We can pussyfoot around, or we can be frank: Godzilla vs. Hedorah, from 1971, is the god-damn weirdest of all Godzilla films, and it puts in a superlative argument for being the god-damn weirdest giant monster movie that Toho ever put its name to. This is a truth largely unrelated to judgments of good and bad - Godzilla vs. Hedorah essentially transcends such judgments, anyway.

It was the first and only Godzilla film directed by Banno Yoshimitsu, who also co-wrote the story with Kimura Takeshi; the story goes that a hospital-ridden Tanaka Tomoyuki (the series' longtime producer) didn't have a chance to see any of the production until the film was complete, at which point he was so aghast at what Banno had done with the material that he basically interceded to destroy the man's career. A drastic step, and not, I would argue, merited by the film (even in at its most garishly stupid, it's a better movie than the bulk of Fukuda Jun's kiddie Godzilla flicks). But it's easy to understand why the Toho executive would be so horrified by what Banno created. This is peculiar and impossible to categorise at ever level: it's the most horror-driven Godzilla film since the very first Godzilla, 17 years prior, but it's also as baldly eager to court children as the literal kid's fantasy All Monsters Attack in 1969. It has random animated interludes that suggest Ralph Bakshi doing PSAs about pollution for Sesame Street, and random musical interludes in which one of the male leads hallucinates that everybody at a '60s style dance party has fish for heads (actually, these two points aren't all that incompatible). It opens with a James Bond-style credits sequence; its third act kicks in when a bunch of hippies try to hold a peace-in at the base of Mount Fuji to stop a building-size monster made of the living spirit of industrial pollution.

It is, in fact, almost giddily anxious to make no sense as a coherent whole, and while this is what makes it so irresistible to its vocal fanbase (of whom I number - it's easily my favorite of the '70s Godzilla films), it's also what makes it uncommercial and alienating and, by most useful definitions of the word, "bad". Certainly, there is no other Godzilla film where sequences that work like gangbusters and sequences that die onscreen pile up in such equal measure. Most of those sequences which die - though not all of them! - center around the barely-defined human plot, which I'd synopsise as "Suburban family is doing this and then GODZILLA FIGHTING HEDORAH". Storytelling is not, let's say, Godzilla vs. Hedorah's strong suit.

But the human half of the equation, is, anyway centered on the Yano family: Dr. Yano Toru (Yamauchi Akira), an all-purpose B-movie scientist who is first to discover the existence of some kind of pollution-spawned tadpole-like creature that can secrete acid, and grows like a motherfucker as it joins with other beings like it; his wife Toshie (Kimura Toshie), and their son Ken (Kawase Hiroyuke), whose name should be our first clue of how unbelievably close he is to be the perfect Kenny (a character type named for the patron saint of them all, from the English dub of Daiei's 1965 Gamera): the precocious little shitbox kid who goes about explaining how this big monster is the wonderful friend of humanity (in this case, equating Godzilla directly with Superman), while having an inexplicable presence in the story and impact on its development. This particular Ken is responsible for giving Hedorah its name, among other things (if I understand it right, it means something akin to "Sludgezilla"), none of which involve drama, conflict, or narrative in the conventional meanings of those words. The Yanos are friends - or something - with twentysomething Keuchi Yukio (Shiba Toshio) and his girlfriend Fujiyama Miki (Mari Keiko), who have even less of a reason to be involved in the movie than awful little Ken does, with Yukio serving primarily to motivate both the trippy club scene and the Fuji love-in, the two strangest individual elements in a film bursting at the seams with them.

