Monday, January 27, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #5: GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (1964)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ tumblr Rocket Number 09, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!
TRAVIS:
GOJIRA was Toho's first attempt to chase the sci-fi/monster market at a time when creature features dominated the theaters. By the mid 1960s, Godzilla would become a box office trend of his own. Not only would Toho attempt to pump out a G-movie every year, but they'd also squeeze out one or two new kaiju flicks featuring fresh monsters to threaten Japan. These overlapping productions would often include recurring filmmakers such as director Ishiro Honda, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, screenwriters Shinichi Sekizawa and Takeshi Kimura, SFX master Eiji Tsuburya, music composer Akira Ifukube, and suit actor (a.k.a. Godzilla himself) Haruo Nakajima. 1964 was a particularly busy time for them and the studio as MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA was released in April and then followed by DOGORA, THE SPACE MONSTER (a tale of giant jellyfish aliens that devour diamonds) in August. Before the year was over, however, December saw the release of Toho's biggest battle royale to date: GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER!
Here we begin to see the movies intentionally chase after audiences’ tastes of the time. The popularity of the James Bond films was certainly an influence on this particular entry, with the subplot of the royal assasins providing non-kaiju action and suspense in the form of gunfights and chases. This would later be ironic when actress Akiko Wakabayashi (who plays Princess Selina Salno) was cast as Bond girl Aki in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. We've mentioned before how the franchise started to steer towards kid audiences, and it's in GHIDORAH that we see the monsters now fully anthropomorphized. Godzilla and Rodan are the rowdy brothers while stern Mothra tut-tuts their selfishness. Some fans bemoan these changes as childish, but I personally get a kick from seeing them act so petty. Godzilla just keeps lobbing boulders at Rodan's head until he's picked up and dropped crotch-first onto an electrical tower. That's entertainment!
King Ghidorah himself is a spectacular monster and the first true archenemy of the King of the Monsters. The design of the creature was truly meant to be viewed in Toho-Scope (the studio's new fangled widescreen presentation). An impressive gigantic wingspan, three dragon heads that whipped out bolts of electricity, a distinct golden body, and an otherwordly screech make him one of the most memorable monsters in Godzilla history. He would also be the first alien opponent to grapple with Gojira (though he definitely wouldn't be the last). It's a testament to his power and magnitude that he's usually only defeated with the combined efforts of two or more monsters. Luca, in this case, we had FOUR kaiju duking it out! Could you handle it?!
LUCA:
MAHGAAAWWWWDDDDD Travis BAHGAAAAAWWWWDDDD it was truly a royal kaiju rummmmmble! The anthropomorphization of the monsters was the best thing that's happened to the series thus far. With every new movie, I'm having new favorite moments and GHIDORAH was no exception. My favorite bit in this particular movie was no doubt Godzilla sitting down on a boulder to listen to Mothra lecturing him and Rodan about the necessity of their cooperation. And what a couple of petty assholes they are! I was highly amused by the notion that Godzilla shouldn't help the humans because "they always bully me". Honda should have cut to some footage of Godzilla burning pedestrians alive from GOJIRA! Oh and dear readers, lest you think the monsters actually talk Japanese/English, it's actually their roars that are translated by the Mothra fairies. Speaking of which, goddamn, Toho! Killing one of the Mothra twins off between movies? "How are the twins?" "One has passed away!" ... okay! I also do not think any of the Mothra songs have been as good as the original one. MOSURAAAAA-YA MOSURAAAAAA!
Perhaps this is sacrilege, since I think Ghidorah is a pretty iconic monster, but he has the worst roar out of any kaiju I've heard so far! For such an impressive and powerful creature, BOOP BOOP BOOP certainly isn't a call worthy of him! It's such a disconnect seeing people run and villages be destroyed to the tunes of BOOP BOOP BOOP! Imagine if Galactus went BOOP BOOP BOOP, the only thing he'd need the Silver Surfer for was to tell people "no seriously this guy is actually really scary I promise". Rodan, on the other hand, needs no such introduction! In fact, Rodan just shows up from under some lava rocks. Is he supposed to be one of the two Rodans that were burned alive at the end of RODAN? Did I miss a movie inbetween? Will the explanation to this just be "it's a kaiju movie don't sweat it breh", Travis?
The human plot this time around was far more engrossing than in MOTHRA VS GODZILLA, since it covers completely new ground from what we've seen in this series so far. A princess being tracked by assassins? And she has Venusian heritage? The Mothra twins are voluntarily appearing on a kids' show? That renders most of the plots of the movies they've appeared in so far fairly redundant, as they apparently would have complied with every human villain's wishes if they'd only taken the time to ask the fairies nicely. Maybe I'm wrong in this, but l liked how the disparate character plot threads came together quickly and neatly. The professor investigating the Ghidorah meteorite is interviewed by the spunky lady reporter who turns out to be the sister of the cop tasked with protecting/finding the princess. Many of these characters are played by now-familiar actors such as Takashi Shimura and Akihiko Hirata, who've been in these movies since the original (mostly playing different characters each time) and Hiroshi Kozuimi, who's been with us since MOTHRA, and (in a first!) plays the same character over two movies -- professor Miura in both this and MvG (though he played a different guy in the original MOTHRA). Travis, should I start abandoning all continuity here and just ride out the monster wave?
