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Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah - Review

A Review by Mike Bogue

3½ Stars - Very Good

Japanese release: Dec. 14, 1991

American release: Spring 1998 (released direct-to-video by Columbia TriStar)

Direction: Kazuki Omori

Screenplay: Kazuki Omori

Music: Akira Ifubuke

Special Effects: Koichi Kawakita

Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah Still. Can a Godzilla fan watch a favorite Godzilla movie too many times?

If we ask the friends, spouse, or kids of a Big G nut, the answer is liable to be a resounding “YES!!!!”  But if we were to ask a fellow G fan, the answer might not be so clear-cut.

I forget how many times I have seen Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, but suffice to say, I unintentionally have much of the dialogue memorized.  Fortunately, I’m not quite to the point where I can tell you the exact number of buildings Godzilla pulverizes in Sapporo and Tokyo – but I’m not far from it either.

Despite its flaws, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah remains my favorite of the entire Heisei series.  In fact, the first time I saw it in the early 1990’s, this Big G fest blew me away.  I found the plot fresh and imaginative, given the film’s wealth of interesting themes revolving around Japanese nationalism and Godzilla’s multi-faceted relationship to the Land of the Rising Sun.

As for the improved special effects, they floored me.  I was awed by King Ghidorah’s attack on Fukuoka, especially the long shot scenes of the triple-headed dragon blasting the city with its crackling energy rays, huge plumes of smoke arising from the resultant explosions, while in the foreground panicked Japanese citizens fled for their lives.  Subsequent SPFX set pieces proved no less impressive, such as Godzilla’s rampage in night-time Sapporo, the realistic-looking maser tanks blasting the Big G, and of course the climactic creature confrontation between Godzilla and Mecha-King Ghidorah in Tokyo.

Story-wise, the movie crackled with wild ideas.  As most G fans know, the most controversial of these – the pre-atomic Godzilla defending a Japanese garrison against Allied American troops in 1944 – landed the movie a lot of free American press in 1991.  In fact, the first time I heard of the movie was on CNN Headline News circa the ’91 holiday season.  I was delighted and surprised to see the fast-moving news piece about an apparent robot Ghidrah battling Godzilla in modern-day Tokyo.  After all, at that time, I didn’t even know there had been a Godzilla vs. Biollante!

The plot, as all G fans surely know, involves time travelers from the 23rd century who arrive in Japan to “save” the country from Godzilla’s wrath.  They do this by traveling back in time to Lagos Island in 1944.  After the Godzillasaurus is fatally wounded by an American gunship, the time travelers teleport the monster to the Bering Sea, thus preventing its exposure to American H-bomb tests.  In other words, no Godzilla!

However, the Futurians do deposit three cute little bat-like beasties called Drats on Logos before they journey back to the present, and VOILA!  King Ghidorah immediately appears in 1992 Japan and starts a systematic campaign of destruction.  Yes, when exposed to H-bomb tests, the three drats mutated into the winged, triple-headed dragon.  And the Futurians did this because, in reality, they are trying to prevent Japan from becoming the dominant world power in the future.

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah Still.

But not to fear!  Godzilla appears anyway, thanks to nuclear waste deposited in the seas and the arrival and subsequent obliteration of a clandestine nuclear submarine; the revived monster clashes with King Ghidorah in the Japanese countryside, defeats the monstrous interloper, and begins razing Japan himself.

But thanks to Futurian defector Emi, King Ghidorah is salvaged and converted into Mecha-King Ghidorah – a half-beast, half-machine kaiju that blasts back to our past to duel with Godzilla in the heart of Tokyo’s business district.

When I first saw the film, this monster role-reversal seemed no less than ingenious: During the first monster fight, Ghidorah is villain while Godzilla defends Japan, but during the second kaiju bout, Godzilla has become Japan’s nemesis, and it’s now up to Mechaghidorah to defeat the King of the Monsters.  What a surprise to see Toho’s perennial kaiju baddie become the Land of the Rising Sun’s only hope!

Yes, I know, creative and ambitious though it may be, the story doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.  The time travel motif is employed with little or no thought to time travel paradoxes.  For example, if Godzilla was not created in 1954, how could people in 1992 “remember” his pillages that now never happened?  And if the drats mutated into King Ghidorah after being exposed to a 1954 H-bomb test, why didn’t the tri-domed beast start wreaking havoc then instead of at the moment the time travelers return to the present?

Far more science-savvy minds than mine have tried to resolve the film’s time travel conundrums.  For example, in G-FAN #61, editor J.D. Lees presents his own chrono-theory in an article called “It’s About Time.”  Lees’ ingenious solution to Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah’s time paradoxes is the concept of a Time Bridge, a chronological conduit that anchors the present moment the time travelers depart to the past time they visit; once the time trekkers return to the present, it is at that point and not before that the changes to the past become tangible.  This theory works well for the film, but, alas, doesn’t explain how the remains of Mecha-King Ghidorah were salvaged in 1993 for Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, given that Emi returned to the 23rd century at the end of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, meaning the cyborgian kaiju’s remains should have “traveled” with her.

To resolve the dilemma of multiple pasts and futures in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, a multitude of possible timelines would not only have to co-exist, but also be fluid enough to allow one time-stream to “dip” into another without anything changing prior to that dip.  This ultimately doesn’t work, of course, because it doesn’t explain how the thousands who died under Godzilla’s 1954, 1984, and 1989 attacks would still be dead, for if they weren’t dead, their very existence would have inevitably changed the present.

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah Still.

But enough about time travel riddles that offer no solutions.  To be fair, even the classic 1960 George Pal version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is marred by time travel paradoxes, and it’s probably safe to say that many people who see Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah won’t even think about this major plot problem – or if they do, it will probably be after they have seen the film.

Other plot problems, minor though they may be, prove more culpable.  For example, romantic feelings between writer Terasawa and Emi are hinted at, yet at the end of the film, we find out Emi is actually Terasawa’s descendant.  Also, Terasawa’s girl friend – whom he has studiously and somewhat rudely ignored – appears by his side at the end, smiling as though nothing had ever happened.  And not only that, but in the minor continuity gaff department, when we had just seen Terasawa indoors, he had on a suit coat.  But when we see him outside with his girl friend moments later, his suit coat is gone!  (He is wearing the same shirt however.)

And then there is the 1944 episode on Lagos Island in which Godzillasaurus comes to the aid of the entrenched Japanese soldiers by wiping out a score of American troops.  To emphasize the point, the camera even shows us the still, dead bodies of the Americans.  Most Godzilla fans insist that this World War II segment doesn’t really mean anything, and that it surely doesn’t smack of anti-Americanism.  Some G scholars even scoff at the notion, as though it is ridiculous and baseless.  After all, director-writer Kazuki Omori said that he wasn’t trying to be anti-American, but was simply attempting to make a statement about the Japanese people.

But imagine this segment suddenly Westernized:  What if in an American made movie, during a similar World War II episode, King Kong defended American soldiers against Japanese troops by slaughtering the latter – and not only that, the camera would show us the dead bodies of the Japanese soldiers sprawled about.  Something tells me that many Japanese would have a hard time believing that this sequence wasn’t intended to be anti-Japanese.  Indeed, it would no doubt provoke outrage in many quarters, if not outright charges of racism and cultural imperialism.

However, other evidence in the movie suggests Omori probably didn’t mean for the Lagos Island sequence to be anti-American per se.  In the 23rd century, the leader Emi appeals to in order to salvage King Ghidorah is a sympathetic Caucasian.  And the movie certainly indicts Japan as much as it does America (in the form of the American troops and Futurian Wilson) or Russia (in the form of Futurian Grenchiko); indeed, the film somewhat ambivalently basks in Japan’s then impressive economic achievements while at the same time criticizing the country’s materialistic excesses (a posture made clear when Godzilla’s ray rips through the top of Tokyo’s unpopular “tax tower”).

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah Still.

Of course, monster-wise, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah more than holds its own, even after umpteen viewings.  The triple-headed kaiju’s appearance is only slightly altered from its 1960’s incarnation, but the great dragon’s design remains physically impressive; when in action, the only flaw in Ghidorah’s realization is its occasional lack of wing movement.  As Eiji Tsuburaya had in the sixties, special effects director Koichi Kawakita brings King Ghidorah to life via suitmation, models, and intricate wire works.

Godzilla’s design here is a major triumph for Kawakita.  The monster’s musculature is pronounced and powerful, and its head, with its double rows of sharp teeth and ominous dark eyes, ranks among the most sinister in Big G history.  Godzilla’s roar rumbles like deep thunder, and he uses his ray often and to good cinematic advantage.

Energy and ingenuity infuse the special effects, which while not  “ultra-realistic” in the American mega-blockbuster mode, nevertheless prove unfailingly enjoyable.  As noted before, King Ghidorah’s attacks on Japan are handled with real flair, and his battles with Godzilla, both in the dragon’s biological form and as cyborg Mechaghidorah, rank among the best and most serious of all cinematic monster bouts.  Indeed, the showdown between Godzilla and Mecha-King Ghidorah in Tokyo remains one of the most spectacular kaiju battles of all time.

The film also includes one of the most offbeat moments of any Godzilla film.  Shindo, a wealthy industrialist, was the commander of the Japanese soldiers that Godzilla defended on Lagos Island in 1944.  In the present, Shindo refuses to leave his office even as Godzilla lays waste to the surrounding Tokyo office buildings.

As he lumbers into view, Godzilla spies Shindo through the window, and the two exchange enigmatic stares.  Godzilla seems to remember Shindo, and it is almost as though he is fighting an inner war over whether to spare Shindo or let the mighty industrialist share the same fate Godzilla has in mind for all of Japan.

For his part, Shindo seems to be banking on the hope of Godzilla once again proving to be Japan’s savior.  However, his hopes are dashed as Godzilla raises his head, roars, and sprays Shindo’s office with white-hot atomic fire, annihilating the vexing human as the top floors of the high-rise explode.

Highlighted by Akira Ifubuke’s bittersweet music, this entire sequence mesmerizes as it achieves an honest sense of poignancy.

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah Still.

And speaking of Ifubuke, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah marked the maestro’s return to the Godzilla series after a sixteen-year absence, and it was wonderful hearing the “old monster themes” again.  While Ifubuke’s familiar Godzilla cues later lost impact due to their constant employment in the Heisei series, that wasn’t at all true in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah.  Instead, Ifubuke’s music imbued the film with a welcome nostalgia.  I can still remember how stirring it was to hear Godzilla’s familiar march as the King of the Monsters lumbered out of the sea and began striding across the Japanese countryside, ready to take on all comers – which in this case meant the Futurian-controlled King Ghidorah.

The music still holds up well, even after repeated hearings, but then, this is true of the movie itself.  Granted, the time travel problems don’t wear well, nor do the lame but brief “homages” to The Terminator.  But the film’s overall exuberance overwhelms these faults.

After all, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah captures the spirit of Toho’s best 50’s and 60’s monster mashes while at the same time delivering a wealth of intriguing ideas and spectacular visuals.  Filled with action, mecha, and of course monsters, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah shines with the best of them.

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