Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa Review
Author: Richard Pusateri
Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, the first English language biography of the Japanese director, is also a history of Japanese cinema in the twentieth century and a thumbnail sketch of Japanese society during that tumultuous century. Authors Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, describe the social and, to a lesser degree, political path that led director Ishiro Honda to be a social progressive and committed pacifist whose beliefs subtly shaped the characters in his films.
Ryfle and Godziszewski, two of the founding fathers of English language scholarship of Japanese science fiction, and specifically the giant monster movie genre (or kaiju eiga in Japanese), wanted to pay tribute to Ishiro Honda, the director of the most fully realized of those movies. Achieving that required many years of research including traveling to Japan, interviewing Japanese principals, watching Japanese movies, delving into studio archives and using source material written in Japanese. Ryfle and Godziszewski spent that time carefully researching Honda’s life and the product of their labors is a well-crafted, concise and eminently entertaining overview of a fine director’s career beyond kaiju eiga that has been overlooked in North America. An examination of the vicissitudes of the post-war Japanese film industry might sound dry, but Ryfle and Godziszewski keep the pace moving with a good amount of humor and human interest. They remember that the primary goal of these movies was to entertain, and the authors keep the fun in the story while providing the well-documented information.
Their meticulous labors, bringing material from Japanese language sources to English, have paid off richly providing English readers an informative glimpse into Honda’s life from pastoral Japan in the early twentieth century, through World War Two and his career especially during the phenomenal post-war rebuilding of Japanese society and economy. Specifically, this book shows how the economics of the Japanese film industry and that unique studio system brought recurring pressure on the artistic creativity of Honda’s career.
Ishiro Honda is most famous for directing GODZILLA in 1954, and that movie did not just materialize out of a desire to capitalize on the monster movie craze that had begun a few years earlier with movies like THEM and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. Honda’s movie was about something, something bigger than thrilling an audience with spectacle. Most American viewers of GODZILLA are not aware that the plot of that movie is based of the U.S. Castle Bravo test of a fifteen-megaton hydrogen bomb in 1954.
Honda was a veteran of the Imperial Army with several tours of duty during World War Two. His first-hand experience in war made him a witness to the suffering of civilians caught up in that catastrophic violence. This book reminds us how war affected ordinary civilians, which one of the hallmarks of Honda’s films; how catastrophic events impact the everyday lives of working-class people.
Mr. Honda’s pacifism was formed during Imperial Japan’s adventurism in Korea, invasions of Manchuria and China that led to The War in the Pacific as World War Two is known in Japan. Many Japanese films use these historical events as background to stories in popular films. After the belligerence of Japan leading up to World War 2, Japan had a gradual reentry to the family of nations exemplified by the United Nations. This theme of international cooperation manifests in various forms in Honda’s science fiction movies.
One obstacle to many Americans thoroughly appreciating Japanese giant monster movies is a lack of available context. Ryfle and Godziszewski’s book remedies that lack of background for English audiences. The original 1954 GODZILLA was about real historical issues, with multiple layers of allusion to real life Japanese socio-political issues. While directly concerned with the atomic bombing of Japan and testing of the hydrogen bombs, GODZILLA also has a context of natural phenomenon like typhoons, earthquakes and fires, which are integral to Japanese history. Clearly the man-made disaster of war and its effects on civilians is also graphically depicted. A somewhat subtler reference to Japan’s social evolution after World War Two is also touched upon.
The book also describes the development of Mr. Honda’s recurring theme of a contrast between the traditions of older, agrarian society still present in the early twentieth century and the ultra-modern lifestyle of Japanese families during the 1960s and ‘70s. The authors also track Mr. Honda’s interest in the burgeoning role of women in this changing society, especially in interpersonal relationships. Ryfle and Godziszewski point out that Honda frequently featured strong female characters in his movies.
While Honda is most identified with science fiction and giant monster movies, this book also describes his documentary-style features, war movies and less spectacular dramas not released in the United States. His work always had touches of humor and he was proficient in light dramas or melodramatic social studies. Honda’s lifelong friendship with Akira Kurosawa led to a professional working relationship later in Honda’s career after he retired from directing.
Anyone interested in the historical and socio-political contexts of Japanese science fiction and giant monster movies, needs to read this well-researched and crisply written revelatory biography of Ishiro Honda.
[Full disclosure: I have known Mr. Ryfle and Mr. Godziszewski for more than twenty years and been an admirer of their work for even longer. Our friendship allowed me the privilege of providing the tiniest bit of background information and I believe it is possible that I contributed one word to the text.]
Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski: Publisher: Wesleyan University Press, hardcover: 336 pages (Available from Amazon.com)
Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa co-author Steve Ryfle will be discussing the life and career of Ishiro Honda this Wednesday, February 21, 6:30 pm, at Japan Society New York. Complete details can be found here.