In Defense of 'Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster'
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Dozens of drug-addled hippies at the disco are killed by a monster’s acid-mist breath. Popcorn!
By Jim Knipfel
To casual viewers, Godzilla films represent the lowest of the lowbrow — stupid kiddie matinee fare consisting of two guys in ridiculous rubber suits wrestling for 90 minutes.
That perception isn’t completely unjustified. By the early 1970s, most of the creative team responsible for making the Godzilla films of the ’50s and ’60s classic, thoughtful, even at times majestic metaphors had left the series, and budgets began dwindling. Monster suits were now being recycled from film to film and started looking pretty ratty. Instead of shooting new special effects scenes, clips from earlier, better entries were edited in. The sets (especially the miniature cities) became cheaper and far less detailed. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka insisted the films be aimed squarely at a prepubescent audience. It was the films made during that shabby period that aired most often on Saturday creature features, helping feed the general perception.
But at the very cusp between the classic Godzilla films and the steep decline, there was Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (aka Gojira tai Hedorâ). Depending on your perception, the 1971 picture was either the insulting nadir of the series and one of the worst movies ever made, or the film that breathed a final, fleeting bit of strange and surreal life into a (at that time) 17-year-old franchise.
After some experimentation, a marine biologist determines the creature was spawned by pollution.
The Yoshimitsu Banno-directed film was dark, cynical and nasty. Despite its inescapable environmentalist message, it nevertheless called out the hippies as a bunch of useless hypocrites. It’s the only film of the series in which Godzilla can fly, and it contained the only hallucination sequence ever seen in a Godzilla movie. You know you’re in for a different kind of Godzilla picture when it opens with a psychedelic music video, as a nightclub singer performs the outrageously catchy “Save the Earth” over a montage of horrific environmental devastation.
It seems a giant mutated tadpole dubbed “Hedorah” is sinking oil tankers left and right. After some experimentation, a marine biologist (Akira Yamauchi) determines the creature was spawned by pollution. His young son (Hiroyuki Kawase) — the kid with short pants and a baseball cap who would become a fixture of the ’70s Godzilla films — insists Godzilla is the only thing that can stop Hedorah.
Although Godzilla started life as a demonic symbol of the nuclear threat and the devastation Japan had experienced, by the mid-’60s he’d had an image makeover, becoming an unstoppable, atomic-powered defender of Japan and a superhero to the kids. It’s a transition I never fully comprehended. Anyway, as a psychedelic freakout is underway at a local disco, Hedorah makes its way ashore and grows a pair of legs. Sure enough, Godzilla arrives to stop it. But since the creature breathes a mist of sulfuric acid, dozens of drug-addled hippies at the disco are killed. It was the first time since the 1954 original that city-stomping shenanigans resulted in any (admitted) human fatalities.
It isn’t long before the bipedal Hedorah morphs into a lumpy black flying disc with bulbous red eyes, zipping around Japan spreading the acid mist. Thousands more die, and we get shots of skeletal hands, mewling kittens covered in sludge, and wailing infants sitting in piles of garbage. It’s surprisingly harsh material for a dumb kid’s movie.
Seeing this as a youngster during its initial release, it was the film’s end that left the most indelible mark. After Hedorah has been destroyed (am I really giving anything away by saying that?), Godzilla plunges his arms into the gooey corpse, fishes around a bit, pulls out an egg, and smashes it, making this — in a Godzilla film with so many other firsts to its credit — the first Godzilla film to feature an on-screen post-mortem abortion.
That — together with so much other dark, bizarre imagery and an overt political message — may help explain why the film continues to haunt so many who pop it in expecting another goofy cartoon.
- Jim KnipfelContact Jim Knipfel