The world of Godzilla is so ever-changing that even the most passionate fans have a hard time keeping everything straight. Continuity between decades is virtually nonexistent at this point, but there’s one thing that’s timeless in the franchise—the monsters. While their settings differ and their origins are regularly rewritten, these kaiju are an abiding sense of comfort in spite of the dismay they provoke.
The spinal-plated, atomic ray-breathing monarch of monsters, Godzilla, has the privilege of being joined by some of the greatest icons in genre film history. From below the surface of our very Earth to the vast regions of the galaxy come three kaiju who without a doubt are Godzilla‘s most significant costars—King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan. And this month, we will be seeing new incarnations of those titans on the big screen in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. In honor of their debuts in Legendary Pictures’ “MonsterVerse,” the standing histories of this band of renegade kaiju will be explored.
Before we go any further, remember that these kaiju appear in other mediums like anime, comic books, and television. For the sake of brevity, let’s keep things limited to the films. Also, official terms “Showa” (1954-1975), “Heisei” (1984-1995), and “Millennium” (1999-2004) not only refer to specific cinematic eras of the Godzilla series, but they also reflect the reign periods of Japanese emperors.
RODAN, THE FLYING TERROR
In 1956, the mining village of Kitamatsu is under siege by massive insects called Meganulons. Little do the locals realize, is that these ancient nymphs are really a precursor to something far bigger within the mines. Large eggs hatch to reveal not one but two enormous pteranodons dubbed Rodan. The two Rodans wreak havoc for a short, yet harrowing time before finally succumbing to an erupting volcano. Another specimen awakens from dormancy in 1964 and engages Godzilla until joining him and Mothra to defeat King Ghidorah. After a longstanding reputation of being a man-eating horror, this defining moment put Rodan on a more benevolent path.
Early concept art shows Rodan resembling a bird-like, feathered dinosaur called an archaeopteryx. Director Ishiro Honda rejected this design in favor of the classic “Radon” we know today. Wait, who’s “Radon?” Interestingly enough, “Rodan” isn’t this kaiju’s original name. Known as “Radon“—a contraction of the word “pteranodon“— in Japan, it was in the international English release of the 1956 film where the creature was renamed to avoid confusion with the element radon. This alias stuck and has become the official English spelling ever since. Although in some English dubs of the films, the humans still pronounce the monster’s name as “Radon.”
This irradiated, prehistoric holdover in King of the Monsters is thought to be “more powerful than Godzilla” himself, according to director Michael Dougherty. Does this stand to be true for the original Rodan? Armed with the inborn weapons of a typical bird of prey, Rodan is a remnant of traditional Toho kaiju delineation. His most pronounced ability is, in fact, his wings, which are capable of producing hurricane-like gusts. In the air, Rodan can fly between a range of mach 1.5 and 3. Though he lacks any sort of energy-based artillery in the Showa era, Rodan‘s enhanced resilience permits him to tangle with bigger opponents without great damage unto himself.
With tokusatsu serials like Kamen Rider becoming more popular on TV, interest in Godzilla films gradually declined throughout the seventies. This led to Toho coming up with more imaginative-looking kaiju such as Mechagodzilla, Gigan, Hedorah, and Megalon. Rodan incidentally became inactive after 1968, but the extensive maintenance needed for the suit in Destroy All Monsters may have been another factor for his subsequent absence.
However, fans saw Rodan again in the Heisei period in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. He’s discovered protecting an egg that contains a fledgling Godzilla. When the hatchling becomes distressed, Rodan comes to his aid like the fierce surrogate sibling he’s become. A previous spar with the radioactive Godzilla mutates Rodan into Fire Rodan, and for the first and only time in the whole franchise, he breathes a heat beam similar to that of Godzilla. In the end, Fire Rodan does the impossible—he relinquishes his remaining life force to Godzilla after they’re both fatally wounded by Mechagodzilla. This energy restores Godzilla‘s damaged body and allows him the chance to overtake his robotic counterpart and save his son. Knowing he was going to die, Fire Rodan ensured that his surrogate brother would be saved and raised by someone who loves him. Godzilla would’ve surely died without Rodan‘s amazing sacrifice.
In the 2004 epic Godzilla: Final Wars, most every kaiju in existence is placed under the thrall of an alien race known as the Xiliens. This includes Rodan, who was sent to destroy New York City before he dares Godzilla to one last skirmish. Along with Anguirus and King Caesar, Rodan attempts to overthrow the King of Monsters. None of them are successful, but Godzilla spares their lives out of esteem for their histories together. After all, these three kaiju helped Godzilla at some point or another in the past.
