Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1971)

11. Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster
Gojira tai Hedora / Godzilla vs. Hedorah

At the start of the seventies, the Godzilla series was in a state of transition. Throughout the sixties, the scripts had become more childish and the budgets had gotten smaller. In 1970, Eiji Tsuburaya, one of the three fathers of Godzilla, died. Even though Tsuburaya’s contributions were mostly symbolic by this point, his death still forced a year’s break. With Tsuburaya gone, and Ishiro Honda moved on to other project, Toho handed their monster franchise over to a new filmmaker, Yoshimitsu Banno. From Banno’s brain emerged “Godzilla vs. Hedorah,” released in the U.S. the next year under the far catchier title of “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster.” Banno wound up making the strangest Godzilla movie ever, an oddball amalgamation of giant monster action, biological horror, seventies psychedelia, and eco-friendly philosophies.

Out of the polluted seas of 1970s Japan emerges a kaiju that feeds off of pollution, growing larger the more waste and smog it consumes. Marine biologist Dr. Yano encounters the monster, his face burnt by the creature’s acidic emissions. His monster obsessed son, Ken, dubs the creature “Hedorah.” As Hedorah grows more powerful, reeking havoc on Japan and claiming numerous lives, Godzilla is forced to response, battling the pollution absorbing monster. The human responds in different ways. Yano cooks up a way to stop the monster while the youth of Japan, led by guitarist Yukio, hold a protest jam party.

The movie’s agenda is evident from its opening minutes. The camera pans over lakes black with sludge and littered with garbage. Among the waste are a rotting mannequin and a broken clock. Because, you see, pollution will destroy humanity and time is running out. The film’s lack of subtly continues through the opening credits, where a Japanese pop singer implores us to “Save the Earth.” The movie’s intentions are good-natured. The shots of grime-clogged water certainly make an impression. However, by framing an ecological story so literally in the terms of the kaiju genre, it winds up creating an odd effect. Hedorah isn’t a mutant created by pollution, as first suggested, but rather an alien organism that fell to Earth and found a way to live off carbon emissions. This winds up creating the odd moral lesson of, in the words of the immortal Barry’s Godzilla Temple, “Pollution is bad. It attracts monsters.”

Hedorah would signal some unfortunate changes for the Godzilla franchise but remains a bizarre and memorable adversary. It begins life as a giant, black, tadpole-shaped entity. As he wrecks tanker ships, feeding on the oil, he grows into a quadrupedal creature. He leaps out of the ocean into Tokyo’s industrial district, sucking smog from smoke stacks. Probably my favorite form of Hedorah is when he takes flight, transforming into a roughly-flying-saucer shape, flying into the air on streams of poisonous gas. In its final two-legged form, Hedorah is actually slightly taller than Godzilla. The monster farts globs of acidic slime, oozes toxic waste, and shoots red laser beams from his tear ducts. Looking like an animated pile of sludge topped off with two red, bulbous eyes, Hedorah is certainly memorable. The downside is, unlike previous monsters, Hedorah frequently moves like a guy in a suit. While previous Toho kaiju looked and moved like natural animals, Hedorah set the standard for Godzill’s enemies to look and move more like actors in heavy rubber costume. Maybe this is an inevitable side effect of the enemies becoming more outlandish…

The Godzilla series had shifted entirely away from horror by the seventies. “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster” shifts back suddenly and explicitly. Not only is Hedorah a grotesque creation, the carnage he reaps is shown in surprisingly graphic detail. A group of card players is buried in muddy slime, seemingly struck dead. The monster’s ooze invades a night club, slathering a house cat in gunk. Hedorah consumes a freeway full of cars, drivers left to look on as black slime covers their windshields. The monster’s gas causes buildings to crumble and metal to rust instantly. The poisonous spray burns through skin, stripping a crowd of people down to the bone. For the first time in a long time, Godzilla is seen claiming human lives, accidentally crushing a pair of soldiers during his climatic tussle with Hedorah. Compared to the super-kiddy tone of its immediate predecessor, the violence comes off as a big surprise.

“Godzilla vs. Hedorah” is most infamous for being really fucking weird. And not just because the monster is so strange. At random, the movie cuts away to odd little cartoons. Rough, surreal animated sequences show Hedorah sipping crude oil, flying over the city, and consuming a smog-belching factory. A nuclear explosion is even animated, as a cartoon atom splits into a smiley face and an angry face. The movie will cut away to still images of stars, Dr. Yano narrating about science. By far the weirdest moment in the movie is when the doctor’s exposition is interrupted by a montage. Flashing lights appear on the screen, along with scenes from the movie, photographs of the monsters, yelling people, floating skulls, a baby buried in mud, and dancers wearing fish masks. The movie will then cut back as if nothing happened, leaving the audience very confused.

