Ishiro Honda Interview

by David Milner

Translation by Yoshihiko Shibata

Ishiro Honda

(Conducted in December 1992)

Ishiro Honda directed GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS (1954), GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1964), TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975), and many other science fiction films. He also directed a number of documentaries, war movies, and television shows.

David Milner: I was very sorry to hear about the recent death of Shinichi Sekizawa. What was your professional relationship with him like? (Mr. Sekizawa wrote the screenplays for MOTHRA (1961), GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO (1965), GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972), and many of the other science fiction movies that have been produced by the Toho Company Ltd.)

Ishiro Honda: The system that was in place back in the 1950s and 1960s was different from the one that is in place today. During the 1950s and 1960s, the planning department would accept ideas from any of Toho's employees. THE H-MAN (1958) is a typical example. The idea for that film came from an almost completely unknown actor. MOTHRA is another typical example. The members of the planning department went around gathering ideas from everyone who worked for Toho. Then, four novelists were commissioned to write a story about a big moth and two tiny fairies. Those four people wrote the story, which appeared in the Asahi Shimbun, and shortly afterward Mr. Sekizawa wrote a script that was based on the story. I advised him only on the cinematographic aspects of the story. (The Asahi Shimbun is one of Japan's most widely read newspapers.)

DM: How would you say Takeshi Kimura's style was different from Mr. Sekizawa's? (Mr. Kimura wrote the screenplays for THE MYSTERIANS (1957), GORATH (1962), DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968), and a number of Toho's other science fiction movies.)

IH: Their styles were were very different. If the story were very positive, or even childish, it would go to Mr. Sekizawa. If it were negative, or involved politics, it would go to Mr. Kimura. I really can't compare the two styles because they're so different.

DM: GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS has a semi-documentary feel to it. Was it your intention to have it turn out that way?

IH: The intention of not only the screenwriter, but also the entire production staff, was to focus on how people would react if a creature such as Godzilla really did appear. What would the politicians do? How about the scientists? How would the military handle the situation? Given this, it was inevitable that the film would seem at least somewhat like a documentary. (GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS was written by Takao Murata and Mr. Honda.)

DM: I have heard that you switched the roles of Akira Takarada and Akihiko Hirata before shooting began on the movie. Is this true? (Mr. Hirata plays Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, the inventor of the oxygen destroyer. Mr. Takarada plays Hideto Ogata, the South Seas Steamship Co. employee who is in love with Emiko Yamane.)

IH: I can hardly remember, but I suspect that it was merely a rumor that Mr. Takarada would be playing the scientist.

DM: There was speculation recently that Ghidrah was meant to symbolize China's acquisition of nuclear weapons. Is this true?

IH: I doubt it. Ghidrah was merely meant to be a modern interpretation of the eight-headed snake of Japanese myth.

Mr. Sekizawa wrote the screenplay for GHIDRAH - THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER, and he always avoided involving politics in his work.

DM: The entirely animated alternate version of the scene in which Ghidrah first appears in GHIDRAH - THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER is preferred by some to the one that is in the film. Do you know why the one that is in the movie was chosen over the alternate?

IH: I did not choose it, so I can't answer your question. It was chosen by special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, whom I trusted so much after we worked on GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS together that I allowed him to select which special effects footage would be used and which would not. I have never even seen the alternate version. (Mr. Tsuburaya directed the special effects for not only the first seven Godzilla films, but also RODAN (1956), MOTHRA, KING KONG ESCAPES (1967), and many of Toho's other science fiction movies.)

DM: Why didn't you direct GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966) or SON OF GODZILLA (1967)?

IH: There were two reasons. One was scheduling conflicts. The other was Toho's concern that people would feel monster films had to be directed by me.

DM: Are those the reasons why you also did not direct GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955)? (It was directed by Motoyoshi Oda.)

IH: Yes. That's correct.

I frankly was having a hard time humanizing Godzilla the way Toho wanted anyway. I was even hesitant to let Mothra act as a mediator between Godzilla and Rodan in GHIDRAH - THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER. It certainly would have been difficult for me to direct SON OF GODZILLA. (It was directed by Jun Fukuda, who also directed GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973), and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974).)

