In July of 1963, I sat in in the Portage Theater in Chicago, an 9-year old kid mesmerized by "King Kong vs Godzilla". This was my first movie-going experience for an Ishiro Honda film. And with that, my life started down a long and winding road which took me from a small child watching monster movies on a Saturday afternoon to today, when, after a chance meeting with Ishiro's son Ryuji, I find myself participating in projects to commemorate the life and works of one of my favorite directors.
As a child, I never gave a moment's thought to directorial technique, social commentary, special effects, and so on. I was just transported to another world, an alternate reality where giant monsters, aliens, and futuristic machinery actually existed. That was good storytelling working its magic on a small child, though it isn't something that I ever realized until years later. I came to recognize the name of Ishiro Honda from the credits at the beginning of films like Godzilla vs The Thing, Ghidrah The Three-Headed Monster, and The Mysterians, but at that time it was something of which I was only vaguely aware. But as I grew older, my interest with these films never waned and I started to become aware of all the techniques which I took for granted as a kid...and one of the names which invariably appeared on the films I liked best was that of Ishiro Honda.
What is it that made and continues to make the films of Ishiro Honda so special to me? There really isn't any simple answer, as there are lots of factors that make his films work. Ishiro Honda was part of a team, each member of which cast their own part of a total spell on the viewer. But he was the director, the one who was ultimately responsible for making everything work together. As I learn more about this man personally and professionally, I can much better appreciate why he and his associates made films with such lasting appeal. He was a man who poured his best effort into anything he was given to do, and he never looked to take credit from others. Like Eiji Tsuburaya, he was a dreamer with unlimited imagination, and he recognized that special effects cannot work unless he and the sfx director were always on the same page. He knew music very well, yet he invariably deferred to Akira Ifukube on most matters when it came to scoring. He worked tirelessly with writers to improve their scripts, and he allowed his actors to show their natural acting skills rather than dictating performance. He took every film, big or small, fantastic or mundane, and made them seriously and demanded the same of his crew. He wasn't flashy, he didn't draw attention to himself or his technique, he never made fun of his subject. He just concentrated on telling the best story he could and on getting the best performances out of his actors. That's something which all the big budgets and flashy special effects of today can't buy. So his films endure while many of those which followed him become forgettable in but a few years.
Finally, I think Ishiro Honda's films also attracted me in much the same way that the original Star Trek attracted a big following in young people (myself included) back in its original days. He was a man of peace and he gladly showed it in his work. His optimistic view of humanity's possibilities shown in films like Gorath, The Mysterians, and Latitude Zero stood in sharp contrast to the very real threat of nuclear war which I felt hanging over our heads in the 50s and 60s. I am thankful that Ishiro Honda's films not only entertained me, they also made me feel like there was hope that the real world could be a better place.