Well, it’s time for Earth Day. And so I’d like to recall the adventure of the largest green warrior of all time, (though his skin is actually charcoal gray)…Godzilla! He fights for Gaea and smelly tree-huggers in the aptly-titled, Godzilla versus the Smog Monster. Now we witness the ironic fight between a behemoth born of man’s tampering with nuclear power, and a leviathan created of man’s callous destruction of...
Ok, ok. Let’s not kid ourselves. With its environmental preachiness, bizarre (and often grotesque) imagery, and lack of anything resembling focus, this black sheep of the Godzilla kaiju canon (11th in the original, or Showa series, 1954- 1975), is hard for even diehard G-fans to stomach.
A strange ‘tadpole’ is caught in the waters off Japan. The investigating scientist, Dr. Yano. is then wounded by a larger ‘tadpole’ while scuba diving. He realizes the creatures are made out of minerals and sludge. Even worse, these creatures can unite and form larger ‘tadpoles.’ And while the police are busy interrogating Hoggish Greedly and Sly Sludge, a creature dubbed “Hedorah” (based on the Japanese word for “mud” or “vomit,” depending on the source), morphs into a froglike creature and ends up fighting nuclear nightmare-turned-savior-of-Earth Godzilla in Tokyo.
Director Yoshitmitsu Banno came up with the idea for this flick while standing on deadly ground in Yokkaichi and staring at some polluted waters. At the time, (1971), the environmental moment was at its peak and Banno thought there were things more dangerous for Godzilla to fight besides aliens and rogue villains bent on enslaving humanity. (Interestingly, this was the first G-movie in years to use almost no recycled footage form earlier G-films.) Godzilla goes into full superhero mode to combat man’s foolish exploitation of nature and it’s about as subtle as using dynamite to blow up a tree stump. Plus, with executive producer/Godzilla creator Tomoyuki Tanaka hospitalized for a severe illness, Banno was free to do he pleased.
But, honestly, it’s not Banno’s over-the-top environmental diatribe that drives most viewers and G-fans crazy. It’s something else…
Who was this made for again?
Exactly what kind of film Banno wanted to make is anyone’s guess. Is this a kids’ movie? A family movie? An adult movie? Just what kind of tone was the director going for? It’s hard to say. (In a 2014 interview, Banno said he wanted to make a kids movie that adults could also enjoy. Hmm…) Banno was under orders from Tanaka to make the film applicable to then-modern youth culture. The director thus added all the trappings of the late 60’s/early 70’s- drugs, environmentalism, and psychedelic rock ‘n roll. (The flick even has an opening Bond-style theme song! –“Save the Earth” in early English versions; “Give Back the Sun” in Japanese versions.) Unfortunately, the results are uneven, (to say the least), leading G-fans to believe Banno either succumbed to reefer madness or got a bad case of happy feet and went bats*** insane. Consider the following…
This flick is loaded with shock and terror- and not the good kind. There are just plenty of “WTF?!” moments, such as:
-The scientist’s son, Ken, (a required character name for all Japanese B-movies), plays with Godzilla toys at the start of a Godzilla movie.
-The first time Hedorah goes on land, he crawls up a factory and breathes in smoke from a chimney. (The requisite Grateful Dead music was apparently too expensive to license.) Remember, pollution feeds monsters!
-At the same time, Ken’s family’s friend, Yukio, either drinks too much or does some brown acid (it’s not clear which), at a night club (complete with psychedelic liquid light show), and has a freakout where everyone turns into blue aliens! Just kidding. He suddenly sees everyone wearing fish masks. (Did I mention his girlfriend, Miki, dances in a nude suit as the club is invaded by some of Hedorah’s sludge in a scene that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Blob?) Remember, pollution ruins parties!
-And in case you forgot the movie’s stated intentions, Dr. Yano gives several dogmatic speeches, Avatar-style, to Ken about the dangers of sulfuric acid, the making of sludge, and nuclear power. (It’s a wonder a test wasn’t added to the end credits.) Remember, pollution leads to boring lectures!
