Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster / Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Blu-ray)
Directed by Yoshimitsu Banno
Distributed by Kraken Releasing/Section 23 Films
Godzilla entered the '70s with an anomalous entry in the series, one that brought with it a strong eco-conscious message. Now that the "Godzilla Dream Team" was permanently disbanded after the death of special effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya, the onus of success was placed largely on the shoulders of producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. The next film set for production was Godzilla vs. Hedorah/Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971), to be written and directed by Yoshimitsu Banno. It was during the production of this film that Tanaka became seriously ill and was hospitalized, leaving the film's direction entirely up to the discretion of Banno, a complete neophyte to the series. His film posited that mankind's rampant pollution and wanton destruction of Mother Nature would come back to haunt us in the form of a huge nuclear shape-shifting blob from space, known as Hedorah. Only Godzilla, Savior of the Earth, would be able to stop it and prevent the annihilation of humanity. Strong messages aren't new to the series, since the previous entry, All Monsters Attack/Godzilla’s Revenge (1969), was about as ham-fisted as you can get with its anti-bullying sentiments. Unlike that film, however, Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster is lauded for its tonally unique take on the series… and for uncovering Godzilla’s greatest unknown ability: flight.
This picture was not exactly subtle in delivering commentary on what is still a hot topic today. And, really, it's not even a bad film when you consider the entire litany of the series. But when Tomoyuki Tanaka finally saw it after leaving the hospital, he went berserk. Rumor has it that he hated the film so much that he swore Banno would never work for Toho again. And he didn't. Banno, on the other hand, was so excited by his work here that he immediately began writing a sequel that would have taken place in Africa, but those plans were scuttled as soon as Tanaka was back on his feet. Oddly enough, despite having been away from Godzilla for over 30 years Banno was linked to a 3D Godzilla project, tentatively titled Godzilla vs. Deathla - To The Max 3D, that would have been shown exclusively in IMAX theaters. Plans were soon scuttled when Legendary Pictures took interest in snapping up Godzilla’s rights, and through some minor miracle Banno remained on as an executive producer for Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014). If you listen closely, you can hear Tomoyuki Tanaka wildly spinning in his grave.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah starts off in a very meta fashion by showing a young boy, Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase), playing with Godzilla toys (I believe they're the Bullmark line) in the backyard, his house situated near the sea because his father, Dr. Yano (Akira Yamauchi), works with marine life. The action cuts over to a collection of sludge and debris floating in the ocean, one which Hedorah rises out of before flying off into the distance. The creature is reported to have attacked boats and factories along the coast, consuming massive amounts of pollution and oil to fuel itself and grow in size. Hedorah flies across the countryside, leaving a wake of choking death in its path. Godzilla shows up during a particularly gorgeous sunset, intent on fighting the monster, but Hedorah proves too resourceful and escapes Godzilla's grasp. Dr. Yano, now crippled after a run-in with Hedorah underwater, learns that he has a method to kill the creature by drying it out using electricity. The military sets up giant electric panels on Mt. Fuji, all they need is for Godzilla to get Hedorah in their path so it can be toasted. But Hedorah is able to take on many different forms, making it difficult for Godzilla to destroy such a slippery foe.
Banno added many unique flourishes to this film to get his message across, including musical interludes and animated sequences. There are a couple of scenes occurring in an underground Japanese night club that are beyond psychedelic, with a tie-dyed woman wildly gesticulating on a table while her tripped-out band jams on stage. And there are exploding color visuals everywhere. It's like something out of an Austin Powers flashback, dripping in '70s expectations. The animated interstitials are used to explain how Hedorah has been evolving, showing the sludgy behemoth sidling up to factories and draining them of their toxic emissions. Again, out of place in a Godzilla film? Totally, but that's all part of what makes this entry such a fun oddity. The vivid colors also provide a stark juxtaposition to the grimy, polluted world Hedorah intends to produce.
