Ishiro Honda’s ‘Monstrous’ Career Revealed in New Book

February 1, 2018 • Columnists, The Next Stage

In 2012, “Marvel’s The Avengers” was released, and I’m sure it warped the gourds of millions of kids as they thrilled to Earth’s mightiest heroes — Capt. America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, not to mention agents of S.H.I.E.L.D — joining together to protect the planet from an alien invasion.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I later realized, however, that I had already seen it before as a youngster — and yes, it warped my young gourd — only it was titled “Destroy All Monsters.” I saw it at the Keystone Theater at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, where my Air Force father was stationed in 1970.

Setting the blueprint for “Avengers,” 1968’s “Destroy All Monsters” (known in Japan as Kaiju soshingeki) assembled into one movie the greatest “heroes” of Japan’s Toho Studios’ cast of kaiju: Godzilla (Gojira), Mothra (Mosura), Rodan (Radon), plus some lesser-known creatures like Anguirus, Gorosaurus, Manda, Baragon and Kumonga.

Who do they take on? Like in “Avengers,” space aliens, but unlike it, “Destroy All Monsters” boasted King Gidorah, the winged, three-headed golden dragon that shot lightning bolts from its mouth. (And, in a spoiler alert, Gidorah gets taken down by Godzilla’s son, Minira.) Just like in “Avengers,” it would take the combined might and teamwork of Earth’s mightiest monsters to prevent the Earth from being conquered by aliens.

Vintage “kaiju” figures that include, from left, Mirror Man, King Gidorah, Godzilla and Ultraman. (Photo: George Toshio Johnston)

One benefit of living on Okinawa, even though it was still pre-reversion, was the access to Japanese goods, which in this case meant kaiju ningyō or monster dolls. As can be seen by the photo, I still have quite a few vintage figures, including King Gidorah, Godzilla, Mirror Man and New Ultraman, aka Ultraman Jack.

“Destroy All Monsters” was probably the coolest and favorite movie of my childhood. It was so cool that its King Gidorah inspired the name of the Asian American movement newspaper Gidra, which published from 1969 to 1974. (FYI, the Gidra digital archive is stored by Densho and can be accessed at http://ddr.densho.org/search/results/?fulltext=gidra.)

I had already seen the Raymond Burr “Godzilla” on TV by that time — but “Destroy All Monsters” was just a way higher level of awesomeness. (It would be years later until I saw the original, 1954 “Gojira,” sans the star of “Perry Mason.”) And, by virtue of living on Okinawa, I was able to start watching the tokusatsu (special effects) shows that were on Japanese TV at the time — “Kamen Rider,” “Spectreman,” “Miraman” (Mirrorman) and, my favorite, “Kaettekita Urutoraman,” or “The Return of Ultraman.”

One of the connecting threads of “Destroy All Monsters,” “Gojira” and “Kaettekita Urutoraman,” was, of course, special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya. But I didn’t realize that another, major part of the DNA of all those just-mentioned titles also was Ishiro Honda. While I knew he directed the original “Gojira,” I didn’t realize he also directed “Destroy” and the first four episodes of the revived Ultraman TV series.

The way I learned this was from the new book “Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa,” written by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski. As I read it, I’m realizing a couple of things: one, Honda’s handiwork as a filmmaker had a huge influence on me (and probably thousands of other people of a certain age) when I was a kid and two, Honda was a director who was a peer of the far better-known Akira Kurosawa, and that the two were good friends.

There’s a lot more to Honda’s life story contained in the book, of course, not just as a filmmaker but also as a husband, father and soldier who served in Japan’s Imperial army. Turns out that while he’s best known for the kaiju movies, Honda did much, much more — and authors Ryfle and Godziszewski are to be commended for shining a light for English-language readers on Honda’s career.

Actually, I hope to meet with one of the authors (Ryfle) and get more info about how he and Godziszewski became interested in the subject matter that led to them writing this book, all of which will be the topic of a future column.

Should you watch or rewatch “Marvel’s The Avengers” again, by all means enjoy it — but also make a toast to the late, great Ishiro Honda, who decades earlier pioneered the idea of assembling Earth’s mightiest “heroes” into one epic extravaganza.

The suggested retail price for “Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa” (ISBN-13: 978-0819570871) in hardcover is $32.95. At 336 pages, it’s published by Wesleyan.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

(George Toshio Johnston can be reached at george@kubasaki.net. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of any organization or business. Copyright © 2018 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)

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