Thursday, 19 August 2010

Book review: 'Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men' by Peter H. Brothers

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of Japanese cinema. Whether I'm banging on about the work of Kurosawa, looking forward to the next Kitano film or getting evangelical over the latest Miyazaki animation, I have written a fair bit about film-makers from that part of East Asia. So when I heard that there was an English language book on one of the most popular and influential - yet curiously most overlooked - Japanese directors, I was genuinely excited to read it.

That director is Ishirō Honda (1911-1993), the man most closely associated with the monster movies of the 50s and 60s: most notably 'Mothra' (1961) and the original 'Godzilla' (1954). Despite being one of the most commercially viable Japanese directors of his day (most of his monster movies made it into American theatres - albeit with changes) serious analysis of his work is hard to come by in the West. Stepping bravely into that void is Peter H. Brothers, with his comprehensive, film-by-film volume Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda.

Although, as Brothers himself points out, Honda was not exclusively a maker of fantasy movies (at least not early in his career) this book focuses on those films for which he was best known. Mushroom Clouds covers no less than 25 of his films in detail, looking at their production as well as providing decent analysis of their content and often their political context. These passages are, happily, bookended by chapters on his life before, during and after the monster movies. These chapters are written in the form of a narrative in chronological order and help to provide a decent context in which to put the films, as well as proving perhaps the most compelling read as they look at Honda the man.

Almost equal attention is paid to several of Honda's most frequent collaborators: his producer at Toho, Tomoyuki Tanaka (1910-1997), his longstanding composer, Akira Ifukube (1914-2006) and, most significantly, the man behind the visual effects, Eiji Tsuburaya (1901-1970). Ifukube's scores are deconstructed in some detail by Brothers, whilst Tsuburaya is afforded a lot of praise for his work and influence - heralded as the Japanese equivalent of Ray Harryhausen and Honda's "true mentor". As a result, the book is just as informative about Japanese cinema of the period and the studio system as it is about Honda himself.

Brothers clearly has a great knowledge of these movies and seems to know the supporting actors and crew members from this era of Japanese film as well as anybody. However, his appreciation of Honda's movies can at times make the book seem fannish, rather than academic. This is not necessarily a criticism, as sometimes it is nice to read something so celebratory, but the level of enthusiastic praise reserved for even the campiest of these films at times left me incredulous. Instead I rather enjoyed the book as a narrative history told by an enthusiastic guide. There is certainly an element of melancholy in the story of Honda's life as a director which is never really addressed by the author.

Honda was, like many Japanese people of his generation, a very loyal company man. He never worked for anyone but Toho all his life and seemed to feel very restricted by the monster movies he was contracted to make - ironically the very films Brothers book celebrates as it is equally guilty of marginalising his other work. He also found his career interrupted by military service and when he returned found that many of his subordinates had been promoted above him. As a result it took him far longer to become a director than some of his contemporaries, including his friend Kurosawa, for whom he worked as an assistant (at both ends of his directorial career). There is an unspoken feeling, reading between the lines, that Honda was never allowed to become the film-maker he could have been. Although Brothers chooses to celebrate the care he put into his fantasy work and finds lot of examples of how his monster movies are far more humanistic and character driven than they were really required to be.

Some interesting themes are left unexplored, such as the sexpoitation aspect of the 1957 film 'The Defense Force of the Earth', the plot of which involves aliens capturing Earth women for cross-breading, and the significance of the US title change of the 1956 'Radon, the Monster From the Sky' to the less overtly metaphorical 'Rodon! The Flying Monster'. And whilst Tsuburaya's work was evidently amongst the best effects work of the day - and the most influential (prior to Tsuburaya, Japanese studios didn't even have dedicated visual effects departments) - his work has not aged well compared to that of his American contemporary Harryhausen. For instance, comparing the model work from 1953's 'The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms' with the laughable man-in-a-suit work seen in 'Godzilla' a year later does not favour Tsuburaya.

That is not to demean Tsuburaya, but just to say that the level of praise reserved for his work in the book is difficult to take seriously, especially the claims made to its realism, with audience members apparently asking Honda where he got all the military equipment from after one film. As upbeat and sanguine as Honda seems to have been, one can't help but wonder whether he really saw himself as the director of film's like 'MechaGodzilla's Counterattack' (1975) or whether he privately yearned for more.

But then I think that is the point of Brothers' book. Rather than apologise for these campy movies, he has chosen to find the good in them. He has looked at them and is trying to bring to our attention the things of value that Honda was able to bring about within these fantasy pictures. And he does so with palpable love of his subject and real verve, which as a result prevents the book from ever being dull or too dry (at least for anyone pre-disposed to read about Japanese movies). Brothers manages to locate some genuine humanity and even some poignant moments in all of these increasingly absurd films, which is laudable in itself. Perhaps in doing so he is a brave defender of all the easily dismissed fantasy films of the 50s and 60s.

Perhaps a definitive, more sober look at the cinema of Ishirō Honda is still yet to be written. However, Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men is a long overdue celebration of a much-maligned film-maker with an equal claim to fame and influence as his better known contemporaries. Perhaps, given more opportunities and with more good fortune, Honda would have emulated Kurosawa and made more than one great film ('Godzilla'). After all, he directed entire segments of some of Kurosawa's later films, most notably two whole segments of 'Dreams' in 1990. The director once told a colleague: "Unless your film is caught in the critic's net, it will be washed away into history." If nothing else, Brothers' book is the first necessary step in ensuring that does not happen to the films of Ishirō Honda.

Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda by Peter H. Brothers is available now here.

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