Brothers and sisters, let’s rap about Godzilla’s strangest trip of all time, the crazy, freaked-out madness that is 1971’s Godzilla Vs Hedorah (also known as Godzilla vs the Smog Monster in the US).
Yet there’s something nervy and loose about Godzilla Vs Hedorah that the mostly formulaic 30-something other movies in the franchise lack. It’s a Godzilla movie, so there’s smashing and screeching. But it’s also without a doubt one of the strangest Godzilla movies ever made, a dogged attempt to be topical and hip as Godzilla fights the evils of … pollution.
The “smog monster” Hedorah is, to put it mildly, disgusting. He’s a shapeshifting blob of goop and tendrils whose most imposing form has a strong Cthulhu vibe, with one single sideways staring eye that never fails to creep me out. At one point Hedroah gets blissfully stoned sucking on factory smokestacks. He’s constantly leaking and spurting out his bodily fluids, raw toxins and disease. Unlike say, Rodan or Mothra, he isn’t cuddly at all. A scientist at one point says he comes from “a negative world of death.” He looms over the movie far more than Godzilla does.
A trippy movie that’s soaked in 1971 vibes, from the go-go hippie music sequences to the inexplicable brief animated cartoons that pop up between scenes, Hedorah is firmly planted in its time. It boasts many of the familiar Godzilla cliches – an evil monster to fight, buildings toppling, an incredibly annoying little kid who keeps screaming “Godzillaaaaa!” – but there’s something spartan and weird about Hedorah. Godzilla himself seems half drunk, introduced with a bizarre woozy horn fanfare in each scene. (One of the most infamous scenes in Hedorah has Godzilla flying, backwards, using his nuclear breath to propel him. It’s mental as anything, and yet it’s another one of the weird touches that give this flick the feeling of a strange fever dream.)
Unlike pretty much every other kaiju monster in the Godzilla series, Hedorah doesn’t flinch in showing the body count. At one point his toxic goo invades a boardroom of Japanese businessmen, who are then shown in a rapid cutaway all dead, soaking in ooze and oddly evocative of some of the horrors of Hiroshima. In several scenes, Hedorah swamps civilians and leaves them nothing but smoking bones. In most Godzilla movies, carnage is abstract, smashed buildings. Hedorah dissolves you.
Godzilla movies mostly stick to the basics, but some of the other films have tried to be topical – the 1954 original is all about nuclear fears, while 2016’s innovative Shin Godzilla, made in the shadows of the Fukushima disaster, is one of the boldest movies in the series since Hedorah. Hedorah is definitely preachy, but it’s hard to pretend its environmental message isn’t still in the right place nearly 50 years later.
Director Yoshimitsu Banno was trying to shake up the Godzilla franchise from its kiddy-movie reputation. He didn’t really succeed in the long run – he was actually fired from the franchise! – but yet his goopy masterpiece still stands out from a line of assembly-line kaiju clashes. Most Godzilla movies are just popcorn fun, which is totally cool, but Godzilla Vs. Hedorah is the only one of them that really leaves you feeling a little creeped out over the horrors we can’t always see.