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Friday, June 27, 2014

Godzilla vs. Hedorah

Godzilla vs. Hedorah  (aka Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster)
1971
Yoshimitsu Banno

The Godzilla films embody a wide range of things; there are elements of horror (Godzilla (1954)), science-fiction (Destroy All Monsters (1968)), and drama (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)). They can be deadly serious (Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)) or light and frivolous (Son of Godzilla (1967)). Despite all that I never really considered any of those films ‘weird.’ That has a lot to do with way most Godzilla films are shot and presented; very straight-forward and with great technical precision. It creates an air of self-contained realism in a world where atomic powered lizards are the subjects of intricate plots by cockroach shaped aliens. 

So what happens to a Godzilla movie when you add  a flourish of animation, odd lighting, and a musical number?  You get one of the most reviled and loved Godzilla movies of all time.

A semi-sold slime monster is terrorizing Japan. It feeds on the pollution from factories, its poisonous body kills all life it touches, and it’s getting bigger with each passing day. A scientist (Akira Yamauchi) and his young son (Hiroyuki Kawase) are injured by it. Godzilla soon shows up and even he manages to barely survive an encounter. Many people leave for Mt. Fuji to have one last revelry before Hedorah destroys them all. The scientist comes up with an idea of drying Hedorah out, but he’s going to need Godzilla’s help and the big green guy isn’t too happy with the irresponsible humans who caused this problem in the first place.

Mournful music plays over shots of ruined objects in green-grey sludge during the opening credits. Instantly something feels off about this movie.  Adding to this, are scenes that are shot with a high contrast, creating deep black shadows in opposition to the normally brightly lit Godzilla films of the 1960’s.  There are also long stretches where the camera lingers on Godzilla or Hedorah as they are sizing each other up.  These long pauses, momentarily break the suspension of disbelief and I found myself realizing just how odd it is to be watching a giant pile of slime that represents humankind’s pollution of the Earth, battle our savior in the form of a giant lizard birthed by the atomic bomb.

The scientist’s son, Ken, has a vision of Hedorah's creation done in a simple animation style that wouldn’t have been out of place on Sesame Street, elsewhere in the film there is a musical number intermixed with what appears to be an acid trip as dancers suddenly sport fish heads.  There are subversive elements to slip into a Godzilla movie, but I think taken as a whole, these things are all meant to tie Godzilla vs. Hedorah back to the original Godzilla film. Both are very message heavy stories, using giant monsters as metaphors for real life problems.  Where Godzilla was speaking to those who had lived through the horrors of the atomic bomb by using familiar imagery, Godzilla vs. Hedorah is trying to speak to those living through the rise of environmental awareness through the visuals of 1960s counter- culture.

I can understand why Godzilla vs. Hedorah is off-putting to so many Godzilla fans. It’s radically different than any other Godzilla movie. It trades the sense of adventure and excitement for something much more strange and somber. (Also, there’s that whole Godzilla whole using his atomic breath to fly thing). I think it’s a refreshing change before Godzilla is back to beating up aliens in Godzilla vs. Gigan a year later.  

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