He’s considered Godzilla’s greatest nemesis, the Joker to the big green guy’s Batman. The Thanos to the kaiju monsters’ Avengers. He is King Ghidorah, the three-headed flying dragon of alien origin who first showed up in the Toho series of giant monster movies back in 1964 and has reappeared a number of times ever since, always out to destroy Earth, Godzilla and the latter’s allies. After making his last live-action appearance in a Japanese monster movie in 2001, Ghidorah will arrive in an American kaiju film for the first time next week, when he stars in Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
Ghidorah (who was also briefly known in America as “Ghidrah” early in his career) is a massive, armless, golden-scaled winged dragon, with three heads, two tails and one hell of a powerful energy beam that he can discharge from his heads. He can also generate massive electrical bolts from its wingtips in certain films and is generally an incredibly disruptive force on a global scale (something that is explored to some degree in Godzilla: King of the Monsters).
The concept came from Tomoyuki Tanaka, the film producer who also created Godzilla himself. Inspired by the eight-headed dragon Orochi out of Japanese folklore, as well as the Hydra from Greek mythology, Tanaka wanted a creature with multiple heads to battle Godzilla but cut the number down to three, thinking that eight was too many. Other dragons out of Japanese and even Russian legends were an influence. While some readings of the Toho films suggest that Ghidorah is a metaphor for China — an existential threat to Japan at the time — director Ishiro Honda dismissed that idea.
The creature’s origins have shifted over the years, but most of the movies in which he’s appeared essentially portray him as a monster from outer space, usually brought to Earth by an alien race as a sort of “ultimate weapon” with which to subjugate or wipe out humankind. It has been the task of Godzilla, Mothra and other assorted Earth kaiju to band together and defeat Ghidorah, often despite their own differences or hostility toward humans.
The Showa Era (1964-1975)
Ghidorah’s debut came in 1964’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, still one of the most popular and beloved of Toho Studios’ first wave of kaiju movies. Ghidorah was not actually under the control of aliens in this film: he emerges from a meteor and begins his mission of destruction for reasons known only to him, although it’s established that he had destroyed an advanced civilization on Venus some five thousand years earlier.
Only Mothra is initially determined to stop Ghidorah as he levels city after city, but when she bravely goes it alone against the beast, her courage convinces Godzilla and Rodan — previously foes — to join the battle with her. Their combined efforts finally defeat Ghidorah and send him back into space, but the film marks the first time of several in which some of Earth’s most fearsome and gigantic monsters would team up to defend the planet against a common enemy.
Ghidorah was acting specifically under the control of aliens in 1965’s Invasion of Astro-Monster, in which the seemingly benevolent Xiliens ask the people of Earth if they can “borrow” Godzilla and Rodan to wage war on Ghidorah (initially referred to as “Monster Zero”) before he destroys their planet. It’s all a ruse, however, designed to bring the two Earth monsters under Xilien control as well so that they and Ghidorah can be used to threaten our world. Scientists find a way to snap Godzilla and Rodan out of it, however, and while their fates are left uncertain at the end of the movie, they still manage to send the monstrous dragon back into the void with his tails between his legs.
A different alien race, the Kilaaks, deploy Ghidorah as their doomsday weapon in 1968’s Destroy All Monsters, after their initial attempts to conquer Earth by controlling all the planet’s major monsters are thwarted. The enraged Earth kaiju, which include Anguirus, Manda, Gorosaurus and others in addition to the big three, beat the living crap out of the dragon and seemingly defeat him for good this time.
It was four years before Ghidorah surfaced again, in his final appearance of the Showa era of Godzilla movies. Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972) found him teaming up for the first time with another monster, this time the giant cyborg Gigan. Controlled by the Nebulans from a secret base on Earth, Gigan and Ghidorah mess up Godzilla and his surprise sidekick Anguirus (we suppose Rodan and Mothra were too busy enjoying their vacation on Monster Island) pretty badly before humans come to their aid, zapping the Nebulans’ base so that Godzilla and Anguirus can once again send Ghidorah packing.
The Heisei Era (1991)
Aside from a guest shot on the 1973 Japanese TV series Zone Fighter and a handful of random video game appearances, it was nearly 20 years before we heard from Ghidorah again. His return, however, was the basis of one of the very best Godzilla movies, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). The previous film, the excellent Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), had been a commercial disappointment, leading Toho to bring back one of Godzilla’s most famous enemies in a complex and mind-bending story of time travel that provided revised origin stories for both the big G and his triple-headed foe.
The story involved a scheme by a terrorist group from the 23rd century, the Futurians, to bring down Japan in the 20th century before it can become a bloated and corrupt superpower 300 years later. The Futurians travel back to Lagos Island in 1944, where a dinosaur called a Godzillasaurus has been discovered by American and Japanese soldiers fighting during World War II. By removing the beast from the island, however, the Futurians deduce that they will prevent it from being irradiated by atomic testing in 1954 and mutated into Godzilla. They secretly leave three other small creatures called Dorats behind instead, which the radiation transform into King Ghidorah, whom the Futurians intend to use against a Godzilla-less Japan to stop the country’s ascension.
Director Kazuki Omori denied that the film was anti-American (it depicted the Godzillasaurus killing several American soldiers), with the picture also considered controversial because it arrived during a period of economic tension between Japan and the United States. But the film also featured several notable elements, including a new score from original Godzilla composer Akira Ikufube and the introduction of Mecha-King Ghidorah, a cybernetic version of the monster unveiled during the climax.
Although not part of any of Godzilla’s film eras, Rebirth of Mothra III — the conclusion of a trilogy in which the giant, peaceful insect was rebooted — featured Ghidorah as its villain. The Rebirth of Mothra series also gave Ghidorah a more complex back story, making him the relative of Desghidorah, a less powerful but still fearsome space creature that fought Mothra millions of years ago after Desghidorah first laid waste to a civilization on Mars.
Desghidorah was defeated in Rebirth of Mothra, but Ghidorah himself wreaked havoc in the third film, killing all the dinosaurs on Earth in the past before emerging in the present to battle Mothra Leo, the son of the original Mothra. Also involving time travel, multiple forms of Mothra and two different versions of Ghidorah, the film is much more fantasy-oriented than the Godzilla movies in which Ghidorah had previously appeared, with an emphasis on children as primary characters as well.
The Millennium Era (2001)
The traditional Ghidorah made one more live-action appearance before two very different modern reboots, and it was in 2001’s Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters’ All-Out Attack. As was the curious case with other films in the Millennium era, this acted as a direct sequel to the original 1954 Godzilla and ignored the events of previous entries in the series. The movie also repositioned Ghidorah for the first time as an Earthbound creature who, along with Mothra and Baragon, is one of the ancient Guardian Monsters who must defend the planet against the now-evil Godzilla.
As its mouthful of a title suggested, GMK delivered loads of heavy monster action while flipping the script and the loyalties of its two main antagonists. It also introduced a mystical element into the proceedings during a third act in which Mothra’s spirit is transferred into Ghidorah, turning him into something called the Thousand Year Dragon, with both their spirits flowing into Godzilla and sinking him into the ocean.
A different offshoot of Ghidorah, known as Keizer Ghidorah (a.k.a. Monster X), showed up in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). With two of his heads smaller than the main one, and his wings also more compact, Keizer Ghidorah’s origins are murky but he has been determined to be a relative of King Ghidorah. He’s also a vicious, relentless fighter who very nearly defeats Godzilla singlehandedly.
The Reiwa Era (2018)
Ghidorah was reinvented once again for Godzilla: The Planet Eater, the final entry in a trilogy of anime Godzilla films produced by Toho and distributed in the United States via Netflix. A vast energy being from another dimension, this Ghidorah retains its wings and three heads but is longer and sleeker in appearance, while seemingly made out of pure light and energy without a truly physical form. Summoned by the members of a cult who see Ghidorah as an infinite god of destruction, the creature is truly cosmic in nature, with the power to bend time, space and gravity around it even as its intangible form renders it almost completely invulnerable to physical attacks.
While the anime trilogy has proven divisive among kaiju fans, this version of Ghidorah was certainly a fascinating new concept and perhaps the most otherworldly incarnation of the creature yet, making him less of a typical giant monster and more a primal force of destruction that spanned all of space and time.
But in a way, Ghidorah has always been a primal force of havoc and catastrophe — a trademark of the monster that is brought fully to the fore in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. He is truly Godzilla’s eternal enemy, destined — in the words of another classic villain for the ages — to “do this forever.”
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is out in theaters this Friday (May 31).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye