Godzilla vs Hedorah is a special one. Over the long course of Godzilla’s career, there have been great movies, and terrible ones. Granted, many of the worst movies have their fans (sometimes including myself) but even they will admit that they are little more than guilty pleasures. Godzilla vs Hedorah, however, is different. Those who hate it regard it as one of the worst in the series while those who love it consider it one of the best. However, there’s one thing we can all agree on. Godzilla vs Hedorah is really really really strange.
What is Godzilla vs Hedorah?
When Godzilla vs Hedorah was released in 1971, the original Godzilla series has been going strong for quite some time already, pitting him against now iconic monsters almost yearly until 1968s famous Destroy all Monsters, which was meant to be the finale. However, Destroy all Monsters also happened to destroy the box office, convincing Toho studios to keep the series going for awhile longer. The result was almost ten more years of Godzilla films. However, the series was gradually succumbing to its vast competition from the likes of Gamera in theaters and, its biggest competitor, Ultraman and the other daikaiju series on television. Why go and see big monsters on the big screen when you can see it free on the small screen?
Because of this, Toho was forced to gradually reduce the budgets while also trying to come up with more out of this world monster ideas to get the tickets to sell. That brings us to Yoshimitsu Banno’s Godzilla vs Hedorah which was, arguably, right at the beginning of this gradual decline. Banno was new to the daikaiju genre, but his previous work as assistant director in multiple Toho films as well as the moderate success of his first solo feature, The Birth of the Japanese Islands, made him a natural choice.
Banno was an environmentalist, so it makes sense that he would want Godzilla’s foe to be a pollution monster. When he asked the producers, they gave him the okay. However, when the film was finished, their reception was far less warm. Senior Toho producer, Tomoyuki Tanaka reportedly went so far as to tell Banno that he’d ruined Godzilla and that he’d never direct at Toho again…and he never did.
What is Godzilla vs Hedorah About?
From space, a microscopic life form finds its way to earth. Fortunately for the microbe, the earth is covered with pollution, which is it’s primary source of sustenance. Sensing the microbe’s arrival, Godzilla awakens from his slumber and makes his way back to Japan, destroying the polluted water as he goes. Meanwhile, Japan is being harassed by strange, tadpole like creatures from the sea of varying sizes, some large enough to destroy large ships. A village scientist and his young son manage to gather smaller versions of the organism and being performing experiments to learn what they are up against.
They find that the creatures feed on humanity’s inorganic waste and that, as a result, they release toxic sulfuric acid as a byproduct making them a threat to the entire world. Furthermore, the creatures can combine into a larger and larger creature which means that they could, potentially, combine into a monstrosity larger and more powerful than even Godzilla himself. As such, Godzilla may be humanities last hope against this new threat, called Hedorah AKA the Smog Monster.
What Happens in Godzilla vs Hedorah?
From the information above, Godzilla vs Hedorah might not seem terribly out of the ordinary for a Godzilla film. However, what makes it strange isn’t the story itself, but the overall imagery and tone of the film itself. To give you an idea, the opening credits feature a song number, Save the Earth in the English version, with the singer standing in front of a psychedelic screen with…pulsating goop? The film itself also has a wildly inconsistent tone, going from somewhat childelike and whimsicle to having some of the most gruesome death scenes in the whole Godzilla series.
Beyond that, there are just multiple WTF moments in the film. There are scenes where the whole screen is covered with, what look like, tv screens with people reacting to the previous events in the film in them. There are some animated sequences that just come out of nowhere. Godzilla flies through the air using his atomic breath to propel himself from the ground. However, in my opinion, strangest of all is that wierd as heck bar scene at about the halfway point. Just look at this…
Yeah, that’s what I mean when I say Godzilla vs Hedorah is weird. On the other hand, it does do a good job instilling a sense of dread and impending doom by the end. Thsi is something that many Godzilla movies try to do, but none do as well as Godzilla vs Hedorah does (at least, in my opinion). Hedorah is shown to be increasingly unstoppable, and his destruction (shown in part by those surprisingly gruesome kill shots) do a good job showing just how serious of a threat to humanity he really is.
Oddly enough, Godzilla vs Hedorah’s greatest strength really is its inconsistent tone and bizarre imagery. That, coupled with its semi-apocalyptic finale really makes it stand out from the myriad of other Japanese giant monster flicks and, even when it is bizarre, it’s bizarre in such a way that leaves the viewer feeling somewhat uneasy and on edge which really elevates the film’s climax.
