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Godzilla and Kurosawa

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    G-Mac

    I know that from the early 50s, Kurosawa and Ishiro Honda (Director of many Golden Age Sci-Fi pictures) had a great friendship. From what I’ve gathered from certain books, Kurosawa admired Honda’s tenacity and simplicity in his story-telling. Kurosawa also highly admired the effects crew of Tsubaraya, which created some of the most prolific science-fiction films of the sixties.

    Now, after Honda was laid-off by Toho Studios in the late 60s (Due to the Oil Crisis), Akira Kurosawa was interested in making his own Godzilla picture. If the rumor was true, Kurosawa must have made the proposition after filming Red Beard. Obviously, due to production costs, Toho turned him down. Do any of you guys know if this rumor is true?

    Also, what are your thoughts on some of Ishiro Honda’s pictures? If you’ve guys haven’t seen any of his special effects films you might recognize his style from the battle scenes in Kagemusha and Ran (Which he directed). Honda’s films don’t really hold a candle to the substance of Kurosawa’s movies, but if you appreciate the story and craft at hand, you’ll have as much fun with them as you would Sanjuro, or other light-hearted flicks.

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    Vili Maunula

    G-Mac: Now, after Honda was laid-off by Toho Studios in the late 60s (Due to the Oil Crisis), Akira Kurosawa was interested in making his own Godzilla picture. If the rumor was true, Kurosawa must have made the proposition after filming Red Beard. Obviously, due to production costs, Toho turned him down. Do any of you guys know if this rumor is true?

    First of all, sorry about the late reply, G-Mac. I’ve been travelling, and the others have been fairly silent as well. It is summer, after all, at least on the Northern hemisphere.

    I, too, have at some point heard the rumours about Kurosawa’s Godzilla project, although I cannot remember where. Hoping to find out more, I now went through all the primary Kurosawa literature, but there is no mention of any such proposed project. Even Stuart Galbraith’s comprehensive Kurosawa biography makes no reference to anything like it.

    As I cannot find anything with a cursory web search either, I suppose that this is a false rumour, or a misunderstanding.

    G-Mac: what are your thoughts on some of Ishiro Honda’s pictures?

    Looking at Honda’s filmography, many of the titles are very familiar to me, but I cannot really distinguish one film from the other, or even remember which ones I have seen. My guess is that I have seen some half a dozen of his pictures, but unfortunately my memory doesn’t serve me well enough to be able to comment on them. There is, however, a thread that I opened a year or two ago after I watched the original Godzilla. You can find it here.

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    Ugetsu

    I was watching the brilliant Korean film The Host a few weeks ago – I think it was the critic A.O. Scott who said about it that every great film maker should do a monster movie. The point being, that monster movies give a great opportunity to delve into contemporary fears while still being loads of fun. So yes, I think I think Kurosawa missed a trick in not making a Godzilla film, it would have been amazing!

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    NoelCT

    I wonder if he would have had fun with GODZILLA, or paint it as a hellish nuclear holocaust like he did with “Mount Fuji in Red” from DREAMS.

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    G-Mac

    Actually, didn’t Honda film that sequence in Dreams? I know he ghost-directed a lot of Kurosawa’s later efforts.

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    NoelCT

    I don’t know if ghost-directed is the proper term. Honda resumed his old role as assistant director to Kurosawa, who was losing his eyesight.

    I think the one sequence in DREAMS that was pretty much his, though, was the one with the soldiers in the tunnell.

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    Patrick Galvan

    Wow, I am really late to the game on this one. (Then again, I didn’t discover this site until just recently.) I’ve no doubt everyone involved in this thread has long since forgotten about it, but as someone who has more than a passing interest/knowledge on Kurosawa and Honda (and has spoken at great length with Honda’s biographers as well as one of Kurosawa’s–Galbraith), I can address some of the questions here (assuming anyone still cares).

