Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)

Class: Staff
Author: J.L. Carrozza
Score: (3.5/5)
June 25, 2009 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Godzilla vs. Hedorah is the first 1970s Godzilla entry. By this time, a lot was different about the landmark series of films: Eiji Tsuburaya was deceased and the younger Teruyoshi Nakano now ran Toho's special effects unit while director Ishiro Honda lost steam and was directing for television. The character of Godzilla itself had now done a 180 degree about face. No longer was he a menacing warning of the horrors of nuclear warfare, he was a friendly and benevolent protector of the Earth against largely extraterrestrial forces far more sinister than he. For Godzilla vs. Hedorah, Toho assigned newly promoted younger director Yoshimitsu Banno to the series. The film that resulted is, simply put, more a psychedelic, environmentalist hippie “head film” than a kaiju film. To me, it's actually a tragically underrated entry in the series as many people simply find it too weird to be likeable. That said, not only is the film in my opinion quite delightfully screwy, it is the first Godzilla film since Honda's original to tackle is a serious social issue and explore the human casualty element of the ongoing kaiju carnage. It's true, the film is exceedingly bipolar. It switches gears at any time it pleases, going from a cute kiddie film with animated sequences to scenes of grim grotesquery with all the charm of holocaust footage. My question, though, is simply this: how is that a bad thing?

In terms of story, a local fisherman gives Dr. Yano (Akira Yamauchi) a strange find: a tadpole-like large black creature he found while trying to fish for shrimp. Later, a gigantic creature similar to the tadpole attacks an oil freighter at sea. Yano goes scuba diving near where the old man found the tadpole while his son Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase) waits for him. Yano is attacked by the creature down there and his face is burned on one side. Ken dubs the creature Hedorah and Yano figures out that it's actually made of minerals. Soon the creature grows legs and comes ashore at Suruga but is quickly engaged by Godzilla, who is driven back. Hedorah then becomes airborne and flies over cities in broad daylight killing hordes of bystanders with its toxic fumes. Dr. Yano, at Ken's insistence, convinces the government to dry Hedorah by making two gigantic electrodes. Hedorah finally matures into a bipedal form and crashes a bunch of hippies' party on Mount Fuji. Godzilla once again confronts the creature as the humans' ready the electrodes.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah is actually far closer in feel and style to such classic pieces of Japanese surrealist cinema as Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill, Toshio Matsumoto's Funeral Parade of Roses and Shunya Ito's Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 than to anything by Ishiro Honda. The film literally uses every “far-out” cinematic technique know to man: multiple screens, trippy animated sequences, disgusting real life shots of a horrendously polluted Japanese harbor, musical numbers, manipulation of color saturation and fish-eye lenses. It's all thrown in a wildly uneven but spectacularly fun brew. It's cute and kiddie-oriented one minute, with a then only six-year old Hiroyuki Kawase playing a very Gamera film like young boy who names the monster and makes all the film's scientific revelations long before the adults do. Yet the film is also shockingly grim: Ken's father gets his face burned like Batman's Two Face by Hedorah, people are reduced to slime-covered, bleached skeletons, the shots of the dead fish, sewage and garbage clogged bay are enough to make anyone nauseous and adorable kittens get covered in Hedorah's sludge. There's even a psychedelic disco scene where Yukio (Toshio Shiba), Ken's angry young hippie neighbor, has a “fishy” LSD trip. It's for kids, yet many elements are far too wild for most kids to comprehend in a way not unlike the “adult references” slipped into many Looney Tunes cartoons.

While Banno keeps things as mind-bending as he can, Nakano on the special effects end does some of his very best work on the Godzilla series. Hedorah (the enormous suit worn by future Godzilla Kengo Nakayama/Kenpachiro Satsuma) actually looks quite convincing slimy and toxic and the scenes are far more atmospherically filmed than any of his other Godzilla scenes later on, which would largely be padded with stock footage and filmed in barren pastures away from the expensive model cities. The unusual level of atmosphere, however, is most likely Banno's doing as he filmed the special effects scenes while Nakano merely physically executed them. Composer Riichiro Manabe's much maligned musical score is actually weirdly appropriate to the circumstances here. Of course it feels more like belongs in an avant-garde film than a kaiju eiga but what many don't get is that Godzilla vs. Hedorah is an avant-garde film! It's not a normal Godzilla movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is hardly meant to be. It succeeds as something entirely different and as an immensely entertaining experience like few others. The script, though seemingly mostly written by Banno but features some writing by Takeshi Kimura (as Kaoru Mabuchi since by now he had long been writing solely for his paychecks) is flimsy but adequate. The characters are more archetypes and walking clichés, though most Godzilla films aren't known for their teenage hippies. This however, doesn't really detract from the film itself since it's a film to be watched for its eye-candy and not story. Godzilla vs. Hedorah, however, has one major flaw that stands in the way of it being a true cult classic: its ending is drawn out and feels around 10 minutes too long. The film climaxes with a ghastly and ridiculous scene in which Godzilla chases down Hedorah by using his atomic ray as jet propulsion and flying! While it's amusing, it's simply too silly and feels like it was tacked on at the last minute because someone wanted to produce a longer film. This is a shame as this poor decision badly wounds an otherwise delightfully bizarre post-modernist work of mad genius.

Series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, however, didn't quite agree with the “delightfully bizarre” sentiment. He angrily accused Banno of “ruining the Godzilla series” and, seeing as Banno did little directorial work after that, most likely saw to it that he was more or less blacklisted. However, a truly tenacious filmmaker is stopped by nothing, not even Japan's most famous and powerful film producer putting you on “the don't see list”. Banno attempted to pitch a sequel to Toho in which a second Hedorah appears in Africa, the setting an homage to Gualitero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi's sprawling exploitation documentary Africa Addio. Ultimately, it was rejected and Toho's next Godzilla film would be a rather humdrum Jun Fukuda-directed, stock footage deluged mess entitled Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972). Godzilla vs. Hedorah had the honor of being the last Godzilla film that the fine exploitation enterprise American International Pictures ever distributed. It was released on an infamous but surprisingly appropriate double bill with Frogs which must have been one night of ecological horror to remember for any Baby Boomer or Gen-X tyke at the drive-in. All the Godzilla films released from here on in during the 70s would be done so with minimal investment: the more meticulous dubbing by Peter Fernandez and Titra Studios was to be dropped in favor of Toho's own atrocious Hong Kong recorded dubs. The US version (entitled Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) is an equivalent and sometimes superior film to its Japanese counterpart. The film features a wonderful English rerecording of the film's theme (a ditty named Return Us Our Sun in Japanese) called Save the Earth by Adryan Russ and the dubbing is some of the very finest ever commissioned for a Japanese film aside from Robert Houston's Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972) reedit Shogun Assassin. The only real mar is that the truly bizarre male chorus at the end of Japanese version is substituted for a simple replay of Save the Earth which is not as surreally effective.

Say what you will about Godzilla vs. Hedorah, but it is unique and for its sheer audacity is one of my personal favorites in the series. Banno would later have a hand in the equally wild and acerbic but even gloomier Prophecies of Nostradamus (1974). Now, decades later, he is trying to get backers for a new Godzilla film made in 3-D IMAX: Godzilla 3-D to the Max, which, provided it follows the original script reasonably well, hopefully will be every bit as out there as Godzilla vs. Hedorah.