GODZILLA VERSUS THE SMOG MONSTER or Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Gordon Hopkins goes green.
The 1970s were a tumultuous time on both the United States and Japan. It was the decade that gave the world Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Jimmy Carter, shag green carpet, bell-bottom jeans, Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War and H.R. Pufnstuf.

A movie like Godzilla versus the Smog monster could only have happened in the seventies.

The seventies are regarded by Godzilla fans as a major downturn in the series. The plots became more and more fantastical and, frankly, sillier, involving goofy aliens and secret organizations with world-domination plans. The giant monsters seemed to be shoehorned in almost as a afterthought.

And, as always, the “kidification factor” was looming large, the filmmakers given the difficult task of trying to make a monster movie that wouldn't be too scary for the kiddos.

The upside to taking Godzilla out of the cities and putting him on a island with a bunch of other monsters, where he could smash and stomp to his heart's content without slaughtering a bunch of innocent bystanders, was it made Godzilla less terrifying. The downside was, it made Godzilla less terrifying.

Godzilla had been effectively neutered.
Released as Godzilla versus Hedorah in Japan in 1971 and in the U.S. as Godzilla versus the Smog Monster in 1972, this film is viewed by many, but not all, as the final death knell of the “serious” Godzilla. Other, however, consider this movie the last truly great Godzilla flick of the Showa era, a last hurrah for true monster mayhem.

So which is it? Perhaps both. It certainly marks a transition in the film series. In many ways, it is a throwback to the earliest films in the series. Significantly, it is the first movie since the original to show the human casualties of giant monsters. Scenes of dead bodies lying in the streets are certainly horrifying. Indeed, this is the first Godzilla movie in more than a decade that was genuinely scary.

Primarily, Godzilla versus Hedorah is a message movie. The monster, Hedorah, a slimy, silver-black, ambulatory pile of sludge with glowing red eyes, is the result of pollution. The message is not subtle. It hits you in the forehead with a ball peen hammer. Hedorah goes through various transformations in the course of the movie, starting off as tiny, tadpole-shaped thing, eventually becomes a massive, upright-standing horror that dwarfs even Godzilla. At one point, it takes on a “flying saucer” form, as described in the movie, and can fly by emitting toxic, acidic fumes that first chokes and then dissolves people. In one horrifying scene, a group of people are doing their morning calisthenics as Hedorah flies overhead. Having no idea what was happening, the entire groups drops to the ground, dead, all at once.

Godzilla versus a pollution monster. It was a pretty straight forward idea and, given the times, probably inevitable. After all, the original Godzilla was the result of man's irresponsible messing around with atomic bombs. Radiation and atomic warfare was a major preoccupation in the 1950s. Pollution and a coming ecological disaster was a primary preoccupation in the 1970s. The parallels are obvious.

If the concept was straightforward, the execution was anything but. The 1970s was an era of both political and artistic excesses, not to mention psychedelia.

Put simply, this movie is so weird, if it were a person, it would be Salvador Dali.

Aesthetically, the movie is a bizarre amalgam of giant monster movies, James Bond, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Saturday morning cartoons. When I say cartoons, I mean cartoons. There are actually multiple interludes in the movie that use a crude animation to provide exposition. If Andy Warhol and Terry Gilliam could have directed a movie together, this would have been the result.
I am also quite serious about seeing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas influences in this movie. There is a scene in a nightclub where a young man is tripping and hallucinates everyone around him has the     `head of a fish. It is more than a little reminiscent to a similar scene in Hunter S. Thompson's magnum opus. Was it a ripoff? Hard to say, Both the book and the movie came out the same year, so I suppose it could just be a zeitgeist moment.

Oh, and if you need more evidence of how high this film registers on the weird-o-meter, this is the movie where Godzilla flies backwards by using his atomic breath as a jet engine.

Hedorah leaves behind a trail of thick, black goo everywhere it goes and that goo is omnipresent and it adds to the horror. The director of this outing for Godzilla is not Ishiro Honda but Yoshimitsu Banno, who had previously served as assistant director on several of Akira Kurosowa's movies. Early publicity declared Banno would reinvent Godzilla for a new generation, which is exactly the kind of things publicists like to say. Unlike some of his predecessors, Banno didn't shy away from showing the horrors the monster wreaked in the innocent. A crying baby half submerged in sludge, shown on a TV screen as part of a mosaic on a news program is too ridiculous to be truly horrifying. More effective was a scene where Hedorah reaches a massive tendril down the stairwell into a nightclub. The tendril recedes, leaving behind a poor, mewling, sludge-covered cat.

