Earth Day and 4/20 were this month, so I had to review 1971’s oddball eco-conscious epic, Godzilla vs. Hedorah! This seems to be a love it or hate it entry in the Godzilla series. It boasts artsy weirdness, scenes of kid-friendly wackiness immediately contrasted with people-melting mass-murder, a gelatinous dookie beast from outer space, trippy cartoon segments, and I’m gonna go ahead and spoil it because it’s so fucking rad: Godzilla shoots his atomic breath at the ground to take flight. Seriously, if you haven’t seen the movie, you gotta at least watch this 30 second clip of the best thing in the universe.
If you haven’t guessed already, I fall squarely in the “love it” camp. I have good company, too! Legendary film critic Roger Ebert listed it as his favorite Godzilla film. Series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka wasn’t so pleased: upon viewing the rough cut, he fired Hedorah writer-director Yoshimitsu Banno. We’ll talk about that, how the suit actor portraying Hedorah had to get surgery–while still in the monster suit!–how Hedorah indirectly spawned 2014’s Godzilla, and all kinds of other fun insanity! Get on the floor-ah, here comes Hedorah!
First let me hit you with some trailer action! Here’s the original Japanese trailer:
It shows off a lot of the best monster effects shots, but it also takes care to mask the rampant strangeness of the film. The trailer eschews the film’s woozy, derp-a-lerp jazz score in favor of more traditional monster movie tunes. Riichiro Manabe‘s experimental score alternates between clashing hilariously with the movie, and oddly complimenting it pretty well. But for the sake of a snappy, attention-grabbing trailer, I can see why they avoided Manabe’s compositions. Alternately, here’s the US trailer:
Released theatrically in the States in 1972 as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, the US trailer embraces the weirdness more than the Japanese one. Manabe’s wacky-ass music is used throughout: you can see when it works and when it just makes Godzilla come across like a cartoon drunk. They also gave Hedorah a wheezing, hacking laugh/cough? It’s a really clever touch, so I’m bummed it doesn’t actually happen in the movie. The narrator delivers some real gems while describing the films mon-stars: “Godzilla, man’s friend” facing off against Hedorah, a “mastodon of destruction.”
I’m sure they were using “mastodon” in place of “behemoth” or something like that, but it’s funny to imagine that whoever wrote that voice-over script somehow got giant shit-monsters confused with prehistoric hair-elephants. Click here to listen to a suite of the movies’ entire score, which includes the hella jazzy opening credits ballad, “Give Back the Sun.”
The English language version, Save the Earth, is so iconic one of the video games was named after it. It’s definitely cashing in a little on James Bond-mania, but it also clues you in right away that this is a different kind of Godzilla movie: it’s weirder, it’s a little hipper and sexier, and it has a message.
Composer Manabe and director Banno are joined by special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano. Up to this point Banno had worked almost exclusively as an assistant director on a wide variety of films, and Nakano only had a couple films under his belt, including the wonderfully weird looking Daigoro vs. Goliath.
Even though Banno got canno’d, Nakano would stay on with Toho, working on special effects for the remainder of the Showa-era Godzilla movies, and other effects-heavy projects like their Ultraman clone Zone Fighter, and their Star Wars cash-in, The War in Space.
While Nakano isn’t as celebrated as Tsuburaya, the dude cranks out good shit. Hedorah’s a perfect case in point: not only was their budget substantially lower than normal for Godzilla films, but they only had one team shooting the human scenes and the effects scenes. Honda and Tsuburaya always had entire separate teams for each. Oh yeah, they also only had 35 days to shoot! With all that in mind, it’s easy to appreciate how bad-ass Godzilla and Hedorah look, but it also explains why the final climactic battle takes place in an open field at night.
So after the artsy, cool, James Bondian title sequence we cut to our kid-lead, Ken Yano, playing with Godzilla toys in his backyard. Yes, in the universe Godzilla vs. Hedorah takes place in, Godzilla exists, but so does Godzilla merchandise. You know this movie rules because the very first scene has you subliminally questioning the fabric of reality. There’s also a King Ghidorah hanging up in the shed behind him.
