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Posts Tagged ‘Ishiro Honda’

Ishirô Honda

On the occasion of his 99th birthday, we revisit this profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who oversaw the SF films produced by Toho Co., Ltd., for four decades, and director Ishirô (aka Inoshirô) Honda (1911-93) were two of the most consistent creative forces behind the kaiju eiga (giant monster) genre. Honda joined PCL Studios—later to be absorbed by Toho—in 1933, and rose through the ranks from cameraman to assistant director.

In that capacity, Honda often worked alongside rising star Akira Kurosawa, and went on to assist his friend, Japan’s most celebrated director, on Nora Inu (Stray Dog, 1949) and others. He alternated filmmaking with eight years of military service, including a period as a prisoner of war in China, and made his feature-film directorial debut with Aoi Shinju (The Blue Pearl, 1951).

Honda formed a talented troika with Tanaka and special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya on such early efforts as Minato e Kita Otoko (aka The Man Who Came to Port, 1952) and Saraba Rabaura (Farewell Rabaul, 1954). Along with composer Akira Ifukube and several key writers, this became the creative team that would stun the world with Gojira (Godzilla, 1954) and its ilk.

Having visited the ruins of Hiroshima in 1946, Honda evoked those memories in scenes of mass destruction by Godzilla, a mutated dinosaur that—significantly—levels Tokyo with his radioactive breath. A far cry from some of the more colorful sequels, the original was somber in tone and shot in black and white, co-starring Kurosawa mainstay Takashi Shimura as a scientist.

Gojira’s magnificent score by Ifukube introduced a theme that would be used throughout the series, and it featured soon-to-be kaiju regulars Akira Takarada and Akihiko Hirata. As with many Toho films, it was dubbed, retitled, and extensively recut, interpolating scenes of Raymond Burr for American appeal, when it was released here as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! in 1956.

Jû Jin Yuki Otoko (Beast Man Snow Man, 1955) underwent a similar fate, butchered and released in the U.S. as Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman (1957), with scenes featuring genre stalwarts John Carradine and Morris Ankrum. Like Gojira, the original starred Takarada and Momoko Kôchi, and was scripted by Takeo Murata from Shigeru Kayama’s story.

Honda and Murata began building a stable of kaiju “stars” with the titular pteranodon in Sora no Daikaijû Radon (Rodan, Monster from the Sky, 1956). Murata’s co-scripter, Takeshi Kimura (who began using the pseudonym of Kaoru Mabuchi in 1965), had worked with Honda on Saraba Rabaura, and they would eventually collaborate on ten SF films, kaiju and otherwise.

Chikyu Boeigun (Earth Defense Force, aka The Mysterians, 1957) substituted Mogera, a giant robot used by alien invaders—and added at Tanaka’s insistence—for the giant monster. Its cast included Shimura and other Gojira veterans (one of whom, Kenji Sahara, rose from his brief debut therein to leading roles in Rodan and more than a dozen kaiju entries over half a century).

Radiation resulted in another kind of monster in Bijo to Ekitainingen (aka The H-Man, 1958), as the crew of a ship that passed through an H-bomb test site became blobs and dissolved their prey. Having liquefied men in The H-Man, Honda later turned Yoshio Tsuchiya gaseous in Gasu Ningen dai Ichigo (aka The Human Vapor, 1960), courtesy of an odd scientific experiment.

The forgettable Daikaijû Baran (The Great Monster Baran, 1958) marked the genre debut of screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, who traded off kaiju scripting chores with Kimura. Subjected to more than the usual share of editing indignities—including an American star of strikingly low wattage, Myron Healey—it was belatedly released in the U.S. as Varan the Unbelievable (1962).

Uchu Daisenso (aka Battle in Outer Space, 1959) and Yosei Gorasu (aka Gorath, 1962) bore a resemblance to Antonio Margheriti’s roughly contemporaneous Italian space operas. The former featured astronauts battling alien saucers, while the latter concerned a runaway star on a collision course with Earth, plus a scene of a giant prehistoric walrus, Magma, added per Tanaka and then deleted in the U.S.

Sekizawa’s first major contribution to the Toho roster, Mosura (Mothra, 1961), appeared in both larval and winged forms, and attacked only to rescue tiny twin fairy princesses played by “The Peanuts,” singers Emi and Yûmi Ito. Kidnapped by an evil entrepreneur, they summon the giant moth from their native island with a catchy Ifukube melody heard in several of the sequels.

Motoyoshi Oda’s Gojira no Gyakushû (Godzilla’s Counterattack, aka Gigantis the Fire Monster, 1955) had introduced a minor creation, the spined dinosaur Angilas. Honda returned to direct the next four sequels, and for the first time Toho went outside its own mythology in Kingu Kongu tai Gojira (King Kong vs. Godzilla, 1962), as the two titans duked it out atop Mount Fuji.

Although undeniably exploitative, the U.S. title Attack of the Mushroom People was not inaccurate for Matango (1963), in which castaways consumed fungi with a transformative effect. Kaitei Gunkan (aka Atragon, 1963) concerned a Captain Nemo-esque scientist (Jun Tazaki) and his “flying supersub,” Atragon, with a brief appearance by a serpentine underwater beast, Manda.

