Monday, April 20, 2015

Guest Review: Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971)

by Rustbelt

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.

Plot Summary

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.
Eventually, Hedorah grows larger, becoming a flying-saucer-like monster, (no explanation given, though Dr. Blight was implicated), and spreads sulfuric acid mist all over southeast Japan, killing thousands. Dr. Yano (well, actually, his son) figures out that since Hedorah is mostly sludge, they should just dry him out.
The film climaxes at Mt. Fuji where a now-bipedal Hedorah again fights with Godzilla while a group of teens hold a bonfire party. (They’re gruesomely killed by Hedorah.) After getting the better of the fight, Hedorah is drawn to a pair of super-sized electrodes set up by the army. Godzilla helps capture Hedorah and uses his flame to power the electrodes, partially dehydrating Hedorah. What’s left of the sludge fiend tries to flee, only to be caught when Godzilla puts on his Planeteer rings and uses the powers of wind and fire (in the form his breath) to fly- yes, fly!- and catch up with the beast. And as the Big G and the Army let their powers combine, Godzilla uses his atomic breath to charge the electrodes again and finish off the titular smog monster. Thus, the environment is saved through the use of atomic radiation…as Verminous Scum and Looten Plunder shake their fists in the distance, promising to get Captain Plan- er, uh, Godzilla next time!
OK, Let’s State the Obvious

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…
What is this doing in a Godzilla movie?

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!
-Death, death, death… This was the first film in the series to show human casualties since Godzilla’s original 1954 appearance. Most of the time, the victims collapse from Hedorah’s smog and quickly decompose (albeit in a psychedelic light show kind of way). At other times, like at the Mt, Fuji fight, Hedorah simply sprays victims with sludge, leaving 40 to 50 partially rotted teenage corpses in the grass- and all in front of young Ken’s eyes. In other words, pollution- like this movie- ruins childhoods!
Good Grief...

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.)
Aw, Son of a Banno!

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.
What? There Are Two of These Things?!

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.
Aftermath and Legacy

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.
So, remember everyone, give a hoot. Don’t pollute. Because, due to the environmental movement’s suppression of nuclear power, there just aren’t enough giant, mutated monsters with atomic breath to save us from alien* monsters that thrive on the toxic output of our cruel, nasty technological progress.

(*-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.)


Kit said...

Why is it that, aside from Princess Mononoke and a few other Miyazaki films, movies with environmental messages tend to suck?

Rustbelt said...

Kit, after some thinking about other environmental films- "The Jetsons Movie," "Ferngully," "Fire Down Below," etc.- I think the problem may be that we, as humans, don't like seeing ourselves being stereotypically portrayed as callous, uncaring villains. Two hours of hearing the filmmaker tell the audience that they are to blame for impending doom probably rubs movie-goers the wrong way.

Kit said...


So why does Mononoke work? And I think I just found a topic for a future review.

Rustbelt said...

Kit, I haven't seen 'Mononoke.' So, unfortunately, I can't say.

However, it might involve keeping the environmental theme quiet and understated; kind of a secondary plotline that compliments the main one. This film just hits the theme over the audience's head again and again.

And yeah, that might be a good idea for a future review! -"What makes and environmental movie work or fail?"

Kit said...

Here is the trailer:

It is an amazing movie. I'll save the bulk of my argument for the review but the movie does seem to imply that true peace between civilization and nature is impossible because both seek to survive —which means conflict. And the nature creatures aren't peaceful hippies, they are quite brutal and nasty.

And that is intentional.

Rustbelt said...

Great trailer, Kit!

Yeah, I'll need to put that on my "Must Watch' list. (I haven'r watched very much anime since my 'Inuyasha' days in college.) It'll be interesting to see how this film's theme and plot work against the preachiness of 'Smog Monster.'

Kit said...

Lump it another great movie of his, Spirited Away. Trailer: LINK

Which I reviewed: LINK

Kit said...

Anyway, on Smog Monster. I think I saw it as a kid. Very weird. I have heard about just how weird the movie is.

I love the "Godzilla flies" scene. The kicker is the looks on the faces of the Japanese soldiers; even they seem to realize just how stupid and insane this scene is, "WTF?!"

Rustbelt said...

Kit, that is another truly impressive trailer. I remember reading your review last year. Trouble is, I'm always putting movies on my list to watch, but I never get around to them.
The imagery is just amazing...when you know how to use it. Unlike this. (And no, I'm sure how the cat lived. By the film's rules, it should be dead.)

