The ailing Godzilla series adopted an ecological stance or its 11th installment, known in the West as the surprisingly accurate Godzilla vs the Smog Monster. Written and directed by Yoshimitsu Banno mainly while series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was in hospital, Tanaka was so appalled by what he saw when he was discharged that he allegedly told Banno that he had “ruined Godzilla.” Widely regarded as one of the worst in the series, it was certainly a step-up from its awful predecessor, Gojira-Minira-Gabara: Oru Kaiju Daishingeki/All Monsters Attack (1969) and like that film tried to tell it story from the perspective of a child, though this time there seems to have been an effort to tap into a slightly older demographic too, one becoming increasingly concerned about the parlous state of Japan’s pollution ravaged cities.
One of the better things about Gojira tai Hedora is that the monster action is least plentiful and we waste very little time in getting to it. A microscopic life form dubbed Hedora feeds on pollution and almost immediately grows into a huge, acid-spitting sea monster that sinks an oil tanker and attacks Dr Toru Yano (Akira Yamauchi) and his young son Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase) who has dreams/visions of Godzilla coming to humanity’s rescue against the threat of the smog monster. The amorphous Hedora evolves into an amphibious creature and comes ashore in search of more pollution, killing thousands as it goes. As the Japanese Defence Force prepares to try out Yano’s plan to kill Hedora by drying out its body and a group of young people prepare for an end times festival in the shadow of Mount Fuji, Godzilla and Hedora square up for their final showdown.
Gojira tai Hedora is one of the strangest of all the Godzilla films. Not as odd as Gojira-Minira-Gabara: Oru Kaiju Daishingeki perhaps but the many animated inserts sketching in Hedora’s back story are crazily psychedelic, the opening theme song, Bring Back the Sun, dubbed and re-titled Save the Earth in the original English language prints – repeated throughout the film is a genuine oddity in itself and the anti-pollution message is delivered with the nuance and subtlety of a drunken Godzilla rampaging through a major metropolitan area. Everything is spelled out in laborious detail in case we’re too thick to work it out for ourselves. The Godzilla films have never been renowned for their subtlety but Gojira tai Hedora absolutely takes the biscuit, beating its audience insensible with its ham-fisted message at every turn. The message is undeniably an important one but it’s unlikely that the green cause is helped in any way by a man in a rubber monster suit spewing toxic fumes while teenagers gyrate with wild abandon to fuzz toned, wah-wah heavy pop music (the less said about Riichiro Manabe’s terrible new Godzilla musical motif though the better).
Yet for all that, there’s so much to like about Gojira tai Hedora. It’s an incredibly silly film yet everyone involved seems to have been terribly earnest about it all. And to be fair, it is the first Godzilla film since the original to actually have something to say, albeit clumsily. By the early 1970s, the threat of pollution has largely supplanted fear of the nuclear bomb in the minds of the Japanese people, particularly among younger audiences with no memories of the Second World War. Pollution was an altogether more immediate threat, one whose effects could be experienced at first hand by anyone living in one of the country’s increasingly over-populated and toxic cities. Gojira-Minira-Gabara: Oru Kaiju Daishingeki had hinted at environmental concerns with its vision of a run-down and choking Kawasaki suburb but Gojira tai Hedora is where that concern surfaces most potently.
Hedora is a truly bizarre looking creation, a gooey silvery-green mass with glowing red eyes who is at least tough enough to keep Godzilla on his toes for much of the film. Defeated disarmingly early, its body oozes back into the sea where it reconstitutes and comes back even nastier and more powerful than before, now a pollution powered flying creature that trails toxic fumes in its wake. The final shot suggests that there’s more than one Hedora and indeed Banno is said to have harboured dreams of a sequel, possibly pitting Godzilla against a second Hedora in Africa, but Tanaka’s dislike for Gojira tai Hedora effectively put paid to that idea.
Elsewhere we get those weird animations, a quick tour of some of the wonders of the universe as Yano and son speculate on where Hedora may have come from and most jaw dropping of all, the sight of Godzilla curling its tail beneath it and taking flight in pursuit of the fleeing smog monster, propelled by its own atomic breath. Moments of weirdness like this at least give Gojira tai Hedora a different feel to anything that had gone before. It’s not a good film by any standards and indeed at times it’s downright terrible, but it undeniably has this peculiar, at times almost surreal charm to it, a weird naivete that becomes rather endearing. It’s muddled and relentlessly silly but once the monsters start knocking each other about – and Godzilla gets a fabulous first appearance here, silhouetted against the setting sun – it’s hard to resist.