A chanteuse in psychedelic body paint writhes to rock music. Colours splash across the screen. This unforgettable James Bond-style title sequence kicks off the wildest Godzilla movie ever made. “Give us back the greenery, give us back the blue sky, give it back, give it back!” sings the J-pop diva. At least, that’s what she sings in the original Japanese. The more commonly seen, American dubbed version reduces the lyrics to “Save the Earth! Save the Earth!” It’s one example of an oversimplification that left Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster much maligned and misunderstood. While not entirely successful, it is the closest the Godzilla series came to an art movie and remains fascinating. Especially if one knows a little about where director Yoshimitsu Banno was coming from. But first…
Japan faces a pollution crises. Sludge engulfs the shore. Mount Fuji is blocked by billowing smokestacks. Dedicated environmentalist Dr. Yano (Akira Yamauchi) examines a strange, tadpole-like mutant drawn from the ocean, while his son Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase) provides a shameless plug by playing with Godzilla toys. “You must really like Godzilla”, says Yano’s assistant Miki Fujiyama (Keiko Mari). “Superman beats them all”, grumbles Ken. Stupid kid. It seems aquatic mutants have spread across the sea, while fish and shrimp have disappeared, leaving local fishermen distraught. Dr. Yano investigates, but while scuba diving he’s attacked by a sludge creature that leaves his face hideously scarred. Luckily, Ken dispatches the monster with his trusty pocket knife. See, mum? Knives and kids do mix. Father and son discover these organisms are melding together into one, giant monster dubbed Hedorah. Sesame Street style, animated infomercials show how Japan’s environmental abuse have created a monster that lives off pollution. Rising from the mire, Hedorah swamps Tokyo with his diarrhoeic discharge, then latches onto smokestacks, toking on them like a giant bong. He also transforms into a flying saucer and blasts people into bleached skeletons with his sulphuric acid breath. Public debate goes nowhere and Hedorah gets bigger and bigger.
The pressure gets too much for Miki, a.k.a. the most useless hero in a Godzilla movie ever. He takes refuge at a groovy nightclub and watches sexy girlfriend Yukio (Toshio Shibaki - singing the title song) and her go-go girls jive around in miniskirts amidst a psychedelic lightshow. Okay, you can’t blame him, but seriously dude - get it together. Akira Takarada or Akira Kubo would’ve whipped up a supersonic wave oscillator or something by now! Stoned out of his gourd for the entire movie, Miki later hallucinates that the other teenagers are fish, organizes a massive anti-pollution rave party near Mt. Fuji (right where Hedorah is) and flings his cigarette lighter at the monster in a drug-addled attempt to kill it. See, kids? Just say no.
Since these clowns prove no use, it’s little wonder Godzilla steps up to save the day. Riichiro Manabe’s brass-heavy Godzilla theme (“wuuuahhh wuuuahhh WUUUAHHH!!”) leaves him looking like a drunk uncle at a wedding party, but Banno actually utilizes the heroic dinosaur quite well. Thrashing around in a sea of sludge, Godzilla battles Hedora with all his might, but the pollution-fuelled beastie is too strong. Finally, with Ken and Dr. Yano’s aid, Godzilla zaps a 120-foot electrode with his fiery breath which frazzles Hedorah to a crisp. He rips a pair of monster eggs from Hedorah’s abdomen and blasts those too. Suddenly, Hedorah revives, transforms into saucer mode and jets away. In a last ditch effort, Godzilla tucks tail between his legs and breathes fire, propelling himself through the air. Godzilla flies?!
As a young, wide-eyed monster fan, the sight of Godzilla flying across the sky left this writer in seventh heaven. Others weren’t so keen, including series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka (who accused Banno of turning Toho’s star monster into a disgrace) and professional killjoys the Medved Brothers, who included Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster in their book The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time. Take my opinion with a pinch of salt if you must (their book includes two other movies I adore: Alakazam the Great (1960) and Pippi Longstocking (1969). Damn you, Medveds!), but the movie isn’t that bad. Its schizophrenic tone is born of a desire to please three, wildly divergent markets: the kiddie matinee crowd, ecologically conscious students and counterculture party hounds craving sex, drugs and rock & roll. Japanese cinema was facing such a financial crisis, Toho were willing to try anything to rake in the yen. However, Yoshimitsu Banno was entirely sincere. He later directed Cruel Famine Continent (1973), a documentary appealing for relief aid in Africa and wrote the script for Toho’s infamous apocalypse fantasy, The Last Days of Planet Earth (1974). Heavily influenced by writer/environmental activist Rachel Carson, he co-authored the screenplay with Takeshi Kimura (real name: Kaori Mabuchi, Toho’s resident controversy baiter and member of the leftist New Theatre Movement) including allusions to her philosophy. As director of both the dramatic and special effects sequences, Banno indulged his fervour for the (admittedly vile) mondo shock-documentaries of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, imbuing the aftermath of Hedorah’s attacks with oddly effective, unsettling imagery (corpses caked in sludge like birds caught in an oil spill).
The film is full of earnest symbolism that was either misunderstood or misappropriated in the English dub. For example, the split-screen sequence (Banno created split-screen images for the “Hall of the Future” exhibition at Expo 70) has people from various walks of life (housewives, policemen, teenagers, etc.) shout: “Do something!” over and over again in the dub. Whereas in the original Japanese, it involves people offering different perspectives on environmental issues until their individual voices drown amidst the cacophony. When Miki freaks out at the psychedelic nightclub, Banno is alluding to members of the Democratic Youth League and the Japan Communist Party. When right wing-sponsored yakuza gangs quashed their idealism, they withdrew into drugs and partying. The cartoon sequences are Banno’s tribute to avant-garde manga artist Yoshiharu Tsuge. Even Godzilla relives flashbacks of environmental disasters wrought by man. When Ken cries out to him at the film’s end, he shouts “Thanks a lot!” in the dub, but Banno’s intention was the boy should voice hope for a brighter future (In Godzilla we trust?) In truth, it’s a little over-earnest and while its pretty audacious to have a drug-addled Miki the ‘hero’ of a children’s film, you can’t take him seriously. Godzilla though, well that’s another matter.
Not everyone feels the same way about this film as the Medveds do. Venerable critic Roger Ebert lists this as a personal favourite while recently, Japanese film magazine Eiga Hi-Ho praised it as a classic. Their interview with Yoshimatsu Banno features in Patrick Macias’ excellent book Tokyoscope: the Japanese Cult Film Companion, wherein he revealed the nightclub décor was inspired by his art director’s visit to a gay bar in Chicago and that Hedorah’s design was meant to resemble female genitalia! Banno may yet have the last laugh over disgruntled producer Tanaka. It was recently announced he’ll direct the next Godzilla movie, a lavish production for IMAX screens, featuring special effects by Industrial Light & Magic. The film returns Godzilla to good guy status as he battles a new, pollution-spawned monster in the Amazon jungle. Remember kids, “there’s only one solution! Stop the pollution!”