Obituary: Ishiro Honda

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The Independent Online
Ishiro Honda, film director, born Yamagata Japan 1912, died Tokyo 28 February 1993.

I SOMETIMES hear children in a temple courtyard near my house in Zentsuji playing the Japanese version of hide-and-seek. The one who is 'he', hiding his face, calls: 'Mo ikai?' or 'Ready now?' But there would always come a last, desperate, haunting cry: 'Madadayo] Madadayo]' - 'Not yet] Not yet]' Madadayo is the most beautiful word in the Japanese language.

That plangent musical call came back to me when I heard that Ishiro Honda had died. As chief assistant director to his old friend Akira Kurosawa, the 'Emperor' of Japanese film directors, he had recently completed the shooting of the Master's new movie, Madadayo.

Ishiro Honda was born in Yamagata, but went to Tokyo to attend Nihon University Arts Department, where he refined his artistic talents and gave himself whole-heartedly to a devouring passion, cinematography. On graduation, he was recruited by the PCL (Photo Chemical Laboratory), a research institute for the development of talking-picture techniques: it later became the giant Toho movie production company.

It was here that he met the revered teacher and director Yamamoto Kajiro and Kurosawa, who was to work as chief assistant director for 'Yama-san' in 1941 on Uma ('Horses') and other features. During the Pacific War, Honda was mobilised, and his cinematic career did not take off until his return to Japan in 1949, when he became assistant director on Kurosawa's Nora inu ('Stray Dog'), starring the 'new face' Toshiro Mifune. Thus began his long working friendship with the Master, which was to be especially significant in four of Kurosawa's later works - Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985, 'Rebellion'), Yume (1990, 'Dreams') and Madadayo.

When Kurosawa began drafting his life-story (Something Like an Autobiography in Audie Bock's excellent translation), Honda was one of the rare friends he discussed it with. In it Kurosawa pays tribute to his assistant director thus: 'I had Honda do mainly second-unit shooting. Every day I told him what I wanted and he would go out into the ruins of post-war Tokyo to film it. There are few men as honest and reliable as Honda. He faithfully brought back exactly the footage I requested, so almost everything he shot was used in the final cut of the film. I'm often told that I captured the atmosphere of post-war Japan very well in Stray Dog, and if so I owe a great deal of that success to Honda.'

Honda's first feature-length film, made in 1951, was Aoi Shinju ('Blue Pearl'). It was remarkable in that he was the first Japanese director to shoot underwater sequences, and the exquisite results created a sensation.

But Honda's period of true celebrity began in 1954, when he directed his first fantasy movie in what Americans were later to nickname the 'Shake and Bake' mode. This was Gojira ('Godzilla'), an outrageously kitsch, melodramatic but highly entertaining disaster movie starring the vengeful monster Godzilla, a creature that was the brainchild of the young special-effects genius Eiji Tsuburaya. This curiously appealing monster has become a contemporary urban legend: the date of his first appearance on screens the length and breadth of Japan is reverently recorded as 3 November 1954. The movie was an immense box-office success with both children and adults, and was the first of a slew of monster movies directed by Honda with more and more terrifying nightmare animations by Tsuburaya, without whom the movies could not have been made. It was the beginning of a crazy kaiju-boomu ('monster boom') which was to develop increasingly absurd storyboards and often ravishingly original and sophisticated SFX techniques.

Popular weeklies and 'intellectual' monthlies in Japan carried long articles about the monster, and as late as the February 1989 issue of a leading middlebrow monthly, Bungei Shinju, the creation and the significance of Godzilla were being thoroughly analysed. At its first trade showing, Toho's president Kazumi Kobayashi was overjoyed when it was bought by an American company for dollars 25,000 - in those days, with the dollar at 360 yen, this modest sum seemed like untold wealth. The movie had to be adapted to US tastes, so extra footage was shot starring Raymond Burr as an investigative reporter. The thing that had impressed the American producer had been the fact that Godzilla's fanged jaws shot out radioactive flame; after all, less than a decade had passed since the atomic and hydrogen bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Atom bomb and nuclear power experiments with their often hideous consequences were at the root of the fascination people felt for Godzilla. Audiences were chilled but thrilled by the film's preposterous suggestions that prehistoric monsters like dinosaurs and giant birds had been awakened from their eternal slumbers by the bombs or that other creatures lost in the mists of time had come back to life in disturbingly mutated forms. Since 1946, Bikini Atoll had been the theatre of American nuclear explosions, experiments with tragic results for Japanese fishermen on the Daigyo Fukuryu Maru that had sailed into the radioactive zone.

Honda had planned to open his movie with a sequence showing this small fishing vessel returning to its little home port like the death ship in Nosferatu, but the producers dismissed this as too provocative, so the first shots reveal Godzilla surging up in fury out of the Pacific and attacking the vessel. He is a horrifying prehistoric mutant grown to colossal size through radioactivity from the atom bomb tests - part mythological dragon, part giant lizard, part dinosaur.

Godzilla's immense popularity, not only in Japan, but eventually all over the world, lies perhaps in the fact that fantasy helps us to bear the unbearable. As Eliot tells us in Burnt Norton, 'Human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.' For the Japanese in particular the monster was a sort of explanation for their defeat. They derived a certain comfort from witnessing absurd horrors after the tragic events of the war and took a perverse pleasure in watching this inhuman and therefore irresponsible thing ravaging downtown Tokyo, smashing up establishment symbols like Tokyo Tower, the Diet Building, the newly risen skyscrapers of the Marunouchi business district, stamping on traffic and swatting at airplanes as if they were flies. In a devastated land where they still lived in great hardship, Godzilla acted as a psychological cushion against the pain and confusion of post-war life, against the ever-present threats of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and typhoons that have lent Japanese culture the strangely beautiful, evanescent quality of an impermanent 'floating world'. Godzilla became their Superman, reptilian, repulsive but all-conquering, belching out his radioactive furnace breath at wicked, unscrupulous enemies - frightening, but fun.

Children in those simpler times adored monster movies and cartoons, and now adults, when they watch them on videocassettes or late-night television, are filled with nostalgia for a time that now seems almost Edenic against our gruesome contemporary era. Today's children, of course, regard Godzilla with scorn: they have better horrors to play with, provided by Nintendo video games and our present sickening brands of reality-show phantasmagorias.

Yet Godzilla lives on, as do his companions Radon, Mothra and scores of others in movies like Godzilla vs The Thing, King Kong vs Godzilla (a foregone conclusion), Godzilla and the Smog Monster or Godzilla vs The Bionic Monster.

Raymond Burr returned to star again as the reporter in Godzilla 1985, in which the monster is no mere laughable grotesque but a UN peace ambassador in an increasingly war-torn world, an ecological anti-hero fighting pollution from antiquated nuclear reactors, invaders from outer space and disgusting uranium-age mutants, all the while taking knock-out swipes at weapons of mass destruction with his bare paws, lashing tail and towering inferno of breath.

But Ishiro Honda did not make all of these. He dropped out of the monster marathon and returned to his first love, pure cinema, happy to be of service to the Emperor Kurosawa. The title of that last film they made together now takes on an even more plangent note of lingering farewell: 'Madadayo . . .' 'Not yet, not yet.'

(Photograph omitted)