A local fisherman stops by the Yano home to show Ken’s dad a weird specimen he caught. Ken’s dad is an accomplished marine biologist, and examines what appears to be a huge tadpole. Banno’s directing throughout the whole movie is pretty choice, but I love that here he ramps up the unease by making sure to show us the dozen or so gross specimens Dr. Yano has on his shelves. We then get one of the movie’s many newsbreaks, telling us about a recent attack on a pair of oil tankers. The reporter speculates that the ships sinking is either the result of a new monster attacking, or some new military weapon.
On one hand I feel like newsbreaks are a blatant storytelling shortcut, but on the other, it does some stealth world-building (monster attacks and weapons testing are relatively common), and the Yanos are a family: of course they watch TV at dinner. Ken insists the ship-shredding monster is the same as they tadpole they’ve been examining, so Dr. Dad decides to go diving where the fisherman found the rancid tadpoo.
The undersea world Dr. Yano finds is dark, quiet and eerie, full of junk and dead things. The skeletal swan he swims past always stuck with me. Ken waits for his dad on the rocky shore goofing around with a knife because the 70s were a very different time. Turns out it’s a good thing he’s got the knife!
The Hedster pops out of the water, Ken dodges him and jabs his knife right into Hedorah’s liqui-taint! It goops right through him becuase Hedorah is disgusting, but it also seems to spook him off enough to leave Ken alone… and go after his still-submerged dad!
Dr. Yano hilariously spends almost all of his remaining screentime up to his neck in a big blanket cocoon like that. Even when he rides in a car at the end of the movie. I’m no doctor though: maybe you’re supposed to blanket burrito chemical burn victims?Even though he’s kind of a big blanket burrito baby, Dr. Yano insists on doing interviews looking like a Batman villain so the world will know how dangerous Hedorah is. We get a newsbreak about even more oil tanker wrecks, and the first of Godzilla vs. Hedorah’s trippy cartoons:
That night, Ken has a dream about Godzilla finding the waves of pollution in the ocean and blasting it away with his atomic breath. It’s actually a great intro for Godzilla, so I was kind of bummed it was just a dream… or is it a vision? Ken’s sure it is, and when he gets up to tell his parents about it, they’re supportive. Turns out Dad’s been up late
goofingsciencing around with his Hedorah samples and discovered that it’s some kind of living mineral, and separated pieces will rejoin into one organism. So he’s even worse than anyone originally imagined, and we see him heading straight for land.
We cut to a nearby disco, home to some of Hedorah’s most insane moments. The Yano family is friends with a cool young couple, and we see them here in their more natural habitat. Everybody 30 and up can relate to Yukio, who’s slamming booze just to put up with the loud music and ridiculous atmosphere. His girlfriend Miki is killing it as a go-go dancer. She’s decked out in a big flesh-colored body stocking covered with painted-on sea life.
The music really starts shredding as Hedorah tears ass across this industrial district. The projections on the wall of the club get super fucking intense accordingly.
We go from bloody dancing skeletons on the walls of the nightclub to Hedorah taking monster bong rips off of smokestacks. Big gross baggy sacs on his back fill up as he breathes in the toxic love and his glowing red eyes close in hedonistic pleasure. He even seems to purr in a rancid, gloppy sort of way. Dude is getting there, until he hears Godzilla roaring and blasting nuke breath every which way.
