Godzilla vs. Hedorah is just straight up tripping balls.
Do they still say tripping balls? Is it more accurate to remove the ‘g’; trippin’?
What the balls are- just as in the film’s false climax- is unclear, as is what exactly is being done with them… but my brain feels as fried as Hedorah. (Hopefully that means there is an equally-large, entirely-unharmed, even regenerated
brain lurking just inside the first one?)
Godzilla vs. Hedorah is a trippy, on-acid movie; that much reputation and distant memory told me. But I was unprepared for just… for the… what the…
WHY IS THERE A BABY BURIED IN SLUDGE???!!! That better
be a false foreground ledge to create the illusion
of immersion I’m spotting, Toho…!
Oof; this is gonna be a long one. Okay, so… organizing my thoughts. Difficult, after a film like this has done its best to shred my cognitive power into gibbering little globules (much like Godzilla finally reduces Hedorah to) with tiny, surreal animated interludes interspersed among the bleached skeletons of my formerly-pristine faculties…
Godzilla vs. Hedorah is freakin’ weird. And this is one of those times where words cannot convey truly how weird. Random-cat-on-the-stairs-in-sludge weird. Girder-building-collapsing-in-silence weird. Ghostly-Fuji-elders-that-I-think-are-supposed-to-represent-an-older-generation-that-just-doesn't-get-it, showing-up-again-after-15-minutes-for-a-reaction-shot weird. Just… Ugh. I feel like I need to order some anti-psychotics. From the sudden appearance of dancing skeletons to the surreally-disturbing panel of talking heads that breaks up into colored lights…
The Stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey called, GvH… it says it’s worried about you. That you might want to tone it down a little; you’re giving it a headache.
Okay, madness draining; review-proper. Focus, Andrew. You can do this…
The editing for the film is abrupt and the appearance of the monsters is bizarrely perfunctory; they’re just there
, with no fanfare or buildup. The film is actually quite creative with its inserts and asides- dream sequence overlaid with school reports, animated parody sequences… if it wasn’t so jarring and a bit of a sensory overload by the end, it would get top marks for unique presentation. But taken together, it’s all a bit too much; too many ideas and asides to really ever get a grip on the story. It comes across more as a series of vignettes- each joined already-in-progress and cut off prematurely.
I mentioned parodies; the whole thing feels like a parody of Godzilla films, in style and filming and even content… just completely lacking any sense of fun or humor. It’s like an alien that didn’t quite understand what parodies were produced a dead-serious lampoon without any attempt at irony or affection… just treated ‘parody’ as if it were another style of filmmaking for a serious narrative. Like this theoretical alien was trying to tell a serious, gripping parable to warn the earthmen of the terrible danger it foresaw, a modern-day Gojira-1954… only when it grabbed its manual of ‘How To Make An Earth Movie,’ it flipped to the chapter on ‘Airplane!’ and other Leslie Nielson parodies and thought it was reading about how to create a tortured masterpiece. All the style of such a satire without any actual satirical intent.
As a result, this film is just off-balance (in addition to the disgusting imagery and lingering shots of unsettling imagery being plain ol’ off-putting
); it holds its audience at emotional and intellectual arm’s length, painting a drab-palette, smog-shrouded grey dystopia and then doing such bizarre things in it that it hardly manages to connect its surreal imagery to the real world and problems it’s trying to address.
The main characters of this disjointed piece are equally scattershot in their appearance. Especially in the latter half, they disappear for a long swaths of time, with characters reintroduced after gaps so large it appeared that they’d existed the film already. One of them even dies- something that I don't think we've had in the Showa series since the advent of color, more or less.
In fact, this movie has a huge
body count. It’s an incredibly sadistic film, going out of its way to kill off characters that have no narrative necessity to die. Take the four men in the cable spooling truck that Hedorah falls backwards onto. There was just no need for that. It doesn't really advance the story; sure, the transformers aren't powered, but that could have simply been accomplished by not having any cable to spool in the first place! Instead, the film lingers on their screams as they die horribly- like the construction worker falling off a skyscraper, the random men with a game of Mahjong at the factory, random passersby, even the majority of the youth at the rally... there's a difference between demonstrating that your villain is a threat, and actually reveling in the horrible deaths of everyone that shows up on screen.
