When Appellate Judge Tom Becker started singing, "Godzilla my dreams, I love you," it took a three-headed monster to shut him up.
The three-headed monster battles Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan for the world!
Godzilla (or Gojira) made his first appearance in the eponymous classic in 1954. This was a serious film, a commentary on nuclear destruction from people who had actually experienced nuclear destruction. Rodan, a huge, pterodactyl-like creature, appeared in 1956 to terrify international audiences. Mothra, a giant moth who was introduced in 1961, was no less destructive, but a tad less reckless: She is something of a deity on her island, and she does what she must to protect her people. In 1964, Mothra was called out of retirement to save the world from Godzilla in the aptly titled Mothra vs. Godzilla.
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, released in Japan just a few months later in 1964, is something of a sequel to Mothra vs. Godzilla. It was the first all-star monster epic, with three "names" and a newcomer with three fresh faces. Is it an embarrassment of riches—or just an embarrassment?
Facts of the Case
Everyone in Tokyo, if not the world, has been disturbed by the strange phenomena affecting the Earth. It's January, yet there's a heat wave. The UFO Club tries to contact aliens to see if they have the scoop, but all they get is a meteor shower.
In the meantime, a princess is on her way to Tokyo to escape some unrest in her country. While on the plane, she sees a strange, bright light, and a voice warns her to leave. She jumps out of the plane just seconds before a bomb goes off. Back in her country, the assassins (who wear these odd outfits with big, Shakespearean collars) congratulate themselves, until they see the Tokyo papers. The princess not only survived the 5,000 foot fall (the president of the UFO Club explains how), but she's claiming to be from Venus! (Or Mars, in the English-dubbed version.) As an ET, she's a real Debbie Downer: Speaking in a pre-Conehead monotone, she proclaims doom and gloom to anyone who'll listen. She is a laughingstock until famous giant lizard Godzilla and less-famous giant flying chicken Rodan suddenly appear and square off, causing untold property damage.
In the meantime, Mothra turns up on a reality TV show about has-been celebrities. While she (or he, in the English-dubbed version) doesn't make it to the studio, she sends her friends, a pair of extremely tiny twin fairies to sing a song and telepathically summon her. (Sadly, we learn that the original Mothra has died; this Mothra is one of her larvae.)
In the meantime, the assassins (sans funny collars) are in Tokyo hunting the princess/Venusian/Martian, who is running around with a reporter and her Tokyo police officer brother.
In the meantime, one of the fallen meteorites starts glowing like a disco ball and out pops King Ghidorah, the titular three-headed monster, who looks sort of like a dragon and spits what appear to be electrical bolts from its mouths.
As the citizenry runs hither and yon to escape the mayhem, the fairies summon Mothra to broker peace between Godzilla and Rodan so they can all team up to defeat King Ghidorah. Since the fairies speak fluent monster, they give us a blow-by-blow, and it's not looking good for mankind. There's bad blood between lizard and larva, and the chicken's none too eager to help out humanity. But nobody puts Mothra in a corner, and our courageous caterpillar refuses to be cowed, even if it means facing King Ghidorah on her own.
Godzilla is one of the most recognized figures in the world. If you don't believe me, try showing people a picture of Godzilla and a picture of Dick Cheney and see which one they identify. Even my Microsoft Word doesn't tangle with "Godzilla" in spell check. There were 15 Godzilla movies made between 1954 and 1975 (known as the Showa period to Toho Studio aficionados), ending with Terror of Mechagodzilla. As the series progressed, the films became geared more for children, sometimes with a child as the human protagonist.
Ghidorah was the first film to give us a comical Godzilla, and some fans see this as beginning of the downfall of the series. Here we get Godzilla and Rodan bellowing at each other like an otherworldly Ralph and Alice and engaging in a volleyball-inspired rock fight. When Godzilla is zapped on the butt, his reaction is pure vaudeville.
While Mothra always was always more connected to humans and acted with some form of reason, this is the first of the series to give us a heroic, humanized Godzilla (and Rodan). As the fairies translate the debate among the monsters, we finally hear Godzilla's side of things (we bullied him, it seems), and his final decision sets the tone for his character throughout the rest of the Showa series, making this something of a seminal film.
The disc gives us both the original Japanese version and the dubbed U.S. edit. Both are widescreen anamorphic transfers, and both had enough speckles and spots to remind me of how this would have looked when I was watching it on TV as a kid. The U.S. edit runs about eight minutes shorter than the Japanese. While there are no significant plot differences, and the U.S. version is a bit punchier, I found myself more interested in the Japanese cut, which seemed to be a more "mature" viewing experience. (When the monsters argue, one character says, in English: "These monsters are as stupid as human beings"; in Japanese, this sentiment is translated as, "Men are not the only stubborn creatures.") This was the first time I'd seen one of these movies in its original language, so I wasn't watching the legendarily atrocious dubbing. Of course, that dubbing is part of the fun of watching a Godzilla movie, and this one doesn't disappoint. I also found the sound to be richer on the Japanese cut.
As far as the extras, I had high hopes for a biography of Eiji Tsuburaya, who created the special effects for the original Gojira and virtually all the other Toho monster films until his death in 1970. Unfortunately, what we get is a very dry, encyclopedia-like biography with still shots of Tsuburaya and some of the movies, and nothing in-depth about his technique. I doubt I'm the only one who equates Toho special effects with guys in rubber suits, and I was disappointed that this extra didn't enlighten me more about Tsuburaya's contributions to special effects in Japanese cinema. Far, far better is the commentary by David Kalat, author of A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series. This track is a lot of fun. Kalat talks a mile a minute, and he's as engaging and enthusiastic as an 8-year-old who gets up early on Saturdays to watch Monster Theater. He knows his stuff, but even better, he loves these movies, and it's infectious. (At least, it infected this jaded reviewer, who, after listening to the commentary, went back and watched the English dub, Kalat's preferred version, again with a new appreciation.) Kalat offers some much-welcome history on the production team behind the Toho monster movies, and here Tsuburaya gets his due. There is a brief slide show of Japanese posters for Ghidorah, a stills gallery with trivia (which is also in the commentary), and the original Japanese trailer.
A note on the packaging: While it looks great shrink-wrapped, what we actually get is a heavy cardboard case and thin cardboard wraparound. The case does not have a snap, clamp, or anything else to keep it closed; it's just a step up from the kind of sleeve that sometimes comes in a boxed set. There is no insert, and the cover features a 3-inch by 4-inch reproduction of a Japanese poster for Ghidorah.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is one of the most plot-heavy Japanese monster movies I've ever seen. Unfortunately, given the three top-lined stars, it's also a bit monster light. While I appreciate writer Shinichi Sekizawa's efforts to ratchet up the narrative elements so that the humans did more than just stand around and scream or get stomped, the brew he concocted for King Ghidorah's debut is a bit thick. The alien theme is important in that it explains the existence of King Ghidorah and opens the door for the aliens who play a part in future films. The cloak-and-dagger shenanigans involving the princess/ET and the assassins, which fill up a good chunk of the running time, tend to slow things down quite a bit.
Chicken fights lizard. Dragon levels city. Larva brings peace. The Earth is saved, and you are reading this review.
Need I say more?
The only way you can pronounce a Godzilla movie "guilty" is if it's followed by the word "pleasure" (or if it stars Matthew Broderick). The big guy walks, and the bird and the moth walk with him.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Commentary by David Kalat
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