On Earth Day — and Every Day — Let’s Remember the Lesson of ‘Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster’
Earth Day 2023 is Saturday, April 22, marking 53 years since the creation of this special date on which citizens of the world celebrate our planet’s environment and remember, and reinforce, our need to protect it.
The first Earth Day took place April 22, 1970, and just over a year later, on July 24, 1971, Toho Studios‘ Godzilla vs. Hedorah — one of the most delightfully weird films in the franchise — premiered in Japan. The film was released in America in February 1972 as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, a title that especially drives home its anti-pollution theme to a population that was just starting to become more eco-conscious in that time, in part because of Earth Day.
Also highlighting that theme is the movie’s opening title song, known in the Japanese version as “Give Back the Sun!” and in the reworked American version as “Save the Earth.”
The opening credits are not only graphically interesting — almost serving as a Bond movie-style intro to a Godzilla film, with images of singer Keiko Mari superimposed over psychedelic animation — but also feature poignant lyrics related to its environmental theme, interspersed with shots of filthy smokestacks and waterways congested with trash, accompanied by a lovely and catchy melody.
The Japanese version of the song opens by wondering, “Where have all the birds and sea creatures gone?” before answering that question by running down a litany of chemicals that humans have been polluting the Earth with (then describing how they all combine to form “a deadly cocktail spilled into oceans and spewed into the air”).
The song then makes it clear that it will be more than animals eventually suffering because of this.
“When everyone is gone,” the lyrics continue, “nobody will be there to even cry for the loss.” Brutal.
But the song does try to also spark hope along with fear, as the Japanese version implores everyone to “Bring them back!” and the American one (seen below) to “Save the Earth!”
That’s where Godzilla comes in, eventually doing his part to help the environment by literally beating the crap out of a monster made from raw sewage and other waste — Hedorah, a microscopic alien life form that feeds on Earth’s wide array of pollution to evolve and grow into various forms, from a tadpole sort of thing to a flying incarnation that spews fumes and finally, into a giant, acid-dripping beast.
While this all sounds, and is, serious, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster does also have moments of cheesy fun you would expect in this later production in the first cycle of Godzilla films that began in 1954.
There is a scene in an oh-so-early-’70s go-go dance club (where the film’s title tune again plays) where Hedorah begins oozing down the stairs toward the annoying hippies dancing there, and for a moment, you might not be sure who to root for.
And, of course, the film gave us one of Godzilla’s most hilarious moments during a fight, when he uses his breath to lift himself off the ground and propel through the air! It’s a scene only rivaled in its wonderful ridiculousness by his infamous physics-defying drop-kick that came a few years later in 1973’s Godzilla vs. Megalon.
But Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster still presents its overall theme seriously. This wasn’t the first time that the G man had saved humanity’s ass by defeating a major threat to Earth. But, unlike with, say, Ghidorah, Godzilla here seems to realize that Hedorah only existed as such a significant menace because of human pollution.
Near the end, after Godzilla is done taking out the trash by dispatching Hedorah, and before heading back out to sea (where he has likely seen first-hand all the garbage humans have been dumping there), the big guy turns and gives a stern look to the people (and the camera) that is enough to even have a viewer of the film feeling some shame.
It’s a glare as blistering and devastating as any of his atomic breath-blasts, that seems to be telling us: “Get your act together; I’m not going to keep cleaning up your messes.”
Maybe, if nothing else, that can still motivate us, as individuals and as a society, on Earth Day and beyond, to start and continue efforts both large and small to save the Earth.
We don’t want to let Godzilla down, do we?