Tuesday, February 3, 2015
GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (1964), MONSTER ZERO (1965)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*
GHIDORAH is often cited as a turning-point in the Godzilla franchise. The Big G had remained the heavy in his first four appearances, but in this fifth movie, he, his former opponent Mothra, and Rodan are all united against a common menace, the three-headed dragon-creature of the title.
Though the movie is named for Ghidorah, the monster is more of a catalyst than a primary menace. With his three heads, two wings, two rear legs and no forelegs, Ghidorah is a marvelous design, but that design-complexity makes him hard if not impossible to identify with, whereas the other three creatures benefit in that department from a simplicity of design-- though, as I've said earlier, I've never really cared for any version of Rodan.
This is the first film in the Godzilla series to strongly push a human-centered subplot that isn't devoted to stopping a monster or monsters. In this case our viewpoint character Detective Shindo becomes involved in trying to figure out what has happened to Selina, princess of the far-off country Selgina. Initially she seems to perish in a plane-explosion, in theory ending Shindo's involvement in her story. However, Shindo beholds a woman who looks just like Selina, making predictions of catastrophe to the Japanese press and claiming to be a denizen of Venus. Shindo investigates her more thoroughly when her predictions come true: that both Rodan (resuscitated from his "death" in his initial appearance) and Godzilla will attack Japan. In addition, an assassin attempts to take Selina's life, demonstrating that the explosion of the plane was no accident. In addition, scientists are investigating a mysterious meteor shower, which turns out to be the means by which the titular outer-space monster arrives on Earth, and the Fairies of Infant Island just happen to be in town, appearing on a local TV show. The latter development feels like a 180 degree turn from their previous feelings on modern-media exploitation in MOTHRA, but maybe they considered it a cultural outreach program.
All three monsters-- Ghidorah, Rodan and Godzilla-- converge to attack Japan. The locals implore the Fairies to call upon Mothra, who previously protected humanity from Godzilla in 1964's MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA. Though the last Mothra-egg gave birth to two giant larvae at the end of that film, only one of them answers the Faeries' summons: for the rest of the 1960s, Mothra's remaining appearances will abjure his winged moth-form. Meanwhile, Shindo gets Selina examined by medical experts, who find her sound of mind, and convince Shindo that while she isn't literally from Venus, she is a genuine descendant of a Venusian colonization of Earth, which explains why the trauma-shocked princess has reverted into a persona derived from her psychically-endowed ancestors. For good measure, we learn from Selina that her distant ancestors were ravaged by an attack from the vicious hydra-headed space dragon. Thus it's fitting that Selina, like the Faeries, plays a role in bringing about Ghidorah's defeat this time out.
As it happens, just as Mothra arrives, Godzilla and Rodan have crossed paths and started fighting one another. The humans and the Faeries watch as the caterpillar-creature strikes up a dialogue with the giant reptile and the humongous pteranodon-- a dialogue translated by the Faeries. I'll comment more on this later, but suffice to say, Mothra initially fails to convince the two bigger monsters to oppose the space-born menace to Earth. The Mothra-larva proceeds to engage the three-headed dragon in battle, and gets his annelid ass kicked. This misfortune, however, shames Godzilla and Rodan into belatedly entering the battle. The result is that Ghidorah is driven back into space, the Earth-monsters go their separate ways, and Princess Selina, having speedily regained her memory, returns to her home country, bidding farewell to her Japanese protector.
The most striking sociological trope of this script is Selina's development, as she provides the strongest female role in the series since Emiko in the original film-- and even then, Emiko's most riveting dramatic scene was pruned from the American-made, internationally distributed version. Less striking, however, are the comic bits with the monsters talking to one another. I've seen it argued persuasively that this was a vital strategy in keeping the franchise appealing by giving Godzilla and his fellow critters more positive, almost heroic personalities. I can appreciate that, but I still find the "monster-talking" scene pretty egregiously juvenile, and its only virtue is that it's confined to this one section of the film.
MONSTER ZERO, which is the title by which I knew the film in its American distribution, is not without some bumpy spots, but on the whole it's much more streamlined and manages to integrate the main plot and subplots thematically. GHIDORAH's only aliens are the monster himself and the civilization of Venus that Ghidorah annihilated long ago, whose seed is reincarnated in Princess Selina. Here, Ghidorah is the catspaw for a hostile race of aliens-- the denizens of Planet X, known as X'ians-- who initially approach Earth on friendly terms, but turn out to be the first in a long line of alien conquerors that frequently become the new "heavies" in the Godzilla franchise.