Rustbelt said...

Kit, WEIRD is the name of the game with this one. Everything seems out of place. Humans dying en masse. Godzilla loses an eye while fighting. The bizarre cartoons.
And the sounds like 'Power Rangers' meets 'Prince of Space!' Where's Godzilla maestro Akira Ifukube when you need him?

Kit said...

The cat lived because it was a cat and was therefore behind the whole thing. (I have two cats)

Rustbelt, the music… oh the music. What the hell is up with that slow dragging… saxophone, I think?

Rustbelt said...

Also, for some strange reason, that flying scene makes me think of Nicholas Cage:

"Uh, what's he flying over? Uh, a shark, or something?"

It's easy to see why Tanaka thought this was the end of Godzilla!

Rustbelt said...

Kit, I think the sax is dragging to make us feel that we all live inside a yellow submarine and that we're all just as stoned as Hedorah on top of that smokestack.

Or, maybe, the whole thing is just the longest Big-Lipped Alligator Moment of all time. (Yes, a bigger one than "We're Back!")

Anthony said...

I saw this movie as a kid. Best Godzilla movie ever.

Kit said...

Here is the song, "Save the Earth." LINK

Animals, God's animals
Don't go away, don't go
Flowers, my flowers
Don't go away, don't go
The sea has cobalt, it's full of mercury
Too many fumes in our oxygen
All the smog now is choking you and me
Good Lord, where is it gonna end?
Got to get it back, someday
Got to get it back, and soon now
For tomorrow maybe you and me
We're movin', we're movin', movin' to the Moon now
It's up to us to make a choice
We know what it's worth to save the Earth
Come raise your voice
Save the Earth! (save the Earth)
Save the Earth! (save the Earth)
See the evil problem around us
Save the Earth! (save the Earth)
Save the Earth! (save the Earth)
And the Solution: stop pollution
Save the Earth! (save the Earth)
Save the Earth! (save the Earth)
Save the Earth!
And the Solution: to stop pollution
Save the Earth!
Save the Earth!
Save the Earth!

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Thanks for the article! I'm a big fan of Godzilla and have seen many of the films, though I haven't seen many of the recent ones. I kind off like him in black and white or that old faded color. And yeah this one was not a favorite.

Kit said...


Would this movie fit the category of "So bad it's good?"

Rustbelt said...

Anthony, it does have its charm. That's why we keep talking about it.

Rustbelt said...

You're welcome, Andrew!

The recent movies have some better scenes, but I suspect that's due to high production values. B-movies, as we knew them, are no longer around. It's either high budget or bust for major studios like Toho.
That being said, suitmation hasn't changed all that much and it still looks a lot like it did in the 60's. Plus, the dubbing is, well, Godzilla-style dubbing as always. I heavily recommend you check out the more recent films, though I personally recommend the "Alternate Reality Series" (1999- 2004) instead of the more hit-or-miss Heisei Series (1984- 1995).

Rustbelt said...

Kit, this film fits into the school of film-making that spawned things like "The Room" and "Miami Connection." I don't if I'd say "so bad, it's good." I might go more for, (to paraphrase Rich Evans of RLM), "so bizarre, you just have to see it to believe it."

Also, interesting fact I just found regarding director Banno: he assisted none other than Akira Kurosawa as assitant director on four films! -"Throne of Blood" (1957), "The Lower Depths" (1957), "The Hidden Fortress" (1958), and "The Bad Sleep Well" (1960). (BTW, all starring Toshiro Mifune.)
Sometimes, the magic just doesn't rub off from teacher to student.

shawn said...

If you want a pretty good environmental minded film, then Nausica and the Valley of the Wind is pretty good.

As for the big-G vs. the smog monster, I haven't seen it since the late 70s. Even as a kid, I thought is was pretty bad.

Gideon7 said...

My mom took me to see this movie when I was 7 years old. It was one of the first movies I had ever seen in a theater (other than Disney stuff). I'd seen the original Raymond Burr version on the black-and-white TV and loved it and begged to go.

She thought it was just a silly kids movie, but those flesh-eating scenes and deaths were really scary for a 7yro. She even apologized to me afterward. I was seriously freaked out, and didn't see another movie in a theater for years after that.

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