The fifth film in the original “Showa” Godzilla series (named after the Emperor Showa who reigned over Japan between 1926 and 1989) was a film of many firsts. Released in the West as Ghidorah (or Ghidrah), the Three-Headed Monster, it marked the first appearances of Godzilla’s most enduring foe, the two tailed, three headed alien dragon King Ghidorah; it was the first film in which Godzilla becomes unequivocally a good guy (though only at the end); the first to pit Godzilla against multiple rival monsters; and the first to feature one of the most resilient tropes of the series, aliens arriving on Earth and taking an interest in the monsters.
The film begins almost as a police thriller, with Detective Shindo (Yosuke Natsuki) investigating the disappearance of Princess Selina Salno of Selgina (Akiko Wakabayashi) who apparently leapt out of an aircraft after being warned of an assassination plot by a disembodied voice from a passing flying saucer. She turns up again in Japan now claiming to be from the planet Venus (or Mars in the customarily awful English language dub) and warning of impending disaster. She correctly predicts the return of the giant prehistoric flying lizard Radon (as often the case, translated to Rodan for the English version) who had first appeared in its own film, Sora no Daikaiju Radon (1956), and Godzilla, warns that her people were wiped out by a three-headed, laser-breathed golden dragon known as King Ghidorah and that the creature has now arrived on Earth. Sure enough, Ghidorah hatches from a meteorite/egg and the only things that can stop it destroying humanity are Godzilla, Radon and Mothra – but can the three monsters learn to work together to defeat Ghidorah?
The story is frankly all over the place – where did that flying saucer come from? Who was trying to save the princess? Is she even really an alien? The plot is full of ridiculous details, mostly coming from the scientists who are a disgrace to their profession with their idiotic talk of “sceptical brainwaves” and the like. Elsewhere, Mothra’s familiars, the Shobijin (played by twin sisters Emi and Yumi Ito, a pop duo that went under the name The Peanuts) sing a song (twice) and the good people of Infant Island do a dance for the larval stage Mothra. We never see the fully grown Mothra, perhaps because with Radon and Ghidorah the effects crew already had two flying monsters to contend with and a third might have been a step too far.
And despite a wealth of incident and plot strands, the first reel drags a little but all is forgiven when the monsters turn up. Writer Shinichi Sekizawa and director Ishiro Honda give the film the air of a modern, atomic age folk tale being created before our eyes, with its menagerie of legendary creatures that have also started to assume almost mythic status. The human characters are all aware of the Earth-based monsters before the film begins and, although they’re rightly terrified of them, they are just accepted as a highly destructive fact of everyday life.
The monster effects, once again by Eiji Tsuburaya, are great fun, the first appearance of Ghidorah, bursting from its egg as a ball of flame that transforms into the three-headed dragon we’d become very used to in the coming years, is particularly striking though one can’t help but notice that it’s night time when it first appears while scenes either side of its hatching are set in daylight. The miniatures seem even more intricate and detailed than ever and are lovingly destroyed in prolonged monster attack scenes. The battles are surprisingly brutal, with Radon dropping Godzilla onto electrical pylons at one point – Godzilla vs high tension power lines was fast becoming one of the most familiar tropes in the series, though the effects on Godzilla of being electrocuted tends to differ from one film to the next (sometimes it revives the creature, on other occasions it seems terrified of electricity). There are some mis-steps – Godzilla’s atomic breath seems a bit anaemic this time, looking for all the world like it’s the work a cheap. budget-cutting fire extinguisher and there’s the hilarious scene in which the three monsters stop fighting among themselves for a bit of a chin wag, discussing how to join together to see off the greater menace posed by King Ghidorah. Mothra, often the voice of kaiju reason, calls a truce by spraying Godzilla and Radon with webbing that seems to have a calming effect on them, stopping them acting like monstrous spoiled kids.
But these are minor annoyances. The climactic battle with Ghidorah is brilliantly staged, the best of its kind so far, though most of it takes place out in the countryside, in the shadow of Mount Fuji, another cost-cutting exercise (it cut down on the number of miniatures required). With its intense action scenes, the first appearance of the soon to be much-loved Ghidorah and excellent effects, it transcends the limitations of its often nonsensical and lightweight plot (we were a very long way from the bleakness of the original Gojira (1954) by now) to emerge as arguably the best of the 1960s Godzilla sequels.