I. The Shôwa Must Go OnA lot has been said about Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster since it was released in 1971. Many old-growth forests' worth of paper has been stained by countless barrels of gooey black ink, and vast amounts of noxious gas have been expelled into the atmosphere either attacking or defending it. It's certainly the strangest of the original Gozilla movies; in fact, it's one of the strangest films ever made. As perplexing, confrontational and divisive as any Japanese art film, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster was very much a product of its troubled time — and yet, for all the detailed essays that have been written about the film itself, and its place in the Shôwa-era Godzilla canon, very few attempts have been made to relate it to its time, or explain what made it possible — even necessary — for a movie like Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster to exist.
By 1970, the Japanese film industry was falling on hard times. One major reason for this (a reason which Hollywood also had to contend with) was the rise of television, which allowed families to get their entertainment right in the comfort of their own home. Television programming delivered the same sort of genre programming that the movies provided, except it provided them in regular installments, and in smaller chunks that were easier to consume.
If there was one genre of Japanese film to which television posed a truly existential threat, it was the Giant Monster Movie: a good kaijû flick was difficult and expensive to make, while a monsters-and-aliens related TV show — while still expensive and difficult — was much less complicated. The stories could be shorter and simpler. Cast members, sets, and even monster suits could be re-used from episode to episode. Also, the size of the frame was smaller, which meant that the level of detail in the effects work could be simplified.
The critical year for the Japanese monster movie had been 1967, when not only did Toho release its expected annual entry in the Godzilla series (Son of Godzilla, December) and Daiei Studio produce the third of the Gamera films (Gamera vs. Gaos, March), but Shochiku and Nikkatsu also put out their first and only kaijû movies: The X from Outer Space (March) and Gappa, the Triphibian Monster (April) respectively. Not to be outdone, Toho preceded its official Godzilla production with a sort-of sequel to 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla: King Kong Escapes (June). On top of this, South Korea got into the act, releasing their giant monster films Space Monster Wangmagwi and Yongary, Monster from the Deep that same summer.
Yet at the same time, kids who wanted their kaijû fix could tune into TV and choose from any number of giant-monster related programs: the original "Ultraman" series and its competitor, "Ambassador Magma" (a.k.a. "The Space Giants"), had both finished their run in early 1967, and new series like "Ultraseven", "Captain Ultra", "Giant Robo" (a.k.a. "Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot") and "Kaijû Ôji" were making their debut. The genre had reached its saturation point, and when Son of Godzilla — not the worst of these offerings, by any means — finally came out in theaters in December, fewer people went to see it than had gone to see any other Godzilla film.
Godzilla had mutated from a dinosaur to an albatross. Like Korea's Pulgasari, the folk-tale monster that inspired movies from both North and South Korea, Toho's monster had gone from hero to liability, as it consumed more than its share of available resources. Tanaka Tomoyuki, the producer who had launched Godzilla 14 years before, came to a difficult decision: 1968's Destroy All Monsters!, the ninth film in the series, would be a spectacular finale to the Godzilla saga. Tanaka hoped to draw audiences by having almost a dozen different kaijû from across the history of Toho's monster movies all battling on-screen. He even brought back the original Godzilla's director, Honda Ishirô (who'd stepped out of his contract with Toho back in 1965) to helm the production. But Toho also tried to hedge its bets by economizing — adding no new monsters to the mix; substituting a cheap model for Varan, since the Varan suit from 1958 was no longer usable; re-using footage from previous installments to replace expensive new effects work; and (probably worst of all) skimping on the script, which recycled plot elements that had already been worked to death in other monster movies.
So the intended Godzilla Grand Finale was compromised from the start. A telling moment came when they tried to film a sequence with the tunnelling monster Baragon attacking Paris: they discovered that the Baragon suit had been loaned out to special effects maestro Tsuburaya Eiji. Tsuburaya is credited as the effects supervisor for Destroy All Monsters; but at the time Tsuburaya was busy with his own production company, and was using the Baragon suit to shoot the episode "The Rainbow's Egg" for his TV show "Ultra Q". To make up for the lack of the Baragon suit, Destroy All Monsters's actual effects director, Arikawa Teisho, substituted Gorosaurus from King Kong Escapes. Gorosaurus was just a big therapod, with no special skills of any kind... least of all tunneling. Godzilla fans are still shaking their heads over this baffling decision. Once again, television had undercut the classic monster movie.
There is a certain irony to the fact that Tsuburaya Eiji, the special effects master who originally brought Godzilla to life and shaped the course of the Japanese rubber-suit monster film, contributed so significantly to its eventual decline. Tsuburaya had realized since the early 1960's that the small screen opened up remarkable new opportunities for his effects work. Also, since he already had the rights to most of his costumes and props, it made economic sense for him to get as much additional use out of them as he could. You have only to re-watch the original "Ultraman" series (1966 - 67) to see that his studio's output was full of the imagination and creative energy that the big movie studios had lost: in one episode, a child's drawing comes to life and starts leveling cities; while in another, a dead monster's decomposing corpse stomps its way across Japan trying to get back to its grave. The fact that the zombie-monster Seebozu from the latter episode strongly resembled Godzilla hints that Tsuburaya may have been very well aware that the big screen kaijû-movie genre was all but worked out.
