Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Kaiju Notes:
The Three Headed Monster

(Ishirō Honda, 1964)




Mothra (larval form only)!

King Ghidorah!

BORING EXPLANATORY NOTE: I’m aware that ‘Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster’ is the fifth film to feature Godzilla, whereas this is only the third entry in this supposedly chronological series of posts looking at the big guy’s movie career. Whilst working my way through the big Criterion set though, I accidentally found myself watching the American version of ‘King Kong vs Godzilla’ (1963), which I don’t wish to review until I’ve had a chance to compare it with the hopefully-slightly-less-godawful Japanese version. [Why did Criterion relegate this to a bonus disc, rather than presenting the two versions side-by-side? Not that it excuses my not bothering to check more thoroughly before hitting play on the U.S. version, but still…] Meanwhile, my wife and I also watched an old DVD of ‘Godzilla vs Mothra’ (1964) relatively recently before obtaining the new blu-ray set, so we took the decision to shuffle it to the end of our viewing schedule and instead get stuck into the next few films, which neither of us had seen before, beginning with the same year’s ‘Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster’! Any questions? No? Good.

After two films which saw Godzilla returning from a near decade long sleep to battle other, pre-existing screen monsters (King Kong, obviously, and Mothra, who had previously enjoyed her own stand-alone movie in 1961), ‘Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster’ (or San Daikaiju: Chikyu Saidai No Kessen [‘Three Giant Monsters: The Greatest Battle on Earth’], as the Japanese had it) marks a significant change in direction for the series, not only introducing the titular monarch of space monsters, but also becoming the first of Toho’s kaiju films to adopt what we might call the “monster rally” formula, as inherited from Universal’s horror films of the 1940s and their tendency to throw all of the fans’ favourite beasties together into the same film on the flimsiest of pre-texts. It’s fitting therefore that, in many respects, this initial all-star throw-down emerges as just as just as much of a goofy, uneven mess as ‘House of Frankenstein’ had two decades earlier.

One of the basic rules governing kaiju movies, I’ve always thought, is that the most successful ones need good human stories to go alongside their monster stories, and if the human-level stuff in ‘Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster’ is perhaps not ‘good’ in the conventional sense, it is at least extremely weird, which certainly does the trick.

One of our central characters – Naoko, played by Yuriko Hoshi – is a TV reporter who works the paranormal beat for some kind of “unsolved mysteries” type show, and boy, she’s really got her work cut out for her this week!

Not only has there been an unprecedented rash of UFO sightings (Naoko visits the local believers, hanging out with their telescopes on a Tokyo rooftop), but an aeroplane carrying the revered Princess Saino of the fictional nation of Selgina (Akiko Wakabayashi, who later appeared in ‘You Only Live Twice’) has disappeared without trace in Japanese airspace, Mothra’s tiny avatars The Peanuts (Emi & Yumi Ito) are in town to make a surprise appearance on a kid’s TV show(!), strange subterranean rumblings beneath a distant volcano seem to presaging the re-emergence of some monster or other (it turns out to be everybody’s favourite supersonic turkey-bird, Rodan), AND a mysterious lady prophet (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the missing Selginian princess) has popped up in Tokyo, drawing large crowds as she claims to be channelling an alien intelligence emanating from Venus, warning of great disaster which lays ahead for the human race! What’s a girl to do, eh?

Zeroing in briefly on the Selginians, they’re certainly an interesting bunch. With their ostentatious ceremonial costumes and extreme veneration of their monarchy, I wondered whether the country was supposed to be a fictional stand-in for Thailand, but who knows, they could just as easily be ersatz Brits, I suppose. That would certainly seem in keeping with the fact that, inexlicably, the male Selginians wear Elizabethan ruffs at all times, sometimes in combination with codpieces, pantaloons and the like. What is up with this? Had Toho inherited a dressing up box from a touring Shakespeare company or something?

