Museum of the Slightly Curious

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Part One: Introduction

Beginning my weeklong series examining this 1991 Godzilla monster/time travel/cyborg/political philosophy epic.

One of my projects for this blog is to watch through and comment on the series of Godzilla films that were released between 1984 and 1995, known as the Heisei Series. You can see my post on the first of these films, Return of Godzilla (Koji Hashimoto, 1984). Unfortunately the second film, Godzilla vs Biollante (Kazuki Ōmori, 1989) isn’t readily available, and it’s been years since I’ve seen it. So I have to skip to Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (Kazuki Omori, 1991), the third film.

Movie  Poster

A difficulty in thinking about Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is understanding just what this movie is trying to be. It is not the carefully crafted work of a filmmaker with a personal vision, the way that Ishirō Honda’s 1954 Godzilla was — or Hideaki Anno’s 2016 Shin Godzilla. It is not the light children’s entertainment of the 1970’s movies. It is not the over the top craziness of Ryuhei Kitamura’s 2004 Godzilla: Final Wars.

By 1991 movies in the United States were in the era of the Hollywood science fiction blockbuster. Terminator, Predator, Alien, etc. had not only been big hits but spawned successful franchises. Everybody watched them, not just science fiction and monster fans. The Godzilla films of the 1980’s and 90’s tried to join in. With relatively bigger budgets, more serious tone, and less stylized visuals, they sought after the growing audience of viewers wanting spectacular fantasy and high intensity action. Godzilla vs King Ghidorah was made in 1991, seven years after a new series started up with 1984’s Return of Godzilla. That desire to emulate Hollywood filmmaking is evident. In Return, for instance, when there was a change of location, there would usually be an establishing shot, a subtitle of the location’s name, and possibly even a complete sequence of a character driving up, getting out of their car, and walking up to the entrance. Ghidorah just cuts rapidly between locations and times, assuming a modern viewer can keep up. The subject matter and visuals of popular American sci-fi films exert their influence here as well, particularly the Terminator franchise.

Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is trying to take two classic Toho monsters and work them into a 90’s sci-fi action film. We should look at the results with that goal in mind. But director and screenwriter Kazuki Omori does not abandon the history and fundamentals of what makes a Godzilla film. When Hollywood itself tried to take on the task, it stumbled badly with the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla, seeming to think that Godzilla as a trademark, as a licensing property alone, was the source of his power. Godzilla needs to be more than that. For all the awkward Hollywood homages and attempts at imitating hit American films, Godzilla vs King Ghidorah remembers that Godzilla is always about something.

He appeared in 1954 as a metaphor for the dangers of the atomic bomb. By his second film he was more a natural disaster who could be mapped and forecasted, like a hurricane. In the 60’s and 70’s he became a superhero — and embodied a child’s fantasy for power and agency in a world where he literally didn’t fit. Later series found even more ideas and symbols to embody in his ever larger form. Godzilla is a radioactive Moby Dick, onto which people can endlessly project their own fears, obsessions, hopes, and nightmares. In Godzilla vs King Ghidorah several different characters have their own interpretations of what Godzilla is. They have conflicting philosophies about the world, particularly Japan’s place in the world, and look to Godzilla as to embody their beliefs.

In working on this essay I kept wondering why I had so much to say. While I find it entertaining, Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is not actually a very good movie. It’s not especially well written, has some cringingly bad scenes, and several major plot holes. But it always has something going on. Every scene has some idea or thought or resonance with Godzilla as a film franchise. It keeps trying to do things, visually and thematically. It fails as often it succeeds, but the attempts are worth watching and thinking about. Let’s look at how this movie unfolds and see what it has to say.

Ultraman, Episode Six: “The Coast Guard Command”

My comments and observations from watching through this classic Japanese TV series.

One type of story Ultra Q featured was the children’s adventure — by which I mean rambunctious children having an adventure of some sort. Ultraman continues that tradition. This episode is the classic trope of youngsters uncovering a gang of criminals up to no good. They are left to investigate on their own, since the grown-ups won’t believe or listen.

