Revenge of the Really Big Butterfly Effect
We all have many concerns at the moment, some of which are universal, while others are more individual. I suspect there are not many people especially exercised by the possibility of the cinemas not opening until May or June, thus depriving Godzilla Vs Kong of a proper theatrical release. But what can I say, we mut all follow our own individuality. In the meantime, let us consider happier days in giant monster world.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. None of them exactly double acts in the same way as, say, Laurel and Hardy, but they tended to do their best movies together. And to this list I would like to add Godzilla and Mothra. There is a bit of a difference here, I suppose, in that (outside Japan, at least) Mothra is only really known as a supporting character in Godzilla's own movies, but in terms of monsters with the ability to carry their own series of films, Mothra's CV is rather impressive: not as extensive as that of Godzilla or Gamera, but a respectable (if somewhat distant) third place.
The original Mothra dates back to 1961 and was directed, as is so often the case with Japanese monster movies, by Ishiro Honda. At this point in time Toho was less reliant on annual Godzilla sequels and were trying out all sorts of variations on the monster movie formula, of which this is surely one of the most successful.
Things get underway with a ship going down during a typhoon in the south Pacific, with the crew washing ashore on the mysterious Infant Island. There is much concern back home, with the island being heavily irradiated following recent atom bomb tests, but when the mariners are rescued they are completely healthy, something they attribute to the ministrations of the native islanders and their magic juice. Needless to say, the authorities are intrigued and an expedition is sent out to investigate further.
The expedition is largely made up of Japanese scientists and journalists (Frankie Sakai and Hiroshi Koizumi are the male leads), but in charge is the sinister and enigmatic Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito), who – despite all evidence to the contrary – is not Japanese at all, but from the little-known nation of Rolisika.
(Key facts from The Rough Guide to Rolisika (forthcoming): the locals are Caucasian and speak English with a pronounced American accent. One of the main urban centres is 'New Kirk City', notable for its many suspension bridges and skyscrapers. In short, it's fairly obvious what game the film-makers are playing here – making the main villain American might not play well with the lucrative US market they had half an eye on, and so the transparent conceit of 'Rolisika' does an adequate job of letting them do so while still providing plausible deniability.)
On Infant Island, the scientists discover giant fungi, ancient inscriptions, blood-sucking carnivorous plants, and many other jolly things, but most interesting of all is a set of tiny twin women, the Shobijin (Emi and Yumi Ito, a noted J-pop duo of the time). Most of the expedition is all for leaving the island and the Shobijin in peace ('sorry about the atom bomb tests,' someone says, which I suppose is just about better than nothing), but Nelson turns out to be a ruthless main chancer and kidnaps the twins, drags them back to Tokyo, and puts them on stage in a musical extravaganza of his own devising. As you would.
Our heroes, now joined by plucky photojournalist Kyoko Kagawa, who wasn't allowed to go on the expedition as she's a girl, are outraged by Nelson's ruthless exploitation of the Shobijin, but their uncertain legal status and Nelson's Rolisikan citizenship makes it difficult to take action. The Shobijin regretfully inform them that matters are effectively out of their hands anyway, as the outraged natives of Infant Island have summoned the ancient defender of their people, Mothra, and she is already en route to Japan to rescue them, regardless of what collateral damage may be involved…
Yup, this is the one with the singing fairies, the enormous caterpillar/grub laying waste to Tokyo, and a humungous butterfly-moth creature hatching out of a cocoon in the ruins of Tokyo Tower. There is a sort of epic, beautiful weirdness about Mothra which simply isn't there in most of the other early Toho kaiju movies, but it undeniably adds something to the formula. This is a much lighter and more colourful film than (for example) the original Godzilla – the monster rampages here are a spectacle rather than a tragedy, hardly anyone actually seems to die as a result of them, and the songs are pretty good too (the twins' first performance of Mothra's theme song is a genuinely spellbinding moment).
The lack of a body count is sort of understandable when you consider that the Japanese (and most of the Rolisikans, come to that) are innocent parties, and Mothra herself isn't actually a bad guy either. Villainous duties are left solely to Clark Nelson and his goons, and the film has a solid don't-be-an-exploitative-tool message at its heart, albeit one which is expressed through a variety of psychedelic imagery and monster movie tropes.
Latterday Mothra movies have occasionally been criticised for making Mothra's adult form look rather like a plush toy, but it seems to me that this was there right from the start. Mothra is actually pretty well realised, although the fact that she doesn't have to do very much other than just fly around probably helps. This does point up something of a weakness in the film, though, in that it doesn't really have a strong climax – with them actually killing the monster not being an option, the script goes for another detour into strangeness with some stuff about church bells and the power of prayer. I suppose contriving another monster for Mothra to fight would just have complicated the script, as well as demand they figure out a way for the big moth to engage in battle (this latter issue would obviously be resolved by the time Mothra Vs Godzilla appeared).
In the end, though, Mothra is a film which predates the establishment of the kaiju movie formula – it's much more of a traditional monster movie, and as you may be able to tell the plot is somewhat informed by King Kong (exotic island, sympathetic monster). It seems to me that there are some parallels with Gorgo, a British kaiju movie from the same year, as well. None of which would really matter if the film was no good – but this is a superior monster movie, simply in terms of its atmosphere and willingness to do something new and different with the genre. I am aware that the fact this film is about a giant moth who is friends with fairies may make it difficult for some people to get on board with it, but if you are one of these folk then all I can say is that this is your problem, not the film's. Is it quite as good as the best of the movies Mothra appeared in alongside other monsters? Well, perhaps not, but this was my point at the start. Nevertheless, this is a Japanese monster movie from the top drawer.