When it comes to Japanese exports, the Honda name has given the world more than just great cars and motorcycles. Although he bears no familial relation to the automaking giant, Tōhō-based director HONDA Ishirō managed over the course of his career to rack up just as much mileage as his corporate namesake, not on the world’s roadways but on its movie and TV screens. In 1956, when Honda’s Gojira hit the U.S. theater circuit as King of the Monsters, there were few members of his Stateside audience who had ever driven a Japanese vehicle, much less one from Honda Motor Company, which hadn’t yet entered the U.S. market. Yet well over three million Americans flocked to their local theaters to watch King of the Monsters, and many more would subsequently watch its sequels, not just in North America but on all the world’s populated continents. It’s ironic that Japan’s “other” Honda enjoys scant name recognition among overseas consumers, despite a fairly widespread familiarity with its bearer’s handiwork. Whereas far more people probably know the name of fellow Japanese director KUROSAWA Akira than have actually watched a Kurosawa film from start to finish, the opposite holds true for Honda, his studio colleague.
As it happens, the two Tōhō directors enjoyed a long association both personally and professionally. In 1949, for example, Honda, who had yet to direct his own film, assisted Kurosawa in directing Stray Dog (J. title: Norainu), one of Kurosawa’s early masterpieces. Honda even played a small onscreen role as a fleeing villain. This printing block (Fig. 2-07-001) for Stray Dog originates from the Chicago area and is of unknown date, but was likely made in the Fifties or Sixties. Newspapers, cinemas, and film distributors in the United States used blocks like this one to produce various types of programs and advertisements.
Following his retirement, Honda would again collaborate with Kurosawa on several of the latter’s mature classics. Kurosawa’s samurai epics Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985) both received Honda’s directorial assistance, as did Kurosawa’s very last picture, Mādadayo (1993), a historical biography. But it was in 1990’s Dreams (J. title: Yume) that Honda left his most conspicuous mark on the Kurosawa film legacy. Billed overseas as Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, the movie consists of eight loosely tied vignettes, two of which Honda took primary responsibility for directing, working on the basis of Kurosawa’s detailed storyboards. The themes of both struck close to Honda’s heart: the nightmare of World War Two (“The Tunnel”; Fig. 2-07-002) and the perils of nuclear technology (“Mount Fuji in Red”; Fig. 2-07-003). Japan’s nuclear experience takes center stage also in a third segment of Dreams that Honda partially directed (“The Weeping Demon”; see Fig. 2-07-004, with its giant mutated dandelion), as it would again in Kurosawa’s next-to-last film, Rhapsody in August (1991; Fig. 2-07-005), on which Honda served as a creative consultant.
Since Honda and Kurosawa both worked for the same studio, they regularly drew on the same pool of actors. One notable exception is Kurosawa mainstay MIFUNE Toshirō (1920–1997), whose name appears on the above printing block for Stray Dog. Despite—or perhaps because of—his international star power, Mifune would never perform in a Godzilla movie. Indeed, Mifune worked under Honda’s direction only on a handful of occasions, just one of them, 1953’s Operation Kamikaze, involving special effects.
By contrast, Mifune’s Stray Dog costar SHIMURA Takashi (1905–1982; the gentleman at right in Fig. 2-07-006) shared the screen with quite a few kaijū over the course of his career. The accomplished actor plays a central role in 1954’s Gojira as Dr. Yamane, the kindly paleontologist who first identifies the monster’s origins as an irradiated dinosaur. In later years, Shimura would likewise appear as a good-guy authority figure in such tokusatsu classics as The Mysterians, Mothra, Gorath, and Frankenstein Conquers the World, all directed by Honda, along with two more Godzilla movies. Even NAKAJIMA Haruo (born 1929), the first stuntman to wear the Godzilla suit, earlier performed on the set of Kurosawa’s Stray Dog: in a scene that was eventually cut, he threw his weight around in a barroom brawl.
A word or two about Japanese names may be helpful here. The “Inoshiro Honda” of this Italian poster (Fig. 2-07-007) is the same person as the “Ishiro Honda” credited on many other publicity materials from around the world. Properly speaking, “HONDA Ishirō” is how the director would have identified himself, in the standard Japanese order—family name first, given name second. To avoid confusion, I capitalize family names on this website when citing them in non-Western order. For the record, Honda’s given name should be pronounced Ishirō and not, as the Italian poster suggests, Inoshirō, even though the latter is a fairly common misreading even in Japan. This particular poster was made to advertise Operation Kamikaze (J. title: Taiheiyō no washi), a Honda-directed feature film from 1953, set during World War Two.
During the Thirties and Forties, Honda had himself taken part in that catastrophic conflict. Twice drafted into Japan’s imperial army, Honda served as an infantryman on the China front, where he was captured in 1945, shortly before Japan’s defeat. When he wasn’t soldiering, Honda also served the imperial cause as an assistant director on two battle pictures from Tōhō, whose predecessor studio, PCP, Honda had begun working for in 1933. Both these war dramas—Katō hayabusa sentōtai (Katō’s falcon squadron; 1944) and Raigekitai shutsudō (Torpedo squadrons move out; 1944)—were directed by YAMAMOTO Kajirō, who was Honda’s and Kurosawa’s studio mentor. Although American authorities banned overt military themes from cinema during their postwar occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952, war movies made a quick recovery upon the censors’ departure. A number of studio officials whom American authorities had purged during the occupation also returned to the industry after 1952, among them Gojira‘s executive producer, MORI Iwao (1899–1979).
Honda, on the other hand, would over the course of the Fifties distance himself from war movies—or at least war movies of the conventional kind. After making two World War Two dramas (Operation Kamikaze and Farewell Rabaul [J. title: Saraba Rabaūru]) in quick succession, the director would take on no more such projects after the 1954 launch of the Godzilla series. In a broader sense, however, made-in-Japan monster movies inherit much of their dynamism and penchant for destructive spectacle from their historical and technological linkages with the battle-picture genre. Military themes, and personnel, in fact appear quite frequently in kaijū eiga, the genre that Honda helped to pioneer. And in a postwar Japan whose American-drafted constitution didn’t allow the nation to keep a full-fledged or even openly recognized army, the sight of Japanese soldiers fighting monsters was arguably no less “realistic” a subject of visual entertainment than were wars of the past with human enemies.
Not long after his studio colleague Honda made Gojira, KUROSAWA Akira, too, responded to the Lucky Dragon incident through the medium of film. Although ticket sales paled in comparison to Honda’s blockbuster of the previous year, 1955’s I Live in Fear (J. title: Ikimono no kiroku), marks Kurosawa’s first foray into antinuclear cinema. Even without monsters, the movie makes a haunting impression. It tells the story of an elderly Japanese man, played by—who else?—MIFUNE Toshirō, whose fears of imminent nuclear annihilation fuel a gradual descent into madness. I Live in Fear remains one of the less appreciated works of Kurosawa’s middle period. This U.S. publicity still (Fig. 2-07-008), which most likely dates from the late Sixties or Seventies, gives the name of an art-house distributor. Such was the route by which most of Kurosawa’s work reached the United States, in contrast to Honda’s greater mainstream visibility.