Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda – book review

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The late Ishiro Honda has long been considered Japan’s premier fantasy film director, and certainly worthy of a book-length study, which is what author Peter H. Brothers’ Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda provides. Clearly, Brothers is well-read and well-informed on his subject.

Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda is divided into three major sections. In the first, Brooks provides comments and insights on the hallmarks of Honda’s approach to direction and storytelling. In the second, he provides a mini-biography of the director, filling in many background details on his life (such as his extended military service and his long apprenticeship as an assistant director) that I have not previously seen or read. He also makes clear why the preferred spelling of Honda’s first name is Ishiro, despite his early films being credited as Inoshiro.

The final, and longest section of the book, examines each of Honda’s fantasy films in detail. This section is divided into several subsections, charting the rise and fall of Honda’s film career. Brooks does take an unusual approach to titles: he addresses each film by a translation of the Japanese title rather than by the English release title or by the Japanese title rendered in the letters of the Western alphabet. Thus, ATRAGON is referred to as SUBMARINE WARSHIP. While Godzilla and Mothra are referred to by their English names, Rodan is consistently referred to by his Japanese name of Radon.

One strength of Brothers’ work is the emphasis placed on a Honda’s collaborators. He notes the differences between the approaches of his two major screenwriters, Takeshi Kimura (whose work tended to be downbeat and critical) and Shinichi Sekizawa (whose work was more child-like and hopeful). Brothers frequently cites the quality of Eiji Tsuburaya’s work, Honda’s main special effects expert. He carefully comments on the scores of Akira Ifukube, noting the orchestrations used for the various pieces. Additionally, he makes note of actors who make multiple appearances in Honda’s films.

On the downside, however, Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda contains no illustrations whatsoever. (Toho Studios, which produced most of Honda’s movies, are notoriously difficult about granting permission to reproduce stills, and there are no pictures of Honda himself, even personal ones). Brothers assumes the reader will already be familiar with each of these films and so doesn’t bother with summaries and other basic information. When commenting on Ifukube’s scores, Brothers seems to mention individual pieces by translations of soundtrack cue titles rather than referring directly back to the films themselves.

Additionally, there are some other difficulties. The copy-editing is poor, for example. There are a couple of references to “eye-pooping” effects rather than “eye-popping.” Brothers uses “mute” when he means “moot.” At one point the word “contretemps” is misspelled, and a few times letters or words are omitted, obscuring meaning.

Another problem that occasionally crops up is unsupported suppositions. For example, Brothers hints that Tsuburaya contemplated suicide if the original GODZILLA had not been a success, also that Honda was never “particularly interested in directing films that stressed creatures over characters” and that he “longed to return to the kind of sweet, sentimental pictures that he was fond of directing that stressed human values.” A quote or source citation would make these claims more convincing.

However, Brothers is certainly correct in his assertions that Honda didn’t make his monster movies with the intention of frightening people. Though the creatures in them are colorful characters of mass destruction, Honda does not create typical suspense or scare scenes, and largely eschew depicting gory demises, though his original GODZILLA gains great power from its depictions of the Japanese detailing with the aftermath of the irradiated lizard’s onslaught in ways that evoke memories of the post-Hiroshima survivors.

Additionally, Brothers correctly notes Honda’s repeated emphasis on the hopes for a United Nations-oriented peaceful solution, showing Japan joining a league of nations in combating alien or monster menaces or other major problems (such as GORATH’s potentially world-destroying planetoid). When the Godzilla series was revived in the ‘80s, the tendency then was to show a more militaristically aggressive Japan (Kimura’s scripts tended to be very critical of the Japanese military establishment).

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1963)One issue I wish that Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda had delved more into is the differences between the Japanese and American versions of the films. Brothers doesn’t mention how Honda’s ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN was turned into an abomination called HALF HUMAN for its American release (something nicely covered recently on the And You Call Yourself a Scientist website). For the most part, Brothers concentrates on the original Japanese versions, not even mentioning how classic Universal horror themes were added to the soundtrack of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA for its American version (though he does note that the American version of the film lets the Seahawk disaster sequence run without the interruption of scenes from the Pacific Pharmaceuticals bon voyage party, as in the Japanese version).

Though Brothers does at times have a tendency to lay on the superlatives, he doesn’t stint from criticizing what he perceives as Honda’s lackluster later fantasy productions. After box office receipts began falling off on Godzilla films in Japan, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka ordered the budgets slashed, and the Godzilla films became increasingly geared towards children. Under these restrictions, Honda fell far short of his previous proven abilities with such uninspiring fare as GODZILLA’S REVENGE and TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA.

Kumi Mizuno turns into a mushroom person.

Kumi Mizuno turns into a mushroom person.

Nevertheless, Honda made a total of 25 fantasy films, a sizeable and significant body of work worthy of the serious attention Brothers gives them. In addition to the Godzilla movies, these included his science fiction invasion trilogy THE MYSTERIANS, BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, and GORATH; his science fiction efforts THE H-MAN and THE HUMAN VAPOUR, his submarine movies ATRAGON and LATITUDE ZERO, his Frankenstein duo FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD and WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, as well as launching MOTHRA and RODAN on their merry careers. There is also the fascinating morality tale that is MATANGO (aka ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE), with its evocation of the Seven Deadly Sins and the beautiful Kumi Mizuno actually becoming more alluring as she transforms into a fungus.

Despite some caveats, for the serious lover of kaiju movies, Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda is worthy of your time and attention. This kind of attention focusing on one of the most prolific directors of fantasy films is long overdue.

About the Author

Dennis Fischer

Author of Horror Film Directors and Science Fiction Film Directors (both from McFarland).

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