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Playing at the film club: Kagemusha (Kurosawa, 1980)

Interviews with Ishiro Honda's Biographers

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    Patrick Galvan

    As I’m sure many of us here are aware, Kurosawa’s best friend was fellow filmmaker Ishiro Honda, best known for making some of Japan’s most prominent science fiction movies in the 1950s and 60s and who was a close collaborator on Kurosawa’s last five movies from 1980-1993. Last year, an intensely researched biography on Honda was published – ISHIRO HONDA: A LIFE IN FILM, FROM GODZILLA TO KUROSAWA – and I was fortunate to be able to interview both of the authors. Honda had a very diverse career that went well beyond his Godzilla movies; he was considered by many to be comparable to Mikio Naruse; he studied under the same director who trained Kurosawa (Kajiro Yamamoto); and, as mentioned, was Kurosawa’s closest friend.

    The interviews, of course, focus primarily on Honda, but there are some juicy bits of information about his relationship with Kurosawa and his involvement on Kurosawa’s last few films. For his interview, co-author Ed Godziszewski shared with me excerpts of interviews they could not fit into the book; and some of those words come from Kurosawa’s son, Hisao, as well as the assistant director of Ran. I hope you find it interesting!

    Interview with Steve Ryfle:
    https://www.tohokingdom.com/interviews/steve_ryfle_regarding_ishiro_honda_10-2017.html

    Interview with Ed Godziszewski:
    https://www.tohokingdom.com/interviews/ed_godziszewski_regarding_ishiro_honda_11-2017.html

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for sharing, Patrick, and also for the informative reply in the other thread! These are wonderful interviews, and again reminding me that I should really pick up that Honda biography that I have in the reading pile. Sooner, rather than later.

    That connection between Oshima’s Boy and Honda’s Godzilla’s Revenge is really interesting! I haven’t seen the latter and barely remember the former, but will now try to locate copies of both.

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    Mugibuefan

    Is there any narrative of interest behind Honda’s 1954 Godzilla vs. the 1956 American-Japanese co-production? (which latter as we know starred Raymond Burr as “Steve Martin”, ironically for those today inclined not to take the later version, with most of the anti-nuclear themes edited out, seriously). I wonder if any Honda materials deal with these in any depth from his perspective (including the anti-American sentiment which must have been still fresh a decade following Hiroshima-Nagasaki)?

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    Patrick Galvan

    Vili: Thanks for reading! The comparison between Boy and Godzilla’s Revenge is certainly quite interesting. I’d never even heard of the Oshima film until I interviewed Ryfle, but he was right in that there are a lot of similarities between the two (even though Boy is significantly more downbeat and pessimistic).

    Mugibuefan: I’m not aware of any interviews where Honda addressed the Americanized version of the first Godzilla movie. That particular cut was released theatrically in Japan (with Japanese subtitles) at one point, but I’m not sure if Honda ever saw it or offered any thoughts on the changes made to it.

    As for how Godzilla became Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Toho actually had opened an office in the United States for the purpose of selling their products abroad. This was around the time films such as Rashomon and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell were making a splash, and Toho wanted to capitalize even further on this interest in Japanese cinema. Godzilla, being a monster movie loaded with special effects, was a film they felt would be very marketable to American producers. And indeed, they were right. Edmund Goldman, who initially bought the rights to the movie, only knew that he thought it was an interesting picture and he bought it with no notion of whether it would be edited, subtitled, dubbed, etc. He just saw a monster movie with elaborate effects and thought a profit could be made.

    The U.S. editors of Godzilla, King of the Monsters consistently denied having had any political agenda in re-editing the film, and I think that’s quite evident in the finished product. While they did dial back considerably on anti-nuclear dialogue (along with most of the dialogue in the film, no matter the subject), they didn’t actually delete the anti-nuclear themes. More than anything, they just softened them. Nuclear technology is still blamed for Godzilla’s existence and almost all of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki-inspired imagery (including a scene of a child being diagnosed with radiation poisoning) remains. Keeping in mind this was a cut being prepared for U.S. audiences (who had never experienced a nuclear attack) and considering most Hollywood monster movies back then were only about 70-80 minutes long (the Japanese cut is 96 minutes), and on top of that considering the fact they were cutting in new scenes of Raymond Burr to heighten domestic appeal explains more than anything why so many of the talkier scenes in the picture were axed.