Rodan‘s transition from primordial predator of the sky to one of Earth’s colossal champions is inspiring. Like Godzilla, Rodan started out as a rampaging giant with baser instincts, but an appeal from Mothra on humanity’s behalf changed his ways. While the filmmakers featured Rodan less and less as time went on, they never lost respect for both what he is and what he became. Rodan‘s natural opposition toward Godzilla was put aside on two occasions for the sake of the greater good. And that is why Rodan is far more perceptive than one would expect from a prodigious pteranodon.
MOTHRA, QUEEN OF THE MONSTERS
Besides Rodan and Varan, there was another kaiju whose first appearance in the Godzilla series was in a solo film. It all started in 1961, during an expedition to an unexplored Polynesian island that was once subjected to nuclear testing. The explorers come upon a society of indigenous people who worshiped a deity called Mothra. When the community’s venerated priestesses—a pair of fairy-sized women referred to as the Shobijin (literally “small beauties”)—are abducted and forced to work as entertainers in Japan, Mothra flutters to their rescue. The mammoth moth devastates everything in her path before the Shobijin are returned to her.
Following a confrontation with King Kong, Godzilla endures a thrashing from the immense imago in 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla. Her egg washes ashore in Japan prior to Godzilla‘s reappearance, and Mothra isn’t about to let him touch it. Their brawl ends with the mother moth perishing, but two larvae hatch from the egg and then subdue Godzilla. Later the same year, one of these caterpillars becomes responsible for uniting Godzilla and Rodan in the first fight against King Ghidorah.
It may come as a surprise to learn that Mothra‘s popularity comes close to Godzilla‘s. She ranks so highly that in the Heisei period, Toho awarded Mothra her own set of films known as the Rebirth of Mothra trilogy. In her series, Mothra wades through overt commentary about environmentalism whilst battling the likes of new kaiju Death Ghidorah, Dagahra, and Grand King Ghidorah. There’s a more childish nature to these movies, and Mothra experienced multiple power-ups like an RPG character. Critics and viewers didn’t respond too well to Mothra‘s solo outings, but in retrospect, some of them applaud the films’ odd and fantastical executions.
Toho was adamant about Mothra being included in the franchise’s Millennium era, which was a confusing time for fans. Aside from Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S., every entry was a standalone. Some were connected to Showa films, though. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (simply GMK to fans) is a direct sequel to the 1954 Godzilla, and Mothra is reinterpreted as one of Japan’s three guardian kaiju. It was at Toho’s behest that both she and King Ghidorah replaced Anguirus and Varan, two obscure monsters director Shusuke Kaneko had wanted in the film instead. To suit the story, Mothra was sized down and made weaker in comparison to Godzilla. The Shobijin were omitted altogether, too.
In Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S., we see the return of Mothra as she warns Japan to dispose of Godzilla‘s bones rather than use them to build Mechagodzilla. If the government fails to comply, Mothra will declare war on the human race. The movie is set forty-two years after Mothra (1961), and it becomes a quasi-remake of Mothra vs. Godzilla, which in this timeline, never happened. Just like with GMK, Toho beseeched the filmmakers to incorporate Mothra because of her overwhelming popularity.
Mothra was one of the few Earth monsters in Godzilla: Final Wars that wasn’t under the Xiliens‘ control. In the distant past, Mothra defended the planet from Gigan; history is repeated when the aliens unleash Gigan on the modern world. It may seem like the birdlike cyborg is victorious, but Mothra prevails by killing her nemesis kamikaze style.
Mothra has appeared in thirteen of Toho’s live-action films. That is more than Mechagodzilla and King Ghidorah each, both of whom are also fan favorites. People often ask what makes Mothra so special. A simple answer is that the mega moth’s longevity stems from her origin. Godzilla was born out of tragedy whereas Mothra is unmitigated fantasy. She has a peaceful air to her stories and missions, and she invites emotions not always associated with Godzilla. Her beauty and advanced sentience don’t hurt either. Whatever the reasons are, Mothra endures because she is so pure yet powerful. Something no other monster in the Godzilla universe can claim.