In the near future, America and Japan have collaborated to produce a space program that is now able to venture out past Jupiter, to investigate Planet X, which has somehow managed to "hide" behind the bigger planet all these years. As in all such pictures, these voyages appear to take no more time than an airline flight from Asia to Europe, so in no time American astronaut Glenn and Japanese astronaut Fuji are setting down on Planet X. There they meet the X'ians, a race of humanoids who all wear black ray-bans and govern their lives by computerized input. (There's some suggestion that they may be partly computerized themselves, but it's not made explicit.) The Controller of the X'ians reveals to the astronauts that their planet is haunted by a fearful spectre: King Ghidorah, who has taken up residence on Planet X, where he flies around, pointlessly blowing up real estate with his lightning bolts. The Controller knows that on a previous occasion Ghidorah was driven from Earth by Godzilla and Rodan (Mothra is not mentioned), so he asks to borrow Earth's monsters to achieve the same effect on Planet X. The Controller promises that in exchange for Earth's cooperation, the X'ians will bestow on Earth a miracle serum able to cure all diseases.
After the astronauts return to Earth and convey the X'ians offer, two subplots commence. Glenn makes the acquaintance of a beautiful Japanese woman named Namikawa, and begins dating her. However, Namikawa has a suspicious connection with Tetsuo. an inventor and the boyfriend to Haruno, the younger sister of Fuji. Both Tetsuo and Haruno sustain their own subplot, for they're in love and are trying to convince Haruno's older brother Fuji that Tetsuo is good marriage-material. However, though Miss Namikawa buys one of Tetsuo's inventions, she doesn't develop it, which gives the young inventor no way to impress his girlfriend's brother. When Tetsuo investigates, he learns that Namikawa is an undercover X'ian, and that she purchased his invention because it could be used against the people of Planet X.
Meanwhile, Earth gives permission for the "lend-leasing" of Godzilla and Rodan, who are duly transported to Planet X. Glenn and Fuji jump in their space capsule and go along to see the fireworks. The Earth-monsters kick Ghidorah's ass, and everyone seems happy-- until Glenn finds out that all of the women of Planet X look exactly like Namikawa. The astronauts smell set-up, but they have no real evidence of any foul dealings, even if Namikawa is a secret agent. They return home, leaving behind the troublesome Godzilla and Rodan, who "seem to resent" being abandoned.
But when Glenn and Fuji go hunting for Tetsuo, X'ian agents on Earth capture and detain them. Namikawa reveals that the Controller's game-plant is total conquest of Earth and its resources. For displaying the unseemly emotion of love, Namikawa is disintegrated by her fellow agents. Once the three men are united, they eventually manage to compare notes and escape-- all to the good, since Planet X has declared hostilities. The X'ians use magnetic waves to control the three monsters, who now can be used to hammer Earth into submission. Presumably, though the X'ians already controlled Ghidorah, they were afraid that Godzilla and Rodan might oppose him, and rigged up the whole lend-lease affair as a way of depriving Earth of potential defenders without any shots fired.
There's no surprise in the way that the humans manage to turn the tables on the invaders, but all the elements of the final sequence-- the reversal of the magnetic waves that pins down the giant beasts, the use of Tetsuo's sonic invention as a weapon against the X'ians, and the explosive defeat of the aliens-- are pulled off with great panache, with the FX-talents of Eiji Tsuburaya and the musical accompaniment of Akira Ifukube reaching new heights. The content of the story may be no more than your basic FLASH GORDON super-science, but it provided a new direction for the Godzilla franchise to pursue, in place of just big monsters fighting one another.
I should add that there are some comic bits of business in ZERO, but this time out they're so brief that they're not annoying. And for the longest time, I've wondered whether or not the Controller's final action-- deciding to destroy himself and his men with an explosion-- suffered from a translation-change, since the character's rationale for his action is that he's trying to cause his forces to "escape into the future." The English-subtitled Japanese version, however, reveals that in that version he's also seeking escape, not immolation. Still, I tend to wonder if maybe the Japanese scripter originally toyed with the idea of the villain embracing a "noble suicide," because it seems so characteristically Japanese. Since there's no mention of time-travel anywhere else in the story, I suspect that suicide was the original intent of the Controller, and that the script changed to "soften" the violence by making it accidental rather than intentional-- though of course, by that time, the audience is itching to see the invaders blasted to Kingdom Come. Maybe someone in production thought it would send a bad message, since the closing lines mention that Glenn and Fuji will be sent as envoys to Planet X, to negotiate peace treaties with the survivors-- a humanitarian ethos that didn't allow for noble suicide.