Monday, April 28, 2014

GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH (1971): 30 Days of Godzilla

DAY 12


aka. Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster

If you thought movies in which men in big rubber monster suits wrestle on miniature sets were bizarre by definition, prepare to have your definition of "bizarre" blown wide open. In the early 1970s, Toho released one of the strangest Godzilla movies to see the light of day: GODZILLA vs. HEDORAH. Whether fans hate it or love it, they usually point to the same reason: it's just so damn weird.

By the release of Godzilla vs. Hedorah, Godzilla had completed his transformation from a walking nuclear holocaust into a kid-friendly champion for the world. In many respects, Godzilla vs. Hedorah -- directed by Yoshimitsu Banno -- continues in that direction. For one, it stars a cloyingly precious son of a marine biologist who collects Godzilla toys. For another, Godzilla's appearance is accompanied by an insanely blaring and bumbling hero theme by composer Riichiro Manabe. Godzilla vs. Hedorah is even interspersed with strange little animated sequences and science lessons. It has all the earmarks of a kid's movie. At the same time, it swings wildly into some bizarrely dark and psychedelic territory that uses the threat of toxic death as its bleak psychotropic background.

The war on pollution is taken to a whole new level
From the polluted waters of industrial Japan rises Hedorah, a monster of living sludge and toxic ooze. First appearing in the form of a large tadpole, it sinks several ships and burns the face of a scubadiving marine biologist. It then arises as a quadruped to consume the smog from factory smokestacks and battle Godzilla at the edge of the city. In the ensuing battle, sludge is thrown everywhere, burying people alive and, we're told by newscasters, killing 35 people. Later, Hedorah returns in a flying form and kills over a thousand people, threatening to kill even more by raining down acidic slime or blanketing the skies in choking smoke. He literally melts the flesh off his victims until they're bleached white bones...IN A KID'S MOVIE! Finally, Hedorah assumes a bipedal form, and Godzilla comes to challenge the toxic terror while citizens at a mountain-top bonfire dance party watch on. And then Godzilla flies. Yes. Godzilla flies.

Houston, we have lift off.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah is a ridiculous mess, but I kind of love it for that very reason. The human element is painfully inconsequential although it affords us several scenes of disturbing carnage and psychedelic weirdness, such as hallucinogenic scene in a dance club where, from the point of view of a drunken protagonist,  the heads of the patrons suddenly turn into fish. It's a scene more at home in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, yet it butts up against childish animated sequences and then later scenes in which Godzilla uses his own atomic breath to propel himself across the sky. For a kid's movie, it's way too dark and gloomy to be tonally simpatico. For general audiences, its anti-pollution parable is too childish, narrow, and reductive. Godzilla movies don't normally depict death, but here such scenes of real causality and grim environmental destruction are juxtaposed with a kid-friendly Godzilla mugging it up for the camera and waving his arms around. One of the main characters is even killed by a projectile of poisonous goo and no one seems to notice or care. Godzilla vs. Hedorah is kaiju film on acid. Both the stuff of LSD nightmares and stoner hilarity, Godzilla vs. Hedorah is a bad trip man, but it's so improbably odd and miscalculated that it comes off kind of groovy.

Hedorah is Japan's answer to Mr. Yuk
Released after the death of long-time Godzilla special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, Godzilla vs Hedorah was made by an entirely new creative team that was much less experienced than the usual Godzilla crew. At the same time, it at least tires to do something new and fresh, capitalizing on the experimental art philosophy of the late 1960s and 1970s. The monster battles are also unprecedented for their gross-out factor. Although much of the film is miscalculated, it holds on to an enduring and trippy charm that somehow puts it over some of the more technically well-made yet mediocre Godzilla films. Love it or hate it, Godzilla vs. Hedorah is certainly memorable.


Godzilla films in the 1970s would become known for two things:
  • Increasingly kid-friendly movies that are generally derided by hardcore fans
  • The introduction of increasingly bizarre enemy monsters. 
The next installment of 30 Days of Godzilla is no different. Tomorrow we'll be looking at the lighthearted tale of evil alien cockroaches, monster amusement parks, and a giant cyclopean bird with a circular saw for a stomach in GODZILLA vs. GIGAN.

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