It begins with Hoshino and his pals playing and watching ships unload at the bay. The youngest, Chiro, claims he’s spotted a monster, but Hoshino is distracted when he spots a couple of wanted criminals. As a responsible kid, he calls his friends in the SSSP to report it — but smugglers are not their jurisdiction. And Hoshino is able to pick up on the fact that Arashi didn’t take him seriously anyway.

While the kids are wondering what to do, the monster of the week does shows up. Guesra is another suit that probably looked better on paper than it does on screen. While it has some nice details, with all its fins and spines and bulbous protrusions, it’s also a little… familiar looking, being constructed out of bits of other monsters, including Ragon from just a couple episodes ago. The monster vanishes after sinking a ship, but the kids are excited about this new adventure and run off to investigate where cacao beans are stored — those being Guesra’s food source. It’s pretty common theme that the kaiju of Ultraman are not malicious, just animals after their next meal.

In a wacky twist, the criminals spotted earlier have been hiding their smuggled diamonds in the cacao shipments, so the kids end up running afoul of them after all. Kidnappings, escapes, chases, and other hijinks ensue. If Guesra was actually some sort of hoax, a boat fixed up with fake monster parts to act as a distraction from the smuggling, this would be an episode of Scooby-Doo.

But it’s a real monster out there. The SSSP arrive. They’ve requested information on Guesra from the Brazilian branch of the Science Police — a reminder that there is a large, international organization out there dealing with Unbalance. Guesras are known animals that feed on cacao, but this one has been mutated by… “stuff.” Miscellaneous pollution in Tokyo Bay is enough explanation for giant monsters in these times. Even your normal everyday Guesra is dangerous, and able to take on a Jaguar, according to, not the Brazilian Science Police, but the pipe-smoking sailor who has been hanging around. They will die though if they loose what the subtitles calls their “antennae” but is actually the big fin on their neck. Why this is such a weakness is not explained, or why the translation calls them antennae — unless somebody is sneaking in a reference to the giant ant movie THEM, where those mutant insects also had that weakness. “Shoot the antennae!” is a catch phrase most atomic monster movie fans would recognize.

Is it too much of a coincidence that the smugglers have their hideout just where Guesra smells the largest collection of cacao beans? I don’t know. Hiding diamonds in beanbags was their main scheme, so it isn’t too unreasonable that they be operating out of that warehouse. The situation brings monster, beans, kids, the smugglers, and the SSSP all to one place. The crooks make the unwise decision of shooting the monster, which enrages it into attacking and destroying the building. The SSSP get the kids out in time, but Hayata, once again has the bad luck of being caught in the middle of the destruction — though of course it’s good luck for Ultraman’s secret. Unfortunately, Ultraman has a second weakness besides his limited power supply: Hayata must hold the Beta Capsule to trigger the transformation. Frequently the very misadventure which separates him from his comrades, so he can become Ultraman in secret, knocks the Beta Capsule out of his hands — as happens here. The others, typically thinking Hayata has been killed, turn their weapons on Guesra (they don’t lower their blast visors this time I note).

This distraction gives time for the struggling Hayata to grab the capsule, become Ultraman, and in the nick of time save the team from being stepped on. There’s a nice shot of Ultraman holding the car, with the switches between miniature and live vehicle being very effectively. The only drawback of the sequence is seeing Ultraman very close up and noticing that the Ultraman suit, particularly the helmet, is roughly made, uneven, wrinkled, and with very prominent eye holes for the actor. It looks cheap, which it was, since this show did not have Ultra Q’s big budget.

When Ultraman grapples with Guesra the Color Timer, as usual, is used as an device to increase tension — but it also once again seems extraneous. Guesra is a powerful foe and Ultraman has trouble with its poisonous spines. He eventually gets the better of it and rips off its fin/antenna (the continuing the trend of Ultraman maiming his opponents). Guesra dies in apparent agony — another characteristic of many battles. Despite the ever increasing blink of his timer, Ultraman strikes a pose for his cheering fans and then flies off.

