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Tuesday, September 22nd at Tustin’s Mess Hall
Despite the best efforts of this pandemic, The Frida Cinema hasn’t let it get in the way of bringing great movies to audiences through its Drive-In Dine-Out series at Tustin’s Mess Hall! Guests have retched at Re-Animator, guffawed at The Toxic Avenger, and are set to be mystified by Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, but the movie we’re going to talk about today is one that will have them cancelling any plans they might have to visit Tokyo. That movie is none other than Ishiro Honda’s Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, the fifth entry in Toho’s long-running Godzilla franchise and co-presented by Creature Bazaar! When the evil space dragon King Ghidorah lands on Earth, he promptly attempts to destroy it the way he once did an alien civilization on Venus. In the face of this diabolical threat, Godzilla teams up with the mutant pteranodon Rodan and the Infant Island deity Mothra to defeat the extraterrestrial intruder in a struggle that will determine the fate of the world!
Marking the entrance of the three-headed demon to the series, Ghidorah also has the distinction of coming out 10 years after Gojira, the very first Godzilla film. The brainchild of producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, the picture was a dark metaphor for Japan’s wartime experience in general and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (the ruins of which director Honda, himself a veteran of World War II, once visited) in particular. As Toho churned out sequel after sequel, the movies began to stray away from (though never outright abandon) the political roots of the original, increasingly emphasizing monster fights and transforming Godzilla from a keloid-scarred nuclear horror into a bulgy-eyed, drop-kicking superhero until, after a whopping 15 films, the studio temporarily retired the character in 1975.
Dubbed the Showa series due to them being released during the reign of the Showa Emperor Hirohito, these movies are what even people who mainly know Godzilla from Blue Oyster Cult or the Matthew Broderick movie think of whenever the King of the Monsters is brought up. They also capture the multifaceted nature of the franchise, drawing inspiration from the most monstrous war in human history to create cinematic spectacles and flights of fancy beloved by viewers old and young, Eastern and Western (including the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Steven Spielberg, and Guillermo del Toro.) It’s, as Godzilla experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski describe in Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, “A world defined by the horrific reality of mass destruction visited upon Japan in World War II, yet stirring the imaginations of adult and children around the world for generations.”
So without further ado, let’s dive into this wonderfully unreal universe where benevolent dinosaurs roam the earth and sinister aliens lurk in the heavens, where real-world terrors clash with childlike fantasies, and get a feel for it with five movies from Godzilla’s Showa era!
Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964)
A pivotal entry in the Showa series, Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster boasts a number of firsts. Not only is it the debut of Ghidorah, it’s also the very first step in Godzilla’s transformation from scourge of mankind to a reluctant defender of it. On top of that, it’s also Rodan’s first appearance in the series, with the return of Mothra after her turn in the same year’s Mothra vs. Godzilla further rounding out the cast of creatures. With the latter two monsters earlier starring in their own self-titled features (both of which were directed by Ishiro Honda as well), one can understand and appreciate the plentiful kaiju crossover appeal that this film offered to moviegoers when it first hit theaters.
With all the star power of an Avengers film, the climatic battle here has to be one of the most memorable of the Showa era. Despite facing the three Earth monsters, Ghidorah proves more than capable of holding his own against them, easily repelling the trio with his gravity beams and even getting Godzilla against the ropes – or rather, a bridge – at one point. Sporting an iconic golden-scaled design and an appetite for annihilation, it’s easy to see why Ghidorah is regarded as one of Godzilla’s greatest enemies as well as all the more exciting when the king of the Monsters and his allies finally rally together and devise a way to subdue the planet’s would-be destroyer.
It goes without saying that the monsters, as with virtually any Godzilla film, are the true stars of the movie, but Honda still manages to showcase his taste for human drama with a narrative that weaves several different threads together into a surprising but solid whole. From researchers investigating a strange meteor in the mountains to assassins tracking down a mysterious woman who claims to be from Venus but bears an uncanny resemblance to the princess they’ve been trying to kill, there’s more than enough to keep audiences intrigued besides kaiju combat. Akiko Wakabayashi’s (who 007 fans might recognize as Bond girl Aki of You Only Live Twice) performance as the amnesiac princess particularly ties the human element together, with her dispassionate delivery and blank expressions giving subtle weight to the idea that she is possessed by an alien trying to warn mankind of its impending doom and destruction.
