Wouldn’t you think I’m talking about Godzilla’s Revenge?

Galvan: Yeah, it sounds a lot like Godzilla’s Revenge!

Ryfle: That is the synopsis for Boy. A one-line synopsis. Now, in Boy, you never see the monsters: he talks about his dreams of them. And the other thing that’s common to these films is they’re both based (loosely) on actual criminal cases. The robbery in Godzilla’s Revenge is loosely based on an armored car robbery that happened about a year or two before—it was at the time the biggest bank heist in Japan’s history. And I believe it’s still unsolved; and movies have been made about that armored car heist. It was a very infamous crime.

the child from Boy (1969)
Boy (1969) d. Nagisa Oshima

Boy, by Oshima, is an entirely different kind of film in that it’s highly stylized. You know that Oshima’s one of the great figures of the Japanese New Wave of that time. If you can get hold of that film…I encourage you to seek it out. It was streaming on Hulu when they had the Criterion Collection; I don’t know if it’s available through Filmstruck right now. But it’s one of Oshima’s best films. It’s very powerful. It’s very, very, very powerfully sad. But it’s just interesting how thematically, and even some plot points between these two films are similar. The parents in Godzilla’s Revenge are good people; they’re just struggling to cope with the times. The reality of the situation is that a two-income household is a necessity: the mother has to work in order for them to get by. And that was a big change in Japanese life. And so the phenomenon of latchkey children became much-talked about, and that was one of the inspirations behind that film. What’s happening to this generation of kids who’re going home to empty houses? But in Boy, the parents are scam artists, and they’re actually using their child in a scam where they fake car accidents and then they extort money out of the drivers. And they actually use the little boy as a pawn in this. They actually make him pretend to be hit by cars: You stand too close to the lane of traffic; and then when a car goes by, you jump as if you’ve been hit; and then the driver pulls over and you pretend to be hurt. And this was based on a real family that was pulling this scam. They would do it in a certain town, and then word would start to get out and the cops would start looking for them; they would get on a train and go to another town and start doing it there. And they were eventually caught, I guess.

It’s interesting, you remember Ichiro wears the yellow cap, right? Those yellow caps were actually a thing. They were sold in Japan for young schoolchildren to wear at that time because, as auto traffic proliferated, it was thought the kids should be wearing something that drivers can see. So that when they’re crossing the street or walking down the sidewalk, the drivers would know they’re there and not hit them. The same thing happens in Boy. Actually, the boy picks out the cap. But that’s the sort of origin of the yellow caps. You notice that a lot of kids are wearing them in a lot of the material that we watch from the 60s and around that time. So that’s where the yellow caps come from.

Ichiro from Godzilla's Revenge and Toshio from Boy
top: All Monsters Attack (1969) d. Ishiro Honda
bottom: Boy (1969) d. Nagisa Oshima

Galvan: Yeah, and that makes sense since Godzilla’s Revenge begins with Ichiro walking home along a very busy highway.

Ryfle: Yep.

Galvan: Okay, in wrapping up this interview, my last couple of questions pertain to research. Regarding Honda’s association with Kurosawa during the 80s-90s, something else I learned from the book was: Honda would sometimes act as a mediator when Kurosawa had an outburst on-set. Having said that, their first film together during this time was Kagemusha (1980), which had a very famous on-set incident. Kagemusha was originally cast with Zatoichi star Shintaro Katsu as the lead; but he and Kurosawa had a major falling out on the first day of shooting, which resulted in Katsu being replaced with Tatsuya Nakadai. Having said that, since Honda was known for settling the flames on Kurosawa’s sets, did he try to stop the argument between Kurosawa and Katsu? Was he even present for this legendary incident, do you know?

Ryfle: I don’t believe he was, but you’re right, he did put out a lot of fires for Kurosawa over the years. That is something I think any of us who are fans of Japanese film would’ve loved to have been present for—that confrontation. But no, there’s no evidence that Honda was there.

Galvan: Leaping forward to Dreams (1990). This actually was discussed in the book, but I want to clarify it here, just for fun. There is that famous story—and it’s been reported many, many times—that Ishiro Honda directed certain sequences in Dreams. Is that true?

Ryfle: Not really. I’ve noticed over the years, at IMDb…I don’t know if it’s still the case, but at one point, Honda was credited on that website as the director of The Tunnel sequence. I don’t really know where those stories originated from. Do you?

Galvan: I don’t know, either, to be honest. But didn’t Honda want to make a movie with a similar story to The Tunnel sequence at some point?