In the meantime, while Toho was planning to end the Godzilla series, Toho's rival Daiei Studio showed no inclination to quit making new Gamera sequels. Daiei had been temporarily saved from bankruptcy by the success of Daikaijû Gamera in 1965, and in spite of the great expense and diminishing returns of giant monster flicks, they still saw Gamera flicks as a good bet for turning a profit. 1968's entry, Gamera vs. Viras — the fourth film in the series — saved on expenses by including over 15 minutes of footage from previous films. That's more than 18% of the movie's total running time! It's true that all the Gamera sequels had included excerpts from the previous entries (and frankly, in these days before home video and movies-on-demand, this was something we kids looked forward to as a sort of bonus). But in the case of Gamera vs. Viras, not only did the "story-so-far" clips explaining Gamera's past history take up nearly 11 minutes, the movie also re-used footage of Gamera's earlier attacks as a substitute for new footage — even though some of this footage, taken from the original Gamera, was still in black and white.
Daiei's strategy of padding the film with the best of its older footage allowed them to invest more time and money in the new footage than would have been possible otherwise. This meant that the whole production had a surface gloss it didn't really deserve. The strategy worked: Gamera vs. Viras was a big success at the box office, helping Daiei limp along for another few years.
Gamera vs. Viras came out in March, 1968, while Toho was still preparing Destroy All Monsters! Daiei's success seems to have caused Toho's Tanaka to think twice about bringing the Godzilla series to an end. He approached Honda and writer Sekizawa Shinichi to follow the "last" Godzilla movie with a new, totally different film. The new movie would bear a curious title: All Kaijû Daishingeki ("All Monsters Big Attack"), which is a curious mash-up of the Japanese and American titles of the previous film (Kaijû Sôshingeki and Destroy All Monsters, respectively). If anything, this title promised an escalation of the already colossal action of Destroy All Monsters. But the actual movie, known in the US as Godzilla's Revenge, is the shortest and least-ambitious of the entire Godzilla series... and one that shows the obvious influence of Daiei's Gamera movies.
Rather than being a conventional monster movie, Godzilla's Revenge is the story of a lonely little boy named Ichiro, whose parents are forced to leave him alone for long periods of time because of their heavy work schedules. Ichiro is a shy boy, who makes up for his lack of companionship by dreaming of the monsters he sees in the movies. Ichiro's shyness makes him a target for the more aggressive boys at his school, who are led by a tough little kid named Gabara. When things get difficult, Ichiro retreats to the Monster Island of his imagination, where he meets Minya, the Son of Godzilla. Minya has to fight a Gabara of his own — a monster who looks and sounds like some sort of larval Titanosaurus — and gradually teaches Ichiro how to stand up for himself. Ichiro stumbles into the path of a pair of bumbling bank robbers, and uses the lessons he's learned from the monsters to defeat them.
As a Godzilla movie, Godzilla's Revenge is a disappointment. Part of the reason is its over-reliance on clips from previous films. Toho had relied on existing footage many times before for their monster movies, but usually only for quick shots of buildings being destroyed, or military equipment in action... effects that were scarcely worth the expense of reshooting. These snippets were unlikely to be noticed by casual viewers. Now, though, they were outdoing Daiei in their attempts to cannibalize their other films, and if they didn't quite go to the lengths of including bits of black and white footage from the oldest of the movies, they did use excerpts with radically mismatched Godzilla suit designs. The original footage is disappointing, too: the Monster Island locale means there are no scenes of Godzilla leveling cities, and Gabara is a thoroughly uninteresting monster. What's more, Honda took on the job of supervising the effects photography himself for this film, and the results are not quite up to the standards set by Tsuburaya and his successors.
But that's not all that makes the movie so problematic. Its real difficulty is the bittersweet message it sends. Daiei's Gamera flicks (except the second, Gamera vs. Barugon, which was at least nominally aimed at adults as well as children) showed kids a world in which rules did not apply to them — not even the laws of physics. The Gamera universe was one in which little boys were routinely invited to sit in on high-level military discussions, and often helped save the world with their suggestions. It was the kind of universe where kids could fly in a space ship to the far side of the sun, have some adventures, and be carried back in Gamera's jaws... and still get home in time for dinner. By contrast, grim reality is never far away in Godzilla's Revenge. No real monsters ever even show up in the movie; and even if little Ichiro does emerge unrealistically unscathed from his life-threatening situation with the bank robbers, in the end there's no real resolution to his problems. He still lives in a grim, polluted industrial town. His parents still have to work late to support the family. Gabara is still an obnoxious bully. It's just that Ichiro has reached an accomodation with all that. Whether he's gained self-reliance, or lost some of his ability to give or receive love, is open to debate... and it's this ambiguity — this undercurrent of darkness in what is otherwise a supremely silly children's movie — that makes Godzilla's Revenge a tough sell for adult viewers.
Honda considered Godzilla's Revenge one of his most personal films. Certainly he held it in higher regard than most of his tokusatsu monster movies, which he thought had become repetitive and uninspired. Honda had disagreed with the direction the Godzilla series had taken since the mid-60's, with the monster that had once symbolized the atomic bomb now reduced to the role of anthropomorphic superhero. He was more comfortable with Godzilla's Revenge because the monsters in the film existed only in the imagination of a little boy who did like the new-style movies. It was Ichiro's story, not Godzilla's. When the movie made even less money than Son of Godzilla, Honda began disengaging himself from his studio commitments for a seond time: after 1970's Yog, Monster from Space, he abandoned monster movies for another five years, and went back to directing for television (a medium he also found frustrating, but which at least allowed him to tell human stories again).
