Sunday, August 13, 2017

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (aka: Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster)

(1971) Directed by Yoshimitsu Banno; Written by Yoshimitsu Banno and Takeshi Kimura; Starring: Akira Yamauchi, Toshie Kimura, Hiroyuki Kawase, Toshio Shiba and Keiko Mari; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“I just planned a regular movie, but when I look on the internet some people seem to evaluate it like a pop art or surrealist film.” – Yoshimitsu Banno (from 2014 interview for SciFi Japan TV Extra)

“Why complain about it? Green pastures exist only in our hearts now. Let’s sing. Let’s dance! Let’s at least use our energy to make a stand!” – Yukio Keuchi (Toshio Shiba)

After his auspicious debut in 1954’s Gojira (or Godzilla, King of the Monsters on these shores), the big gray reptile enjoyed a rocky career against many worthy and not-so-worthy opponents, vacillating between villain and hero. The strangest was yet to come, however, with 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Gojira tai Hedora in Japan, or alternatively, Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster),* filled with non-sequitur psychedelic dance sequences, trippy music and animated portions. For this entry, director/co-writer Yoshimitsu Banno took the already time-worn elements of what we’ve come to expect from a Godzilla film, dumped them on the floor, and rearranged the pieces in his own mosaic. The results created a rift between Godzilla fans, who felt it trashed the series or brought life into it.  

* Fun Fact: Godzilla vs. Hedorah featured one of the final appearances of the late Haruo Nakajima, who portrayed the title kaiju since Gojira in 1954.  

From the movie’s opening title sequence, we can tell this isn’t going to be the same old, same old. A factory belches smoke in front of Mt. Fuji, followed by shots of garbage floating in the sea. This pastiche of pollution’s greatest hits is juxtaposed with James Bond-esque shots of a singer wiggling to the title song. In a final shot, a broken clock (Signifying time’s up?) floats among other ocean-borne detritus. Only a few minutes into this, I’m wondering if someone slipped something extra in my coffee. I don’t have much time to process what I just watched, because it gets weirder. Hedorah rises from the ocean, the product toxic sludge, garbage and sewage (Yep folks, Hedorah is essentially a poop monster). After years of abuse to Mother Earth, it’s time to pay the piper. The monster feeds off of industrial smoke, leaving a cloud of caustic fumes in its wake, and a trail of death and destruction. Godzilla makes his appearance, accompanied by some oddly comical music (Akira Ifukube’s signature theme is nowhere to be found), and he’s not pleased with the state of things.

Tokyo gets a well-deserved respite from destruction this time around, with most of the action occurring in Suruga Bay* and the surrounding locale. Our grade-school protagonist Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase) and his father Dr. Yano (Akira Yamauchi) try to uncover Hedorah’s secrets, discovering four stages for the shape-shifting kaiju: aquatic, terrestrial, airborne, followed by an unknown phase. Although Earth-bound pollutants brought Hedorah to life, Dr. Yano speculates a meteor brought Hedorah to Earth from “a sticky, dark planet,” but aside from a few pictures of celestial objects, there’s not much to support this theory. Meanwhile, Ken’s uncle Yukio (Toshio Shiba) and his girlfriend Keiko (Miki Fujiyama) combat the toxic menace with music and dancing (I’m not really sure how this is supposed to help).

* Not so Fun Fact: The heavily polluted region set a real-life precedent for the movie, as described in this vintage New York Times article:

Amidst all the unconventional stuff, Godzilla vs. Hedorah follows the usual formula:  Godzilla tangles with the bad guy, and the bad guy prevails, but only for the moment – we know our favorite mutant dinosaur isn’t down for the count. Alas, that’s where convention ends and Banno’s vision begins. One of the advantages of being a casual kaiju film fan is that I don’t have a fit over what’s supposedly canon, which is a good thing when trying to make sense of this movie. When Banno came onboard, he threw a lot out the window. In one sequence, when Hedorah attempts to escape, Godzilla pursues him by taking flight,* using his atomic breath as propulsion (He does what? In this movie he does.). Banno’s film is full of so many crazy moments, it’s difficult to pin down only one or two things. There’s a Lovecraftian vibe running through the movie, starting with Hedorah’s design, with its tendril-laden face, which has more than a passing resemblance to Cthulhu. In one scene, dancers in a club suddenly transform into fish-headed monstrosities that could have sprung from Dagon.

* Fun Fact: According to Banno, he created Godzilla’s flying scene so it could be easily edited out if Toho disapproved.

It’s not too surprising this was the first and last Godzilla film that Banno directed, but it’s one of cinema’s tragedies that he never directed anything else (producer Tomoyuki Tanaka reportedly wasn’t pleased with the results). It’s also not much of a revelation the big guy will ultimately prevail, but this one ends on a tentative note. We know it’s only a matter of time before another Hedorah surfaces. Humanity has only gained a brief reprieve by tackling the symptoms but not the cause. We haven’t learned much in the ensuing decades since Godzilla vs. Hedorah. Considering the poor state of the planet these days, it’s about time for Hedorah to re-surface. Unfairly maligned for many years, this Godzilla film like no other deserves re-evaluation on its own terms, as a silly movie about a serious topic.

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