After coming up against Mothra, Ghidorah and King Kong, Godzilla was primed and ready to take on the most challenging enemy in his career so far — pollution. The last stretch of Godzilla’s Shōwa period kicked off with an environmentally conscious entry in the spirit of the 1954 film. And, as to be expected from a franchise founded on an allegory for nuclear times, the best way to address any kind of prevalent problem in the world of Godzilla is to turn it into a terrible monster.
The villain of 1971’s Godzilla Versus Hedorah feels straight out of a ‘50s Hollywood creature-feature, given this strange kaijū landed on Earth by way of a comet. But unlike the titular alien in The Blob, Hedorah feeds on industrial pollution as opposed to humans. This sounds like a perfect way to combat one of life’s greatest ills, except for the fact that Hedorah will poison everyone in the long run. So after battling other giant freaks of nature throughout the ‘60s, Godzilla was pitted against a monstrosity unlike anything seen before in the series. And similar to Godzilla, Hedorah was the direct result of man’s misdeeds.
Hedorah is an imposing assemblage of both the weird and the earthly; this grotesque hybrid brings with it a sense of cosmic horror so rarely seen in Godzilla. Hedorah summons a sort of madness in man, due to its unpredictability and vague origin. And the monster’s triphibian attributes — it swims, it flies, it walks! — make it godlike and inescapable. Apart from its otherworldly presence, Hedorah’s abstract character design is contrary to everything shown up to this point in the series. A suggestive eye shape, a mucky texture, and an amorphous physique all bolster Hedorah’s unsettling character.
Nearly every one of these kinds of films starts off with a horrifying encounter, fatal or otherwise, between human and monster. Godzilla Versus Hedorah is no different, yet director Yoshimitsu Banno goes that extra mile when conveying unease. Those first meetings with the antagonist are nothing short of horror trends later found in Jaws and its imitators. As his father examines the seafloor for more evidence of Hedorah’s growing presence, the story’s child protagonist, Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase), is caught off guard while poking at dead crabs and clams on the shore. The horrific sea creature from the news quickly cuts through the water before emerging like a flying fish. Ken may have very well delayed Hedorah’s advent by piercing its soft underbelly with a knife, but his father, Dr. Yano (Akira Yamauchi), is less fortunate in his own run-in with Hedorah. The panic of these two parallel scenes is then topped off by a chilling moment of uncertainty as Ken awaits his father’s return.
The success of most Godzilla films is dependent on their individual set pieces, and the ones in Hedorah amount to some of the most striking in the entire Shōwa timeline. From Hedorah’s initial landfall to a trippy nightclub scene, Banno wastes no time establishing his directorial style. The ashen battle between the Smog Monster and Godzilla is juxtaposed with lively go-go dancing, a musical plea for Earth’s salvation, and a character’s indelible hallucination of fish-headed patrons dancing like the world is ending. When everything starts to feel like a bad acid trip, Banno sobers everyone up with Hedorah’s collateral damage. This includes hapless civilians drowning in sludge, a slathered cat mewing for help, and the heedless clubgoers narrowly escaping an oozy death.
The film’s scariest and most evocative moments come to pass as Hedorah takes to the air. Now in broad daylight, the UFO-shaped kaijū jets around the city, poisoning everyone with its deadly emissions. Banno shows no mercy for those affected; within a matter of seconds, nothing but bones are left behind. Having young Ken discover the victims’ remains in the street only emphasizes the horror of the situation. Without question, these grisly, fast-acting deaths are inspired by the “Four Big Pollution Diseases of Japan;” industrial neglect resulted in unnatural human illnesses born between 1912 and 1961. The only bright side to these unfortunate real-life incidents was slow but eventual reform for chemical disposal practices.
Godzilla Versus Hedorah maintains both its uniqueness and weirdness with surreal in-between scenes. These instances and more are enriched by Riichirō Manabe‘s exceptional score, which stirs anxiety and breeds zaniness. Crude cartoon segues come out of nowhere, and they empower the film’s already frightful antagonist. Boosting the kookiness is another considerable visual insert; a chaotic split-screen sequence of various videos stresses the story’s state of emergency. In this wall of motion clips, protestors shout over each other, Hedorah attacks the city, the fishy club patrons serve as a reminder of the dwindling sea life, and a crying baby sinks into a pool of slime. Banno’s lone Godzilla film becomes increasingly strange with every passing minute, and no frame is wasted when communicating the atrocities brought on by humans’ disregard for nature.
Even without touching the eternal discourse on paper-thin human characters from this and surrounding Godzilla chapters, a distinct film like Hedorah still comes with minor caveats. Banno undeniably hit the ground running with an innovative film. However, the last act shows signs of fatigue and meandering as the two titans smash into each other with no rhythm or design, and the humans scramble to do their part in saving the world. The production loses some steam at this point, only to then find its footing again as Godzilla leaves the ground. Fans guffaw at the infamous flying scene, but after that much visible carnage and loss on the screen, Godzilla’s airborne ability lightens the mood.
Godzilla’s heroic transformation in the ‘60s and onward was a reflection of the changing times. The popularity of television led to dwindling attendance at the box office, and the King of Monster’s target demographic was now inclined to stay home to satisfy their tokusatsu cravings. Emulating the desire for justice so innate to small-screen heroes like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, Godzilla eventually took on the responsibility of protecting Earth, as opposed to merely falling into a savior role. This new status indeed began in Godzilla Versus Hedorah, but the pandering was more blatant in following entries. Here the Big G shows up to save the environment, and after cleaning up the mess, Godzilla issues a brief warning to those responsible. Subsequent outings have Godzilla simply take the bad guys out without afterthought. Banno, on the other hand, afforded his Godzilla a shred more intelligence than other directors and writers around this time.
Banno’s one and only Godzilla film is nothing short of imagination. Enhanced by creative direction and sensorial imagery, this cinematic and influential experiment has enjoyed a seismic turnaround with fans and critics. This of course comes after Hedorah was, and still is, haunted by the supposed feud between the director and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. “You ruined Godzilla” is generally how the behind-the-scenes drama is summed up. An interview with Banno before his death, though, suggests the disagreement was either misinterpreted or overstated. The producer was apparently displeased with how Godzilla the character was changed. Whatever the truth is, Tanaka working with Banno again on the disaster film Prophecies of Nostradamus indicates the Hedorah director was not banned from Toho, after all.
While the films before it were less inclined to comment on Japan’s current pollution problems, much less show them, Godzilla Versus Hedorah was entirely transparent. Banno’s debut is aggressive and insistent when addressing the topical issue, but there are no polemics here. The filmmaker instead uses disquieting, unambiguous imagery to push the agenda and show the risk of depleting one’s resources. Not since All Monsters Attack had there been an unfiltered depiction of a typical Japanese city at the time; the atmosphere is gloomy and the sky is hazy because of factory smoke. Hedorah turns the dial all the way up with scenes of water pollution, dead marine life, and human casualties. What might come across as hyperbole to drum up controversy and sales is really an appeal for change. Without question, Japan’s economic growth came at a high cost, and Banno was bold enough to debate the price.
Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.