Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)
In 1968 two things happened to the Godzilla series. The first was that Ishirô Honda returned one last time to the series that he had started in 1954, and the second was that it officially turned into a series for children. All Monsters Attack really only included the monsters in the dream of a child, featuring some new footage but most of it recycled from Son of Godzilla. Godzilla, rather than being a destructive force born from the misuse of atomic energy, was now a hero to children everywhere.
Therefore, when the series made its first entry for the 1970s with Godzilla vs. Hedorah, it's no surprise that one of the protagonists is a young boy named Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase) who idolizes Godzilla (Haruo Nakajima) and also gets telepathic messages from the monster whenever it's about to attack its new foe, Hedorah (Kenpachirô Satsuma). It also comes with the first bona fide message since the first one, which at its heart was an anti-nuclear war film. In the United States the movie was recut, dubbed and released by American International Pictures as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. Didn't really need to change the name since the movie isn't shy at all about its environmental message.
Dr. Toru Yano (Akira Yamanouchi) is studying the effect of pollution on the local sea life. A fisherman (Yoshio Yoshida) brings him a strange tadpole-like creature that he has found which appears to be a smaller version of an animal that attacked two oil tankers. It turns out the animal, which appears to be made out of minerals rather than being carbon-based, feeds on toxic sludge in water, with smaller iterations of the creature coming together to form a larger, aquatic form. Dr. Yano is injured when looking for it, and his son Ken names the new creature Hedorah, after a type of sludge. Ken also starts to receive messages that Godzilla is rather angry about pollution, but none-the-less is coming to fight the monster.
Hedorah, thought to originally be a sea creature, soon comes to shore to feast upon industrial pollutants. It sounds originally like a good thing, but the waste the creature expels is similar to sulfuric acid. When it also morphs into an airborne form its passage causes breathing problems to those below, corrodes metal and in worst cases dissolves flesh. While Dr. Yano and the Japanese Defense Forces try to think of a way of stopping Hedorah, Godzilla does his best despite his usual weapon - his atomic breath - having no effect on the creature.
Although director Yoshimitsu Banno says that the reaction was highly exaggerated, supposedly producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who was in charge of the Godzilla series at the time, was not happy. Tanaka had been in the hospital during the production of the film, so Banno did what he wanted to do, cowriting the script with Takeshi Kimura and leaning heavily into an environmental message. He also made sure that not only did he try to connect with children, but also with the teen and college audience as well. It features an almost James Bond-like opening with a song called "Return! The Sun", with lyrics by Banno and sung by Keiko Mari. The song returns in a psychedelic nightclub performance by Mari in character as Miki Fujiyama right before Hedorah's first land attack, replete with Ken's uncle Yukio (Toshio Shiba) having what appears to be an LSD trip.
There are animated sequences, Hedorah taking what looks like a bong rip off a smokestack and a group of nihilistic hippies led by Yukio having a party on Mount Fuji to protest pollution while ghosts look on. It is disjointed, surrealistic and surprisingly violent for a latter-day Godzilla film. It also contains some great effects and, unlike Godzilla films that were released the few years before it, at least the Japanese version does not rely heavily on previous footage. While it is far from the best of the series I admire what it was trying to do, and Banno definitely took a chance to steer things in a new direction.
Kenpachirô Satsuma, in the Hedorah suit, later got to play the big guy himself starting with 1984's The Return of Godzilla. I know that the Hedorah costume is controversial, but I think it is one of the best creature designs from the Showa era, and I love Satsuma's performance in it. Banno, for whatever reason, designed Hedorah's eyes to look like two vaginas, something that went unnoticed and, despite whatever his reasons were, made the creature more alien. Instead of breathing fire its own waste is its main weapon, killing with toxic fumes and shooting sludge projectiles at its enemies, although it can also shoot lasers from its eyes while in terrestrial form. Some real imagination went into making this creature and it is disappointing that she is treated as one of the also-ran villains of the franchise.
Unfortunately where the movie stumbles is that it has no subtlety to its message. Godzilla did, and it came out at the same time as a number of American films with giant monsters created by radiation. Godzilla vs. Hedorah states it’s case over and over to the point of comedic excess, and even though Hedorah is a giant space monster that thrives off of pollution it seems like there's a desperate need to just keep piling on as if Banno is afraid the audience will miss the message. It's more of a public service announcement with hippies and monsters than it is a movie in many aspects, and despite its trippiness and occasional avant-garde techniques it is still saddled with an annoying kid front and center that, other than saying when Godzilla is going to show up to "clobber" Hedorah, serves no purpose.
The most infamous part of the movie, however, was Godzilla using his atomic breath to fly. It comes toward the end where Hedorah once again changes into her airborne form after being thought to have finally been killed. Supposedly Banno put this in to lighten the mood of what he thought was a darker film, but it's one thing I have to agree with naysayers on is that it just looks silly. Originally Godzilla was supposed to chase after Hedorah on foot, and that should have been it. In the past if Godzilla had to fly anywhere he was carried to where he had to be, and although consistency is not something I expect from these films, Godzilla has a certain set of powers, and flight is not one of them.
Banno's efforts to change up the Godzilla series got him fired and supposedly barred from ever making another Godzilla film while Tanaka was alive, although Toho occasionally did come to him for ideas that never played out. However, what eventually came from that was Banno continued to work on new Godzilla ideas throughout the years, and some of those went into the 2014 American Godzilla film that started the current Monsterverse. So, in a way, he eventually got to see his place in the series honored before he passed away in 2017. It's a shame that Tanaka and Toho's response to the movie was so negative because, faults and all, it demonstrated that there could be more to the movies than just the same plot repeated over and over with different variations, which is what the next one retreated to.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)
Time: 85 minutes
Starring: Akira Yamanouchi, Hiroyuki Kawase, Haruo Nakajima, Kenpachirô Satsuma
Director: Yoshimitsu Banno