Written by Barney Buckley
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When it comes to given some credit for Godzilla’s longevity we have to give it to Ishiro Honda. This is a man whose epic cinematic style sensitivity to the human condition are the enduring qualities of Toho’s Kaiju Eiga. Ishiro Honda will always be remembered as a director of monster movies as he is held at least 25 special-effects films and that includes eight of the first Godzilla films and what I mean by that there is 15 films within the Showa Series of Godzilla films he did eight of them. We need to also keep in mind that even though he is a great director he is also a visionary filmmaker who with Eiji Tsuburaya had transcended the limitations of the Gosselin genre to create great films that remain thoroughly entertaining even to this day.
Ishiro Honda as some people would like to call him Inoshiro he was born on May 7, 1911. He was also born in the Yamagata Prefecture area of Japan. Like Tomoyuki Tanaka he was fascinated with films especially the silent films according to Ishiro Honda he did mention “I was more interested in them them what was happening on the screen “Honda told this to the Tokyo Journal in 1991 he also mentioned “my father was a Buddhist priest and didn’t go to the movies. I come back and, as kids do, I tell him the entire story of whatever I’ve seen… I watched movie theaters being built in regular theaters being turned into movie theaters and eventually I realize there could be pretty well-paying future for me in the business. It all came together: I enjoy telling stories and could find in an industry that was financially successful and artistic to boot.”
Soon after he came out a high school Ishiro Honda did study film at Japan University’s art department. This was during his college years as he entered PCL studios apprentice program this particular group was supervised by Iwao Mori who in fact decades later would greenlight the actual movie Godzilla that came out in 1954. Also the members include Senkichi Taniguchi this is another future Toho director. On August 1933 even before he completed his studies Ishiro Honda was already an accomplished cameraman and he did land a job in PCL’s production department. It would eventually happen that PCL would be absorbed into the Toho company once this happened Ishiro Honda ascended the ranks to become an assistant director.
However Japan’s conquest of Asia I believe that was the one the attack on China interrupted Ishiro Honda’s career. He was eventually drafted into the Imperial Army in 1936 and he did in fact serve three tours as a foot soldier in China and Manchuria. It would be in between his military duties that he when he eventually return to the Toho Studios to work as an assistant director under Kajiro Yamamoto. This particular director did a lot of the war movies for the Toho company. It would be by 1937 the Ishiro Honda first met budding director Akira Kurosawa another of Yamamoto’s protégés with whom he forced a lifetime friendship and created an alliance with.
It was during this particular period of time that Ishiro Honda would meet and marry his wife Kimi who was a Toho script girl if that makes any sense. By 1942 Ishiro Honda was stationed in China he did in fact see the movie “The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya” and was actually wowed by Eiji Tsuburaya special-effects in this film based on the Pearl Harbor sequence. It would be one year later in 1943 of December while Ishiro Honda was working as an assistant director on Yamamoto’s movie “Kato’s Flying Falcon Forces” that Honda actually met and worked with Eiji Tsuburaya for the very first time. It would take many many years for this legendary partnership between these two men to actually develop into a force that we all know today.
It was in a memoir that was asked he published in 1983 Ishiro Honda does recall preparing for a scene wherein a squadron of model fighter planes were to be filmed flying in formation over a bank of clouds made of white cotton. When Soraya inspected how Honda has set up the shot, he wasn’t pleased, and immediately complained to Yamamoto about it. This is what Ishiro Honda had to say about Eiji Tsuburaya “I could tell Eiji was not happy with the width of the stage, the cloud material or the method used to operate the model [plane],” Ishiro Honda also wrote in “the Complete History of Toho Special-Effects Movies.” And this is what he had to say “I couldn’t help feeling like a failure, but Yamamoto was very reassuring and help soothe my feelings.” As you can already see this guy is a very sensitive and adamant person.
By 1945 Ishiro Honda was now stationed along the Yangtze River in central China although was captured and held prisoner of war for about a half a year it was during his incarceration that he learned of the atomic bombing and Japan’s surrender he wasn’t even in Japan when it happened. You probably can imagine what’s going through his mind when he found out about the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima I’m sure all kinds of crazy feelings were going through his head at that time. It was after the war that Ishiro Honda would eventually return to Japan and continue his moviemaking skills and work with other different production companies due to the labor strife at the Toho Studios he had to work with these other companies to make ends meet. In 1949 he was a chief assistant director to cure Kurosawa was film they call “Stray Dog” this particular story was about a young cop (Toshiro Mifune) whose gun is stolen and used in a series of crimes.
By 1949 and 1950 Ishiro Honda when you want to do two documentaries the first one is called “The Story of the Collaborative Union” and “The Legend of ISE Shima” by the end of these two documentaries it would eventually lead him back to the Toho company. There he would do his actual first directing of a Toho film it was called “The Blue Pearl” it came out in 1951 and he was a movie about female pearl divers. Within the next two years we would see Ishiro Honda directing five more feature films that also included “The Man Who Came to Port” which came out in 1952 it also starred Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura and they were Japanese whalers in this film.
During the filming of “The Man Who Came to Port” this would be the first time was the first collaboration directly with Eiji Tsuburaya who actually use rear screen projection to make the Japanese actors appear as if they were at the South Pole.
