Monday, May 12, 2014

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)

Godzilla is a symbol as much as a monster. Symbols have a tendency to change, however. Sometimes it's a case of perspective--a flag is a symbol of patriotism to the citizen of the country it belongs to, and a symbol of terror to the citizens of countries it attacks. Other times, it's simply a matter of the passage of time.

Godzilla was a nuclear nightmare in 1954, but by 1971 the creature was a heroic defender of the Earth. It's likely that the change had the most to do with the simple fact that by 1964 Toho realized that if they wanted to keep making Godzilla movies, it was going to get boring if Godzilla was the villain who kept showing up and getting defeated by heroic monsters but always in a way he could come back.

Whatever the reason for the change, it meant that Godzilla had to shed his symbolic skin and become just a matinee monster. It was hardly the worst thing to happen to the character--and indeed, it broadened his appeal--but no doubt it was a bit disappointing to those who had made the original film such a stark, frightening experience.

Yet,someone at Toho saw the potential to still make Godzilla films matter. Sure, there had been satire and allegory in the films following the original--Mothra vs. Godzilla, my personal favorite, had been a satire of rampant corporate greed and government corruption--but few had truly attempted to address the evils of society in a meaningful way.

Nuclear war, while still an ever-present threat thanks to the ongoing dick-measuring contests between the US and the USSR, had become passe. Everyone knew it was still a risk, but it didn't have the same frightening potential by 1971 as it did in the 1950s and 60s.

Pollution, however, was truly beginning to be recognized as a threat. It had been so ever since humans first began to develop cities. But in a growing industrial power like Japan at the time, it was becoming truly serious. Any film about the evils of pollution was going to be lecturing and on the nose, so why not make a monster movie about it?

The youth market was also becoming a force to be reckoned with, so it only made sense for producer Tomoyuki Tanaka to choose someone to helm the latest Godzilla movie that wasn't a student of the old school. Ishiro Honda and even Jun Fukuda were both getting too old in the tooth, so Tanaka decied to hand the reigns over to young filmmaker Yoshimitsu Banno.

Tanaka had always taken a hands-on approach to producing, but ill health forced him to stay in the hospital during filming. Thus Banno was afforded way more freedom than I expect anybody involved in the film had anticipated.

To say that Tanaka was not pleased with the end result is an epic understatement. He declared that Banno had "ruined" Godzilla and declared that Banno was never, ever going to direct again. Given Banno never did, I'd say that Tanaka made good on his threat.

Of course, Banno had the last laugh in a way: he's one of the producers of Godzilla (2014).

So, is Godzilla vs. Hedorah really as bad as Tanaka felt it was? Or was Tanaka simply not with it?

Young Ken Yano (Horoyuki Kawase) loves Godzilla. And like most small boys in kaiju films who wear shorts that can only be seen by a microscope, he feels he understands Godzilla. He feels that pollution is becoming so awful that Godzilla is going to become furious. So Ken is understandably certain that bad things are on the horizon when an old man brings a strange tadpole-like creature to Ken's father, Dr. Yano (Akira Yamauchi), and the creature is determined to be living sludge.

Dr. Yano goes scuba diving where the tadpole was found, while Ken waits on the shore. Ken narrowly escapes an encounter with a huge tadpole, with only a minor burn on the hand he used to knife the creature as it leaped over him. Dr. Yaho, unable to hear Ken's warnings, is attacked by the tadpole and his face is severely burned.

Ken names the creature "Hedorah" (derived from "hedoro", the Japanese word for sludge) when a reporter comes to interview Dr. Yano. Ken's mother, Toshie (Toshie Kimura) doesn't want her husband photographed, but Dr. Yano feels it is important that everyone sees the danger of Hedorah. Especially when Dr. Yano discovers that Hedorah is a colonial organism--every piece of the beast is alive, and when two pieces meet they join together to become a larger creature. There might be no limit to how large Hedorah can become.

Ken knows that Godzilla will come to fight Hedorah, however, and of course he's right. While Ken's oddly teenaged friend, Yukio Keuchi (Toshio Shiba)--whose relationship to the Yano family is never explicated, but I chose to believe he is a student of either Dr. Yano or Mrs. Yano, as the latter is explicitly shown to be a teacher--is watching his girlfriend Miki Fujiyama (Keiko Mari) perform a song about pollution at a night club in the trippiest damn outfit you ever saw, Hedorah comes ashore.

She rocks it, but it's still damned weird.
Hedorah, now resembling a salamander composed of melted plastic, feeds on the fumes from a smokestack until Godzilla arrives. Godzilla challenges his new foe, only to find that physical attacks are worthless on a creature made of goop--his punches go right through Hedorah's body. Swinging the beast around by the tail is an even worse idea, as the chunks that fly off kill several innocent bystanders. One chunk of Hedorah ends up in the night club, just as Yukio is struggling with the brown acid he apparently took.

Or maybe just some bad sushi?
Rushing outside, Miki and Yukio witness Godzilla finally driving Hedorah away after his nuclear flame breath causes strange sparks when it hits Hedorah. Examining the ashes that fell off of Hedorah, Dr. Yano determines that Hedorah's eyes contain a strange material that Ken dubs "Hedrium". This strange material suggests to Dr. Yano that Hedorah must be a living mineral that came to Earth on a meteorite--which kind of undercuts the idea that Hedorah is something humanity created, but what can you do?