DM: An original idea for DESTROY ALL MONSTERS that did not make it to the final version of the movie was that the monsters were supposed to not only be studied on Ogasawara Island, but also bred and cross-bred there. What other ideas for the film were rejected?

IH: The original idea was to show all of the monsters. We then started thinking about undersea farming. Eventually, we came up with the idea of an island on which all of the monsters had been collected for scientific study. You see, we imagined that undersea farming would be required to feed all of the monsters. I very much wanted to explore that idea, but because of financial constraints, I was not allowed to do so. Only the idea of an island of monsters survived.

DM: Did financial constraints also prompt the inclusion of stock footage in GODZILLA'S REVENGE (1969)?

IH: At that time, the production budgets were getting smaller and smaller, so it's likely that they did.

DM: Did Mr. Tsuburaya take part in the production of GODZILLA'S REVENGE?

IH: By that time, his assistants, Teisho Arikawa and Teruyoshi Nakano, were sufficiently experienced to be able to handle the special effects on their own. The thinking at Toho was, "Let them do the actual work." However, Mr. Tsuburaya was given credit out of respect. (His health was failing at the time. He died at the beginning of 1970. Mr. Nakano directed the special effects for GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (1971), TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA, GODZILLA 1985 (1984), and a number of Toho's other science fiction movies. Mr. Arikawa directed the special effects for SON OF GODZILLA, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, and YOG - MONSTER FROM SPACE (1970).)

DM: I'd heard that you directed the special effects footage for that film. Is this not true?

IH: I directed almost all of it. The two reasons why I did were the limited size of the production budget and time constraints. In addition, the movie was shot in a very small studio, so it was decided not to separate the filming of the special effects and the standard footage as was usually done.

DM: How was that different from working with regular actors?

IH: It was very different. As you know, Godzilla really is a costume that is about 1.8 meters tall. If he were to be filmed as a regular actor would be, he would just appear to be a man in a costume. So, you have to use different camera angles and positions, and you also have to move the camera differently.

DM: What do you think of the most recent Godzilla movies? (They include GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989), GODZILLA VS. GHIDRAH (1991), and GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1992).)

IH: That's a very difficult question to answer. I don't really have a positive or negative opinion about them. The special effects technically are very sophisticated, but the films lack imagination. It seems as if all Toho is trying to do is show things being destroyed. I don't fault the members of the production department, though, because I know that that is what Toho's executives are demanding.

DM: Do you feel that the offense some Americans felt when they saw the sequence in GODZILLA VS. GHIDRAH which shows the Godzillasaurus attacking a number of American soldiers was justified? (In GODZILLA VS. GHIDRAH, Godzilla is seen both as Godzilla and as the tyrannosaurus rex-like dinosaur he was before he was mutated by radiation.)

IH: Kazuki Omori went a little too far. He doesn't blame the soldiers, but I feel that he goes too far. (Mr. Omori wrote and directed GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE and GODZILLA VS. GHIDRAH, and wrote but did not direct GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA.)

DM: I have heard that VARAN - THE UNBELIEVABLE (1958) was produced at the request of an American television studio. Is this true?

IH: I can't remember which studio requested it, but yes, it was requested by an American television studio.

DM: Who made the decision to shoot the movie in black and white?

IH: Toho decided to shoot the film in black and white because all television shows were in that format at the time.

By the way, after we had shot five or six scenes in the standard 35mm format required for television, Toho decided to show the movie in theaters as well as on television. We at first planned to simply re-shoot the scenes in the wider cinemascope format used in theaters, but we were in a rush. So, we just cropped the existing film to fit the cinemascope format.

DM: Which of the films that you directed are your favorites?

IH: I should ask you that question!

I have to say GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS, but the continuity of the scenes in the movie seems a little amateurish to me these days. Another of my favorites is THE MYSTERIANS. I remember it as being an attempt to portray a very new, and surprising, world. GORATH (1962), too, comes to mind.

