Godzilla as Cosmic Horror: Revisiting Godzilla vs. Hedorah

Hedorah attacks cars in a Japanese city

Last week, I had the distinct privilege of taking in the Godzilla vs. Music Box festival at Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre. A celebration of all things Godzilla, the festival featured 31 screenings of 25 Godzilla films. These include a 24-hour marathon of the 15 Showa films, a screening of Godzilla (2014) on 35mm (one of just five such prints in the world!), and an opening night double feature of Shin Godzilla (2016) and Godzilla Minus One (2023).

As a devout Godzilla fan, I took in as many of these screenings as I could. However, one I was most excited to revisit was the film that closed out the festival—1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah.

The marathon festival brought out an impressive number of Big G fans, who were more than eager and willing to hoot and holler as their hero tackled an impressive array of foes and city buildings. However, the reactions to Hedorah were far different. As images of death and destruction played over the screen, the audience grew much more subdued. At multiple moments, I heard gasps of shock and horror as Hedorah oozed across the screen. A palpable sense of disgust resonated through the crowd during the final conflict, as Hedorah seeks to bury Godzilla alive in a pool of toxic sludge. These images and reactions are far more nuanced than anything usually seen in the franchise, and are worth a closer reflection.

The Horrors of Hedorah

Hedorah emerges from the ocean and attacks a small boy

The original 1954 film is as much a horror film as it is a tokusatsu film. In that film, Godzilla’s rampage serves as a metaphor for the use of the atomic bomb in WWII. However, as the franchise grew, images of horror gave way, replaced by more typical sci-fi and action beats. Godzilla’s role shifted, too, from menace to savior, taking with it the sense of cosmic horror that permeated the original.

Hedorah takes a radical shift back in the direction of horror. From the start, director Yoshimitsu Banno makes it clear that this film is about the impact of pollution on the planet. Hedorah is a living metaphor directly tied to the floating filth in the ocean. In the early going, all that separates Hedorah from the grimy ocean sludge is the occasional appearance of eyes.

Dr. Toro Yano, burned by Hedorah, recovers at home

Dr. Toro Yano (Akira Yamanuchi) winds up in Hedorah’s path early on. The doctor encounters the kaiju while searching the ocean water for some explanation of what’s been going on. Yano remains covered in bandages for most of the film’s running time, badly burned by Hedorah’s sulfuric acid. Before that, though, he insists upon having newspaper reporters photograph his scars. “I want them to see,” he says, serving as surrogate for the message of the film. Pollution and destruction of the planet is something that we cannot look away from.

Hedorah as Body Horror

Body horror plays a much greater role in this film than in any previous Godzilla film. As Hedorah attacks by sea, land, and air, Banno renders the human toll onscreen in ways unimaginable to any fans of prior Showa movies. Hedorah savagely chokes and burns waves upon waves of people with sulfuric acid. As the bodies fall, their charred flesh melts away, leaving nothing but bones. Hedorah drowns a roomful of gamblers with toxic sludge, their agonized limbs haplessly adrift in the aftermath. A news station audibly reports on the body count of Hedorah’s attack, the consequences of humanity’s pollution laid out in cold numerical fashion.

At this time, it was rare for any kaiju film to show actual human death onscreen. Most monster rampages were limited to the destruction of buildings and stock shots of people fleeing to avoid being trampled. Hedorah pulls no punches. This is where Godzilla vs. Hedorah suggest some influence of the burgeoning Japanese horror scene, particularly Jigoku/The Sinners of Hell (1960, Nobuo Nakagawa). While not at the level of a mild-mannered slasher film, it’s still remarkable to see carnage in a tokusatsu film.

Godzilla, bloodied, his eye burned out, is PISSED

Even Godzilla isn’t immune—during the final conflict with Hedorah, Big Godzilla takes a severe beating. His eye is burned out, and his hand is burned down to the bone. His throat burned to the point where the giant kaiju is barely able to claw out an agonized breath.

Psychedelic Cosmic Horror

The film doesn’t limit itself to just body horror, either. The entire bulk of Hedorah is remarkably unknowable. The kaiju is all flopping tendrils and bulbous suggestions that don’t reveal a shape so much as suggest one eerily unknowable. A major plot point revolves around the fact that Hedorah is a composite of space organisms, not just a single creature. As such, Hedorah is constantly growing and shifting as circumstance applies. One minute, Hedorah is a four-legged amphibian, leeching off of smokestacks. The next, it has shape-shifted into a flying saucer, spewing toxic gases as it soars over the city. Not being able to determine what the monster that is actively trying to kill you looks like is the stuff of nightmares.

The film also has a strong psychedelic influence as well, coming right off of the tailwinds of the 1960s. Banno utilizes this with horrific results in an early standout sequence. Flashing, colored lights populate a hallucinogenic nightclub sequence. As he drinks, the main character imagines the go-go dancers around him with fish heads. These are intercut with rapid-fire shots of ocean pollution and colored lights, a bad acid trip with an environmental theme. Meanwhile, Hedorah engages in a battle with Godzilla, ultimately flooding the nightclub with black sludge. As Hedorah withdraws, a mewling kitten remains, burned and scarred by the attack.

A kitten, drenched in toxic sludge, mews pitifully after Hedorah's attack

Message From The Gods

It is clear that Banno has created a distinct visual style with this film. All of the plot points, compositions, and editorial decisions are geared toward pushing the Godzilla franchise into new directions. All of these choices are in harmony with the greater theme of the horrors of pollution. Pollution is such a threat that there is a visceral body count that viewers can follow along with. All the while, a shapeless, eldritch horror, assembled from countless smaller parts, sweeps across the land, ruthlessly hunting the characters and laughing as it burns the flesh from their bones.

Thankfully, Godzilla is able to save the day, as is his wont. Though he takes a savage beating, he pulls himself together and ensures the complete reduction of all of Hedorah to harmless dust. As Godzilla takes his leave, he fixes the main characters with a fierce glare. It is as if Godzilla is saying “Be better” or “Don’t do that again”. In a way, Banno is reminding us that Godzilla, too, is the horrific consequence of man’s unchecked rampage upon the planet.

Godzilla squares off against Hedorah

While far from the scariest film out there, Godzilla vs. Hedorah is the franchise’s first real push in the direction of horror since the original film. As such, it is all the more interesting for its efforts. Future iterations would similarly touch upon the existential horrors of mankind’s abuses of the planet. However, Hedorah got there first, leaving a gargantuan black smudge and a distinct impression on the Godzilla timeline.

Written by Travis Cook

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