Hedorah is an unpredictable creature, that much is certain. And it quickly takes on a flying form, looking like a dirty trilobite, spraying sulfuric acid fumes as it flies. Godzilla confronts it again but is quickly routed when the creature's fumes prove too much even for him. Mere mortal humans are reduced to skeletons by its passing.

There is hope, however. Hedorah is only sludge, so if they can find a way to dry it out, it will be rendered inert. Dr. Yano figures out the only way to do that is by getting the creature between two enormous electrodes--but they will take time to build. Meanwhile, Yukio and Miki have brought Ken to a happening party at the base of Mount Fuji, meant to celebrate the world before Hedorah destroys it.

Right on cue, Hedorah appears--now 60 meters tall an oddly sparkly--to menace the righteous youth. Godzilla appears to defend them, just as Ken predicted, but after Godzilla loses an eye to Hedorah's caustic projectile sludge and is knocked out by the creature's eye lasers, it seems clear that even Godzilla may not be able to save the Earth.

A simple plot synopsis of the film doesn't fully get across how bizarre the film is. There are animated interludes, psychedelic imagery, and--most spectacularly--a bank of screaming television screens, as if The Brady Bunch opening credits got taken over by Occupy Hedorah and then went insane. By the time Godzilla flies, you're left capable of only a shrug as it's not even the weirdest thing you've seen by that point.

"Fuck you, science!"
Looked at only for its surreal quality, it's easy to see why Tomoyuki Tanaka hated it. However, I think that it's far too easy to write this film off for its weirdness rather than actually examining the film and its merits.

This film is, simply put, horrifying. It's honestly the first film since the original to show the consequences of a monster fight in a major city. Much like what we would eventually see in the 90s trilogy of Gamera films, Godzilla is trying to save humanity from Hedorah--but in the process he still kills multiple innocent people. Not to mention the direct victims of Hedorah. Collateral damage simply hadn't been shown in a Godzilla film on this level since 1954.

In fact, the Godzilla flying scene was added by Yoshimitsu Banno almost at the last minute because he felt the film needed to be lightened up a bit for the children he knew would be seeing it. As bizarre and nonsensical as the scene may be, it's almost impossible to imagine the film without it.

There's also a heavy dose of cynicism in the film, of the sort you could only find in the years following Night of the Living Dead, but no doubt seems odd to modern audiences in a film where the damn hippy kids are our heroes. The heroic, high-minded youth that stage a happening at the base of Mount Fuji are all slaughtered by the beast when they try to drive it off with torches--including Yukio, who is the closest thing to the film's hero after Ken. Only Miki, Ken, and a handful of others survive. The military are shown to be absolute incompetent buffoons, incapable of screwing in a damn light bulb. So incompetent are they that even Godzilla expresses disgust at their uselessness.

The message of the film is that pollution must be stopped, but the filmmakers seem to be convinced that humanity is completely incapable of saving itself. And this was before "denying climate change is real" became a paying gig!

The film definitely makes good on Tomoyuki Tanaka's initial intent of making a Godzilla film for the next generation. Director Yoshimitsu Banno and composer Riichiro Manabe had never been involved with a Godzilla film before, while special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano had only directed the effects for one Godzilla film prior, though he had assisted on a few--the lone "veteran" was screenwriter Takeshi Kimura, who had worked on several Godzilla and other Toho kaiju films before.

Despite Banno's flair for the surreal, his direction is really quite good. It's almost a shame he never got a chance to redeem himself when Tanaka was still running the show, as I'm sure he could have delivered work on Ishiro Honda's level if he'd just had a restraining hand on his shoulder. Thankfully, he never got the chance to do it after Tanaka's passing, as Banno's story treatment for "Godzilla 3-D To The Max" was a truly Godawful idea. Saner heads prevailed and the project morphed into the upcoming Hollywood film directed by Gareth Edwards.

Composer Riichiro Manabe, on the other hand, got to compose a scant two years later on Godzilla vs. Megalon, and damned if I know why. By all accounts, Manabe's themes for other films have been great, but his Godzilla scores are astoundingly terrible. When scoring Godzilla, Manabe has two settings: experimental jazz tracks that ought to be accompanying a plot-halting night club scene in a Jesus Franco film and high school marching band fight song. Godzilla should have a theme that imparts power, majesty, or power--not that he has a cadre of cheerleaders just offscreen.

That said, Manabe did give us the film's delightful theme song, "Kaizen" or "Give Back the Sun"--which was translated to "Save The Earth" for the film's initial American release. So catchy tunes are definitely among his strengths.

Asfor Teruyoshi Nakano, he learned well from his former boss, Eiji Tsubaraya--except for one major weakness that would become even more apparent in the film following this one, Godzilla vs. Gigan. Namely, Nakano has issues with scale and perspective, as pertains to scenes that require a small model to interact with a larger model--when the former model is supposed to appear larger. In Godzilla vs. Gigan it manifests as miniature models of Gigan and King Ghidorah buzzing around the head of the Godzilla Tower, which they are both supposed to tower over. Here, the flying Godzilla model is smaller than the shrunken Hedorah it is meant to be chasing. In both cases, you have to wonder how nobody noticed, or if they simply didn't care.

All in all, I find that I grow fonder of this film every time I watch it--and I started off pretty damn fond of it. It's a grim, dark film with a message that still understands that at the end of the day, films are meant to entertain. If you can just accept that it's absurd as Hell, then you will probably enjoy it.

When choosing a "dark" Godzilla film, I'll take it over Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack any day of the week.

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