Interview With Peter H. Brothers:
Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Films of Ishiro Honda
by Armand Vaquer
Longtime G-FAN contributor Peter H. Brothers has completed his new biography/filmography on director Ishiro Honda. Recently, Peter discussed his book. It is available for purchase through www.authorhouse.com.
Q. Peter, congratulations on the publication of your new book, Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda. You must be proud of your completed work and relieved?
A. Thank you very much, but it’s not in my nature to be proud of anything I accomplish; it could always have been better. But yes, I am relieved that it is finally in print. I did do my best.
Q: Please tell us a little about yourself. What publications have you written for?
A: Well, I have loved Honda’s movies ever since seeing Godzilla, King of the Monsters! when I was a child; I was also fortunate to have seen King Kong vs. Godzilla, Atragon, Mothra, Varan the Unbelievable and Godzilla vs. the Thing in theaters during their initial runs. I have been writing articles on Japanese science-fiction films ever since Brad Boyle’s Japanese Giants in the early 1970s, but the vast majority of my writings have appeared in G-Fan.
Q: When did you decide to write a biography/filmography on Ishiro Honda?
A: In 1973 I was working at my first job when I thought about how nice it would be to write a book about Ishiro Honda. When no one had do so in the intervening 30 years, I mentioned my idea during a lunch I shared with Brett Homenick and Brant Elliott at a Japanese fantasy film convention. They gave me a great deal of encouragement to get the ball rolling.
Q: When did you start it?
A: In many respects I began writing the book as far back as 2000 when my first articles on Honda’s fantasy films were printed in G-Fan, although I didn’t know it then. The articles were in many ways embryonic versions of the chapters in the book to follow. It was not until late 2004 that I began to write the book in earnest.
Q: What was your original concept for the book?
A: I based much of the book’s format on Citadel movie personality books, which begin as biographies and then discuss the films in chronological order.
Q: What did you learn about Honda that was most surprising?
A: Just how loyal he was to his employer. After starting at Toho in the early thirties, Honda was drafted several times into military service, but each time he returned to work as an assistant director. As I mentioned in an unpublished early draft of the book:
In the spring of 1947, in what became known as the “Third Toho Dispute,” the studio fired some 1200 workers; the “official” reason given that the studio was now overstaffed. When asked years later to give his impression of the dispute, Honda said, “Well, we were union members, so we did what the union told us to do; but we were not all that excited about it. All we wanted to do was make movies.
“People suggested I transfer over to the New Toho, but I didn’t want to leave behind the people who were still with the old Toho. I questioned the whole concept of having to choose right or left, yes or no. I just wanted to make movies, but I didn’t want to dance to either company’s tune. I wanted to make something that would satisfy me, not necessarily something that would make me a lot of money.”
Kimi remembered those tense times: “We were living 10 minutes away from the studio, so our home became the rendezvous point for everyone. I cooked food with whatever we had and fed those guys.”
Director Kon Ichikawa – who would later direct The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain -- had broken with Toho, and visited Honda to see if he would join the staff at New Toho. Honda declined, preferring to remain with the original unit. The dispute eventually reached such proportions that American Occupation troops were called in to monitor the situation; fortunately, the strike was ultimately resolved without violence (the New Toho eventually declared bankruptcy in 1961).
Q: What source material did you rely upon while writing it?
A: A number of Japanese sources such as books written on Honda and the Toho fantasy films.
Q: Was this a solo effort or did you have help?
A: Originally I had hoped to work with Oki Miyano (who was the best translator I ever worked with as well as possessing a considerable amount of unique material on Honda). Unfortunately, we had different ideas on how the book should be written; plus there was a misunderstanding over an incident that occurred during an event at the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian theater in Hollywood, when he thought I was being rude to Mr. Inoue and Mr. Arikawa [while] being interviewed by Steve Ryfle before a screening of the American version of Rodan. Believing the lies being told about me, Miyano brought off contact. I regret it very much, because his information and input would have been invaluable for the book, but that was his decision, not mine.
