After Mothra vs. Godzilla it was time for Toho’s kaiju output to undergo a serious change. Eiji Tsuburaya, who was now working on a children’s TV show a lot of the time, had essentially won. He and Ishirō Honda had ultimately differing opinions on what kaiju films should look like. There wasn’t any particular animosity between the two. It wasn’t an oppositional shift; Tsuburaya didn’t have to fight Honda on his opinions. If anything Eiji just proved to be Toho’s kaiju auteur. His child-friendly approach to the daikaiju films would become the studio’s chief style. This transition started with King Kong vs. Godzilla, but it was mainly Tsuburaya’s approach to the combat that changed. Even Mothra vs. Godzilla’s script is substantially more adult when compared to Toho’s following project.
After Mothra vs. Godzilla it was time for Toho to continue integrating other kaiju into the Godzilla universe. Rather than continue this in piecemeal fashion they decided to do it in one fell swoop. Well, almost one fell swoop. The rather minor Varan got left behind. He just wasn’t that notable. However Rodan, Mothra, and Godzilla would all appear in the new project, along with a new kaiju named King Ghidorah.
Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster, doesn’t just incorporate all these kaiju, it also takes a syncretistic approach to their backstories. All the film’s human bystanders know who these kaiju are, with the exception of the new and apocalyptic appearance of King Ghidorah. They act as if they’ve seen Mothra, Rodan, and Godzilla before. The characters hadn’t been established as sharing a universe until this point. While Mothra and Godzilla had shared a movie before, Rodan had stayed segregated; this was the first film to see him appear alongside other kaiju, and only his second appearance ever.
The monsters all look their best in the film. The ever so slightly altered MosuGoji suit perfectly complements the more heroic role Godzilla ends up playing in the film. The more bird-like approach to Rodan, known as the SanDaikaijuRado suit, strikes a nice blend of friendly and threatening, as the individual scenes require. Mothra, who never leaves her larval form, isn’t particularly different at all from the previous film. The studio naturally turned to Shinichi Sekizawa to come up with a script that would unite these three titans as allies. Sekizawa came up with an obvious, but effective, solution to this problem – a new monster so dangerous it threatens the whole world.
This simplistic concept was elevated by cleverly integrated human elements, skillful characterization of the past kaiju, and a unique and iconic foe. Of course Shinichi Sekizawa didn’t actually have to design the necessarily striking opponent, merely tie it into the plot. Sekizawa’s script also went so far as to avoid any military attacks on the kaiju. That would make Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster the only kaiju film to not include at least one scene where the army tries to combat the beasts. Without any real secondary conflicts King Ghidorah needed to be an incredibly imposing figure. The script describes the new kaiju as having “three heads, two tails, and a voice like a bell.” Past that it was up to Eiji Tsuburaya and his team to design the space-monster. Designer Akira Watanabe and Eiji Tsuburaya turned to mythology for inspiration. He melded the looks of Chinese dragons with the mythical, eight headed, Japanese serpent, the yamata-no-orochi. The initial suit featured a three-headed dragon with rainbow coloured wings, a purple body, and flaming jaws. Watanabe and Tsuburaya decided this design wasn’t as threatening as it could be. Tsuburaya thought a demonic scarlet would best suit the striking space-menace, but in discussing with the rest of his crew they decided that gold would look better onscreen. The final design would go on to be just as iconic as the tried-and-true monsters appearing alongside it. Ghidorah, also sometimes spelled Gheedorah, or Ghidrah, is a massive dragon. He has three heads that look rather like Chinese dragons, and he has two tails. He has huge bat-like wings, and no arms. His body is covered in aureate imbricated scales and he can shoot explosive lightning from his three mouths.
The design is massively striking. In some ways it’s closer to the sea monster in Toho’s Atragon than any of their other kaiju. King Ghidorah strikes an imposing figure standing against the other kaiju. His unique colour, configuration of limbs, and arsenal all help differentiate the titan from his foes. While Mothra, Godzilla, and Rodan all look wildly different, their earthly inspirations contrast nicely with the fantastical and cosmic quality of Ghidorah’s design. King Ghidorah was instantly striking. The suit was controlled by one hunched over actor who stood in the middle head. The other two heads were operated by different men using a combination of poles and wires.
The film starts with, of all things, a fleeing Himalayan princess named Selina Salno, whose plane explodes. In Japan a police officer who’s been assigned to protect the princess against a rumoured assassination plot gets word that her plane has been bombed and she never made it to Japan. Meanwhile an unusual meteorite shower attracts the attention of Japanese scientists who set out to find the fallen space-rocks. The largest of the meteorites landed in the wilderness, and when the scientific expedition finds it they immediately note the strange magnetic properties the massive rock possesses.
Back in civilization a woman appears who looks exactly like the missing princess. However her royal garb is gone and she’s dressed like a dock worker. What she starts saying is even stranger than her new clothes. She starts prophesying doom, claiming she’s from Venus and knows what the future will bring. She predicts that Rodan will emerge from the remnants of the volcano he was driven into. She predicts Godzilla will emerge from the sea and destroy a ship. The crowd writes her off as manic and insane and simply ignores her ominous predictions.
The princess look-a-like really does seem to have a strange window into the fabric of fate however. First the massive Rodan soars up from the volcano he was driven into at the end of his first film. He takes flight, leaving wind-wrecked houses in his wake. Then a ship at sea spots a mass of whales hurriedly fleeing through the water. They’re fleeing the surfacing Godzilla, his dorsal plates gleaming as he rises into the night air. As these giants start to destroy swathes of the city, they begin to interfere with the assassins still chasing the princess.
The assassins, who are searching for the princess, and more specifically for her bracelet, which would give them the power to rule, are further slowed down by a dangerous turn of events. Rodan and Godzilla become especially destructive when they meet and begin to fight. Meanwhile the reporter-sister of the cop assigned to the princess’ protection takes her to a hotel room to interview her. The assassins arrive, but are foiled by the diminutive Shobijin, who are in Japan for a TV appearance. The reporter takes the princess to a remote psychologist’s laboratory. They hope to cure her of whatever affliction has inspired her to believe she’s a Venusian prophet. The psychologist can’t find anything wrong with her, which seems to inspire the princess to explain the situation. She is the descendant of a Venusian. The Venusian in her basically took over her mind to warn humanity. It seems that many, many years ago a great beast ravaged Venus, destroying the advance society they had formed. The survivors fled to earth and bred with humans. The Venusian in the princess has taken control of her mind to warn earth of the same danger that they faced on Venus – King Ghidorah.
Almost as the princess explains this, the scientists studying the strange fallen meteorite begin to notice especially unusual phenomenon. In a burst of energy the stone grows and glows and transforms. It flies into the air radiating a bright light that shifts into the shape of a monstrous three-headed dragon. Meanwhile the Japanese government officials collectively throw their hands in the air. They can’t typically defeat one angry kaiju, let alone three. The Shobijin suggest a course of action however. They explain that they’ll try to convince the surviving Mothra larva to get involved. The hope is that the larva can convince Rodan and Godzilla to form a truce while they fight Ghidorah. The larva arrives in Japan and our protagonists watch the three kaiju negotiate while the Shobijin translate. Mothra explains her plan to save mankind. Godzilla doesn’t see why he and Rodan should help mankind when they “have always had trouble with men and men hate them.” This new anthropomorphization of the King of Monsters is an important shift for Toho. The two refuse to help humanity; they’d rather continue their fight. Mothra resolves to fight King Ghidorah by herself, despite knowing she’s not strong enough to ever win.
The gilded dragon King Ghidorah instantly gains the upper hand in the fight. He continually knocks the larval Mothra aside. Almost immediately the cavalry arrives, as Rodan and Godzilla, struck by Mothra’s selflessness, arrive to help fight Ghidorah. An incredibly entertaining brawl ensues as the trio of titanic-Toho-icons starts fighting the demonic and apocalyptic opponent. While this is happening the cop and the princess end up having a showdown with the assassins. It’s a pretty thrilling gunfight. A stray gunshot scratches the princess and the non-lethal pain restores her human side. Eventually the united kaiju drive Ghidorah back into space.
The visual effects heavy monster bash taxed every department in Toho’s special effects crew yet again. Yasuyuki Inoue’s team had to create a stupendous number of intricate miniature cities for the production. Despite the fairly rural climactic location of the film the movie required more cityscapes than most of Toho’s other films, and that kept Yasuyuki very busy. The animation team got to do some of their best work to date on the film. King Ghidorah’s striking lightning breath was wonderfully realized, as was the complicated scene where he emerges from the meteorite as a glowing and formless energy-shape. Some especially atmospheric combinations of practical effects and optical effects were utilized. One such scene was Godzilla’s dramatic arrival being forewarned by frightened whales. The shoot for the movie was in the winter, a time when Toho’s pool, always a risky place to film, was especially miserable. Parts of it would freeze over, and what didn’t would still be icily cold. The Godzilla actor tended to begrudge the pool scenes, aware that a screw up could be literally lethal. Another such scene was the moody shot of Rodan soaring through a cloudy sky. Not as dangerous but still nicely evocative.
The massive climactic monster-brawl perfectly encapsulated Eiji Tsuburaya’s child-friendly approach. The monsters hang out. Mothra even rides Godzilla and Rodan. It’s a chummy, enthusiastic fight, filled with exciting team-ups and destruction. It’s bubbly and thrilling and creative and decidedly unlike any other Toho fights. It’s a nearly perfect blend of the fast fights and ponderous fights that had come before. Eiji Tsuburaya is quoted as saying, “Remember, children will be watching, don’t show anything too cruel.” Tsuburaya was talking about his show Ultra Q when he said that, but the ethos is all over Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster. The amazing team-up set a new standard for Toho.
The American version mainly chopped the existing scenes into an unnecessary new order. Only seven minutes in total were cut, but many scenes were rearranged. Ghidorah was changed to Ghidrah and Venus was swapped for Mars. It was also often made a double feature with the Elvis Presley film Harum Scarum, of all things.
Toho’s new tone was moving forward. The fun, child-friendly versions of their daikaiju films were working well. This one even successfully decontextualized Godzilla, a menacing vision of atomic warfare, as a semi-heroic figure. This version of the character worked so well it was to become the norm for the King of Monsters.