Speaking of destruction, the kind shown here is nothing less than the stuff monster movies are made of. Boats burn, mountains crumble, and cities are laid to waste through the inventive model work of special effects wizard Eiji Tsubaraya, with Ghidorah’s aerial rampage being especially indelible (certainly effective enough for Toho to recycle it as stock footage again and again for later entries in the series.) Yet the most visually-arresting sight, however, has to be one of panicked civilians screaming and fleeing for their lives as Ghidorah – no more than a blip in the sky – flies around in the background. Almost as if Honda is teasing viewers with the terror that is to come, it’s a terrifically understated shot that speaks to the artful intelligence behind the camera.
The fourth Godzilla score to be composed by Gojira’s Akira Ifukube, the soundtrack builds on the maestro’s themes from previous films and adds some important cues to the series’ musical repertoire. Taking a melody first briefly heard in 1958’s Varan, Ifukube rearranges it into an anxious, trumpet-driven piece that serves as Rodan’s theme and would be quoted in various Godzilla scores to come. The piece that plays during Ghidorah’s “birth” is also striking, using rolling cymbals, a teetering organ, and even a harp to build up the dragon’s appearance before giving way to the brassy cue that accompanies his fiery formation in the air and from thereon out acts as his theme. While it leans a bit too much on the same cues throughout the movie, Ifukube’s score is the right combination of seriousness and whimsy for a Godzilla film as middle-grounded as this one.
A crucial turning point in Godzilla’s evolution from haunting allegory to amusing camp, Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster is as much an important landmark for the series as it is a fun-filled, rock ‘em sock ‘em romp.
Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
Given the colorfulness (both figurative and literal) of the previous movie, Godzilla Raids Again (originally released in the US as Gigantis, the Fire Monster) will strike many as a jarring follow-up. A direct sequel to Gojira, director Motoyoshi Oda’s only foray into the Godzilla series is the one most tonally similar to that film even as it departs from it in significant ways. For starters, it downplays the anti-nuclear story and messaging of the original in favor of the monster-vs-monster set-up that would become the key draw of the series. Pitting Godzilla against Anguirus, a giant Ankylosaurus and his first foe ever, the movie features plenty of action but lacks the general silliness that people associate with the franchise. Plus, it’s all in black and white, another way that it emulates the grim atmosphere of Gojira and contrasts with the zany antics of latter Showa offerings.
Compared to the tag-team conflict of Ghidorah, the battle between Godzilla and Anguirus is stark and ferocious. This is unintentionally helped by the fast speed at which many shots of them fighting were filmed, an accident on the part of a crew member who, instead of overcranking the camera to produce a slow-motion effect, undercranked it, creating the opposite effect. Effects chief Tsubaraya was reportedly enraged by this mistake, but the resulting footage gives a frantic intensity to the monsters’ movements that makes it strangely mesmerizing. To add to the brutishness of it all, Godzilla finally gets the best of Anguirus by biting his throat until he keels over dead, an unusually feral way of defeating an opponent for the Big G. It’s also a kind that would become increasingly rare over the franchise’s long run (with notable exceptions like Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster) as its fights and antagonists became more and more fantastical.
Equally noteworthy about the film is that it marks Kurosawa collaborator Masaru Sato’s first stint as composer for a Godzilla movie. Remembered for bringing a distinctly jazzy sound to his compositions, Sato’s score opens with a jaunty but uneasy theme (a phrase that, incidentally, could also describe his later theme for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo). Driven by pulsing piano chords and piping trumpets, the theme deviates from the classical sensibilities of Akira Ifukube yet still conveys the sense of menace the story that it sets up requires. Closer to Ifukube’s Gojira score is the recurring, cello-heavy cue that appears during scenes with the monsters. Considerably slower-paced than the opening theme, it’s the closest the music comes to capturing the deep foreboding that the original film’s score so powerfully evoked.
As important as the music is to the movie’s mood, it also makes strong use of silence and minimal sound at several points. When Osaka receives an alert that Godzilla is approaching, we’re briefly treated to the familiar sight of people screaming as they evacuate before suddenly giving way to shots of the city quietly blacking out. Silent as the grave, the only thing that can be heard is the sharp sound of planes flying out to sea, a sight that Japanese audiences likely found eerily familiar just 10 years after WWII. Similarly compelling is the scene where Hidemi (Setsuko Wakayama) helplessly watches from her home as Osaka silently burns in the distance, with Sato’s ominous cello theme lowly playing in the background as a cloud of smoke rises from the far-off city. They don’t prompt quite the visceral response that Gojira’s images of dead and dying civilians did, but their muted potency makes them linger in viewers’ minds longer than any number of money shots in contemporary Oscar darlings.
