Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Part Two: Time Travel and Super Science

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

Notes of ominous, but familiar, music play. The creator of the classic music of Godzilla, Akira Ifukube, has returned for the first time in 16 years to score this film. The date 2204 AD appears as a deep sea vehicle scans the ocean floor. It discovers something as immediately familiar to Godzilla fans as Ifukube’s compositions: the body of the three-headed monster King Ghidorah — though it is missing one of heads after a 20th Century battle with Godzilla, as one of two mysterious figures aboard the sub explains to the other. Abruptly we return to 1992, as high above the lights of downtown Tokyo as we were deep under the sea.

Themes of time, the flow of history, and the effects of events centuries apart are already established. Time travel will be a major plot device in this story as it unfolds. Though how exactly it works, how history can be altered and rewritten will, unfortunately, not be well explained. Don’t forget that flash forward to 2204 and what it depicts — though the whole concept of a “flash forward” gets complicated in a time travel movie. We will eventually see that the 2204 scenes comes from timeline that actually hadn’t even been created “yet.” And that isn’t the biggest chronological paradox this movie will leave us with.

UFO over Tokyo

Our panorama of the huge present day city is invaded by a flying saucer. Countless thousands experience this close encounter. One witness observes from the roof of the “National Institute for Super Science.” It is Miki Saegusa, whom we met in the previous movie in this series, Godzilla vs. Biollante. Saegusa is a psychic researcher with a mysterious mental link with Godzilla. Appearing in six films of this series, she is a rare example of a reoccurring character in Godzilla movies. Many of the same actors can be seen throughout these monster sagas, but playing different roles. Curiously, while we see signs in English with the name of the organization that Saegusa works for, the subtitles refer to it as the “Paranormal Research Center.”Maybe the people tasked with localizing the movie thought an American audience would think “Super Science” sounded silly. I find “Paranormal Research Center” forgettably bland.

The next day newspapers are full of reports about the UFO. Science fiction author and reporter Kenichiro Terasawa gets a call from his editor at Super Mystery Magazine to cover the incident. Terasawa has little interest in such things. He’d rather look for a crazy old man who has been causing a ruckus at dinosaur museums. It is a little shocking that he would turn down what could be the story of the century (a real UFO!) to go after such a frivolous lead — but judging by the lavish, stylishly furnished house that Terasawa lives in, he must be successful enough to choose his own assignments. We will see that Terasawa is interested in tracking down the origins of Godzilla, which in his world is serious journalism: a very real, very imminent threat to all civilization, not a bit of column filler such as a UFO sighting could be.

For the next act, the film will continue along two plots that appear, for a time, unrelated. Scenes alternate between them, but I’ll look at them each one at a time.

Dinosaur Museum

Unconcerned about the UFO, Terasawa peruses his lead about the dinosaur fanatic. Masukichi Ikehata is a World War II veteran who objects to dinosaurs being taken frivolously. There is a real dinosaur out there, he claims, watching over and protecting Japan, even as the country grows too comfortable and complacent. When needed, this sacred being will return. Terasawa learns the tale of how, back in 1944, when Ikehata squad was trapped on the small Pacific island of Lagos, about to be destroyed by the advancing American Navy, a dinosaur appeared and drove off their enemies. Ikehata praises the creature for rescuing them. Yet, after a moment of retrospection, he does consider that maybe the animal was just defending its territory.

Terasawa looks into the potential of truth in the veteran’s story by checking with paleontologist Hironori Masaki. The professor is a believer that dinosaurs might still exist so doesn’t dismiss the possibility. To Terasawa this is a piece of the puzzle he’d been assembling: the dinosaur, surviving on this Pacific island, would have been exposed to radiation from H-bomb tests, and might have mutated into the monster Godzilla.

WW II soldiers with dinosaur

There is someone else who could support by testimony of Ikehata, another soldier who had been stationed at Lagos: Yasuaki Shindo, now the powerful and wealthy leader of the Teiyo Group, a massive industrial corporation. Shindo is an enthusiastic dinosaur aficionado, but when Terasawa interviews him, he laughs at the idea that a dinosaur could be alive today. Mention of Lagos causes him to storm out of the room — until the idea that the dinosaur became Godzilla halts his exit. Shindo backs up Ikehata’s story, and even provides photographic proof. To him, this dinosaur did not just save their lives, but inspired the survivors to return home and rebuild their country.

Meanwhile, the institute of Super Science has been assisting the government in figuring out just what the UFO was up to. Miki Saegusa explains that its path took it over the spot in the ocean where Godzilla sleeps, still under the effects of the anti-nuclear bacteria used on him in Godzilla vs. Biollante. The military is searching for the mystery vehicle, and seems to have found it when two helicopters are blown out of the sky near Mt. Fuji. Strangely, this incident is never mentioned again, even in discussions to come over whether the UFO’s occupants can be trusted. The dangerous lives of military pilots in a Godzilla movie are rarely heralded.

Futurians

Contact is eventually made with the strange visitors who turn out to be, not extraterrestrials, but time travelers from the future. When I was a kid watching a movie such as Invasion of the Astro-Monster (Ishiro Honda, 1965) I thought it odd that the space aliens invading Earth looked Japanese. In my childhood racism I assumed the “default” ethnic appearance was Caucasian. But why would it be any more expected that they’d would be white westerners than Asian? Which, half a thought later, should lead to the ridiculousness of extraterrestrials appearing human in any way. In Godzilla vs King Ghidorah we at least are sticking with humans.

We meet three of these “Futurians.” One, named Wilson, seems American. Another, named Grenchiko, might be a Russian..? The third is Emmy, who proudly announces she is Japanese. American actors have appearing in Godzilla films on several occasions, from Raymond Burr being edited into the US version of the 1954 Godzilla, to Nick Adams in Invasion of the Astro-Monster, to wrestler Don Frye in Godzilla: Final Wars. Almost always though these actors get their voices re-dubbed into Japanese. The western Futurians speak in fluent Japanese, indeed that largely is why their actors were hired for the parts. Their stiff, carefully formal manner actually suits them.

It starts to sink in that much of Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is a homage to the Terminator film series. People from the future travel back in time to prevent a disaster by changing the past. Here the disaster is not a cyborg Judgment Day, but Godzilla’s eventual destruction of Japan. And even though this apocalypse isn’t caused by mechanical murder machines, the story will soon introduce M-11, a superhuman robot who does a lot of Terminator-like stunts.

Conference over book

The Futurians have discovered a book from our era that explains Godzilla’s origins as a mutated dinosaur: the very book that Terasawa has been researching in order to write. Their plan is to find this animal, which comes to be known as a godzillasaurus, and relocate it away from its island home. It will never get exposed to atomic testing and thus never become Godzilla. To help them in this task, they claim to need three people from our time: Terasawa, Prof. Mazaki, and Miki Saegusa. They will accompany the Futurians back to 1944.

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.