Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Godzilla Week: Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1972)
One way to comprehend and appreciate the Godzilla movies is to parse them as, essentially, the Japanese monster equivalent of James Bond-styled movie adventures.
Thus, every Godzilla outing features a different and dynamic antagonist and the same, dependable hero, Godzilla, who faces this new threat or challenge. But in different eras, Godzilla is interpreted differently, not unlike the varying interpretations of 007 by actors Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan and Craig. Sometimes Godzilla is friendlier, sometimes less so. Sometimes he is silly, and sometimes he is deadly serious.
The monster movies of the 1970s Showa period are a great deal more fanciful in presentation than some.
They are more aptly fantasy entries than outright horror shows, like the original Gojira. On a personal note, I admire and love the Godzilla films of the 1970s Showa Era, and their interpretation of Godzilla as a reluctant warrior for mankind, not to mention hero of children everywhere.
One of the very best Godzilla films ever made – of any era -- is Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1972), or Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster as it was known in the United States upon release. The film works as both a compelling Godzilla entry, and also as a science fiction film featuring a meaningful statement about the environment.
Remember, the great kaiju movies, in my opinion, are the ones that create monsters that are avatars for some pressing issue in the human world, often atomic testing, and the notion of Mother Nature’s revolt against that poor behavior.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah creates a great monster, Hedorah, out of the issue of pollution, which was a major component of the 1970s science fiction film. Efforts from around the world, including No Blade of Grass (1970), and Z.P.G. (1972) imagined worlds in which our soiling of the planet led to catastrophic and apocalyptic futures.
Hedorah possesses a unique and fascinating life-cycle, which means that the monster adopts multiple forms in the sea, on land and in the air, throughout the film, and that fact livens up the battles with Godzilla quite a bit.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah also features at least one major sequence set during blackest night, and so there is a dark aspect to this film that makes it memorable in the canon. The film also tailors its message of “saving the Earth” so as to be appealing to children, who will recognize that Godzilla -- for all the damage he causes -- is on the side of the planet, and Mother Nature herself.
A beast called Hedorah that arises from “a sticky, dark planet far away” is nurtured in the pollution, sewage, and detritus of Earth’s 20th century civilizations.
The grotesque, blob-like entity with red eyes develops and grows through three distinct stages -- in the ocean, on the surface, and in the skies -- and soon proves a grave menace to human life, especially in Japan.
When Hedorah flies above that nation’s cities and factories, he excretes deadly sulfuric acid that burns away skin and reduces human bodies to skeletal corpses.
Meanwhile, one boy, Kenny, dreams of his hero, Godzilla, and believes that only the giant atomic lizard can save the world from this terrible new threat.
Fortunately, the giant green dinosaur soon shows up, and engages in a battle to the death with the smog monster.
Going back for a minute to the useful 007 Bond comparison, Godzilla vs. Hedorah opens with a catchy pop tune, a lava-lamp-like introductory montage, and a musical performance by an attractive female singer.
Similarly, the film also features the obligatory almost stand-alone action set-pieces here…the ones in which the protagonist first confronts the antagonist, and is defeated, and then the climactic encounter, wherein good finally prevails.
Continuing down this road of comparison further, the best way to judge or critique a Bond film, largely, is to categorize the elements in terms of their antecedents and determine whether the ingredients in the current entry stack-up to moments from franchise history.
Is the new movie as powerfully vetted as past entries? Does it toss in some surprises to go along with the elements that a devoted audience expects to see?
In terms of Godzilla vs. Hedorah, the answers to such questions are universally affirmative.
Hedorah makes for a dangerous, original, and grotesque villain, not merely in terms of his ever-changing appearance, but also in terms of his abilities and proclivities. When the airborne Hedorah strafes his human prey and sprays a toxic chemical, humans below are dissolved to bone instantly, and it’s a frightening, grotesque effect. Another image of Hedorah that remains unforgettable sees the beast perching atop a factory smoke-stack, imbibing pollution directly from the pipe, as it were.
It seems to me that both Bond and Godzilla films rise and fall on the basis of the villain’s nature and plans, and Hedorah’s constantly shifting nature, nasty composition, gruesome power, and odd appetite make him an unforgettable antagonist.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah finds some new subtext and social critique material for the long-standing franchise. Historically, Godzilla has been parsed as an avatar for atomic power. He owes his very existence in the 20th century to human nuclear testing, and so forth. In Godzilla vs. Hedorah, however, the series gives him a villain who also symbolizes an important element of the disco decade zeitgeist: pollution.
As seen in films such as Frogs (1972) and Doomwatch (1976) environmental pollution proved the great bugaboo of the age, and here, the alien seed that is Hedorah sprouts from sewage and garbage strewn into the ocean. The opening scenes in the film depict smoke stacks, factories, and filthy brown ocean water. We see, without fakery, examples of how man has destroyed that which Nature has provided. These moments are powerful because they are real. Man’s technology and industry -- coupled with his propensity to destroy that which he touches – are turning a paradise into a nightmare.
From this hot-house of detritus emerges something unspeakably awful: the crimson-eyed menace from another world. And when Hedorah sucks smoke out of a factory stack like it’s a giant bong, the film’s powerful point is nailed visually: we’re actually feeding the vehicle of our own destruction when we pollute the Earth.
Commendably, the Godzilla series has adjusted with the times to remain relevant and interesting. The nature of “the monster” has changed (from nuclear power to rampant pollution and environmental damage), but the overall premise hasn’t been altered at all. The fact is, state these Japanese films, mankind’s behavior and irresponsibility are jeopardizing everyone on the planet.
What makes Godzilla vs. Hedorah such a charming and worthwhile film, however, is not necessarily the polemical aspects of the drama. Contrarily, the film often adopts the viewpoint of a child, who sees the pollution and wishes for some miracle to stop it.
That miracle is named Godzilla.
“Godzilla would get really angry if he saw this. He’d do something,” the child, Kenny, declares upon musing over pollution.
In this case, the child seeks an answer to a problem, and hopes for a person (or creature) brave enough and bold enough to take action. The film actually forges a meaningful link between this boy and Godzilla, suggesting that Godzilla can hear his hopes and thoughts, and thus comes to the rescue of humanity.
Kenny hopes that Godzilla will fix by might that which man chooses not to address.
Furthering the idea of the film as originating from a child’s viewpoint, Godzilla vs. Hedorah often cuts to a cartoon representation of the sludge monster, perhaps in an attempt to maintain the whimsical aspects of the tale, especially in counter-balance to some of the unexpectedly gruesome special effects.
Finally, the film even features a great (if idealistic) answer to the problem of pollution: “if everyone pulls together, we can defeat it.”
If we can just do that one thing, Godzilla will not gaze down upon us with such disapproval in his eyes, as he does in the coda of this particular outing.
Another real treat here is the fact that Godzilla vs. Hedorah is beautifully-shot. The compositions make full use of film’s rectangular frame, and some vistas -- even those featuring an obviously mini-metropolis and dueling men-in-suits -- remain visually impressive. There's a downright lyrical moment near the end of the film when Godzilla stands before a sunset, and the implication seems to be that it is mankind's reign itself that is setting, unless we change our ways.
Perhaps some of the ideas here -- like a peace march to stop pollution -- seem dated in the cold light of the cynical 21st century, but Godzilla vs. Hedorah, with its child-like innocence and focus on a real 1970s “monster” --pollution -- works just about as poetically and effectively as any Godzilla movie ever made in my opinion.
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