Q: That’s unfortunate. So how were you able to translate the Japanese source materials?
A: With time and money, both of which are in short supply. I do not have the luxury of having a Japanese wife or girlfriend who will gladly translate for me for free. Over the years I would be introduced to Japanese transfer students whom I would pay to translate the material.
Even this lead to some difficulties, as translating Japanese into English is filled with many variables; often the material would be returned to me in English but in an almost jumbled state, so I had to try and sort it all out as to what was being stated. I used over half-a-dozen different translators for the book.
Q: What did you find the most difficult experience while writing it?
A: The most difficult experience was writing at home in my spare time, since I was also working a full-time job with the additional responsibilities that come with being a husband, a father and a dog-walker.
Q: What was the most frustrating aspect of writing this book?
A: Trying to get a mainstream publisher to print it. One sat on it for six months before telling me they were not interested.
Q: What were the most enjoyable aspects of writing this book?
A: It was always a joy to write. There would be days when I would be working a nine-hour day staring at a computer, get home bone-tired and only wanting to spend maybe a half-hour on the book. I would get started, look at the clock and two-to-three hours had gone by. That’s what threw me about writing the book, it was never a chore.
Q: You had a book deal with Midnight Marquee. What happened with that and why did you go with AuthorHouse?
A: It’s a rather involved story, but after sitting on my manuscript for three months before they even knew they had received it, I had to force the issue after an additional two months, at which time they did agree to publish it. However, their delay in getting me a contract -- plus the fact that they would not move-up the publishing date at my request (a concern as others were working on their own Honda book) -- forced me to seek publication elsewhere.
Q: Did you watch all of Honda’s movies, including the non-genre ones?
A: I wouldn’t have put a comma between “movies” and “including” but hopefully someday all of Honda’s films will be available in video, but the sad fact is that his non-genre films are rarely available on home video in Japan as he is considered only as a fantasy film director, even though those films include only half the total of all the films he directed; THAT would be my dream come true. Fortunately I was able to see Ise Shima, Farewell Rabaul, Eagle of the Pacific and Will You Marry Me?
As far as his fantasy films are concerned, I was already very familiar with all but two that I had never seen before writing the book: H-Man and Yog, two polar opposites if there ever were!
Q: What did you find most interesting about his non-genre movies?
A: There is still the same sense of calmly-determined understated craftsmanship; but, as was the case with all his films, if the project did not have an emotional heart at its core, it was not terribly interesting to watch, because Honda was not terribly interested in directing it.
Q: What are your favorite Honda genre movies?
A: Well, it all begins and ends with the original Godzilla, but I also love The Human Vapor as well as Godzilla vs. the Thing, Atragon and Rodan. I also get a kick out of The Mysterians and Varan.
Q: Did you do any research for your book while in Japan when you were there for G-TOUR?
A: No, I was too busy taking in the sights with my family; I was particularly disappointed we were not allowed to visit Toho Studios. What an experience that would have been!
Q: Well, we tried. Were you able to interview any of his associates?
A: Sadly, I do not have the money and the means to do so, and I have always been out of the loop when people have interviewed Honda’s actors; I always find out about it after the fact (although Brett Homenick was kind enough to forward some of my questions to Rhodes Reason when he interviewed him).
Q: Did you rely upon any American books or periodicals while researching your book? If so, which ones?
A: Magazines such as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Markalite, G-Fan, Fangoria and the like. David Kalat’s A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla® Series was an inspiration, as was the late Guy Mariner Tucker’s seminal work on the subject, Age of the Gods.
Q: Which did you find most useful?
A: Age of the Gods, which I frequently referred to.
Q: What was the process like when you were shopping your book around to different publishers?