Well, regardless – there are certainly few sights in mid-century cinema more gloriously, cross-culturally surreal than that of some grizzled yakuza actors done up like Sir Walter Raleigh, complete with incongruous sun-glasses, whilst on board a spaceship. For this alone, ‘Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster’ will always have a place in my heart.

In fact, the opening, almost entirely monster-free, half of this film is great deal of fun all round. The strange way in which all of the above-mentioned plot threads play into each other is delightful and highly entertaining, occasionally making me wish that they were being explored in the context of some oddball sci-fi comedy, instead of merely padding out the run-time on giant monster movie.

Since I skipped over ‘Godzilla vs Mothra’, let me take this opportunity to express my undying love for Mothra, and the wonderfully weird mythos which surrounds her. She’s so different from all of the other Kaiju monsters, with her female-coded benevolent, maternal instincts, her extraordinary, kaleidoscopic appearance when in full ‘moth’ mode (sadly not seen in this film), and her ability to directly communicate with humanity via her ever-delightful intermediaries in the form of tiny island singing duo The Peanuts.

Together with the colourful rites of the ‘Infant Island’ natives who seem to spend their time continuously praising their guardian kaiju’s larval form, this all brings so much surreal, psychedelic verisimilitude to the films Mothra appears in – a feeling which is only intensified here, as, in a head-spinningly ridiculous turn of events, she intervenes to act as a peacemaker between Godzilla and Rodan, encouraging them to put their differences aside and team up to rid their planet of the invasive Space Monster…. but, more on that below.

Since I’ve already broached the subject to a certain extent above, let’s get into the potentially controversial issue of kaiju gender. I’m unsure whether the films ever explicitly state that Mothra is female, but I’ve always just assumed this, on the basis of ‘her’ associations with breeding and motherhood (something the other monsters pointedly lack), ‘her’ protective/non-aggressive behaviour patterns, and the fact that ‘she’ communicates via the female voices of The Peanuts.

Likewise, I’ve always simply assumed that most of the other kaiju are male, given that they spend their time stomping about like idiots, beating their chests and walloping each other… but of course, thinking about this for even a matter of seconds reveals that these assumptions are based on nothing beyond the most remedial and reprehensible of gender stereotyping.

I’d imagine the fact that Japanese grammar – in its most basic iterations, at least – does not include obligatory gendered pro-nouns probably plays into this ambiguity to a certain extent, potentially allowing the films’ original scripts to entirely avoid the issue - and indeed, the notes accompanying the Criterion Godzilla set find writer Ed Godziszewski playing it safe in this regard, pointedly referring to the monsters using the non-gendered “it” pro-noun.

Whilst technically correct and politically advisable however, this approach feels cold and disingenuous to me, in view of the strong characters and clearly anthropomorphic personality traits with which Eiji Tsuburaya’s creations are imbued, especially in sillier films such as this one.

If I continue to instinctively refer to kaiju using gendered pro-nouns therefore, I hope that readers will be able to forgive me, on the basis that these films were produced in an era when such stereotyping of gender roles was baked into culture and went largely unquestioned. And because I mean, life is basically just feel a lot more fun when Godzilla is a dude, right…?

Meanwhile, King Ghidorah (who is definitely a ‘he’ – I mean, he’s a KING, right?) definitely gets a fantastic build up here for his inaugural appearance – one of film’s strongest dramatic moments (not that that’s saying much) comes when Princess Saino, channelling the survivors of the lost Venusian civilisation, tells us of how Ghidorah single-handedly laid waste to the entirety of Venus, a planet housing a civilisation far in advance of our own.

I mean, Japan’s government may have had some fun and games with Godzilla and the gang in the past, but this SOB must he on a whole other level, surely – I mean, he’s a goddamned PLANET EATER, for goodness sake.