DM: Are you unhappy with the way any of the films you directed turned out?

IH: The people who worked in the production department would decide which director to assign to a movie, and their decisions usually were good ones. This was true of their decisions regarding actors and cameramen as well. So, I really haven't any that I do not enjoy.

DM: Do you feel that you were fortunate to have Akira Ifukube scoring your films? (Mr. Ifukube, one of Japan's most respected classical composers, scored GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA, and so on.)

IH: Yes. I feel that I was very fortunate in that regard. Mr. Ifukube always seemed to have a profound understanding for the movie on which he was working.

DM: Is it true that he created the roar of Godzilla that was used in GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS?

IH: Yes. He did. He had a very hard time selecting a sound for Godzilla's roar. He even grieved over it! Seeing him in that state showed me that he was very seriously thinking about the film, and that made me think that it just might be a successful one.

DM: I have heard that you worked as a still photographer before going into films. Is this true?

IH: No. I was a documentary director for a while, but I never was a still photographer.

DM: With which actors did you especially enjoy working?

IH: The best actress was Kumi Mizuno. She always seemed genuine. Whenever she worked on a movie, she would just step right into her role. All of the other better actors were like that as well. (Ms. Mizuno is best known as Miss Namikawa, the woman from Planet X in GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO, and Dayo, the native girl from Infant Island in GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER.)

I recently saw GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA, and I noticed that the younger actors in the film were not thoroughly involved in it.

DM: Would you say that the actors with whom you worked during the 1950s and 1960s were generally better than those who have appeared in Toho's more recent science fiction movies?

IH: Yes.

DM: Can you think of a reason why that might be?

IH: Times are just different.

DM: How did you like working with Nick Adams? (Mr. Adams plays Glenn, the American astronaut, in GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO, and Dr. James Bowen, the radiation specialist, in FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965).)

IH: He was a very passionate actor who had some very good ideas. There should have been two or three more films produced with Mr. Adams whether they were monster movies or not.

DM: I have heard that very little improvisation was allowed during production for financial reasons. Is this true?

IH: Yes, that is true, but sometimes an actor would find it difficult to say a certain line. Whenever that happened, I would change or delete the line.

DM: Did that happen very often?

IH: It happened during the production of virtually every film that I directed.

DM: Did you work on any movies that did not end up being produced?

IH: There were a few, but they weren't science fiction films.

One that was being planned was THE FISHERMEN. It was going to be a semi-documentary about fishermen living in Okinawa. I wrote a synopsis, but Toho canceled the project. The story, which mainly was about the younger generation wanting to leave Okinawa for the big city, eventually got out, and was produced as a documentary by another studio.

Another canceled project was a Japanese version of THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES. Mr. Tsuburaya also had planned to work on such a movie. I interviewed many of the pioneers of Japanese aviation, and a script was completed. I'm not sure if the project was canceled for financial reasons, or if it was canceled simply because Toho decided against producing the film.

A third movie I originally was going to work on was a Japanese version of GHOST. A dead soldier comes back to Japan from a foreign war. He wanders around...

This is highly classified information!

DM: Do you feel that there should not have been any sequels to GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS produced?

IH: Godzilla was a product of the times. There previously had been no monster like him. So, people were frightened, and shocked, by him. Now, when Godzilla appears in a city, most of the buildings are even taller than he is!

The image of what a monster is shouldn't stay the same. It should be different so that people will be shocked and surprised, just as they were by GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS in 1954. Something new, and strange, must be created.

DM: Were you surprised by the international success of your films?

IH: I am always amazed by the enthusiasm of the fans in the United States!

DM: Godzilla was created in reaction to the development of nuclear weapons. Since nuclear war is no longer as great a threat as it once was, many fans feel that Godzilla should now instead be used to address environmental concerns. Do you agree with this?

IH: Yes. I agree.

DM: TriStar Pictures is planning to produce a Godzilla movie in the United States next year. How do you feel about this?

IH: The film will probably be much more interesting than the Godzilla movies that are being produced in Japan. I'm glad.

Ishiro Honda Interview © 1998 David Milner