Mothra (1961)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2013-07-21 07:44

Written by: Shinichirô Nakamura, Takehiko Fukunaga, Yoshie Hotta (original story), Shin'ichi Sekizawa (screenplay)
Directed by: Ishiro Honda
Starring: Frankie Sakai, Hiroshi Koizumi, and Jerry Ito

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

“A prayer for peace and prosperity to last for all eternity."

In my trek through the highlights of the Toho’s Showa era, it probably looked like I skipped over one of the studio’s most popular monsters in Mothra. However, this mini retrospective happened to coincide with my recent trip to Austin, where the Alamo Drafthouse had programmed Ishiro Honda’s cult favorite as part of their “Beasts vs. Bots” series in July. So, in lieu of a strict chronological order, I put the giant moth on the backburner in order to see her first incarnation as it was meant to be seen: on a huge screen, with a Drafthouse shake in hand. I can’t think of a better venue to serve as a reminder that Mothra is just downright weird and that it offers further proof that Toho wasn’t just churning out the same old shit with a different monster.

For one thing, it’s not exactly the same old Atomic Age parable stuff. While it’s briefly mentioned that Mothra’s Infant Island home has served as a site for nuclear testing, this is more of a throwback to King Kong, as local tycoon Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito) looks to explore the exotic, untamed locale after four sailors return unharmed by radiation poisoning. He commissions a team headed up by a radiation specialist (Ken Uehara) and a linguist (Hiroshi Koizimi), and the joint-venture immediately yields results when the latter stumbles onto a pair of miniature women (Yumi and Emi Itou) who save him from certain doom. With a glimmer in his sickly eyes, Nelson covets the two “tiny beauties” and hatches a plan to swipe them from their native land and employ them in a sideshow act in Tokyo. His transgression (which also involves the callous slaughter of natives) doesn’t go unnoticed by either his fellow seafarers or the island’s dormant god figure, a mysterious Mothra who hatches from its egg and proceeds to the mainland to reclaim the girls.

Another strange, colorful beast from Honda, Mothra is a good representative for the oddness that was creeping into the Showa era. Previous efforts such as Rodan and the Godzilla sequels were not infused with the same gloominess as Gojira, and Mothra continues that trend by capturing the jaunty, two-fisted feel of old pulp adventures. Infant Island is teeming with exoticism, from the sentient, killer flora to the spear-chucking natives; it’s very much not unlike Kong’s Skull Island, though Nelson—with his shifty, jaundice-eyed countenance—is clearly painted as the film’s true villain here (whereas Denham was an oblivious huckster). The early-going here is a spirited adventure that’s seemingly filled its quota of weirdness before its titular monster arrives. Perhaps its reputation is shaded by Mothra’s later cross-over appearances with Godzilla, but this first outing is a somewhat bizarre outlier whose sense of karmic justice isn’t preoccupied with nature-run-amok comeuppance so much as it is peace and understanding—there aren’t many monster movies that don’t end with the monster being blown to hell.

It’s actually not for lack of trying in this case, as the film does generally hew to the expected formula during the middle stretch, which features Mothra approaching the coast as a giant, pissed-off larvae. Along the way, she requisitely destroys a ship before eventually making landfall and wreaking havoc in the city (like Rodan, she can flap her wings and stir up an instant hurricane). The Tokyo Tower serves as the obligatory landmark destruction and Mothra’s cocoon as she finally turns into the form that made her famous. Her devastation of the city is similar to other Toho productions in that you have to make peace with some obvious wire and model work, especially when it comes to the Japanese troops trying to repel Mothra in their tanks and jeeps. Maybe seeing it in such a large format did it no favors, but it seemed to be slightly phonier and obvious than other Toho productions. Still, it’s not that much less engrossing because it has the same feeling of a child playing in an oversized sandbox; in fact, it may have been the biggest sandbox at the time since Tokyo’s destruction is so meticulously captured on such a large scale (the shot of Mothra’s fully-formed cocoon set against the Tokyo Tower is particularly stunning).

Mothra eventually becomes slightly contemplative. Without resorting to Gojira levels of rumination, the film posits that the old world and the new world can coexist. Rather than resort to the same old blow-‘em-up routine, Honda turns the third act into a race when Koizimi’s linguist teams up with a journalist (Frankie Sakai) and his photographer (Kyoko Kagawa) to track down Nelson and return the two singers before Mothra can cause any more damage. Honda expertly highlights the culture clash throughout, but it culminates with a poignant sequence that intercuts the singers’ captive performance before a throng of awed socialites with the natives’ ritual back on Infant Island that summons Mothra. There’s a reverence for the primitive world that ultimately makes it worth preserving during the film’s climax, which again forgoes mutually assured destruction in favor of a peaceful co-existence. Unlike other kaiju films haunted by the specter of the past, Mothra looks forward and feels a little bit more like a Cold War parable optimistically pointing towards harmony.

In fact, the film sort of wears its heart on its sleeve in this respect. Nelson is a native of Roscilia, a fictional nation that serves as an obvious stand-in for the United States (its capital, New Kirk City, is a thinly veiled substitute for New York in particular). Despite its initially pulpy tone, Mothra doesn’t exactly paint in broad, general strokes. In this case, it’s not just the modern world in general encroaching on those last outposts of the untamed wilderness—it’s a specifically Western element that’s laying waste to the rest of the world out of greed and lust for power. Interestingly, the film provides a soulful antidote in the form of religion, and there’s something strangely spiritual about Mothra, a goddess with both vengeful, Old Testament fits and a capacity for compassion (fittingly, Christian iconography plays a heavy role in the resolution). She’s not a cold, reptilian monolith but rather a slighted deity whose wrath is justified, thus rendering a bit more sympathetic than many of her earlier counterparts.

Even if one ignores its obvious subtexts, Mothra is still a crackling, funky monster movie, featuring memorable tunes (the tiny singers’ ditty that summons their protector has been stuck in my head for a week) and some indelible characters. Koizimi is terrific as the initially reluctant but ultimately dignified linguist, while Sakai is a lumpy, chipper goofball who’s always getting chewed out by his editor. Ito is in total bastard mode and relishes in the shameless evil of the sleazy Nelson. There’s a great scene where he and his henchmen celebrate the apparent destruction of Mothra only to be comically disappointed a few minutes later when they learn that she’s en route to Roscilia after all. That the film goes for such laughs speaks to its general light-heartedness; it’s certainly more of a fantasy than its predecessors, complete with a wish-fulfillment ending. A fairy tale by way of a cartoon, Mothra is triumphantly re-affirming and serves as the perfect B-side to Gojira; if Honda’s first Kaiju effort wallowed in the dark, slummy recesses of the nuclear age, then this follow-up is his shining a light on its more optimistic possibilities—at its heart, it supposes that mankind will rise up and eventually do the right thing in the face of injustice. Buy it!

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