Yoshimitsu Banno: In Memoriam
by Patrick Galvan
May 28, 2017
Blog
 

Yoshimitsu Banno directing GodzillaThe recent passing of Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) director Yoshimitsu Banno and the expected refocus on his limited involvement in Toho’s iconic monster movie franchise brought to mind two things regarding this series and the way fans react to it. The first concerns the making-of stories surrounding these movies and that they are, so very often, swamped in a messy bog of truths and half-truths. In regards to Godzilla vs. Hedorah, the production legend reiterated to most people depicts an ambitious young filmmaker whose career was mercilessly cut down by a narrow-minded tyrant just when it seemed to be getting started, and whose only crimes were exerting his imagination and daring to stray from the norm. It’s become one of the most popular tales in Godzilla lore, and just about every fan in the last few decades has heard it.

Alas, I must put a spin on that classic adage: this half-truth has gone around the globe twice, and the truth is still in the process of putting its shoes on.

History, indeed, demonstrates that Yoshimitsu Banno never took charge of a Godzilla film after his 1971 foray—though he did acquire the rights to the character in the early 2000s (for an unrealized short IMAX movie) which eventually led to him receiving credit as executive producer for the feature-length 2014 Godzilla film by Legendary Pictures. It is similarly true, regarding Godzilla vs. Hedorah, that producer Tomoyuki Tanaka (who had been hospitalized during production) was anything but enthusiastic when he eventually saw Banno’s film. No one has ever claimed he liked the picture. Now, accounts vary as to just how livid Tanaka became following the screening (special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano reported the famous "You’ve ruined Godzilla!" quote; Banno himself recalled anger-free acceptance that the film couldn’t be changed) but regardless, in the face of the evidence, the claims that Banno’s career ended overnight have been largely exaggerated, to say the least.

Prophecies of Nostradamus dance sceneFor a man supposedly shut out of the moviemaking business, Banno maintained quite an active output post-1971. Among the (numerous) documentaries he worked on through the remainder of the decade was Cruel Famine Continent, about drought-ridden Africa, which saw a theatrical release in 1972. In the 1980s, following a stint of producing animated features for Toho, he developed a new IMAX format called JAPAX; and in 2000, he founded his own company for the purpose of making such films, selling projection equipment, creating festival exhibits, and other similar ventures. (So much for a dead career….) But more revealing is the backstory behind his involvement in the 1974 anti-pollution disaster epic Prophecies of Nostradamus. Noting the new film’s message and remembering Banno’s passion for the environment, Tomoyuki Tanaka approached the man he "banned" and requested his services as co-screenwriter and assistant director. He was handpicked to help on this project. An important note: Prophecies of Nostradamus wasn’t exactly a throwaway enterprise cranked out by the studio to make a little dough in the interim. The film was based on a popular book and made in hopes of mimicking the immense box office success of Shiro Moritani’s Submersion of Japan (1973). And, sure enough, those hopes became reality when Prophecies of Nostradamus, despite some notorious controversy and subsequent re-editing during its theatrical release, became the highest-grossing Toho-produced feature of 1974. And one of the key people behind it was someone who, just three years earlier, disenchanted the big brass with a movie in which Godzilla flew.

To put it briefly: Tanaka might not have been the world’s biggest fan of Godzilla vs. Hedorah, but clearly he recognized Banno’s talents. What’s more, when one watches Prophecies of Nostradamus, one can sense its writer’s presence in the story.

And this brings me to my second, more interesting point: whatever one thinks of his monster movie, Yoshimitsu Banno was, without question, one of the more distinctive talents ever to emerge from Toho. He had a flavor that was uniquely his and instantly recognizable to anyone even remotely familiar with his career. And even though the recurring anti-pollution theme is noteworthy, I would argue it’s merely the base for what made Banno sui generis. (Other filmmakers have made statements against pollution before and since 1971, after all.) The key factor, I feel, is the creativity, intelligence, and natural craftsmanship he used to articulate his message.

Let’s consider the first few minutes of Godzilla vs. Hedorah. The main credits appear over a montage consisting of psychedelic images and sheets of garbage drifting across the ocean surface—complemented by a lively rendition of the film’s song Give Back the Sun! A creative opening, but then again, didn’t Ishiro Honda do something similar in All Monsters Attack (1969) two years earlier, with a song playing over images of a heavily polluted industrial environment? That said, let’s contemplate the method through which Banno films the pollution in this intro. In addition to muck and dead fish, we see the gnarled figure of a doll drifting in the sludge. It’s not too dissimilar from the gnarled human corpses seen later in the film as Hedorah—a monster thriving off pollution—wreaks havoc on civilization. And as the song comes to a close, Banno presents us with another item in the swamp-like water. A clock, obviously dysfunctional but nonetheless accompanied by ticks and chimes on the soundtrack, as though signaling man’s time is running out. And then, in a stroke of visual genius, Banno promptly cuts to a close-up of some vibrant, healthy flowers. This in turn is followed by shots of (unbroken) toys near the garden and (living) fish in an aquarium. We have been introduced to the house of Dr. Yano and his family, where a good deal of the human drama takes place. In doing so, the director establishes a new environment while simultaneously providing contrast against the depressing drabness seen previous. And when Banno shows us these refreshingly pleasant images, he knows he will have use for them later. When Hedorah passes the house later in the film, those same flowers wilt in the toxic fumes, those same toys are pulverized by acidic sludge, those same fish are quenched of life. The cycle has returned to its starting point, favoring the morbid idiom.

