With the amazing success of the rather goofy King Kong vs. Godzilla, it’s not surprising that the franchise would continue in that rather campy direction and if people wanted to see giant monsters duking it out then by god that’s what Toho Studios would give them. With this in mind Ishirō Honda followed up King Kong vs. Godzilla with another successful monster fight Mothra vs. Godzilla and then with the age-old adage of “Go bigger or go home” he released the mother of all monsters fights the very same year, a movie that would star Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra and pit them against the three-headed outer-space menace of King Ghidorah.
If while watching Godzilla stomp through the cities of Japan, fighting various other giant monsters and military forces, and if you thought to yourself “This movie could do with some international intrigue and spy stuff” then this is the movie for you. A kaiju movie cannot be just ninety-odd minutes of guys in monster suits wailing on each other, though my four-year-old nieces would argue this point as any time there is a human on screen they are yelling out “Monster fights!” and asking me to fast forward to the good stuff, but not only would that get kind of exhausting Toho Studios certainly couldn’t afford it. So though this movie does contain a roster of Toho’s top monsters much of the screen time deals with a princess, who may or may not be an alien and a prophetess, being pursued by would-be assassins.
The movie opens with shooting stars that interrupt a meeting of a group of UFO enthusiasts who were waiting around for a message from outer space, they blame no alien responses on the nosey reporter and “unbeliever” Naoko Shindo (Yuriko Hoshi), but it’s the big meteorite that lands up in the mountains that becomes the big concern. Assistant professor Murai (Hiroshi Koizumi) is sent to investigate the asteroid and discovers it has strange gravitational properties. Meanwhile, Detective Shindo (Yosuke Natsuki) is assigned by his boss Okita (Akihiko Hirata) to bodyguard Princess Selina Salno of Selgina (Akiko Wakabayashi) who is to visit Japan as there is a concern that an attempt may be made on her life. That the plane carrying the princess explodes on its way to Japan seems to indicate that there may something to that concern. Seeing her escape the plane, while still midair, by some of those shooting stars, is just the beginning of this craziness. Shortly after this “assassination”, a strange and beautiful woman shows up proclaiming she is from Jupiter and she starts issuing prophecies about the world being on the brink of destruction, and despite the fact that she’s not wearing the royal jewels of the princess Detective Shindo is sure that this prophetess is the presumed dead princess. Her first prophecy is of a disaster that is to occur at Mount Aso, the place where Rodan met his demise.
While the mysterious prophetess is running around declaring the sky is falling we get an interlude of a televised variety show called “What are they doing now?” where this week’s guest stars are the Shobijin fairies (Emi and Yumi Ito) from Infant Island, and it’s clear that despite all the destruction caused by Mothra the people of Japan clearly love the creature and her tiny envoys. I guess helping defeat Godzilla earns you lots of goodwill. Then just when the fairies are about to set sail back home the Prophetess shows up to state that the ship they are about to set sail on is doomed. The captain and passengers laugh off such a claim and thus they all die when Godzilla shows up and flash fries them.
Meanwhile, the nefarious assassins are sent to find out if this prophetess, who looks so much like the princess they were sent to kill, is, in fact, Princess Selina. Then in a coincidence that is usually relegated to French farces, it turns out the assassins are staying at the same hotel that Naoko brings the prophetess back for an interview. Lucky for our heroes the princess is saved by the twin fairies, they had taken the prophecy seriously and got off the ship, and are able to thwart this second attempt on the princesses’ life. Later when Detective Shindo takes the princess/prophetess to a psychiatrist to find out if she’s actually from outer space, or just your garden variety nut job, the assassins make another attempt on her life but it is thwarted when the nearby Rodan and Godzilla’s take out some powerlines during there brawl. The princess was just going to undergo shock treatment while the assassins had snuck into the facility to change the power setting to “murder” but then the power goes out just in the nick of time.
Now we’re almost an hour into this ninety-minute movie and we haven’t even seen the title monster yet but that is soon rectified when the meteorite Professor Murai was studying explodes and Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster bursts forth. We get the standard scenes of wanton city destruction with the added bonus of the lightning the bursts from the creatures three wobbling heads. We don’t know much about King Ghidorah except that according to the Prophetess centuries ago it destroyed Jupiter and her people were forced to flee to Earth and have since bred with the Earthlings over the centuries. Now don’t ask me to explain how this genetic memory is supposed to work or what that has to do with the shooting stars that rescued her from the sabotaged plane because the movie doesn’t bother to either. There’s no time for that as the big monster fight is about to unfold.
