It’s nice that, as a Godzilla fan, two things have happened to me in this decade. I’ve been able to see no less than two Godzilla classics on the big screen, playing on U.S. screens for the first time. I’ve also been able to write professionally and on several occasions about the character and his iconic, almost peerless franchise persisting for over 60 years. These movies mean a lot to me, and I owe a significant debt of this appreciation to the legendary Ishirō Honda.
While the creation of Godzilla came down to many extraordinary talents from many extraordinary people, it was Honda’s direction that brought everything together. He was such a capable and creative collaborator that even after his retirement in 1975, Akira Kurosawa would ask him to return as a creative right-hand man for his final five films.
If you look through the 40+ movies Ishirō Honda directed over a period of just 26 years, you’ll find at least a couple dozen films outside of the Godzilla series that are worth a look. Honda stayed primarily in horror and science fiction for his filmmaking career but found as a director a variety of ways to make many of these non-Godzilla monster/creature feature movies distinctive from one another. Let’s celebrate that this month at Make the Case with 5 classic films directed by Ishirō Honda outside of the Godzilla canon.
1. The War of the Gargantuans (1966)
Did you ever watch any of the Showa era Godzilla films and think “You know what this missing? Someone who would eventually join the cast of Twin Peaks?” Russ Tamblyn in the kaiju slugfest The War of the Gargantuans is going to make your day, although Tamblyn rarely seems to be comfortable on screen with the film, his co-stars, or really anything else related to this film. His performance is fine, but his seeming indifference to the material (Honda and others on the production found him difficult to work with) is hard to ignore sometimes.
This is a minor criticism. When the movie focuses instead on two King Kong/Frankenstein hybrids (you’ll see what I mean), it’s a blast. Kenji Sahara and Kumi Mizuno more than make up for any awkwardness brought to the proceedings by Tamblyn, and our two monsters are visually striking. The suit actor choreography is some of the most impressive Honda would preside over in his long career.
Although much of his best work as a director was behind him, Honda proved with The War of the Gargantuans that he hadn’t lost his step. This is a fun, fast-paced piece of vintage entertainment that still stands out among his films outside of the Godzilla series.
2. Space Amoeba (1970)
Although Honda’s track record as I mentioned before might be a little spotty at this point of his career, movies like Space Amoeba are still packed with substantial entertainment, creative visuals, and the effort to create a $10, 000, 000 budget world on considerably less than that. Space Amoeba is another film that emphasizes Honda’s knack for science fiction. Rarely did it venture out of the arena of comic book style adventure sci-fi that could occasionally take a detour into something genuinely unsettling. Space Amoeba has plenty of these moments in its story of amoeba-like aliens that drop in on the planet earth, turn sea life into massive monsters in a bid to conquer the planet, and just generally make a consistent nuisance of themselves.
The basic premise of Space Amoeba may not sound that exciting, but this is one of those kaiju movies that will surprise and ultimately satisfy you in the way the story is told. You can really appreciate this fact in some of the memorable and fun creature designs, and in the movie’s surprising sense of humor. Space Amoeba visually suffers at times from having clearly a lower budget than some of Ishirō Honda’s earlier films, but there’s nothing shoddy about what the movie ultimately achieves with its special effects, action, and performances by Akira Kubo and Yukiko Kobayashi.
3. Matango (1963)
While very much in the tradition of the science fiction Ishirō Honda was becoming known for at this point, Matango is perhaps the closest the director ever came to recreating the genuine tension, dread, and even horror he brought to haunting life in Gojira in 1954. A group of sniping, obnoxious tourists find themselves on an island that at least initially seems pretty pleasant. It would certainly be a notion of paradise, if not for the toadstool creatures that populate the mysterious region the tourists find themselves trapped in after a storm washes them ashore.
The premise of Matango may sound a little silly, and the mushroom creatures themselves are initially a bit comical. However, the mood and atmosphere of this seriously creepy horror film quickly dominates everything we go through in this decidedly bleak, feverish nightmare. Akira Kubo is once again particularly good working with Honda as a scientist who soon finds himself in danger of being swallowed whole by a force that consumes, destroys, and reshapes.
Matango is actually pretty damn creepy, with an ending evocative of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the best possible way. Of all the Ishirō Honda movies you can watch outside of works like Rodan, Destroy All Monsters, or Mothra, this might just be the best one.
2. Frankenstein vs. Baragon (1965)
Frankenstein and Baragon is the most straightforward kaiju movie of the five mentioned here. The special effects of the legendary Eiji Tsuburaya, responsible for some of the most iconic movie creatures in history, are a particular treat here. There are some examples of just how perfect a vehicle for entertainment kaiju movies could be in this period when everyone involved was hitting their creative peak. Frankenstein vs. Baragon, which involves everything from Nazis to the heart of the Frankenstein Monster, is just too off-the-wall and inventive to be anything but a great choice for your next kaiju binge.
Frankenstein vs. Baragon has one of the most ludicrous plots you’ll ever find in one of these, but the monster brawls and plot twists are all so relentlessly cheerful and energetic that you are certain to find yourself wrapped up in the chaos.
Some kaiju movies take a few minutes to really get going. Not Frankenstein vs. Baragon. This movie goes hard right away, and never manages to lose the head of steam it builds up. It’s a shame we never got a true sequel to Frankenstein vs. Baragon, although The War of the Gargantuans will certainly do the trick for those interested.
1. Dogora (1964)
Dogora reminds us of all of that old adage that there’s nothing more annoying than ethereal-looking alien jellyfish creatures who want to steal all the carbon from our diamonds. This is another Ishirō Honda movie where the plot description alone will either delight you or not. Presumably it will, if you’re the kind of person who loves over-the-top plots about space aliens and giant monsters with some clever twists and top to bottom good performances from the non-monster cast.
This is another underrated classic from the period that is arguably Honda’s best decade as a director. With a screenplay by Shinichi Sekizawa and story by Jojiro Okami, Dogora has one of the best alien invader stories of this era, with some truly unique variations on the formula, as well as some of the most exhilarating and memorable special effects Eiji Tsuburaya ever gave us. When you see the jellyfish creatures for the first time, you’ll understand what I mean.
Dogora is a kaiju movie that doesn’t feel like the same old thing. This may have been the field where Ishirō Honda spent much of his career, but his best kaiju films that aren’t Gojira or Invasion of the Astro-Monster will show you his ability to coordinate so many different talents and concepts that in the hands of a lesser director would have just been the standard monster fare. The films of Ishirō Honda were something different, special.
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