Tomoyuki Tanaka, the producer of all of Toho's classic monster movies, was in the hospital when Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Gojira tai Hedora, 1971 -- better known to American audiences as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) was in production, entrusting it to up-and-coming director Yoshimitsu Banno. When Tanaka finally got out of the hospital and saw Banno's film, Tanaka reportedly told him, "You've ruined the Godzilla series!"
Tanaka had a point. Godzilla vs. Hedorah is a Godzilla movie like no other. As Steve Ryfle acknowledges in his great book about the series, Japan's Favorite Monster, Godzilla vs. Hedorah is the film that splits fans down the middle. Many loathe it, others praise it as the only truly serious Godzilla movie -- at least the only one to use Godzilla and, in this case, a pollution-born monstrosity, as a cautionary metaphor for a worldwide concern -- since the series began in 1954. Like Ryfle this critic finds it fascinating, maybe not as an unsung work of art, but fascinating in a car wreck sort of way.
The film's bizarreness is rooted in its conflicting attempts to be serious and adult, yet conform to the requirements of a kiddie film (kids being Godzilla's prime audience during the '70s), and its mostly laughable attempts to inject it with both trippy psychedelica and Euro-art house weightiness. It's as if Jean-Luc Godard was given free reign on a Godzilla picture, so long as his movie a) featured a little kid who loves Godzilla, and b) top-lined a blubbery Smog Monster.
The thin story revolves around young, monster-lovin' Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase, who had played the homeless child in Akira Kurosawa's Dodes'ka-den the year before). Both Ken and his scientist father, Dr. Yano (Akira Yamauchi), are burned during an encounter with a strange, sludge-like creature with glowing red eyes. The creature eventually morphs into Hedorah, the Smog Monster, and is soon feeding and growing off Japan's billowing smokestacks, lead-burning automobiles, and other pollution.
Aided by hippie activist (and apparent acid-tripper) Yukio (Toshio Shiba) and his far-out-man girlfriend (Keiko Mari), Dr. Yano and Ken try to get a handle on Hedorah before it destroys mankind. Meanwhile, Godzilla (Haruo Nakajima) simultaneously battles the now-enormous creature (and played by Kengo Nakayama, who later changed his name to Kenpachiro Satsuma and become Nakajima's best-known successor).
Godzilla vs. Hedorah's biggest problem is that in trying to get its pollution-is-bad message across, the filmmakers forgot to tell an interesting story. The picture is an excruciatingly long 85 minutes -- once the basic premise is established, the film has nowhere to go. The final battle between Godzilla and Hedorah goes on forever and suspiciously plays as if an entire tangential side-battle was added after the film ran short.
Most of the monster scenes take place on barren landscapes at nighttime, making this the least colorful color Godzilla movie in history, though the unusualness of Hedorah (really the first of the Big Guy's shape-shifting foes, not counting Mothra) keeps it somewhat interesting. However, in one of the dopiest ideas ever, especially in a film aspiring to be taken seriously, Godzilla flies at the climax. He curls himself up into a fetal position and like the outboard motor on a boat "pushes" himself backwards through the air with his radioactive breath.
In another bad move, Japanese New Wave composer Riichiro Manabe, who scored some of Nagisa Oshima's early films, was hired to write the picture's music. Wholly ill-suited to the task, Manabe's score is replete with wailing trumpets and the boing-boing-boing of a Jew's harp. Of the Showa era Godzillas, this one easily has the worst score; even Manabe's music for Godzilla vs. Megalon is an improvement.
Video & Audio
As with Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla, the DVD of Godzilla vs. Hedorah looks great, a terrific transfer in 16:9 anamorphic format that retains the picture's original CinemaScope aspect ratio, and which automatically boosts this up several notches from all previous home video incarnations. Viewers are advised to stick to the original Japanese track with its optional English subtitles. The English-dubbed track is one of those awful, slapdash international versions, not the okay (if goofy on its own) AIP dub audiences heard during the film's 1972 U.S. release, and in earlier home video versions. Sadly gone as well is the English version of the title song, "Save the Earth," with new lyrics by Guy Hemric and Adryan Russ, and sung by the latter. Both audio tracks are Dolby Digital mono, with optional English and French subtitles.
As with MechaGodzilla and Gigan, only extras of interest to Godzilla fans are a few trailers and previews, including a Japanese teaser trailer (in Japanese with no subtitles, in 4:3 matted format) for Godzilla: Tokyo SOS (2003), and (in 4:3 full frame format) Sony's Godzilla cartoon series.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah earns points for trying something new, to break away from what was fast becoming a tired formula. The film isn't as entertaining as Gigan or MechaGodzilla but it is more original and daring, and thanks to Columbia's great transfers, fans will want to pick up even this motley trio, all finally, gloriously available in knock-out transfers and in their original language.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.