Review of Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men by Peter Brothers (2009, AuthorHouse) as written by Coffin Jon of VCinema.
If you had told me as a child in the late ‘70s that someone actually made the Godzilla films that I loved so much, I would have thought you were crazy. Surely, considering the large number of Godzilla films available by that time (15!), they were created by some sort of movie-making robot that could read the minds of young children around the world and, onto film, translate what they desired to see most, giant monsters! There’s just no way that these movies could have been made by just one man! Well, the truth is all of them had not been directed by one man, but actually five, most of whom produced work that is still largely unknown in the West (though Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971) director Yoshimitsu Banno was once an assistant director of Akira Kurosawa). It shouldn’t come to any surprise then that Ishiro Honda, Godzilla’s creator and still the one who has directed the most films in the series, has suffered a similar fate of obscurity in the West. That’s where Peter Brothers’ Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men comes in.
Much has been written about Honda before in books such as Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! (Galbraith, Fujii, & Sakahara, 1998), Godzilla on My Mind (Tsutsui, 2004), and A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series (Kalat, 2010), but mainly in relation to his work with every one’s favorite nuclear lizard. What’s unique about Brothers’ book is the equal attention given to Honda’s other fantasy-filled kaiju (monster) and tokusatsu (special effects) films, including his incredibly fun and underrated The H-Man (1958) and The Mysterians (1957) and genuinely atmospherically creepiness Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (1963 and also the source of the “Mushroom Men” reference in the book’s title) and the other 22 films that he directed and including titles not readily available in North America as of the writing of this review.
Essentially, the book is separated into three sections. The first dissects Honda’s general approach to his film direction vis a vis common visual and narrative themes and their in-film execution. Especially interesting is the subsection that looks at the recurrence of the “sympathetic monster”, a filmic and narrative archetype not unlike the Frankenstein monster. This short section, really comprises the raison d’etre of Honda’s movies as this theme is, both directly and indirectly, referred to in the book. The second section is a biography of Ishiro Honda and, though it contains the basics of the director’s life, might be considered the book’s weakness. Those who are expecting an up close and personal look at Honda might feel a little disappointed at the seeming distance that Brothers has from his subject; something that may have been fact since there are not any film stills or even pictures of Honda in the book at all.
However, to be fair, as the subtitle (“The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda”) says, the book does not purport to be solely about Honda, but rather his films and this is the book’s strength and what comprises the third, and largest, section. In this section, Brothers looks at each film individually first giving details on its cast and credits. Formal synopses are not provided, but rather woven into the analysis. Also within the analyses of each film are plenty of details on the work of Honda’s filmmaking team of, among many others, special effects director Eiji Tsubaraya and soundtrack composer Akira Ifukube. The book could have benefited from more copyediting; there are several misspellings that most spellcheckers will not catch, but the prose is generally well-written in a straightforward and authoritative, if slightly dry, manner.
Overall, though, Brothers’ book is a welcome entry into the ever-growing knowledge base of Japanese and especially kaiju film. It might not be the book that will make you a whiz on Ishiro Honda trivia night, but it may be one that you keep on your nightstand or bookshelf in your home theater for those times when you want to kick back and read about childhood favorites as seen through adult eyes.