montage in Hedorah

In addition to revolting imagery, Banno used his anti-pollution theme as a means of commenting on then-contemporary social issues. In one notable scene, Hedorah, having recently garnered the ability to fly, passes over a school yard, where a teacher and her students are practicing calisthenics. The vapors spewing from the smog monster’s body send the girls reeling to the ground, clutching at their throats, unable to breathe: a direct reference to a then-recent headline, in which a group of schoolgirls in July 1970 fainted in the exercise yard due to the heavily polluted air hanging over them. A little later, in one of the film’s animated segments, we see the market has opened on "anti-Hedorah oxygen masks" to protect citizens from the creature’s poisonous mist. Another clever metaphor. At the time of the film’s release, it wasn’t uncommon for cities to establish oxygen stations on public streets in case pedestrians found themselves short of breath. The pollution in Japan was that bad! The use of seemingly random bits, such as these animation scenes, have contributed to Godzilla vs. Hedorah’s reputation as a ‘trip movie,’ but these elements are not strange for the sake of being strange—not different for the sake of being different. Unusual as they are, they are nevertheless a means through which Banno enhances his message and social commentary.

At this point, I would like to start drawing comparisons to other projects Banno worked on, namely Prophecies of Nostradamus (1974). With assistance from director Toshio Masuda and some extremely basic inspiration from Toshio Yasumi’s script for The Last War (1961), Banno metastasized his theme to an apocalyptic scale. As the narrative unfolds, unrestrained pollution results in giant mutated animals, holes in the ozone layer which ignite entire portions of Japan (including the supposedly safe countryside), worldwide flooding, a shortage of supplies and—by extension—riots, mass suicide, and a steadily growing possibility of global nuclear war. The latter is where the film draws most of its inspiration from The Last War; but it takes the gruesome detail to an extreme that film never dreamed of. The film ends with a hypothetical horror show: civilization has blown itself to smithereens with its own atomic warheads, and we flash forward to see the future "residents" of Tokyo, itself now a barren desert. Here it is heavily implied that humankind has devolved into "strange creatures"—physical deformed, dwelling in subterranean caverns, gnawing on snakes for nourishment, wrestling with each other over the puniest of meals. And let’s not forget the other highly controversial sequence of the film: the New Guinea sequence. For this mid-movie section, Banno was given complete directorial control, taking the cast and crew on-location to film a grisly sequence in which a scientific rescue team encounters giant carnivorous flora, mutated bats, oversized leaches, and savage cannibalistic natives. (The setup concerns a massive amount of radiation descending upon the island.) The local people in the jungle have developed resistance to the radiation, but at the cost of their humanity.

cannibals and mutants in Prophecies of Nostradamus

And it doesn’t stop there. This time, no one, not even children, are spared the consequences brought about by man’s follies. In fact, children are sometimes presented as the ones who suffer the most. We see youngsters being supplied with protective masks, as the smog cloaking their city has become thick to the point of posing a safety hazard to their still-developing lungs—another real-life parallel. Ostensibly healthy parents (expecting) breathe in polluted air and consume contaminated goods, resulting in infants with abhorrent deformations. Other children ingest contaminated water and develop extraordinary physical and mental abilities…only to die from complications. Despite the exaggerated science-fiction effect, this segment regarding contaminated environments and their effects on populaces comes across as a nod to the Four Big Pollution Diseases of Japan, three of which had experienced major outbreaks within twenty years of the picture’s release, all of which were spawned by reckless disposal of pollutants.

Jumping eleven years into the future, one can sense Banno’s presence in the main credits sequence from Techno Police 21C, an anime he produced in 1982. Our protagonist is commuting to a dense, crime-ridden metropolis; while en route, he drives down a stretch of road bordered on both sides by massive heaps of junk. In true Banno fashion, the protagonist regards the surrounding garbage-piles with utter disgust.

SDF in HedorahBanno shares his Godzilla vs. Hedorah screenwriting credit with Takeshi Kimura—at this point using his pseudonym Kaoru Mabuchi—who might have had some small influence on the director’s recurring scrutiny of authority figures. I use the word ‘might’ because Banno, in a 2005 interview, confessed to having been dismayed with Kimura’s original draft and proceeded to rewrite the entire thing himself. In the same interview, he admits Kimura gradually became more enthusiastic along the way, but just how much of the final script is his, I cannot say. Regardless, Kimura, who liked to portray policemen in a vacuous light, must have approved of their representation here. When the smog monster ventures ashore for the first time, the landing is reported to the local police station. And the officer answering the phone foolishly scoffs: "Knock it off! Hedorah is a sea monster!" Upper-tier authority figures come off just as bad or even worse. The city authorities in the film leap to the assumption that because Hedorah attacked after sunset, he must therefore be a nocturnal creature—only to witness the monster come ashore again on a bright, sunny day. And then there’s the Self Defense Forces, here portrayed as bungling incompetents whose inability to successfully wire their own electrodes sends Godzilla shaking his head in frustrated disbelief before he activates their devices for them.