It is interesting to note that, while industrial pollution is the main villain of this overtly political piece, the filmmakers also take a shot at the other side. The sixties and seventies were all about how young people were going to save the world from the greed and excesses of the previous generations. Here, the younger generation is portrayed as self-indulgent, self-righteous and useless. They understand that greed and pollution have created the monstrosity currently threatening all humanity. Their response is to have a “protest” party.

Despite the adult themes of drug use, politics and lots and lots of horrific death, the centerpiece of this movie is another little kid, Ken Yanno. There is clearly a struggle going on among the filmmakers, between those elements that want to make an adult, political film, and those wanting to keep the series kid friendly. Poor Ken is caught in the middle. This little kids finds himself, again and again, in totally inappropriate situations. Ken ends up at the protest party where a bunch of horny teenagers are clearly more interested in getting high and listening to music than in finding a solution to the problem of a giant pollution monster. It is a totally inappropriate place for a little kid to be even if there were a giant monster. Sure enough, the party attracts the attention of Hedorah and most of the teens are slaughtered.

Ken's father is a scientist and, in another parallel to the first Godzilla movie, one side of Dr. Yanno's face is scarred by Hedorah early on in the film, leaving him with only one eye, like Dr. Serizawa.

As for Godzilla, he shows up, the film does a remarkably good job creating real doubt that the hero/monster will be able defeat the Smog Monster. It is the amorphous nature of Hedorah that makes him such a formidable foe. How can you beat something into submission when your fists just go straight through it?

While some people hate this movie, others find it to be one of their favorites of the entire series. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground. I know of no one who says of Godzilla versus the Smog Monster, “Yeah, it's okay, I guess.”

I'm gonna come right out and say it. Godzilla versus the Smog Monster is probably my favorite of the series, after Gojira/Godzilla: King of the Monsters. So there.
The Denouement: In an unusual departure for the series, the military and their weapons are not totally useless. When Dr. Yano figures out that, since Hedorah is basically made of sludge, the best way to defeat it is to dry it out. So they whip up some giant electric screens to zap Hedorah, though the plan clearly would have failed without the intervention of Godzilla.

The ending of this movie is also famous among Godzilla fans, and some non-fans as well, for the scene in which Godzilla plunges his fists into the Smog Monster's body and extracts two large spheres, which he then destroys. Some have speculated that these are Hedorah's eyes but that clealy is not the case. Godzilla punched out one of Hedorah's eyes in an earlier battle. No, most agree these are Hedorah's eggs, which means the creature was just about to reproduce, adding an additional element of urgency to the proceedings. It also likely makes this scene the very first on-screen abortion.

The American Version: The opening of the movie strongly resembles that of a James Bond flick, in which a girl sings, lit ith colored lights in front of a psychedelic backdrop. In the Japanese version, the song is called “Bring back the Sun.” For the American release, the song is “Save the Earth.” However, the song is not “Bring back the Sun” with translated lyrics. Instead, the American distributors commissioned an entirely new (but still thematically appropriate) song, set to the same tune. Indeed, not only the music but the cadence is virtually identical. Although it is not a parody, it is basically the same thing “Weird Al” Yankovic does with his song parodies, such as “Like a Surgeon” or “Eat it” or “White and Nerdy.” This is a lot harder than it seems and both the creators of “Save the Earth” and Mr. Yankovic are to be congratulated.

The Odds: Will Hedorah menace Godzilla and the world once again? Given the current ecological disaster we find ourselves facing, it is hard to imagine a future Godzilla movie not addressing our environmental meltdown in some way. I think the odds are pretty good. I'll say 10 to one in favor of Hedorah's reappearance.

Read all of Gordon Hopkins previous Godzilla articles here.

Gordon Hopkins is an award winning reporter and columnist for The Fairbury Journal-News, a 130-year-old newspaper in Jefferson County, Nebraska (He hasn't been working there that entire time.) He has also written a couple of crime novels (“Fraudsters” and the best-selling “Broken”) and edited a few non-fiction books.

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