Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster/Godzilla vs. Hedorah/Gojira tai Hedora (1971/1972) **½
After putting Ishiro Honda out to pasture again, Toho initially turned not to Jun Fukuda, but to a relatively inexperienced young director named Yoshimitsu Banno to bring the Godzilla series into the 1970’s. It didn’t go quite the way the studio heads had planned. Series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was in the hospital for much of the time when Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster/Gojira tai Hedora was in production, and he was aghast when he got out and finally had a look at what Banno had gotten up to in his absence. And while I really don’t think it’s as bad as all that, I can certainly understand Tanaka’s reaction; Banno’s sole contribution to the kaiju eiga genre is far and away the most eccentric of all the Godzilla movies, leaving even Godzilla’s Revenge/Oru Kaiju Daishingeki (in which all the monster action took place entirely inside the prepubescent protagonist’s mind) in the dust. Throughout, it betrays a strong ambivalence on its creators’ parts regarding just what sort of film it was supposed to be. On the one hand, it’s the most message-heavy monster movie released by Toho in at least ten years, and possibly since the original Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 1954. It is, by a comfortable margin, the most graphically horrific of the lot, too, with much of the monstrous violence being directed fatally against human characters. Then again, this is also the first film set in the real world in which Godzilla is portrayed as an out-and-out superhero, protecting mankind against his fellow monsters out of the goodness of his heart (as opposed to because they happen to have gotten in his way and pissed him off). It continues the child-centric focus introduced by Godzilla’s Revenge, even though the monsters this time around are not figments of a boy’s imagination. It features some of the silliest music of the series (Riichiro Manabe’s score sounds like Masuro Sato pretending to be Akira Ifukube), the first appearance by hippies in a Godzilla movie, and several strange and really quite disturbing cartoon interludes that remind me of a Japanese take on the credits sequence of a Roger Corman Poe movie. Love it, hate it, or don’t give a fuck, you have to admit it’s completely unique.
At the center of the story is the Yano family, living somewhere in the coastal region around Kondo. Dad (Akira Yamauchi, from Sword of Justice and Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons) is a marine biologist; Mom (Toshie Kimura, from Sword of the Beast and Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable) is a housewife; nine-ish Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase, who would repeat this gig in Godzilla vs. Megalon before moving on to Time of the Apes) is a rabid Godzilla-nut. There’s also a boy in his late teens (I’m guessing— really he looks about 35) named Yukio Keuchi (Ultra 7’s Toshio Shiba), who hangs around with the professor a lot, and his moddish, hard-partying girlfriend, Miki (Keiko Mari, of Hippy Carnage, who later appeared in TV shows like “Starwolf” and “Spectreman”), but I have no idea on Earth what their connection to the Yanos is supposed to be. In any case, one afternoon, a fisherman brings Dr. Yano something interesting that he caught that morning. It almost looks like a tadpole, but it’s nearly a foot long and was caught in salt water— where no amphibian could survive. Yano agrees with the fisherman that he’s caught something important, but he’s also completely in the dark as to what it might really be. His curiosity whetted, Yano takes his son out to the shore for a diving trip, hoping to find more of the things. Not a good idea, there, doc. He finds one, alright, but it’ as big as he is, and it burns the hell out of his face with some kind of sulfuric acid secretion. It also comes ashore briefly to attack Ken, but the boy comes away with only some relatively minor chemical burns on his forearm.
