ATOM GOOD! SMOKE BAD! – Reassessing “Godzilla vs The Smog Monster” in the wake of Fukushima.

For Godzilla’s 57th birthday, The Cinémasochist dissects Godzilla vs Hedorah,

In the early 70s , Japan was facing a bright future as it sat on the verge of an industrial upsurge that would make it the world’s second largest economy.

But it needed power- electrical power- to make that national dream a reality. Lots of power. And it needed it fast.

The traditional means of generating electricity in Japan, coal, would prove to be a major concern:  Smog, acid rain, greenhouse gases- all were effects the Japanese people could see- and deplored.

Coal generating plants belch carbon at the foot of Mount Fuji

So the idea of nuclear energy was brought forward. It was relatively cheap (in terms of energy produced) and “clean” (from a carbon emission point of view) but the investment would still be massive and required a strong commitment. The people of Japan would have to embrace an energy source whose dark side the elders were intimately aquainted with- having been the only nation ever to be on the receiving end of a nuclear attack.

But nuclear energy wasn’t the same as bombs. It was really a new form of steam power with a massively hot cooker. That’s all. The atom is your friend.

Selling this idea to the masses was not going to be an easy task given that they weren’t blinded by the insane profits the power companies would make. Rebellious ecologically-minded  youth- not yet easily dissuaded by the phrase “it will mean jobs”-  was bound to question the logic behind wanting to set oneself up for yet anther round of nuclear nightmares. The industry needed a pitchman who could allay the fears of a generation already jittery at the prospect of extinction through war. Someone who had already had a firm hold of their imagination.  One whose street cred was built on his own radioactiity.

They needed Godzilla.

As anyone who wasted valuable academic time researhing perfectly useless topics like “Asian Trash Culture “will tell you: Godzilla was originally conceived in the mid 50s as a metaphor for the downside of nuclear technology. Whether he was embodying the bomb or (as he would in the 80s) the threat of a power station meltdown; The Big G was always a promethean caution AGAINST releasing the nuclear genie from its bottle.

But in the early 70s, Godzilla took a break from his role as anti-nuke cruisader to being the spokesperson in favor of the emerging nuclear industry.  It was the day Godzilla sold his soul.

Known in America as Godzilla vs The Smog Monster at the time of its release, Godzilla vs Hedorah is an epic collision of Saturday morning kiddie matinee, educational shorts and  Midnight Movie psychedelia that has delighted children and acid-heads alike for close to forty years.

Crazy animation interludes pepper the film.

The film’s rubber model-stomping baddie is Hedorah-  a nasty smelly pile of industrial sludge brought to life by some kind of space element. Looking at first like a big tadpole, the shape eventually evolves a pair of legs (much more comfortable for the suitmation actor) and struts to the nearest industrial sector to take bong hits off the somestacks- all the while purring like a kitten.  Hedorah (whose name literally means “sludge” and figuratively “pollution”) feeds on waste.

“Whoa! I think I see a giant lizard, dude. This is good smokestack!”

Instead of walking off the calories, Hedorah mutates into a giant cow flop and goes flying, carried aloft by his methane emissions and burning eveything that comes in contact with his sulfuric emissions

You’ll believe a cow-cookie can fly!

The people of Japan are powerless. The situation is hopeless. Then, to the tune of the most unenthusuastic character theme ever, hope- in the form of Godzilla- appears.

Who changed my music? This new theme really sucks!

A long drawn out fight begins which culminates with Godzilla, like any self respecting superhero, pulling out a couple new tricks out of his ass: the most hotly debated one is his sudden ability to fly.

Just ignore the bit about the flying- it’s just going to get us off-track.

What really concerns us here is his newfound talent for generating electricity in industrial quantity- like a goddamned reactor!

The army’s plan to dispose of Hedorah is to lure it between two large metallic panels and zap him with a shitload of electric arc animation. When the power lines go down, it’s up to Godzilla to fire his atomic halitosis at the metal panels and generate the flashy optical effects needed to reduce Hedorah to a pile of powdered carbon. See kids? He’s radioactive and therefore electric. Get it?

In the end, the big lizard’s mission is accomplished: Hedorah is vanquished. Flowers can bloom again. Godzilla -fallout and all- is our friend. Cue the “Save the Earth” song.

I’d get misty eyed here save for the fact that the film (despite being derided on this side of the Pacific) was not only a commercial hit in the Land of the Rising Sun but a critical darling as well. It was credited with having “helped” the youth of Japan shed its concerns over Nuclear power and celebrated for calmly explaining the science behind atomic power stations. ( Regrettably, it was not taken to task for not mentioning concerns about the disposal of spent material- this could have been worked in the script with a discourse on the half-life of Godzilla’s droppings). It even had cute animated interludes to explain fission.

Yes. They actually gave nuclear fission a happy face!