Maybe I'm still just affected by that baby in the gunk; it doesn't predispose me toward thinking the best of these the producers. That's just messed up, man.
Ken, our apparent protagonist (until he disappears for a large span in the middle, and most of the final battle) is a standard running, shouting kid character.
He's allowed to play with large knives on rocks, which seems like a different standard of parenting than I aspire to- but the attack by Hedorah and the potential death of his father, leaving him standing there crying out on the rocks to the empty waves, is one of the early effective-and-truly-chilling moments of the film.
Oh look, instead of just trying to gross me out with disturbing footage of garbage floating on water, the film is crafting an eerie mood and a sense of isolated foreboding and terror of the unknown, which is powerfully effective. I sure hope that the rest of the film proceeds in this manner…
…Oh, never mind.
Beyond that, Ken embodies many of the same traits that Ichiro did in the last film- outspoken, with bold declarative sentences, unwavering faith that Godzilla is the best-thing-ever, leaps of precognitive logic about what's going to happen next (because he just knows Godzilla better than all those clueless adults!), horribly short shorts… he just manages to have all those same traits without being an annoying little punk. And that way, he's basically who Ichiro should have been.
His father, Professor McPlotDevice, is an unintentionally-hilarious figure throughout the movie. While he does a workmanlike job of delivering tons of exposition- leaping to conclusions that are entirely unfounded, and coming up with ideas that he should have no reason to suspect will work until they've been tried and fortuitously do… but he is also apparently the only competent individual in all of Japan. Despite being acid-burned and bedridden, he's always dragging himself over to the phone to go check in on the project with the Army Corps of Engineers, or having himself driven out to the field site, because even though he contributes nothing but nagging, both he and all those around him act as if nothing could be accomplished without his invaluable supervision.
(One random nitpick about his laboratory scenes- the bit where he says that the tadpoles are growing because he placed them in muddy water, a.k.a. polluted water? I'm kind of hoping that was a translation error by Kraken Media, because muddy water is not actually polluted. It's water. And dirt. Just because we wouldn't want to drink it, doesn't mean it's not entirely natural and wholesome and of the Earth. That's not how pollution works.)
Yukio is undoubtedly our strangest protagonist- introduced for 30 seconds at the start of the film, then absent for long enough that his reappearance at the nightclub seems to be the introduction of a whole new character (Seriously, I didn't remember that he was at the start until after we'd finished watching the film). His desire to drive closer to the Kaiju battle seems to suggest someone too stupid to live, and if they were trying to foreshadow his eventual demise with his drinking and hallucination (the karmic sins of overindulgence that, in the language of cinema, often mean someone is fated for a bad end), I could kind of see that?
But after that moment he becomes a strong sympathetic character, acting as a big brother figure to Ken, serving as our perspective character for much of the middle act of the film, and trying to 'heroically' unite the youth against pollution and the degradation of the world. He certainly doesn't seem as if he's being set up as an undesirable who is going to meet a justified fate at the end. He kind of seems as if he's our hero, which makes his perfunctory, offhand, almost-incidental death so shocking.
Perhaps I'm not giving the film enough credit for subtle satire. Certainly, Yukio's idea of having a party before the world ends- that they can somehow ‘take a stand’ by simply playing music and dancing and having a self-contained, self-indulgent party- seems laughable to me, the epitome of selfish hippie obliviousness. But in the era of Woodstock, it seemed to me a completely straightforward and earnest suggestion. Maybe, the whole thing is supposed
to be laughable- maybe it's a sharp critique of contemporary youth culture and its self-centered ineffectiveness, and for that thematic 'sin' that Yukio had to die.
I'm just trying to parse this out, because typically, in the language of film, such a demise is 'earned’ (in a way that makes emotional sense to the filmmakers, if not for something that actually deserves death in real life). Often times, the behavior the character has participated in ‘cannot’ be shown to be without consequences, or the forgiveness of said individual for their past deeds would seem, to the filmmakers, to condone their behavior. Therefore, death is an expedient way of saying “Even if your peers would forgive you, Fate has decreed that you must be punished!”
