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Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster

The original Japanese Gojira (Godzilla) from 1954 is more than just a monster spectacle about mass destruction. Unique among filmic responses to the nuclear threat, it dramatizes the anguish of an atomic attack in the form of a radioactive colossus that rises from the sea like a mobile natural disaster. Godzilla has been stomping across theater screens ever since, changing his function and significance over the years. By the early 1970s mankind's mortal enemy had morphed into a jolly defender of the Earth, battling threats as varied as a giant robot from space (Mecha Godzilla) and a monstrous heap of pollution (Hedorah). American fans knew Toho's Godzilla films only in altered import form, re-dubbed into English and re-edited to speed up the action for kiddie matinees. At one time relegated to the lowest of cultural ghettos, the Godzilla saga has risen in status to be acknowledged as an imaginative and enduring segment of classic Japanese cinema.

The fifth feature attraction starring producer Tomoyuki Tanaka's Godzilla made its Tokyo debut in 1964 as San daikaijû: Chikyû saidai no kessen (literally: "Three giant monsters: Earth's greatest battle"). The "battle" is a four-way monster bash between Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and a fanciful new alien creature named King Ghidorah. With the name shortened for American marquees, the dubbed version entitled Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster arrived in the U.S. about a year later, at the height of a national movie monster craze. Three hundred feet tall and covered in sharp golden scales, Godzilla's exciting new monster foe was an instant success in both countries.

Ghidorah takes the Godzilla franchise over the line into anything-goes fantasy. For the first time, Japan's military defenders don't even bother to oppose the monsters, and instead just monitor their activities. Ghidorah arrives on earth inside a magnetic meteor, and makes its gaudy entrance in a burst of animated fire, like the mythical phoenix. The three returning beasts soon exhibit fully anthropomorphic personalities -- they even talk to each other. The original twin "Shobijin" fairies from Mothra (Emi & Yûmi Ito) encourage the monsters to join forces to oppose the extraterrestrial menace Ghidorah. The tiny twins also use their telepathic talents to translate the conversations between the Earth monsters, providing a running commentary on their feelings: "Mothra says, 'Don't Fight! Let's work together!'"

Instead of merely watching the battle from the sidelines, writer Shinichi Sekizawa's human characters take an active role in the proceedings. An airplane carrying the exotic Princess Mas Selina Salno of Sergina (Akiko Wakabayashi) is destroyed in a mid-air explosion. But Selina mysteriously reappears dressed in a fisherman's clothing. Claiming to be a prophet from Venus (Mars in the U.S. version), she predicts the imminent attack of a space monster called King Ghidorah. Psychiatrist Dr. Tsukamoto (Takashi Shimura of Akira Kurosawa film fame) determines that Princess Salina is the descendant of ancient Venusians with psychic powers, and that her unconscious alien identity has come to the surface. The motif of psychic female characters that empathize and communicate with giant monsters will recur in various forms throughout the rest of the Godzilla franchise.

The explosion of the plane was actually an assassination attempt by Serginian dissidents, and Sekizawa's human characters protect the Princess Selina from subsequent murder attempts. Reporter Naoko (Yuriko Hoshi) and young scientist Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi) take charge of the Shobijin and witness a spectacular monster battle. Naoko's detective brother Shindo (Yosuke Natsuki) becomes the respectful bodyguard of the elegant princess. The resolution of their relationship appears to be modeled after the finale of the romantic 1953 Hollywood classic Roman Holiday.

Ghidorah's outlandish design required all the skills of Toho's accomplished monster makers. Supreme effects expert Eiji Tsuburaya oversaw tokusatsu "special camera" work on all of Tanaka's fantastic films, and was also in charge of visualizing the wild monsters dreamed up by the producer and his writers. The new creation Ghidorah has three snake-like heads, two tails and a pair of wings. The monster required a small squadron of puppeteers to keep all seven of those appendages in motion, on the ground and also when the creature flies through the air. Tsuburaya's camera skills are put to the test hiding the many wires working in these shots; it's a miracle that so few are visible. Another wrinkle to be taken into consideration is the fact that Ghidorah has no arms, which made it difficult for the actor inside the suit (almost always the stalwart Haruo Nakajima) to maintain his balance. Godzilla-philes point to a multi-headed dragon in the Toshiro Mifune pirate movie The Three Treasures (1959) as a likely inspiration for Ghidorah. It's equally possible that Sekizawa and Tsuburaya were influenced by Ray Harryhausen's impressive seven-headed Hydra in the previous year's Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

After ten years of refinements by Eiji Tsuburaya's effects shop, the newest Godzilla suit allowed the actor inside to mime a variety of broad character gestures. A new radio control device was installed to enable Godzilla's eyes to move in their sockets. When all four monsters are on screen simultaneously, the effects stage at Toho must have been pandemonium. Mothra and Rodan fly through scenes. Godzilla roasts Ghidorah with his radioactive breath and Mothra shoots sticky silk to wrap the space invader in a tight cocoon. With the addition of live explosions motivated by the "gravity beam" rays emitted by Ghidorah's three heads Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster fills the wide Tohoscope frame with frenetic giant monster combat.

