Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1964) Part 2

5. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster
San Daikaiju: Chikyu Saidai no Kessen / 
Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster

By 1964, Toho was in the kaiju business. “Mothra vs. Godzilla” had two of the studio’s most famous monsters facing off. Perhaps following the model set by Universal’s classic monster movies, Toho decided to elevate things even further with their next installment. Godzilla and Mothra would be back. Though he hadn’t been seen since 1956, Toho realized the flying Rodan was able to stand among their greatest creations. More-so then, say, Varan or Maguma anyway. Three popular monsters together wasn’t even enough. It was decided to cook up an even more elaborate kaiju, a villain powerful and dangerous enough that it would require three monsters to take him down. Thus, “Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster” was born.

“Ghidorah’s” ambitions didn’t end there either. The film doesn’t just mash up monsters but genres. The hard sci-fi horror of Godzilla blended well enough with Mothra’s light-fantasy. “Ghidorah” brings in more solid science fiction. Flying saucers, aliens from Venus, spiritual possession and prophecies were added to the mix. James Bond-style espionage was popular at the time and that too was tossed in. With all of these plot elements and monsters, the film still needed to make room for the human characters and their own plot lines. That double-stuffed nature is “Ghidorah’s” biggest problem. There’s so much going on

The film does its best to balance all these competing elements. The story starts with the Shindo siblings, Naoko and her brother. Naoko is a reporter for a supernatural mystery-based television series, interviewing a club of flying saucer devotees. Her brother, meanwhile, is a police detective tasked with protecting the imperiled princess of a near-by nation. The two plot lines collide when the princess disappears off of her airplane right before it explodes. She reappears a few days later, claiming to be a Venusian and predicting monster-related disaster for the world. The princess’ reappearance gets the interest of her assassins, who pursue her throughout the city.

Oh, yeah, also the monsters. Apparently, the events of the last film reaffirmed Infant Island’s trust in Japan as the Shobijin and surviving newly-hatched Mothra larva are willing to appear on a Japanese talk show. In addition to everything else that is going on, a meteor crashed right next to Mt. Aso, showing strange magnetic properties. Professor Miura, Naoko’s would-be suitor, is sent to investigate the meteor. In time, the meteor grows like an egg, its magnetism coming and going. Finally, the rock explodes, the mighty King Ghidorah coming forth.

The plot lines taken on their own aren’t problematic. Naoko, as played by Yuriko Hoshi, makes an especially likable lead. She has great chemistry with Yosuke Natsuki as her brother. The two’s good-natured competition powers the film’s most human moments. My favorite is when the two are at home, fighting over what to watch on the TV with their mother, playfully taunting one another. The male Shindo is immediately smitten with the princess’ picture. When he has an opportunity to meet her, his sister ends up blocking the meeting, an especially cute moment. Once the monsters and assassination plot take center stage, these endearing moments completely disappear, leaving the movie without a human heart.

The espionage part of the plot winds up being the least interesting. The assassins are generic bad guys, wearing sunglasses and fedoras. Their attempts to murder the princess feel out of place with the film. There’s little tension behind the attacks, the princess’ life never seeming in true peril. When the gangsters start messing with the electro-shock therapy machine, the plot line almost turns comical. The shooting and fighting that eventually arise are decent executed, as out of place as they seem. As is typical with these films by know, the monsters swoop in during the last act to kill off the human bad guys.

Centering far more of this plot line then expected is Akiko Wakabayashi’s powerful performance as the princess. She delivers her predictions in a trance-like state, Wakabayashi’s eyes locking forward with intensity. Considering most of her dialogue is actually bold-face exposition, her performance winds up working towards the film’s benefit. Wakabayashi’s best moment is when she rises off the doctor’s table, delivering a monologue about King Ghidorah’s destructive powers and his imminent arrival. Disappointingly, her subplot is resolved in a weak manner. A magic gunshot restores the princess’ original personality without explanation. That’s cheap, silly writing. A small scene between Wakabayashi and Natsuki near the end proves surprisingly sweet, both actors showing the characters’ attachment to one another. Also on the acting front, “Godzilla”-veteran Takashi Shimura puts in another appearance as the psychologist specialist. His performance is standard stuff but it’s nice to see him again.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the monsters yet. The first half-hour of the film is focused on setting up all the sprawling plot lines. Pass the twenty minute mark, Rodan shuffles out of the ashes of Mt. Aso. Soon after, Godzilla lumbers out of the sea, igniting a cruise ship. Rodan puts in some token destruction, sweeping up some buildings with his mach-speed wings. Godzilla mostly stomps around the countryside, not getting a scene of city destruction to himself. The main attraction isn’t the solo acts. Instead, like immortals, giant monsters are inevitably drawn to each other, ready to fight. Despite never crossing paths before, Godzilla and Rodan duel like long-time rivals. The fighting is exaggerated and borderline comical. Rodan peaks at Godzilla’s head, knocking him to the ground with back blows. Godzilla whacks Rodan’s head with his tail or tosses him over his shoulder. Easily, the coolest moment in the fight is when Rodan lifts Godzilla into the sky, dropping him down on a series of electric lines. Even if Rodan’s design is still a little stiff and awkward, the fight is a good time for monster kids.

