Godzilla’s Conscience: The Monstrous Humanism of Ishiro Honda

D irector Ishiro Honda gathered his crew and gave them an ultimatum. He was about to put his career at risk, and he would only work with those who approached his current project—a movie about a radiation-spewing prehistoric reptile that destroys Tokyo—with the utmost seriousness, as he himself did. “He told them . . . ‘Read the script. If you are not convinced, please let me know immediately and leave the project,’” Kimi Honda, the director’s wife, recalled years later. “He only wanted those who had the absolute confidence to work with him on this film.”

It was the spring of 1954, and Honda was readying to direct Godzilla. As the first movie of its kind produced in Japan—and one of the most expensive movies made in the country to date—it was an audacious project for the filmmaker, for Toho Studios, and for a domestic film industry that had been left devastated and demoralized after World War II but was now resurgent. During the fifties and sixties, the masters of postwar Japanese film (Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Masaki Kobayashi, Mikio Naruse, Nagisa Oshima, Kon Ichikawa, and many others) would produce a bumper crop of exemplary, enduring cinema, acclaimed at home and abroad. Concurrently, a generation of studio-contracted directors would crank out commercial program pictures for the domestic market—dramas, comedies, period pictures, gangster pictures, and musicals—with efficiency and hit-making skill. Honda was among the latter group, but he would forge a unique path as Japan’s foremost director of kaiju eiga, or giant-monster movies. While the works of Kurosawa et al. were limited to art-house distribution abroad, Honda’s films played to mainstream moviegoing audiences in the U.S. and across the West, and they have subsequently become ensconced in the pop-culture pantheon. Honda’s influence is undeniable: as one of the creators of the modern disaster film, he helped set the template for countless blockbusters to follow, and a wide array of filmmakers—including John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton, and Guillermo del Toro—have expressed their admiration for his work. Yet the full scale of his achievements has only recently begun to be appreciated.

But it all started with Honda’s sober-minded approach to the original Godzilla. Other directors had begged off the project, believing it was ridiculous, and that it would likely end up a laughingstock. But to Honda, this was no joke. Working with the special-effects genius Eiji Tsuburaya, who devised the genre’s signature combination of “suitmation” (a man-in-suit monster) and precisely constructed miniature sets, Honda created a monochrome masterpiece of sci-fi horror punctuated by extensive destruction sequences that elicited real-life fears of nuclear terror. Images of Tokyo smoldering in the wake of the monster, of irradiated civilians setting off Geiger counters, and of the Japanese military overmatched by the seemingly indestructible foe helped turn Honda’s entertainment spectacle into a cautionary tale about the atomic power that had not long ago been unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya on the set of Godzilla

From an early age, Honda was fascinated by the power of cinema. The son of a Buddhist monk, Honda was born on May 7, 1911, in Asahi, a small agricultural village in Yamagata Prefecture, high in the mountains of Tohoku. But it wasn’t until his family moved to Tokyo, while Honda was still in grade school, that he experienced the fast-modernizing Japan of the Meiji era. At a school assembly, he saw his first motion picture, a silent American western (likely one of the Universal Bluebird photoplays, which were extremely popular in Japan from 1916 to 1919), and by the third and fourth grade he was frequenting cinemas to see ninja shorts starring Matsunosuke Onoe and films imported from the West. During a screening of F. W. Murnau’s classic The Last Laugh (1924), an older brother explained to young Honda that films were made by a kantoku (director) who oversaw the action. This realization proved inspiring, and later, when it was time to attend university, Honda reneged on a family commitment to enroll in dental school and instead joined Nihon University’s fledgling film program, which led to an apprenticeship at P.C.L., the studio that would eventually become Toho.

Meanwhile, a climate of nationalism was rising, following the Manchurian Incident in 1931 and Japan’s further advances into China. In the fall of 1934, Honda was a twenty-three-year-old assistant-director trainee (learning all aspects of production, from camera operation to editing, writing, costumes, props, scheduling, budgeting, film printing, and more) when he received his first draft notice. Over the next decade, his dream of ascending to the director’s chair was deferred as he was summoned to the war in China repeatedly. An unenthusiastic soldier, he endured these trying years of brutal conditions at the front—including long separations from Kimi and their two children, a firefight in which he barely escaped death, and being captured and held as a prisoner of war—while back home fellow studio trainees passed him by, including his friend Akira Kurosawa. In early 1946, Honda returned home, his train passing the ruins of Hiroshima en route, a sight that would forever haunt him. He rejoined Toho, but with the movie industry in economic and political straits after the war, Honda would not direct his first feature until he was forty years old. His debut, the tragic romantic drama The Blue Pearl (1951), was set in a rustic village of pearl divers in a postwar Japan still under American occupation, focusing on the rift between big-city, Western-influenced values and older rural traditions. It received an A rating from the respected trade journal Kinema junpo.