The others are saddened by the death of Hayata — of course not only is Hayata not dead, he has somehow had time to subdue the two smugglers and drag them to justice.


Ultraman, Episode 05: “Secret of the Miloganda”

My comments and observations from watching through this classic Japanese TV series.

Much of this episode could have been a story from Ultra Q. I can easily see the gang from that series rushing around digging up clues about the mysterious murders that make up most of the plot. Instead it is the SSSP on the job, investigating the killings. Such detective work appears part of their duties, with the team being called in to handle “abnormal” cases.

The police procedural story plays against some authentically scary scenes that go beyond what you’d seen in an American kid’s show. There is a montage of quick cuts of an out of control car, an agonizing death shown only in shadows, and green slime that wipes across the screen from one scene to another. The horror movie feel of the killings is another element that seems like Ultra Q, which could shift between nightmare and child’s playtime from episode to episode. You get both here. It’s hard to reconcile the gruesome monster murders with Ide’s slapstick and silly faces.

There is a real mystery to be pieced together from the information the SSSP collect. Five men just returned from an expedition are being killed off one by one. The first being a scientist using radiation to genetically alter plants. A rare plant from the expedition is missing. Strange plant-like slime is found at the crimes scenes. It’s not exactly Sherlock Holmes difficulty (Arashi actually accuses Ide of playing at being Holmes as he tries to figure it all out), especially in a world where monsters and mutations are far from unknown. But you have to gather your facts though before you can act.

Optical compositing continues to be the star special effect here. At one point the investigation takes Ide and Arashi to a futuristic greenhouse. I believe the spherical building and surrounding complex are a real location, but the aerial camera work, along with adding the VTOL into the live action shots blends everything together.

They reach the reasonable conclusion that the surviving fifth member of the exhibition that brought back the flower will be the next target. It’s a little unclear if the monster is motivated to kill out of revenge for being taken from its natural environment and being subjected to weird science, or if it is just is seeking the rare nutrients it needs that the victims also unknowing brought back in their bodies. When the plant monster does show up, Arashi has a rough time, but the team manage to zap it with their weapons. We also see another function of those uncomfortable helmets: they have visors to project their vision from the bright light of the Super Guns. Each takes a safety first moment to lower the eye shield before firing — not that they did that in previous episodes. I’ll try to remember to watch for them ever doing it again.

The episode also introduces a new secondary character, science advisor Dr. Iwamoto, played by Akihiko Hirata, a veteran of Toho’s giant monster films, with his most notable role being Dr. Serizawa in the original 1954 Godzilla. Is this episode, besides advising about science, his main function is to provide the exposition that, far from being killed by the team’s Super Guns, the monster plant has likely to mutated further. And the plant monster (named Greenmons, literally “Green Monster”) has indeed grown to enormous size, conveniently for this to fully become an Ultraman episode for the last 6 minutes or so.

As a kaiju I find Greenmons works well, though that seems to be a minority opinion. Being a plant, it isn’t intended to have animal, let alone humanoid, proportions. It surges and flails around convincingly, and only when actually grappling with an opponent do we get glimpses of the human actor inside the suit. Plant monsters are rare in the genre. Biollante being one of the most memorable. It is also reminiscent of Hedorah, the Smog Monster, in its leafy floppiness.

Arashi tries to fight it single handedly to make up for his earlier defeat. He dials his Spider Shot to flame mode (our first glimpse that the weapon has multiple capabilities) but it has little effect. He’s injured again by Greenmons’ poison spray, which gives Hayata the opportunity he needs to, after taking his friend to safety, to transform into Ultraman.

There is a very atmospheric scene of the two giants squaring off in a city plaza, chimes ringing out the late night hour. I’m sure this is probably a well-known location in Tokyo, but I haven’t been able to identify it.

Greenmons’ gas attack is strong enough to even effect Ultraman, poisoning and weakening him — and making the flashing Color Timer seem extraneous. Our hero is able to gather his resources enough for a Specium Beam, which ignites the poor creature, not only setting it aflame, but reducing it to ash, which blows across the watching crowds. Another night’s work for the SSSP — though once again it is Ide who notices that Hayata had mysteriously vanished during the fight.