Regarded for years by the fandom as your typical inferior sequel to a much better film, Godzilla Raids Again is an early, interesting variation on a now-classic formula that deserves serious reevaluation by fans and critics.
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Another excellent starting off-point for those unfamiliar with Godzilla is the third film, King Kong vs. Godzilla (which I previously discussed in another post.) A fan favorite as well as the best-performing Godzilla film at the Japanese box office to this day, the film sees the King of the Monsters face off against the Eighth Wonder of the World. To put it in context, this was a cinematic crossover of Superman meeting Captain America proportions at a time when DC and Marvel Comics were just that, comics. Even a six-year-old can see the allure of such a concept, or at least six-year-old me did when I – knowing little about either Kong or Godzilla – stumbled across the film on VHS at Toys “R” Us and begged my parents to buy it. Solid enough on paper, the execution of this most colossal crossover is masterful in the hands of director Honda and company.
While it’s fashionable in some quarters to hype up the film’s human narrative as some biting satire of television and the advertising industry (a reception very much intended and welcomed by the populist Honda), the truth is that these elements, while certainly present, are largely just a pretext for the mindless violence that we’re all really here for. Not to say that the story is without its charms: on the contrary, we actually get to see the first inklings of the over-the-top humor that would come to characterize the Showa era. This is most seen in the performance of Ichiro Arishima (commonly called “The Japanese Chaplin”) as Mr. Tako, an eccentric pharmaceutical executive who comes up with the brilliant idea of sponsoring King Kong in his fight with Godzilla. Erratic and excitable, Arishima brings a jittery energy to the human proceedings that, as tempting as it is to skip to the monster scenes, makes them entertaining enough to actually sit through and watch.
Just as engaging is the work of editor Reiko Kaneko, with him crafting some very interesting scene transitions here. A shot of the burning overhead of a submarine fades to the bubbling wake of a boat and the sound of Kong roaring cuts to a lion roaring on a TV screen, drawing similarities or contrasts between the connecting elements. It should also go without saying that Tsubaraya’s special effects are on point, with the stand-out scene being the surprise giant octopus attack on Faro Island (a dream come true for Tsubaraya, who always wanted to make a giant octopus movie.) Basically coming out of nowhere, the sequence utilizes an innovative combination of puppets, stop-motion, and real live octopi that stuns spectators to this day.
Returning to the composer’s chair after his absence from Godzilla Raids Again, Akira Ifukube contributes a reliably robust score that borrows as much from island influences as it does classical music. Two tracks stand out in particular: the first is the main theme, a forceful piece with pounding drums and fervent chanting that doubles perfectly well as Kong’s theme. The second is Godzilla’s theme, which marks the first appearance of the sulking fanfare we’ve all come to associate with the Big G. As with Ghidorah, the score repeats its themes a tad too much (the American cut overcorrects and makes the opposite mistake, almost entirely replacing Ifukube’s music with stock cues from movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon), but it still provides a well-fitting sense of gravity and momentousness to what might be the greatest monster-versus-monster confrontation in Godzilla history.
On that note, I hate to talk up Godzilla and Kong’s final fight at Mt. Fuji but – speaking strictly with my fanboy hat off and my semi-respectable film critic hat on – it really is that good! They tackle one another in towns and forests, they knock each other down mountains and hillsides, they even exchange taunts like Godzilla grinning giddily and flapping his arms after belting Kong with his atomic breath. It’s a lot more like wrestling than the animalistic combat of Godzilla Raids Again, pointing to the fact that suit actors Haruo Nakajima and Shoichi Hirose (both trained in martial arts) choreographed much of the fight themselves. And of course, it’s got that hilarious scene where Kong shoves a tree down Godzilla’s throat, a now-infamous image that became a minor meme known even to people who’ve never seen a Godzilla movie in their life a couple years back.
Riding off the sheer momentum of its brilliant premise, King Kong vs. Godzilla is a winning combination of raging battles and surprising laughs that should have even the snobbiest Letterboxd user or A24 stan whooping and cheering like WWE fans.
Destroy All Monsters (1968)
Remember how I said Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster was like an Avengers movie because of the way it crossed over monsters from different Toho films? Well, Honda’s Destroy All Monsters takes that crossover angle and runs away with it, making it the Godzilla equivalent of Infinity War. Funnily enough, it was intended to be the last entry in the Godzilla series, which goes a long way in explaining why they pulled out all the stops for this production. Starring 11 monsters, it’s far and away the biggest cast of kaiju to appear in a Showa film and the second biggest to appear in a Godzilla film period (the first is 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, which is widely considered to be a flawed remake of this movie.)
