Without a doubt, this is an unusual entry into the Godzilla series. Yoshimitsu Banno was a director inspired by exploitation cinema and unusual films in general. So it's no surprise his Godzilla film was the most bizarre and avant-garde entry into the series. The film isn't perfect, but it has a sense of charm and dark humor that keeps me hooked.
As pollution gets worse and worse in Japan, a bizarre creature appears in Suruga Bay. Dr. Toru Yano, a marine biologist, goes into the bay on a diving expedition to search for evidence of the creature. As he investigates, the creature attacks and nearly kills him. A short time later, Yano's son, Ken, encounters the creature and cuts the monster with a knife when it attempts to ambush him. After examining the contents of the slice from Ken’s knife, Dr. Yano comes to the conclusion the creature is made up of several tiny organisms that act as one. He dubs the creature “Hedorah” and fears the worst about how the creature will attack.
A short while later, Dr. Yano's fears come true, as Hedorah comes ashore one evening and begins feeding off industrial smokestacks. Godzilla appears much to young Ken's delight and engages Hedorah in battle. However Hedorah's toxic sludge overwhelms Godzilla and the King of the Monsters is forced to retreat. Across the nation, cries of anger can be heard as casualties stack up by the thousands and the youth, including Ken's uncle Yukio and Yukio's girlfriend Miki, grow restless. Can Godzilla and the Self-Defense Force find a way to stop the creature?
One thing I really love about this film is its use of allegory. Much parallel to the original film can be found, with Akira Yamauchi’s character rather troubled by his discovery as well as eyepatched from an incident. Another parallel is the effect Hedorah has on the environment, with perhaps the best represented effects of what a kaiju attack would do in real life since the original film. Banno also fits in a lot of social commentary about the political climate at the time. For instance, the hippies in the film are references to the Liberal Youth League of the era, whose very presence was threatened by the right-wing yakuza, so they mostly hid out in bars and clubs, drinking and using drugs. That’s just one example of the political commentary in the film.
The film is paced relatively alright, with the only problem being the end of the film. The SDF’s plan to defeat Hedorah seems to go on for much too long, the sequence could have been chopped up a little with no harm done. The plot works well and explains pretty much every nuance of Hedorah’s rampage through newscasts, talk shows and the like. The film’s use of bizarre, often somewhat disturbing animated sequences helps the movie along and also explains some of the consequences of the attack without having to get Teruyoshi Nakano's team to do too much.
The acting is well done for the decade, with the standout actor being veteran Akira Yamauchi as Dr. Toru Yano. He brings a ring of professionalism to the role that makes his character work very well, and has chemistry for the father son dynamic with Hiroyuki Kawase as Ken. Speaking of which, why do people bash Ken? In my opinion his character worked really well in the film and wasn’t badly acted at all, emoting quite well for a child actor and giving off a very sympathetic performance. Keiko Mari's character, Yukio's girlfriend Miki, doesn’t do much sadly, but she acts rather well. Toshie Kimura as Mrs. Yano acts rather well, naturally concerned with her husband getting too obsessed with defeating Hedorah. The unmemorable character in the film is Toshio Shiba’s character Yukio, who seems to be there mainly to attract schoolgirls, as he was a very popular singer at the time. His role doesn’t bring much to the table, as he has zero impact on the plot.
Teruyoshi Nakano's effects for the 70s Godzilla films are often criticized, but here his work is much more even, with him working with director Banno’s camera crew, giving the film’s sets a bigger look then most in the 70s. The miniatures look great and Hedorah is a very creepy monster, the suit working so well because it’s unnatural. The change between forms is one thing that looks rather strange and usually gets a reaction of “how did they do that” from most fans. The flying form suffers from none of the flaws most other flying creatures in the franchise have, having no wings and being immune to the “Hover flap” critique. Godzilla’s suit looks like it’s seen better days, though this is far from the worst shape it could be in. The effects used to portray the human casualties look good, with burn makeup applied to the actors’ faces. One thing that doesn’t work though is the composite shots between Hedorah and the humans futile attempts to burn him., the torches are much too big and don’t match up with the actual shots of them being thrown. Another scene that doesn’t look that good is the infamous flying Godzilla, with the model used to portray flight being off model with the suit. For the most part however, Nakano’s effects work.
The music is a rather infamous aspect of the film; I personally feel it is perfect for the film. Riichiro Manabe's score works perfectly with the odd nature of the film, and his Godzilla theme works here, being derived from the Combined Fleet cue from The Militarists (1970), however heavily modified with pipe organ and synthesizers being used as well, it fits the heroic Godzilla in the film. The films theme song, Taiyou Kaese (Give Back The Sun) is sung beautifully by Keiko Mari, and Manabe’s arrangement of the theme is perfectly reflecting of the kind of music played in the late 60s/early 70s. The male chorus sections by Honey Nights work for the film as well, despite being very odd and arranged on purpose by Manabe to sound off-key. The Hedorah theme works extremely well for the character, with the synthesizer and woodwind arranged in an almost threatening way. The “frog croaking” theme used for the sulfur acid mist scenes is meant by Manabe to be uncomfortable, and it succeeds. I think the film deserves better props in its score department. It isn’t perfect, but it leaves an impression.
The film sold relatively well in both America and Japan, however though producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was livid when he saw the film. According to interviews with Banno, Tanaka didn’t actually yell at him as is commonly reported, he just said he was disappointed with the film and politely told Banno he was not allowed to direct at Toho again, which is too bad, as I feel Banno is brilliant, using allegory in a similar manner to Honda. Banno had planned a sequel to the film set in Africa, which would have been very interesting to see but likely impossible to realize with the budget cuts going on at the time. I really like this film, it isn't perfect but it’s enjoyable.