Mothra (1961) – After making his mark in cult cinema by introducing the world to such movie monsters as Godzilla, Rodan and Varan, Japanese filmmaker Ishiro Honda brought audiences a new kind of monster movie in 1961 in Mothra. Instead of being a horror film, Mothra has a lighter tone where the monster is actually the protagonist to the film. Furthermore, Mothra seemed to cast a feeling of wonderment, making it more of a fantasy film then the standard Japanese monster movie.
When a crew of sailors are rescued from an uninhabited island used for nuclear testing, they report that it is actually inhabited by a primitive race of people, and that they were saved by a pair of twelve inch women, or fairies. An expedition of scientists from Japan and Roliscia are sent to investigate the island to see if what the sailors say is true. Funded by Roliscia capitalist Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito), the expedition includes Japanese anthropologist Dr. Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) and stowaway reporter Zenichero Fukuda (Frankie Sakai). Upon the island the explorers discover what was reported by the marooned castaways to be true, and find the enchanting twin fairies (played by Emi and Yumi Ito, better known in Japan as a pop duo calling themselves The Peanuts). Seeing an opportunity, Nelson violently captures the fairies with the aid of his goons and guns, and returns to Japan where he exploits the fairies, who sing beautiful mysterious melodies, in a novelty act. In an attempt to save the fairies once back in Japan, Dr. Chujo, his young son Shinji, Fukuda and his photographer Michi Hanamura (Kyoko Kagawa) communicate with the fairies via telepathy, who reveal to the group that they have contacted their “god” Mothra to come and save them. Meanwhile, back on the Island, the tribes people have been engaging in a ritual around a giant egg, which hatches a massive slug, that swims to Japan causing destruction along its path whole in its search for the captive fairies. Fearing for his life, Nelson grabs the fairies and escapes Japan for his home in New Kirk City, Roliscia as the Japanese military battle the slug. Communicating with the fairies via a psychic link, the slug attaches itself to the Tokyo tower and weaves itself into a cocoon. Things get quiet, until the cocoon breaks open, revealing a giant moth has replaced the slug, which takes to the skies, creating further destruction as it continues its bizarre rescue mission. Can Tokyo survive? Will the fairies be saved? Can Chujo and Fukuda help Mothra and the fairies find each other before more death and destruction occurs? Whatever the case, it really must suck living in Japan with all these monsters crashing around. Oy!
Based on the story The Luminous Fairies and Mothra by Takehiko Fukunago, which was serialized in a Japanese magazine called Weekly Ashai in the late 1950’s, Mothra was an attempt to break way from the bleak monster films that Toho Studios had been making since its international blockbuster Godzilla in 1954. With the monster films become popular with Japanese children, the studio wanted to keep the element of giant monsters smashing up Tokyo, but wanted to dispense with the heavy handed analogies to the nuclear holocaust that devastated the country in 1945. Instead, the studio decided to exchange horror for fantasy, and include elements of humor into the films. Popular Japanese comedian Frankie Shakara was hired to star in the film, giving the hero a friendlier persona then previous serious and often tragic heroes. Also, the inclusion of the beautiful Ito sisters as the fairies, added a mythical quality to the film. The Peanuts also make a further unique contribution to Mothra by performing a number of beautiful and haunting musical numbers which are explained to be telepathic “prayers” to communicate with the creature.
Of course, Mothra itself would be a unique and colorful creature compared to the more horrific and violent monsters previously brought to life by Ishiro Honda. Although the giant slug creature was typical of the previous Japanese monsters, Mothra would emerge as a colorful and fuzzy “butterfly type” creature. But making Mothra most unique was the fact that it is a far more ambilivant creature compared to previous monsters. Its main objective is not food, aggression or destruction as much as it is to save the beings that are in mental communication with it. The destruction of cities is irrelevant to the creature, and only seem to happen because it is, literally, “in the way.” Furthermore, Mothra never kills and is not seen eating trains, cars or people like previous monsters. Mothra was, essentially, the first of the heroic Japanese monsters, and would be a turning point for Toho Studio. After Mothra the Toho monster films would be more colorful and comedic, replacing a camp value in place of the staunch realism of the early films. This would be a controversial move which is loved by many, but despised by other fans of Japanese monster movies.
Of political interest, the country of Rolisica was a fictional country that was supposed to be an amalgamation of Russia and the United States of America. What could be seen as a statement against the two super powers that were engaged at the time in the cold war, Japan sets the feuding countries and its people as capitalistic aggressors. New Kirk City is obviously a nod to New York City, including a familiar skyline which paid homage to the “big apple.” Furthermore, the Rolisica flag has both the stars and stripes and a hammer and sickle on it, making it a subtle, but interesting, look at the way that Honda felt about the cold war.
Mothra was released in the US in 1962 as a double feature with, of all things, The Three Stooges in Orbit. Despite its change of tone, Mothra proved to be popular with both American and Japanese audiences and would return in 1964 in Godzilla vs. Mothra (which was released in the US as Godzilla vs. The Thing in an attempt to keep Mothra’s return a surprise). The Peanuts would return in Godzilla vs. Mothra, as well as Mothra’s next appearance where it teams up with Godzilla to battle Ghidora (1964). In fact, Mothra would become the second most featured giant monster, following Godzilla, to appear in the Japanese Monster films. To date Mothra has been featured in seventeen films made between 1961 and 2004, including its own modern series, The Rebirth of Mothra (1996) which spawned two sequels of its own. Although the most “cuddly” and least threatening of the Japanese monsters, Mothra has a far more involved story and mythos then a lot of the creatures, and is a brilliant fantasy film that has lasted the test of time, and will continue to entertain audiences now.