Honda and Toho had tried to do something new and different with the kaijû eiga, and their experiment had failed. The 70's would belong to the TV superhero genre to which Tsuburaya contributed so significantly. But Tsuburaya himself would not live to see that happen. He died in January 1970, at the age of 68. Within two months of his death, Toho had disbanded its special effects unit as part of its catastrophic restructuring efforts. 1970 marked the first time in eight years when no new Godzilla movie opened.
In the meantime, Honda's close friend and colleague Kurosawa Akira was also trying to find a way forward in difficult times. He had teamed up with three other prominent directors to form a private production company, and had directed the first in what he hoped would be a long series of movies under the "Four Knights Company" brand. This movie, Dodes'ka-den (1970), took place in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Japan, and wove together the stories of its extremely varied inhabitants.
Dodes'ka-den was Kurosawa's first film in color. It combined humor and tragedy, fantasy and reality, beauty and squalor in a way that nobody expected. Certain storylines had a great deal more impact than others, most notably the sequences involving a homeless man's attempt to create a better world for his young son using only their imaginations... But the father's complete inability to deal with the real world outside his imagination leads to loss and despair. The film is an exploration of the many, often absurd-seeming ways people find to carry on in the face of adversity, even if that adversity is self-inflicted.
If ever there was a theme that should have resonated in the cinematic climate of 1970 Japan, it was this. But it did not. Dodes'ka-den was a complete flop, both critically and commercially.
Like Honda with Godzilla's Revenge, Kurosawa had taken a gamble on doing something new and different. He'd made an intensely personal film with a bittersweet message, and nobody had understood it. The failure of Dodes'ka-den brought an end to Kurosawa's new production company, and almost brought an end to Kurosawa: the director attempted suicide shortly thereafter.
So. This was the state of Japanese cinema in general, and Godzilla movies in particular, at the beginning of the 1970's. Audiences were staying home and watching television. The old-style studios, with their contract employees and exclusive theater chains, were faltering and collapsing under their own accumulated weight, and the infrastructure did not yet exist to support a vibrant independent film community. Everybody in the film industry, from Gamera to Kurosawa, was stuck between old methods that no longer worked, and attempts at innovation that audiences weren't quite ready for. Later on, an energy crisis in 1973 just made everything worse.
And in the face of all this, Tanaka Tomoyuki decided that the Godzilla series needed to continue.
II. It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the TimeDuring the hiatus in 1970, Tanaka started laying the groundwork for a brand-new Godzilla movie. To make it, Tanaka chose a capable and experienced technican named Banno Yoshimitsu. Banno had served as Assistant Director to the notoriously demanding Kurosawa in the 1950's; he had also served as AD on one occasion to Fukuda Jun, director of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and Son of Godzilla. Banno had just completed his first film as director: a documentary celebrating the natural beauty of Japan called The Birth of the Japanese Islands, which was shown at Expo '70 in Osaka. Tanaka's choice for director of special effects was Nakano Teruyoshi, who had worked with Tsuburaya since 1959, and had been involved with Godzilla since King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962. On paper, the project was in good hands. At least, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
In fact, both Banno and Nakano realized that something drastic needed to be done about the direction of the Godzilla series. They couldn't just repeat the stale formula that audiences had clearly tired of. Instead of making a "Godzilla movie", they would make a real movie: something genuinely cinematic, with the sort of serious artistic intent that hadn't really been seen since in the genre the original Godzilla in 1954. To achieve that, they needed to think carefully about how to make the character of Godzilla relevant to contemporary Japanese culture.
Godzilla had started as a potent symbol of the devastation caused by the atomic bomb. In the intervening years, the Japanese attitude toward nuclear technology had changed a great deal. Nuclear weapons were still a matter of grave concern to the Japanese; but by the 70's, the Cold War had made them everybody's nightmare, even if they still had special significance to the only country ever to have been bombed by them. Outside of warfare, though, nuclear technology was losing its stigma. The Japanese nuclear power program had started in earnest in the very same year that Godzilla was born: 1954. Japan's first nuclear power plant went online in 1966 (the year of the first Fukuda Godzilla film), and the first Japanese light-water reactors were commissioned in the early 1970's. One such plant, the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, would be commissioned in 1971, only four months before Banno's film premiered (it seemed like a good idea at the time). The Japanese government made a concerted push to portray nuclear power as a source of clean energy, at a time when traditional industry was destroying the Japanese environment. If Godzilla represented the power of the atom, it was no wonder he'd started to transform into a hero, and a benefactor to Japan.
Ah — but then, on the other hand, there was all that environmental damage to which nuclear energy seemed to be the alternative. While Banno was making The Birth of the Japanese Islands, the director had to confront the fact that the "natural beauty of Japan" was being destroyed by rampant industrialization. The cherry blossoms were withering in acid smog; the Hokusai-type seascapes now smelled like sulfur and dead fish. In the cities, people dealt with the choking fumes by wearing masks when they stepped outdoors. Here, then, was the real menace to Japan in the 70's: pollution. Why not make a movie that made reference to the original Godzilla, only this time with pollution replacing radiation as the symbolic threat? Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster!
