Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Godzilla VS Hedorah

Hedorah Skelter

Godzilla VS Hedorah
aka Gojira tai Hedora
aka Godzilla VS The Smog Monster

Japan 1971
Directed by Yoshimitsu Banno
Toho/Criterion Collection
Blu Ray Zone B

"Promising new director" Yoshimitsu Banno (who in a roundabout way is responsible for the current American cycle of Godzilla movies) only directed this one entry into the Godzilla series. After seeing this one, the producer promptly banned Banno from ever working on another Godzilla movie again. However, rewatching it in a beautiful transfer in the Criterion Collection’s boxed (booked?) edition of The Showa Era series of Godzilla films only confirms, once again, what I always knew about the movie which, frankly, is my favourite of all the films to feature The Big G. Godzilla VS Hedorah is, frankly, the Citizen Kane of Godzilla movies as far as I’m concerned. It’s a little unique and only has two wrong notes in the whole film.

Although Godzilla is still the upright, slightly comical defender of the human race here, the tone of the film is much darker than many of the others and, coupled with an irresistible soundtrack and a mixture of different narrative styles, it’s easily the most entertaining one in my book.

There’s a brief prologue which ponders the ‘origin’ of Hedorah (who has apparently arrived from space) as a parasitic creature living in the sea. However, immediately it starts it pushes the message of the movie, as the sludge and toxic waste which we dump in the oceans and our air gives the creature strength to grow and transform into a larger, even more dangerous creature. And it’s a welcome return, in some ways, to the first movie of the series, in that it pushes a more serious social message about mankind’s stupidity as part of its main message. Indeed, one could almost go on to say that the film is a little too preachy as the message is hardly a sub plot and trumpeted on throughout its entire length.

We then go straight into the psychedelic title sequence with an absolutely fantastic, rocking pop song that is performed by the singer over the main credits in front of a multicoloured series of wax projection lamp slide displays (common to movie party scenes in the 1960s) a little like the way Sheena Easton appeared on the opening credits of For Your Eyes Only (reviewed here). And, yes, of course the song is all about man’s terrible pollution of the planet and, thankfully, it re-occurs a few times in the film so my toes can keep tapping along as I take in the beautful images. I love the rocking title sequence so much and then the director pulls the rug and we’re left with an old clock with no hands, floating in the sludge of the river in an industrial area as a huge downer and darkening of the mood.

This is one of only a handful of Godzilla movies which highlight a child as the main human protagonist (possibly Toho were reeling from the competition with ‘The Other Big G’, Gamera, seen by this point as a defender of children everywhere) but, considering the bleak nature of this movie, where the threat of Hedorah is not downplayed and almost pushes the movie into horror territory, it’s unusual to have a kid as the human viewpoint. But the story doesn’t spare the kid any of the dark... as he promptly sees his scientist father disfigured on half of his face with acid burns when he encounters Hedorah under the sea (think Harvey Dent and you’ll have some idea of what I’m talking about here).

Anyway, despite a wonderful psychedelic disco scene (where the singer performs some of the title song again... yay!) and a scene where the youth of Japan have a big love-in rock festival on Mount Fuji while the tired old ‘old people’ hide in the bushes and watch them with disdain (hmm... think some kind of point is being made here), the film is quite relentless in its darkness. The main gist of the rest of the story being... Hedorah kills a lot of people in the various forms he can mutate into at the drop of a hat (such a a rocket propelled flying saucer of himself or a more Cthulhu-like creature that can shoot laser beams out of its big, red, dead and staring eyes), with mostly just his natural polluting ways (often just flying by them so his noxious fumes reduce people’s bodies to skeletons) and Godzilla tries to stop him. The Big G gets seriously beaten up a number of times (honestly, he loses every fight until the last one quite badly and gets pretty injured throughout) before he utilises a failure of a human invention, built to try and stop Hedorah... and helps it work properly with his radiation breath. This is then converted into anti-Hedorah lightning via these massive electrodes invented by the young whippersnapper’s disfigured father. So, yeah, this is a rare film in which Godzilla actually really needs the aid of humanity to help him protect them from the evil monster. So that’s also an interesting twist.

