Monster Musing #3

 

On the Subjects of Fish Heads, Acid Trips, and Preserving the Psychedelic Imagery of Godzilla vs. Hedorah

 

In 1967, American International Pictures (AIP) released maverick director Roger Corman’s most daring film to date: a psychedelic, counterculture masterwork called The Trip.  Starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern and Susan Strasberg, and written by Corman veteran Jack Nicholson, The Trip was the ultimate expose on the newest drug to hit the mean streets: LSD.  Using highly-experimental editing, directing, and production design, the film attempted to replicate the experience of tripping for viewers, thereby providing them with the sobering reality of just what this substance was capable of doing to the human brain.

However, while entering production on the film, Roger Corman realized that there was a slight problem: he had never touched LSD a day in his life.  “When I decided to make The Trip,” he explained in an interview back in 2010, “I felt as a director [that] I cannot make a film about LSD without trying LSD.” To that end, Corman decided that, in order to tell a story about tripping, he absolutely needed to experience a trip of his own.  With his then assistant Frances Doel ready to observe and take notes, Roger took the plunge and dropped a healthy dose of LSD.  “I had had a wonderful trip, a spectacular trip,” he recalled in the same interview.  And so, armed with both his own LSD experience and the testimony of writer Jack Nicholson (who, unlike Roger, had apparently had one or two bad trips), the “King of the B’s” set out to make his movie.

Now that’s what I call dedication.

So, why exactly am I mentioning this in a discussion about Yoshimitsu Banno’s 1971 anti-pollution opus Godzilla vs. Hedorah?

Well, it’s to say this: while crafting a novelization of Hedorah that honors and preserves the original intent of the film is paramount to me, there are some things I just refuse to do.  I may be dedicated, but not, you know… THAT dedicated.

Long story short, I will NOT be dropping LSD for the sake of novelizing a trippy monster movie.

With that (hopefully) humorous anecdote out of the way, it’s time to move into the meat of this Monster Musing: just what I AM willing to do to ensure that my adaptation of Hedorah is faithful to the tone, intent, and perhaps most importantly, the visuals of the film.

Writing giant monster stories comes with a set of challenges that anyone who has ever given it a go will surely have experience with. Chief among these is the visual nature of a monster story; giant, city-crushing beasties are things that beg to be seen, and all the fluffy adjectives and descriptive terms in the world can never quite equal the sight of a creature wreaking havoc in front of your eyes. This is particularly true of Japanese kaiju eiga, which are fundamentally dependent on their visual appeal. A book can be well written and highly evocative, but words aren’t special effects. This creates a challenge for anyone attempting to translate the elements of a kaiju film to the written word. A balance must be found between describing what’s happening and allowing the imagination to take over. Too much description can start to feel like a boring synopsis, and too little fails to capture the visual spirit of the genre. It’s definitely a challenge, and one that I enjoy immensely while writing for the GODZILLA NOVELIZATION PROJECT.

But Godzilla vs. Hedorah presents an entirely new level of difficulty. On top of preserving the spirit of kaiju eiga through words alone, the film hurls visual concepts at the viewer like an overzealous ninja with a surplus of throwing stars. Over the course of 90-or-so minutes of screen time, Yoshimitsu Banno presents us, the audience, with the following imagery: sheets of polluted slime covered in dead fish, a dismembered female manikin floating in said slime, a symbolic clock sinking into the contaminated ocean, jars full of mutated sea life, an ocean floor littered with garbage and animal corpses, three animated segments with political cartoon-esque implications, living slime that eats adults, babies, cars, and (at least until it thinks the better of it) cats, cartoons explaining constellations and nuclear fission, people dissolving into slimy skeletons via optical effects, a screaming crowd filmed in a kind of drug-induced Brady Bunch-Vision™, a one-minute-long black-and-white scene that comes out of nowhere, distorted point-of-view shots from the monsters, the ghostly visages of disapproving old guys watching teenage partiers, and, of course, a nightclub with a dancing hippie girl in body paint (actualy a tight body suit), a screen displaying pulsating blobs and dancing skeletons, and a dude so baked he starts hallucinating that his fellow revelers have fish for heads.

Whew. You got all that?

Needless to say, Godzilla vs. Hedorah is a film that lives or dies (depending on your point of view) on its visuals. The imagery and bizarre style of the film has been controversial since its release back in 1971, but no matter what your opinion of the film might be, one thing is undeniable: its visuals are completely unique and unlike anything seen in the Godzilla series before or since its debut.

In other words, I have my work cut out for me.

Hedorah was one of the earliest novelizations I began for the GNP, and I very quickly realized that adapting the film to the written word wouldn’t be an easy task. In fact, it became quite clear that this particular novel would have to be handled less as an “adaptation” and more as a “translation”. Banno-san, for all intents and purposes, is speaking his own language in this film, and capturing the elements that made his vision for the film so memorable would require learning that language thoroughly.

So… how do you do that? How exactly can such unique images be converted into words in a way that does the material justice?

Well, I must confess that I’m still working on ways to adapt a few of those elements. However, I do have a plan of attack, and it has so far resulted in positive feedback from readers. And that plan of attack comes down to one INCREDIBLY important word when dealing with the understanding of Banno and his film: purpose.

Let me explain.

If you jump up a couple of paragraphs and skim that huge list of weird things that happen in the movie, the obvious reaction is to interpret all that bizarre stuff as random. It’s a descriptor I’ve heard leveled at this film more times than I care to recount. The film, it seems, is filled with random imagery. Random fish heads, random animated segments, random slime babies, and more. Indeed, I’ve heard this film described as the most random Godzilla film in the series.