Honda followed The Blue Pearl with a handful of similarly subdued postwar dramas, then had his first breakout hit with Eagle of the Pacific (1953), the fateful saga of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and the attack on Pearl Harbor and its aftermath. Then came the downbeat action drama Farewell Rabaul (1954), about Japanese pilots in the war’s ominous last days. It was the success of these pictures, both of which featured effects sequences by Tsuburaya, that ultimately landed Honda the Godzilla assignment. The monster epic was indeed a major career risk for all involved; if the film had turned out poorly, and if it had flopped at the box office, then Honda, Tsuburaya, and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who had come up with the idea, would have answered to the studio brass that had spent a then-astronomical budget of about 275,000 U.S. dollars on the production. But Godzilla was a major domestic hit, and also the first foreign film to receive widespread distribution in the U.S., albeit in altered form, as Godzilla, King of the Monsters, with Raymond Burr cleverly spliced into the drama. Toho rushed the sequel Godzilla Raids Again (1955) into production, but due to a scheduling conflict Honda did not direct it; in fact, it would be several years before he became Japan’s most prolific director of sci-fi and monster films. In the second half of the fifties, Honda honed his directing style with a series of warmhearted dramas and comedies about young Tokyoites navigating a landscape of economic recovery and changing cultural values. Of these, Mother and Son (1955), Good Luck to These Two (1957), and Song for a Bride (1958) are standouts, though they—like all of Honda’s nongenre pictures—were not distributed outside Japan. Many Honda films of this period center on the plight of women in the male-dominated postwar society, somewhat resembling the work of the great director Mikio Naruse, with whom Honda had briefly apprenticed. Tanaka, in fact, once confessed, “I am responsible for tying Ishiro Honda to special-effects movies. If I hadn’t, he might have become a director just like Naruse.”

“Honda became known as a director with a subtle way of coaxing performances from actors, and one who never raised his voice on set.”

Ishiro Honda directing Akihiko Hirata on the set of Godzilla

Thus, in between the dramas and comedies he loved making, Honda was increasingly called upon to direct Toho’s popular genre pictures. Among these are Rodan (1956, streaming on the Criterion Channel, alongside many of Honda’s Godzilla films), wherein the director instills the story of a prehistoric flying monster terrorizing Japan with tragedy and a sense of awe; The Mysterians (1957), Honda and Tsuburaya’s alien-invasion salute to the 1953 War of the Worlds; and The H-Man (1958), in which fishermen exposed to an H-bomb test (a nod to the fate that in 1954 befell the crew of the Japanese tuna trawler the Lucky Dragon No. 5, a tragedy that had also served as a key inspiration for Godzilla) turn into nuclear goblins that terrorize Tokyo. Through it all, Honda became known as a director with a subtle way of coaxing performances from actors, and one who never raised his voice on set. He rarely coached performers or gave specific direction, but he could be demonstrative when necessary: during the filming of Godzilla, while shooting the famous scene where the monster appears over a mountain, Honda became impatient with newcomer Akira Takarada’s half-hearted effort to rescue the ingenue (Momoko Kochi) from danger. Honda picked up the actress in his arms and ran down the hill, saying, “This is how you save someone!” He was not a visual stylist, leaning on his art directors and directors of photography (particularly Hajime Koizumi, who shot most of Honda’s sci-fi and other films from the late fifties to the late sixties) to help define the look of his films; instead, Honda concentrated on finding the most effective dramatic means of expressing the movies’ often socially conscious themes. As Japan joined the United Nations and established itself as a peaceful, economically resurgent country, Honda’s genre films became more optimistic. In Battle in Outer Space (1959), Gorath (1962) and Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964, among the best Godzilla sequels), Honda highlighted the need for cooperation among nations to solve challenges facing the planet.