Banno and Nakano agreed on the overall approach, but when it come to the specifics of interpreting Kimura Takeshi's script they had very different ideas. Banno wanted to make a more child-friendly movie, to fit in with the trend that monster movies had been taking, while Nakano thought it was appropriate to make the movie darker and more serious. Both arguments had their strong points. On the one hand, it seemed as though monster movies aimed at young boys were the only ones that stayed commercially viable in the current economy, and as much as Banno wanted to make a good and innovative film, he can't have wanted a flop. On the other hand, the gravity of the subject matter could stand for an approach every bit as serious as the original Godzilla. In the end, Banno and Nakano compromised — Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster would alternate being a dark, violent cautionary tale and a kiddie film in the Daiei mold. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
It's difficult to say exactly how far Banno and Nakano would have got with their plans to totally reinvent the Godzilla film, if producer Tanaka had not been hospitalized just as the movie went into production.
At that point, Tanaka had little reason to be worried about anything other than his health. Still, just to be sure, he contacted the retired Honda Ishirô and asked him to step in and view the workprint. In the meantime, Banno had used the lack of adult supervision to make the weirdest, wildest, most bizarre kaijû film ever made — in a genre that includes The X from Outer Space. What Honda really thought, as he sat down and watched what Banno had done with the franchise he started, he doesn't seem to have told anyone. Honda was a kind-hearted, modest man, and it was not in character for him to issue sharp criticisms. As his long-term creative partnership with Kurosawa indicates, he was also far more than a commercial hack: he may have understood exactly what Banno wanted to do, and may even have approved of it. Or he might have been horrified — a more likely reaction, considering Honda's deep dissatisfaction with the idea of making Godzilla into a cartoon hero. In any case, he got back in touch with Tanaka — still in the hospital — and told him mildly that there were perhaps one of two sequences that ought to be re-shot. Banno disagreed. Tanaka does not seem to have pressed the issue, and it seems as though those "one or two scenes" were never replaced.
In the meantime, Daiei Studios had squandered the lead they'd got after the success of Gamera vs. Viras in 1968. Immediately after that movie, the studio had approached the Gamera series's director Yuasa Noriaki about making not one, but two Gamera movies each year — it seemed like a good idea at the time. Yuasa quickly shut that suggestion down. But Daiei was still determined to milk their turtle, seeing the Gamera movies as their main chance at profitability. Unfortunately, the studio lacked the courage to back the series adequately, and Daiei began demanding Yuasa do more with less in each successive film. In 1971, as Toho was preparing Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, Daiei released the legendarily awful Gamera vs. Zigra1
1. Evidently they'd heard all about Toho's upcoming production, since they shoehorned an ecological message into Zigra. Not only did Gamera vs. Zigra fail domestically, it was the only one of the original Gamera series that was never picked up for American television. It stank. Yet here's the amazing thing: Gamera vs. Zigra, which looks like (and is) a cheap piece of crap, was given a budget half-again the size of the budgets for the two movies that had preceded it. By the time Daiei thought to throw money at the problem, it was too late. When Gamera vs. Zigra sank, Daiei Studios went down with it.
Daiei's earlier success had been a big part of the reason Tanaka had decided to follow up Destroy All Monsters with Godzilla's Revenge. The relative failure of Godzilla's Revenge had no doubt shaken Tanaka's confidence in his decision to continue the Godzilla series, and Daiei's imminent bankruptcy must have shaken him still further. For Tanaka, a lot was riding on the success of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. So imagine his feelings when he got out of the hospital, sat down in the screening room, and found that Banno had made a movie every bit as problematic as Dodes'ka-den.
III. Gojira tai HedoraTo provide a synopsis for Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster is a thankless task, because a routine summary of the plot tells you practically nothing about the movie. Nevertheless, here we go...
Dr. Yano is a biologist living in Shizuoka Province (just south of Tokyo) with his wife and his son Ken. Yano is evidently a respected scientist, even though he works out of his home, and his laboratory is separated from his dining room and bedroom only by a bookshelf with an aquarium. As for Ken, you'll have guessed by his name alone that he is a little boy in tight shorts (Kawase Hiroyuki, who had played the doomed little boy in — wait for it — Dodes'ka-den2
2. Kawase also went on to play the little boy in Godzilla vs. Megalon in 1973. Through no real fault of his own, he seems to have become the Poster Child for the decline of Japanese Cinema in the 70's.). Dr. Yano's younger brother Yukio and his girlfriend Miki, a nightclub singer, are also frequent guests in the Yano household.
As the film begins, an old fisherman brings Yano a sort of tadpole he's caught in the dangerously polluted Suruga Bay. It's the only thing he's caught: the once-plentiful supply of local fish and crustaceans has completely disappeared. Yano casts a worried eye at the samples in jars in his lab: dozens of fish, scarred and deformed by chemical pollutants. But the tadpole is different, and genuinely strange. It doesn't resemble any of the local salt-water fish... and when it dries out, it breaks, as though it were a mineral.
In the meantime, reports have come in about a giant creature that has appeared in Suruga Bay. At the scene of a tanker accident, it had suddenly emerged from the water and destroyed two ships. Ken instantly recognizes the pictures on TV as showing a larger version of the tadpole.
Nothing else will do but for the intrepid Dr. Yano to dive into Suruga Bay and check the conditions for himself. Leaving Ken to watch on the shoreline, Yano SCUBAs his way out into the foul waters, where he finds everything from old toy cars to dead swans littering the bay floor. Underwater sequences usually spell tedium in monster movies, but this sequence is well shot and extremely unsettling.