Like all comic book crossovers, the fights precede a team-up. The anthropomorphizing of Godzilla and co. is completed by this point. Mothra scuttles up to the top of a cliff and tries to reason with the battling beasts. The kaiju don’t flat-out talk, the fairies translating, but they do everything but. Godzilla and Mothra roll their eyes, lulling their heads aside. They reveal a long standing resentment at humanity, an unwillingness to help save the world. Mothra has always been magical but Godzilla and Rodan’s conversation prove a little silly. There are other ridiculous elements. During the battle, Godzilla’s belly rumbles from energy attacks. Both the monsters openly laugh at each other’s misfortune. Godzilla’s not quite a superhero yet, still established as Chaotic Neutral after blowing up a boat. However, the series turn towards kid’s fantasy has irreversibly progressed. Later sequels would solidify this transition but the effect here is tonally uneven.

With everything else going in the movie, the script barely has time to introduce its titular monsters. The hour mark is nearly past when King Ghidorah finally burst from his meteorite. Monster fans are so used to King Ghidorah’s appearance that it might be easy to overlook what an achievement he was. Two massive wings, three slithering heads, two whipping tails, you wonder how Eiji Tsuburaya pulled it off, the wires not even visible. The creature is repeatedly described as massively powerful, capable of destroying entire civilizations. His initial appearance certainly makes an impressive. The monster flies over Tokyo, dissecting the buildings with his multiple lightening blasts. Entire blocks of buildings burst into flames. The monster’s seemingly satanic ability is established in a shot where he destroys a Shinto shrine, Ghidorah frame behind the gate in the distance.

As impressive as King Ghidorah is, he still falls short of his legacy. The four way battle between the heroic monsters and the deadly dragon has some great moment. Seeing Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra gang up on Ghidorah is a good time. Mothra crawling onto Rodan’s back, the two combining into a flying silk blaster, is especially memorable. Godzilla yanking on the monster’s tails is another amusing image. Ultimately though, for such an abominable, destructive force, Ghidorah proves awfully easy to defeat. He gets his heads cocooned, gets tossed over a cliff, and gets a few rocks thrown at him. This proves enough to dispel the mighty King Ghidorah. After all that build-up, it’s a bit of a let-down. The kaiju was naturally too memorable a threat to kill off forever but it certainly leaves the film without a strong climax.

Akira Ifukube once again provides his trademark score. Godzilla and Mothra get their respective themes, both used effectively. Ghidorah’s theme is a low brass note, not unlike King Kong’s theme in the third film. The Peanuts return again as the Shojibin, wondering around on miniature sets and talking in unison. Notably, they even testify in front of the Japanese congress. Once again, the two tiny singers sing an original number, this one about Mothra’s happiness or something. It’s definitely one of the Peanuts’ more sappy numbers and is inexplicably played twice throughout the film.

Like, “Mothra vs. Godzilla,” the film received a fairly respectful English dub. Ifukube’s score is once again replaced with generic library music which is disappointing. However, the second rendition of the Peanuts’ song is cut as well which might be an even trade. A few minor scenes, most involving the princess subplot, are removed and some others are shifted around. The dubbing is inoffensive and the pace is slightly snappier. The most pressing difference is that an “o” is dropped from Ghidorah’s name, rendering him King Ghidrah. It’s a funny little change, considering most of the future films would maintain the Japanese spelling.

“Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster” is ultimately an overstuffed affair. The monster action, though a little silly at times, is still lots of fun. Doubling down on the monsters was a good decision and King Ghidorah remains one of the most iconic kaiju. However, the creature feature is almost forced out by the abundance of story lines, forcing a speedy, unsatisfying wrap-up. Future Toho monster mashes would be better balanced. There’s bound to be some bumps in the road. [Grade: B-] 

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