The Yanos aren’t the only ones who are encountering acid-squirting monster tadpoles, either. The TV news reports that a similar creature at least 30 meters long appeared on the scene of a collision between two oil tankers, and attacked the ships with such force that was able to pry the two of them apart. Intuitively making the connection between the monsters and the intense industrial pollution of the waters in which they apparently live, Ken dubs the new species “Hedorah,” from hedoro, the Japanese word for “sludge,” and a discovery his father makes as soon as he has recovered sufficiently to do a little lab work seems to bear that insight out. In the time that Yano has been laid up with his injuries, the Hedorah larva that the fisherman caught has dried out, revealing that its body is made entirely of some sort of mineral substance. When a tiny piece of it is returned to the water, it rehydrates into a much smaller version of the original organism, which proves to be capable of merging with and assimilating others of its kind. Yano hypothesizes that some strange force— probably from outer space— has imparted a form of life to the mixture of toxic chemicals being pumped into the water from the factories in Kondo, and that the giant Hedorah that struck the crashed tankers was formed when billions of tiny creatures like the ones in his petrie dish banded together.
Hedorah does not long confine its activities to the sea. One night not long after Dr. Yano has gone public with his theories regarding the monster’s nature and origin, Hedorah crawls onto the beach and heads straight for the nearest factory complex. In an inexplicably effective sequence, it drags its huge body up onto the roof of one building and begins drinking the plumes of sooty, noxious gas straight from the factory’s smokestacks. That’s when Godzilla shows up. It’s clear that the King of the Monsters knows that Hedorah is no ordinary foe, however, for this initial encounter between the two kaiju (and each subsequent one, for that matter) begins hesitantly, as though neither beast quite trusted its ability to come to grips with the other. Nevertheless, Godzilla and Hedorah do begin slugging it out, and Godzilla is able to drive his opponent back into the sea— although the clash could hardly be called decisive.
As if to prove just how indecisive it was, the Smog Monster reappears soon thereafter in a new form. Now fully twice the size it was when it battled Godzilla, Hedorah molds its body into something that resembles a gigantic trilobite made of shit, and takes to the air on a jet of poisonous, high-pressure smoke. Everywhere the monster appears, people on the ground below are overcome by the fumes, metal objects acquire years worth of corrosion in seconds, and all manner of living things sicken and die. Those unfortunates who experience intense, close-range exposure to the monster’s vapor trail are killed almost immediately, their flesh boiling away into blackish, tar-like slop. Even Godzilla seems overmatched by the more powerful, flying Hedorah, but Dr. Yano thinks he has a way to destroy it. Again taking a cue from Ken, Yano begins experimenting with electricity, using it to desiccate the bodies of his Hedorah tadpoles. If a similar device could be built on a much larger scale, its effect on the adult Hedorah ought to be the same. The only question then is, do we really trust the Japanese military— which doesn’t exactly have a stellar record when it comes to fighting off giant monsters— not to fuck it all up when it counts?
Of all the movies I’ve yet reviewed, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster has proven one of the most difficult to rate. I’m not sure I’ve seen such an intractable tangle of the laugh-out-loud stupid and the chills-up-the-spine disturbing in one movie, ever. Yeah, this is the flick in which Godzilla flies by using his atomic breath as a jet engine, but it’s also the one in which entire crowds of extras melt away into muddy skeletons as Hedorah flies overhead. Then you've got a couple of scenes that play it both ways at once, like the one where Miki and Yukio go to the nightclub together. While an embarrassingly square-looking band plays the movie’s nearly unbearable theme song and Miki does a table dance (wearing a startling costume that looks almost as though it consists solely of blobs of brightly colored paint applied strategically to her nude body), Yukio drops acid and hallucinates that everyone in the club has the face of a tropical fish! The scene ends with hundreds of gallons of Hedorah-muck oozing, Blob-like, down the stairs and retreating suddenly, leaving behind a kitten with its fur coated in caustic, poisonous slime. This, in what is generally regarded to be a movie for children! And if I can’t quite figure out what to make of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, I can only imagine how it must have felt to be Tomoyuki Tanaka, coming home from the hospital and watching for the first time the absolute bedlam that Banno had made of the first Godzilla film of the new decade. I rather like how it turned out, but I’m not the slightest bit surprised that Banno never got a second crack at a monster movie.
Thanks to Professor Mortis for providing me with my copy of this film.