Monday, September 30, 2013

Godzilla meets Ghidorah: San Daikaijū: Chikyū Saidai no Kessen

at 5:04 PM
That's Three Giant Monsters: Earth's Greatest Battle, or, as it was released in the West, Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster, the 1965 direct sequel to Mothra vs. Godzilla and the fifth movie in the Godzilla franchise. I use the Japanese title this time 'round because I watched the Japanese version. But I'm going to call it Ghidorah from here, because typing. It was okay (not as good as Mothra vs.), but oddly, what was good in this one was basically the inverse of the last. 

Reminiscent of the original GojiraGhidorah sports a lot of build-up to the arrival of the kaiju, playing the classic horror card that what the audience doesn't see is scarier than what they do. The high points of the movie are the tense and creepy scenes dealing with the investigation of sites of suspicious activity like Ghidorah's meteorite "egg" and Rodan's volcanic resting place. A brainwashed foreign princess thinking she's from Venus serves as a prophetic doomsayer, heralding a coming apocalypse at the hands of the evil alien Ghidorah. She proclaims that Ghidorah is far more devastating than any threat Earth has ever faced - that even Godzilla pales in comparison to his might. This is a great and atypical setup - Mothra vs. Godzilla played its hand early and recycled (half) the mystery of the first movie: "what can stop Godzilla?" (the first movie also had another component - "what is Godzilla?" - but we've stopped caring about that by now). That's getting old at this point - we know what Godzilla can do, and plenty of stuff can stop him. So it's a lot scarier to keep the new monster off-screen and let our imaginations envision, "what could be even more powerful than Godzilla?" Especially when the movie tells us that not only has Ghidorah rampaged before, annihilating the entire planet-wide civilization of Venus, but he is intelligent and evil - he chooses to destroy. Godzilla is an animal - he's deadly by accident, and mankind are the evil ones for awakening him. Ghidorah is malevolent. 

Unfortunately, the third act fails to deliver on this cataclysmic promise. No intelligent malevolence shows through in Ghidorah's behavior once he hits the screen - he stomps and shrieks just as mindlessly as Godzilla. His arrival-rampage through a small mining town is completely unimpressive, taking place on a much smaller scale than we're used to. What's made Godzilla seem so invincible in the past isn't so much that he smashes buildings, but that he shrugs off the full military might of humanity. We've directly witnessed that Godzilla is more powerful than any weapon ever created. Mankind puts up little resistance to Ghidorah, so we don't get long montages of tanks firing on him or planes dropping bombs. This was where we really did need a "what can stop this monster?" phase - the premature resolution of that question significantly undercuts the threat of the antagonist. Instead, by that point in the movie it's already been decided that the only way to stop Ghidorah is an alliance of Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra. 

This weak introduction of Ghidorah ripples into our perception of the other kaiju. Since we're never shown how much stronger Ghidorah is than Godzilla, the kaiju triumvirate feels like overkill. Worse yet, it pussifies the "good" kaiju, suggesting that it takes three of them to combat this decidedly mundane (by Godzilla standards) threat. We do get a hilarious whipping-the-shit-out-of-Mothra fight that spurs Godzilla and Rodan to join forces, but it never actually feels like the heroic kaiju are outmatched - it just feels like Mothra sucks. And Mothra does suck! It's entirely worm-Mothra this time around, since I guess the surviving larva born at the end of the last movie hasn't grown up into an imago yet, and you know what that means. Yup, String Shot again! (This is painfully obvious, but it didn't strike me until actually watching these movies that they're the direct inspiration for Pokemon.) And once again, it's the reams and reams of silk that are the villain's downfall. Sorry, that was funny before, but at this point it's unbelievably lame. God-Z, Rodan, and Ghidorah just push each other around for a while until Mothra gets a clear shot, and the great Ghidorah, destroyer of worlds, supposedly far more than a match for mankind or even Godzilla, is conquered - and, frankly, humiliated - by silly string. Great teamwork gang.