Hedorah would be the first, but certainly not the last, adversary to take on different forms throughout the film. At first, it's nothing more than a big tadpole, but once the beast sucks up huge quantities of our toxic trash its size more than doubles to something able to combat Godzilla. The longer it sucks up our waste, the bigger it gets, eventually reaching a stage where it can fly and lift even the massive Godzilla off the ground. From there, Godzilla and Hedorah take the fight to land, and the garbage gargantuan morphs into fighting form for some hand-to-hand combat with the Big G. This is really the first Godzilla film where man and beast work together to defeat a common enemy, with Godzilla using his atomic breath to activate the malfunctioning electric ray the humans created to fry Hedorah. He's downright anthropomorphic holding Hedorah in his grasp, practically signaling for the men below to get this sucker cooked. Having grown up seeing Godzilla in his role as both protector and prime enemy, I think it's kinda cool to see him expressly choosing to win one for the people.
What isn't cool, though, is seeing him fly. Banno thought the film was unremittingly dark, and it certainly is, so when it came time for Godzilla to chase Hedorah near the climax he came up with two options - he runs, or he flies. Keep in mind, Godzilla had never demonstrated any ability to fly whatsoever because how the hell could he? Simple - he tucks his tail between his legs, fires up his atomic breath, and uses that flame as a means of propulsion. Wait, what? If the film's environmental message didn't already have producer Tanaka fuming, his head likely exploded when this infamous scene occurred. Thankfully, Big G Airlines were permanently grounded after this initial excursion.
While there were changes made to Godzilla's personality and abilities for this film, one thing that didn't change much was his suit. The same SoshingekiGoji suit used for the previous two films - Destroy All Monsters (1968) and All Monsters Attack (1969) - was employed for the bulk of filming here, though it's highly likely that another, older suit was used for the water scenes. Godzilla maintained a consistent look for more than a few films during this period, and while this design is usually never singled out as one of the best it encompasses all of the design features that made him iconic. As usual, Haruo Nakajima handled acting duties inside the suit, having perfected his craft to such a degree that Godzilla is able to display a wide range of motion. We only got one more film with the master, Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972), before he bowed out of the series for good.
There are only minor differences between the Japanese version of the film and AIP's edit for America. Other than the dubbing, the U.S. version added an English language version of the song "Save the Earth", which had been sung in Japanese and featured in Toho's cut. AIP also changed the film's title to Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster. Toho has only made the international cut of the film available on DVD & Blu-ray, under the Godzilla vs. Hedorah title, meaning VHS tapes are the only means to watch the dubbed AIP version. This would be the final Godzilla film that AIP distributed in America, leaving further sequels in the hands of less capable studios.
Kraken Releasing have had strong results right out the gate with their first three Godzilla releases. Just as with Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster features a faithful transfer that maintains a strong filmic aesthetic without resorting to DNR or other digital manipulation to make the image shine. Grain is noticeably thicker here, spiking when night falls, which is frequently. It doesn’t detract from the picture, but know that it is much more prevalent than in Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster. Colors are well reproduced, with good saturation despite a lack of “pop”. Black levels are stable and consistent. The print used appears to have been kept in relatively good shape, with only minor flecks and white specks popping up throughout. Detail gets a nice uptick, too. As someone who has watched this film countless times on VHS and DVD, I can safely say it’s never looked better. And don’t worry about the HD image putting the FX work under a microscope and highlighting flaws – not only does the work done here hold up under HD scrutiny, but that’s also part of the series’ charm.
Once again, both Japanese and English DTS-HD MA mono tracks are included, with the edge going to the Japanese option. Dialogue is presently clearly, registering nicely in the mix. The English subtitles are not quite dubtitles, as they don’t exactly match the English dubbing, so they are likely closer to true accuracy. Composer Riichiro Manabe’s score is brooding and bassy, carrying with it a grim weight to ground the soundtrack. Fidelity is strong even though the dynamic range isn’t much to gloat over. Bass response is minimal but the LFE kicks in when required to do so.
The only extra presented here is the film’s Japanese trailer.
4 1/2 out of 5
1/2 out of 5