Hedorah and Godzilla have their first face-off at about 20 minutes in–I love the pacing of this movie. Hedorah flops through the air, landing on Godzilla and knocking him down. The Hed-master really starts vocalizing here, and his sound design is weird and awesome: lots of distorted frog noises, plus ambient goopy sloppy slurpy noises. This early fight has some great gags: Godzilla punches right through Hedorah’s amorphous, shitty body, then starts swinging him around by his tail. First at normal speed, then at wacky Benny Hill style warp speed. It’s all fun and cool until you see big gobs of Hedorrific nastiness flying off his bod every which way:
If you thought the disco had gone off the rails before, get ready for your brain to eat itself:
For a couple shots, everyone in the club besides Yukio has fishheads. This is never foreshadowed, explained, or revisted. WHOO! Is it symbolism? Is Yukio just tripping balls? Doesn’t matter, because there’s a huge trail of Hedorah dookie blopping down the stairs! Everybody understandably snaps out of their fishy reverie and freaks the fuck out. Hedorah’s poop soup hustles back up the stairs to reunite with the main mass, leaving behind one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen in a Godzilla movie:
Sure, we just watched Hedorah drown half-a-dozen innocent people in caustic space-diarrhea, but this pitiful cat is what really drives home what a dangerous asshole the H-meister is. Miki and Yukio decide they’ve had enough “fun” for one night and book it the hell out of there in Miki’s car. After getting pelted with Heddy’s acidic poo-bombs, Godzilla eventually manages to chase Hedorah off into the ocean. This chunk of the battle has plenty of great effects shots, especially the crazy shrieking, sizzling effect Godzilla’s breath has on Hedorah’s disgusting bod. After this concentrated blast of action, violence, and surreal madness, the movie gives us another cartoon as a breather.
In the Yano family car the next morning, we hear the radio news reporting on the many dead and injured from Godzilla and Hedorah’s battle. Monster fights aren’t just a fun spectacle in this film, they have real consequences that the human leads are all too aware of. It’s a level of seriousness that’s directly at odds with other aspects of the movie, but it comes across as coherent genre deconstruction instead of tone-deaf dumbshittery. The Yanos find some of Hedorah’s leavings on the dock and take them home for
lunchanalysis. The samples allow Dr. Yano to confirm that Hedorah is actually a mineral life form, and feeds on our pollution. What’s really cool is that Miki asks the big obvious question that lesser movies might have carefully avoided: If Hedorah eats pollution, why not let him?
And Dr. Yano clues us in: Hedorah may be a poop monster, but even he follows the universal scientific law of Everyone Poops. When shit takes a shit, it’s real bad: Hedorah’s waste is sulfuric acid, so we’d just be trading normal pollution for turbo pollution. Dr. Dad makes his way back into his big baby bed cocoon and hypothesizes that Hedorah is probably from another planet, seeing as how Earth isn’t home to any living minerals. This is accompanied by some slides of different nebulas and space shit, because you got a D+ on your astronomy test, damn it!
Miki and Yukio take Ken to an amusement park the next day! Whee! Ken has a hilariously joyless look on his face while they ride a rollercoaster until he spots Godzilla on the horizon! Godzilla is portrayed as a smudgy silhouette in the distance, but at this point in the movie little quirks like this hardly even show up on my weird-shit-o-meter™. As soon as the ride is over, Ken hauls ass to a payphone (aww, the 70s!) to tell his blanket burrito dad about Godzilla coming to town. Except somebody has a case of the munchies:
Ken’s call is cut short as Hedorah flies around town, scarfing down exhaust and fucking killing people.
Godzilla and Hedorah are in the city, so it’s pretty much a big chaotic shitshow for everybody. Ken makes a break for his school to seek shelter, but stumbles upon a bunch of human Goddamn corpses on his way there.
Generally speaking that’s pretty intense, but it’s even more so in the context of a “Godzilla-as-superhero” movie. Later movies like Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla feature plenty of menacing monsters, but they target evacuated buildings, not individual innocents running for their lives. Despite its psychedelic wackiness, scenes like these make Hedorah one of the bleakest, most frightening entries in the series. This montage of mayhem is capped off with a really eerie, bad-ass idea executed fantastically with a couple different effects:
And like before, the movie gives us a breather in the form of another interstitial animation. I guess at this point the cartoons are seen as completely normal, because I couldn’t find any screenshots or gifs of this one online. It features some cosmopolitan folks walking a busy city street in fancy clothes… and gas masks.
