Godzilla Vs. Hedorah (Japan, 1971)

One day, when I lived in Japan, I happened to visit my neighborhood Toys”R”Us (it being Japan, however, the sign said, トイザらス). After marveling that the store looked more like a heaven for adult otaku rather than for children, I stumbled upon the Godzilla aisle and nearly wet myself. Being on a scholarship at the time, instead of buying everything I wanted (which included large and expensive Ultraman play sets) I settled for a $7.00 vinyl toy Hedorah. The irony was delightful: here was a toy of a monster created from pollution, heavily featured in a film with a strong environmental message, that was made from processed petroleum. Try as Godzilla might, Hedorah always wins.

The sole Godzilla film directed by Yoshimitsu Banno, Godzilla Vs. Hedorah (or, as I remember it from schoolyard discussions, Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster) is an anomaly in the series, an art-film kaiju spectacular with a heavy environmental message and a willingness to kill off major characters. It is a turning point in the series, a wonderful confluence of “head” culture and kiddy entertainment, and far and away my favorite Godzilla film.

A fisherman finds a strange looking, over-sized tadpole and brings it to Dr. Yano (Akira Yamauchi), a marine biologist. Yano and his son go down to the bay where the tadpole was discovered and there are attacked by what the short-shorts-wearing son names Hedorah (from the Japanese for sludge, hedoro). Soon Hedorah is growing at an alarming rate and attacking ships. It changes form and emerges onto land to suck—with eyes half-closed in ecstasy like a suckling kitten—on factory smokestacks, fondle greenhouse-gas-producing cars and spread poisonous gas around. This is the first film in the series since the original Gojira (1954) to exploit the metaphorical possibilities of the sci-fi genre, and exploit it, it does. When Hedorah takes flight, polluting cities like a biplane dusting crops with DDT, terrified adults and children fall to the ground, clutch their throats, and die. Yes, people actually die in this film, horrible deaths that recall both the dropping of the atomic bombs and recent ecological threats. This is a kid’s movie?

Of course, Godzilla shows up, somehow psychically connected to the short-shorts kid, who sees Godzilla in a dream and knows when he’s coming to help. It’s a nod to Gamera and an indication of the direction kaiju films had gone by the early ’70s. Despite this, the producers of the series hated the film and refused to let Banno make any more Godzilla films, but if you ask me he rescued the series from the tedium of the South Seas films that occupied most of the late ’60s. The previous entry was Godzilla’s Revenge, a clip-show retread built around an annoying story about a kidnapped child who imagines a friendship with a pint-sized Minira. Banno here injects a dose of much-needed relevance to the series.

I love this movie for so many reasons, but if I have to name just one: the director kills off the hippies. A group of hippies (who hallucinate after drinking whiskey—go Japan and its strong anti-drug laws) decides to hold a happening in the countryside near Mt. Fui to stop ecological disaster. They fire up their electric instruments, undoubtedly powered by exhaust-spewing gasoline generators, and proceed to writhe like rutting snakes until Hedorah gasses them to death. Seriously, they fall to the ground and die. I’m not sure where Banno’s sympathies lie where the counterculture was concerned, but this scene sure is funny.

The movie ends on a down note. As with the ineffectual hippies and their misguided attempts to “stop pollution,” is there really anything anyone can do? Godzilla gives it his best and loses an eye and a hand AND gets covered in what looks like liquid Hedorah diarrhea for his troubles. And in the end, the movie hits us with a big question mark: “And Yet Another One?” is splashed over a still of a new Hedorah emerging menacingly from the water. Hippy, giant lizard, short-shorts-wearing kid—all are powerless against man’s monolithic and rampant irresponsibility.