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Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa Hardcover – October 3, 2017
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"Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa accomplishes a lot in under 350 pages. Perhaps most impressively, it provides the reader with a lasting sense of the man―his temperament, values, philosophies, dreams, and disappointments―behind some of cinema's most beloved characters (Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra), while also exhaustively detailing the lifelong Toho director's entire body of work (much of which is unavailable in the U.S. and even Japan)."―Chris Shields, Film Comment
"Assembled from years of meticulous research, and detailing the entirety of Honda's filmmaking spectrum, this prestige book offers an in-depth, revealing portrait of the man―as well as his movies―on a level previously unseen by western audiences."―Patrick Galvan, SYFY Wire
"[A] must-own title for anyone interested in Japanese science-fiction and Japanese cinema in general."―Patrick Galvan, Toho Kingdom
"Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa should serve as a model of how to do a film biography―any biography, really. Beautifully designed and produced, Ishiro Honda incorporates many illustrative photographs of the Japanese director and his associates without becoming a coffee table book; the text is clearly written, free of academic jargon or fanboy effusions; the book answers to a need as the first full-length account in English of Honda."―David Luhrssen, Shepherd Express
"[A]n appreciation of Japanese fantasy-film history through the eyes of a filmmaker whose name is obscure but populism remains influential."―Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune
"[A] wider, deeper and more valuable examination of not only one man's career, but also the life that produced it and the system that nurtured it―and almost destroyed it."―Mark Schilling, The Japan Times
"[Up] to the challenge, a major achievement ... as authoritative a biography as [Honda] will probably ever receive. If you loved these movies as a kid (or even continue to do so in adulthood), this book will be mighty hard to put down."―Steve Mcfarlane, Cineaste Magazine
"Where the authors really triumph is in the wealth of information provided about the autobiographical, historical and cultural context to Honda's work ... The impression gained from this impressively researched tome is of a self-effacing yet highly accomplished director with his own distinctive vision, who despite being hamstrung by the success of his most famous film managed a career that fully justifies the comprehensive and in-depth consideration presented here."―Jasper Sharp, Sight & Sound: The International Film Magazine
"I first saw Godzilla in 1956 at the tender age of eight. Something about the film filled me with a somber dread―not the giant, fire-breathing monster destroying Tokyo, but the overall tone, an underlying sadness, a sense of grief and horror. Japan is the only nation to suffer atomic bombs dropped on two of its cities, and Godzilla gave powerful expression to this emotional ambience disguised as a giant monster movie. The director of this seminal motion picture was Ishiro Honda, the creator of an astonishing output of science-fiction and horror films from Toho Studios and one of my personal cinematic gods."―John Carpenter
"Exhaustive researchers, Ryfle and Godziszewski delve deeply into the entirety of Honda's sometimes harrowing life while defining his films within Japanese studio system and his later collaborations with Kurosawa. Filling a huge vacuum of needed scholarship, it's required reading for genre fans and serious students of Japanese cinema alike."―Stuart Galbraith IV, author of The Emperor and the Wolf
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Yet this book may in fact be their most crowning achievement, a culmination of their passion, knowledge, respect and enthusiasm for the movies they love and for a director they clearly respect. A labor of love that took almost a decade to create, ISHIRO HONDA: A LIFE OF FILM is also an obligation on the part of Ryfle and Godziszewski to re-evaluate and change Ishiro Honda’s stature and reputation here in the United States, from an inept director of campy, cut-rate fantasies and laughably cheap science-fiction movies to a serious artist that incorporated Japan’s real-life anxieties and political climates with wondrous special effects and larger-than-life monsters. It’s a formula that worked wonders for the Japanese box-office but were often compromised here in America due to executive meddling, painfully bad dubbing, censorship issues and the senseless rearrangement, deletion and butchering of many sequences, not just visually but through audio as well.
But A LIFE OF FILM does more: it covers Honda’s background the a son of a Buddhist monk, the young kid who loved watching his movies and explaining their plots to his father, his years serving as a soldier during WWII and his return to a devastated Japan from the H-Bomb and how both periods influenced his filmmaking style, his working relationships with producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, music composer Akira Ifukube, special effect directors Eiji Tsuburaya and Teruyoshi Nakano and screenwriters Takeshi Kimura and Shinichi Sekizawa, and most intriguingly, Honda’s non-sci-fi works that he did before and after the release of GODZILLA, such as romantic comedies, family dramas and documentaries, most unpreserved in Japan and all virtually unknown in the States. It also covers Honda’s years working for TV, his role as an assistant director for several Kurosawa films, his death in 1993 and the reappraisal of his work that followed.
