Author and Japanese science fiction film aficionado, Steve Ryfle, co-authors an in-depth study of Ishiro Honda, the influential director who most notably directed the original 1954 Godzilla film.
A long-time fan of Japanese science fiction and tokusatsu films, Steve Ryfle’s first book, Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G” published in 1998 was one of the first English language books about the Godzilla franchise. His newly published second book focuses on the life and career of Godzilla‘s director, Ishiro Honda, “arguably the most internationally successful director of his generation”. Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa is currently available to purchase on Amazon.
Ryfle was recently a guest at the Kaiju Kingdom Podcast panel this past San Diego Comic Con. He will also be at various book and film screening events such as the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles for “The Soul of Godzilla: an Ishiro Honda Tribute” double feature at the end of October. Other events in New York, Chicago, and throughout Los Angeles will also occur in October. To follow and attend these events, visit the official Facebook page at Facebook.com/IshiroHondaBook. Fan can also follow Ryfle on Twitter @steveryfle.
You’ve previously written about the history of Godzilla that included substantial research and interviews including an one with late Haruo Nakajima and great insider details about Godzilla’s various “unmade” productions. What got you interested in Japanese filmmaking and in particular, kaiju films and tokusatsu in general?
My personal interest in horror and science fiction films began when I was very young, because my mother was into that stuff, particularly James Whale’s Frankenstein and King Kong. She had seen Godzilla and Rodan and some of the other Japanese science fiction films when they were first released in cinemas in the U.S. back in the 1950s, and she passed on that fascination to me. Of course, my interest in the films has evolved over time.
As a youngster I mostly enjoyed watching the monsters fight and destroy things, but I am more interested now in the ways that these films also reflected Japan’s unique position in the postwar world.
How did your latest book, Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, come into fruition? What about Mr. Honda’s life in particular that inspired you to write a dedicated book about him?
The project happened because of a chance meeting in 2007 that my co-writer, Ed Godziszewski and I had in Tokyo with Ishiro Honda’s son, Ryuji Honda. When he realized how much we admired his father’s work, and when he learned about our background as writers or scholars of this genre, Ryuji eventually asked if we would be interested in writing a book about his father, and he offered to help open doors for us, to help us conduct interviews and other types of research.
Honda is a filmmaker I have been fascinated with since the very beginning. His science fiction films have an epic quality to them, both visually and thematically. At their best, his films show a world where everything is at stake–it’s not just that Tokyo is being attacked, but the fate of the world hangs in the balance, as well as the fate of the heroes. I think this is a fundamental part of why his films are still popular decades after they first came out. But Honda also had a second part of his career that is entirely unknown outside of Japan. In addition to the many science fiction films that were exported to the West he made a roughly equal number of mainstream dramas and comedies that were not. It struck us that his talents and interests as a filmmaker had not yet been fully appreciated because of this. Writing the book presented an opportunity to dive deeper into the work and life of a filmmaker who fascinated both of us.
How did you get started as a writer and journalist?
I had always written stories since childhood, and I studied print journalism in college, then went to work for a number of newspapers as a beat reporter covering politics, crime, and environmental issues for a number of years. Eventually I transitioned to writing about film and entertainment. The writing I’ve done on this genre began as an avocation, but it has grown and opened up other opportunities such as working on home video projects, making a documentary film, and so on.
Did you encounter any particular challenges when researching the Ishiro Honda book?
There were of course many, many challenges. Where do I begin.
You’re talking about tracking down the story of a man’s life of 80 years, across a divide of language and culture and generations and war, a person who fought in a war and lived through a tumultuous time in his country’s history and made more than 40 movies. The process of assembling the material for that story involves locating and interviewing people, finding and researching archival documents, watching films, reading history, and so on, and doing this with the assistance of translators and interpreters because neither Ed nor I am fluent in Japanese (though Ed understands a great deal). Then you take everything you’ve learned and distill it into a readable narrative, knowing you cannot fit every single thing and you have to make painful choices about what to omit. So the entire, lengthy process of research was challenging but it was also rewarding because we uncovered a lot of new material that reveals Honda’s character and details of his life and career.
Do you have a favorite Honda directed film? If so, which and why?
Godzilla, of course. I am astonished at how the film remains relevant to this day, and is perhaps even more so than when it was made. Everyone now knows that the monster is a walking atomic bomb, and the words spoken by Takashi Shimura at the end of the film are a warning we have not heeded. Honda would be very alarmed at the way nuclear war, or the threat of it, has been normalized today.
What were some of the challenges and rewards you came across when writing your previous book, Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G”?
The same kind of challenges — researching material that is primarily in another language, another culture, another country, and not being fluent in that language. The reward was in learning so much new material about the films and their creators. This was before the internet had taken off, before Wikipedia, before there was so much information readily available about these movies. I believe my most significant contribution with that book was to help document the process by which these films were altered for distribution in the West. To do that, I reached out to a number of producers and other people who were involved in that process, and most of those folks are now dead.
The intersection between Japanese and American pop culture and media, especially with regard tokusatsu, superheroes, and giant monsters, has been a profound one. How much have you seen that influence in your research into both the Godzilla franchise and Ishiro Honda’s work? How much, if any, has the fan community in the US and other non-Japanese speaking countries helped?
Honda’s Godzilla was the first piece of Japanese pop culture to be exported across the West, and it set the stage for everything that has followed over the past 60-odd years, from Speed Racer to Miyazaki and tons of anime and manga and tokusatsu, kaiju, etc. The fan community that has come together to support this material has grown and grown over the past 20 or so years, and there is some amazing work being done by people in that community.
In terms of this project, I think Ed and were following a parallel but somewhat different path. Certainly we are fans of Honda and the genre, but our goal was to discuss Honda’s career and work and life just as we would any other major filmmaker. In the past, Honda has often been viewed as a director on the fringe, but the truth is that his films have had a lasting impact and influence and this book is a recognition of that.
For upcoming news on upcoming and future events, visit the official Facebook page at Facebook.com/IshiroHondaBook and Steve Ryfle’s Twitter, @steveryfle. In October 2017, Ryfle and his co-author, Ed Godziszewski will be at the following events where copies of their book will be available for purchase:
- October 5: Steve Ryfle in conversation w/Alonso Duralde on Ishiro Honda (The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles)
- October 13: Author Talk: Ed Godziszewski on Ishiro Honda (Quimby’s Bookstore, Chicago)
- October 14: Author Talk: Steve Ryfle on Ishiro Honda biography (LAPL Little Tokyo Branch, Los Angeles)
- October 23: Mothra and The H-Man: Homage to Ishiro Honda (Film Forum, New York)
- October 27: The Soul of Godzilla: an Ishiro Honda Tribute (the Egyptian Theater, Los Angeles)