Here's a story that we absolutely adore.
Yoshihiro Honda was the chief priest of a Buddhist temple. His religion prohibited him from going to the movies, and being a temple priest isn't exactly a career path to a swole bank account.
Given this, his youngest son, Ishirô, would sneak unaccompanied into the local theater. The boy especially loved watching adventures and historical epics. When the child got home, he'd recount the stories to his father in vivid detail, even going so far as to act out all the parts (Source).
And that, we think, is an excellent introduction to Godzilla director Ishirô Honda.
Like most great directors, Honda was a movie fanatic. After high school, he studied film at Japan University's art department and later became an assistant director at Toho. During this time of his life, you can see many of the influences that would play a part in shaping Godzilla into the classic it is today.
Of Monsters and Men
Honda was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army in 1936, where he served three tours over eight years as a foot soldier in China and Manchuria. In between his tours, he returned to Toho to work as an assistant director under Kajiro Yamamoto. There, he met Akira Kurosawa—Japan's best-known filmmaker—and the two began a lifelong friendship. (We'll come back to Kurosawa in a sec.)
Around the same time, Honda saw the film The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya, a war film that used special effects to recreate the battle of Pearl Harbor, giving the appearance of a documentary. The special effects were done by Eiji Tsuburaya, and the film was Honda's introduction to the SFX artist that would help him create many of Toho's later monster movies. The two would eventually work together under Yamamoto for Kato's Flying Falcon Forces in 1943 (Source).
Fun Fact: The special effects of The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya were so impressive that General Douglas MacArthur snatched up a copy and sold it to Movietone News Corp. It was released as actual Japanese footage of the Pearl Harbor attack, stirring up pro-war sentiments in America (Source).
Honda would be taken as a prisoner of war in 1945. He returned to Japan in 1946, and his journey home took him through Hiroshima, where he saw the death and devastation brought by the nuclear bomb. A natural filmmaker, he decided he had to convey the horror of what he saw that day, but it would be several years before such a project presented itself.
In the Director's Chair
Honda continued to work as an assistant director and made his directorial debut in 1951 with The Blue Pearl. He was 40 years old. Three years later, he'd direct his seventh film, a little ditty titled Godzilla.
As you can see from our little mini-bio above, Godzilla was a watershed moment for Honda. It was his most popular and successful movie so far, signaling a turning point for his career, but it also connected a lot of the dots. It allowed him to present his take on the bombing of Hiroshima and present his pacifist sentiment (no doubt an ideology born of his wartime experience).
It also deepened his working relationship with Tsuburaya, and the two would go on to work on many monster movies for Toho. To name a few: Mothra, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Matango, Mothra vs. Godzilla, Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster, and Destroy All Monsters.
Honda and Tsuburaya were on a monster roll, and Toho decided to capitalize on their success by investing in the duo for several more movies. In fact, Honda's career in the years after Godzilla saw the quantity-to-quality ratio lean hard toward the quantity side of the equation. Honda directed five films in 1957, four in 1959, and three in 1963. But as Richard Harland Smith noted, "Honda's output was hit and miss during this period but his distinctive style was evident" (source)
Behind the Scenes
If Honda's career was only limited to his science fiction spectacles, he'd be remembered fondly in Japanese and world cinema. But let's not forget his work with Kurosawa (told you he'd be back).
In addition to a lifelong friendship, these two were massively successful collaborators. Honda worked with Kurosawa in a directorial aide for many of the famed director's films. These included Stray Dog, Kagemusha, Dreams, Rhapsody in August, and Ran.
Japanese cinema fans will recognize those as some of the best films ever produced anywhere in the world. If you're not hip on Japanese cinema, trust us: they're super good (Source).
Honda died on February 28, 1993. However, the franchise he started with Godzilla continues to be successful across the world, and the films he worked on are studied to this day. By you, even.
Not too shabby for a kid who had to sneak into the movies.