by Kris Tronerud
Mothra (Mosura) • Inoshiro (Ishiro) Honda • 1961 • Original Theatrical Trailer
The Mightiest Monster in All Creation, Ravishing the Universe for Love!
(From the Poster for Mothra)
There are Kaiju (Giant Monster) fans and there are Monster movie fans, but whether you know the name of every opponent Godzilla has faced in the last 58 (!) years or only have fond memories from Creature Double feature Saturday afternoons, everyone reacts the same way when anyone mentions Mothra, by shouting: The Twins!! (I tried this on a number of unsuspecting test subjects leading up to this article). The second most iconic and beloved (after the Big Green One himself) of all the Japanese stable of Rubber Monsters, Mothra holds a special place in boomer hearts due to the unique fairy-tale approach of this entry; symbolized by … The Twins!
When a Tramp Freighter is run aground on the reefs offshore Infant Island (an iconic locale in itself, introduced here, and featured as ground zero in four decades of Toho Kaiju) and the surviving sailors show no ill effects from the radiation left behind by recent atomic testing, the authorities are mystified. Hot on their trail are ace reporter Ten-Chan Fukuda, nicknamed Snapping Turtle (Bulldog in the English dub) for his tenacity, and his perky photographer side kick Michi. Sneaking into a secret meeting at the “National Syntheseis Nucleus Center”, (pretty scientific, no?) they discover that the sailors credit their survival to the ‘Red Juice’ given them by a previously unknown island tribe, and that an expedition is being formed to investigate, headed up by the island’s owners, the well-known country of “Roliskia” (no hint as to that nation’s true identity, except possibly that all its inhabitants are pasty-faced Caucasians, all their policemen look like fugitives from Highway Patrol, and their biggest metropolis is “New Kirk City”). Stowing away, Ten-Chan befriends reclusive scientist Chujo, who suspects the motives of Expedition leader Nelson, who is not a scientist, but a corrupt tycoon, who has gained undue influence with the Roliskians by paying for their research (another hint as to the identity of the Roliskians?). When Chujo is attacked by a blood drinking monster plant, he is rescued by the fetching but diminutive fairy twins, and, within minutes of befriending them, is able to intuit from their incomprehensible chirping that they are upset about the bomb tests, which he promises to have stopped (good luck!). The good scientists agree to keep their secret, but Nelson sneaks back to the island, kidnaps the fairies, and puts them on display, Carl Denham style, in Tokyo. But the songs the captive twins are singing under duress are being heard back on Infant Island by a certain Lepidopteran friend…
Mothra was directed by Ishiro Honda, revered as a cinema pioneer in Japan, having virtually invented the most successful Japanese film series of all time, with Gojira (Godzilla,1954), and an entire genre with it. Honda directed some of the very best films of the first golden era of Kaiju and Japani-fi, and Mothra was one of the most successful and handsomely produced, if not the deepest, of them all. While there is none of the awesome mournful dread of Gojira, the brooding poisonous unease of Matango, or the savage beauty of War of the Gargantuas, Mothra is a story well told, with many moments of great visual beauty and arresting charm. The special effects and set pieces are memorable: the birth of Mothra, as the Infant Islanders chant beneath her gargantuan cracking egg in a huge emerald-hued Kong-like grotto (Mothra’s glass painting backgrounds are stunning), the larval Mothra swimming through a sea of flame toward Tokyo, the eerie beauty of the giant cocoon surrounding Tokyo tower, and most especially the film’s final confrontation as Mothra meets her human sympathizers on a vast airport runway, have a spacey, serene quality that occasionally raise Mothra beyond matinee fun to the level of timeless fantasy.
Worth noting too, is the birth, in Mothra, of the post-Hiroshima anti-American resentment that would periodically pop up in varying degrees throughout the first, second and third waves of Kaiju, and particularly Godzilla, films, controversially culminating in the best film of the middle wave, 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, as the tycoon hero flashes back to his platoon’s wartime rescue by a young Godzilla, who cheerfully dispatches the opposing American force on an Iwo-Jima style island. While this strain is fairly mild in Mothra and the Japanese come to terms with the Amer- oops, Roliskians, Honda was a committed pacifist, and the apocalyptic thread in much of his work (also muted in Mothra), would manifest itself most powerfully in his swan song; as he came out of semi-retirement to conceptualize, art direct and direct much of the haunting Mont Fuji in Red sequence of best friend Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.
Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura (Seven Samurai, Rashomon) as Ten-Chen’s crusty editor heads up a terrific cast of future fixtures of JapanGenre, notably popular comic actor Frankie Sakai as the lovable Ten-Chen, culture spanning Japanese American TV host Jerry Ito as the perpetually sneering Nelson, and a virtual who’s who of that parade of expatriate Caucasians who made a good living in the Japanese film industry, including fan favourite Robert Dunham (the emperor of Seatopia in Godzilla vs. Megalon) as the neighborhood cop who helps track down Nelson in the climax. The only inexplicable casting choice is the wasting of the great Akihiko Hirata in a minor scientist role. Hirata’s performance as the brooding, doomed Dr. Serizawa in Gojira is the soul of that film, and Mothra might have been a classic film rather than a merely enjoyable and lovable one had Hirata been cast as Chujo rather than stalwart but unremarkable game show host Akihiro Tayama.
But finally, Mothra is all about The Twins; played to the lovable hilt by popular 60’s pop chanteuses Emi and Yumi Ito, AKA The Peanuts. The heart of Mothra is in the seemingly preposterous but strangely believable bond between the princesses and their moth, and the same folk that respond ‘The Twins!’ can also usually hum a few bars of the Fairies’ plaintive refrain — Mosuraaahh –Yah! — Mosuraaahh –Yah! In these indelible moments, Mothra takes on a strangely Fellini-esque quality – as the twins float out over a bizarre, surreal stage set in a tiny Cinderella-style coach to sing their love call to Mothra, (and make no mistake, Mothra is a love story) the scene dissolves to their ghostly image beckoning Mothra across the ocean; their message of peace and understanding heartfelt enough to bring the Japanese and Roliskians back from the brink of chaos… and endearing enough to win a small but permanent place in the hearts of a generation or two of matinee kids worldwide.