Directed by Ishiro Honda - 6/15
Relocating to Kanagawa before starting sixth grade, Honda began to sneak unaccompanied into the cinemas of nearby Sangenjyaya to see movies, preferring adventure stories and historic epics to staid contemporary dramas. By this time he had already decided he would make his living as a film director. Because Yoshihiro Honda's religion prohibited him from attending the cinema, his youngest son often related the stories of the films he had seen, acting out all the parts to move the plot along. As an art major at Kougyokusya Middle School, Honda won top honors in geography and history but showed no interest in physics or chemistry, despite his initial passion for science. In 1931, he graduated to Japan University, where he studied film in a department so under-funded that it contained no equipment or books. When classes were invariably cancelled due to the lack of materials, Honda went to the movies instead. He later joined a film society called The Friday Group, headed by sometime film writer Iwao Mori, who became one of Honda's first mentors.
Through the intercession of Mori, Honda found postgraduate work in the Production Department of PhotoChemical Laboratories, a film development company with ties to the Japanese film industry. Due to the intricate nature of Japan's entertainment infrastructure, it took Honda eighteen years of working as an assistant director to achieve his dream of becoming a director in his own right, during which time he performed every conceivable function behind the camera, from scouting locations and lugging equipment to cutting film and writing scripts. Honda also served a stint in the Japanese Imperial Army, stationed in both Nanking and Manchuria. Coincident with his 1937 army discharge was the merger of PCL and a number of independent film studios into the newly-founded Toho Motion Picture Company. At Toho, Honda frequently assisted director Kajirô Yamamoto and befriended another studio underling, Akira Kurosawa, with whom he would work behind-the-scenes on Yamamoto's Utsukushiki taka (1937) and Eisuke Takizawa's Chinetsu (1938), among other films. It was also at Toho that Honda met his future wife, script girl Kimi Yamazaki, to whom he would be married for more than fifty years.
Following a second stretch in the military as a platoon leader sergeant charged with ferreting out Chinese insurgents, Honda spent six months as a prisoner of war and was repatriated in 1946 by way of Hiroshima, where he saw the devastation wrought by the atom bomb at first hand. In 1949, he was given a chance to direct his first film, a tourist board promo for Ise Island; in addition to overseeing every aspect of the production, Honda designed an underwater camera for use in shooting the labors of pearl divers. That same year he assisted Akira Kurosawa on Stray Dog (1949), scouting locations and directing the second unit, which allowed him to personally photograph star Toshirô Mifune. (Honda even doubled for the film's vaguely-seen villain in Stray Dog, whose character name was given in the end titles as Honda.) Graduating to narrative film, he was put in charge of Toho's historical drama Taiheiyô no washi (Operation Kamikaze, 1953), which featured Toshirô Mifune in a supporting role, and the wartime romance Saraba Rabauru (1954), which benefited from the special effects of Eiji Tsuburaya. Honda's next assignment would forever change his life, and to an extent the direction of science fiction cinema in both East and West.
Horror stories of the after-effects of atomic radiation from the bomb drops at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and atomic testing at Bikini Atoll in 1954 prompted Toho's production of Gojira (1954). Concerned with a revived and supersized dinosaur wreaking havoc in modern day Japan, the film was inspired in part by the American King Kong (1933, re-released in 1952) and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), but reflected deeper Japanese anxieties concerning responsibility, honor, culpability, and guilt. Partnering again with special effects wiz Eiji Tsuburaya for what would be the most expensive motion picture produced in Japan at that time, Honda delivered Japan's first science fiction-horror hybrid, breaking from a tradition of scolding ghost stories to evoke modern day horrors while pointing an accusatory finger at a traditionally militaristic nation and its American occupiers. The ripple effect of the film's release was likened to literal fallout, with American distributor Joseph E. Levine picking up the feature for release in the United States two years later, albeit recut with Hollywood actor Raymond Burr edited into the storyline as a Yankee observer and near victim of Godzilla, King of the Monsters.
For Toho, Honda would continue to direct all manner of motion pictures as a studio employee but he would subspecialize famously in science fiction and what came to be known in Japan as kaiju eiga or "giant monster movies." Though Jû jin yuki otoko (Half Human, 1955), about a yeti terrorizing the tip of Mount Fuji, was a poor follow-up to Gojira, Honda enjoyed greater success with the full color Sora no daikaijû Radon (Rodan, 1956), in which a pair of pterosaurs lay waste to Japanese real estate values, and the fanciful alien invasion caper Chikyû Bôeigun (The Mysterians, 1957). Bijo to Ekitainingen (The H-Man, 1958) melded pulp sci-fi elements with the framework of a crime thriller while Daikaijû Baran (Varan the Invincible, 1958) was a return to kaiju eiga territory - a giant monster movie produced at the behest of ABC-TV in the United States but exhibited theatrically in Japan. Honda rounded out the decade with the full-blown space opera Uchû daisensô (Battle in Outer Space, 1959), focused on another nefarious attempt by extraterrestrials to dominate the Earth and rich in the sort of scale model trickery for which both Honda and Toho would become world famous.
Through the Sixties, Honda was focused primarily on spin-offs and sequels to Gojira, including the giant moth extravaganza Mosura (Mothra, 1961) and Kingu Kongu tai Gojira (King Kong vs. Godzilla, 1962), the "Thrilla in Manila" of kaiju eiga. Deviations from the Toho boilerplate included another sci-fi/crime hybrid, Gasu ningen dai ichigo (The Human Vapor, 1960) and the deeply disturbing Matango (Attack of the Mushroom People, 1963), in which a yacht-load of mainland weekenders are shipwrecked on a damned atoll crawling with unsightly mutations. Forced to bang out the work for Toho, with productivity assigned a higher priority than quality, Honda's output was hit and miss during this period but his distinctive style was evident in such subsequent superproductions as Mosura tai Gojira (Mothra vs. The Thing, 1964), Furankenshutain tai chitei kaijû Baragon (Frankenstein Conquers the World, 1965) and Furankenshutain no kaijû: Sanda tai Gaira (The War of the Gargantuas, 1968). By this time, Honda's films had generated so much international enthusiasm that Hollywood actors, rather than be cut into the films for American distribution (as had been done with Raymond Burr for Godzilla, King of the Monsters) were sent to Japan to work directly with Honda.
Honda's giant monster rally Kaijû sôshingeki (Destroy All Monsters, 1968), in which evil aliens beguile the world's titans to go on a global city-leveling tear, seemed at the time to be his final word on the subject yet kaiju eiga continued for decades afterward, with the director himself helming several more Gojira/Godzilla sequels, including the kid-friendly Gojira-Minira-Gabara: Oru kaijû daishingeki (Godzilla's Revenge, 1969), in which a bullied child learns to cope via an imagined friendship with Godzilla's offspring Minya. Towards the end of his life, Honda's old friend Akira Kurosawa retained his fellow Toho trouper to work on several of his later films, among them Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985), and the omnibus Dreams (1990), for which Honda shared a director's credit. Following Honda's death at age 81 on February 28, 1993, Kurosawa delivered a heartfelt and moving eulogy, marking the passing of a filmmaker whose contributions to cinema had only begun to be appreciated, much less understood.
by Richard Harland Smith