    First off, just to set the record straight on something, Honda actually left Toho by his own choice in 1970, following a long period of increasing frustration. Even though Honda is remembered for his science fiction movies, he was a director of great diversity who also dabbled in war movies, comedies, Narusean family dramas, documentaries, even a gangster movie. But as the Japanese film industry started to decline in the 1960s, science fiction (because of its international appeal) became one of Toho’s go-to genres and Honda, being the guy who essentially pioneered it for Toho with “Godzilla” (1954), became more or less pigeonholed into making sci-fi almost exclusively from here on out. And unlike Kurosawa, Honda had no interest in being a businessman and starting his own company; he liked the economic security of a studio employee, and he only wanted to direct and tell stories. Even still, he became understandably frustrated that the studio almost never allowed him to direct anything but science fiction throughout the entirety of the 1960s. And so, in 1970, after the release of his (not very good) “Space Amoeba,” he asked his wife (who was a former Toho employee and often handled business affairs for him) to end his association with Toho. He did come back once in 1975 for the (much-better) “Terror of MechaGodzilla,” even though nobody seems to know just what it was about this particular film that drew him to it.

    In any event, that same sentiment did not return in the 1980s when producer Tomoyuki Tanaka asked Honda to direct “The Return of Godzilla” (1984). By this time, Honda was well into his working relationship with Kurosawa on Kurosawa’s last few films from 1980-1993. He had no interest in working directly under Toho again, he had no interest in reviving Godzilla, and so he instead recommended one of his former assistants (Koji Hashimoto) to direct the movie instead.

    In any event, Kurosawa was Honda’s best friend and included the original “Godzilla” (1954) as one of his 100 favorite movies; and he at times tried to help out his friend with his career. Kurosawa originally wanted to just produce “Throne of Blood” and he had Honda in mind to actually direct the movie. Kurosawa also tried to encourage Honda to go independent as he had so that Honda could have more control over his career; but, as mentioned earlier, Honda wasn’t interested in the business elements that went along with being an independent. Then, in 1979, Kurosawa invited Honda to be his personal assistant on “Kagemusha” and they maintained that partnership all the way up through “Madadayo” (Honda died shortly after the making of this film — his wife Kimi said she saw a lot of her husband’s influence in the final product). On these films, Honda would sometimes direct second unit footage; he advised Kurosawa regularly; he often served as a mediator during Kurosawa’s famous outbursts on the set; he also directed the famous ant sequence in “Rhapsody in August.”

    As for The Tunnel sequence from “Dreams.” It has indeed been reported over the years that Honda directed this sequence himself, but that isn’t true. What is true is that the sequence derives from Honda’s personal experiences. Honda served during World War II. And throughout his life, he had this recurring nightmare — one that woke him up regularly — in which he saw the ghosts of his friends — fellow soldiers who had been killed in China — standing before him. On top of that, Honda at one point tried to interest Toho in a story about the ghost of a dead Japanese soldier whose spirit returned home; no doubt inspired by his nightmare. All of that infiltrated into the Tunnel sequence in “Dreams.” And Honda, being a former soldier, was instrumental in that he meticulously instructed the actors playing the soldiers how to march, present arms, etc. So his presence there was integral. But he did not direct the sequence himself.

    As for the rumor of Kurosawa trying to make his own Godzilla movie. I don’t know where that story originated, but I’ve found nothing to suggest it’s even remotely true. When I interviewed Galbraith, I asked him about this, and he too says he found nothing suggesting Kurosawa was even remotely interested in making a monster movie himself.

    Now, as for Honda’s films. I myself do not consider Honda to be one of the great Japanese directors, though I do consider him to be a very efficient craftsman (he was trained by Kajiro Yamamoto, Kurosawa’s mentor) and a natural actors’ director. He had a lot of interesting world views regarding the dangers of nuclear technology and world unity and such, but the execution of those ideas in his films was often hit-and-miss. His film “Atragon,” for instance, has a number of thoughtful ideas regarding radical postwar nationalism, but the themes, in my opinion, don’t really resonate because the script is so flat and the characters so unmemorable; there’s a big shootout at the end of the film and Honda, alas, was never a very good action director. On the other hand, “Godzilla” (1954) is a brilliant condemnation of nuclear technology, and Honda’s horror movie “Matango” is exceedingly creepy, claustrophobic, and beautifully acted. “Mothra vs. Godzilla” is also a quintessential 60s sci-fi movie: relentlessly entertaining from start to finish. I have also seen a handful of his non-genre pictures. His war movie “Farewell Rabaul” is quite good, and his gangster movie “A Man in Red” is colorful and energetic. I could keep going, but right there you can see the diversity of Honda’s spectrum as well as the hit-and-miss ratio in terms of successes versus failures. As I said, I don’t consider him one of the greats, but he made a number of very fine movies well worth seeking out.

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