Ken, Miki, and Yukio all make it out okay! Ken gets a quick nuclear physics lesson from his father the human shawarma, and Yukio riles up his fellow youths to go have a “fuck it we might as well die partying!” party on Mt. Fuji. A TV talk show features a scientist guest and the host discussing various theories about Hedorah’s biology and possible weaknesses. The scientist off-handedly suggests that oxygen might hurt Hedorah. This spurs a kick-ass montage that accurately predicted the parade of
talkingscreaming heads that makes up the 24-hour news cycle.
Interspersed throughout the montage, we see Dr. Yano and Ken testing out electrodes: they’ve deduced that the only real way to stop Hedorah will be to dry him out, and running a few million volts through him should do the trick! The lil’ zappers work, making the Hedorah samples drier than the chicken at your friend’s house. The Yanos get in touch with the Japanese self-defense force, who get to work building the ginormous electrodes right away.
Then we get to catch up with Miki, Yukio, and Ken heading to Mt. Fuji for their anti-death by monster-induced asphyxiation protest party. We get some beautiful shots of lonely cars cruising the country roads at sundown set to some plaintive acoustic guitar tunes. Things are somber at first; the turn-out for the rally falls way short of their goal. But in classic hippie fashion they say fuck it, hook up their amps and electric guitars (in the middle of a field?!) and start jamming. Also, Miki is rocking the shit out of a crazy red checkered outfit.
While these young people celebrate their vivaciousness in the face of impending doom, we’re treated to a cadre of ghoulish old fuckers watching them silently and disapprovingly from the weeds:
We see these guys again later, but the movie never really addresses them or provides any concrete context. I think of them as symbolizing the past generation(s), not understanding hippie culture and rock’n’roll, but why here? This is out in the middle of nowhere in an open field, do these people live nearby? Are they ghosts?
It doesn’t matter though! Hedorah is heading their way! So is Godzilla! SHIT!
Before Godzilla crashes their party, Ken has a vision of him! Maybe he does have some kind of psychic link? Most kid-heroes in movies like this seem to understand and empathize with monsters better than adults, so this feels like a pretty natural extension of that. Hedorah swoops in, Godzilla blasts him out of the air, and everybody on the ground freaks the fuck out.
Godzilla makes his grand entrance accompanied by Manabe’s drunken Scooby-Doo music, and Hedorah lands and valmorphanizes into his final, humongous form. Hedorah towers over Godzilla, and the two posture at each other menacingly for a moment. Hedorah is aggressively glittery, and yet it doesn’t make him look any less dangerous or disgusting. This is especially true when his throbbing, glowing red brain rises out the top of his head ominously.
Dr. Yano and Toshie haul ass to get up to Mt. Fuji to find Ken and make sure the elctrodes are functional. With everything converging on the Mt. Fuji foothills, Godzilla and Hedorah commence their last great throwdown. Godzilla does some boxer-style fancy footwork to dodge Heddy’s boo-boo bullets. The first one sails harmlessly past him, but the next three pelt him, with one nailing him right in the eye!
There’s kind of a technical goof where it seems to hit the wrong side of his face, but it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type thing, and you’ll be too busy paying attention to the fact that his whole eye actually burns out/gets crusted over. Godzilla hasn’t been hit this hard since he got disintegrated in Gojira, and this fight’s just getting started!
Hedorah flashily transmogrifies back into his flying pancake of doom form, peppering Godzilla with flyby laser blasts and murder-cropdusting a fleeing group of hippies.
The Hedster swaps back to his gigantic lumbering land form and starts plodding towards the remaining conscious hippies. These guys aren’t just a bunch of cowering little wieners though, they take up torches and huck ’em at Hedorah’s gooey ass! Even Ken and Miki join in, and it’s pulled off with some crazy-good compositing. Hedorah starts tossing turd torpedoes at these ferocious flower-children, and poor Yukio gets his eye burned out by weaponized waste.
Hedorah moves in for the kill, but Godzilla intervenes before he can finish off the hapless hippies. They tussle for a bit, and Godzilla lands a haymaker right in Hedorah’s rotten gut(s); his hand glorps right into Heddy’s acidic innards, sizzling away the Big G’s mitt-meat. Gunky gore goops out of Hedorah, and rancid black blood pours into his left eye before it crusts over. Another ruined eye! When Godzilla pulls his fist out of Hedorah’s oozing non-abs, it’s been withered down to a skeletal claw.