-As Hedorah “evolves,” bizarre animation sequences (that Monty Python look like Pixar by comparison), are used to debut his new forms. And you thought Hanna-Barbara was stiff! So don’t forget, pollution gives bad animators undue attention!
This movie goes from scenes of slapstick to images of outright horror in seconds. One moment, Godzilla swings Hedorah around by the tail in Tokyo. The next, some of Hedorah’s sludge smashes through the window of a gambling den, leaving the men inside (whom we saw alive and healthy only a few seconds before), covered in muck and frozen in agonal death poses.
There are countless other instances of these bizarre tonal shifts. As noted above, there’s plenty of drug imagery and gratuitous violence to confuse the kids the film was supposedly made for. (As a side note, the infamous ‘flying Godzilla’ scene was intentionally added by Banno to lighten the film a little.)
One of the better-known stories of this film’s production involves a classic case of on-set surgery. Kenpachiro Satsuma, the actor who portrayed Hedorah inside the suit, began to suffer from fire down below during filming and was quickly diagnosed with appendicitis by the film’s doctor. The condition was so serious that the medical team couldn’t wait for Satsuma to take the suit off before surgery, so they operated on him on set and through the Hedorah costume. During the appendectomy, Satsuma, likely to his chagrin, learned that painkillers have no effect on him. Ouch...
Fortunately, Satsuma was a trooper. He recovered and finished the film. He even went on to play the monster Gigan in two of the next four Godzilla movies. He also played the Big G himself in all seven of the Heisei series (1984- 1995) of Godzilla films.
Believe it or not, this movie has been dubbed into English twice. The first English version came out in 1972 and was released by American International Pictures. It ends with Godzilla saluting Ken as he walks into the rising sun. (This one contains the English theme song, “Save the Earth.”) After the turn of the millennium, Toho declared, “The power is OURS!” and commissioned a new dub track by Axis International for the first DVD release. This time, another Hedorah rises from polluted water with “The End?” as the credits roll. (The theme song in this one is the Japanese, “Give Back the Sun.”)
It’s possible that few movies can better show the difference between good and bad dubbing. The AFI version was clearly handled with care. The dialogue was translated and re-written into conversational English, Also, the voice actors sound appropriate and put a lot of effort into the characters’ voices and behavior. The Toho-Axis version, on the hand, apparently rose form the same sludge that spawned Hedorah. The dialogue was translated directly and comes off like a poorly-written comic book adaptation. The voice actors here, well, um…they made an effort. (The same effort you would expect from work-a-day actors who showed up, mumbled into the mic, got their check, and then sped off for fear of being late for work at Taco John’s.)
Sadly, Toho only uses the Axis dub for DVD’s, Blue-Rays, and TV showings of this film. If you want the good version, it’s off to eBay to bid on a VHS copy of the AIP dub.
After getting out of the hospital, producer Tanaka saw the film, hated it, declared that Banno had “ruined Godzilla,” and made it clear that Banno would never work on a Godzilla movie again. (And he didn’t; meaning Banno’s plans for a direct sequel also fell through.) However, Banno was a consultant on the 2014 Godzilla movie. Roger Ebert liked it. Michael Medved put in his book, The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time.
Hedorah has only appeared in only one other G-movie, Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). In a cameo appearance, he and Eibrah (a giant lobster) are vaporized in one blast of Godzilla’s atomic breath. (The Smog Monster has, however, become quite popular among fans of horror author H.P. Love craft.)
Hedorah was also referenced in the movie, Godzilla vs. Destroyer (1995). Godzilla’s opponent of the title went through a similar evolution, albeit through means unrelated to pollution.
(*-What? Didn’t I mention that Hedorah originally came to Earth via a meteor? Well, it was a throwaway line in the movie and if Banno didn’t really care, then neither do I.)