I’m not joking: GODZILLA vs. THE SMOG MONSTER is a multi-layered, supremely heightened movie experience that can bless an appropriately receptive viewer with enormous gratifications by the final fade-out.
However — the producer of the Godzilla series, Tomoyuki Tanaka, disagreed. Hospitalized during the film’s production, Tanaka went virtually apoplectic when he saw the finished work, declaring the Godzilla series’ reputation had been shamelessly ruined. (Yoshimitsu Banno, the movie’s maverick director, didn’t get another chance to make a movie for eight years.)
Most ’Zilla flicks are a bore to me, so by comparison this 1971 trainwreck of monsters, eco-politics, acid trips, jumpin’ rock ’n’ roll, astronomy slideshows, Jungian imagery, youth culture protests and provocative cartoon interludes is (in my eyes) the masterpiece of the genre. No other Kaiju movie has the combined heightened sensibility, audacious filmmaking and high-concept visuals of GODZILLA vs THE SMOG MONSTER (aka GODZILLA vs HEDORAH). To quote an old buddy from film school, it’s the kind of movie that makes you want to go right out and buy a camera.
After the opening documentary shots of smokestacks against Mt. Fuji, we watch a river of manmade chemical effluent that looks like excrement pressing its way down to the sea. Director Banno crosscuts the shots of industrial waste with a chic Tokyo Mod-à-Go-Go nightclub singer, plaintively working her way through a ballad titled “Save the Earth” with a Height-Ashbury light show behind her. Meanwhile back in the black sludge, a twisted and broken mannequin floats by — followed allegorically by a ticking clock mired in industrial crap.
The film candyflips between a Japanese boy’s relation with his father, a marine biologist, and the adventures of his uncle, a swingin’ hipster who hangs out at discotheques. Once again, simply yet engagingly, the movie gets allegorical: the two adult males take the roles necessary in order to battle the monster spawned of man’s pollution — the marine biologist via laboratory science while the hippie swinger organizes protests and demonstrations. Focused intellectual investigation plus doing the right thing combine to combat the monster that emerged from the (literal) wasteland of effluent shown at the beginning of the film. (The Smog Monster’s name in Japan and in some English-language releases is “Hedorah,” taken from hedoro, the Japanese word for sludge, slime or vomit.)
But before the uncle gets politically active, he has one of the best acid trips on film at the disco where his girlfriend is a go-go dancer. Whatever’s in the drink he downs at the bar makes him see fishheads on the patrons who are getting down on the dance floor. (What’s even more surprising is that the made-for-film Acid Rock is much better than ersatz rock in commercial US movies of the time, such as the agonizing Frank DeVol music pretending to be youth music in those days.)
So many Kaiju films seemed to have been phoned in by the director, leaving no impression. There are some I love, but most are just a blur. Yet this movie has a warrior’s heart. It messes with the medium AND the message, not for the heck of it, but with a considered knowledge of craft that tells an artist when it’s OK to break the rules. Its big mind-stretcher is the artistic choice to infiltrate the film with subversive, breakaway animation sequences that comment on previous scenes and critique human behavior. Yet the movie also includes a sequence where a young boy stands on the shore and waits for his missing father (whom we know has been attacked by Hedora) that has all the visual intensity and poetics of the best mid-century European arthouse cinema.
You can go ahead and slap me, but I insist this movie has every bit as much imagination, wit and experimentation as PIERROT LE FOU.
Director Banno lost the battle but may have won the war: as of this writing, IMDB reports he has been chosen as director for the in-development project GODZILLA 3-D, slated to be filmed in IMAX. Maybe his concept of the series is now appropriately irreverent and postModern to be embraced by the next generation of movie-goers. Go ahead and laugh last, Banno-san.