Ghidorah scribe Shinichi Sekizawa started his film career in animation before writing and directing a Shintoho science fiction thriller called "Fearful Attack of the Flying Saucer". Brought to Toho for 1958's Varan (released in the U.S. in 1962 as Varan the Unbelievable), Sekizawa thought that the Godzilla films were great fun and should be enjoyed as such. Toho's other notable fantasy screenwriter, Takeshi Kimura, was said to favor a serious approach and wanted to introduce political values to the series. Many of Sekizawa's scripts were lighter in tone, while Kimura stressed eerie mystery (The H-Man [1958]), fateful tragedy (Rodan [1956], The Human Vapor [1960], The Last War [1961]) and outright horror (Matango [1963]). Sekizawa preferred his monsters to be heroic, protecting the Earth even as the humans fight among themselves. He was reportedly active in the practical end of the filmmaking as well, urging that the Godzilla suits be redesigned to allow the monster to become even more of an action hero.

The Toho Studio of 1964 was an enormous movie factory turning out a wide range of product. Monster fantasies were at their peak, with several projects in production simultaneously. The disciplined and organized Ishirô Honda had directed almost all of these pictures since the original Gojira. He handled all of the live action scenes for Ghidorah and the concurrent project Dagora, the Space Monster [1964], while Eiji Tsuburaya's team worked long shifts on the enormous miniature stages, turning out several elaborate special effects pictures every year. No other studio ever committed to miniature effects filmmaking on such a large scale.

Informed Godzilla fans frequently debate the change of direction toward outright cartoonish fantasy begun in earnest in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. Rodan and Godzilla bicker like spoiled children before rallying as a team to combat Ghidorah. Rodan lifts Mothra into the air, the better to direct the giant larva's silken stream at the gold-plated alien. Some of the action is unabashed slapstick comedy. Godzilla and Rodan seemingly play badminton with large boulders. Ghidorah's spastic energy rays blast Godzilla in the tail, causing him to jump like one of the Three Stooges. This buffoonery would multiply in succeeding pictures. Godzilla dances a giddy victory jig in his next appearance, and not long afterward sires a goofy offspring named Minilla. The stubbly little beast looks a bit like a marshmallow. In place of atomic breath, it puffs cute circular smoke rings.

The American version of Ghidorah trims some scenes and rearranges others, and is a full twelve minutes shorter. The U.S. distributor Continental did a reasonable job of redubbing the film in English, but unfortunately eliminated quite a few of Akira Ifukube's distinctive original soundtrack cues. Toho soon tried for a bigger share of the American box office by making co-production deals with Hollywood studios American-International and Universal, as well as some independents. Subsequent monster romps would import American actors Nick Adams and Russ Tamblyn to film in Japan. For the 1969 underwater fantasy Latitude Zero Ishiró Honda directed an almost all-Anglo cast top-lined by Joseph Cotten and Cesar Romero. Soon after the release of Ghidorah, Eiji Tsuburaya started his own company to create new monster fare for television. He would continue to serve as a supervisor on Toho's effects films until shortly before his death in 1970. Godzilla suit actor Haruo Nakajima retired in 1972, but decades later he has become a familiar star attraction at fan conventions.

The space monster Ghidorah would return almost immediately for a major rematch in Kaijû daisensô, known in America as both Invasion of the Astro-Monster and Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (both released in 1965). He's made frequent returns to fight Godzilla, and underwent major redesigns in some of the newest films. But fans of classic Toho monsters still regard Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster as the best of the original all-out monster battle fantasies.

Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka
Director: Ishirô Honda
Screenplay: Shinichi Sekizawa (writer)
Cinematography: Hajime Koizumi
Art Direction: Takeo Kita
Music: Akira Ifukube
Film Editing: Ryohei Fujii
Cast: Yosuke Natsuki (Detective Shindo), Yuriko Hoshi (Naoko Shindo), Hiroshi Koizumi (Professor Miura), Akiko Wakabayashi (Mas Selina Salno, Princess of Sergina), Emi Ito (Shobijin, Twin Fairy), Yûmi Ito (Shobijin, Twin Fairy), Takashi Shimura (Dr. Tsukamoto), Akihiko Hirata (Chief Detective Okita), Hisaya Itô (Malmess, Chief Assassin), Minoru Takada (Prime Minister).
C-92m.

by Glenn Erickson

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