'Godzilla' Director Honda Ishiro Describes Seeing Hiroshima Firsthand In New Criterion Release

Godzilla has been an explicit metaphor for nuclear menace since pre-eminent paleontologist Yamane Kyohei (Shimura Takashi) and his team first discovered the radiation emanating from the monster's giant footprints in 1954's Godzilla, but archival material newly released in the Criterion Collection's stunning Godzilla: The Showa Era-Films, 1954-1975 collection deepen our understanding of just how personal the connection between Godzilla and the atomic bomb was to some of its creators.

In a 1990 Directors Guild of Japan interview with Honda Ishiro—conducted by Banno Yoshimitsu, director of 1971's Godzilla vs. Hedorah—the original Godzilla director, who died in 1993, described the life experience that lifted Godzilla from on-screen metaphor to a form of personal testament.

Godzilla as he appears in the 1954 original, directed by Honda Ishiro. Toho Co. / The Criterion Collection

Honda was an assistant director at Photographic Chemical Laboratories (later renamed Toho) when he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army. But even after nearly a decade of military service, Honda was determined to return to movies.

"Sitting in a theater watching a film up on the screen: that was what I lived for. I never once thought about leaving the world of film," Honda told Banno. "When I got back from the war, I had spent much more time in the army than I had working in the studio. When I came back, I had to start over from scratch."

While Honda said the prospect of making movies again gave him hope on the battlefield, his wartime experiences would haunt him for the rest of his life. But it was what he saw upon returning after the war's end that left the biggest impression on him and most influenced how seriously he would take Godzilla.

"When I was coming back from the war, as the army was returning after our final defeat, we passed through Hiroshima," Honda said. "Back then, it was said that, for the next 72 years, not a single blade of grass would grow there—and that really stayed with me. So I have a kind of hatred of nuclear weapons. It's horrifying to make such terrible weapons and use them on one city and then another. It was that feeling, for me as a director, that meant I didn't hesitate one bit to make Godzilla come alive in the film."

Americans enforced censorship on Japanese films—including a prohibition on open discussion of the atomic bomb—until their occupation ended in 1952, so the development of Godzilla took place in a climate attuned to subtext.

Producer Tanaka Tomoyuki, who first conceived of the movie as Japan's version of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, tied his vision for the film to the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, when Japanese tuna fishermen suffered radiation poisoning from American hydrogen bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. A month later, Toho studio executive producer Mori Iwao greenlit the secretive Project G, urging the special effects director Tsuburaya Eiji to model Godzilla's skin on keloids—the scars caused by radiation.

But while Honda's direct experience of Hiroshima was previously explored in the 2017 biography Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa (author Steve Ryfle contributed an essay to the hardcover book packaging for Godzilla: The Showa Era-Films, 1954–1975), Honda's description belies the pop cultural narrative of Godzilla as veiled allegory or incidental commentary, instead revealing the creators' wrenchingly personal feelings toward nuclear power and American conduct.

"There's one thing I still haven't forgotten," Honda tells Banno. "Tsuburaya, Tanaka and I standing just inside the front gate of the studio and talking about how, when making this film, it was crucial that the crew have no doubt about what we were doing. We had to imagine how terrifying it would feel if something like this appeared; that sense of fear was something the crew should never forget. That's how we had to do it."

Honda's views on Godzilla evolved, a thematic growth charted across the box set, in other movies he directed in the Showa Era, including King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964). In 1954's Godzilla—as noted in Ryfle's essay for The Criterion Collection—Japan's Self-Defense Forces are conspicuously alone in their fight against the rampaging monster, despite the overwhelming American military presence in the country at the time. But in Honda's later movies, including other kaiju movies like Rodan, international cooperation becomes the only viable response to the ongoing threat of monster/nuclear annihilation.

"In scenes of international conferences I always show representatives from the Soviet Union and other countries. They help the Japanese government with a problem it faces. That depiction of cooperation somehow became the theme for these types of films—it's the fundamental theme," Honda said. "Gradually, over the course of making films and tackling that theme again and again, I came to realize it's something I have to keep in mind as a filmmaker."

The Criterion Collection's "Godzilla: The Showa Era-Films, 1954-1975." The Criterion Collection

The Showa Era Films eight disc Blu-ray set collects the 15 Godzilla movies in Toho Co.'s so-called "Showa Era," which closed in 1975 with Terror of Mechagodzilla. Beyond the movies, Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films also includes a dizzying array of supplemental material, including the Honda interview, unused special effects footage from throughout the series, a dissection of Godzilla's impressive matte painting compositing, plus new interviews with cast members, effects specialists and composer Ifukube Akira—creator of not only Godzilla's theme music, but also his iconic roar, which abandoned animal sounds for the metallic shriek created when leather gloves are rubbed across a double bass.

The Criterion Collection's Godzilla: The Showa Era-Films, 1954-1975 is out now.