Remakes have a tendency to revive interest in the originals, at least as far as the studios are concerned. They roll out new editions rolling on disc and digital streams in anticipation of interest and the new Godzilla has no shortage of ancestors: 28 Japanese Godzilla features (and one American film that is best not spoken of) from the 1954 original to the final Japanese appearance in the 50th Anniversary feature Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).
Eleven of those films are newly released on Blu-ray this month, spanning forty years of Japanese giant monster madness. Not all of them are masterpieces (or even particularly good, to be honest) but a couple of them are classic and most of them are great fun. And through them all, Godzilla is incarnated by a stuntman in a suit stomping through miniature cities and landscapes while an overcranked camera filmed it at high speed to give a dreamy, slightly-slow motion look and a sense of mass and size to the monster battles. The process is affectionately known as suitmation.
Kraken, an imprint of anime specialist Section23, has three pictures from the first wave of Godzilla film, known to the kaiju cognoscenti as the Showa Period. One of them, the 1971 Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Kraken/Section23, Blu-ray, DVD), originally released in the US as Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster, is the trippiest picture of the entire cycle. It’s a Mod-zilla mixing of pop music, hip nightclub scenes and psychedelic imagery with an environmental message and the pollution spawned monster.
That’s right, Hedorah is born of pollution and toxic waste, growing from a bizarre black tadpole to a weird, blobby slime monster (the name, in fact, is a pun on the word hedoro, the Japanese term for sludge or slime) through osmosis and a voracious appetite for pollution. In the film’s most memorable (and unabashadly druggiest) scene, Hedorah grows legs (or something similar that provides landfall locomotion), ambles up to a smokestack belching black smoke and huffs it down like a stoner with a giant, putrid bong. Sounds like a solution for pollution, right? Except that Hedorah oozes poison gas as a by-product, which itself evolves from a knock-out gas to an acid fog that eats its victims down to the bone. Yes, this is the first Godzilla film since the debut that leaves victims littered across the screen. Even Godzilla is affected by it, and when he punches Hedorah, his arms simply sink into the creature, like it was made of sludge.
The series had been sliding into juvenile silliness for a few years and Banno was brought in to recharge the series. He has some big ideas for this mod monster party and the environmentalist theme is unmistakable, but the seriousness of the message is somewhat upended with the pop-art playfulness of his direction. Animated interludes are interspersed, providing anything from pseudo-educational illustrations for scientific exposition to mere cartoonish doodling, and a dour sequence featuring refugees from the affected cities rendered in black and white jolts to color a teen hipster grabs a guitar and leads a rock band in a high energy dance party in the middle of a rural field. Less endearing is the woozy new Godzilla theme with a wah-wah trombone that suggests the comic stumbling of a wobbly drunk rather than the mighty threat of a prehistoric creature with an atomic upgrade. And for this one film only, Godzilla flies, and it’s not dignified by any measure. He tucks his tail between his legs, turns around, and uses the force of his radioactive breath as a jet propulsion to chase Hedorah flying backwards.
It’s truly bizarre and quite a trip, and it was too much for Toho Studios. A planned sequel was scrapped, Banno was bounced from the franchise and journeyman director Jun Fukuda brought back. Some fans hate the film. I think the sheer oddity of the creative chemistry makes it one of the most strangely entertaining entries of the entire series.