When I originally saw Godzilla vs. Hedorah (or Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, as it used to be called) I absolutely hated it. You have to keep in mind that this was back around 1991 or 1992. Captain Planet was in full-swing among a plethora of other “environmentally aware” cartoons, comics and other wretched pieces of media. Even at age seven, I knew such “green” shit was lame beyond measure and if one more asshole told me to “Recycle to the extreme! BUST IT!” I was probably going first seven year-old to have an aneurysm.
So when I tuned into the Sci-Fi Channel one Saturday morning to see Godzilla battling the forces of pollution and bad psychedelic music (is there any other kind?), well, I didn’t have an aneurysm, but I’m sure something within my head exploded.
In retrospect, watching the film all these years later, I actually really get a kick out of it. Easily the most bizarre and unusual installment in the Showa series, Godzilla vs. Hedorah pumps some fresh atmosphere into the stagnant series, which had just reached its all-time low with All Monsters Attack. It isn’t perfect, having some really obnoxious characters, and at times can be too weird for its own good, but at least it’s different.
When an alien organism from a dark, gaseous world comes to Earth and gets mutated by our pollutants and nuclear waste, it turns into a titanic hulking smog monster called Hedorah (Kenpachiro Satsuma). Little more than a blob with eyeballs that can transform into a flying tadpole, Hedorah sets his sights on devouring all of Earth’s pollution. Sound like a good thing? Well, you’re wrong. Because, as he eats pollutants, he begins to secrete a sulfuric mist that’s ten times worse than the stuff he just ingested, melting the flesh off whoever is caught in it. Only Godzilla (Haruo Nakajima) can stand up to this noxious threat, but he can’t defeat it alone. He’ll need help from scientist Dr. Yano (Akira Yamauchi) and, I dunno, his little kid Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase), I guess.
And maybe a little LSD.
Director Ishiro Honda once again takes leave of the series, with Yoshimitsu Banno stepping up to fill his shoes. Like Jun Fukuda (Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, Son of Godzilla), Banno takes a much more modern approach to the series, forgoing Honda’s more iconic B-movie sci-fi trappings. But if Fukuda was a “seven” on the Modern Scale, Banno is no less than a “forty-five”. He seems to have gone in with the intention of making a Godzilla movie like none before it and, well, succeeds in spades. As you can imagine, this results in a pretty split opinion among fans. Personally, I liked the fresh take on the series, though admittedly it’s best as a one-off piece, as I don’t think I’d have been able to tolerate a whole bunch of these.
Banno embraces the overt surrealness of the Godzilla series and tries to marry it with the then-hip psychedelic craze. What we get is something truly weird: Opening credits that seem like they were ripped from an Asian James Bond knock-off, crazy interstitials of multiple TV programs screaming at you, boogeying young people getting down at hippy freak-outs, insane little cartoon segments and, yeah, Godzilla flying.
The dancing teenagers add nothing to the film other than a dated sense of “hipness” while the cartoons, albeit cute, are just… why? And as anyone can tell you, Godzilla flying by using his atomic breath like a rocket was so stupid you have to see it for yourself.
But it’s not all bad, really. Banno’s style gives the film its own unique identity. Most Honda installments tend to blend together and after a while his shtick started to get a bit unremarkable. Banno’s take may have been a tad too much, but at least it woke the series up. I’ll give him credit for creating Hedorah, one of the most unique monsters Godzilla has ever faced. A giant blob rather than the usual giant animal, simple punches, kicks and atomic fireblasts don’t cut it with him. The majority of the final battle consists of Hedorah just wailing on the out-of-his-depth Godzilla, who can’t figure out how to best a giant puddle. The human characters actually come in handy by this point, or at least Dr. Yano does, as he designs a machine to dry Hedorah out.
In a rather out there moment, Godzilla actually teams up with the humans. Understanding their strategy perfectly, he helps power their machine and uses it to defeat Hedorah. There’s even a pretty hilarious moment where Godzilla observes the soldiers incompetently trying to operate the machine themselves and then shakes his head and does it himself. One of Nakajima’s better moments of “acting” inside the suit, you can pretty much read Godzilla’s thoughts as, “God dammit, can they do anything right? Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.” The human/Godzilla team-up goes just a bit too far at the end, as Godzilla walks away into the sunset, then turns around to “say goodbye”, to the shrieking little kid character, Ken. If you can’t stand the idea of Godzilla consciously working alongside humans to defeat an opponent, then take solace in that he won’t do it again until Terror of Mechagodzilla.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah is, to put it mildly, insane. But that’s what makes it fun, too. It is unlike any other installment in the Showa series and, well, any other installment in the Godzilla canon period. It’s unique, but not in the way that, say, All Monsters Attack is unique. It’s a pretty “experimental” piece of Godzilla cinema and deserves some credit for what it tries to do. The in-your-face lesson about pollution and what-not can be a bit insulting, and Banno’s directing can get annoying at times, but overall, it’s a worthwhile Godzilla flick.