The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda

For the past week the Bay Area has played host to a Godzillathon taking place at Viz Cinema in San Francisco’s Japan Town. This Godzilla film festival started on May 5th and ends tonight on May 13th with a showing of Yoshimitsu Banno’s film Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971). The Godzillathon coincided with what would have been film director and writer Ishiro Honda’s 99th birthday on May 7th. Ishiro Honda directed the original Godzilla film but he was also responsible for many other popular science fiction and fantasy films produced in Japan.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend the spectacular Godzillathon event so I consoled myself by spending my time reading Peter H. Brothers’ recent book, Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda. This 282 page book chronicles the life and films of one of Japan’s most beloved and prolific filmmakers. Although Honda’s name is legendary in Japan, the director is still relatively unknown in the US. One reason for this is the lack of information that has been readily available about Ishiro Honda in English. Peter H. Brothers has set out to change that with Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda, which happens to be the first English language book about this important Japanese director.

Brothers’ book begins with a thoughtful look at Ishiro Honda’s long career behind the camera before delving into the director’s life and reviewing his films. Although Honda is mainly known as the filmmaker behind the original Godzilla film, he made 82 movies during his lifetime as well as documentary shorts and directed episodes of popular Japanese superhero television programs such as Ultraman Returns and Zone Fighter. Honda also collaborated with the acclaimed filmmaker Akira Kurosawa on six of his films including Stray Dog (1949), Ran (1985), Dreams (1990) and Rhapsody in August (1991) but the book limits its focus to Ishiro Honda’s contributions to science fiction and fantasy cinema which was the director’s specialty.

The book details Honda’s working relationship with Toho Studios as well as his longtime producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, special effects guru Eiji Tsuburaya and composer Akira Ifukube. It also offers readers an inside look at Ishiro Honda’s directing and writing methods that were integral to the success of his films. The author doesn’t shy away from delving into the technical aspects of Honda’s work but the book never comes across as a dry academic read. It’s obvious that Peter H. Brothers is first and foremost a fan of Ishiro Honda’s films and I appreciated his personal take on his subject.

Throughout Ishiro Honda’s long career he considered himself a documentary filmmaker who shot “natural dreams.” Honda’s observational approach to filmmaking is reflected in the narrative structure of his movies as well as the personal way that he shot them. Honda wasn’t all that interested in scaring his audience and the monsters in his films were usually depicted as sympathetic creatures. Villains were almost completely absent from Honda’s work. He genuinely believed that there were no evil people in the world; only unfortunate circumstances that made people (or monsters) act against their own interests as well as humanities. The director rarely choose to focus on one or two main characters since he was much more concerned with group dynamics. Individuals were usually forced to unite and act together in order to stop the rampaging monsters. The absence of lone heroes and villains from Honda’s monster movies made them very different from their American counterparts. Honda also liked to shoot on location whenever possible and he spent a surprising amount of time filming unknown actors and extras who were featured in crowd and reaction shots or as part of the military force trying to save the Japanese public from whatever disasters were taking place.

Ishiro Honda’s life is as fascinating as the films he made and the book provides readers with an interesting look at the man behind the movies. Beginning with Honda’s humble beginnings as the son of a priest, through his college years and his harrowing experiences as a solider in the Japanese military during WW2, Brothers’ book smartly illustrates how Honda’s experiences shaped his films and dictated his approach to directing. Brother’s book is sadly missing any images that would have greatly enhanced my own reading experience but he colors it with interview outtakes and quotes from Honda himself that really add to the book’s personal approach. Ishiro Honda’s own words make it obvious that the director was an extremely modest man who was never completely satisfied with the films he made. The budget limitations of the Japanese studio system often worked against Honda’s creative impulses and throughout most of his life he wasn’t fully aware of how much his work had inspired and influenced audiences around the world.

I try to express in my films things that no other art can approach. In my monster films for example, I use special effects in the same way one would use a special film stock, a special camera, and so on. Monster films permit me to use all of these elements at the same time. They are the most visual kind of film.” – Ishiro Honda

The book ends with reviews of the 25 fantasy and science fiction films that Honda directed during his lifetime including Godzilla (1954), Rodan (1956), The Mysterians (1957), Mothra (1961), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Matango (1963), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), Frankenstein vs. Baragon (1965), The War of the Gargantuas (1966), Destroy All Monsters (1968), Latitude Zero (1969) and his last film, Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). Peter H.  Brothers’ enthusiasm for his subject is apparent on every page and I appreciated his thoughtful insights into Honda’s work. The author also has a good sense of humor and knows when to inject some fun into his writing. Most of Ishiro Honda’s science fiction and fantasy films have become available on DVD in recent years so the book indirectly provides readers with a helpful guide to these movies if you plan to rent or purchase them. After reading Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda I was inspired to re-watch some of Honda’s films myself and I definitely felt as if I was seeing them through a new set of eyes thanks to Brothers’ book.

Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda is a welcome addition to the new batch of books released in the last 5 years discussing the importance of Godzilla such as August Ragone’s Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, William M. Tsutsui’s Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters and David Kalat’s A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series. What separates Peter H. Brothers’ book from the rest is its concentration on the director of the films instead of the special effects or the monster. In the future I would love to see Brothers release a revised addition of his book that covers all of Honda’s films and delves even deeper into his directing career. Peter H. Brothers self-published his book and I applaud his efforts. He brings 30 years of writing experience and a lifetime of interest in Honda’s movies to his work. Anyone who is interested in learning more about the director and his films should find Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda to be a worthwhile read.

12 Responses The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda
Posted By Suzi : May 13, 2010 11:17 pm

This is the perfect post to read before our weekend event at Facets. Some of our former staff have made a movie called PIRANHA-MAN vs. WOLF MAN, and we are screening it at midnight on Saturday. I am sure Honda is looking down on us and smiling. Thanks for the heads up about this book.

Posted By Suzi : May 13, 2010 11:17 pm

This is the perfect post to read before our weekend event at Facets. Some of our former staff have made a movie called PIRANHA-MAN vs. WOLF MAN, and we are screening it at midnight on Saturday. I am sure Honda is looking down on us and smiling. Thanks for the heads up about this book.

Posted By Medusa : May 14, 2010 11:36 am

Great post on a director who gave so many of us countless hours of pure entertainment plus a glimpse into a different culture and mindset. I love the original “Godzilla” so many of his other films. I haven’t read this or the other books you mentioned, so I have some catching up to do! So many of us used to think we were alone in loving these movies — obviously not!

Posted By Medusa : May 14, 2010 11:36 am

Great post on a director who gave so many of us countless hours of pure entertainment plus a glimpse into a different culture and mindset. I love the original “Godzilla” so many of his other films. I haven’t read this or the other books you mentioned, so I have some catching up to do! So many of us used to think we were alone in loving these movies — obviously not!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 14, 2010 1:39 pm

Suzi – Best of luck with your Facets event! PIRANHA-MAN vs. WOLF MAN sounds like a fun film.

Medusa – It’s been great to see Japanese cinema get some much needed critical attention in recent years. Lots of movies I thought I’d never see are now available on DVD. Peter H. Brothers book makes a nice companion read with August Ragone’s Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, which focuses on the man responsible for the special effects in Ishiro Honda’s films. I used to have to scrounge around for various back issues of old zines to find information about Honda’s movies but I’m glad I can just grab a book off my shelf now.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 14, 2010 1:39 pm

Suzi – Best of luck with your Facets event! PIRANHA-MAN vs. WOLF MAN sounds like a fun film.

Medusa – It’s been great to see Japanese cinema get some much needed critical attention in recent years. Lots of movies I thought I’d never see are now available on DVD. Peter H. Brothers book makes a nice companion read with August Ragone’s Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, which focuses on the man responsible for the special effects in Ishiro Honda’s films. I used to have to scrounge around for various back issues of old zines to find information about Honda’s movies but I’m glad I can just grab a book off my shelf now.

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : June 3, 2010 5:19 pm

[...] Lindbergs on June 3, 2010 After recently reading and writing about Peter H. Brothers’ book Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda, I was motivated to watch one of Honda’s lesser-known films that I hadn’t had the [...]

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : June 3, 2010 5:19 pm

[...] Lindbergs on June 3, 2010 After recently reading and writing about Peter H. Brothers’ book Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda, I was motivated to watch one of Honda’s lesser-known films that I hadn’t had the [...]

Posted By Gekko P. : September 13, 2011 5:44 am

Thanks to this fantastic review, I bought the book. What a fine read. Maybe not everything there is to know about Honda, but it’s a very good start. Hope to read more like this soon.

Posted By Gekko P. : September 13, 2011 5:44 am

Thanks to this fantastic review, I bought the book. What a fine read. Maybe not everything there is to know about Honda, but it’s a very good start. Hope to read more like this soon.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 15, 2011 6:11 pm

I’m glad you enjoyed it, Gekko! I really liked the book as well and with so little information available about Honda, it really is a valuable read for fans of his work.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 15, 2011 6:11 pm

I’m glad you enjoyed it, Gekko! I really liked the book as well and with so little information available about Honda, it really is a valuable read for fans of his work.

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