To the uninitiated and the non-obsessive, Godzilla films represent the cheapest of the cheap, the lowest of the lowbrow—stupid kiddie matinée fare consisting of little more than two guys in ridiculous, cumbersome rubber suits wrestling for 90 minutes.
Well, as much as I’d like to say it is, that perception isn’t completely unjustified. By the early 1970s, most of the men responsible for making the Godzilla films of the ‘50s and ‘60s the classic, thoughtful, even at times majestic metaphors they were had left the series. Toho Studios started cutting the budgets. Monster suits that used to be made new for each picture were now being recycled from film to film and started to look pretty ratty. Instead of shooting new special effects scenes, stand-in directors with little money often simply edited in clips from earlier, better films. The sets (especially the miniature cities) became cheaper and far less detailed. Production schedules shrank. And producer Tomoyuki Tanaka asked that the films in the Godzilla series be aimed squarely at a very young audience.
It was the films made during that shabby period that, more often than not, became the movies aired on Saturday creature features, making them the ones most often seen by casual U.S. viewers. Most damning of all, Godzilla vs. Megalon, generally considered the very worst Godzilla film ever made, has been seen by more people than any other thanks to a prime-time airing in 1977 hosted by John Belushi, who provided a snickering pre-MST3K commentary.
But at the very cusp between the classic Godzilla films and the steep decline there rests Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (aka Gojira tai Hedorah). Depending on your perception, the 1971 picture was either the insulting death-knell of the series as a whole and one of the worst movies ever made, or the film that breathed a final, fleeting bit of strange and psychedelic life into a (at that time) 17-year-old franchise. The Yoshimitsu Banno-directed film was dark. It was at times nasty. It did a few things that hadn’t been seen since the 1954 original, but was still extremely contemporary. It was a picture with an inescapable environmentalist message that at the same time called out the hippies as a bunch of useless hypocrites. It’s the only film of the series in which Godzilla can fly. And it contained the only hallucination sequence ever seen in a Godzilla movie.
You know you’re in for a different kind of Godzilla picture when Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster opens with a psychedelic music video, as a nightclub singer performs the outrageously catchy “Save the Earth” over a montage of images of horrific pollution.
(Tanaka was so displeased with the American version of the song that only the original Japanese version is available on the U.S. home video release, unless you’re willing to shell out big bucks for an old VHS edition.)
It seems a giant mutated tadpole resembling a much smaller mutated version recently discovered by a Japanese biologist (Akira Yamauchi), is sinking oil tankers left and right. The local newscasters dub the creature “Hedorah,” and after some experimentation (and a disastrous underwater encounter with the monster), the biologist determines the creature is made of carbonized minerals and can only live in polluted water. His young son Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase), the small boy with short pants and a baseball cap who would become a fixture of the ‘70s Godzilla films, insists that Godzilla is the only thing that can stop Hedorah.
Although Godzilla started life as a symbol of the nuclear threat and the devastation Japan had experienced, by the mid-’60s he had an image makeover, becoming an unstoppable, atomic-powered defender of Japan. Now, five years later, he was as much a hero to children as Superman, and really cool Godzilla toys were readily available in stores. It’s a transition I never fully comprehended.
Anyway, during a psychedelic freakout at a local disco, the now-amphibious Hedorah shambles ashore and grows a pair of legs. And sure enough, Godzilla arrives to stop it. But since the creature spawned by pollution breathes a mist of sulfuric acid, dozens of hippies from the disco die during the film’s first monster battle. It was the first time since the original that any of Godzilla’s city-stomping shenanigans resulted in any (admitted) human fatalities.
It isn’t long before the bipedal Hedorah morphs once again, this time into a lumpy black flying disc with bulbous red eyes, and goes zipping around Japan spreading the acid mist. Thousands more die, and we get shots of skeletal hands, mewling kittens covered in sludge, and wailing infants sitting in piles of garbage. It’s surprisingly harsh material for a dumb kid’s movie.
Meanwhile a bunch of hippies decide to have a pro-environment concert at the top of Mt. Fuji, roaring up there on their motorcycles as Bano makes a point of showing them running over plants and animals and spewing exhaust along the way. But then Hedorah shows up and wipes them all out so there you go.
During the climactic fight, viewers then and now get a big kick out of the fact that Godzilla can use his radioactive breath as a form of propulsion, allowing him to fly (albeit only backwards), and it is a very funny and surprising image. But it’s the end that always gets me. After Hedorah has been destroyed (am I really giving anything away by saying that?), Godzilla plunges his arms into the gooey corpse, fishes around a bit, pulls out an egg, and smashes it. He does this several times until he’s certain there are no eggs left, making this, in a Godzilla film with so many other firsts to its credit, the first Godzilla film to feature an on-screen post-mortem abortion.
Producer Tanaka was, um, not very happy with the picture when he finally saw it. The word “disgrace” was used quite a bit. And that sequel Bano had in mind? Yeah, that wasn’t exactly gonna happen. Instead he put out the word that the series would focus on more basic, kid-friendly themes (i.e. fewer onscreen abortions). What followed for the next several years was a disastrous stretch that forever damaged the reputation of the series. Even when the series returned in 1984 with more energy and imagination, it was too late, the damage had been done and an unshakeable reputation had been established.
But love it or hate it (admittedly far more people hate it than love it), Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster was the last series entry for a good long time with effective special effects, solid camera work, a relevant metaphor, some real imagination, and a twisted sense of humor. And whether in Japanese or English, “Save the Earth” is a heck of a theme song. (That little kid in the shorts still bugs the hell out of me, though.)