Overall, this film’s tone is really going to make or break it for any Godzilla fan. I guess I feel the same way about this film as I do about Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards. It’s weird, oddly paced and visually inconsistent, but at least it’s consistently inconsistent.
What is Hedorah?
Godzilla vs. Hedorah’s primary antagonist is certainly strange in comparison to Godzilla’s previous foes (Godzilla vs Gigan wouldn’t happen for another year). He has multiple forms, ranging from looking like a strange tadpole to a toad, to a flying trilobite to, whatever his final form is supposed to be. Each form looks distinct from the others and has unique powers and abilities, making each pretty memorable. Furthermore, it seems that Mr. Banno went out of his way to make Hedorah (as the living representation of pollution) one of Godzilla’s mightiest foes ever which makes for some, admitedly, tense fighting between the titular monsters at the film’s end.
Now, it’s no secret that Godzilla has gone against multiple foes in the past, but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Hedorah. To me, he’s the only monster in the Godzilla series that really felt like it could destroy the whole world. His design is memorable and his abilities are frightening compared to Godzilla’s other enemies.
How are the Special Effects in Godzilla vs Hedorah?
Showa era Godzilla films are not exactly known for their special effects, but Godzilla vs Hedorah manages to stand near the top of them. As stated above, Hedorah looks consistently impressive, particularly when filmed at nighttime, as he often is. The miniature sets also look pretty good, particularly in comparison to the only briefly used sets in the following films.
If there is any weakness in Godzilla vs Hedorah’s effects, it would have to be Godzilla himself. He doesn’t look awful, but this is where budget cuts become more apparent as it is the same Godzilla suit as had been used in Destroy all Monsters and Godzilla’s Revenge, meaning that it has some wear and tear. Granted, it’s not as bad as it would be in the next film. Godzilla vs Gigan, but it certainly looks like it’s had better days.
When Godzilla takes flight is also a bit painful, beyond that description. To pull it off, a small Godzilla model hanging by a wire with steam coming out of its mouth was used and it looks…cheap. It really makes me wonder why this scene was even included as it also drags the finale on for too long anyway, but I digress.
I guess I’ll cover the animated sequences here as well. There are 3-4 over the course of the film and, though brief, they do seem to come a bit out of nowhere. Granted, they don’t hurt anything, since they are brief and the act more as transitions than anything, but they just seem odd (but, maybe in a good way?). The animation itself feels a bit rushed and crude, leaving me believing that there wasn’t much of a budget to work with here. As a whole, though, I find them inoffensive, albeit unnecessary. Still, it is interesting seeing the first (and so far only) 2D animation in a cinematic Godzilla film, which is worth noting.
How is the Soundtrack in Godzilla vs Hedorah?
Godzilla films generally have good soundtracks. Godzilla vs Hedorah’s soundtrack is, like the rest of the film, weird. I don’t even really know how to describe it. But, like the rest of the film, it’s oddly intriguing, and it does not only fit but elevate the imagery on screen, so it works. Riichiro Manabe had his work cut out for him with this film’s various tones and wild visuals, but he managed to pull it off impressively well.
There are also some full song numbers in the film, including the aforementioned intro theme Save the Earth. It’s very 70s to be sure, but it’s not unpleasant to the ears and, again, sets the tone for the movie you’re about to see.
Is Godzilla vs Hedorah a Good Movie?
If someone were to ask me whether or not Godzilla vs Hedorah were a good movie, I would say that, I really don’t know. It has it’s strengths, don’t get me wrong, and some impressive elements. However, the bizarre tone and imagery would just turn most people off I think.
Even so, it’s obvious that director Banno went into this with a specific message in mind, much like the original Gojira’s anti-atomic weapons message in 1954. Say what you will about environmentalist and anti-polution messages in films, but this one manages to be memorable because of its strangeness. Would I recommend this one to someone who’s never seen a Godzilla movie before? No. Would I recommend it to a Godzilla fan? Yes, it’s worth seeing at least once. As I said above, Godzilla vs Hedorah is really a love it or hate it kind of movie. For me, I think it really stands out in a positive way. It has a great antagonist, and a surprisingly dark tone for the series in spurts. Is it weird? But, again, in the same way as Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards. If you like that movie, you’ll probably be at least intrigued by this one.
Godzilla vs Hedorah may have its detractors, but it’s also got is defenders (myself included). Is it flawed? Sure. But no one can argue that there isn’t anything out there like it. Top it off with above average effects and all of the aforementioned positives and, in my book, that makes it special.