But consider this: is all that stuff really random?

Well, as strange as it may be to consider, the answer is no.

And therein lies the rub.

In the end, the key to understanding Banno’s vision for the film is understanding the intentions behind his seemingly-random creative choices. These choices may be odd or, again, seemingly random, but they are in the film for a reason.  A choice was made to include them, and that choice represented something that Banno was trying to communicate.  And it is understanding that communication that allows for the intent to be transferred into a different medium (in this case, a book) in a way that hopefully comes across as authentic, and true to the director’s vision.

In other words, I have to understand Banno-san’s purpose, and then transfer it into prose. That, dear friends, is my challenge.

With all of that said, I don’t wish to present the meaning and significance of this film as some sort of impossible-to-open box to which only I hold the key. Doing so would be the ultimate form of arrogance and pomposity, not to mention wholly inaccurate. I’m certainly not some sort of genius who cracked an uncrackable code. The purpose and intention behind Banno-san’s work on this film has been debated, analyzed, and all but obsessed over for several generations now, and much of the film’s bizarre imagery has widely-accepted explanations. The sinking clock represents time running out for mankind, the film’s rampant fish imagery could relate to nature and its corruption (Japan has a long and proud history with fish and fishing, after all), the cartoons are a visually-appealing form of storytelling shorthand that was capitalizing on the rising popularity of anime and manga, and so on.

It all boils down to this: deciphering the meaning behind these moments and concepts (while obviously pivotal to the retelling of the story as a book) isn’t my biggest challenge. Translating that meaning and the emotions those images elicit in the viewer’s mind is.

Understanding why Banno-san filmed a clock sinking into a polluted ocean is one thing, but recreating those same emotions using only words is another. How do you write a scene like the Brady Bunch-Vision™ screaming crowd sequence, or the black-and-white prelude to the Mt. Fuji party? Do I write in jumbled words meant to simulate a cacophonous merging of human voices, or describe the landscape of Fuji in dour language that somehow implies sepia tones? Are such things even possible to pull off with mere words, or would the experience of reading the story as a book be better suited if I abandoned trying to replicate such imagery altogether?

Lots of questions, and all of them need definitive answering if this book is to be completed in a timely fashion.

But I must admit, it’s this challenge that keeps me writing. It was the promise of this challenge that prompted me to start the book so early in the GNP’s history, and a big reason why this particular novelization is the farthest along of any book that is currently part of the project. The idea of tackling the translation of such memorable imagery fuels my continued writing, rewriting, research, and experimentation with this adaptation, and it has led to a couple of interesting attempts at bringing the film’s unique concepts into the novel medium.

One of the earliest examples of weirdness in the film (after the haunting opening credits, of course) is the appearance of the first animated segment. This short cartoon (which I refer to as the “Happy Hedorah” segment) features an anthropomorphic Smog Monster gleefully chugging oil from a crushed tanker as dead fish float around him and background smokestacks spew toxins into the air. The intent within the context of the film is to present the social implications of Hedorah’s nature to the audience in the same manner as a political cartoon. The film’s following two animated segments featuring the monster – one in which a greenery-consuming factory is itself eaten by Hedorah, and another in which Hedorah flies over Tokyo with an ad for gas masks dangling from his belly – serve an identical purpose. In other words, these segments are essentially political cartoons being presented directly to the viewer.

And finding an organic place for the first one within my adaptation was one of my first challenges when beginning the writing process.

After some deliberation and experimenting, I hit on a concept that I thought might work. For those who have read Chapter 3 of the novelization, you’ll remember that there’s a moment in the second half of the chapter where Dr. Yano sees the “Happy Hedorah” cartoon playing on his TV. The chapter is really a deep dive into Yano’s thought process and trauma following his encounter with the monster in the bay. The moment I described in the chapter – which sees Yano, unable to sleep, rise from his cot and switch on the television – doesn’t appear in the film, but I felt that including it not only gave me the opportunity to really explore how the encounter effected Yano’s mental state, but also to incorporate both the news report seen in the film and the first Hedorah cartoon. The solution was to include the cartoon as, well, an actual cartoon that exists within the universe of the film. After the attacks at sea continued, someone out there created this bizarre little political statement and, for whatever reason, it ended up on TV.

It seemed like an appropriate way to work it into the narrative, and this experiment has, so far, been rewarded by lots of positive reactions from GNP readers. For that, I couldn’t be more grateful, and relieved!

That said, this approach won’t work for every “weird Banno” moment. The aforementioned screaming montage and B&W sequence will be a bit trickier to incorporate organically, if they can effectively be included at all. But I truly think that there is a solution to each challenge this adaptation throws at me. Even after more than 20 years of watching, re-watching, and loving this strange little movie, it still finds ways to challenge and inspire me. No matter what hurdles (or how many fish heads) this novelization throws at me, I consider it an absolute honor to be standing on the shoulders of Yoshimitsu Banno. In the end, my own humble attempts to translate his work pale in comparison to the raw creativity and cinematic bravery it took to bring Godzilla vs. Hedorah to the screen. The film will no doubt continue to entertain, befuddle, and hopefully enlighten viewers for generations to come, and that is surely a testament to the unique and talented man who created it. I dearly hope that, even if only in the smallest of ways, the GNP’s adaptation will honor Banno-san, as well as the vision and purpose behind the production of this incredibly strange – and incredibly special – Godzilla film.

Just don’t expect me to drop LSD in order to successfully pull it off. Say no to drugs, kids.

 

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