Tuesday, April 29, 2014

60 Years of Godzilla - Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster


A Godzilla movie for the hippie set.

The first Godzilla film to be made in the 1970s had almost entirely new blood behind the scenes.

Suitmation mastermind Eiji Tsuburaya, who had done the effects for the first several Godzilla movies before stepping back into a supervisory position as of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, had unfortunately passed away in 1970, so the monster he had created would continue on beyond its creator's lifetime. And although the Godzilla suit worn by the character's veteran performer Haruo Nakajima is the same one originally designed for 1968's Destroy All Monsters, that film's special effects director Sadamasa Arikawa did not return to handle the effects on Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, either. Instead, a man named Teruyoshi Nakano, who had been working as an assistant in the effects department on the series since King Kong vs. Godzilla, was promoted into the director of special effects position.

Taking the main unit director's chair was Yoshimitsu Banno, a longtime assistant director who had just made his directorial debut on the historical film Birth of the Japanese Islands. Banno also co-wrote the screenplay for Smog Monster with Rodan/Destroy All Monsters writer Takeshi Kimura.

Although Akira Ifukube, the composer who created the most iconic music in the Godzilla series, had done the score for Banno's Birth of the Japanese Islands, he didn't come along with the director on this film, with that job going to Riichirô Manabe, who provided a divisive original score that features some very memorable use of a slide trombone.

In figuring out the way to approach his Godzilla movie, Banno looked back at the original 1954 Gojira. With that film, director Ishirō Honda had made an anti-nuclear statement by creating Godzilla to be the living embodiment of the bombs that had devastated Japan during World War II. Banno decided to focus on another issue that Japan and the rest of the world were dealing with (and still are), pollution.

Banno created a monster called Hedorah to be the living embodiment of pollution. While the creature is said to have come from outer space, probably riding into our world on some meteor, it has truly found life in the dirty waters of Japan, where pollution from the industrial world is killing off and mutating the aquatic life.

The waters and life within are the focus of a scientist named Yano's studies, and when a fisherman catches a giant tadpole instead of the haul he was hoping for, he brings it to Yano for him to examine. Yano discovers that the tadpole completely dries out into a lifeless hunk of carbon when it's just left lying around, but when he takes a piece of it and drops it into dirty water, it comes back to life. And if he drops multiple pieces into dirty water, they form together to become a larger life form.

There are a lot of those little tadpoles out there in the water, and they've formed together to make two separate large monsters that are roaming the coastline. The smaller of the two attacks Yano and his young son Ken while Yano is doing an investigative dive one day, leaving Ken with a hurt wrist and Yano with half of his face burned by some kind of acid produced by the monster. Meanwhile, a much larger version of the creature has been swimming around and attacking ships, smashing oil tankers and guzzling down their contents.

As it continues to grow and mutate, the monster - which Ken names Hedorah - poses a grave threat to Japan and eventually to the world. But Ken has faith that Hedorah will be stopped. Not by man, but by Godzilla.

The character of Ken is very much like the young boy Ichirô from the previous film, Godzilla's Revenge, in that he is a huge fan of Godzilla, he even has toys of Godzilla and King Ghidorah. It seems very odd to me that a company would be producing children's toys of these monsters that have caused so much death and destruction, but that's how it is in the world Banno has imagined.

Godzilla enters the film at the 12 minute mark, in a dream Ken has, and Banno gives Goji an awesome and heroic first appearance by having him walk into frame backlit by the red sun.

Ken isn't only a big fan of the king of the monsters, he also seems to have some sort of psychic connection to Godzilla somehow, as his dream about Godzilla being angry about the pollution he's encountering in the ocean and coming to fight Hedorah is actually a premonition, and later in the film Ken again gets the feeling that Godzilla is near (and he is) while he's awake.

Soon, Hedorah mutates from the tadpole aquatic phase to a terrestrial, frog-like stage, growing limbs and crawling onto the Japanese mainland so it can huff on the fumes being spewed from factory smokestacks. Hedorah really seems to be loving that chemical-laced smoke when Godzilla makes his arrival.
The two monsters face off... and then Hedorah attacks.

During their fight, the "smog monster" proves to be one of the strangest creatures Godzilla has ever been pitted against. Hands burst forth out of its sludgy body, it sparks and courses with electricity when its injured, it comes apart as Godzilla beats on it, it spews acid at him. Sludge flies all over the place as the monsters battle, seeping through the streets in a way that's not unlike The Blob.

In another link back to the original Gojira, Banno makes sure to let the audience know that these monsters are causing great amounts of damage and casualties by being in the city. A room full of men are killed by the sludge that flies off of Hedorah. A night club full of people is threatened by the advancing, living sludge. A cat is coated in the stuff. After the fight ends and the monsters go off in their own ways, a news report tells us that 35 people were killed during their scuffle, 81 injured, and 322 buildings destroyed.