Ryfle: Well, yeah, and that’s in the book, as well.

Galvan: Maybe someone heard about that and speculated, and that speculation got reported as “the truth” and caught fire?

Ryfle: Yeah, I’m sure it was speculation that was repeated and repeated and eventually became “fact.” But I don’t know where that might’ve come from.

the Tunnel sequence in Kurosawa's Dreams

But the interesting thing about Dreams—as you know, it’s a series of vignettes based on Akira Kurosawa’s dreams. But Kurosawa didn’t serve in the war, and the truth is that The Tunnel sequence is very reminiscent of one of Honda’s dreams, a dream that haunted him throughout his life, as we talk about in the book. It was a dream that woke him up regularly. He would awaken in the middle of the night, his wife told us, sometimes screaming. He would have this recurring nightmare of his friends—his fellow soldiers who had been killed in China—standing in a line, their dead souls. And that’s essentially what happens in The Tunnel sequence. There are these Japanese soldiers who were killed at the front, who don’t know they’re dead; and they’re still reporting for duty and they’re following their commander. And it’s very eerie and it has a lot of different meanings, I think.

I think what we were able to document is: Honda, sure, in certain films when Kurosawa was not available or he was incapacitated or whatever the case may be—he trusted Honda totally and Honda was able to step in and direct things when Kurosawa was not. There were pieces of Kagemusha and Ran (1985); there was a little bit of Rhapsody in August (1991) where this took place. But as far as The Tunnel sequence goes, Honda was there; he advised the way the military men should walk and hold their weapons and behave and all sorts of things. He did not direct the sequence, but he was Kurosawa’s counsel and…. You know, it’s something much more than assistant director and yet it’s not a co-director, per se. But certainly he had great influence over that. And I think that the fact that Honda told this story of his nightmare…and certainly Kurosawa had heard it many times…it made its way into the script for this film. There was also the issue of a story that Honda wrote—a treatment that he wrote—about the soul of a dead Japanese soldier returning home after the war. This was an idea that he had pitched at several points in his career and it never got off the ground. So you can see that filtering its way into this sequence as well.

I hope it comes across in the book that Kurosawa relied greatly on Honda during this time for a lot of different things, not the least of which was to put out fires, as you mentioned earlier. But also, you know, Kurosawa was getting up there; and his eyes and ears, his faculties were not what they had been. So sometimes Honda was there acting as another set of eyes and ears. They were extremely close and they were extremely different and, for that reason, extremely compatible. But no one should ever question the fact that Kurosawa was his own director. I don’t think there’s any question about that.

Ishiro Honda by the sea
Image Courtesy of Honda Film Inc.

Galvan: And my final research question pertains to another urban legend regarding Honda. The story that, supposedly, he’d been signed on to direct Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II (1993) but passed away before production could begin. Is there any truth to that legend?

Ryfle: I don’t know it to be true. The family doesn’t seem to know anything about that. But, who knows? I mean, it’s possible that somebody approached him at some point to do that. But my sense is that, by that point, he was done with that kind of film. I really doubt he would’ve been interested in doing it. Sometimes I think those stories are floated to the press because maybe they attract a certain amount of interest and help garner some publicity for a project. I can’t answer it definitively because I wasn’t there and I don’t know what may have transpired. But I don’t believe it, and I don’t know that it’s true.

Galvan: Yeah, and I have read one of David Milner’s interviews with Takao Okawara, who did direct the finished movie. And Okawara says he wasn’t aware of Honda ever being attached to the film at any point, either. But that's not proof of absence, either, I guess.

Ryfle: Yeah.

Galvan: Okay, Steve, I think that’s a good place to wrap things up. I want to thank you for speaking with me about Ishiro Honda and his movies. I share your hope that, eventually, more of his pictures will become available in and outside of Japan so we can see, for ourselves, the other side of Honda’s career. Thank you again for joining me.

Ryfle: Thank you, Patrick. We appreciate your support, and thanks again for the thought and care you’ve put into both these questions and the write-up you did recently about the book. I appreciate it.

Images of Ishiro Honda Courtesy of Honda Film Inc.


Interview: Steve Ryfle (2017)


Author, film historian, and DVD commentator, Steve Ryfle is one of the foremost English-speaking film historians to specialize in kaiju eiga. His latest achievement is the biography Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, which he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Ed Godziszewski.

Date: 10/17/2017
Interviewer: Patrick Galvan


Back to interviews