KING GHIDORAH, DESTROYER OF PLANETS
The year is 1964. An unholy terror from the farthest reaches of space is heading for Earth inside of a magnetic meteor. The looming threat soon crashes and wedges itself into Japan’s Kurobe Valley. The vessel gives way to an elixir of smoke and flames that take corporeal shape—King Ghidorah. The three-headed dragon escapes into a world not unfamiliar with giant monsters, for Japan is currently under siege by two other behemoths—Godzilla and Rodan. As the two quarrel with no end in sight, the flying space invader lays waste to Tokyo. It is up to a mediator in the form of Mothra to wrangle in the Earth monsters. Otherwise, there will be nothing left of humanity, and the world as we know it will belong to King Ghidorah!
Three of Toho’s gargantuan creations were pitted against a new threat in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. The title creature was unlike anything viewers had seen so far. The studio had already offered up aliens as antagonists in 1957’s The Mysterians, but up until that point, all organic kaiju were of this world. With the advent of King Ghidorah came the introduction of extraterrestrial life into the series.
Akira Watanabe drew from East Asian as well as Slavic folklore when he designed King Ghidorah. The name “Ghidorah” is from the Japanese word (“hidora”) for the polycephalic hydra, and the heads are modeled after a Chinese dragon. Additionally, the eight-headed Yamata no Orochi of Japanese mythology and Zmey Gorynych of Russian and Ukranian legends are sources of inspiration. We think of Ghidorah as a gold-colored monster, but promotional shots from his first film have him blue bodied with blue, red, and yellow wings. Crimson may have been another potential color. At long last, renowned special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya and his crew found gold to look better on film.
King Ghidorah started off as an infamous space traveler who destroyed a Venusian civilization over five thousand years ago. In most of the Showa films where he does appear, Ghidorah is subservient to alien masters. His brute strength is incomparable to most other monsters, but without someone to guide him and harness his power, Ghidorah is more vulnerable.
The triple-headed kaiju is a product of futuristic bio-engineering in 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. In a complicated plot that strains logic, the film has a twenty-third century group known as the Equal Environment Earth Union wanting to stop Japan from becoming an economic superpower. So they send three small creatures called Dorats into the past when Godzilla was created from a dinosaur after being exposed to radiation. The same radiation transforms the Dorats into King Ghidorah, who is steered to annihilate present-day Japan. The movie houses one of the most glaring paradoxes in the series, but audiences at least met Mecha-King Ghidorah. The remains of this cyborg are salvaged so that the Japanese government can create the robotic namesake in 1993’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.
Incarnations of Ghidorah served as the antagonists in the first and third entries—Death Ghidorah and Grand King Ghidorah respectively—of the Rebirth of Mothra saga. As these movies are not considered canon with the Heisei Godzilla chronology, people regard these characterizations as token one-offs. Moreover, it was Ghidorah‘s portrayal in GMK that is, to this day, controversial among the fanbase. Shusuke Kaneko’s initial script didn’t have King Ghidorah or Mothra at all until Toho urged him to use more popular monsters in place of Anguirus and Varan. Swapping in Mothra was admissible as she’s always protected mankind; it was the casting of Ghidorah as a hero that raised eyebrows.
In GMK, three guardian kaiju awoke as Godzilla threatened Japan again. The last to come around was Ghidorah, and he was presented as an undeveloped Orochi. Seeing as he killed Baragon and Mothra with relative ease, Godzilla was intended to be the most powerful monster in the film. The immature Ghidorah would have died, too, had it not been for Mothra reinvigorating him with her residual life force. This revived Ghidorah as the tremendous, three-headed kaiju we’ve all come to recognize.
The Millennium ended with Godzilla: Final Wars, and King Ghidorah was not among the army of monsters seen in the film. Alternatively, a new, unrelated kaiju called Keizer Ghidorah was revealed in the conclusion.
It’s beyond question that Godzilla‘s archenemy is King Ghidorah. Yes, there is Mechagodzilla, but in half of their encounters, Godzilla is the villain. Furthermore, Ghidorah is a different beast; he’s normally an embodiment of sterling malevolence. It’s no wonder he’s reserved as Godzilla‘s primary combatant in a good deal of these movies. This lightning spewing, gravity-defying, and intergalactic kaiju is a self-appointed king who will forever challenge Godzilla for his throne.
There you have it—the histories of King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan! Godzilla: King of the Monsters hits theatres May 31st. Who’s your favorite kaiju? Share your answers with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group!