In Yukio's case, I just don't see any such motivation. His death doesn't even add anything to the plot; heck, we don't even see his girlfriend(? Sister? Wife?) mourn for a single second. It's almost lost in among the chaos. He’s just killed along with myriads of foolish, torch-hurling youths (who managed to hurl those things about 300 or 400 feet up in the air, it seems)… but even then, this is a scene which the trailer seems to portray as a heroic stand, even in the face of certain defeat. 'We will stand up even when we know that we can't win, because it's the right thing to do.' So there really doesn't seem to be a compelling, typical-comeuppance reason
for the mass slaughter of Japan's younger generation in this film.
Lastly, the female characters in the film have the least roll, or personality- both serving primarily as guardians for Ken at different points in the film. Beyond that, we get a lot of minor one or two line characters, but no one else central to the drama- save the Kaiju themselves.
Hedorah is an impressive technical accomplishment. His design is striking, especially the glowing red eyes that we get from the beginning. He's a strange monster, to say the least, an alien who- due to the pollution theme- I think is often forgotten to be an extraterrestrial, and just seen as a strange metaphorical, magical creature embodying a vice; a demon of pollution, as it were. Despite the fact that they try and give a plausible scientific origin, the fact that he is the ‘pollution monster’- like something you might see on a darker version of Sesame Street- does make it hard to take him as a serious foe in the way that Ghidorah, Gigan, or the Kamacuras are. They seem
like science fiction; Hedorah, by his nature, comes off as fantasy.
Still, his execution and complexity are head-and-shoulders above anything that we've gotten in the series since Kumonga, and set a new high-bar for the series. The functional eyes, the light and sparking effects (which I would associate more typically with the Heisei era; clearly ahead of their time), the sparkling sheen given to its final form, which resolves into oil-slick rainbows in bright light… all of these are fantastic touches. If the suit of the crawling and walking forms look a little less like layers of gray rags draped over the stunt man (as if someone had wanted to dress as the clichéd ghost-from-a-bed-sheet for Halloween, but only had a bunch of dusty old quilts up in the Attic to make it from), and if the flying form had looked a little less like a cross between a tadpole and an omelet, then I feel that this would have been one of my top favorite Kaiju designs.
As it is, the attempt to make him look slick and oily and melty really does just come off as rags and fronds draped over a stunt man. The overall body shape is uninspired- save for the lumpy, misshapen, asymmetrical head. The effects involved- particularly on
that head- are stellar, it's just the execution from the neck-down that doesn't work so well.
As a kaiju, Hedorah is certainly a powerhouse. While his extreme durability seemed questionable to me on previous viewings, finding out he is merely a chemical compound with no centralized nervous structure, that he can regenerate from crumb-sizes pieces if they join together, and that his basic cellular structure is akin to carbon or diamond (though I still don’t get how that translates to a liquid sludge), it makes sense why he is so absolutely powerful. While I never bought King Ghidorah as a world-destroyer (it seems like it would take him several hundred years with his slow-flying, one-gravity-bolt-at-a-time methodology), Hedorah does
feel like a true extinction-threat. He pours out jets of lethal acid (sometimes more fatal than others, depending on how many main characters are in the area) just to fly himself around. He feeds on all of our cast-off (and as Yukio says, all organisms produce waste, thus he’d have the ability to grow to an almost unlimited degree even if our industrial habits weren’t deplorable), the more he destroys, the more becomes food for him, and his very touch is death.
Except, when it's not, like with that one random cat. (Again, when the sledge and the acid are fatal, and when they're not, is maddeningly inconsistent the film.)
But the overall situation gets the point across; Hedorah is a corrosive, toxic, nearly-unstoppable menace in the ‘Zombie Plague’ mode- as everything that falls to decay because of him simply makes him stronger. The idea that Godzilla can hardly defeat him (and might not have, if he'd gone much longer), and only with the assistance of some unreliable technological wizardry- all serve to portray what a horrifying, mindbogglingly huge problem that pollution can be. It works as an emotionally-effective parable of how quickly the problem can grow beyond us if we allow our worst excesses to go unchecked. They will balloon to a size beyond our ability to handle.
In that way, the dark, almost nihilistic tone, the threat of another Hedorah appearing when it seems that the world barely survived the first one, and the unlimited potential for more to spawn manage to communicate an existential horror on the level of the original Gojira and atomic radiation itself! (Which… may be overstating its case just a tad.)