    Furthermore, if the U.S. editors had had an agenda, they likely would’ve gone much further than simply making trims. Consider, for example, a later Godzilla movie that actually was a victim of such political tinkering: 1984’s The Return of Godzilla, directed by Honda’s former assistant, Koji Hashimoto. In the Japanese version of this film, there’s a scene where Godzilla destroys a Soviet freighter and the collision triggers the countdown for a nuclear warhead; a surviving Russian soldier tries to reach the control panel to deactivate the missile but is killed in an explosion before he can reach it. In the re-edited U.S. cut, the scene plays quite differently. In this version, instead of trying to deactivate the countdown, the soldier is actually trying to launch the missile, right at Tokyo. To augment this, New World Pictures (the distributor) changed the subtitles for his dialogue to “I’m the only one who can do it! I must launch that missile!” and included an insert shot of a hand pressing the “fire” button. (As the personnel behind the American cut of this film have copped to, the management was very much playing along with the “Evil Empire” outlook prevalent in U.S. politics during the Ronald Reagan administration.)

    In any event, I don’t think it’s fair to say the original Godzilla is specifically “anti-American.” Some people have read that kind of subtext into the movie, but I’m not sure there’s much validity to it when you really examine how Honda treats the themes in the film. Godzilla was directly inspired by then-recent controversies regarding nuclear tests conducted by the United States — not to mention the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — but in the film, Honda doesn’t pin blame on this country or that country for the nuclear technology that awakens Godzilla. More than anything, the movie is against the proliferation of nuclear weapons (then on the rise with the international nuclear arms race) and the culprit he goes after is more humanity in general and the impulsive urge to keep developing more and more dangerous weapons, more and more efficient ways of killing one another. In one of the key scenes, Dr. Serizawa, the scientist who discovers the Oxygen Destroyer, the weapon which might be able to destroy Godzilla, is reluctant to use his device for fear that “politicians of the world” would inevitably turn it into a weapon of mass destruction. Serizawa isn’t simply worried for Japan’s future; he’s worried about the future of humankind in general. And when Takashi Shimura gives that great speech at the end, pointing out that another Godzilla could appear if nuclear weapons continue to exist, he doesn’t cite the U.S., the Soviet Union, or anyone. He instead generalizes the culprits as “we,” likely meaning humankind in general.

    Honda’s treatment of nuclear calamity is quite different from, say, the movies of Hideo Sekigawa. Whereas Honda merely depicts the lingering psychological paranoia of nuclear attacks (a scene where a survivor of Nagasaki laments that she has to go into hiding again) and the physical human suffering to come out of it (the long, grueling sequence showing all the dead and dying in the aftermath of Godzilla’s rampage), Sekigawa took entirely unambiguous jabs at Americans. In Sekigawa’s 1953 film Hiroshima, for instance, there are scenes of American tourists buying the charred bones of atomic bomb victims and keeping them as souvenirs. As the occupation authorities had vacated Japan by this time, it was possible for Japanese filmmakers to take swipes at the United States, but Honda consistently refrains from doing so in Godzilla. (It’s worth mentioning that he co-wrote the screenplay, so he had a lot of input in how the themes of the movie would be delivered.)

    Furthermore, if you examine Honda’s later movies, you’ll find his attitude toward world relations was incredibly — perhaps even naively — optimistic. For example, his 1957 film The Mysterians features a subplot in which all the nations of the world (including the U.S. and the Soviet Union — the chief proliferators of the nuclear arms race) come together to solve a greater crisis which threatens everyone…and they do so without the use of atomic technology. This was quite unlike, say, Hollywood science fiction movies of the same time period in which scenes of international conference tended to only include representatives of America and her allies. Regarding his political stance in The Mysterians, Honda went on record saying his intent with the film was “to wipe away the Cold War-era notion of East versus West.” Based on all of this, I think one can see that while Honda was certainly disturbed by the rising number of nuclear weapons being developed by western forces, he didn’t have particularly negative sentiments toward this country or that country and he firmly believed — again, perhaps naively — that nuclear technology could be discarded one day and that total peace between all nations would be possible.