Back on the shore, Ken is using a knife to hunt for mussels along the shore. Unfortunately, all the mussel shells are empty, the molluscs having died in the foul water. Empty crab shells wash up into the lifeless tidal pools. Ken looks up to catch sight of something awful heading towards him from the sea: it's a tadpole, just like the one in his father's lab... but grown to an enormous size. The tadpole speeds toward shore, and then leaps out of the water, over Ken's head. Ken instinctively thrusts out his knife to protect himself, and the knife slices through the tadpole's skin as is passes overhead. But it's as though the knife is simply passing through mud — the only effect it has is to splash Ken's arm with some of the mud, leaving a serious burn. The tadpole evidently finds Ken uninteresting: having leapt over him, it simply turns back and heads out to sea 3
The geometry of this scene is not clear. If the tadpole jumped straight over Ken, it would have ended up on land, as far as we can tell; for the monster to have ended up back in the water, swimming back out into Suruga Bay, it would have had to execute a flip in mid-air..
Surprisingly, though, Dr. Yano does survive. We don't find out how he's managed to get back to shore: we just see him recovering at home, with Ken by his side, as a reporter and a TV camera crew interview him about his experience. The right side of Yano's face has been disfigured by contact with the tadpole, and he seems to have lost his right eye. Nevertheless, he appears in front of the cameras with his bandages off: he wants the people watching to understand how serious the problem they're facing really is. Ken has come up with a name for the monster: Hedorah, from the Japanese word hedoro, or "sludge". Yano cautions the reporters that they still don't know enough about the tadpole creatures to be certain of anything. Meanwhile, the attacks on tankers in Suruga Bay continue.
That night, Ken has a prophetic dream that Godzilla is going to come save them from Hedorah. When he runs to tell his parents, he finds his father performing an experiment with the dried remains of the tadpole the old fisherman had brought him. Yano discovers that when bits of the broken tadpole are mixed with the foul water from Suruga Bay, they come back to life as miniature tadpoles, and merge to form a larger one when they meet. This explains the differences in size between the monsters that have been sighted so far.
We're about a quarter of the way through the movie by now, and this is pretty much the end of the meaningful human interaction. Everything that follows is mostly just setup for the three big monster battles that take up most of the movie's remaining running time. Sure, Dr. Yano will work feverishly with a drastically-reduced Japanese Defense Force to come up with a way to defeat Hedorah; sure, Ken will find himself in all sorts of danger; sure, there's a memorable sequence in which a drunken Yukio hallucinates that everybody dancing at Miki's go-go bar has turned into fish... but from this point on, more than any other previous Godzilla film, the movie's title is its plot.
The first monster battle is excellent. Hedorah, having unexpectedly evolved into a sort of quadrupedal amphibian form, crawls ashore in the dead of night to feast on the fumes from a factory smokestack. As it sits on top of the chimneys, toking away and purring in contentment, the thick black smog fills its body... and it begins to inflate. Just as it seems to be falling asleep, it is awakened by the sound of Godzilla's roar. The first we see of Godzilla is the glow of his fiery breath in the darkness, before he steps forward to challenge Hedorah. But neither monster has any idea what to do with the other. Godzilla soon finds that his fists and claws simply pass through Hedorah without hurting it. When he picks the Smog Monster up and tries to hurl it around in the classic kaijû manner, bits of it come flying off... the fragments kill or injure bystanders, leaving them buried in toxic debris, while the living portions crawl off to rejoin Hedorah's body. The Smog Monster tries spitting acidic glop at Godzilla, but it proves to be no match for Godzilla's breath-ray. Godzilla issues Hedorah a sumo-style challenge to fight, but Hedorah slips past him and escapes into the water. The whole sequence is atmospherically shot, and some of the scenes of Hedorah's sludge claiming its victims are downright disturbing.
The second, much briefer monster battle take place after Hedorah has mutated into yet another form — a sort of gigantic flying Poop Emoji that propels itself through the air on jets of sulfuric acid. The attack comes while Yukio and Miki have taken Ken out for a relaxing day at an amusement park. At the top of a roller coaster, Ken thinks he catches a glimpse of Godzilla on the horizon. As soon as the ride is over, Ken runs away from his uncle and Miki and goes to find a public phone, so he can tell his father Hedorah must be nearby. Just as he does so, there is a tremendous explosion from the nearby gas plant. Hedorah's flying form soon emerges in the sky over the school where Mrs. Yano is teaching Phys. Ed. to a group of girls. The poisonous fumes from Hedorah's passing makes them all collapse to the ground, coughing and choking. They're lucky: anyone and anything directly under Hedorah's path actually dissolves. As Ken attempts to run home through the growing chaos, he stumbles across the skeletal remains of dozens of people who were caught in the sulfuric acid mist.
Yukio plans to protest the awful conditions that made Hedorah possible by staging an enormous Woodstock-style protest on the slopes of Mount Fuji. However, the "All-Japan Youth Foundation Million People's Go-Go" manages to attract only about a hundred people, including the band. Oh, well, reasons Yukio: let's make the best of what we've got! While the local farmers look on in bewilderment, the tiny crowd lights a bonfire and torches and proceeds to rock out. What they don't realize is that their protest has put them square in the path of Godzilla and Hedorah, heading for their last and biggest confrontation... and their fires have made them a target. Ken, with what appears to be his psychic link to the monster, is the first to realize that Godzilla is on his way4
4. Has anybody ever noticed that there is a character with a psychic link to Godzilla, and a girl named Miki, in a Godzilla movie made 18 years before the Heisei series took off?, but by that time it's already too late to get out of the way. Yukio and some of his friends pick up torches and try to scare the now-60 meter-tall Hedorah away, but end up getting dissolved in acidic mud for their efforts.
