It may sound like hyperbole, but Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) is one of the most fun movies I’ve ever seen: a blast of visual splendor, offhand bizarreness, and kaiju-fighting mayhem from first frame to last. It was Ishiro Honda’s sixth Godzilla film (after directing and co-writing the original film that spawned it all) and the second Godzilla film of 1964 alone, after Mothra vs. Godzilla. Ghidorah was rushed into production after Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard experienced production delays and Toho Studios needed a replacement film to fill their holiday slate. One wonders if the rushed production circumstances actually enhanced Ghidorah‘s wild, anything-goes tone: it seems to have been made somewhat spontaneously, and is all the better for it.
Director: Ishiro Honda
Screenplay: Shinichi Sekizawa
Runtime: 93 minutes
Japanese Release: December 20, 1964
American Release: September 13, 1965
It begins with a meteor shower crashing to Earth, with the largest projectile landing on Mount Kurodake. This is only the latest in a long line of bizarre events that have been plaguing Japan, among them unusually hot weather for the middle of winter (with temperatures reaching the 80s) and an encephalitis outbreak. “The world’s gone mad,” says one character, which both sets up an engrossingly ominous narrative and forms an unsettling connection with our own modern environment affected by climate change.
We soon meet the rest of the human ensemble, who are more compelling than in some other Godzilla films. There’s Detective Shindo (Yosuke Natsuki), who is tasked with protecting Princess Mas Dorina Salno (Akiko Wakabayashi) from the country of Selgina. Princess Salno is targeted by assassins from her home country who blow up her plane en route to Japan; the princess is presumed dead, but it turns out she was inhabited by a Venusian alien who compels her to leap from the airplane before it’s destroyed. There’s also Detective Shindo’s sister Naoko (Yuriko Hoshi), a reporter who wants to write a story about the princess-slash-Venusian-prophet, especially after the latter starts claiming that the monster Rodan will soon reawaken from Mount Aso.
Sure enough, both Rodan and Godzilla soon awaken from their slumber (they’re both granted eye-popping destruction scenes in which they lay waste to the landscape that surrounds them: Godzilla destroys a ship at sea and Rodan demolishes a community, sending model buses flying across the frame). The Venusian prophet warns everyone who will listen that another beast is on the way: the dreaded King Ghidorah, an intergalactic destroyer of worlds, will soon emerge from the meteor on Mount Kurodake and eviscerate the planet, as it did the Venusian’s own home on her planet. The only hope to vanquish King Ghidorah, the prophet explains, is if Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra (who has been called upon by tiny twin fairies called the Shobijn) band together to take down the monster.
This plot is insane, and it moves so kinetically that you barely have time to catch your breath as the story hurtles forward. Some kaiju fans (and even Ishiro Honda himself) have criticized Ghidorah for anthropomorphizing Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra, even including a scene in which the three of them have a subtitled conversation (with Mothra trying to convince Godzilla and Rodan to intervene on the behalf of humanity). Godzilla’s gradual shift toward a benevolent force started in this film, away from the monstrous destructor the beast was originally intended to be. Honda’s reticence at this shift is understandable: if Godzilla was initially conceived as a representation of nuclear destruction, of the violence that humans are capable of, then turning the monster into a lovable protagonist seems to go against the intent of the character. But if such a transformation seems silly or nonsensical (and would impact numerous later Godzilla films), it also leads to some marvelously weird and humorous moments in Ghidorah – not only the aforementioned conversation, but also and especially the astounding final fight, a smorgasbord of suitmation, matte backdrops, model effects, and glorious production design.
Indeed, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is a stunningly beautiful movie. Filmed in bright colors and immaculate widescreen compositions by cinematographer Hajime Koizumi, this is pop art at its most sumptuous. From the kaiju battle royales to the intrigue around Princess Salno to seemingly simple scenes like a man’s attempt to retrieve a hat from a volcanic crater, nearly every shot is a wonder to behold. For those (like me) who believe film is a visual art form and that aesthetic beauty should be equally as important as narrative, character, and theme, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is something of a miracle: a quickly-produced mainstream picture that’s crafted with care and peerless style.
Aside from its visual aplomb, what you notice most of all about Ghidorah is its utter weirdness; many kaiju movies contain a strong surreal or absurdist streak, and this might be the greatest example in the entire series. The epitome of this fondness for the bizarre is also a worthy showcase for Akira Ifukube’s iconic music: the scene in which the Shobijn call upon Mothra to join the fight against Ghidorah. This scene begins as a television talk show hosted by two men, who then bring out two precocious five-year old boys to introduce the Shobijn. (There’s a baffling composition that takes place on a TV screen within the frame that’s loaded with doubles: the two TV hosts in suits, the two young boys, the two miniature fairies, reflecting each other with uncanny symmetry.) The Shobijn themselves are played by “the Peanuts,” a musical act then popular in Japan consisting of twin singers Emi and Yumi Ito; their speaking and singing voices are so similar that they create a dreamlike reverb effect when they sing at the same time. Ifukube’s song during this sequence, “Let’s Summon Happiness,” is as weird and atmospheric as such a scene demands. It’s during moments like this that Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster transcends to its own level of sublime originality.
As for theme, there may not be a deeper significance to the quirks of the plot, but that’s okay: the film’s excellence lies far outside the realm of deep pseudo-literary themes. And if that makes the movie less rich or momentous than the original Godzilla (1954), which delivers a fervent anti-nuclear proliferation theme along with its kaiju chaos, then it also allows Ghidorah to function as a piece of pure cinema, with a visual power that must be seen to be understood. Maybe that sounds grandiose for a movie as fun and over-the-top as this one, but it’s hard to overstate my love for Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, a marvel among kaiju films or any other category.