He would work with Eiji Tsuburaya on several other films and after February 1954 they were scheduled to do a film called Bukushi Sanjiro however thankfully that particular film was canceled and Ishiro Honda was instead chosen to direct the film that would forever change the world and science-fiction cinema “Godzilla.” What Honda did with this film is he approached it more like a war drama with a documentary straightforwardness feel to it rather than a monster or science-fiction movie and that is why this film is so classic in nature and no other Godzilla film has ever come close to this one.
Ishiro Honda wanted Godzilla to actually be represented as the bomb was foremost in his mind it was after the war that Ishiro Honda visit the devastated area of Hiroshima and was haunted by the images and he wanted the monster to convey the same horrific, destructive power. Ishiro Honda did mention that most of the visual images he got from the war experience and this was done in an interview published in Toho S.F. Special-Effects Movie Series Volume 3 this is what he had to say in a quote “after the war, all of Japan, as well as Tokyo, was left in ashes. The atomic bomb had emerged and completely destroyed Hiroshima….If Godzilla had been a very ancient dinosaur or just some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we would know what to do. So I took the characteristics of the atomic bomb and apply them to Godzilla.”
Ishiro Honda would do a total of 44 feature films however in his opinion Godzilla would be his best work and I have to agree on that. Though I’ve never seen any of his other films at least not to my knowledge after Godzilla Ishiro Honda would make a variety of melodramas and like comedies however he was a grizzly called upon to work with the Toho Studios and make some more Kaiju movies is by the mid-1960s that he was exclusively a monster movie director as you can see the pattern because he’s done so many of the Kaiju movies that they nominated him as the official Kaiju director. Ishiro Honda would sometimes decline working on certain films if he felt the scripts for these films did not move him he would not do these films because I very reason.
It was during interview with “Cult Movies” and magazine shortly before his death Honda explained in his absence from the Godzilla series from 1966 to 1967 and 1970 to 1974 this way: this is what he had to say “there was scheduling problems, and also, Toho decided that they did not want people to feel that monster films had to be directed by me….Frankly I was having a hard time humanizing Godzilla the way Toho wanted anyway.” He also mentioned that during the scene where Mothra intercedes between feuding Rodan and Godzilla in the movie “Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster particularly bothered him, and he would have found it difficult to direct the “Son of Godzilla”
During an interview in 1995 Ishiro Honda’s wife told the magazine that Ishiro Honda prefer sci-fi side is like “The Mysterians” and “Gorath” that focused on the need for nations to unite in the face of world destruction and he was worried about being pigeonholed. Ishiro Honda also mentioned “I’m not sure if the success of the Godzilla movies was a good thing or not,” this is what Kimi Honda said “they were so popular Mr. Honda became trapped. He had to work on them.” Despite all the differences here Mr. Honda continued to repeatedly deliver a sci-fi spectacles of epic proportions.
Eisei Amamoto once said a nice thing about Ishiro Honda he did mention in a quote “he was a very interesting man,” and this was told to guide talker in Ultra-Fan Magazine. He also said “he was a romantic, but he didn’t like to express his own nature too much. The company made him into the director of special-effects movie, and I was all; he didn’t get to show much of his own personality.”
Eventually Ishiro Honda would take a hiatus from film directing after the movie “Yog Monster from Space” which came out in 1969 in Japan and in 1970 here in the United States. During the 1960s and early 70s he would supervise and re-added eight of the monster films reduce and enter matinee life a process he describes as “destroying” himself or the Toho Champion festivals a series of rereleases to exclusively kiddie audiences. He also forayed into television by doing certain TV programs for Tsuburaya Productions such as The Return of Ultraman, Mirror Man, and Fireman.
Ishiro Honda’s last film would be “Terror of Mechagodzilla” which came out in 1975 however you would think by this time his film career was over but it was far from over. He does in fact reunite with Akira Kurosawa’s friend of nearly 60 years Ishiro Honda has contributed to screenplays and directed scenes for five films on which he was billed as associate director with movies such as “ Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior” which came out in 1980, “Ran” which came out in 1985 Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams Which Came out in 1990 and He Directed the Segment Called “The Tunnel”, Rhapsody in August which came out in 1991 he directed the segment they call “The Buddhist Ceremony” and Madadayo which came out in 1992.
Ishiro Honda died at 11:30 PM on February 28, 1993, at Kona Hospital at Setagaya, Tokyo at the age of 80 one of respiratory failure brought on by heart problems. Many many of his friends and colleagues attended a memorial service in Tokyo on March 6. However Ishiro Honda long for nuclear disarmament did not live long enough to see his dream come true. With the mutual destruction of nuclear warheads by the US and Russia in recent years. It may have helped him to rest easier. Ishiro Honda has mentioned that he was adamant about nuclear disarmament he was very passionate about that because ever since he came back from the war and saw Hiroshima and its destruction and this is what he had to say “it is said that the number of atomic bombs hasn’t been reduced even by one since 1954. Honda also said “we’d really like to demand all abolition of nuclear weapons to both America and Russia. That is where Godzilla’s origin is. No matter how many Godzilla movies are produced, it is never enough to explain the theme of Godzilla.”