Director: Yoshimitsu Banno
Starring: Akira Yamauchi, Toshie Kimura, Hiroyuki Kawase, Tohsio Shiba, Keiko Mari, Haruo Nakajima, Kenpachiro Satsuma
Plot: When combined with a meteor from outer space, the Earth’s pollution turns into a horrible monster. As the monster lays waste to the planet, only Godzilla can save us.
After the monstrosity that was ALL MONSTERS ATTACK, Toho really needed to pull their finger out to rejuvenate the Godzilla franchise. With long time producer, Tomoyuki Tanaka, in hospital, it was pretty much up to first time Godzilla director, Yoshimitsu Banno, to take Godzilla to new places. What happened was the creation of one of the most bizarre and divisive of all Godzilla films. With 70s funk, animated transitions, and an incredibly dark tone, GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH has its lovers and its haters. Perhaps a flying Godzilla didn’t help either, but with the childish nonsense aside, this is one of my favourite Godzilla films, especially from the Showa Era (1930-1979).
The two major reasons to love GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH are the much darker tone and a single monster foe that represents a social theme. Since GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA in 1964, a Godzilla film had premiered every year, with 1964 even churning out two. Although only two years since the last entry, the break seems to have done some good, enlisting the talents of fresh blood resulting in a fresh take. Despite this, Tanaka was not impressed with the film, and even declared that Banno had ruined the Godzilla franchise. This is sadly represented in Banno’s filmography, with GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH being his only directorial effort. Don’t feel too bad though, as Banno has a producer credit on the upcoming Hollywood adaptation, which we’ll get to in due course. It’s a shame that this film seemed to have derailed Banno’s career, as not only is it brilliant, but he also worked on 4 of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces in the late 50s.
The film makes its agenda very clear, as we open on shots of polluted water and sludge. The pollution angle seems to be a natural road for the franchise to take. Like the atomic bomb, pollution is man’s doing, making us the cause of our own destruction. Even though GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH tackles environmental themes, it never takes on a preachy tone and always remembers that it is also a monster movie. After a quick villain tease, we’re thrust into an opening credit sequence that combines an original song with some trippy visuals courtesy of bright colours and liquids. It very much feels as though this could have been the opening to a James Bond film. These funky stylings are present throughout, and again they will divide audiences. At least the song is a catchy and well sung piece, unlike the shouty anthem of ALL MONSTERS ATTACK. These early scenes also demonstrate some terrifyingly creepy imagery, such as a mannequin overcome by the pollution. From all this contamination, a local fisherman finds a strange tadpole-like creature and takes it to local expert, Dr. Yano (Yamauchi).
We’re also introduced to Yano’s son, Ken (Kawase). He has his own Godzilla toy and even describes Godzilla as “a superman”, reinforcing how the view of Godzilla has changed over time. After the strange tadpole is inspected, Yano and Ken head out to sea to further investigate this strange creature. As Yano goes diving we are treated to some beautiful underwater photography, while Ken stays ashore and the tension builds. This is a scene similar to many classic monster movies. As the giant fish heads towards Ken, it suddenly dives over the boy who raises his knife and wounds it. Ken tries calling to his father and we are hit with a sudden sense of dread. It certainly appears as though Dr. Yano’s days are numbered, and the focus on Ken and his simple cries going unanswered hit a nerve. A sudden cut later and we are back in the Yano’s home, where Dr. Yano’s face is badly disfigured after coming into contact with the monster, named Hedorah by Ken. This reinforces the darker tone, and the quick cut also shows the film’s ability to trim the fat. The relief to Yano’s safety comes so suddenly, before showing the injury he has suffered. It keeps a quick pace, while not skimping on important emotional context.
The next section is when things get slightly odd, as we see our first of the animated transitions. It comes as a surprise as the animated Hedorah starts to suck pollution from a factory chimney. Scattered throughout, the animated segments are surprisingly in keeping with the tone. They remain dark, and have a sort of twisted humour to them. I particularly enjoy the segment in which small plants pop from the ground, only for mechanical arms of a factory to quickly pick them. It adds to the quirky artistic style, which is further demonstrated by a beautifully shot dream sequence. Ken imagines that Godzilla will save them, and his dream begins with a stunning sunrise with Godzilla stepping into the shot like some holy saviour. We then see a darker shot of sludge taking over the ocean, only for a silhouetted Godzilla to appear on the horizon. With the ocean being Godzilla’s home, it’s clear that Hedorah and he are not going to get along. The artistic strokes attempted by Banno remind me of Ang Lee’s unfairly looked down upon HULK movie. Both are films that took a character that could easily be regarded as silly, gave them a serious edge while maintaining the fun, and also presented it with interesting visuals and technical flair.
