Populism as High Art: Getting to the Heart of Ishiro Honda

A new biography of the groundbreaking -- yet unassuming -- film director explores his multifaceted life and work.

Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa
Steve Ryfle, Ed Godziszewski
Wesleyan University Press
Oct 2017

While not nearly as well-known or celebrated as fellow Japanese contemporaries like Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu, film director Ishiro Honda (1911-1993) enjoyed a career filled with notable and influential work – he was, after all, the man who first brought Godzilla to the big screen. Because of this, Honda’s legacy can be particularly frustrating for his admirers. Not only does his name fail to carry the same recognition factor as his aforementioned countrymen, a definitive Ishiro Honda biography has yet to surface.

Until now. Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, noted scholars of Japanese science-fiction cinema, have crafted what is possibly the definitive study of Honda’s life and work – although it should be noted that at least one other book on Honda exists: Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda by Peter H. Brothers was published in 2009. But Ryfle and Godziszewski have managed to dig even deeper, and have enlisted the aid of Honda’s granddaughter, Yuuko Honda-Yun (who receives a co-author credit here). In addition to jacket blurbs from director John Carpenter and noted film historian Stuart Galbraith IV, Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa also features a brief but typically lively foreword from Martin Scorsese.

Honda’s life story is a fascinating one, despite the fact that he often worked in the shadows of his contemporaries. Born in the tiny rural Japanese mountain village of Asahi in 1911, Honda developed a taste for film at an early age, getting in on the ground floor of then-nascent film studies programs and eventually landing an entry-level job at Photographic Chemical Laboratories (PCL). Waylaid by compulsory military service, Honda served a variety of stints in the Japanese army – experiences that would not only shape the tone of much of his work but would ironically slow down its progress. Contemporaries like Kurosawa, unfettered by military obligations, managed to move forward in the field at a faster clip, but this didn’t seem to bother Honda much. “The eight years I spent at war,” he recalled, “helped me grow as a director. The war, meeting the people of the continent with whom we were fighting, the relationships I established with them, their daily lives. I experienced all of that, as a human being… these things made me grow tremendously.”

In between Honda’s stretches in the service, PCL became Toho, a highly influential film production company that exists to this day. Honda and Kurosawa grew tremendously as artists under Toho, and while Kurosawa evolved into a fiercely independent director of groundbreaking films such as Seven Samurai and Rashomon, Honda was only too happy to make whatever films he could under Toho’s sometimes constraining policies. Described as “unabashedly populist”, Honda insisted on prioritizing the desires of the ticket buyer ahead of any personal agenda. “No matter how artistic a film can be,” he once said, “if no one can appreciate it, it’s no good.”

After assaying film styles such as documentaries (Ise-Shima, Story of a Co-op), technical groundbreakers (The Blue Pearl, which contained revolutionary underwater camera work) and war epics (Eagle of the Pacific, Farewell Rabaul), Honda moved on to his best-known format: the sci-fi monster movie. Beginning with Godzilla in 1954, the director approached this type of work not as a cheesy Mystery Science Theater-style joke but as serious filmmaking. Honda’s wife, Kimi Honda, recalls that “He told (the crew) on the very first day, ‘read the script. If you are not convinced, please let me know immediately and leave the project.’ I remember him saying this very firmly. He only wanted those who had the absolute confidence to work with him on this film.”

Honda continued churning out monster movies for many years until the box office flop Terror of Mechagodzilla in 1975. It was his last directorial work, but in the twilight of his career he reunited with his old friend Kurosawa, serving as assistant director for his five final films. The book’s final chapter, “Rhapsody in Autumn”, details the final years of this lifelong friendship and longstanding partnership. Kurosawa and Godzilla are certainly important markers for the life and art of Ishiro Honda. The former was a friend and contemporary whose work greatly overshadowed his, at least in terms of popularity and film criticism. The latter was the defining commercial – and perhaps artistic – stamp of this quiet, unassuming, technically proficient yet deeply moving director’s work.

Ishiro Honda: A Life in Filmshould be required reading for any fan of Japanese cinema or film in general. If one of the book’s goals is to educate the masses on the multifaceted film career of Ishiro Honda, it should succeed mightily. In the meantime, a handful of Honda’s films (including Godzilla, naturally) are now available on the streaming film channel Filmstruck. Pick up this book, fire up your favorite streaming device, and make a weekend of it. Japan’s hardest-working populist director deserves no less.