With the destruction of Earth being imminent the authorities turn to the twin fairies to ask for their help, yet even though the Shobijin agree to request Mothra’s aid they do not believe she can defeat Ghidorah alone and state that they must get assistance from both Godzilla and Rodan if there is to be any chance of success. This does bring up an interesting question, “What exactly is the relationship between the various kaiju?” It seems that if two giant monsters arrive at the same location they are honour-bound to fight, doesn’t matter if they have a past grievance or not. When Godzilla wades ashore, after destroying that ocean liner, he soon spots Rodan and the two start fighting despite never having met before. Is it some ingrained animosity these monsters have towards their fellow kaiju? Yet Mothra’s plan is to ask these two giant frat boys to stop their personal bickering and team-up to fight King Ghidorah. Worse is that earlier this year the Mothra twins kicked Godzilla’s butt which is certainly more of a reason for Godzilla to want to fight Mothra rather than some three-headed interloper.
It’s during this big finale that things start to get really goofy, Godzilla is no longer the terrifying force of nature he once was as he’s now more like Ralph Kramden to Rodan’s Ed Norton and Mothra is the stand-in for Alice.
The entire exchange between Mothra, Godzilla and Rodan does feel more like a comedy bit you’d expect to see on an episode of The Honeymooners or maybe the Three Stooges, certainly not in a titanic struggle between legendary behemoths. Then to make things extra silly we have the two fairies showing up to translate for the monsters so that the humans can know what’s going, and it’s as ridiculous as it sounds. Here is a rough breakdown of the monster debate…
• Godzilla and Rodan are found volleying rocks back and forth at each other as if participating in some form of mad tennis.
• Mothra shows up and sprays Godzilla with her cocooning spray.
• Rodan laughs at the hilarity of this.
• Mothra then sprays Rodan.
• Godzilla drops to his butt for a good laugh at that.
• Mothra says, “Let’s stop fighting each other and unite against King Ghidorah.”
• Godzilla and Rodan say it’s none of their business. They don’t care.
• Godzilla says he has no reason to help humans. Humans always make trouble.
• Rodan says he agrees with that.
• Mothra says this fighting is of no use. But Godzilla and Rodan both want an apology.
• Mothra tells them the Earth doesn’t belong to just humans. It’s theirs too, so they should defend it.
• Godzilla and Rodan remain unconvinced so Mothra scurries off to fight Ghidorah alone.
The idea of a group of monsters having a philosophical debate while a couple of tine fairies provide colour commentary as if they were translators from the Monster Island version of the United Nations, is bizarre beyond words and also kind of brilliant. Some fans decry this more comic take on Godzilla and blame it for the eventually shut down of the series in the mid-70s, but as the franchise has never been prone to having any form of consistent continuity in tone or story I consider this take on Godzilla to be as valid as any other.
These later Shōwa period entries may be goofy but they’re also a lot of fun, when Godzilla sees Mothra getting beaten on by King Ghidorah he rushes to the little guy’s aid as if to say, “Nobody picks on my little buddy.” Rodan apparently feeling left out joins in and even allows Mothra to ride on his back, giving the little guy the ability to fire his spray from the air. The fight is over-the-top in its insanity with Mothra holding on to Ghidorah’s tails while the three-headed monster zaps Godzilla in the butt with his lightning, and Rodan buffeting the space monster with a storm of rocks. Ghidorah isn’t so much defeated as more likely he was so just embarrassed that he up and leaves.
Now director Ishirō Honda was not a particular fan of the comic turn the series took but like any working professional, he did the best he could with the material on hand, working the human stories into the monster fighting while also making the interesting has always been tricky business, and the introduction of the spy element and alien themes certainly helped. In the case of Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster the amnesiac princess from Jupiter being hunted by assassins does tangentially get the humans involved beyond being mere witnesses, and though it is resolved rather abruptly (the final assassin is killed by a landslide caused by the monster fight and the princess being wounded brings back her memory) it’s still satisfying. So even though Detective Shindo manages to save the princess it’s clear that the heroes of the day are Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra.
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is a fun romp with everyone’s favorite monsters teaming up to defeat a common foe. The darker more serious tone may be gone but the new comic take is just as entertaining in its own way.