While Dr. Yano struggles to help the JDF with his latest anti-Hedorah plan, Godzilla faces his toughest battle yet. By this time, Hedorah has evolved into a form that's more than a match for the King of the Monsters: he's become a huge biped with a laser death-ray in his forehead. His corrosive spew temporarily blinds Godzilla in one of his eyes, and his ability to change back and forth from each of his previous forms makes Godzilla struggle to keep up. At one point, Hedorah traps Godzilla in a pit, and then — there's really no other way to describe it — takes an enormous filthy dump on him. If Godzilla is going to defeat the Smog Monster, it's going to have to be a tag-team effort with human beings... and even then, it's going to be a terrible fight.
IV. WTF Did I Just Watch?Related as a simple synopsis, this sounds very much like a typical Godzilla movie. It isn't. It's not just the on-screen deaths and the killing of a central character that make Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster so unusual. Nor is it the number of different forms Godzilla's opponent takes. Nor is it the paucity of available JDF forces in the face of this terrible threat that makes the film unique. Rather, it's the fact that so many avant-garde, non-narrative techniques are used to bring the movie to life.
The essentials of the plot are set up within the first 15 minutes, and having got the exposition out of the way as quickly as possible, Banno gets creative. There are cartoon sequences! Dream sequences! Accelerating split-screen sequences! Hallucinations! Montages! Consider the sequence wherein Yukio sadly plays his guitar, as he contemplates the failure of the Million-Person Go-Go: as he plays, the color suddenly leaches out of the picture. The camera pans across the largely-empty field, and we see it in dreary black-and-white. Then Yukio makes his decision to forge ahead anyway. He plays a sudden, forceful chord on his guitar to get everyone's attention — and all at once, the color returns. Or consider one of the many cartoon interpolations: two women are seen wearing gas masks. They are overcome by toxic fumes, and all that remains of them are the outlines of their faces, discolored by the acid smog; the two faces superimpose across each other, and suddenly turn into outlines on the real-life map of the Tadehara crisis zone.
But is it possible to make a convincing giant monster movie using art-film techniques? More importantly, is it advisable? It's not that I'm suggesting it's inappropriate to bring a hint of experimentation into what's meant to be children's entertainment: I know from my experience having worked with children in my younger days that they're an ideal audience for the avant-garde. Their minds and opinions are not yet calcified. But the fact remains that a monster movie operates by very simple rules, and if you complicate those rules by bringing in too much extraneous technique, you end up dragging the movie down. And that's certainly what happens in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster.
Part of the problem lay in the compromise that Banno and Nakano had made on the tone of the movie. Nakano had wanted a more serious approach, and Banno had wanted to lighten things up a bit for the younger audience. But in the event, it was left to Banno to film the grimly serious scenes, and Nakano to handle the comic relief. After all, it was inappropriate for the live-action scenes to alternate between comedy and graphic depictions of suffering and death, such as had never been seen before in a Godzilla film. As for the monsters, there wasn't much that was funny about Hedorah. That meant that the lighter bits would have to be given to Godzilla. Thus we have Godzilla trying to imitate Ultraman in one battle (and failing), or pawing at his face in imitation of a popular Japanese comedian... and, of course, the infamous scene in which the King of the Monsters tucks his tail between his legs and goes flying after Hedorah by propelling himself with his fire-breath. So both Banno and Nakano had to work against their own instincts, and the character that suffered most as a result was the central point of the franchise.
But then we add the extended techniques, and we soon find they don't really mesh with the texture of the rest of the movie. Yes, they're inventive; yes, they're reasonably well-done, and certainly memorable. But they add nothing to the flow of the movie. Adult viewers are likely to stop short in their enjoyment of the story, and ask themselves instead why on earth Banno and Nakano chose to do things that way.
Still, enough has been written about the unsuccessful points of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. To me, what makes the film so interesting is the very fact that is does try to cram so many new or innovative ideas into its 90-minute running time. Not all of these work, but few of them fail completely. In ambition alone, it stakes out a clear difference from any other monster movie, particularly because that ambition isn't confined to mere spectacle.
One of the best, and certainly subtlest, of its ambitions is its constant attempt to remind us of Honda's original film. Banno's film begins with the kind of underwater monster confrontation that the original Godzilla ends with. As in the original, we have a one-eyed scientist struggling to find a way to defeat a terrible monster. As in the original, mysterious ship-sinkings lead to the unexpected emergence of the creature on land. As in the original, and unusually for subsequent monster movies, most of the big attack sequences happen at night. As in the original, we're shown people being killed — including one of the main characters. There's even a disturbing aquarium scene.
It has to be admitted, though, that Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster doesn't come anywhere near turning Hedorah into an old-school Godzilla for a new era. 1954's Godzilla was more than simply a metaphor for the atomic bomb, or even for the continuing hazard of radiation from US testing in the Pacific. His appearance also represented one of the first times since the end of the war (and the American Occupation) that the issue of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were allowed to be raised in popular entertainment. So Godzilla provided a long-delayed catharsis, and signaled to contemporary audiences an end to a period of censorship. What's more, in Godzilla, for the first time since the war, audiences in a de-militarized Japan could see Japanese soldiers fighting furiously for their country in a new struggle — even though they seemed to be losing, again. So Godzilla suggested many, many things... but he also could suggest none of them, as proven by the monster's enduring popularity with generations that had never known the Second World War, or the Occupation. On the other hand, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster has an absurdly simple message: pollution is bad. But then, it takes the message absolutely nowhere. Hedorah itself is supposed to have come from outer space, which seems to go a long way toward absolving mankind of responsibility for its existence. As for our new, heroic Godzilla... his way of dealing with pollution is to incinerate it with his radioactive fire-breath. Hardly the most ecologically sound method, you'd think.