Keeping with the strange and dark tone, we enter a disco where prog rock guitars crunch out, women caked in expressive make-up dance, and dancing skeletons are projected onto the walls. One of the dancers, Miki (Mari), sings a song that is deliciously intercut with the arrival of Hedorah onto land. Mari sings a number of songs throughout the film, including the opening track, and each one is catchy and enjoyable. Her character does sort of get squeezed into the plot as she begins to follow Yukio (Shiba), a character who is forever present but whose ties to the Yano family are never distinctly defined. As Hedorah guzzles down the pollution emanating from some smoke stacks, Godzilla’s roar tears through the silence and his atomic breath ignites a fireball on the ocean’s surface. The two engage in a fight, which again shows the more brutal nature of this outing. Godzilla’s hands manage to tear through Hedorah’s body, and it ends with Godzilla spinning Hedorah around as chunks of the latter fly off and kill some innocent men. This shows that despite being a ‘hero’, Godzilla’s actions still have some terrible repercussions, and when it comes to monster battles there will always be many civilian casualties.
If things weren’t weird enough, back at the disco Yukio begins to hallucinate that everybody is now an anthropomorphic fish having a bit of a dance. Hedorah’s sludge starts to creep down the disco’s stairs, in scenes reminiscent of THE BLOB. As the film approaches its climax, Yukio decides to get together a million youths to sing on Mount Fuji as a sign of solidarity against Hedorah and a condemnation of man’s pollution. Meanwhile, Dr. Yano discovers that electricity can dry out Hedorah, and a device is created to once and for all eliminate the now shape shifting monster. A PSA video shows a baby screaming while surrounded by sludge and after an attack by Hedorah, Ken runs into a street to see the skeletons of humans. It’s very dark and this is the first time a lot of focus is placed on the casualties. This isn’t just fun anymore, but brutal reality.
Banno’s handling of the climax is just as beautifully bizarre, tragic, and critical. The youths on the mountain all join together in an impromptu song, despite only about 100 people attending. Their protest means very little though, as Hedorah approaches them and wipes them out. This seems to be a comment on the ineffectiveness of protesting such huge issues. While the youth believe songs and awareness is enough to battle against Hedorah, a group of elderly people watch from the bushes and remain eerily motionless. As Godzilla and Hedorah engage in their final battle, we see just how ferocious Godzilla can be as he tears parts off of Hedorah, and Hedorah leaves Godzilla damaged and vulnerable. Godzilla does at one point use his atomic breath to fly, a misjudged attempt to lighten the darkness, but other than that this is the darkest offering since the original. Even as Godzilla walks off into the distance and Ken calls after him, Godzilla doesn’t respond. He just continues walking, perhaps judging us for not only his awakening but also for Hedorah’s creation.
GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH will split viewers more than any other title in the franchise. Dark but quirky, the tone is hard to judge for some and there’s no denying a few missteps along the way. Although it derailed Banno’s career, he eventually got the rights back for Hedorah and Godzilla, as he planned to make a 40 minute IMAX 3D feature. However, Hollywood also came a knocking at the same time, hence why Banno is able to adorn himself with a producer credit. He still longs for a sequel to his Godzilla feature and I too hope we’ll see one. This is an artistic expression of mature themes, which is something that Godzilla had avoided since his first outing. Monster smash-ups are excellent, but so too can be heartfelt social commentary.
Dub-Misstep: Pretty great, at least the more recent dubbing at least. The original English language dub replaced the opening song, but it’s kept intact for later releases. The voice work is also never overdone, and it can be enjoyed almost as much as the original language version.
Monsters: After the excess of previous entries, GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH keeps it simple with just the two; Godzilla and his latest antagonist. Hedorah is a great monster with the ability to change its form. He is also quite a threat to Earth and Godzilla, and has many more tricks besides building smashing.
Notes For GODZILLA (2014): If Banno is to be believed, this may get a sequel all of its own. He was working on one at the time Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures stepped in, which explains his producer credit on the upcoming outing. The theme of pollution remains a pertinent one, and although Godzilla’s a good guy in this, we do see his savage side. The film also shows the deaths of people, and the dark tone would suit a reboot well. Perhaps avoid the cartoon transitions and funky music for now.
GODZILLA will be released 16th May 2014. It stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Sally Hawkins, Akira Takarada, and David Strathairn.