The film’s strangeness seems to be a side affect of its “youth in revolt” subplot. Toshi Shiba plays the film’s secondary lead, Yukio Keuchi. Keuchi is introduced brooding in a club while a psychedelic band jams on stage. The band performs against swirling lava lamp colors and enlarged images of Martin Luther King. The fish-headed dancers are introduced during this scene, along with Keuchi’s girlfriend Miki, who dances in a tight, flesh-colored leotard. Later in the film, Keuchi and his friends gather on the mountain side for a love-in, playing groovy rock music, dancing, and joining hands around a bonfire. The teens are celebrating life in the face of death but also seem to be protesting pollution. Bizarrely and unexpectantly, Keuchi and most of his buddies are killed after trying to confront Hedorah with torches. What are Banno’s intentions? Is Keuchi’s death a noble sacrifice, a criticism of the day’s youth, or a side-effect of shoddy editing? These questions are just some of the mysteries “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster” raises.

The horror mayhem and hippy hellraising contrasts badly with other parts of the movie. The filmmakers make a concession to the kids in the audience with Ken. Ken is introduced playing with Godzilla toys and, like Ichiro in “All Monsters Attack,” shares a spiritual connection to the King of the Monsters. He dreams about the monster, is certain he will save the world from Hedorah, and waves goodbye to Godzilla at the end, while shrieking his name. In one scene, Miki and Keuchi take Ken to an amusement park, riding on a roller coaster with him. This seems like odd behavior for a group of radicals like Keuchi and Miki. Worse yet, they leave the boy at the park, inside a shattering phone booth, the youngster discovering Hedorah’s skeletal victims. Dr. Yano is a down-to-earth scientist, stately connecting the dots of how to defeat Hedorah. These moments belong to a far more typical giant monster movie and stick out among the heavy-handed ecological message and trippy montages.

For all its awkwardness, “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster” delivers on the only aspect that might matter. It features some massively entertaining giant monster fights. Hedorah’s initial appearance, wrecking ships and blinding Dr. Yano, are surprisingly effective. The monster first emerges from the bay at night, attacking the factories and quickly coming into conflict with Godzilla. This is one of the few night-time set kaiju fights and is all the more atmospheric and moody because of it. Hedorah tries to pin Godzilla but his hands bust through the toxic monster's slimy body. Godzilla spins Hedorah overhead with his tail, tossing him away. For added hilarity, the moment is then replayed at super-speed.

Godzilla and Hedorah’s final fight makes up the film’s entire last third. Each monster is blinded in one eye. Hedorah lifts Godzilla into the air, dropping him into a pit along side Mount Fuji, before attempting to drown the monster king in brown sludge, a truly nauseating image. Godzilla attempts to block one of Hedorah’s laser beams by crossing his arms, Ultraman-style, a strategy that isn’t successful. Hedorah’s weakness is electricity. Even though that was originally Godzilla’s weakness, he is unaffected by it here. He even helps the military when the power source to their giant electrodes short out. Hedorah makes a last minute escape, leading to the movie’s most memorably kooky image. Godzilla projects himself into the air by firing his beam weapon towards the ground. To further the amusement, he does it twice, flying back with Hedorah in his arms. After frying the Smog Monster, Godzilla disembowels its corpse, stomping the body into the ground, just to make sure. The fight scenes are frequently shot from low angles and in close-up, lending a unique energy. As atypical as much of the movie is, “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” features plenty of dynamic, goofy giant monster wrasslin’.

Godzilla is presented as the Smog Monster’s ideological opposite. Ken dreams about the Monster King, the great beast rising from the ocean and setting a patch of sea-bound garbage on fire. The little boy narrates, asserting that the massive kaiju would not be pleased by man’s treatment of the Earth. Considering he was originally a symbol of the nuclear bomb, setting Godzilla up as defender of the environment is a little strange at first. Yet something about it works. Even in the first film, Godzilla also represented nature’s wrath. He’s a pissed-off god, begrudgingly cleaning up man’s mess. After defeating Hedorah, he gives the human protagonists an angry glare, letting us know he appreciates it none at all. The movie ends with a message: “Could it happen again?” Aside from being a blatant sequel hook, the question also reminds us that, in the real world, there are no giant dinosaurs to save us from ourselves. Rare moments like these are the only time the movie’s overbearing politics actually work.

One final factor makes the movie even stranger. Riichiro Manabe’s score matches the weird tone. Godzilla’s theme is a sad trombone warbling lowly. Though no match for Ifukube’s immortal march, it’s certainly a recognizable choice. “Save the Earth,” the sappy opening song, is reprised throughout. The lyrics are doom-and-gloom while the music is swinging sixties pop. The only time the song is used well is an enthusiastic reprise during Godzilla’s victory dance. The score is not well regarded but give credit were credit is due. “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” sounds as strange as it looks.

“Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster” remains divisive. Series producer and Godzilla stalwart Tomoyuki Tanaka hated it, telling Yoshimitsu Banno that he had ruined Godzilla, barring him from future productions. Banno would never direct again despite his attempts to get a CGI, 3D, IMAX quasi-remake made. (Plans which would, in a round about sort of way, make the newest Hollywood reboot possible.) The idea of a monster that transforms into different types of creatures would be revisited several times, in an unproduced Hedorah sequel, an unproduced script where Godzilla fought the devil, and finally with Heisei final boss Destoroyah. “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” is ultimately too inconsistent to be good. It is also too strange to be forgettable and too entertaining for me to dislike. Seventies Showa would never get this weird again but the film is certainly a good indicator of the wackiness to come. [Grade: B-]

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