    All of that no doubt came from who Honda was as a person. As has been well-documented, he did serve in the Imperial Japanese Army during the war…but only because he had no choice in the matter. In truth, Honda was completely against war and violence and only became a soldier because he was drafted (three times, in fact) and would’ve faced imprisonment and possibly execution had he refused. He was furthermore frustrated by it because it kept interrupting his movie career; his friends Kurosawa and Senkichi Taniguchi were already directing movies by the mid-1940s while he was constantly being shipped overseas for long stretches of time. He was captured by the Chinese during the war, refusing to commit “honorable suicide” as the military encouraged their personnel to do in the face of defeat. Not only that, but while he was a P.O.W., he became so entrusted by the Chinese that they actually asked him to stay with them after the war was over. Honda was so touched by their gesture that he told them (paraphrasing) “I’m going to go back to Japan to see if my wife and children are still alive. If they are, I’ll remain in Japan. But if they perished, I will come back.”

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    Mugibuefan

    Patrick: Thanks for the quite informative background information on Honda and the Godzilla movies. I agree that Godzilla is not anti-American although it was released during a period in Japan where such was arising in part due to the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon 5) incident in which a Japanese fishing boat incurred irradiation by fallout from an American thermonuclear (hydrogen-bomb) test at Bikini Atoll; therefore I wondered what Honda’s reaction to the nascent anti-Americanism and anti-nuclear proliferation movement of the time might have been. Your explication of his attitude is of note; and the comments about his wartime experience with the Chinese impresses me as to his character.

    You make a persuasive case that any perceived editing that appears to remove some of the anti-nuclear proliferation message of the original from the later co-production, if supportable, was not political or deliberate in the sense of intending to downplay the message, but rather was for legitimate movie-making reasons.

    The point about Honda, that in Godzilla he “merely depicts the lingering psychological paranoia of nuclear attacks” brings the discussion for me back to Kurosawa and the roughly contemporary (1955) film “I live In Fear” featuring Toshiro Mifune’s powerful (but perhaps to some overwrought) performance of a man dreading nuclear attack and experiencing paranoia. It might be of interest if at some point members of this forum felt inclined to discuss that movie.

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    Patrick Galvan

    I imagine he supported the anti-nuclear movements, as he did confess in an interview toward the end of his life that he had hoped “Godzilla” would’ve led to talks about eliminating nuclear weapons altogether and that he was disappointed to see that such weapons had only multiplied since the time of his film.

    I’m not sure what he thought about anti-American sentiments in his society at the time; if I remember this far down the road, I’ll ask his biographers the next time I cross paths with them if they have any insight on this matter. One of the tricky things of researching Japanese directors of this time period is many of them were very reserved and private (Kurosawa was quite the exception) and there are a lot of things about Honda that even his family and close associates cannot answer. There were some things in his personal and professional life that even his wife Kimi (who died very recently, age 101) had no answers for.

    “I Live in Fear” is a very interesting film, though I admit I don’t watch it as often as I do a great many of Kurosawa’s other films. I still cannot put my finger on it, but there’s something about that picture which doesn’t really bring me back to it all that often. But there are a number of key moments (all of them centered around Mifune, who I think is for the most part quite good at playing a man twice his age and evoking a sense of paranoia) which I remember quite vividly.

    1. Shimura following Mifune off the bus and into that tunnel, where Mifune howls in resentment over the fact that the board Shimura had been part of denied him the ability to leave Japan. The echo of Mifune’s voice in that scene haunts me to this day.

    2. Mifune on his hands and knees, begging his family to come with him to South America, genuinely afraid.

    3. Mifune running about the ruins of his factory — having created his own fiery holocaust, if you will.

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