However, one has to discard or get past all of the rigmarole and trappings of bizarre filmmaking in order to actually get
to that point. Previous entries in the Godzilla franchise, those tackling anti-nuclear themes, managed to weave their parables into the narrative in a way that communicated the horror clearly and concisely in compliment to telling a giant monster story. (The perfect balance of this is what makes the original Gojira so effective.) In this
film, the plot and filmmaking style are actually the obstacles that one has to overcome in order for the message to come through clearly. It is a house divided against itself; a film whose style conflicts with its substance.
Godzilla himself is more intelligent and anthropomorphized than we've seen him to date- communicative, problem-solving, and serving as a kinetic projectile for the first (but not quite the most infamous) time. But we'll get to that.
In his first (non-dream) appearance, he seems a little too obsessed with taunting Hedorah; his chin-scratching gesticulation goes on for far too long. (I wonder if those gestures had a specific cultural meeting in Japan that would be lost on a western audience? They were incomprehensible to me, but their intent was clear). Then, it goes from lack of action to absurdity as we get to the Keystone Cops fast-motion spin… a bit of off-kilter seriousness that is juxtaposed with the seriously-atonal horrific death of innocent bystanders… and this won’t be the last time we get that strange juxtaposition.
Here, Godzilla is a full-on hero. He's a guardian of the Earth; a protector who explicitly shows up whenever there is trouble. His main showcase is, of course, the fight at Mount Fuji, as all of his previous engagements go rather poorly and end abruptly. Even at the mountain, he's used in a strangely scattershot way, almost as a plot device or a prop, more than a major combatant- apparently getting out of the mud-pit off screen, and disappearing for inexplicable lengths of time as those trucks interminably flash their headlights (in impossibly-perfect synchronization) at Hedorah, in a sequence that goes on far
too long. (Or maybe an explanation for both the escape and the absence were shown, and my psychedelic-light-show-stupefied mind simply failed to process them in its numbed state.)
Still, though Godzilla’s presence is surprisingly spotty, this is a good and very desperate fight. Though Hedorah’s ray doesn't seem especially potent, his powerful acid is clearly putting a major hurt on Godzilla., and the damage to his eye and hand represent a more visceral, lasting damage as a consequence of the fight than we're used to seeing. (Negative points for film-flipping that causes those injuries to switch sides several times during the fight, though.) The battle is played as appropriately dire, and when Godzilla, burned and half-blinded, is stuck in a pit with Hedorah diarrhea-ing sludge down on him, it seems as if his defeat is a very real possibility.
And then we get Godzilla ripping out Hedorah’s ovaries, (my wife, extremely perturbed and trying to make sense of this scene, eventually concluded that this is what they are) and it seems like a Godzilla victory. Only then an equally-large creature bursts out of Hedorah’s corpse no worse for the wear (even though Godzilla clearly reached in and tore out things from well within this inner-creature’s volume)…
… And then we get into surreal territory so legendary that there's very little original I can say about it. Suffice it to say, when my wife is the one sitting there yelling at the screen “It wouldn't work that way!” as Godzilla takes flight using his atomic breath, then you know that something's gone a bit wrong. The sequence is delightfully loopy, but as an action climax- following an already-satisfying climax which could have been used to end the fight- it just kind of falls short. Indeed, Godzilla’s aforementioned problem-solving skills are fairly impressive, but the whole sequence of repeatedly dehydrating Hedorah goes on too long, and is rather anti-climactic.
The effects in this film were generally very strong, and the miniatures excellent- especially the fog-crowded landscape of smokestacks- but there were some notable exceptions. Godzilla popping up behind
the water in Ken’s dream, as if he were a cartoon Sun coming up from behind the horizon, for one. The horrible, simplistic, jagged cartoon lightning bolts at the end (after we just had such a great lightning effect from Gabara in the last film). The first scene of Godzilla against the setting sun doesn't look that realistic (but I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say it was intentionally stylistic.) A few of the superimposed shots against the actual cityscape were not really accomplished as well as they were back in, say, Mothra vs. Godzilla- the same with the rear-screen projection with the transformers at the end. And while the animated figures of the tadpoles look great, the animated human figures at the constructions tie and transformer tower kind of cross into uncanny-valley territory.