Ultraman, Episode 04: “Five Seconds Before the Explosion”

My comments and observations from watching through this classic Japanese TV series.

The episode opens with something of misstep in worldbuilding. Six nuclear weapons have been lost due to an accident with the spacecraft taking them to Jupiter. Umm… It is easy to accept that the world of Ultraman, beset as it is with giant monsters, has developed advanced weapon technologies. But regular interplanetary travel..? That’s a bit much, and I’ll be surprised if that kind of space sci-if gets mentioned again as being within Earth’s technology.

One bomb exploded deep in the ocean, and four have been successfully recovered. The retrieval of a batch of lost atom bombs scattered over the world would make a great episode of Thunderbirds, so I’m going to pretend that it was International Rescue handling that. Unfortunately one bomb is still missing under the Pacific and the SSSP is called on to help find it.

Akiko won’t be along on this mission, since she’s got the day off! Even though we don’t see the home or personal life of these characters, there is now and then the reminder that being on the SSSP is, after all, a job. Unluckily for her, the place she’s chosen for her relaxing trip (along with Hoshino and a little girl they are pressured into looking after) is the landfall of this week’s giant monster. And it’s the familiar form of a Ragon, from the Ultra Q episode “The Undersea Humanoid Ragon.” The Ragon will continue to be reoccurring creatures throughout the Ultraman franchise. This Ragon though is not 2 meters tall, female, and searching for a lost egg. He is 50 meters tall, and not happy about being mutated by radiation. This missing atomic bomb is also stuck to his neck.

When we first see this Ragon it is a nighttime sequence where the creature rises from the ocean and sinks a large ship. It is moody, scary, and impressive. But when he comes ashore in the daytime, the bright green rubbery skin, vivid red lips, and prominent breathing holes for the suit actor are not well presented in brilliant sunlight. There are though several well done compositing shots with humans and monster appearing in the same shot.

The series’ monster of the week formula gets some complications since Ragon can’t be attacked directly, out of concern for setting off the bomb. Ide suggests luring the monster off with music (he must of have seen the Ultra Q episode) but that doesn’t work since the radiation also has mutated its musical tastes!

Hoshino-kun twice bravely puts himself in danger to save others, which gives one hope he won’t just be an incident-triggering pest for the whole of the series — though he does almost fall of a cliff here. Hayata ultimately arrives (delayed by having to a ferry) but Ultraman is hampered by both his Color Timer and that troublesome bomb. Ragon fortunately is no match form him and Ultraman manages to defeat him and take the bomb into space before both its, and his own, time run out.

Ultraman, Episode 03: “Science Patrol, Move Out”

My comments and observations from watching through this classic Japanese TV series.

A pretty straightforward episode for the show. A monster shows up, the SSSP investigates, does its best, then Ultraman arrives to finish things up.

We do see more of another character whom I haven’t mentioned yet: Isamu Hoshino, the team’s kid sidekick/mascot. I don’t know if a reason is ever given for why this young boy is allowed to hang around this super-advanced, international monster-hunting organization. In the old English dub he was, at least, Akiko’s younger brother, though even that questionable justification is lacking here. Hoshimo and Akiko find the monster, Neronga, while checking out the legends surrounding an old well. This isn’t the first time, if you include Ultra Q, that a creature from folktales manifests as an active monster. The Unbalanced Zone seems to bring inner fears and demons to life.

Neronga is an invisible creature, until it appears to feed on power stations. It makes me think of the Id Monster from Forbidden Planet. We get some nice rampaging, though one notices the fact that Ultraman was put into production faster, and with a lower budget than Ultra Q. The monsters tend to be more rubbery and more garishly painted (some of that may be due to getting used to shooting in color). Also the buildings are just hollow shells, with no interior structure. The explosions and flames still look cool though. The episode also has some decent compositing shots, putting the live actors in front of and even in the middle of the miniature sets of burning ruins.