But once again I'm veering off into the negative side. I'd been trying to talk about the things the movie does right. So: in addition to cleverly reminding us of the original Godzilla, another thing Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster does well is deliver on its title. The monsters in this movie have more screen time than the monsters usually do in most of their movies of the 60's. Banno knew that his core audience would be children, and children came to see giant monsters fighting, not humans talking to each other (a lesson I wish the makers of today's monster movies would take to heart). So he gets the people-stuff out of the way quickly and efficiently, and hands things over to Nakano to work his magic.
But again, this is only a qualified positive. The initial fight between Godzilla and Hedorah is very good: its night-time setting is moody and atmospheric, and it features gloriously unsettling moments like the scattered bits of Hedorah crawling back after drowning bystanders in filth. The two monsters have obvious difficulties sizing each other up, and though Godzilla temporarily gains the upper hand, the final outcome is pretty much a draw. Unfortuately, the later battles don't improve on this promising opening, with the big final battle being the worst. Godzilla and Hedorah spend way too much time simply staring at each other. When the fight does get going, as it does intermittently, it's frequently tough to follow. Again, Banno and Nakano seemed more interested in demonstrating their technical skill and their cinematic bona fides than making a straightforward monster movie, so we end up with some very odd framing and some peculiar cutaways that stop the momentum of the battle just as dead as the frequent kaijû staring contests. Worst of all, the fight goes on far too long. Consider: the climactic battle at the end of Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is only about ten minutes long. But the final battle in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster takes about half an hour. Lots of people complain about the scene in which Godzilla flies using his atomic breath; Banno and Nakano had their doubts as well, so they filmed an alternative version in which Godzilla simply ran after Hedorah, before deciding to trust their instincts and include the flying scene. But the real problem with this scene isn't how Godzilla pursues the Smog Monster: it's why. At that point, there was no real reason to extend the battle, then have Godzilla drag his opponent all the way back to where they'd started in order to finish the fight.
There's another respect in which Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster tries very hard to establish itself as a Godzilla movie for a new era: its music.
The first nine Godzilla movies had been scored by either Ifukube Akira or Sato Masaru. Ifukube had created a particular, inimitable sound-world for the Toho monster movie universe — one that was so effective in conveying the power and wonder of the dai kaijû that it is still being re-used in monster movies today, years after Ifukube's death. Sato contributed a much more restrained score for the second Godzilla movie, Godzilla Raids Again, but his work in the mid-60's was brash and colorful, and much lighter than Ifukube's. The music for Godzilla's Revenge was composed by Miyauchi Kunio, who had provided the music for the TV shows "Ultra Q" and "Ultraman". Miyauchi's score was much more like the soundtrack of a non-Toho monster film, like The X from Outer Space, Monster from a Prehistoric Planet, or any of the later Gamera films: he contributed a goofy pop-song that played over the opening credits, and then supplied mostly cartoonish, unsubtle cues for the remainder of the film.
For Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, Banno worked with composer Manabe Riichirô, who was probably best known for his jazzy soundtracks for Oshima's films. Superficially, Manabe's score seems to be more in the mold of Miyauchi's, with a pop song over the opening credits and monster music dominated by brassy chords. In fact, there is much more going on in Manabe's score than is initially apparent. To begin with, Manabe doesn't use a full orchestra: Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster is scored only for wind instruments (woodwinds and brass), percussion, and rock band. This gives his music a much different sound than any other kaijû movie soundtrack. Next, the music alternates between a dizzying number of styles. Love it or hate it, the opening pop song — "Kaese!" (a.k.a. "Save the Earth!") — stands on its own much better than the title songs of most other monster movies, Gamera flicks included, and is likely to stay in your head for the rest of your life. Most of the plot exposition is accompanied by avant-garde free jazz. Hedorah is symbolized by a freely-atonal, disjointed "sci-fi"-sounding melody for high winds and xylophone, accompanied by smeary cluster-chords on an electronic organ. And probably most significantly, Manabe has tried to come up with a totally new musical identity for the King of Monsters himself.
It's either foolish or brave — or maybe both — to try to find a new theme for Godzilla, to replace even momentarily the music provided for the monster by Ifukube. What Manabe came up with is often derided, like practically everything else about Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster... but it deserves more respectful scrutiny. After all, Godzilla's character was being changed definitively, so it only made sense his theme music should change, too. The new Godzilla theme is a brass fanfare with electric bass, and it goes like this:
It's loud, it's messy, it's relatively simple, and it treads a fine line between dignity and self-parody. In other words, it's totally appropriate for the Godzilla of the 70's. The blaring trombone slides and the trilling trumpets are very possibly meant to suggest Godzilla's roar; Koroku Reijiro's main title music for Godzilla 1985 does the same thing in a more dignified way (though after a strong start, Koroku's music ends up going nowhere). But notice: in the third bar, the low brasses enter on what seems to be the wrong beat. The tuba, which should be establishing a solid bass note to anchor the chord, instead comes in on a surprisingly dissonant C-flat (which is the same note as B-natural) in a B-flat major chord. This isn't just a wrong note — an inadvertent B-natural due to a copyist's error, or something like that. The same chord recurs several times in the course of the soundtrack. In Manabe's soundtrack for Godzilla vs. Megalon — scored this time for full orchestra — we hear it again, exactly the same. This is an intentional "wrong note", which looks forward to the fact that the fanfare actually ends in the distant key of B major; combined with its literally "off-beat" entrance, it emphasizes the awkwardness of Godzilla fitting into his new role as a superhero.
