When I first read an American DVD company was working on bringing the original Godzilla and its sequels to disc in both their original Japanese and American versions, I began to wonder how much the later Godzilla flicks' fondly remembered goofiness would translate back in their original language. We all know that the original 1954 Gojira was a fairly grim nuclear age monster rampage film in both its Japanese and American form – but as the series "progressed" into the sixties and seventies, the Americanized Godzillas turned into Saturday afternoon kid's TV fodder.
Having seen a slew of these ill-synced flicks in my wasted youth, I was curious as to how they'd work without dubbing or the rough handling so many of them received when they first arrived in the U.S. (case in point: first sequel Godzilla Raids Again, which was even re-titled Gigantis the Fire Monster on its first American release because new distributor Warner Bros. didn't want to pay for the Godzilla brand name). With the upcoming release of two new entries in Classic Media's "Toho Master Collection," Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) and Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), I had the chance to see just how wacky these rascals are in their original un-Americanized versions.
Let's take a look at Ghidorah today (and save Astro-Monster, which was originally released in the U.S.A. as Monster Zero, for another time). Ghidorah contains the first instance of what would quickly become a familiar Toho plot: wherein Godzilla and two of the studio's other heavy-duty rampagers – Rodan and Mothra – team up to best an invading monster. The alien menace, Ghidorah (full name, "King Ghidorah"), is like an amalgamation of his opponents: a three-headed dragon with two tails, he has wings to blow the roofs off pagodas a lá Rodan or Mothra, but can also indulge in Godzilla-styled stompitude. Where the Big G. breathes radioactive fire whenever he's really being pissy, Ghidorah shoots out electric whatsit beams from his three mouths. No wonder it takes all three of our home-grown creatures to whup his two tails.
The title beastie doesn't really show for two-thirds of the movie, so to pass the time, we're given a plot around a visiting Princess (Akiko Wakabayashi, a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice) whose body is taken over by a survivor of Ghidorah's invasion of the planet Venus 5,000 years earlier. (Why'd the monster wait so long between invasions? A long hibernation, perhaps?) Said Princess is the survivor of an airborne plane explosion plotted by nefarious spies from her homeland of Segina, so when she unexpectedly appears unharmed on Japanese soil, spouting prophecies and chirpily telling folks, "I'm from Venus," the sunglass-wearing bad guys try to hunt her down. On the side of the angels are a brother cop and sister reporter, the usual obligatory nerdy professor, plus the twin fairy sisters (Eimi and Yûmi Ito, a.k.a. musical duo the Peanuts) from Mothra's home island, who get to do full renditions of the big bug's summoning tune, "Call Happiness," twice in the movie.
As Ghidorah opens, our gal reporter Naoko (Yuriko Hoshi) is interviewing a crew of scientists observing a sudden rash of shooting stars that are dropping onto the planet during an unusually warm winter (we know what season it is because two of the exposition-happy characters tell us this fact); elsewhere, her police detective brother (Yosuke Natsuki) has been given the assignment to bodyguard the visiting Princess Salno, but before he begins said assignment, he receives word that the princess' plane was destroyed mid-flight. When a mysterious prophetess appears at Mt. Aso, the site where the flying monster Rodan was reportedly killed in his first movie appearance, sharp-eyed Detective Shindo recognizes her royal corporeal form.
Our Venusian-controlled princess has shown up at the volcano just in time to warn scoffing tourists of Rodan's imminent resurrection, then later does the same at Yokohama to be equally unheeded by the passengers and crew of a ship that'll get demolished by Godzilla. (As a kid watching the earliest Godzillas on television, I thought the scenes where Gojira rises from the sea, water cascading from all sides of him, were the scariest moments in these pictures.) Godzilla and Rodan meet and commence fighting – a preliminary match before the title antagonist makes his appearance – until one of the mysterious shooting stars "hatches" and out pops King Ghidorah.
The two dueling beasties don't immediately take after the invading alien, however. For that to occur, Mothra has to be summoned from her island to recruit both Godzilla and Rodan to take on the fight. The scene where young Mothra, still in giant caterpillar form, interrupts the duo's fight by spraying cocoon strands on 'em is pretty funny, but the follow-up where the good bug tries to persuade the two to take on Ghidorah and save humanity is a comic high point. As the fairy sisters obligingly translate for us ("Godzilla is saying he has no reason to protect the humans. 'They're always bullying me …'"), the two monsters are initially unresponsive to Mothra's entreaties. "Men are not the only stubborn creatures," one of our hapless human protagonists notes. But, happily, the big three-on-one battle finally takes place. Like any good reluctant movie hero – from Rick Blaine to Snake Plissken – you can count on Godzilla and Rodan to ultimately do the right thing.
The movie's special effects, courtesy of Toho main man Eiji Tsuburaya (also responsible for Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra's first appearances), are exactly what you'd expect: men in bulky monster suits tromping around a landscape of easily demolished warehouses and electric power lines. (At one point, the berserk beasts accidentally save the Princess from being electrocuted when Rodan drops Godzilla belly first onto a big electric tower.) On their own endearingly clunky terms, the effects largely work – though a couple of times when Mothra chomps down on one of Ghidorah's tails, you can see the strings, while a shot showing two puppets of the monsters off in the distance looks jerkier than it should. Classic Media, on the packaging for Astro-Monster, calls the effects "retro-riffic," which is basically adspeak for "cheesy."
As for the question of whether subtitles add to or detract from the movie's quintessential ridiculousness, I'm happy to report that the original movie's Silliness Quotient still remains enjoyably high. In one of my favorite moments, the movie attempts to explain how Princess Salno escaped that exploding airplane by bringing on a "UFO Expert" to nonsensically babble about the existence of other dimensions alongside ours. The way the scene is shot and lit, it looks like one of Charles Gray's earnestly pontificating moments from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Whether in its native tongue or dubbed into Yankee Blather, a movie moment like this remains eternal.