Another SSSP member starts to get some definition here: Daisuke Arashi. He’s the tough guy, the soldier, the one who always wants to rush into the fight, brandishing his signature weapon: the Spider Shot, a two-handed beam weapon that can emit a variety of energy attacks.

Since Hayata has decided to adopt the Western Superhero troupe of having a secret identify, each episode has to give him some reason to separate from his teammates in order to become Ultraman. Last episode he was conveniently knocked aside by Baltan. This time he… well, just runs off by himself towards the monster, moments before Ultraman just happens to appear. Hayata’s going to have to try a bit harder to keep this up. Another superhero thing is that Ultraman has his weakness: that he only has energy to fight for a few minutes. The Color Timer on his chest flashes faster in warning and the narrator warns of the dire consequences of it going out. So far though, there haven’t been any consequence, nor does it affect Ultraman’s actions.

The conflict between Ultraman and Neronga is another brutal one. Neronga has already had an eye blasted by the Spider Shot, and then Ultraman snaps his horn off. He next gets lifted up above Ultraman’s head and hurled to the ground. If that alone didn’t kill him, Ultraman unleashes a beam attack that blasts the creature into tiny, smoking, rubbery bits. Ultraman continues to take his job seriously.

Everyone cheers, though Ide seems just a little bit curious about the whole Hayata leaves/Ultraman appears, Ultraman leaves/Hayata comes back situation.

Ultraman, Episode 02: “Shoot the Invaders!”

My comments and observations from watching through this classic Japanese TV series.

This episode introduces one of Ultraman’s most iconic foes, Baltan (or rather the Baltan species.) These lobster-like space aliens are nearly the equivalent of Dr. Who’s Daleks in their popularity. To me they seem inspired by Ultra Q’s Kemur Man, in their unnerving weirdness and proclivity to laugh in your face as you oppose them. They also appear to have some unusual relationship to Spacetime. They can be microscopic or huge, as if moving nearer or farther along a 4th dimensional axis. They seem able to exist in more than one place at the same time, and are can suspend other beings, freezing them in an unending split second — something the show’s special effects depicts efficiently and cheaply by clever use of lights.

We also get complete 4th Wall breaking by Ide (unless he too is operating in some higher dimensional system) as he directly addresses the audience. Effectively the narrator for this episode, he doesn’t portray himself in a flattering light. He’s Jerry Lewis, mugging and pratfalling and playing the scaredy-cat. Ide gets established as the clown of the team now — though that plays against his other main trait, revealed over upcoming episodes: he’s the team chief technician and the genius inventor of a lot of their equipment.

The Baltans are here on Earth as refugees from the destruction of their own planet. Captain Muramatsu, in a very Jean-Luc Picard move, actually offers them sanctuary here, if they will learn Earth’s laws and customs. Two problems: first, there are 2.3 Billion Baltan in microform on their ship; second, they are a bunch of big jerks.

Negotiations go downhill and Baltan turns giant and attacks the city. When Ultraman shows up we get another new type of battle for this genre: an aerial dogfight with both combatants zooming through the sky. After defeating Kaijū Baltan, Ultraman spots the concealed spacecraft, flies off with it and, presumably, destroys it. As in, blows up the space ark with 2.3 billion sentients on it. Yikes!

Quick Thought: Chihayafuru

Another series I’ve started watching is the anime Chihayafuru. It’s the story of a group of young people playing competitive “karuta.” Oh, you think, a cartoon about kids and a game of memorizing traditional Japanese poetry, how… exciting… Except that it is incredibly intense. After just four episodes, the emotional level, is, if not turned up to “11,” pushing well into “10.” The show’s been running for three seasons, so I have to wonder where it can build to…

The production is very 21st Century, technically. One of the main visual motifs are the poetry cards sliding, scattering, and flying across the room. That’s a challenge to draw just in a comic, but doing it in traditional animation would be immensely difficult, all the more so since it’s important to see the writing on the cards. So while the characters in the anime are produced by hand on paper, the cards are computer graphics, rendered and them composited with the drawings. It’s done very impressively.

So where this will end up going, I don’t know (the originally comic has been coming out since 2007) but I’m looking forward to watching more.