What the hell did I just watch?
(I ask that question frequently as I perform my revieweress duties for Horrorview, but I never expected to say it about a Godzilla movie. See, I grew up watching Japanese monster movies on the local TV station’s “Monster Rally” show every weekend so I fully accept that giant turtles can fly while spinning like one of those ground blooming flowers you get in your fireworks box set, or that international government agencies will immediately defer to the wisdom of short-pantsed boys named Ken. I can take the normal insanity of a Godzilla movie in stride. But this movie is a whole new level of wackadoo.)
I ask again: What the hell did I just watch?
Godzilla vs. Hedorah (or as it’s known in America, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) is a truly odd Godzilla film, and that’s apparent from the opening credits: As oh-so-trippy psychedelic oil lights flash and the theme song "Kaese! Taiyô wo" – it WILL get stuck in your head and there’s nothing you can do about it – plays, we watch scenes of sludgy, filth-covered water. In one rather effective shot, and the first of many uneasily creepy moments, the sludge contains a broken mannequin that at first glance resembles a corpse. And I hope you like those scenes of the creeping pollution, because you’ll see more of them. A lot more.
We meet up with our standard little kid Ken and his scientist Dad, fretful Mom, and some guy who hangs around with them and whose relationship to the family isn’t entirely clear. Anyway, soon a grizzled old fisherman brings a strange tadpole to scientist Dad to examine, and sooner than you can say, “Prophecy totally ripped off this story angle” it’s clear that the tadpole is one of a new kind of monster that’s created from and lives off pollution.
Soon the monster, dubbed Hedorah by Ken, is giving anyone who touches it an acid burn, sending toxic sludge into a nightclub, and climbing up on top of a factory to suck on the smokestacks and breathe in the fumes. He also starts flying around and spraying sulfuric acid in his wake, causing people to have reactions ranging from coughing fits to dissolving away to a skeleton in mere seconds. Yikes. That guy who hangs around with Ken’s family thinks the answer is to hold a rave on Mount Fuji (no, really) but Ken knows what’s really needed is for Godzilla to show up and kick some butt.
The plot as described above is only slightly nuttier than many other Godzilla movies. But what puts Godzilla vs. Hedorah into its own weird area is its combination of obvious sincerity and batshit lunacy. The latter is demonstrated in many ways.
There’s the wildly inconsistent tone, which veers from typical Godzilla kiddie fare to preachy message movie to horror film. There are the baffling artistic decisions: Who can explain the odd little animated sequences that pop up in the film’s first two thirds? (They’re like Gerald Scarfe’s animation segments for Pink Floyd The Wall except that they’re not good.) What about that nightclub hallucination sequence, in which the guy who hangs around with Ken’s family imagines that all the people in the club have fish heads? What’s with the bit with all the TVs (including yet another disturbing image, this one of a crying baby up to its neck in sludge), and with the use of Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa at the ending (just before blatant bid for a sequel)? And who decided to have the music for the film be so wildly inappropriate? Godzilla in particular gets a bizarre theme that’s heavy on the horns and sounds like a drunken burlesque band trying to play a Spaghetti Western tune.
Speaking of Godzilla, this movie isn’t the big guy’s finest hour. This was into his “big cuddly” phase when he’d show up to bail out mankind’s (or at least Japan’s) ass from various threats. (Note to self: Get to work on scholarly treatise of Godzilla’s character arc from vicious monster to friendly big lizard.) His first smackdown with Hedorah is indecisive; his second takes place mostly on a barren plain, at night, with no buildings to knock over or set fire to. In a departure from established form, the monsters spend relatively little time with fisticuffs and a lot of time staring each other down, doing odd little sidesteps and hand gestures. Oh, and Godzilla demonstrates a newfound talent. He can use his atomic breath as a sort of jet engine and fly through the air. I’m not making any of this up.
I suppose I have to give props to screenwriter and director Yoshimitsu Banno for trying to do something outside the box. It’s clear he’s very sincere about the film’s ecological message, and the film does look very polished for a Godzilla film. Unfortunately, “different” does not always equal “good” and Godzilla vs. Hedorah isn’t a good movie.
All the tonal and artistic flaws mentioned above are combined with the inherent silliness of a giant monster movie, giving the film the overall quality of a fever dream. But what really does the movie in is its reliance on gruesome imagery – not bad in itself but sufficiently out of character with other Godzilla films to make the viewing experience uncomfortable. It’s too juvenile to be taken seriously and too dark and creepy to be fare for children. Parents take note of the high onscreen body count and numerous scenes of people being reduced to skeletons by Hedorah’s acid. I won’t let my six-year-old watch it, and he’s been watching other Godzilla movies for years now.
Still, I’ve got a soft spot for interesting failures, and Godzilla vs. Hedorah definitely qualifies. It’s worth a view if you’re a fan of the genre, if only to see its nutty peak/nadir.
The DVD offers both the English and Japanese dubs; extras are limited to trailers. Frankly, it being the redheaded stepchild of Godzilla movies (producer Tomoyuki Tanaka reportedly despised the film and Banno has had only one directorial job since), I’m surprised it’s on DVD at all.