But there’s so much going on that this simplistic story becomes a feast for the kaiju friendly senses. The director uses a kind of multi-media mish mash of narrative forms to tell the story... such as a number of really interesting and sometimes quite surreal animated sequences, the text and voice-over narration of young kids’ essays on pollution to push a point on screen and the intrusion into the narrative of various newscasters reporting on what’s going on. Indeed, one animated sequence where two women wearing anti-Hedorah gas masks are dissolved has a wonderful transition as the fusion of their dissolved faces becomes the shaded area on a map which demonstrates what the newscaster is relating. I can’t help but think that Frank Miller must have been at least a little familiar with Godzilla Vs Hedorah when he wrote the classic DC mini series The Dark Knight Returns, which uses a similar juxtaposition of ‘newsreel reports’ to invade the narrative and shape it.

Other things of note are the fact that the young protagonist plays with Godzilla and Hedorah action figures... and a selection of wonderfully powerful visual moments such as a yowling kitten being left unscathed but very dirty in the wake of one of Hedorah’s attacks... plus various shots of the actors viewed through the opposite side of an aquarium with the fish floating around in front of their faces. There’s even a black and white scene setting up the kids on Mount Fuji, which pushes the gloominess until they get the guitars out and the scene explodes into colour (a short burst of optimism which suddenly turns tone in another polluting attack from the movie’s antagonist).

There’s also the villain to talk about. If you look at a still of him he looks quite comical but, I dunno, he has an interesting and very threatening presence in the movie. The way he reacts to things with his eye movements actually gives us a kind of window into his alien thought processes on some kind of primitive level and, honestly, the scene where he marches into the industry centre of Tokyo and just stands over a big, industrial chimney belching fumes so he can loudly inhale them while getting stronger, looking like some kind of monstrous Cthulhu junkie deadened by the high of the fumes, is totally unsettling.

The fights are interesting in this one too in that... well, for a start, they’re almost totally unscored. The music which is used in this film is amazing as composer Riichirô Manabe fills it with weird instrumentation and sinister, creepy themes (except for one, I’ll get to it in a moment). And the choreography of the fights themselves are a little like a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. They’re all about squaring off and out-staring the other, less about punching each other out and more about the gravitas of the inevitable conflict. Which is just as well in a way, for Godzilla, because he gets really damaged almost every time he trades blows with the smog monster. There’s also more anti-pollution messages pushed in these encounters and more than once The Big G is left in the dust, coughing toxic fumes while Hedorah runs rings around him or fires globules of disfiguring acid at our giant hero. Indeed, he looks a little like Stallone at the end of Rocky in terms of being none too good for wear from his various, harrowing encounters. So, yeah, it’s less like a regular Godzilla movie in many ways.

The only two noticeably ‘out of tone’ elements also involve music to some degree. Firstly, while Hedorah’s personal musical landscape is quite minimalistic and horror-like, Godzilla has a bizarrely comical theme lumbering onto the soundtrack every time he turns up. It completely wrecks the sombre mood built by the surrounding themes. Secondly, there’s a moment at the end of the film where Godzilla flies, set to triumphant but equally comical music, where he uses his fiery breath to propel himself backwards through the air in controlled flight to catch the ‘spawn of Hedorah’. In a lot of the Godzilla films made just before or after this one, it would have been fine but, here, it’s housed within a film which really doesn’t fit with this kind of inventively comical addition and, strangely (considering the tone wasn’t upheld for the movies that came after), its the first and last time the character flies in this fashion in one of the actual movies.

And there you have it. Godzilla VS Hedorah is, for me, the absolute best Godzilla film ever committed to celluloid. If you’ve never seen a Godzilla film before and want to be hooked by the series then this one is definitely a contender to jump start your obsession. I am loving the new Criterion transfer of this and it certainly won’t be the last time I watch this slice of kaiju genius, for sure. Absolutely incredible. It’s a shame the sequel to this one was scrapped. 

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