Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Monsters and Friends

When I was a child, like kids everywhere, Japanese monster films from the 1950s through the 1970s were among my favorite movies. The list of titles of films I'd watch whenever they were on TV -- Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, King Kong vs Godzilla, Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster, Destroy All Monsters, War of the Gargantuas, and lots more -- was a long one. At some point, I became aware that the director of so many of these films was Ishiro Honda. I realized, even after I stopped watching these films on a regular basis, that based on the sheer pleasure I'd derived from watching his films, I'd have to consider Ishiro Honda one of my all-time favorite filmmakers. Still, I knew virtually nothing about the man. I don't even think I ever looked him up on Wikipedia. I just kind of took him for granted as the man who'd made these movies with their immortal monster characters and fantastic battles...Well, that's all changed now, because I've read Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski.

Extensively researched, this is essentially the first comprehensive look in English at Honda's life and long career. It covers every film he ever made, and Honda made over 40 features. Nearly half of these were not monster or sci-fi films; the word for Honda was versatile. He directed comedies, social-drama-type films, documentary-like studies of far-flung areas in Japan, even a biographical film about a professional pitcher later inducted into the Japanse baseball Hall of Fame. Ryfle and Godziszewski cover all these, and though these films are not available in English to watch, they are fascinating to read about. They give a full picture of Honda that goes well beyond the image of the man standing on a set with an actor in a Godzilla suit. Of course, the monster and sci-fi films are discussed in detail, and the collaborative aspect of these works is analyzed, in particular the contributions of the special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya and the man behind these films' soundtracks, composer Akira Ifukube. 

One thing I had no inkling of was that Honda and Akira Kurasawa were long-time friends, dating back to when they were both aspiring filmmakers at the fledgling Toho Studios in the 1930s. Two people of more different temperaments you could not imagine: Kurasaw, ever headstrong, turbulent, with a big ego, determined to make films his way come hell or high water; Honda a quiet person, even-keeled, who almost never lost his composure and who for decades made films on assignment for Toho, doing his very best with whatever material he had to work with. Over time, their careers led them in direction directions, but then when Honda's had effectively ended as a feature filmmaker and he was playing golf in retirement, Kurasawa asked him to be at his side and work together with him on a film he was making. "If I can be of any assistance to you, sure. Anytime," said Honda, and so began a collaboration unlike other I can think of in the history of film. You had a renown director who'd retired, a man able to do most anything on set, and he spent the last several years of his life and career as the go-to person for any number of things, technical and emotional, for another director, who happens to be an all-time great. This was for the last five films Kurasawa made, from Kagemusha (1980) to Madadayo (1993), and after Honda died in 1993 at age 81, Kurasawa never made another film. The story of the friendship between these two is itself quite a story, and Ryfle and Godzisweski's book closes on it, a touching ending to a book about a life well and fully lived.

If you like Honda's films or Japanese cinema in general, this book is a must.

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