A: Depressing and frustrating. Japanese fantasy films is a specialized market to begin with, and there was great difficulty in convincing publishers as to the legitimacy of the subject matter (for example, I submitted a proposal to Titan Books in England, but was told that – even thought the book fell within their parameters – it was not something they would be interested in). I contacted nearly two-dozen publishers, of which only four agreed to read the manuscript.
Q: What are your five favorite Ishiro Honda movies?
A: Well, again, I wish I could see them all, but Farewell Rabual should be available on Criterion; for that matter, Toho should show some guts and release Abominable Snowman on home video, it is a stunning film.
Q: Would you attempt another book? If so, what would the subject be?
A: Only if conditions warrant it. I am considering a book on the making of the first Godzilla film (another topic long overdue in book form) as well as a book on my idol, actor Bela Lugosi (incidentally, I was delighted that the book became available on Lugosi’s birthday – October 20th – as well as in the 55th anniversary year of the release of the original Godzilla. The book may still be available in 2011, which is the Centennial of Honda’s birth.
Q: Who designed the cover?
A: That’s a picture of my wedding reception! Seriously, the publishing house referred me to a public-domain pictorial site called “Jupiter Images.” It was up to me to pick out two images I could use for free, and the mushroom cloud was a cinch. However, pictures of Toho’s Mushroom Men are rare (and copyrighted), so I had to go with zombies, but their silhouettes can be loosely-interpreted as Mushroom Men during their transformation phase.
Q: Who came up with the title, Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda? I thought it was pretty clever.
A: A fellow I work with named Ryan Eden came up with the book’s snazzy title. Ryan is also a fan of the genre, and I asked him to come up with a title that would hint at themes common to Honda’s fantasy films. The title conveys not only the nuclear bomb connection (a theme so prevalent in Honda’s films) but also one of his most famous movies (Ryan’s original title was Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom People, but I changed “People” to “Men” for a better rhythm).
Q: Is there any aspect of Ishiro Honda that the reader's attention should be drawn to?
A: I think if there is one word that best describes Honda the man and Honda the professional, that word is "integrity." This I feel is true of not only him but of his collaborators: Tsuburaya, Ifukube, Tanaka and all the rest. They loved and respected their profession, and were not only grateful but keenly aware of their responsibilities as filmmakers. To a man, their motto was: "Give the audience its value and a good show." And they always did. The results may not have been totally satisfactory, but the effort was always there. This I believe is the key to their long lasting legacy.
Q: Do you have any messages to the G-fans out there and why they should buy your book (besides helping to put food on your table)?
A: Be the best move they ever made. Seriously it was always my attention to bring to light and hopefully the mainstream media's attention why Honda should be taken seriously as an artist and a filmmaker. His works have lasted through the decades and have made the cinema richer by his marvelous craftsmanship. There is a great deal of information on Honda never before seen in English book form, and although I originally intended it to be "definitive," I am hopeful it will get the dialogue going; I am also delighted to see so many of his films recently coming out in their Japanese versions on American DVD. I never thought I would ever see that in my lifetime. It's wonderful!
By "food on the table" I presume you mean my making money from the book. Surely you jest. Money was never my intention, or fame. It may interest you to know that shortly after I decided to write the book, you put me into contact with "G-Author Steve Ryfle." I was very excited and keen to get his approval and encouragement. Instead, Mr. Ryfle tried to talk me out of writing the book on the premise that I would not make a lot of money from it. Now I understand -- according to what I've been told -- Mr. Ryfle is currently working on a book on Ishiro Honda. Hmmm....
No, money was never an issue with me -- unless you count the change I have spent on not only doing the research but in getting the book printed. Just to break even, Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men will have to make it on the New York Times Bestseller list, and I don't see that happening. The important thing was to get the word out on Honda to both those familiar with his films and to those unfamiliar with his films; giving some respect to a man who has always deserved it.
If I have at least accomplished that -- and people find the book entertaining and worth their time and money -- I can take some satisfaction in that I have hopefully done right by a man whose example I tried to follow: Ishiro Honda.
UPDATE: Autographed copies of Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda are now available on eBay.