Ghidorah's puppet heads make for a particularly disappointing prop - the monster ends up looking stout and stubby.
In terms of the battle itself: taking the kaiju away from civilization is rarely a good idea. The farther isolated these creatures become, the less foreign and menacing they seem. And the less giant. Miniature cities give the kaiju scale because, whether we're taken into the illusion or not, we still see a direct communication of size. We see that Godzilla is literally twice as tall as a skyscraper, and we know from reality how big skyscrapers are. Set entirely against "mountains" that look like mounds of dirt, there's no visual reference to gauge the kaijus' size. In fact, the only thing making us believe the mounds of dirt are mountains is the preconception that Godzilla is tall. But that's cyclical logic: we're supposed to believe the dirt heaps are mountains because we've been told Godzilla is tall, and we're supposed to believe Godzilla is tall because we've been told the dirt heaps are mountains. It doesn't work. Movies are a visual medium - you have to show me, not tell me. It's always going to be a bit of a challenge to get us over the hump of seeing the kaiju as men in suits, but it's worked before (and will work again). Ghidorah, however, does a pretty poor job, and the action falls flat for it. It's difficult to see anything but a battle of Halloween costumes.

This movie made two major contributions to the series: its most prolific antagonist, Ghidorah, and Godzilla as a hero. I've talked about how much I like Ghidorah in concept but was let down by his execution, but now let's talk Godzilla as defender of humanity, undoubtedly the biggest turning point in the franchise. As handled in Ghidorah, I fucking hate it. For Godzilla to be reasoned with is utterly antithetical to everything that makes him Godzilla. Maybe I'm in the minority here, as the rest of the original run (til 1975) stuck with this heroic Godzilla-Man angle, but the way the change is facilitated in Ghidorah is awful. I realize at this point we're pretty far removed from Godzilla as a metaphor for the atomic bomb, but he's still always been a mindless, primal force of destruction. He is innocent in that he has no conscience. When Mothra convinces him to fight against Ghidorah, we are introduced to the notion that he has thoughts and feelings. Which makes big ol' Godzilla seem like, well, a retard. And a jerk too. This movie tells us there has been a mind behind the menace all along, meaning that he's been totally cool with murdering thousands of people - and even must've had a reason for it. It eradicates the concept of the primal force unleashed by mankind's hubris. And if he has been self-aware all this time, why the fuck would he change his mind now - and why would humans go along with it? Ghidorah's "plan" (destroy all humans) is exactly the same thing that Godzilla's been working on for five movies now. There's no way to reconcile this change of heart with the character's history, because, until now, the character has had no heart to change.

Godzilla and Rodan being good listeners. Yeah, this doesn't clash with my understanding of giant monsters.
This anthropomorphism of consciousness also shows itself in Godzilla's physical conduct. He now does ridiculous stuff like pick up and throw rocks, headbutt other kaiju, sit down, and worst of all, laugh. Yes, Godzilla laughs in this movie. It is the epitome of Godzilla as a kids' movie (a paradigm shift that was underway at the time) and cringe-worthy to watch after a serious and well-developed first two acts. 
Watch the exact moment where the average age of Godzilla's audience drops to single digits.
I chose to watch this one in Japanese after seeing the English dub of Mothra vs. Godzilla to see how different the acting is in tone. I barely noticed a difference - the Japanese acting is still laughable and over-the-top. In the future I'll probably stick with the English versions for ease of watching, though I can see bouncing back and forth.

Ghidorah is impressive in that it takes concepts just as bonkers as those in Mothra vs. Godzilla (a possessed Venusian prophet, a magnetic meteorite) and weaves them into a compelling and atmospheric build-up. In terms of running time, there is more good than bad. Sadly, the concentrated bad of the last half hour cleanly wipes away any chance of walking away satisfied. Somehow, I think this actually would've been a better movie had it been a worse movie. If the early scenes had been as terribly wacky as those in Mothra vs., the third-act goofiness of Godzilla-Man probably would've played. As is, we get a tease of good kaiju horror with a slap in the face for a finish. It's hard to conjure a recommendation without experience with more of the series, but Ghidorah is definitely not one for newcomers and is probably a skip for casual fans.

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