Toho began matching up its major “stars” in Mosura tai Gojira (Mothra vs. Godzilla, aka Godzilla vs. the Thing, 1964), marking the last time in Godzilla’s classic period that he would be depicted as a menace. From then on, the havoc he wreaked would be more or less for the benefit of humankind as he defended the Earth from an increasingly bizarre array of aliens and monsters.

Honda varied his output with jewel thieves and a tentacled blob in Uchu Daikaijû Dogora (Dagora, the Space Monster, 1964). An odd mix of East and West, Furankenshutain tai Chitei Kaijû Baragon (aka Frankenstein Conquers the World, 1965) pitted a behemoth that grew from the Frankenstein Monster’s heart, irradiated in the Hiroshima blast, against the reptile Baragon.

In the interim, Honda and Sekizawa had provided Godzilla with his most enduring and formidable foe in San Daikaijû: Chikyu Saidai no Kessen (Earth’s Greatest Battle, 1964). Like the U.S. and Japan, former combatants became allies when Godzilla and Mothra teamed up with Rodan against Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster, as King Ghidorah was initially known here.

Another important addition, Ifukube’s theme “Monsters Appear in Yokohama,” was used in the climactic battle of almost every Godzilla film from then on. Godzilla and Rodan, this time sans Monthra, were briefly controlled by evil aliens from Planet X in Kaijû Daisenso (The Giant Monster War, aka Monster Zero, 1965) before returning to their senses to tackle Ghidorah again.

War of the Gargantuas, the U.S. version of Furankenshutain no Kaijû: Sanda tai Gaira (Frankenstein Monsters: Sanda vs. Gaira, 1966), omitted the fact that the gargantuas grew out of tissue severed from “Frankenstein.” In a more overt follow-up, Toho’s Kong met a robot carbon copy in Kingukongu no Gyakushu (King Kong’s Counterattack, aka King Kong Escapes, 1967).

By now, Toho was casting American actors directly, rather than having them shoehorned in by U.S. distributors. Nick Adams starred in Monster Zero and the first Furankenshutain film, with Russ Tamblyn in the sequel, all co-produced by America’s Henry G. Saperstein, while King Kong Escapes was a spin-off of the Rankin/Bass cartoon King Kong, and starred Rhodes Reason.

Jun Fukuda directed Gojira, Ebirâ, Mosura: Nankai no Daiketto (Big Duel in the South Sea, aka Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, 1966)—a highlight of the series, in this iconoclastic writer’s opinion—and Kaijûtô no Kessen: Gojira no Musuko (Monster Island’s Decisive Battle: Son of Godzilla, 1967). The mother of the latter’s overly cute offspring, Minya, remains a mystery, but he bears little paternal resemblance.

Honda returned to pull out all the stops with Kaijû Sôshingeki (All Monsters Attack, aka Destroy All Monsters, 1968), which opens with Toho’s kaiju stable conveniently centralized on Monster Island. As in Monster Zero, they are unleashed against humankind by yet another alien race, the Kilaaks, until the fiendish control is ended and they retaliate against Ghidorah en masse.

Spectacular scenes of destruction in the world’s major cities involved Godzilla, Rodan, a larval Mothra, Manda, Minya, Angilas, Gorosaurus (from King Kong Escapes), Baragon, Spiga (aka Kumonga, a giant spider from Son of Godzilla) and—in the briefest of fly-ons—Varan. The film also boasted one of Ifukube’s best scores and a cast of kaiju veterans headed by Akira Kubo.

In another co-production, Ido Zero Daisakusen (aka Latitude Zero, 1969), Joseph Cotten and Cesar Romero fought for the fate of an undersea city. A low budget and Tsuburaya’s failing health forced Honda to use stock footage in Gojira-Minira-Gabara: Oru Kaijû Daishingeki (aka Godzilla’s Revenge, 1969), a fantasy in which Minya helps a lonely latchkey kid cope with life.

Toho’s first kaiju produced after Tsuburaya’s death, Gezora, Ganime, Kameba: Kessen! Nankai no Daikaijû (aka Yog: Monster from Space, 1970) is a lackluster affair about alien spores that inhabit and enlarge a variety of fauna. Along with several other cast and crew members who had long worked in the genre, Honda then took a hiatus, working mainly in television until 1975.

Following Yoshimitsu Banno’s Gojira tai Hedorâ (Godzilla vs. Hedorah, aka Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, 1971), Jun Fukuda presided over the nadir of the series. Gojira tai Gigan (Godzilla vs. Gigan, 1972), …Megaro (…Megalon, 1973), and …Mekagojira (…Mechagodzilla, 1974) were little more than wrestling matches, with tag teams in unusually outlandish costumes.

Honda ended the first cycle of Godzilla films with Mekagojira no Gyakushu (aka Terror of Mechagodzilla, 1975), but remained active in the industry until the end of his life. He worked on Kurosawa’s five final films—Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985), Dreams (1990), Rhapsody in August (1991), and Madadoyo (1993)—in a wide variety of credited and uncredited capacities.

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