モスラ / Mosura
"We promise you no one will ever disturb you or your island again."
– Shin’ichi Chûjô (Hiroshi Koizumi).
Although not as well-loved as the first two Japanese kaiju1, Mothra, in many ways, receives a cinematographically superior debut, and is arguably the best-directed of the original Japanese giant monster movies. Even its nationalist (and some argue, racist) elements bear thoughtful consideration, if one views the film from Japan's point-of-view in 1961.2
It's also the most original of these films. Godzilla took its direct inspiration from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Rodan took its cue from Gojira, and threw in elements of King Kong and Them! Granted, Mothra was not entirely fresh. It had its origins in a serialized novel. The destructive sequences certainly would have been familiar to anyone who had watched any of the previous Toho Studios daikaiju films. Furthermore, the film features more than a few echoes of King Kong. Nevertheless, the story of gigantic lepidoptera that defend an exploited island and a pair of psychic faeries, while commenting on geopolitics, has to earn points for originality.
That's the plot. An expedition to a remote island returns with psychic, singing singular twin Shobijin, faerie-like creatures. When a greedy entrepreneur exploits them, the island's god/protector comes to their rescue, destroying a couple of cities in the process. The tiny twins want to halt the destruction, but they must make contact with Mothra in order to do so. Their captor prefers to take his magic creatures and run.
Godzilla had a message about the atomic age; Rodan featured creatures out of their time, and it raised concerns about what developments in science and exploitation of the earth might unleash. Mothra certainly has a strong message about the consequences of human exploitation and mistreatment of nature, the risks of unbounded human ambition. However, we have other themes in this film. If Gojira looked back to the end of World War II, Mosura captures the early-sixties feelings of Japan rising, for better and worse. And while many now note that the film's depiction of the island natives seems racist (though sadly, about typical for world cinema of the era), a deeper current of problematic attitudes concerns the depiction of Japan and the West. It is there, however, that the film becomes most interesting.
The film's villain hails from Rolisica, a country with a flag and military uniforms reminiscent of the USSR, though the main Rolisican villain behaves suspiciously like a stereotypical American, and the Rolisican "New Kirk City" looks like New York City and features English signs. We even see the destruction of a Rolisican automaker's headquarters by Mothra.3 At times, we hear Rolisicans speaking Japanese, English, and a language that might be Russian. The exploiters who bring destruction upon Japan are clearly foreign, and represent both sides of the Cold War, portrayed here as more dangerous to Japan than any giant monster.
Mothra carries a strong suggestion that the influence of the gaijin has harmed Japan, and needs to ended or at least moderated. In the film's defense, we do see some good westerners (part of the original film, not parachuted in by American distributors, as happened with other early films of this genre), and the film includes western Christian as well as more traditionally Japanese iconography among the representations of deeper spiritual values.4 The conclusion indicates the need to return to spiritual values to temper those promoted by pure expansionist capitalism or Soviet communism. This statement, placed in a monster movie, may help explain the film's appeal, especially in Japan.
Oh, yeah. And the great big insect smashes things. That's pretty cool.
The effects hold up reasonably well. Toho's miniature work continued to improve. And while Mothra may not measure up to the standard set by contemporary visuals, her physiognomy at least prevents her from resembling a guy in a rubber suit. The death ray effects, on the other hand, have been animated. This looks cheesy and cartoony, but it was standard at the time (think Forbidden Planet and the original Star Trek). Overall, however, the film features surreal and often beautiful imagery: real and imagined flights of the Shobijin, Mothra undergoing metamorphosis at a downed tower.
The acting remains rather broad (especially the comedy), but this film actually gives us more developed human characters than the previous films in the genre. Japanese singing sensations the Peanuts show considerable charm as the Shōbijin.5
The Shobijin sing Mothra's kickass theme song, a first for a monster.6 Sure, Godzilla has a cool and much-covered number by Blue Öyster Cult, but that came later.
Japan's daikaiju do not have the presence in western pop culture they once had, and Mosura has always received less airplay in the west than her reptilian associates. Nevertheless, this ranks among the best of Toho's originals. If you can accept the silliness that goes along with the movie's premise and the mothballs that go with its age, you will find this film entertaining.
Directed by Ishirô Honda
Written by Shinichirô Nakamura, Takehiko Fukunaga, Yoshie Hotta, and Shinichi Sekizawa.
Frankie Sakai as Senichiro "Sen-chan" Fukuda
Hiroshi Koizumi as Dr. Shin’ichi Chûjô
Kyôko Kagawa as Michi Hanamura
Ken Uehara as Dr. Harada
Emi Itô as Shobijin
Yûmi Itô as Shobijin
Jerry Ito as Clark Nelson
Takashi Shimura as News Editor
Tetsu Nakamura as Nelson's Henchman
Akihiro Tayama as Shinji Chûjô
Obel Wyatt as Dr. Roff
1. I'm thinking of Gozilla and Rodan as the first two, though this is, strictly speaking, inaccurate. Half Human followed Gozilla, but the film is rarely shown, and the titular beast was never folded into continuity with the others. Varan, a seldom-seen monster who appeared in a 1958 Toho film, was later loosely connected to the others. The second Godzilla film pits the Big G against a monster called Anguirus. Both Half-Human and Anguirus predate Rodan and Mothra, while Varan predates Mothra.
Mothra is, of course, generations of monsters. She dies and leaves offspring regularly over the course of the movies in which she appears. A much later film gives her a backstory, making her the life energy of a dying godlike race fused with a moth. Some might feel that this undercuts her mystical/spiritual debut.
2. The year seems to have been a turning point for giant, city-destroying monsters. They had always been destructive forces that must be stopped, even if humans bore the responsibility for releasing them. Both Mothra and England's Gorgo appeared in '61, and both had laudable intentions; the human cities just sort of got in their way.
3. The "New Kirk Motor Bilding" [sic], western automaker, goes down: prescient commentary on Toho's part—or just typical monster movie mayhem?
4. For years, the web has been home to a semi-serious Church of Mothra site.
5. I thought so. However, I've talked to people who find the twin faeries "creepy."
6. The Mothra song may be found with ease on Youtube, sung in various movie incarnations, as a pop remix, and by fangirls.