The Really Big Butterfly Effect
Our series looking at classic movies that will put a smile on your face continues.
Imagine the scene as the Prime Minister of Japan, who's out of the country on a brief golfing holiday, phones his office to find out how things are going in his absence:
'Well, sir, do you remember a few days ago, when that mutant radioactive dinosaur had a fight out at sea with the spiky mystical caterpillar, cracked open the ocean floor, and they both fell through into the Earth's molten core? Well, unfortunately it seems that the dinosaur swam through the superheated lava, climbed out of the volcano of Mount Fuji and is currently advancing on Yokohama. Luckily in the meantime a giant grub swam into Tokyo bay, demolished half the city, and turned into a cocoon on top of the parliament building. It just hatched out as a gigantic moth with magic powers and it looks like the moth and the dinosaur are going to have a battle to the death near Yokohama harbour.'
'Ah. A pretty typical week, then.'
Does the appeal of a great Japanese monster movie really need any more explanation than the plot synopsis given above? I thought not. That one is from Godzilla Vs Mothra, released in 1992 (obviously not to be confused with Mothra Vs Godzilla, from 1964). Directed by Takao Okawara, this holds the distinction of being probably my favourite Godzilla movie, and I can't imagine much happening to alter that opinion.
Let's have a slightly more serious look at that plot: a meteorite falls into the Pacific Ocean, setting off a remarkable chain of events. Firstly, it manages to wake up not one but two giant monsters which happened to be asleep in that area of the ocean floor – Godzilla, taking a rest after disposing of King Ghidorah in the previous film in the series, and Battra, an ancient embodiment of the planet's righteous fury. (Battra looks like a sort of spiky slug.) The meteorite also causes storms which trigger a landslide in Indonesia, exposing a huge egg which has been buried for thousands of years.
Having cheerily ripped off The Terminator in the previous film, the Godzilla people proceed to do the same with the Indiana Jones series as we meet our hero, Takuya (Tetsuya Bessho), a shady archaeologist and generally irresponsible fellow. In exchange for being sprung from prison, he agrees to go and get the egg, accompanied by his ex-wife Masako (Satomi Kobayashi) and a salariman representative of a big corporation looking to exploit the site.
The expedition to the egg is not especially convincingly-mounted (Masako wears a pith helmet, the salariman a suit and tie) and it's played for laughs, not very successfully. However on reaching the egg, our heroes meet the Shobijin (also known as the Cosmos fairies in English-language dubs), tiny twin fairies who explain the provenance of the egg and the back-story of the film. The egg belongs to Mothra, protector of the planet (and embodiment of Earth's kind and nurturing side), who in the past had to work quite hard to keep Battra from destroying civilisation. With all the terrible things mankind is doing to the planet, the revived Battra is sure to be on the warpath again, and this time there's no Mothra around to stop him…
So what's Godzilla doing all this time? you may be wondering. Wonder no more. The boss of the corporation, who is a bit of a tool, decides to ship the egg to Japan and put it on display. Unfortunately a giant egg being rafted across the Pacific is just the sort of thing that attracts Godzilla's attention, and he shows up looking for a fight. Battra and a newly-hatched Mothra oblige while the humans make their escape – but the boss, looking to replace the now-destroyed egg, decides to keep the Shobijin as a replacement attraction. And Mothra disapproves of this, and heads back to Japan to make this clear…
The opening twenty minutes or so of Godzilla Vs Mothra are a bit clunky and frivolous, but as soon as the Shobijin appear it starts to turn into a really accomplished and fun monster movie, with strong fantasy overtones. That said, the scenes with the humans, particularly Takuya and Masako, never stop clunking. There's a whole subplot about Takuya being a bad husband and father and having to shape up and take responsibility which is crashingly unsubtle and rather patronising. On the other hand, it has strong competition in the crashing unsubtlety stakes, because – as you may just have guessed – this film has a strong message about protecting the environment which it beats the audience about the head with at every opportunity. It's hard to fault the actual sentiments – I'm all for responsibility in family affairs, and sympathetic to Green ideas – it's just the manner of their delivery which leaves a bit to be desired.
Never mind. Making up for this are a load of spiffy monster sequences – most of them, it must be said, focussing on Mothra rather than Godzilla. The previous two films were both fundamentally about humans trying to find a solution to the problem of Godzilla – in this, he is a much less central presence (arguably a questionable precedent is being set), and if you are a Godzilla purist you may find the imbalance of screen-time between Godzilla and Mothra rather objectionable.
It's probably as well to keep in mind that Mothra is a big-name monster in her own right, starting her career in her own movie before moving on to a distinguished career in other Toho kaiju pictures (as one of the few monsters able to fight Godzilla to a standstill unassisted). If you think of Godzilla Vs Mothra as being at least partly a remake of the original Mothra, and partly a method of reintroducing Mothra to the wider Godzilla continuity, the relative lack of Godzilla becomes a little easier to understand.
Of course, Mothra is almost always the good guy monster, which means that Godzilla is firmly back in the role of unstoppable menace for this particular film (no-one seems to have told Megumi Odaka this, as she seems genuinely upset every time Godzilla has a skyscraper toppled onto him). But it suits him, and when he's on screen he's handled respectfully, as a terrifying force of total destruction. 'This is beyond our present knowledge or understanding,' declares one of the government boffins in tones of awed horror, upon learning that the Big G has survived his dip in the Earth's core. 1990s special effects mean that the climactic three-way clash between Godzilla, Mothra, and Battra more than lives up to the equivalent battle at the end of the 1964 film.
I like this film a lot, no matter how clunky or obvious many of the scenes with the human characters are. It has some really memorable visuals, very entertaining monster battles, and a terrific soundtrack – for some reason, it seems that for a Japanese monster to really work on-screen it needs a killer musical motif of its own, and none of the monsters here are let down. And I just enjoy the fact that people were actually prepared to make a film so way-out and imaginative in its ideas. It's partly this kind of sheer craziness which attracts me to kaiju movies – and it's an element that I think the makers of American monster movies neglect at their peril. But I digress: this is a highlight of the series, and the genre.