And, happily, his inaugural appearance in the film does not disappoint. Surely one of Tsuburaya’s most impressive and elaborate creations, King Ghidorah initially looks like the kind of thing which might have stalked Ray Harryhausen’s dreams after a few too many brandies, but he becomes even more remarkable once we realise that, like his fellow monsters, he has actually been rendered at man-in-a-suit scale rather than as stop motion, with the suit’s primary occupant – who is frequently required to hang suspended in mid-air above the film’s miniaturised sets - assisted by a small army of off-screen puppeteers, helping co-ordinate the movements of heads, wings and tails. Pretty incredible stuff!

It’s a great shame therefore that the promise of this terrifying new global threat is squandered in the film’s final act, via a lacklustre and absurdly goofy final confrontation which seems liable to have left many fans hoping for a death-defying, destructo-monster showdown feeling distinctly short-changed.

In fact, in contrast to the film’s rather complex and bizarre human storyline, little effort seems to have been put into the parallel monster narrative. Godzilla and Rodan both just sort of pop up out of nowhere, for no particular reason (although I did like the way latter emerges from an apparently genuine, shot-on-location smoking volcano), and begin half-heartedly knocking lumps out of each other, just because… well, it’s what they do, right? Mothra meanwhile is only on the scene because, as mentioned, her avatars The Peanuts have travelled to Tokyo to appear on a TV show, granting the wish of some adorable young tykes whose main dream in life – as they loudly proclaim when asked - is to meet Mothra.

If Godzilla’s pattern of behaviour in previous films put me in mind of a giant cat, here he and Rodan seem more like bored children, squabbling in the playground in the last few minutes before the bell rings. Hanging about on a (conveniently uninhabited) battleground in the shadow of Mt Fuji, they basically spend their time leering and throwing rocks at each other, until Mothra (in larval form) turns up to try to convince them to put their differences aside and join forces to save humanity from the invading space monster.

Not only does this turn of events introduce us to the frankly ludicrous notion that these very different species of prehistoric monster share similar gifts of reasoning and language, we’re also apparently expected to believe that they all understand the same language – and, furthermore, it’s our language (which is to say, Japanese).

I recall watching (I think) the much later ‘Godzilla vs Gigan’ (1972) a few years back, and being absolutely appalled by the fact that the filmmakers were sufficiently disrespectful as to make Godzilla actually speak. Perhaps I should have withheld my scorn however, because here we are, nearly a decade earlier, in a movie ostensibly directed by the great Ishiro Honda himself, and the Big G and his pals are already chatting away like nobody’s business.

“Myuh, myuh myuh, we don’t want to help the humans, they’re always being mean to us, they’re a bunch of jerks,” seems to be Godzilla and Rodan’s basic position, and Mothra is like, “fine then, see if I care”. So King Ghidorah flies in, and Mothra, stuck in larval form, starts trying to fight him, getting pretty badly beaten in the process. At which point, Godzilla and Rodan are like, “hey, that big kid from another school is beating up our fellow earth-monster, let’s get him!!” And so, they change their tune and proceed to help dispatch the unspeakably mighty, literally planet-destroying Space Monster by means of knocking him about for a few minutes and kicking him up the arse, prompting him to fly away in shame, multiple tails between his legs.

Hurray, the world is saved, and everybody rejoices, as the human powers-that-be seem content to let previously city-crushing behemoths G and R loll about unmolested in a big field, because they’re heroes now, I suppose.

Ye gods – what is this rubbish? Only the fifth entry in the Godzilla canon, immediately following the extremely good ‘Godzilla vs Mothra’, and our kaiju have already been downgraded from dread-dripping stand-ins for the existential threat of nuclear war and natural disaster to the level of bickering, Saturday morning kid’s TV puppets. What comes next, I dread to think.

Having said all that though, I couldn’t help but love the fact that Godzilla’s first spoken word is that all-purpose, impossible-to-really-transliterate Japanese exclamation / curse pronounced somewhat like “kyiiisurre”. Frequently heard in yakuza movies, this is often translated as “fuck” or “goddamnit”, but Criterion’s subtitles here simply went with “BASTARDS!”. For all the nonsense outlined above, someone clearly still understood the big dude’s personality pretty well.

No comments: