Depth of Field: Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster/ Invasion of the Astro-Monster
The great debate among Godzilla fanatics goes a little something like this. On the one side are the purists, the people who scoff with sour indignation at the very idea of this venerable Japanese kaiju having to suffer through poor English dubbings, badly mangled prints, and edits mandated to make Western audiences more comfortable with the genre. For them, it’s pure untouched Toho or nothing at all. And then there are those on the side of the Saturday matinee, the generations who grew up with the whole man-in-suit ideal and embraced it as a combination of camp and cross culture craziness. In their mind, the mismatched voices and mediocre miniatures give anything Godzilla a true kitsch quality that definitely gets lost when you return to the source material. Unfortunately, DVD has only made the problem worse. Due to its inherent nature as a preservationists medium, the lovers of the original giant lizard have bemoaned the consistent release of poorly framed, faded versions of their favorite movie monster’s oeuvre.
So, how does one appease the persnickety while indulging the memories of those lost in front of a 19” ‘60s TV screen, bag of Cheetos clutched to their chest? Well, if you’re Genius Entertainment and Classic Media, you pow wow with the holders of the Japanese rights, make a deal to deliver the best Godzilla product possible, and come up with a combination disc that holds both the original Toho release as well as the mangled Americanized efforts. Making their first appearance on the digital medium as part of the heralded Master Collection, the fifth and sixth films in the Gojira franchise – Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster and Invasion of the Astro-Monster (later renamed Godzilla vs. Monster Zero) - show the scaly reptile with a prehistoric penchant for kicking creature keister as feisty as ever. They also argue for a clearly defined formulaic approach to this type of monster movie that would, initially, keep audiences clamoring for more. Eventually, such sloppy storytelling would drive the series to ridicule and ruin.
In Ghidorah, the story picks up just after the events of Mothra vs. Godzilla. The larval offspring of the giant insect have defeated our Hellbent hero and have slinked back to Infant Island, Lilliputian tenders (the then famous Japanese singing duo The Peanuts) in tow. A massive meteor shower brings a big interstellar bolder to a mountainous region outside Tokyo. A new beast named King Ghidorah springs forth, determined to wreck his own special brand of three headed menace on the populace. The cosmic anomaly also takes its toll on a potential political assassination. The Princess of some far off fictional country is almost assassinated. She is saved by the spirit of a spaceman from the planet Venus and arrives in time to warn the world about the upcoming creature chaos. Sure enough, Godzilla and Rodan are roused from their slumber, and with the help of the minute minders of Mothra, everyone gangs up to send the nasty newbie back from whence it came.
As for Invasion of the Astro-Monster, a joint American/Japanese space program discovers a new satellite traveling around Jupiter – Planet X. The two man crew of Glen and Fuji go off to explore, and soon find themselves face to face with the sunglass wearing, underground dwelling residents of this weird world. Technologically superior, the aliens have a big problem for which they require the Earthlings help. They are terrorized by an entity known as Monster Zero (actually King Ghidorah given a mistaken extraterrestrial moniker), and want help destroying it. Their plan? They will trade the ability to cure cancer (?) for Godzilla and Rodan. Seems like a win/win situation for all involved. But soon the swindled Earth men learn the truth – the X-men are actually evil, and want to use all three beasts to destroy mankind and take over their terrestrial territories. And without another supersized beastie to battle on their behalf, everyone’s doomed.
Clearly benefiting from the bigger budgets that international popularity can provide, both Ghidorah and Astro-Monster offer up the two major components of successful Godzilla films – surreal storylines and lots of special effects. To many of the uninformed, a cursory explanation of the kaiju film usually states “giant monster is awakened and goes on a destructive rampage”. But the truth is, by this time in the series, the concept of nonstop spectacle was no longer an option. Indeed, almost all the Godzilla films are parables, using current political or social problems to highlight Japan’s inner anxieties and post-war identity crisis. The first film was a clear allegory to the horrors of nuclear technology run amok. The Mothra film that predated these was linked to a heavy handed environmental message. Ghidorah has an unusual combination of peace and politics. By placing the endangered member of an unknown nation’s royal family into the role of chief spokesman for the planet, her predicament and its pro-life focus is even more severe.
Astro-Monster, on the other hand, is all about invasion. It’s the Godzilla series answer to war, about a desire to work with - not against - America this time around and defeat an enemy greater than our own. The Planet X types are pure fashionista fascists, the kind of sinister slicks who easily sway and betray. Their desire to use might (Godzilla, Rodan and Ghidorah) instead of their remarkable scientific advances (why not work those tractor beams over a few nuclear silos, guys?) plays directly into the fear of technology failing in its ultimate goal to protect and serve us, while the underlining subplot involving the inventor who has the potential defensive weapon right under his nerdy nose is another parallel to the ultimate value of knowledge and skill over power and heft. Part of the reason that film fans respond to these movies with such ardent attraction are the rather obvious themes at play. Similar to how horror defines a society and its approach to art, these films are like windows into the uneasy world of ‘50s – ‘70s Asia.
Of course, the fabulous old school rubber and balsa wood F/X are a heck of a lot of fun as well. More money meant more attention to detail, and master craftsman Eiji Tsuburaya really outdoes himself here. While campy and kind of crude, the spaceships and Planet X interiors present in Astro-Monster are pure pop art poetry. In addition, King Ghidorah is an equally impressive creation, its flailing heads looking like death-dealing chaos personified. There will be those who giggle at the model tank/plane/car/truck/ dynamic at play in the action scenes, and our creatures do possess some very odd voices (King G’s is nothing more than vibrating notes on a Hammond organ). But when you consider the near flawless recreations of the surrounding landscape, the massive explosions of dirt and debris, the relatively realistic use of water and other natural elements, the Toho kaiju films are very impressive. So what if the buildings blow apart like badly set up Lincoln logs. The combination of filmmaking and finesse more than compensate for such quibbles.
Even purists can breathe easy thanks to the relative respect these movies are given via these delightful DVDs. Preserved in their original aspect ratios with as close to a pristine print as possible, we are treated to wonderful widescreen images, vibrant colors, crystal clear detail and the original Japanese language soundtracks. In addition, a wealth of entertaining and informative extras is provided, including commentaries, biographies and original trailers. When you consider you get both versions of the title along with all the other goodies, there should be very little to kvetch about.
One would also be remiss for failing to mention what an important undertaking this is. DVDs’ lasting legacy appears to be rescuing marginalized movies from the pigeonholing chasms of popular culture. Prior to embarking on this remastered retrospective, Godzilla and his ilk (Gamera et. al.) were relegated to a kind of entertainment exile, deemed either too infantile for adults or too oddball for the wee ones. As a result, our humungous heroes have been cast aside as a dated dimension of an equally antiquated cinematic aesthetic. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. When viewed through the veil of their original creators’ intentions, when comparable to their effervescent US counterparts, when contextualized by individuals who spent their lives trying to decipher the many layers of meaning buried within these oversized metaphors, any previous discrediting seems petty at best.
Still, the battle wages on. With the help of these amazing digital dossiers, perhaps one day a peace can be brokered. It will be difficult, but not as tough as trying to change 40 years of drive-in b-movie madness. Godzilla in all his forms was always much more than a science fiction schlock jockey. Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster and Invasion of the Space Monster is definitive proof of that.