We’re never going to fix this mess we created. From the moment we crawled from the primordial soup we’ve gripped our home in a technological stranglehold. We still expect Mother Earth to bend to our will, and we’re always surprised when a hurricane gives us a what-fer or an earthquake swallows a city. We’ve always been here; therefore, we will always be here. Keep on, keepin’ on is our motto.
We might listen to a giant eradiated sea monster. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster) is one of the goofier entries in the franchise, but its not-so-subtle critique on humanity made quite the impact on little kiddie me. Watching a very animated Godzilla suffer under the toxic effects of Hedorah and nearly fall to its pollution-born biology sparked a lot of questions in my household. From that point forward, I would never allow my dad to trash plastic coke can rings without snapping them first, and that was the beginning of a lifetime conversation of concern surrounding the evils of plastic. Yeah, those straws are no good, but, um, all that plastic stuff around you is supremely wretched.
Godzilla manifested from a fear of humanity’s great and terrible potential. The atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the point when one person’s thought could equal the total destruction of a city. Hand-to-hand combat no longer required. Enemies could now be removed with the push of the button. This cold, calculated distance from death sent shivers through the spine of every sane person on the planet. Oppenheimer wasn’t fooling. We are our own death.
In 1954, Toho Studios producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, frustrated at his failure to negotiate the production of a film detailing the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, conceived the idea of a giant monster movie based on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. He believed that a run-of-the-mill rampaging dinosaur movie would not work today. Any significant military might could easily eradicate a T-Rex, but one mutated by the nuclear devastation experienced by his country could prove to be of sterner, deadlier stock.
The original Godzilla was Tanaka and director Ishirō Honda‘s abject horror towards the Defcon status we’ll forever live within. A better allegorical monster movie there has never been. Naturally, because we’re humans, we fell madly in love with the beast we wrought. Godzilla was too darn rad to leave as an atrocity. We know we deserve to fall under his atomic breath, but can we also just appreciate two rubber-suited creatures wailing on each other?
’54 Godzilla was a wag of a finger, and its first sequel (Godzilla Raids Again) was more of the same. The next eight sequels, however, were mostly just free-for-all monster brawls that invited audiences to cheer at the destruction and place their allegiance alongside the big G. As the Shōwa era (1954-1975) reached its end, Godzilla was our champion; a gargantuan protector of the Earth who had our backs when we prayed nicely.
Yoshimitsu Banno toiled away inside Toho Studios for decades before working his way into the director’s chair of Godzilla vs. Hedorah. He was a trusted assistant director to Akira Kurosawa on Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths, The Hidden Fortress, and The Bad Sleep Well. As part of the 1970 Japan Expo, Banno directed an audiovisual exhibit entitled Birth of the Japanese Islands. Most of Toho’s effects team were hard at work on this production, attempting realistically to recreate earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and as a result, were unable to assist Honda’s kaiju extravaganza, All Monsters Attack. Nevertheless, Banno’s success on the exhibit scored him the top position on the eleventh Godzilla film.
From the jump, Banno wanted directly to address pollution’s ill effects on Japan. Cities like Yokkaichi were burning large quantities of petroleum and crude oil which released sulfur oxide into the atmosphere creating intense smog and resulted in several severe incidents of pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and bronchial asthma. When he contemplated the swamp of foam buffeting their shores as a result of the continuous stream of detergent that was regularly dumped into the ocean, the black behemoth of Hedorah finally bubbled into his mind.
The rubbery sludge creature feeds from Earth’s pollution, increasing in size after every meal. Hedorah’s first encounter with Godzilla ends with him being ripped to shreds and flung across a city playset. Tiny black Hedorah chunks slither into the sea where they reconvene and emerge more potent and rancid than before. The citizens of Japan believe that they are doomed to perish under Hedorah’s toxicity and elect to party the apocalypse away on Mt. Fuji. Godzilla saves their worthless bacon when he blasts his atomic breath upon a dehydration device constructed by a well-meaning scientist, and Hedorah turns to dust. Before Godzilla returns to his ocean home, he looks back on the degenerate party-goers and delivers a vicious glare as to say, “Dammit, get it together people.”
With only thirty-five days to shoot the film, and both Honda and Tanaka examining his every decision, Banno raced through production. Since Honda was only allowed one effects team to shoot both the drama and the action as a result of Birth of the Japanese Islands, the decision was made that Banno could manage the similar challenge and the budget was drastically hacked. To make matters even more traumatic, Hedorah actor Kenpachiro Satsuma was stricken with appendicitis, and legend states that doctors were called onto the set to perform surgery while he still wore the smog monster’s suit.
Banno was all set to direct more environmentally minded kaiju films. His next concept involved a mutated starfish called Deathla, but Tanaka was so appalled by Godzilla vs. Hedorah that he immediately fired Banno after the initial release. Banno remained within Toho working on documentaries and TV-movies, but he would never realize another Godzilla adventure. He did aid in the creation of Japax, Japan’s 70mm answer to IMAX and he was close to bringing Deathla into battle against Godzilla for a film in that format. Sadly, the funding never came together.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah is not a film often listed amongst the essential kaiju experiences, but I would argue that it contains a heart more aligned with the original spirit than most. Banno believed that our art should speak truth and that Godzilla was a weapon at our disposal and one that should be wielded with purpose. Eleven films into the popular franchise and its consumers were well on their way to forgetting the horrors that birthed their icon. At some point in each era of Godzilla movies, a filmmaker appears to remind the audience of the emblematic origins of the series. My favorite Godzilla is a teacher ready to whack his students on the knuckles.