That being said, most of the strangeness centers around the film's inexplicable pop-culture wobbliness, which must be situated in some kind of specifically Japanese marriage of the '60s and the '70s that I simply can't fathom. There are elements of the design in the more hippiefied moments that feel every bit of ten years out of date, but the score by Manabe Riichirō (who did come back for another Godzilla film, though he was ne less responsible for the film's uncharacteristic feeling than Banno) has a kind of tuneless, brassy funk to it - the main Godzilla theme is a pseudocomic braying - that looks forward as much as it looks back, though mostly it's looking to the side at some place that I can't imagine. There's even a touch of period drag to the way that the whole thing, viewed from the right angle, feels like a very earnest Family Message Picture of a kind that the '70s perfected, teaching us about ecology and industrial waste in a way that could not feel more bound to the early '70s, the only time that this topic was fresh and new enough to justify the lecturing that happens in the movie, but established enough to serve as the backbone for what was, after all, a shlocky B-picture.

And there's the tonal shifting, which I've alluded to, but let's really dig into it: Godzilla vs. Hedorah is an absolutely bizarre mixture of tones. When I call it the most horrifying Godzilla film since 1954, I'm only being accurate: it shows melted human skeletons surrounded by ragged clothes, and the scarring effects of Hedorah's acid are depicted with nary a trace of restraint or consideration For The Children. Yet it also has a pronounced vein of sly humor, sometimes even intersecting with the horror; in one sequence, Hedorah's attack leaves a mewling kitten coated in toxic goo, a shot that manages to be shocking and disturbing and goofy and absurd in one tight package. And this is, famously, the film where Godzilla uses his radioactive fire breath as a jet engine to fly through the air, quite possibly the dumbest - and most awesomely dumb - sight in any Godzilla film ever made. Banno has claimed that this was an attempt to lighten the mood after so much bleakness in the film, and it certainly does that, though I am not convinced it does it gracefully or well. It is, however, one of the most vivid memories I have of even my earliest viewing of the film (this was, in fact, my first Godzilla picture, eons ago), and I suspect I'm not alone in that. Minimally, it's not something you can get anywhere else, and the go-for-broke lack of giving a fuck is amazing even as it's terrible and stupid.

And Banno was right that the film had been pretty grim up to that point: the fighting between Godzilla and Hedorah is both some of the longest and most brutal in any of the Godzilla vs... films. Partially because of Hedorah itself, one of the most peculiar daikaiju in any Toho film (the effects were directed by Nakano Teruyoshi, an assistant of the late Tsuburaya Eiji being promoted for this and the remaining '70s Godzilla pictures), taking as it does four different forms - one of them a flying saucer made of sludge with glowing eyes! - but also, thanks to the pitch-black sets where most of the action is staged, one of the most impeccably creepy. It's a seriously junky looking combination of rags and plastic eyes, but light those eyes up and have them the only visible illumination in a black screen, and the thing is terrifying (the suit performance by kaiju first-timer Nakayama Kengo is pretty fantastic as well).

Moreover, the staging of the battles are among the most unique in this era of Godzilla films. There's not any of the wrestling moves that had entered the series, and no animal brutality: watching Godzilla and Hedorah studying each other in the slow lead-up to each fight is like watching a chess match as much as it is an action setpiece. This is the most cunning and thoughtful and human-like we've ever seen Godzilla or any of his opponents act, which has its good and bad points: the bad is that he feels very little like Godzilla (the inexplicable way that he simply appears from nowhere in the movie to do battle, officially turning into a pro-humanity superhero with this entry, also feels very little like Godzilla), but the good is that the fights are among the most subtle and inventive that he was ever involved with. The Destroy All Monsters suit, now making its third appearance, was beginning to look pretty shabby, but Nakajima Haruo invests it with enough personality that Godzilla still feels more like a character than a rubber prop.

All of the good, and all of the bizarreness, are certainly enough for me to remain captivated by the film even when it is frustratingly random and arbitrary, and this happens often. Godzilla vs. Hedorah is an unabashed mess, but it is the most giddy, exciting kind of all, and while I imagine that it's total uniqueness within the Godzilla canon is as much a turn-off to some as it is a turn-on to others, I treasure every moment of this strange horror-comedy-cartoon attempt to rejuvenate an increasingly formulaic genre.