After the enormous box-office success of Mothra (1961), Honda would work almost exclusively on kaiju pictures for the remainder of his career; though he would harbor disappointment and resentment at being so pigeonholed, he remained loyal to Toho and would not protest. Some of Honda and Tsuburaya’s most entertaining films came in the decade following Mothra. King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), which cleverly spoofed Japanese television programming, was a major sensation and remains the best-attended Toho Godzilla film in Japan. Atragon (1963) melded the mystery of a lost continent with an antiwar theme, expressing misgivings over imperial Japan’s legacy. And Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) saw Godzilla convert from villain to hero when confronted with its ultimate nemesis, the flying, lightning-spitting space dragon of the title.

“Honda’s films were distributed around the world more widely than those of any other Japanese filmmaker prior to Hayao Miyazaki.”

Honda’s value to Toho lay not only in the domestic box-office returns but also the money his films netted in foreign sales to the U.S., Europe, and other territories. Beginning in the midsixties, Toho began partnering with American producers to help cover production costs, casting fading or second-tier American stars in leading roles, giving Honda’s productions increased international potential. Honda had a good rapport with Nick Adams, who starred in Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), in which Godzilla and Rodan fend off alien invaders and their monster minion, King Ghidorah; and Frankenstein Conquers the World (also 1965), wherein the Hiroshima bomb gives rise to a giant, mutant Frankenstein monster that battles a giant reptile in the Japanese mountains. But some of Honda’s international coproductions were fraught with tensions. Honda reportedly had trouble reining in a rebellious Russ Tamblyn on the set of the wild-and-woolly Frankenstein sequel The War of the Gargantuas (1966, also streaming on the Criterion Channel); Rhodes Reason, Honda’s leading man in King Kong Escapes (1967), would later dismiss the director as a “hack”; and Latitude Zero (1969), an undersea sci-fi adventure incorporating Honda’s pro-science, pro-peace ideals, saw him directing Joseph Cotten, Cesar Romero, Richard Jaeckel, and others from an English-language script, but the production nearly collapsed when the American producers defaulted on their half of the costs.

By the end of the sixties, the Japanese movie industry was contracting, largely on account of the dominant popularity of television programming. Film budgets shrank; permanent contracts with actors, directors, and crew members were ended; and the Godzilla series was eventually relegated to kiddie matinee releases. By the time Honda made All Monsters Attack (1969), just a year after delivering the spectacular fan favorite Destroy All Monsters, budgetary limitations meant he was forced to utilize large amounts of monster footage recycled from previous films (nevertheless, All Monsters Attack is a mini-masterpiece of children’s entertainment). After the death of Eiji Tsuburaya in 1970, Toho restructured its special-effects staff, and the quality of their work would noticeably decline. No longer able to make films with the same production values as before, Honda notified Toho of his retirement. He dabbled in occasional television directing on Tsuburaya Productions’ The Return of Ultraman (1971–72) and other effects-laden shows, before returning to direct his final feature, Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), one of the stronger Godzilla films of that decade. And that might have been it for Honda if not for a chance meeting on the golf course with his old friend Akira Kurosawa in the late seventies. Kurosawa would pull Honda out of retirement to become his right-hand man, acting as a second-unit director as well as a confidant, fixer, and occasional substitute director. Together they worked on Kurosawa’s last five features: Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985), Dreams (1990), Rhapsody in August (1991), and Madadayo (1993). Honda died in 1993 of lung cancer, and Kurosawa, deeply saddened by the loss, would read the eulogy at his funeral.

Honda’s films were distributed around the world more widely than those of any other Japanese filmmaker prior to Hayao Miyazaki. In addition to having been embedded in popular culture for decades—Brad Pitt, for one, has credited The War of the Gargantuas with sparking his love of cinema as a child—his movies have also proved influential for their craft: John Carpenter has gone so far as to call Honda “one of my personal cinematic gods.” Yet only relatively recently, with the 2004 art-house release of the director’s cut of Godzilla across the U.S., did Honda begin to receive recognition befitting his achievements. Today, nearly all of Honda’s genre films are available on home video in the U.S. as they were intended to be seen: in their original director’s cuts, in Japanese with English subtitles. (In Japan, newfound interest his Honda’s nongenre films has also arisen in recent years, though to date these remain unreleased outside Japan.)

With unparalleled deftness, Honda wove undeniably serious messages into unabashedly populist entertainments; in this, he can be seen as somewhat ahead of his time. He described his personal philosophy as “humanism,” and sought to convey, through his films, positive messages of cooperation and understanding. And though he never won prestigious awards, he was proud of his works’ endurance. “It was definitely my pleasure that I was able to make something that people can remember,” Honda said later in life. “If I had not made Godzilla or The Mysterians . . . it wouldn’t be the same. There is nothing like the happiness I get from those [movies].”