Cine-Tome: Mushroom Clouds And Mushroom Men
Just finished flying through Peter H. Brothers book, “Mushroom Clouds And Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema Of Ishiro Honda. Published by AuthorHouse, this crisp, readable 282 page guide to the kaiju classics and not-so-classics contains all I wanted to know about Honda and some. I’ve always held (along with others) that Ishiro Honda was one of the most undervalued talents in genre film and his work, particularly in its proper Tohoscope framing, is often stunning. Combined with Eiji Tsubraya’s masterful miniature effects, his best fantasy films hold an awe, horror and wonder as befits a reluctant veteran of World War II who saw first-hand the devastation of atomic war. As Brothers notes in his well-researched book, Honda wasn’t interested in scaring audiences, though he certainly did in more than a few of his films, including the somber horrors of GOJIRA (1954) and the gruesome attacks in FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTERS: SANDA VS. GAIRAH (1966 aka WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS). Brothers paints a portrait of a kind, gentleman who trusted others to do their best since he wasn’t the most driven of directors but his efforts to present his films as “documentaries” is revealing, especially given their fantastic subject matter; yet it makes perfect Cocteau-ian sense in that Honda did not condescend to the material, insisting his crew take it seriously or choose another film.
I love reading the behind-the-scenes of these miniature epics, particularly why one turned out classic such as MOSURA TAI GOJIRA (1964 aka GODZILLA VS. THE THING) and one so inept like — deep breath — GEZORA, GANIME, KAMEBA: DECISIVE BATTLE! GIANT MONSTERS OF THE SOUTH SEAS (1970 aka YOG, MONSTER FROM SPACE). And yes, I do love those uniquely Japanese titles. As Brothers reviews the films based on their native versions, there are no comparisons between the American counterparts, information that can be gleaned from other sources (such as the work of experts August Ragone and Steve Ryfle). Sadly, due to Toho’s iron-grip on publishing rights, the book is devoid of even one photograph. But the wealth of information makes up for that. Easily the most intriguing film in Honda’s oevure and in the book is ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (1957 aka HALF HUMAN), a dark, violent yeti tale that was severely edited for stateside release and has yet to be even issued by Toho in any format, likely due to the sensitive racial issues with the aboriginal natives in the film. To his credit, Brothers is also specific about Honda’s directorial signatures, from the majestic vistas of underwater worlds to his favorite (and mine) rapid camera dolly into somebody’s intense face.
My only major disagreement with Brothers is his dismissal of SANDA VS. GAIRAH, my personal best non-Godzilla Toho Honda film. He rightly criticizes the plot-holed screenplay, but neglects to point out that the relationship between the two monster brothers is the most poignant of the entire 1960’s Toho kaiju fantasy run. Despite Russ Tamblyn’s acknowledged lazy performance (my favorite Tambyln ad-lib comes after the female scientist wonders why the monster might live in the ocean and he replies, “I don’t know. Maybe he fell in love with a whale.”), the unique humanoid creations are both frightening and sympathetic — the attacks here are also some of the scariest ever put on Tohoscope.
Most interesting is the fact that after Ishiro Honda finished his kaiju run in 1975, he ended up as assistant director to old friend Akira Kurosawa, ultimately directing the atomic moments in DREAMS, bringing him full circle back to GOJIRA. How ironic that the two best known Japanese films to this day remain THE SEVENTH SAMURAI…and GODZILLA. Peter H. Brother’s loving book is a fine tribute to Ishiro Honda and a vital addition to any cineaste’s library.