"Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men" Book Review
Written by Peter H. Brothers
2009, 282 pages, Non-Fiction
Book released on October 16th, 2009
Ishiro Honda introduced the cinematic world to Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan, yet lacks international name recognition himself. In the circle of Kaiju film fans, he is perhaps the most famous of the un-famous, and his work continues to influence filmmakers to this day. With the book Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda, author Peter H. Brothers goes to great lengths to rectify the egregious lack of attention provided to the director who created more than 80 films over a career lasting a remarkable six decades.
The book is separated into two distinct sections; the first serves as a biography, pulling from numerous essays and interviews with Honda. It is here that we learn of the man’s early career path as an assistant director, sidelined by his service in World War II. He returned to find many of his contemporaries had passed him and become directors in their own right, but Honda continued to work in the industry forging bonds that would last a lifetime. Early in his career he assisted Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai) and returned to the position almost fifty years later as the two men approached retirement.
Once he began his career as a director, Honda remained loyal to the Toho Company and never worked outside of this studio, frequently collaborating with many of the same crew members every time he made a film. Chief among his close circle of craftsmen were Eiji Tsuburaya, his special effects technician, and Hajime Koizumi, his cinematographer. Honda’s films consistently focused on empathy and the triumph of the human spirit by encouraging people to work together. He deliberately avoided scaring his audiences and frequently made the monsters sympathetic.
The biography portion of the book is only 62 pages long and is plagued with frequent typographical errors that could easily have been corrected with a proper edit or even a basic attempt at spell check. There is an interesting anecdote of how Honda was routinely credited as either Inishiro Honda instead of the correct Ishiro Honda, yet while Brothers diligently spells this name correctly he misspells others at every opportunity. Early on Honda’s wife Kimi is introduced, only to be misidentified as Mimi several times within the same chapter.
The majority of Mushroom Men is a filmography broken into several time periods that depict the various stages of Honda’s career. It is here that Brothers is the most frustrating because despite being clearly knowledgeable in the material, his writing quality takes a complete nose dive. Providing additional confusion, each film is presented with several titles, in addition to the original Japanese title and the official title change provided by foreign distributors, Brothers provides a third moniker that he has seemingly made up on his own and refers to the same picture by all three titles.
Many of Honda’s films played theatrically in the United States, a relatively unheard-of prospect at the time. Yet the movies were subject to more tinkering than just an alias and English dubbing, as the common practice at the time was for American editors to re-cut the picture. Perhaps most famously, actor Raymond Burr was added to the domestic release of Godzilla as a reporter whose scenes replaced similar material in the original Japanese version. While the new edit complements the film and actually works, Brothers does not include any of Honda’s reactions to this or any other changes made to his works over the following years.
While many of Honda’s titles are domestically available through online rental companies, Brothers assumes the reader has already seen the films and doesn’t bother to provide a plot synopsis for any of them. To further the confusion, any plot points he does mention are under far greater scrutiny than practical without proper context and are frequently presented out of order. This jumbling of information is unfortunate, as it is a pattern that persists for over 200 pages. The reviews themselves are generally positive and are clearly written by a fan despite the abundance of harsh criticisms throughout. Brothers enthusiastically points out numerous shortcomings in the films, yet still presents each title as a virtual masterpiece.
The author has devoted an unbelievable amount of space to the music of each film, so much so, that the individual reviews are twice as long as they otherwise would be. The soundtracks are listed on a track-by-track basis and critiqued in full, and although fascinating to some readers, this information should not receive more attention than that given to director Ishiro Honda. Composer Akira Ifukube deserves his own career retrospective book, but Brothers needs to focus on one legend at a time.
The book is billed as “for the first time in English print”, so it is unclear if the metric ton of typos is a result of sloppy translation or just piss-poor editing. My favorite mistake comes in the review for a film that also serves as an example of the excessive titling: The Defense Force of the Earth (Chiku Boeigun) aka The Mysterians where the effects work is described as “eye-pooping”. One final omission that is particularly frustrating is the lack of an index. Readers may want to fill the book with post-it notes in order to mark certain points of interest. It is unfortunate that such a comprehensive fount of information is presented in such a haphazard manner. Brothers seems capable of better work and Honda deserves it.