His fight with Godzilla is far from the last time Japan sees Hedorah, though. The monster mutates into a third and final stage, taking an airborne form that allows it fly around "like a flying saucer". As he flies, Hedorah produces a sulfuric mist that corrodes metal, burns lungs and eyes, withers plants. The more pollution and chemicals Hedorah consumes, feeding on gas tanks at oil companies or even eating cars because of their exhaust, the more powerful the sulfuric mist becomes, even starting to melt people down to their skeletons. When Hedorah flies by, a construction worker leaps to his death from the building site to avoid dealing with the monster and its deadly waste.

Every time Hedorah appears, Godzilla also appears to fight him off. The amount of casualties caused by Hedorah's presence jumps to 1600, with over 30,000 people injured. Before long the creature flying around and filling the air with its sulfuric expulsion has ten million people suffering from irritation from the polluted air. Japanese citizens have to buy oxygen masks to deal with it.

While Yano works to find a way to destroy Hedorah, the local youths, including Ken's babysitting couple Yukio and Miki, band together to protest the pollution that led to this problem by partying at Mt. Fuji. They take Ken along with them to the party, and during their gathering Hedorah shows up at Mt. Fuji as well.
With Godzilla close behind.

As Godzilla and Hedorah engage in a final battle that goes on and on, lasting nearly 30 minutes, the military hustle to put together the solution Yano has come up with - dry Hedorah out by trapping it between 40 meter (131 feet) tall, 60 meter (197 feet) wide negative and positive electrodes that will blast three million volts between them.

Battling the acid-firing Hedorah, Godzilla takes a lot of damage in this film, a touch that I appreciate. It makes things more intense when we can see that our hero is being injured. By the end of the movie, Goji has taken a splash of acid across one side of his face, causing the eye on that side to swell shut. He looks sort of like Sylvester Stallone at the end of a Rocky movie.

Hedorah's ability to fly is also a challenge for Godzilla... one which he steps up to meet. The smog monster attempts to fly away to safety near the end of the film, so Godzilla puts his atomic breath to use in a way we've never seen him use before or since - by firing it down at the ground and keeping the blast consistent, Godzilla is able to propel himself through the air and chase the flying monster down. It's very goofy stuff that I certainly wouldn't want to see Godzilla doing regularly, but in this instance I've fine with it. Many other fans are not fine with it, and flying Goji bears the brunt of a lot of jokes and derision.

Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster is very much a film of its time. Series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was still the producer on this installment, but had fallen ill and spent most of the production in the hospital, so without Tanaka supervising what he was doing, Yoshimitsu Banno had free rein to do whatever he wanted to do. Banno's vision was heavily influenced by the then-modern hippie culture, he had been deeply moved by Woodstock, which is why he has the youthful characters of Yukio and Miki, who hang out with hippie friends and go to a night club where a singer performs the theme song "Return! The Sun" (which was also written by Banno) against a backdrop of psychedelic imagery. Banno had also noticed that manga was becoming popular with the kids in Japan, which accounts for the brief animated interludes he added into the movie to further show Hedorah's antics or give a visual to the discussion of atoms that Ken has with his father.

Smog Monster is unique, early '70s, odd, and the darkest movie in the series since Gojira '54. Allegedly, when Tanaka first saw the finished film, he told Banno that he had ruined Godzilla. Banno himself has said that Tanaka wasn't happy with the movie, but he wasn't angry.

This entry doesn't sit well with a lot of fans, either. Although I admire Banno's attempts to take the series back to its dark and meaningful roots, I don't enjoy the movie all that much myself. However, it's not the hippie-ness, the animated scenes, or the artsy moments Banno inserted here and there that lower my level of enjoyment as much as it is... and this may sound insane to some... that I feel the fights go on too long. They last so long that my attention wanders. I really didn't need to watch Godzilla and Hedorah fight for 30 minutes in the end. I just want to tell Goji to get it over with already.

Interestingly, there is a "Godzilla vs. Godzilla" angle to these epic fights the two monsters engage in - inside the 300 pound Hedorah suit is Kenpachiro Satsuma, who would go on to play Godzilla in several films, starting with The Return of Godzilla in 1984.

As far as Yoshimitsu Banno was concerned, he wasn't done with Godzilla, either. He wanted to make the next film in the series, which would continue focusing on the dangers of pollution. After coming up with one idea involving a mutant starfish possibly called Hitodah, he hit reverse and decided to instead make it a rematch between Godzilla and Hedorah... a rematch that would take place in Africa.

Tanaka didn't want Banno back.

Banno kept pushing to make another Godzilla movie for decades, eventually again switching out Hedorah for a monster called Deathla. In the 2000s, Banno got close to making a 40 minute long, 3-D IMAX Godzilla movie that was to be called Godzilla 3-D to the MAX and which would show Godzilla and Deathla fighting their way from Iguazu Falls at the Argentina/Brazil border, through Mexico City, all the way up to Las Vegas... Vegas being Banno's second choice after originally wanting to set the final moments between the monsters at the spot where the World Trade Center towers had stood. He was right to move on from that idea. Ultimately, Godzilla 3-D to the MAX was abandoned completely. Yoshimitsu Banno may have an executive producer credit on the upcoming Legendary Pictures Godzilla film, but to this day Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster remains his last directing credit.

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