Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)

Class: User
Author: Ethan Reed
Score: (3/5)
July 22, 2009 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Quality and entertainment aren't 2 factors that always go hand in hand. Take for instance a film like Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster. It's certainly not on par with the some of the greater installments in the Godzilla series, and it does present a noticeable number of flaws. With that said, it is my favorite movie from the franchise. Be it because of its nostalgic values, or its status as the first “monster mash” in the series; it simply doesn't fail to put a smile on my face upon every (frequent) viewing.

It is a strange time for our world. A heat wave in the midst of winter, numerous meteorite showers, strange epidemics; all foreshadow a significant event is about to take place on the surface of our planet. A woman who claims to come from Venus appears in Japan and warns its people that incredible catastrophes are soon to occur. Within little time, both Godzilla and Rodan emerge from their forced slumbers to wreck havoc on the nearby cities. But they're the least of the problems to come, as a gigantic three-headed monster known as King Ghidorah lands on Earth and proceeds to annihilate everything in its path. Only the combined forces of Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra can put an end to this menace, before it's too late…

As mentioned before, Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster is a goldmine for entertainment. An often criticized factor among fans is the progressing humanization of the monsters that was done to appeal a much younger audience, as opposed to films like Godzilla (1954) and Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964). It remains a fact that the monsters' attitudes in the film lean towards the slapstick territory, but that is indeed one of the things I like so much about it. This change was a necessity to keep these movies alive, and in that respect it doesn't detract the viewer from wanting to join the action. Comedy in this movie is featured a plenty, both intentionally and otherwise. Godzilla's battle with Rodan is genuinely funny, with the flying reptile constantly pecking at the monster king's head. The sight of Malness catching a boulder and then falling down makes one chuckle instantly as well.

The heroic monsters are characters the audience can identify with, punctuated in the notorious monster conversation, a scene that depicts Mothra's attempts to reason with Godzilla and Rodan (translation courtesy of the Shobijin). It's a good thing to know the creatures aren't mindless freaks that destroy at random, but instead are beings with emotions.

But then the human characters are on the level too. Our female lead Naoko (Yuriko Hoshi) is noteworthy, in spite (or because) of her naïvety, though not as likeable as her character in Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964). Princess Salno (Akiko Wakabayashi, best known for her role in You Only Live Twice (1967)) is another captivating addition to the series. The lead assassin Malness (Hisaya Ito), while certainly not menacing and particularly competent, is a visual feast for those seeking camp values. It is a shame that the male lead, Shindo (Yosuke Natsuki) can't hold a candle to the remainder of the cast, with his role in the movie being too limited at times. Also, Akihiko Hirata is given a fairly lackluster role, at points only present to provide exposition.

In terms of acting, Hoshi and Wakabayashi are the strong glass here, with their aforementioned roles proving both credible enough. Yosuke Natsuki appears rather bored at points; it is indeed a role that should have been handled by a more experienced actor. And don't let me get started on Hiroshi Koizumi, who despite providing us with a likeable character (very similar to that in the previous movie) still can't be taken seriously as the allegedly respected scientist he plays.

Special effects quite frankly fall in a gap. Something that always has caught my attention is Godzilla's breath weapon. Most of the time, this power is depicted through rotoscoping; however, such technique is only used once in this film, with vapor replacing it most of the time. While this is surely due to budgetary constraints, as a kid I used to believe Godzilla had 2 different breath weapons! It also becomes evident that the puppets used for the close-ups of the monsters fail to resemble their suit counterparts. But for all its shortcomings, the special effects department does shine in certain areas. The compositing is flawless, with the Shojibin being realistically merged with the actors. King Ghidorah's raid on Tokyo is not short of awe, with a great combination of suit acting, visual effects and pyrotechnics.

King Ghidorah itself is a fantastic addition to the franchise. Unlike later incarnations of the character which would depict him as either an alien-controlled creature or a pawn in the plans of terrorists; Ghidorah here is no less than pure evil, a relentless force of destruction that wipes out the life of entire planets just for the sake of it. King Ghidorah is not only one the best characters in the series, but one the best movie villains as well.

But of course, it would be unwise to overlook Akira Ifukube's excellent score. While it's not quite abundant on new themes, it still provides a great deal of satisfaction to my ears, and certainly does justice to the movie. The memorable main theme (which consists on a combination of both Godzilla's and Rodan's themes) is used with great success in the battle scenes and has Ifukube's distinct sense of chaos. Ghidorah's theme is a worthy cue for the character (despite the fact it was originally composed for Battle in Outer Space (1959)). Kurobe Valley 's theme is one of the Ifukube's typical “gorgeous scenery” music (much like his theme for Infant Island ) and conveys both majesty and mystery. And then of course there is the song “Let's Summon Happiness”, a catchy tune sung by The Peanuts, that hasn't managed to leave my head since I first heard it over a decade ago.

The American version of Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster differs from its Japanese counterpart as much as it resembles the original. Continental deemed it a requirement to move mostly untouched scenes in great quantities resulting in a differently-structured film. While some of these alterations helped to improve the pacing, many of them also harmed the movie's narrative and at points generated unforgivable continuity errors. I don't hate this particular version of the film however, as it still holds nostalgic values for me. I still feel it's necessary to point out its problems.

No significant plot points have been affected during the re-editing process (aside from the Princess' origin being Mars in this version). It should be noted that many events occur sooner than in the Japanese version, like most of the scenes that take place between the respective appearances of Godzilla and Rodan. Being dispensed of the more monotonous material first makes the later scenes with the monster action all the more gratifying.

However, there are still a lot contrived decisions on the editing room. The scene where the Princess warns the characters about Ghidorah's incoming arrival is moved after the monster has appeared, and makes for a rather abrupt scenario when the military starts referring the monster by his official name immediately after Salno tells the people in the clinic about the creature. It could be argued that these changes were done to keep all the night scenes together as opposed to the constant shifting in the Japanese version, but the resulting contrivances don't justify it.

Also during some scenes, shots have been reordered in an apparently random manner, causing Mr. Continuity to vanish occasionally. When Rodan first appears, the scene is reorganized to the point where he unearths himself, is then seen completely buried, and finally appears in the air in the last shot. Godzilla's landing in Yokohama is even more bewildering, as the creature is first seen on land, only to appear in the sea in the next shot!

One of the innovations the original film had was the inclusion of a parallel plot line (the assassination plot) which was in close contact with the monster action. The deletion of certain footage severs this connection, making it seem as though both storylines are unrelated. They did manage to improve this aspect during the climax, as bits of the final battle were incorporated between the scene where Malness attacks Shindo and the Princess.

The dubbing job is fairly cartoonish, though I'm very fond of it regardless. A common source of contempt for fans is the voice that dubs the Princess makes her sound like a robot. I will jump in defense of this, since 1) It was like that in the Japanese version, and 2) Giving her a normal tone would negate the idea of her being possessed. The best choice in the dub goes to the actor who does Malness, as he reflects the character's personality seamlessly.

It's a well documented fact that much of Ifukube's music was replaced in this version with stock music. While the changes adds a different level of variety to the score, in some cases the association of particular themes to characters is lost; like during Rodan's appearance, as it has the monster's theme replaced by some rather generic cue. Still, I would be lying if I said the US score hasn't grown in me over the years. Indeed some tracks, like those during the hospital shootout, or the more suspenseful tunes for Kurobe work well enough. In any case, a majority of Ifukube's themes are present, retaining the impact they cause in the Japanese version. Overall, the American adaptation is a mess of a film, but an enjoyable mess nevertheless.

So there it is, Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster might not be a perfect film from a technical perspective, but as an escapist spectacle it's irrefutably a great experience.