It can be tough to spot based on the picture quality of the version you’re watching and depending on the scene (since most of this fight takes place at night), but it’s there! Gigan gets a lot of hype for being the first kaiju to make Godzilla bleed the following year, but I think Hedorah did more damage. Godzilla and Hedorah grapple with each other while wind, fog, and flashes of light (lightning?) swirl around them, and it looks fucking rad.
Speaking of that eye laser, the explosion it creates kicks up enough sparks and fire and smog to throw Godzilla into a coughing fit that sends him tumbling over. Hedorah glorps onto Godzilla, zaps into flight mode, and carries him off into the air! We see that those ghoulish old fuckers from earlier are still watching with the same disapproving looks:
There’s no time to figure them out though, because Hedorah drops Godzilla mid-flight, sending the poor monster crashing down to Earth. He rolls down a hill, and tumbles into a big pit. That legit sucks, but Hedorah rolls up and decides to make it one trillion percent worse.
Godzilla…. hoo boy, he is a fucking trooper. He flails his arms blindly and cries out as the caca engulfs him, while Hedorah starts laughing his evil, misshapen ass off. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Luckily for G-money, the JSDF comes through with some choppers packing oxygen bombs. Kaiju vs. military goes about as well as you’d expect, but one of the choppers manages to Oxyclean Hedorah’s clock. Toshi and Dr. Yano arrive on the scene!
The JSDF are using themselves as bait to lure Hedorah into their electrode trap. I love this movie, but this final battle is long. It’s packed with cool ideas and tense back-and-forth drama, but it would have benefited from some smart cuts. There are so many good gags that cutting the least fun/exciting one or two wouldn’t have hurt. But the upshot of this lengthy finale is that the movie has time to explore how the humans and monsters are helping and hindering each other throughout the battle. Godzilla’s wrangling Hedorah over to the electrodes, but they knock over the electrical towers supplying juice to the electrodes in the process!
After a suspenseful few moments: Godzilla and the military manage to corral Hedorah between the electrodes. Yes! But the power’s still out. Shit!
G-fresh fires up the electrodes himself, and fries the fuck out of the Smog Monster. The crud creature flops over, looking real dead. Godzilla punches his fist straight into the corpse for good measure, then roots around in there and yanks out a pair of big yellowy beige orbs.
This seems to have puzzled Godzilla fans throughout history. Are they eyes? Eggs? Nards? Something else? I kind of like that last idea; Hedorah is such a strange, unearthly creature that he’s just bursting with weird, unrecognizable organs. According to Banno himself, they’re supposed to be Heddy’s eyes, and that fits with the movies’ ongoing motif of grievous eye injury. It’s still pretty weird, because Hedorah’s eyes are red… and they’re still in his head. Hedorah is really gross and alien though, so maybe these are extras? I say it’s still up for interpretation. Meanwhile, Godzilla just goes “whatever these things are, FUCK ‘EM.”
Godzilla’s thorough trashing of Hedorah is super satisfying… but it’s not over! A slightly smaller, fresher Hedorah rockets out of the dried-up husk! Godzilla is not about to let this little butthole get away! Without a single second’s hesitation, Godzilla personally gives us the best, most batshit-bonkers scene in the entire movie.
Triumphant music plays, and the remaining humans look on in stunned bewilderment. It is The Best Thing to Have Ever Happened. Godzilla catches up with Hedorah and air-tackles his sloppy, shitty ass to the ground, body-slams him face-first into the dirt three times, then flies back with him to the electrodes!
Godzilla and the army work together to cook the (literal) living shit out of Hedorah with the electrode walls. Godzilla and the JSDF ease up on the electricity when Hedorah hits the ground, and Godzilla kneels down and starts tearing all his innards out! A rockin’, peppy version of Bring Back the Sun/Save the Earth starts playing, and we watch the happiest, most triumphant disembowelment committed to film! THEN GODZILLA ELECTRO-BROASTS THE RIPPED-OUT ORGANS.
The sun starts to come up, and Godzilla turns his attention to Dr. Yano, Toshie, and the JSDF. They understandably tense way the fuck up, but Godzilla just turns his back on them and starts heading home. Miki and Ken race after him and Ken screams a goodbye, and Godzilla kinda-sorta acknowledges it. It’s good to know they’re not dead. As Godzilla’s hoofing it off into the sunrise, a bummer remix of Bring Back the Sun plays, and we cut to shots of the pollution from earlier in the film. Godzilla’s won an important battle, but the war on pollution is up to us–beating Hedorah doesn’t magically clean up the planet. For once, Godzilla isn’t mad at humanity… he’s just disappointed. If that wasn’t an uncertain enough ending, we get a quick shot of a sea-bound Hedorah blob, and this ridonculous title card:
And sure enough, writer-director Yoshimitsu Banno was just pleased as punch with how Godzilla vs. Hedorah turned out. So much so, he was already planning a sequel! Series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was in the hospital during the production of Hedorah, so he had no idea what the film was like until he saw a rough cut. He told Banno that he “ruined Godzilla,” banno’d Banno from directing at Toho ever again, and asked previous Godzilla director Ishiro Honda to come in and try to fix it. So you know… mixed reviews, I guess.
As a huge Hedorah fan, that bums me out. But Banno never gave up on his Hedorah sequel! After the Godzilla series went on hiatus in 2004 (also, notably after Tanaka’s death in 1997) Toho allowed Banno to pitch his Hedorah concept to studios in the West. He planned to produce a 40-minute 3D IMAX film called “Godzilla 3D to the Max.” Despite a title that sounds like valley girl word salad, it had a lot of potential. Part of it was to take place in Africa, Godzilla would fight an upgraded Hedorah named Deathla, and it would wrap up with a climactic showdown in Las Vegas.
3D to the Max fell through, but Banno eventually got his Hollywood Godzilla complete with a key scene taking place in Sin City: he was an executive producer on Legendary’s 2014 Godzilla.
Haruo Nakajima played Godzilla in vs. Hedorah, and as always did a bang-up job. This is one of his sassiest Godzilla performances (at one point he looks straight at the camera and gives us a kaiju SMH), and it fits this crazy movie perfectly. Kenpachiro Satsuma made his creature feature debut playing Hedorah. He partly got the role because he was the only person they could find that was jacked enough to actually operate the heavy-ass suit. So he’s pretty bad-ass from square one, but how about this: while shooting the movie, Satsuma came down with appendicitis. It would take too long to get him out of the suit, so he had to have his appendix removed, while still in the Hedorah suit. The kicker being that, this is when he learned that painkillers don’t work on him.
Surviving that kind of insane physical punishment is basically how you interview to be a kaiju suit actor (Nakajima first got the job back in the day because he was the crazy fucker you could set on fire for war movies), so it’s not a huge surprise that he got to play Godzilla for the entire Heisei run of films.
So that’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah! It fucking rules. I guess if you don’t like radness or weirdness or hilariousness it won’t be your cup of
acidic dookie-slimetea, but I think this movie was ahead of the curve in a lot of ways. This is the earliest “save the environment!” movie I can think of: Godzilla beat Al Gore and Ferngully to the punch by decades. Hedorah himself may have only come back for a brief cameo in Godzilla Final Wars, but I’d be shocked if his mid-movie metamorphoses didn’t inspire later multi-stage kaiju like Destoroyah and Pacific Rim‘s Otachi.
At this point in his career, Godzilla was in full-blown hero mode. After duking it out with the dookie demon, he’d go on four more similarly wacky-wild adventures before his well-deserved sabbatical. Those later films all qualify as cult classics due to their abundance of genre-defining iconic characters, comedic (intentional or not) moments, and kick-ass pulpy sci-fi stories, but none mash together surreal goofiness and stark horror with artistic panache like Hedorah does.