Is it enough, though, to be innovative? To simply stand out from your predecessors? Do good intentions carry you through in cinema, even when your end result is unbalanced? Does having a message make a difference in filmed entertainment, if your message doesn't really go anywhere? Does extra monster action make up for the relative lack of human interest in the story, considering the monster action itself has a tendency to stall?
I don't know. And, to be honest, those aren't the kinds of questions I really intended to raise. For me, the question is: "WTF did I just watch?" And the answer is: a movie that seems very much of its time, and for its time; a movie that looks both forward and backward, but remains unique. The form it ended up taking was not only reflective of the condition the Godzilla series found itself in: it was necessitated by the state of Japanese cinema as a whole. Whether you actually like the movie or not, it stands alone as a noteworthy cultural artifact.
V. EpilogueGodzilla vs. the Smog Monster was the very first Godzilla movie I ever saw from beginning to end. I don't remember exactly when that was, but it had to have been just after AIP released the American dubbed version to television, some time in late 1972 or '73, when I had just turned 6.
Before that, I'd had brief glimpses of other Godzilla movies when I'd idly flipped the channels on a Saturday morning: for instance, I can remember tuning in just in time to see the aquarium scene from the original Godzilla, in which Dr. Serizawa demonstrates the Oxygen Destroyer by reducing his fish to bobbing skeletons. That scene traumatized me badly. I had to flip the channel and watch something else. Of course, later on I encountered the climactic scene of Godzilla, and that scarred me pretty badly, too. Death was a new concept for me at five, and there was something about seeing living things reduced to skeletons that made the idea of death uncomfortably clear. It reminded me of an experience I'd had only a short time before: behind the house where I grew up was a strip of woodland — the side of a hill, from which our yards in that part of the neighborhood had been carved out. Our yard ended in a cinderblock wall, on top of which the hill continued up its normal curve. We children would climb the walls in our backyards up cinderblock buttresses; then we'd follow this strip of woods to the end of our street, where there was a public park. One day I was walking alone in that wood, when I found a turtle beside a tree. Its head and arms were retracted entirely into its shell. I loved turtles at that age, so I reached down carefully and picked it up. I brought the shell up even with my eyes and peered inside, to get a glimpse of the turtle within. It was dead. It had been dead for some time, and as I watched, an ant crawled out of its empty eye-socket. I was paralyzed with horror. It seemed to me to be a very long time before I was able to drop the shell and run home. Nothing I had ever seen before — not even the funeral of my 90-something year-old aunt — had explained death to me as simply and as brutally as that moment had.
As an experienced and world-weary six-year-old, however, I could take the excesses of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster in stride. This was partly because the tone of the movie is relatively light, even though it is the most explicitly horrific of all the Godzilla movies. Yes, people actually melt in the movie; but most of the plot plays out through the eyes of a main character who was only as old at the time of the filming as I was when I saw it, and that helped cushion the shock.
I had very little idea at that point what a "Godzilla movie" even was, but Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster made me want to find out. And I certainly did. Here I am writing this nearly a half-century later, and I can certainly see that the movie has some serious problems, even by "Godzilla movie" standards. But that doesn't keep me from acknowledging that in spite of its problems, it's far from a total failure. I still think it is the best of the 1970's Godzilla films, and at the moment, depending on my mood, it is either my fourth- or fifth-favorite Godzilla movie of all time.
Part of my enduring fondness for the movie comes from the fact that it was the first Godzilla movie I ever saw; I realize that. But I have tried very hard not to let mere nostalgia condition my response. I've mentioned that kids are generally a good audience for the adventurous and avant-garde in art — they're also generally very good at sensing what's genuine and what's not. And in my experience, kids tend to enjoy Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. In later years, Nakano tended to apologize for having made the film, particularly for having possibly frightened or offended children, but I don't think he had anything to apologize for.
In 1999, after years of trying to support myself as a starving artist, I got a job in the Real World... a genuine salaried cubicle job. I had no idea if I could handle it. On my first day of work, I was taken to meet my division supervisor, who was a no-nonsense retired Air Force colonel. As I went in to meet him, fighting very hard to contain my rising sense of panic, I caught sight of something he had pinned to the wall of his office: it was a wildly colorful magic-marker drawing that had been done by his grandson. It was labeled: Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. Suddenly I felt much, much better. Here, in this potentially hostile enviroment, was something I could identify with. And somewhere out there, a little kid was having the same glorious formative experience that I'd had.
Off the Ground: under the circumstances,
possibly not the best choice of words.
If there's a lesson to the story of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, it's the lesson of Kurosawa's Dodes'ka-den: we persist in our delusions, because they give us the strength to go on. Kurosawa persisted: after recovering from his attempt at suicide, he went on to make some of his finest films. Tanaka persisted: he may have hated Banno's movie, but the box office results spoke for themselves; and because of his ongoing efforts, Godzilla films are stilll being made today. Banno and Honda persisted — though I'll bet if you'd asked either director in 1971 if they thought they'd have more to contribute to the Godzilla series, they'd have considered it unlikely. Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster persists, in spite of its detractors, and in spite of being called one of the worst movies of all time. And I persist in thinking Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, for all its problems, is one of the most entertaining and enjoyable entries in the series.