What does Godzilla mean to me? All I had were half-remembered fragments. A sense that I loved his adventures but no concrete reasons why. Most of his movies I hadn’t seen since childhood. Some not at all. I could remember all the monsters — Biollante, Destoroyah, Mothra, Rodan, Gigan, Godzilla himself. But the stories? I had to watch them all again. Who was this character who sat so large in my mind but had become so ill-defined?
The best way to find those answers was to watch them all back-to-back — and then to take the question to the G-man himself.
Are You There, Godzilla? It’s Me, Evan
Director Yoshimitsu Banno only got one crack at telling one of your stories, and the result was a psychedelic descent into a mad, polluted hell. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (or Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) is an example of how a movie that sets its own style stands out in a crowded series of regurgitated plots and campy action.
Banno’s use of color, music and political storytelling was the last gasp of the Gojira ethos before the series descended into a decade of diminishing returns. But what a final breath it was. It’s odd to watch a movie from 1971 that so forcefully argues in favor of environmentally sustainable approaches to waste and energy when we’re currently fucking up the world again with our own pride. As it stands, this one is an all-timer.
Hedorah only appears in two movies (a sequel was planned before this one flopped, involving it attacking Africa for whatever reason). It is a living mass of muck and pollution whose toxic trail disintegrates any living being in its path. In many ways, Hedorah is Godzilla for the 1970s — a manmade monster created by heedless human destruction of the natural order. In Gojira, you died at the hands of a scientist who recognized human weakness. Here, the only way for humanity to defeat Hedorah is by changing their ways. Fat chance!
But an angry, giant, radioactive superhero doesn’t hurt.
Banno treats your presence with ambiguity. You’re introduced as a superhero (directly compared to Superman) in the mind of a young boy who even has your action figure. You stride into battle with a sunset backdrop like a hero out of a Western. As Hedorah’s body accumulated more and more filth, you inevitably chased him away from Japan. There’s nothing to say your adventures here aren’t literally happening in the world we are shown, but it’s valid to read the movie as one child’s hopelessness after learning about pollution, the end of the world and the hero he wishes could save everyone.
I hope you aren’t too disappointed in us these days, Godzilla. We’ve improved some … for a while … but not nearly enough. Hope is being lost. For you, it was easy to rip out the heart of a sludge monster. For us, it’s not as simple as ripping the heart out of systems that perpetuate Earth’s destruction. Mankind’s interests are simply too deeply invested in them now. I’ll admit: It would really help our planet to have you right about now — to walk out of the ocean and make everyone think twice about how badly we take advantage of the world.
Of all the Toho kaiju, Hedorah is the first to graphically murder innocent people. Your classic rampages imply death through fire and collapsing buildings. Hedorah disintegrates people to their bones, which contrasts with some of the goofiest fights in the series, including your use of atomic breath to propel yourself through the air. But it was the ’70s. Whaddaygonnado?
Few of your other adventures are this directly antagonistic with their social commentary. Banno found fault in the old and the young, the rich and the poor. Every person suffers up until the very end, and in horrible ways. Everyone except the children. The future. Your heroism is witnessed through the eyes of a child who believes in you. Whether you’re “real” or not, Godzilla vs. Hedorah decides that the most important thing is that the idea of you inspires change in the hearts of those who can maybe make a difference.
Hope is in the heart of a child, even if grim reality exists in the heart of Hedorah.
New installments of Are You There, Godzilla? It’s Me, Evan will post regularly leading up to the May 31 release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters.