I have been so excited for this particular entry in There Goes Tokyo, as this may well be my favorite Godzilla movie of all time. It may not necessarily be the objective best film of the series, though it’s certainly high on that list. It’s definitely one of the most important movies in the series, and given this column’s focus on how kaiju movies went from using stock monster movie formulas to developing their own unique style and approach to monster story-telling, specifically when it comes to treating the monsters as characters, Ghidorah the 3-Headed Monster is a game changer in a lot of ways.
Our film opens with a montage of brief shots from later in the movie, with each clip playing for a few seconds before holding still as credits appear. All of the shots in question showcase the three stars of the film: Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan. It gives the audience a taste of things to come, and establishes an important aspect of this kaiju film: more than any film that came before, the monsters are main characters here.
That’s not to say we don’t have human characters, though. The first proper scene focuses on a group of scientists talking to the press about space exploration and the possibility of encountering alien life. As if on cue, one of the scientists notices a meteor shower, breifly mistaking it for a flying saucer in reaction to all the speculative talk. The film cuts to a pair of policemen watching the same meteor shower. One of them, Detective Shindo, is assigned by his boss to serve as a bodyguard for Princess Salno, who is visiting Japan on behalf of her kingdom, of the fictitious country of Selgina. A bodyguard is required because her life has been threatened with assassination, and Shindo, being smitten with her photograph, agrees to take the job.
Unfortunately the first assassination attempt is already under way, as Princes Salno’s would-be killers have rigged the plane taking her to Japan with explosives. Yet hope is not lost, as the Princess sees a meteor from the window of the plane and is told by a strange voice to jump out of the plane as soon as possible. The Princess escapes seconds before the plane explodes.
Meanwhile, some of the scientists from the first scene are hiking to the crash site of the meteor shower. While traveling through the mountainous countryside, one of them notices their compass isn’t pointing in the right direction. Shortly afterwards they find an immense meteor, and begin to set up camp when their pickaxes and other tools are strangely drawn to it. They quickly realize the meteor is magnetic.
Down at the police station, Shindo is heartbroken at the apparent death of Princess Salno, and is frustrated that they can’t find out who blew up her plane. At the same time, as a mysterious prophet has appeared in Japan and is causing quite a local stir. Onlookers make fun of the prophet, who warns them that the world is on the brink of destruction. The prophet claims to come from Venus (or Mars in the dub), and claims that the destruction to come will start at Mt. Aso – which, for those who remember their Toho kaiju films, may seem a bit familiar to you, as it’s the resting place of the two Rodans.
One of the reporters who interviewed the prophet, Naoko, happens to be Shindo’s sister, and the two are having a nice dinner with their mother at home. Their mother wants to watch a specific TV show, which wouldn’t be notable except for the fact that the show’s guest stars of the night are the Shobijin from Infant Island, who have returned to Japan on friendly terms. When asked about the twin mothra larva from the last film, they note with sadness that one of the twins died, but the other is doing quite well, and proceed to sing a beautiful song about Mothra and their home for the audience. Naoko teases Shindo during the performance, and her brother storms off to read a newspaper, only to recognize the prophet as none other than Princess Salno! In Selgina, the assassins also recognize the prophet as the Princess, and one of them, Malmess, is sent to Japan to finish her off.
The next day, Naoko and her fellow reporters talk about how they want to handle the Prophet, especially now that they know she is also the missing princess. Shindo and his superiors also discuss the case, and both groups decide they must find Princess Salno and protect her from harm as soon as possible, with Shindo and Naoko pooling the collective resources of their employers to reach that goal.
The princess turned prophet appears again at the crater of Mt. Aso, where she warns everyone that (a) Rodan will emerge soon. The onlookers ignore her warnings, making fun of the prophet, and one dumb bastard even descends into the crater to rescue another onlooker’s hat after it fell in. Of course, Rodan emerges as he does this, and the other onlookers proceed to run away as fast as their legs and tour buses can take them. The flying monster quickly takes flight and sets off to terrorize the countryside once more, all while Princess Salno watches on.
Later, the Shobijin are about to depart from Japan via boat when the princess appears to warn them and all the other passengers that the ship will be sunk by Godzilla. The crowd turns on the prophet almost immediately, but Naoko intercepts the princess and whisks her away to safety. Around the same time, Shindo meets with a fisherman who traded some of his clothes to the princess in exchange for her royal bracelet, which is a necessary item for any ruler of Selgina to have.
Naoko checks the prophet into a hotel, only for her to be recognized by none other than Malmess and his three thugs, who happen to be in the same hotel. That’s not the only coincidental meeting, either, as waiting in their hotel room are none other than the Shobijin! The twin fairies explain that they heeded the princess’s warning, recognizing the truth of her prophecies. Sure enough, at that very moment the boat the Shobijin would have boarded is attacked by Godzilla himself, who then proceeds to make his way towards Japan once more.
When Naoko briefly leaves the hotel room, the four assassins strike. Malmess tries to get the princess to admit her true identity and give him the royal bracelet, but since Salno can’t do either, he and his goons prepare to kill her while the Shobijin look on. The fairies turn off the lights, freaking the assassins out just in time for Naoko and the newly arrived Shindo to come to the rescue. The assassins escape in the confusion, and our heroes decide to move the princess to a safer location just as Godzilla comes ashore. Rodan seconds later, and the two prehistoric monsters quickly develop an animosity for each other. Godzilla puts off his rampage to chase Rodan down, all while the citizens of Japan look on in horror.
Shindo, Naoko, and the Shobijin take the princess to a medical facility so she can get her head examined. However, despite using incredibly advanced technology, the psychiatrist can find nothing wrong with the princess’s mind, despite her claims of being from Venus. The princess tells them all that they are insane to doubt her, as King Ghidorah has arrived on Earth. When pressed to explain what that means, Salno explains that Ghidorah is the monster who wiped out all life on Venus, and will now do the same to Earth. While the humans are doubtful, the Shobijin heed her warnings.
Godzilla and Rodan finally come to blows in the nearby countryside, with both monsters doing their best to beat the hell out of each other. Elsewhere, the meteor glows violently before exploding, and in doing so unleashes the mighty King Ghidorah upon the world! The titular three-headed monster is unlike any Toho put to screen before it, clad in beautiful glittering gold scales (instead of the muted earth tones of Rodan, Godzilla, and even Mothra’s imago form) and, y’know, having three long-necked dragon heads. Ghidorah immediately sets out on his business of destroying the world, his three heads writhing with manic glee as buildings crumble in his wake. It’s not just the dragon’s appearance that sets him apart, for while the Earth kaiju like Godzilla and Rodan seem to rampage in fury, Ghidorah’s destructive assault is carried out with an air of demented pleasure, right down to his cackling roar.
We then see some government official discussing whether to use nuclear weapons on Godzilla, Rodan, and King Ghidorah. Thankfully, Shindo, Naoko, and the Shobijin interrupt, with Shindo saying Mothra may be able to stop the monsters. The Shobijin disagree, but provide an alternate solution: Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra could fight together to destroy king Ghidorah. An official asks how Godzilla and Rodan could be persuaded, and the Shobijin say that Mothra is willing to ask them. It’s a crazy plan, but as King Ghidorah lays waste to Tokyo with manic glee, it becomes clear there aren’t any other options.
If there was any doubt before that these movies treat monsters like characters, this movie has annihilated it. The crux of this film comes down to humanity needing Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra to settle their differences and agree to face a common enemy. For the first time, the kaiju threat will be dealt with using diplomacy, and you can’t use diplomacy on a creature that is ONLY conflict. While I’d argue all the Toho kaiju movies before Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster have treated their monsters as characters, this film is truly the one where it can’t be debated, as it even has human characters debating whether the monster’s personalities will allow their motivations to be changed. You know, like characters.
Back at the hospital, Princess Salno is hypnotized and asked about how, y’know, the whole “I’m a Venusian” thing works. She responds that while the Venusians were wiped out by Ghidorah, some escaped to Earth and interbred with humanity, and as a result some humans, the princess included, have trace elements of Venusian ancestry. Malmess and his goons break into the hospital at the same time, and attempt to tamper with the machinery of the hospital to fry the princess’s brain. Thankfully, Godzilla and Rodan’s fight nearby knocks out the hospital’s power, forcing Malmess to try and shoot the princess instead. Shindo comes to the rescue, chasing off the assassins while the doctors get Salno to safety. Naoko arrives shortly afterwards to inform them that Mothra is coming.
Sure enough, Mothra arrives to interrupt Godzilla and Rodan’s protracted and increasingly vicious duel. She tries to get their attention with chirps, but both monsters are two busy kicking rocks at each other like school children. After watching the spectacle in confusion for a moment, the insect sprays Godzilla with silk, which finally gets attention. Rodan laughs at this, only to get shot with silk himself, with some even getting in his mouth. The two reptiles stop their fighting as Mothra takes center stage, and the Shobijin translate their conversation for humanity. Mothra tries to convince Godzilla and Rodan to stop their fighting, but both monsters believe the other should apologize, which makes Shindo scowl and say, “Mankind aren’t the only stubborn creatures then.” The pair also have no love for humanity, viewing humans as bullies who try to destroy them all the time. Mothra claims the earth isn’t just for mankind but for everyone, and that it is their duty to protect it. Godzilla and Rodan disagree, noting that they can easily escape King Ghidorah, which pisses Mothra off so much that she calls the pair bull-headed and sets off to fight King Ghidorah herself.
It should be noted that the dubbed version of this scene is unquestionably superior to the subbed version, as the dub has the Shobijin say, “My, Godzilla, what horrible language!” If some equivalent of that line wasn’t in the original Japanese script, then the dubbers have done us all a profound service by establishing that, at least in English speaking countries, Godzilla swears.
King Ghidorah proceeds to beat the shit out of Mothra, only for Godzilla to rush to her aid. The Shobijin note that Godzilla and Rodan are both inspired and humbled by Mothra’s bravery, and have joined the fight to save face, since it would be shameful to run when they could fight. What follows is one of the most elaborate monster fights ever put to film, with all four combatants – Godzilla, Rodan, the larval Mothra, and King Ghidorah – showing off as many of their unique strengths and weaknesses as possible. Godzilla lets Mothra bite his tail so he can carry her into the battle, Rodan fights Ghidorah in the skies, Mothra rides on Rodan’s back to encase Ghidorah in webbing, seriously it’s great. If you only watch these movies for the monster battles, then this film is STILL essential viewing.
Malmess tries to kill Princess Salno in the mountainside after his henchmen are killed in a car crash caused by a stray gravity bolt from Ghidorah’s mouth, but Shindo rushes to protect her. The policeman and the assassin have a deadly shootout. The princess regains her memories during the shootout, and things look bleak for her and Shindo until an avalanche caused by the kaiju battle crushes Malmess mid-shot. Naoko, the Shobijin, and the doctors then arrive to rescue Shindo and Salno.
The monster brawl continues, with earth’s three protective kaiju attacking Ghidorah from all directions, which makes it hard for the three headed monster to concentrate. There are more than a few moments of levity, as Ghidorah shoots Godzilla in both the crotch and ass with his gravity bolts, while Mothra continues her proud tradition of annoying monsters by biting down hard on their tails. Eventually Godzilla keeps Ghidorah pinned long enough for Mothra to cocoon the dragon in webbing, with Rodan lifting the larva up high enough to web Ghidorah’s three heads together. Godzilla tosses Ghidorah’s constrained form like a ragdoll and pelts the monster with boulders until he finally retreats, returning once more to the depths of space. With their common enemy defeated, Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra roar in triumph.
