Godzilla: King of the Monsters - Ghidorah

At 8:55 a.m. on a Friday in the Tokyo suburbs, I sat down at my local Toho Cinemas multiplex to watch Godzilla: King of the Monsters. It was a fitting location to be in: first, because Godzilla destroyed landmarks from this very city in his first movie appearance back in 1954, and second, because the Toho chain of theaters is a subsidiary of the company behind Godzilla. Its theater in Shinjuku — the last stop on the train line where I live — is even situated in a building that is topped with a life-size Godzilla head. A couple of days later, I would commune with the spirit of Godzilla at an 8th-floor terrace cafe with a direct view of the head, before going downstairs to rewatch the movie and takes some notes.

In November of this year, Godzilla will celebrate his 65th birthday. Right now, he’s still averaging one new movie every two years here on his original stomping grounds. Toho’s homegrown series of Japanese Godzilla films boasts thirty-two entries alone. There was a record break of twelve years between Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) and Shin Godzilla (2016). However, with the latter film, plus Netflix’s anime Godzilla trilogy and two recent Legendary Pictures productions, the King of Monsters has been enjoying a global resurgence as of late.

Now, in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Hollywood has assembled its very own all-star kaiju flick, which draws from Toho tradition to present what USA Today called “the Avengers of giant creature features.” For the first time in an American movie, the gang’s all here: not just Godzilla, but also King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan. Their appearance in King of the Monsters is informed by past appearances in Toho films, so if you’ve seen the movie and are curious to dive deeper into its ocean of references, then prepare to embark on a spoilery submarine expedition through Toho history.

Godzilla fire

Go, Go, Godzilla

Toho’s film series has, within the same movie even sometimes, portrayed Godzilla as both an antagonistic force of nature and a defender of Earth against other kaiju. King of the Monsters is the sequel to a film that combined both character aspects into its story but leaned toward the latter M.O., pitting Godzilla against the MUTOs and having survivors on the ground cheer for him, with the San Francisco TV news hailing him as, “Savior of Our City.”

In King of the Monsters, he’s back to defending Earth again—if not its people, then at least, as characters in the Toho series have noted, the planet as his territory. This doesn’t stop picketers, however, from protesting against him and his kind. In the movie, one of them can be seen holding a sign that reads, “Destroy All Monsters,” a reference to the Toho title of the same name.

Like any good pro wrestlers, the kaiju in King of the Monsters get their own entrance songs to put us in the fight mood. Godzilla’s comes when he resurfaces in the ocean, towering over a group of puny Monarch scientists on the deck of a submarine. It’s a rousing scene that sees the monster return to fighting form after a bit of undersea recovery. As they say in the Blue Oyster Cult song, “Go, go, Godzilla.”

Composer Bear McCreary (The Walking Dead) adapted Akira Ikufube’s music theme from the original Toho classic, Gojira (1954), into his “Godzilla Main Title.” The most recent film in the Toho series, Shin Godzilla (2016), did a similar thing, incorporating numerous Ikufube monster motifs into a score that commanded moments of majesty amid the maddening bureaucracy of ineffectual government officials onscreen.

Gojira’s director, Ishiro Honda, lends his first name to Ken Watanabe’s character in King of the Monsters. The character’s last name, Serizawa, also comes from the eyepatch-wearing scientist in the first Toho film. The original Dr. Serizawa destroyed all his notes and sacrificed his life, taking the secret to a device called the Oxygen Destroyer with him.

In Gojira, his invention of this device and decision to use it once and only once against Godzilla was more of a vital plot point. In King of the Monsters, the device shows up out of nowhere and if you’re not familiar with it as a piece of franchise history, you might be left thinking its name is just an inelegant turn of phrase on the part of the screenwriters.

It’s worth noting that King of the Monsters takes its very title from the 1956 American re-edit of Gojira. That version inserted Perry Mason actor Raymond Burr into the film, making him the new main character even though he had nothing to do most of the time besides sit there on the sidelines and be a relatable Western face, nodding along with events from the superior Japanese cut.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters - Ghidorah

All Hail King Ghidorah

Godzilla: King of the Monsters may be the title of the movie but there are two monster kings in it and they aren’t exactly friends. Neither is it Godzilla that Charles Dance’s character, Col. Jonah, is talking about when he deadpans the line, “Long live the king.”

Although he’s never explicitly referred to as “King Ghidorah” in the movie (except in the closing credits, where he’s listed as playing “Himself” along with the other three main monsters), Ghidorah is classified as a second apex predator among the Titans. This makes him a contender for the throne of the earth … until we learn that he’s a “false king,” not of this world at all.

That’s right: Ghidorah, Godzilla’s old Toho arch-enemy, is an oversized extraterrestrial in this film, just as he was 55 years ago when he made his first appearance in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964). As recently as the Netflix trilogy ender Godzilla: The Planet Eater, we saw Ghidorah flying in from outer space via a wormhole.

Of course, it takes a while before Dr. Illene Chen, played by Zhang Ziyi, introduces the name Ghidorah into the mix. Until then, he goes by the designation “Monster Zero.”

This is pulled from his second appearance in Invasion of the Astro-Monster (1965). In that movie, a group of humanoid aliens called the Xiliens controlled Ghidorah, whereas in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), he did the bidding of a group of 23rd-century humans called the Futurians.

There’s a somewhat funny xenophobic streak to Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (funny if only because of how brazen it is). The film went direct-to-video in the U.S. years after its release in Japan and you can very much see how it was made for the market of an ethnically homogenous country where foreigners were not to be trusted. The Futurians and their killer robots are mostly Caucasian males, who slowly reveal themselves to be evil time travelers, bent on rewriting the past to prevent Japan’s economic ascendancy.

Blowing these guys up is one thing, but when the camera lingers on American soldiers lying dead on the beach, and when it then cuts to the U.S. Navy cheerily abandoning those soldiers after one missed radio call, it’s not hard to see why Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah was accused of anti-Americanism. It just goes to show that the ethnocentrism cuts both ways.

In its own way, King of the Monsters — this American Godzilla movie — upholds that same spirit of ethnocentrism. It adopts a Caucasian male (Kyle Chandler) as its lead, letting his character command the center of attention in every situation as he channels his Type-A personality into aggressive dialogue. Meanwhile, the movie dispatches its one Japanese character, the aforementioned Dr. Serizawa, by way of a plot device that I have taken to calling “the nuke biscuit.”

In its post-credits scene, King of the Monsters shows us Col. Jonah retrieving one of Ghidorah’s severed heads. This may be setting up the wacky cyborg dragon Mecha-King Ghidorah (who also appeared in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah) for a future installment in the MonsterVerse. Godzilla vs. Kong vs. Mecha-King Ghidorah?

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