Monday, February 24, 2014

60 Years of Godzilla - Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster

When bad monsters turn good.

King Kong vs. Godzilla, Godzilla's triumphant return to the screen seven years after 1955's Godzilla Raids Again, proved to be so successful that Toho Studios was all-in on continuing the monster's cinematic adventures. When the follow-up Mothra vs. Godzilla reached Japanese theatres at the end of April 1964, wheels were already in motion to get a direct sequel made.

Mothra screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa wrote up a script and the crew of director Ishirô Honda, cinematographer Hajime Koizumi, special effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya, and composer Akira Ifukube quickly reunited to bring it to life.

Up to this point, the kaiju threats in Toho's movies had been earthbound horrors; legendary and/or ancient creatures usually awakened by nuclear bomb detonations, rising from the depths of the sea, from within the ground, from being entombed in ice... With Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, the scope of the Godzilla series expands into outer space.

It's January in Japan, but the country has been experiencing a highly unusual heatwave. A group of scientists and astronomers have gathered on a rooftop at night, hoping to communicate with otherworldly visitors in flying saucers, which they seem to have been in contact with before because they're very positive that they should be able to talk to the saucer people tonight. When the flying saucers don't appear in the sky, female reporter Naoko Shindo (played by Yuriko Hoshi, who portrayed newspaper photographer Junko Nakanishi in the previous film) is blamed for the no-show since she's only outsider in the group. She's skeptical about the existence of flying saucers, and the saucer people must have been able to read the mistrust in her brainwaves. It's imperative that the scientists be able to communicate with the aliens because strange things have been occurring (such as the current heatwave), not just in our own galaxy but in the extra-galactic systems as well. They fear that something terrible is about to happen.

The flying saucers don't show up, but those gathered on the rooftop are witness to a meteor shower, the likes of which have been happening all around the planet lately. This time, one of the meteors slams into the Japanese countryside near Kurobe Dam.

Mothra vs. Godzilla character Professor Miura returns (with Hiroshi Koizumi reprising the role) to lead a team to investigate the fallen meteor. As they trek through the mountainous area where the large space rock landed their compasses lose accuracy, and when they get near the  rock it draws their metal equipment toward it. As time passes, the meteor gradually expands...

Naoko's police detective brother is assigned to be bodyguard to Princess Selina Salno of the Himalayan country of Selgina when she arrives for an unofficial visit to Japan, as there have been assassination threats against her. Detective Shindo doesn't get a chance to protect the Princess - her plane explodes en route.

Princess Selina is assumed dead, but moments before the plane exploded she witnessed a bright light in the sky outside and a supernatural voice advised her to escape from the plane. In a trance, she opened the door and stepped out without a parachute, apparently entering a gap between dimensions... The next day, the Princess is alive in Japan, having traded her royal finery for street clothes, claiming to be a prophetess from Venus (or Mars in the English dubbed version, and Jupiter in the subtitles I read.) She has no memory of being Princess Selina of Selgina.

Shindo recognizes the Princess in a picture accompanying a newspaper article his sister writes about the street prophet and seeks to find her... and he's not the only one. The interest her prophecies draw to her also catches the attention of her failed assassins, who are working under the orders of her uncle the King and are led by a man called Malmess, who travels to Japan to hunt her down and finish the job.

Selina's predictions concern the returns or arrivals of various monsters to Japan, and they soon begin to come true. The Pteranodon Rodan bursts out of a crater at Mt. Aso, where the creature had seemed to be killed in lava at the end of its 1956 solo film

The one foot tall twin Shobijin "fairies" of Infant Island, home of Mothra, have such a good relationship with the people of Japan now that they even make a celebrity appearance on a "Where Are They Now?" television show to give an update on how Mothra's doing. There were two larval Mothras at the end of Mothra vs. Godzilla, but now only one remains alive, the other died between films for unexplained reasons. The Shobijin are about to catch a ship back to Infant Island when the prophetess Princess arrives and warns that the ship is in danger. The Shobijin stay behind, and the ship does indeed get destroyed at sea when Godzilla rises up out of the ocean at the 39 minute point and blasts it with his atomic breath.

For the first time, the same Godzilla suit was used for two movies back-to-back, with Eiji Tsuburaya modifying the Mothra vs. Godzilla suit to repair the damages it incurred during the filming of the previous film and to fix its wobbly jaw. Haruo Nakajima, who had been playing Godzilla since the series began, was again the man in the suit for this one.

While Godzilla makes his way across mainland Japan, this time with Rodan circling in the sky above, Miura and his research team continue to observe strange things from the expanding meteor and Naoko, Shindo, and the Shobijin take Princess Selina into their care as the assassins close in on her.

The explanation for Selina's condition seems to be that she's a descendant of Venusians who long ago came to Earth, living and mingling with Earthling humans. Though the descendants of those Venusians look like regular people, they do have one trait left over that all Venusians had: telepathy. That's how the essence of a long dead Venusian has been able to take control of her mind. The Venusian in Selina's head warns that there is still one more monster for the world to contend with, the monster that long ago turned the inhabited and advanced planet of Venus into the dead world that it is now, and will do the same to Earth if nothing is done to stop it. A monster known as King Ghidorah. A monster that is already on our planet.

As Miura and his team look on in horror, the meteor splits open, an otherworldy flame erupts from within, and in the sky it takes the form of the titular three-headed monster King Ghidorah, a winged, dragon-like creature. 

Up to this point in the Godzilla films, we have seen several clashes between giant monsters, but this film presents for the first time the idea of giant monsters teaming up with each other to face a greater threat. The only hope Earth has at defeating the world-destroying King Ghidorah is if Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra join forces against it. The Shobijin telepathically call the larval Mothra to Japan so she can try to enlist Godzilla and Rodan's help... but the chances of this alliance happening don't look promising. While King Ghidorah causes mass destruction by flying around Japan, blasting things with the devastating energy rays that he can emit from each of his three mouths, Godzilla and Rodan are busy fighting with each other.

For most of its running time, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster has a dark and serious tone, the storyline is intriguing and convoluted, the aspect of the Venusian mind meld and the monster prophecies adding a strange new level of science fiction and the supernatural to the Godzilla series. Once Mothra arrives to try to lead Godzilla and Rodan on a charge against King Ghidorah, the film really starts appealing directly to the children in the audience and moments get exceptionally silly.

The fight between Godzilla and Rodan devolves into a sort of sporting match with the two monsters headbutting rocks back and forth as Mothra turns its head to watch the rocks bounce like she's observing a tennis game or something. The monsters bodily "laugh" at each other's misfortune. And then they stand around and have a conversation, speaking their own monster language that the Shobijin translate for the humans who are watching all of this go on. Godzilla and Rodan refuse to fight King Ghidorah, they don't care what happens to humans, people have caused them nothing but trouble. Mothra tries to convince them that they need to defend the world, it's their planet just as much as it is any other creature's... But Godzilla and Rodan aren't having it.

Mothra goes off to fight King Ghidorah alone, and just as it looks like the space monster is going to kill the larva with no effort at all, Godzilla and Rodan come onto the scene to save the day.

As Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan battle King Ghidorah with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, Shindo must try to protect Princess Selina from the persistant assassin Malmess, who had also previously killed her father.

Will Earth's monsters save it from this otherworldy threat? Will the villainous Malmess succeed in his assassination attempt? Will Selina ever get control back over her own mind? Watch Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster and find out!

This film first reached Japanese theatres on December 20, 1964, just under (nine days shy) eight months after the release of Mothra vs. Godzilla. This was the first entry in the Godzilla series to receive a release in December, which would eventually become the traditional month for Godzilla movies to come out in.

Three-Headed Monster was put together quickly, but that doesn't show through as much as it does in some monster movies that were put it within months of their predecessor (The Son of Kong or Godzilla Raids Again). However, the fast production may be the reason why so much of the monster action takes place in desolate locations rather than in model cities. The story is surprisingly complicated for a movie of this type, and it holds up in a satisfactory manner despite some plot points being left dangling. We never do find out how Selina's situation at home is resolved, nor do we see the flying saucer people the astronomers at the beginning are trying to contact. 

It's an entertaining film, my only issue is that once King Ghidorah shows up the weight of his threat is not felt. This is an apocalyptic situation, but there's goofiness among the monsters, the tone doesn't feel like the stakes are as great as we're told they are. Shinichi Sekizawa came up with a great scenario with the human characters, a set-up that is interesting, oddball, and even kind of creepy to me, but the monster brawl is entirely aimed at the children in the audience. King Ghidorah is going to destroy our planet, he should be the thing of nightmares, but instead he's making Godzilla hop around because he has zapped him in the butt. It's fun and all, it's just not what the rest of the film felt like it was building up to.

The character of Godzilla makes a change in the final act of this film. After hearing Mothra's plea, the monster decides to change his life around when he wades into battle with King Ghidorah. That's the moment at which Godzilla truly goes from being the horrific, villainous "nuclear bomb in the flesh" monster that he has been since the beginning to becoming a more heroic figure, a move that enhanced his cinematic longevity.

King Ghidorah may not have been treated with the gravitas I wish he had been on this film, but Toho realized they had a great villain on their hands. Ghidorah would return... In fact, he would have a rematch with Godzilla and Rodan just one year later.

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