Beyond those rare exceptions, the film manages a startling level of reality, and one wishes it something more vibrant and pleasant to watch had been the subject of the superb model-making and effects work. It is particularly surprising (and the previously-highlighted shortcomings more forgivable) when you consider that this film had a substantially lower budget than the last several films. One certainly can't fault what was accomplished in this short filming schedule with this low-budget! That's no mean feat, especially in the circumstances. Even the use of microscope footage is very effective, complementing the James Bond opening credits… and I honestly have no idea how some of those skeleton shots were accomplished.
The quality of the production is undercut at many turns by strange stylistic choices- not just the aforementioned extremely-abrupt style of editing that made every scene feel like it was being joined ‘already in progress,’ but moments like the ‘Bob Dylan’ sequence where everything goes black and white for a while, just because. Or the crazy montage of talking heads (straight out of The Dark Knight Returns; Toho oughtta sue frank Miller for copyright infringement!). Or the tendency to hold unnecessarily-long shots of prone bodies or death or some bit of floating garbage, especially the dead teenagers near the end. Or those odd, odd animated sequences.
The first is just kind of there; the second actually manages to make a fairly strong metaphorical point about the sinister ‘Circle of Life’ at work within the process of pollution, and the third seems to mix equal parts satire (presenting survival like a fashion show) and utterly disturbing horror, as two women end up horribly disfigured and we have an effective, but truly-unsettling transition to an area map of the toxic effects. I suppose I have to give grudging kudos for cleverness, as I do to many elements of this film… it's just that when they’re all taken in combination, the cumulative effect is too overwhelming- unbalancing the audience, to the film’s detriment.
Speaking of detriments, the score is awful. While the title song is kind of catchy, the orchestral score is… well, I once heard Godzilla’s theme in this one described as the ‘drunken lout’ theme, and I think that’s the perfect descriptor. It’s a bizarre choice- implying not a hero, nor a villain, nor an unstoppable force of nature… but a buffoon. A drunkard. It’s like a mockery, a parody, in completely non-humorous scenes. It’s a long way from Ifukube’s classic march- and, paired with the ‘high school football rally’ flying theme, it’s just… this is a REALLY weird soundtrack! It sounds like a Hana Barbara cartoon; if you’ve ever watched the animated Star Trek, it’s just like that!
Oh, and just as I praised the classic-media subtitling in all Monsters Attack, I have to shame Kraken Media here… no subtitles whatsoever
for the song! This is a common irritant in the Godzilla films, especially Mothra films (I think Godzilla vs. Mothra; The Battle for Earth may get more of a pass from me just because they give us the lyrics in the subtitles for once!), but really, with the focus on singing in this one, would it’ve killed them to make a game attempt? That, combined with the international, English-titles beginning and end, always make me feel like I’m getting a neutered version of the product.
If this review seems oddly schizophrenic, by turns praising and condemning interchangeably, it's because Godzilla vs. Hedorah is a difficult thing to pin down. It's not just one thing; it's a multi-faceted work that contains so many disparate (and even conflicting) elements that it's hard to hold just one opinion of it, or rate it as a whole. It's an amalgam of so many different elements and tones that any kind of summing up or single conclusion seems too trite and simplistic to properly encapsulate it.
In the end, I have to give a grudging respect to Godzilla vs. Hedorah. It magnificently accomplishes all that it sets its mind to. It isn't a pleasant film, but it is sublimely effective in portraying its own vision. I don't like it, or enjoy it, but I can appreciate the artistry and the effectiveness of crafting a metaphor. If it didn't overindulge itself in stylistic chicanery, I think that it could be considered one of the top-tier Showa entries.
As it is, it simply makes too much noise, and indulges in too many bizarre asides, for its own good. Not badly-made, but badly-assembled. It distracts from its own message and its own strengths- throwing everything at the wall to see if something sticks. A lot more would
have stuck if there wasn't so much obfuscation from attention-getting, but ultimately empty, editorial tricks. It is well-crafted, but ugly; unpleasant, but of top quality. It contains some of the best effect that we've seen, but also some of the strangest stumbles. It's like the design of Hedorah itself- brilliant originality, coupled with shoddy banality. So long as you only look at it from the neck up, it's quite an impressive achievement, but when you try to take in the whole thing, its flaws become readily apparent. It's a shame, because the good that's there is so
good that it deserves better than to be buried amidst the failings... but the good and bad are, unfortunately, inseparable, and it all comes down to a matter of which one you see more when you look at it.