The downside of nuclear reactors would thankfully reemerge as a central theme of future Godzilla movies a decade later.  However, for the time being, Japan would gleefully move forward with building these little prosperity generators- geological surveys be damned.

No need to go any further. You and I know all too well how that turned out. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20 but that’s no reason to dismiss this reassessment. If anything, we should use that newfound clarity  of vision to reflect on where this all went wrong.

Godzilla flying used to be the big objection fans had to this film. Now, questions should be raised regarding the film’s motives in the first place.

Update:
Thanks for making this entry the most read on this blog.
Although not the first story posted, it was originally written as the “warm up” for this entire blog. I am humbled to see hits on this particular story almost every day from all over the world,
As a thank you, here is a look behind the scenes.

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About The Cinémasochist

I'd rather just talk about "bad" movies. View all posts by The Cinémasochist

11 responses to “ATOM GOOD! SMOKE BAD! – Reassessing “Godzilla vs The Smog Monster” in the wake of Fukushima.

  • JAW fan

    Was just forwarded this blog by a mutual friend…Am thoroughly enjoying it! Keep up the great work. It’s like a mirror into my own brain…Hell, I even own a Pink Lady album!!!…and I absolutely love the seemingly-endless dance sequence in “The Creeping Terror” (in fact, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the highlight of the movie)…plus, in the past year, I have purchased several Santo movies (in Spanish only…but I bought them as a means of practicing.) I particularly like the James Bond-ish ones with Jorge Rivero “El Tesoro de Moctezuma” and “Operacion 67”

    My latest discoveries: “The Mighty Gorga”, “Carnival of Blood” and “Dracula Vs, Frankenstein”

    Hopefully, you will turn me on to something new in the coming months.

    Will be visiting your site regularly. Cheers!

  • Sigmund Shen

    I’ve spent the last year reading criticism of the Godzilla movies and this is the first time I’ve seen this argument. I love the movie and its anti-pollution message, but your interpretation of its ideological function is really intriguing. Do you happen to have a source for this claim: “It was credited with having ‘helped’ the youth of Japan shed its concerns over Nuclear power and celebrated for calmly explaining the science behind atomic power stations.”

    • The Cinémasochist

      In discussions with various japanese filmmakers over the years, including Sushuke Kaneko. I was intrigued with seeing the film rated *** 1/2* in film books while it appeared in the Medved’s Fifty Worst Films book.
      I also learned about Godzilla’s role in becoming a defender of Japan as a reflection of the new Constitution. 54 Godzilla spooked the parents by stirring up flashbacks , but 65 Godzilla is here to protect the children.

      • Sigmund Shen

        I think it’s an important and great argument, and I’d love to cite you. What’s your real name? And aside from your personal discussions, does the claim appear in any published source?

      • The Cinémasochist

        Maybe they do.

        But being “oral history” (or hearsay if you wish), I do consider my blog more of a rant than an actual thesis.

        I’m sure an author fluent in Japanese like August Ragone could cite you verifiable sources.

      • The Cinémasochist

        I would have love to substantiate my argument further.
        I am a frustrated academic who quit my master’s when I was told “there was nothing of interest” in my chosen topic: Jpapanese Fantasy cinema.
        I’m not sure if I am willing to surrender anonymity right now as far as The Cinemasochist is concerned.
        The blog is purely a “writing gym” for me as I shake the rust after a decade of inertia.
        I was happy to see “likes” from August Ragone and Jorg Buttgereit. I figure I must not be talking out of my ass if they approve.
        You may refer to it. Kick it around the room with your students.
        It’s more important to have the idea circulate out there than take credit for it.

      • Sigmund Shen

        Well then best wishes with the writing gym! The post is fascinating and I may find an excuse to cite it anyway, “oral history” or no. There’s definitely a pro-military anti-youth movement slant at the end but your argument gives that a whole new spin. As for the “frustrated academic” thing, be careful what you wish for! At least one advantage of being an independent scholar is you can write about whatever you want without having to justify it to people who don’t care or understand.

      • The Cinémasochist

        Where do I have a pro-military/anti youth movement slant?
        If I do, it must be tongue in cheek. The movie shows “heroic” JSDF soldiers doing “honorable” rescue work and the youth finding an excuse to turn it into a party.
        Quote from it. Like I said, I’m not the only one with that interpretation. If anything, I got the impression that Japanese film buffs look at us funny for not “getting” it. It’s good for this interpretation to circulate and let other “thinkers” kick it around.

      • The Cinémasochist

        Oops. I misread. I thought you said my essay had an pro-military slant. Yes. The movie definitely is very formally Japanese in that way.
        Japanese monster films ARE very political. 2003’s Godzilla Agaisnt Mechgodzilla is about the re-militarization of the JSDF. It coincides with the point in history where that happens.

  • Tim M.

    Hey! Where did you get that great godzilla / hedorah dissection pic? Is that a poster or from a book? Would make a great christmas gift.

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