The next day, Princess Salno is back to her senses, and is taken aback to learn she was claiming to be from Venus. She does, however, recognize Shindo, and voices her appreciation for how he saved her life three times, as his heroism is the only thing she can remember from her time as a Venusian prophet. The moment is bittersweet, as Salno must return to her country and obviously cannot be with Shindo since, y’know, she’s a princess and all, but it’s still very touching. Shindo watches as her plane leaves, while our movie ends with the Shobijin and Mothra bidding Godzilla and Rodan goodbye.
I’ve talked about this a little before, but monster movies tend to have two main plotlines: the monster plot, which focuses on the whole “there’s at least one monster making a mess” thing, and the human plot, which focuses on human characters having human drama in the midst of the whole monster making a mess thing. Generally the monster plot is macroscopic – that is to say, it’s a larger than life conflict, the sort of thing that could affect the whole world. This necessitates the inclusion of the human plot, which is microscopic in comparison – while an audience can understand that a monster destroying the world is pretty bad, it’s a hard conflict to relate to, so putting characters who also have more normal, down to earth human drama in that story makes it easier to identify with the larger problem. American monster movies tend to be pretty formulaic in how they handle both: the monster plot will involve a monster destroying the world, and the human plot will involve some sort of romance that forms between people trying to deal with the whole monster ending the world thing.
Toho’s films initially played things much like their American competitors. The love triangle between Emiko, Ogata, and Dr. Serizawa is a good example, though I would argue it has a great deal more depth and relevance to its corresponding monster plot than most American monster films. Yet as Toho made more and more monster films, they began playing with this formula, with increasingly unique human plots, and monster plots that began to rebel from the traditional “There’s a monster on the loose, we have to find out how to destroy it.”
Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster completely subverts how these two plots usually work. I should probably mention here that I’m building off of an observation that David Kalat made in his book A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series, which is a book any lover of Godzilla movies should read. Kalat notes that the monster and human plotlines seem to have switched focus. While technically the kaiju are threatening the world as normal in this film, the bulk of the monster scenes are focused on their relationships rather than their threat: Rodan and Godzilla spend most of the film fighting each other instead of humanity, Mothra’s scenes are devoted to her trying to get those two to work together, and the climax of the film hinges on these three Earth monsters putting aside their differences to face a threat more important than their personal desires – that’s the kind of thing that would happen in a Human plot. The human plot, meanwhile, deals with an international problem, a Princess possessed by a Venusian, detectives fighting off foreign assassins, and people speculating about the possibility of life on other planets – the kind of heady, larger than life ideas and problems that would normally be in the Monster plot.
Of course, the two plotlines also have elements of their usual scope – King Ghidorah threatens the world, after all, and Shindo’s infatuation with Salno is fairly relatable. I think it’d be more accurate to say that Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster blurrs the expectations of the Human and Monster plots rather than fully inverting them. I think that actually makes it more meaningful in a way – not only does it show that there’s more you can do with a monsters and human story than the tired old formulas believed, but also makes a poignant point about how humanity and monsters (or the natural world that monsters like Godzilla and Rodan personify) aren’t as different as one thinks. That, ultimately, is the greatest point Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster makes. Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra are no less complicated than Shino, Salno, and Naoko. They have motivations, they have quirks, they have grudges, and they can, ultimately, be reasoned with. Humanity and monsters – humanity and nature – aren’t opposites. They’re the same. Humans are part of the natural world, and the natural world doesn’t have to be our enemy. Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster tells us a truth: this world isn’t the domain of mankind alone, and you cannot threaten the natural world without threatening mankind and vice versa. Ten years earlier, Godzilla asked how humanity could survive the wrath of nature incurred by our own predisposition to destroy ourselves. In Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster, we finally got our answer.
Not that said answer couldn’t use a bit of elaboration, and thankfully there are more Godzilla movies to come that play with this theme…