Revolving around a scheme by the Kilaaks – a race of aliens disguised as glittery-gowned women – to take over the world by controlling all its monsters, the plot is full-on Showa goofiness but the cast plays it fairly straight (or at least as straight as a movie about giant monsters and aliens allows.) This works to the film’s advantage though, giving a credible urgency to the heroes’ efforts to free the monsters from the Kilaaks’ control and save the planet. Though the human actors are, as usual, basically supporting players to the monsters, Yukiko Kobayashi pulls off a refreshingly-nuanced performance as Kyoko Manabe. As one of the Monster Land staff who gets mind controlled by the Kilaaks, Kobayashi does an excellent job of alternating between calmly devious when her character’s under the aliens’ influence and pleasantly conscientious when she’s free of it.
On top of its dramatic element, the human narrative has a surprisingly sizable amount of violence to complement that of the monster scenes. Much of this action takes the form of gunplay, with the prime instance being the shootout inside the Monster Land base. Unafraid to flash a little gore, the scene shows one man retching and clutching his stomach as blood trickles from it while another staggers after taking a bullet straight to the head. Sadamasa Arikawa’s special effects shots (supervised by Eiji Tsubaraya, who was too infirm at this point to direct them himself) get in on the action too, with the pyrotechnic work during Godzilla and company’s rampage through Tokyo being especially superb. Indeed, the amount of firepower that the military miniatures unleash during the sequence is so immense that fans often joke they caused more damage to the city than Godzilla!
Alongside the usual Toho royalty of Rodan, Anguirus, and Mothra, the movie also features more obscure creatures like the serpentine Manda, the huge spider Kumonga, and the theropod Gorosaurus. More importantly though, it tries to make sure that each gets the most out of their screentime, giving the C-list kaiju the chance to make lasting contributions to the Godzilla universe. This is facilitated in large part by – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – the final fight at Mt. Fuji, where all the Earth monsters join forces to battle King Ghidorah (hey, I told you to stop me!) With a few exceptions, everybody pitches in to defeat the multi-headed invader, with Kumonga joining Mothra in spraying Ghidorah with webbing and Gorosaurus decisively administering a kangaroo-like kick that knocks him to the ground (and likely explains his status as a cult favorite among some G-fans.)
Aside from the number of monsters taking parting in it, that final showdown is truly something to behold even by the standard of mid-Showa era fights. The kaiju are visibly intimidated by Ghidorah, recoiling and even fleeing when he fires his terrible gravity beams at them. However, just as in Ghidorah, Godzilla and friends are able to work together and lay the ultimate smackdown on their alien enemy. Visibly bleeding from his mouth and his tails limply quivering as the Earth monsters bite, stomp, and smoke-ring him to death, it’s an unquestionably brutal end, but I would be lying if it wasn’t awesome to watch this chaotically evil creature get the hell beaten out of him.
Nothing less than a parade of astonishing destruction, engaging human action, and memorable moments for lesser-known kaiju, Destroy All Monsters lives up to the rollicking enthusiasm that its title evokes.
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
Released at the tail end of the Showa era, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla came at a time when things weren’t looking too good for the franchise. Also not helping things was that it was 20 years since the release of Gojira, meaning Toho had to do something special for the Big G’s 20th birthday. With box office numbers and thus production budgets down, it fell to second-stringer Jun Fukuda to direct the film. Having helmed the two preceding movies, Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. Megalon, evaluations of Fukuda’s impact on the series is largely shaped by these cheap, almost-cartoony films, which are frequently cited as the worst Godzilla movies of the ’70s, if not ever. Yet despite the negative reaction to these two films, Fukuda was able to work with the limited resources Toho gave him and create a dazzling picture that not only introduces one of Godzilla’s most menacing adversaries but excellently celebrates 20 years of the King of the Monsters as well.