Having described all that, it’s oddly poetic (though more than likely just coincidence) that Banno would go on to produce a fairly purist adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This animated feature maintains the book’s portrayal of its eponymous wizard as a charlatan quick to send his visitors into peril rather than admit to what he is—and who ends up being whisked away to who-knows-where due to his inability to handle his own hot air balloon.

Police, government officials, and soldiers were not the only groups to be skewered in a Banno production. Another noticeable similarity between Godzilla vs. Hedorah and Prophecies of Nostradamus is a condemnation of counterculture youth. The depiction in the 1971 Godzilla movie is particularly cynical. The twenty-somethings in this film are presented as self-destructive do-nothings who would rather party than take an active role in changing the world. In the wake of Hedorah’s second attack, they arrange for a huge gala atop Japan’s famous volcano Mt. Fuji. The pretense is a Woodstock-esque movement for a better world, but the whole charade comes across, instead, as a deliberately suicidal last hurrah. They’re aware of the prediction that Hedorah will climb Mt. Fuji, and yet they stage their party in that very locale. They know the government has put limitations on automobile travel (because tailpipe fumes are a source of pollution, which Hedorah is attracted to), and yet they use their vehicles to reach the destination, leaving a convenient trail of exhaust up the mountainside; not to mention the guy who organized this whole counterproductive party knows of Hedorah’s attraction to exhaust fumes, as he nearly became a victim when the monster swallowed up a highway’s worth of cars during the daytime attack; and not once does he offer a word of warning. After some initial disappointment that more people didn’t show up, the young people construct a huge bonfire, producing a plainly visible source of light as well as atmosphere-wrecking carbon dioxide. Their seemingly suicidal nature becomes even more clear when Hedorah eventually touches down on Mt. Fuji. When confronted, they pick up torches, foolishly hurl these comically ineffective weapons at the advancing creature, and are quickly slain in a wave of corrosive sludge. Their whole charade accomplished nothing—apart from an excuse to have some fun while others struggled to make a difference—and brought on exactly what they had coming.

Early in this sequence, the camera cuts to a group of ghostly, older men watching glumly from a distance. Just who they are, the film never specifies. This touches on something else I appreciated about Banno as a director. Instead of giving away the answer to every tiny detail, instead of spelling everything out in broad strokes, he would sometimes simply present a perplexing image and leave the audience to interpret it on their own. (I, for one, view these specter-like figures as a metaphor of Japan’s older self, powerless to stop the modern generation from destroying itself.)

This condemnation of counterculture can be seen again in Prophecies of Nostradamus: large groups of young people, in the face of a global apocalypse, rather than confront the issue or make an attempt to change the world, opt instead for mass suicide.

Yoshimitsu Banno and HedorahIn wrapping things up, I want to make a few more observations regarding Banno’s place in the tokusatsu genre. According to Guy Mariner Tucker’s book Age of the Gods: A History of the Japanese Fantasy Film, Tomoyuki Tanaka had been greatly pleased with Banno’s contributions to Prophecies of Nostradamus (the most successful Toho film of 1974, I remind you!), so much so that when it came time to announce a Godzilla movie for 1975, he briefly considered Banno for the position of director (the concept for Terror of MechaGodzilla hadn’t been coined yet). Alas, Banno’s second Godzilla film never came to be. In spite of that, I do feel the man’s influence remains prevalent even to this day. The anti-pollution message has arguably become even more popular since 1971; and the concept of pollution-eating kaiju has occasionally reappeared as well, the monster Dagahra in Kunio Miyoshi’s Rebirth of Mothra II (1997) being one such example. And when I watched Godzilla Resurgence (2016) last year, I felt a much stronger influence of Yoshimitsu Banno than I did of Ishiro Honda. The constantly evolving monster in that film brought back more memories, for me, of Godzilla vs. Hedorah than it did of Godzilla (1954), as did the relentless mockery of authority figures.

And then there’s the response from the audience. I doubt there will ever be a general consensus regarding Godzilla vs. Hedorah, except in that it makes for an unforgettable experience. Fans remain split in terms of whether they enjoy the infamous flying sequence, or the psychedelic imagery, or the regular animated interludes, or to address a larger issue, the superhero Godzilla phase, the dawn of which this film marked; but the film does leave its viewers with a lasting impression. And it speaks volumes to Banno’s uniqueness as a director that his sole entry in the Godzilla franchise would remain, forty-six years after its release, among the most intensely discussed, debated, critiqued, and analyzed films in the series.