Sunday, June 17, 2007

Random Movie Report #28: Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster

After their release of the original GODZILLA, Classic Media have decided to follow up with slim-case special editions of the other kaiju films in their library. I’ve had a few for a while, and instead of actually going in chronological order, I’m going to first review the one I’ve watched most recently. I may get to the others afterwards.

GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER may well mark a high point for the Godzilla series in the sixties. It was a good decade for the big guy, as Toho Studios produced an increasingly elaborate and epic series of monster mash-ups, bursting with color, imagination, and humor. It was an odd career move for a monster created as an allegory for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but audiences, especially children, found themselves cheering him on. And so Toho, having portrayed him as the heavy for four movies, decided to soften up the character just a bit. Hence, this film, in which Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra- the three biggest stars in Toho’s monster lineup- confront the greater evil of a golden outer space dragon named King Ghidorah. The DVD of this film contains both the American and Japanese versions, though they don’t differ significantly from each other as far as I could tell.

It’s January, and despite this there’s a massive heatwave in Japan, as well as shooting stars and other phenomena that UFO believers think is pointing to something very unusual happening. The shooting stars actually lead up to a meteor impact up in a remote mountain range, and Professor Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi) leads an expedition which finds a glowing, magnetic meteorite. Meanwhile, Mas Selina Salno (Akiko Wakabayashi), a visiting princess from the made-up country of Sergina, is on her way to Japan when her plane is blown up by assassins. She’s assumed dead, but actually was whisked away by a UFO moments before, and soon turns up in Japan claiming to be a Venusian (Martian in the US version), warning the people of great disaster. This attracts the attention of reporter Naoko Shindo (Yuriko Hoshi), as well as her brother (Yosuke Natsuki), a detective who had been assigned as bodyguard to the princess before she was presumed dead. The Venusian girl’s predictions of terror quickly start coming true, first when the monster Rodan emerges from under a volcano, second when Godzilla arrives from the sea. The two monsters begin to do battle (as they are wont to do), but their destructive melee is just the prelude. The meteorite “hatches”, unleashing a ball of flame that forms into King Ghidorah, our titular menace. According to Princess Salno, the space monster Ghidorah managed to destroy all life on Venus and intends to do the same for Earth. The military really doesn’t even try to stop the monster this time; instead, Naoko and the Professor hit on the idea of asking the good-hearted Mothra and her tiny twin fairy guardians (Emi and Yumi Ito) for help, with the so-outrageous-it-just-might-work plan of getting Mothra to convince Godzilla and Rodan to team up and fight this new menace.

I could not write that last sentence without breaking into a smile. This is the film that really cemented Toho’s attitude towards their stable of monsters; not giant animals, not plausible sci-fi menaces, but goofy mythological figures with distinct, almost-human personalities, living in a larger-than-life world. There is a reckless joy in the film’s seemingly-random plundering of comic book concepts and genre conventions; you have gunplay with assassins (led by the ever-sunglassed Hisaya Ito), alien prophecies, three returning kaiju plus one brand-new one (Godzilla had fought other monsters one-on-one up to this point, but nothing like this melange had been seen since the Universal horror romps of the forties), even a musical number. It’s all done with a sense of good humor and playfulness, the height of which is a brilliant scene in which Mothra actually “talks” with Godzilla and Rodan, the fairies translating. It almost comes across as a goofy kind of political negotiation, and in the dubbed version gives us the immortal line, “Oh, Godzilla, such terrible language!”

Camp is a bit of a dirty word within Godzilla fandom, not without reason. The series’ decline and hiatus in the Seventies was seen to result from the movies having become too childish and cheesy, and the nadir of this approach (1973’s GODZILLA VS. MEGALON) bears the odd distinction of being one of the most widely seen Godzilla films in America, thanks to a 1976 TV airing hosted by John Belushi in a monster suit and the film’s confused stint in the public domain thereafter. But in this film, and in most of the sixties films, there is a kind of balance; the filmmakers know that what they’re showing is outlandish and silly, and they acknowledge it, but they don’t let it get in the way of the excitement. To stereotype broadly, the Japanese have never been quite as hung up on “realism” in fiction the way we are; their standards for suspension of disbelief are such that giant monster peace talks and tiny singing fairies just barely stretch credulity. It also helped that this was the Sixties, a decade in which lighthearted surrealism was rapidly becoming the “in” thing. To be sure, this is a lavish spectacle; the miniatures are detailed, the monsters imaginatively designed, the music brassy and vivid, the cinematography lush and colorful. The actors all come across as game, doing solid turns despite the fact that they’re really not the stars.

GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER was a watershed for the series in many ways. It set Godzilla on the track towards becoming a hero. It established all of Toho’s kaiju as existing in a shared universe, available to fight each other whenever the studio came up with a good grouping. Most importantly, it established said universe as one where all sorts of weird and magical things could happen, where the boundary between science fiction and fantasy was non-existent, and where giants not only roamed and fought, but occasionally had a good argument as well. (And if I keep coming back to that scene, well, it’s sort of a litmus test for just how much you’re going to like these kinds of movies to start with.) There’s no doubt in my mind that the original GODZILLA is the best in the series, and a high point of the science fiction genre; that said, if you want to see the best example of a “Godzilla movie”, this is it.

Written by Shinichi Sekizawa
Directed by Inoshiro Honda

Grade: A

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