Following a motley crew of scientists, reporters, and secret agents as they try to thwart the fiendish plans of apelike aliens (imaginatively named the Black Hole Planet 3 aliens) to conquer Earth, the story’s set-up bears obvious similarities to Destroy All Monsters (or really any number of ’70s Godzilla films.) Where it differs though is the way it handles the material, approaching it more like an espionage thriller than a sci-fi adventure. Both the human and alien characters are fun to watch, with the big draws being Shin Kishida (who also played Kikui in Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance that same year) and Akihiko Hirata (appearing here 20 years after his turn as the heroic Dr. Serizawa in Gojira.) Playing an Interpol agent and a professor respectively, Kishida brings a deliciously-cheesy edge to his role while Hirata brings a decidedly non-cheesy poise to his.
Presumably to counter criticisms that the series had become too child-oriented, the film puts a premium on heated skirmishes between the human characters and the aliens. The camera shakes and jerks as the characters fight and chase each other, giving the impression of volatile motion and immersing viewers in the action. Interestingly though, gun fights are deemphasized in favor of melee combat and there’s shockingly little blood. The most graphic shot (of the human scenes anyway) we get is one of the heroes shooting an alien, who sprays black (or maybe dark green?) blood from his neck as he keels over and dies. Perhaps less guns and blood was the price Fukuda had to pay to get more human violence into the movie without alienating the younger audiences that Toho’s star attraction had become dependent on.
Of course, this isn’t to imply that the picture is nothing but mop-topped dudes beating up a bunch of guys in Planet of the Apes masks when it’s not robots fighting radioactive dinosaurs. Far from it, Fukuda demonstrates his refined visual vocabulary with pleasant shots of cruising ocean liners, gentle sea currents, and even anchors dropping into bay water. Many of these shots are not integral to the story but establish the location and mood, contributing bit by bit to the quirky but cheery vibe of the film. That being said, there’s a particularly potent shot of two characters on a ship that’s more ambiguous in tone than the others. Framed in the background by the vessel’s railing, the two look out at the ocean as the legs of an unidentified figure enter the frame and foreground. It’s a quiet shot but a dynamic one as well, using visuals instead of narration or exposition to tell us the characters might be in danger.
As lovely as these shots might be, the big draw is – but of course – the ones with the monsters in them. This is especially the case with Mechagodzilla, the steel-plated secret weapon of the Black Hole Planet 3 aliens. Armed with an astounding array of weapons and a sharply-angular design, the King of the Monsters’ robotic duplicate is dangerously cool to look at, and even more so when he unleashes his expansive arsenal. With rainbow-colored eye beams, explosive finger missiles, and an energy bolt shot from his chest, it’s no exaggeration to say that Mechagodzilla and his flashy weaponry put the “fire” in “firepower”.
Fortunately for us, the metallic monster gets plenty of opportunities to utilize his various implements of destruction in his fights with Godzilla and the ancient guardian of Okinawa, King Caesar. In a stunning show of his power, he rebuffs both as they simultaneously try to approach him from opposing directions, knocking them over from afar with his ranged weapons. Also impressive is the first encounter between him – disguised as the Big G – and the real thing, taking place in a burning oil refinery whose blazing flames complement the aesthetic marvel of the two monsters’ respective beam weapons. This makes it all the more ironic that, for all the awe Mechagodzilla’s fights inspire, it’s the one where he doesn’t use his weapons or even really appear onscreen that is the most discussed. The fight in question is between him (still in disguise as Godzilla) and Anguirus, who tries to expose Mechagodzilla and for his efforts gets his jaw broken by the imposter. Ending with the overgrown Ankylosaurus, his mouth caked in orangish blood, scurrying away, it’s the single most traumatic scene in the film, as many G-fans who grew up watching it (including this one) can attest to.
The last Godzilla film to be scored by Masaru Sato, it’s perhaps fitting that he composed one of the most vibrant scores of his career for it. Taking cue from the unique Okinawan setting, many of Sato’s themes incorporate elements from folk music, playing comfortably alongside a gaudy, suitably ’70s-ish variation of his trademark jazz. Also worth noting is the fact that one of the strongest pieces is diegetic (or actually occurring in the world of the movie), with the impassioned prayer Miyarabi sings fulfilling the important plot point of awakening King Caesar. Yet beating out Miyarabi’s song for best track is the one that plays during Mechagodzilla’s scuffle with Anguirus, a demented big band riff that gives the scene all the verve of a bad trip (not that I’d know) and is wildly popular among the fandom to this day (it’s even briefly included in Godzilla: Final Wars, indicating that people at Toho are fond of it too.)
As richly colored as the rainbow-hued beams Mechagodzilla shoots, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is both a splashy testament to the underrated Fukuda’s filmmaking talent and an electrifying highpoint for the low-budget Godzilla movies of the ’70s.