TRAVIS:
When it comes to the Showa era (GOJIRA to TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA), try to think of the timeline as an elastic continuity. Inconsistencies will definitely pop up, but the films more or less exist in the same time frame. Just don't go crazy when attempting to explain why Anguirus was killed in GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN yet lives on Monsterland in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. Keep calm and kaiju on. To put your mind at ease about Rodan's appearance though, he does emerge from the same mountain/volcano he and his mate perished in from his first movie. One assumes that it's one of the two Rodans revived or even another Rodan long dormant underground. With so many dinosaurs hiding everywhere, you'd think reporter Naoko wouldn't have trouble filling up stories for "Mysteries of the 20th Century".
She of course finds her big break in the princess who believes she's of Venusian descent, which I think is one of the most interesting aspects of this film. This idea of extraterrestrials living on or visiting Earth hundreds of years ago comes from the real life belief/pseudo science of "ancient aliens". It makes for fine sci-fi pulp for our creature feature, yet the G-movies rarely touched on subjective mythology like this. Making it even stranger are the film's references to the Christian God, with the princess praying to Him before she's shot at and the Defense Secretary declaring that the hopeless Ghidorah situation is left in His will. This juxtaposition is even odder when considering that faith among the Japanese is primarily Shinto or Buddhist (both of which do not have a concept of God). Who knew a Godzilla flick could be so intensely studied for religious implications?
GHIDORAH could also be examined as a great example of GIRL POWER! Though women in the G-movies typically weren't damsels in distress, they certainly show that they aren't pushovers in this movie. Naoko is the most proactive character in the cast, hunting down the princess for her news program and ultimately helping her escape from the assassins. The princess herself doesn't take shit from her would-be killers! Her alien demeanor remains calm as a knife is traced around her face, and even after she comes to her senses, she bravely faces Malness to shout "TRAITOR!" as he tries to shoot her. The twin fairies too are quite active this time around. They switch off the lights to distract Malness and his gang and then warn Detective Shindo of their presence. They're also the ones who concoct the crazy plan to team up Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra to defeat Ghidorah. And don't forget that Mothra decides to take on the Three Headed Monster alone since Godzilla and Rodan act like stubborn jerks. Do you see positive female representation in a piece of brawly entertainment like GHIDORAH too, Luca?
LUCA:
Mothra herself has been the best feminist example of the series so far, I think. She's not intentionally sexualized (I put that caveat "intentionally" there cuz it's 2014 and the internet exists so you just know someone somewhere...), she's determined, responsible, capable, all that good stuff. I don't know how much I can agree with the statement that women haven't been damsels at all so far. Emiko definitely needed a fainting couch after seeing some fish die in the original, and I actually remember lawling at Fumiko not being able to cross a three-inch stream without tripping twice in KKvG! That said, I did notice the female characters taking a lot more action on their own, even if any action stuff was still handled by the men. It seems significant that this movie had the first female reporter -- previous movies had female photographer sidekicks to male journalists, which I thought pretty interesting since even in pre-feminist Western society, "reporter" was one of those patriarchy-approved "safe" occupations for women to occupy, as evidenced in pop culture figures as Rosalind Russell in HIS GIRL FRIDAY and of course Lois Lane.
The "ancient aliens" angle is a great new wrinkle! I love how malleable this franchise is. Even though it started out in a version of the real world (plus kaiju), it then morphed into a sort of Tintin-like kids' adventure world when they started adding fictional countries like Rolisika in MOTHRA and Selgina in this movie. Now it's just a complete comic book universe with alien life being a thing, and interplanetary destroyers like Ghidorah being yet another danger humanity has to contend with. Isn't it enough that all these HGH-infused atomic dinosaurs keep popping up left and right? Luckily, humanity has responsible Mothra to bring assholes Godzilla and Rodan in line! Maybe it's this constant apocalypsizing that makes the kaiju movies so susceptible to a Christian worldview? This movie isn't the first to bring in references to God, as the climax to MOTHRA actually takes place on a church's steps! I wasn't gonna make anything of it since it's set in Roliska, which seemed like a pretty obvious America-analogue, but the three Japanese main characters do pray along merrily to stop Mothra's rampage. Interesting, and a trend I'm curious to see endure or not in an increasingly secularized society as we move on through the eras of Godzilla.
Join us next time, as the team-ups aren't just between monsters, but also nations as Toho joined forces with UPA to bring us INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER or MONSTER ZERO or THE GREAT MONSTER WAR! (I love literally translated titles.)
















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