Naturally, the main meat of this book is the sci-fi and fantasy movies Honda made from 1954-1975, all which are brilliantly documented by Ryfle and Godziszewski, both in how the movies were made and how they stand out today. This period is what defined Honda as a director, but it also became his curse. The success of GODZILLA caused Honda to be typecast into making sci-fi and fantasy movies from the late fifties to even his final film, TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA. Honda remained a loyal company man a la Michael Curtiz and that loyalty resulted in many memorable movies such as RODAN, THE H-MAN, MOTHRA, ATRAGON, GORATH, MATANGO, WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS and most of the excellent GODZILLA sequels, from MOTHRA vs. GODZILLA to DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, but Honda’s reservations and discomfort in these genres are apparent, particularly in the chapters depicting the mid-to-late sixties when GODZILLA was slowly metamorphizing from an allegory of the nuclear bomb to a defender of justice. It's also to Ryfle and Godziszewski's credit that, for all their professed love for these movies, they never romanticize them to the point of exclaiming each a masterpiece, pointing out both virtues and flaws of even Honda's worst movies. Their opinions are astute, informative and always fair.
Perhaps the greatest source of discord is the fact that these movies came at the expense of the films Honda truly wanted to make, most particularly straightforward human dramas akin to THE RED SHOES or LA STRADA. There are moments when Honda expresses hope that he could finally make the movies he desired, only to be denied due to either his own doing or circumstances beyond his control. Ryfle and Godziszewski excellently captures Honda’s conflicted feelings towards these movies, as well as providing insight on how Honda and the GODZILLA franchise especially were hit hard by the rise in popularity of television and the disastrous state of the Japanese cinema in the seventies. The period resulted in viciously slashed budgets, studios going under, many actors and filmmakers out of work and disarrayed works like SPACE AMOEBA and LATITUDE ZERO. In fact, when Honda’s swan song TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA became the lowest-attended Godzilla movie of all time, it seemed that Japanese science-fiction and Honda’s career would go under, along with the rest of the industry.
But unlike most directors, Honda’s career had a happy ending. Honda entered a new phase in his career when he worked as an assistant director with the great Akira Kurosawa on the master’s last five movies, from KAGEMUSHA to MADADAYO. It’s a wonderful irony that at the time Kurosawa was widely regarded as one of the greatest directors of all time while Honda was disparaged for those sci-fi and fantasy movies, yet it’s clear, from this book, that it was Honda who was the unsung hero in helping his friend achieve his vision without burning bridges and ruffling feathers from the studios. But the relationship was not always bell and whistles; Honda’s atypical reaction to Kurosawa’s ill-fated suicide attempt in the early seventies, which I won’t give away, is worth the price of admission alone. Darkly funny moments like this, however, are mainly offset by many more touching moments, most particularly when Martin Scorsese, who played Van Gogh in the crow sequence of Kurosawa’s DREAMS and even writes a preface for this book, took a photo with Honda and told him he was the reason he worked on DREAMS.
In truth, Honda’s career was a success: a loyal studio director who, despite his misgivings, left behind an extraordinary body of work that continues to inspire directors and moviegoers alike, a man who helped his dear friend make some of the greatest movies of the eighties and someone genuinely respected and loved by the people who worked with him. Hopefully, the success of this book will encourage studios to restore and distribute many of Honda's most beloved and intriguing movies and even bring Japanese versions of films like GORATH, THE HUMAN VAPOR and KING KONG VS. GODZILLA to America. And with the eagerly anticipated US remake of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA coming out within a couple of years, the ripe for rediscovery and restoration is perfect.
There is so much fascinating detail and information about this unheralded director that it would shock contemporary readers as to why this man was not appreciated, let alone understood, here in America. This book may have taken years to make, but it was worth the wait. Impeccably researched, beautifully written and consistently engaging from beginning to end, Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski’s ISHIRO HONDA: A LIFE OF FILM belongs in every movie lover’s collection, especially lovers of science-fiction, fantasy and Japanese cinema in general.
We also get a fuller picture of Honda the company man, an often frustrated visionary who nevertheless refused to make waves for Toho. And then, of course, there is Honda the human being, a gentle soul who never raised his voice to actors in a business known for its histrionic directors.
The authors’ painstaking research and consummate prose reward the reader from beginning to end – a major accomplishment, a must-have for any kaiju eiga fan.