(1961) Directed by Ishirô Honda; Written by Shin'ichi Sekizawa; Based on the novel The Luminous Fairies and Mothra, by Shin'ichirô Nakamura, Takehiko Fukunaga and Yoshie Hotta; Starring: Furankî “Frankie” Sakai, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kyôko Kagawa, Yumi Itô, Emi Itô and Jerry Itô; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“We wanted to do something that was new, for the whole family, like a Disney or Hollywood type of picture. We wanted it to be brighter, nicer.” – Ishirô Honda (from Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa, by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, with Yuuko Honda-Yun)
When you create one of the most distinctive, fearsome giant monsters of all time, how do you top it? To start with, you don’t. Seven years after Gojira made its debut, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and Toho went back to the drawing board. Instead of creating a bigger, meaner rival to the super-sized reptile, they devised a whole new class of kaiju. The resulting movie, Mothra, is a different beast from Gojira. The titular creature, along with its origin, is less menacing, and more fanciful. While there’s plenty of room for social commentary, the overall tone is lighter, with an emphasis on fantasy over widespread devastation (although the film doesn’t skimp in that department).
After four shipwreck survivors are found alive and well on remote Infant Island (thought uninhabitable, due to atomic testing), a scientific expedition is launched to gather more facts. Although it’s a Japanese vessel and crew, the expedition is bankrolled by foreign tycoon Clark Nelson (played with great, sneering panache by Jerry Itô, billed as “Jelly” Itô in the American version), whose motivations go beyond simple intellectual curiosity. Sensing a story, intrepid reporter Senichiro “Zen” Fukuda (Furankî “Frankie” Sakai) stows away on the ship. When they reach the South Pacific isle, they discover a lush jungle and native population, including a pair of tiny twin fairies* (played by twin sisters Yumi and Emi Itô, aka, singing group, “The Peanuts”). Sensing an opportunity to make a quick buck (or equivalent), Nelson abducts the twins, transplanting them to Japan to star in his new revue, “The Secret Fairies Show.” Nelson learns too late that one of their seemingly innocuous songs is a distress call, which carries a telepathic link. They soon awaken an ancient creature on Infant Island, driven by an unrelenting compulsion to bring them back home. Unfortunately for Tokyo and anything else that’s in the way, it can only mean untold property damage and displaced citizens.
* Fun Fact #1: According to the informative Mill Creek Blu-ray commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, the original story called for four 60-cm fairies, instead of the two 30-cm women that appear in the film.
If some of the above description sounds familiar (minus the fairies), it’s not by accident, but design that the basic plot in Mothra parallels King Kong (1933). Director Ishirô Honda admitted to the many similarities, but with one principal difference: unlike the film with the big ape, his oversized moth* wasn’t destined for a tragic end. Otherwise, it’s easy to see how many elements are similar: the expedition, an isolated island populated by natives who worship a giant creature, an unscrupulous promoter, a squadron of fighter jets, and a towering city landmark that becomes a centerpiece for a key scene.
* Fun Fact #2: According to the disc commentary, Mothra’s caterpillar stage was the largest costume ever created by Toho, measuring approximately seven meters in length, and requiring five to six people to operate it.
Compared to King Kong, however, Mothra is more socio-politically conscious, reflecting some of the controversies of the time. As originally envisioned by Honda and the writers, the film would have been more political, but many of those elements were trimmed in favor of entertainment. Even with the necessary compromises, the finished product still leaves much for contemporary audiences to consider. The specter of the fictional country of Rolisica (a thinly veiled melding of the United States and Russia) looms over the story, with its militaristic society, imperialistic intentions, and (paralleling U.S. nuclear testing in the South Pacific) casual attitudes toward displacing indigenous cultures. On the other hand, Mothra dilutes its message a bit when the Infant Island “natives” are depicted by Japanese actors in brown-face. Cultural insensitivities aside, it’s easy to agree that the unconscionable entrepreneur Nelson (who’s backed by the Rolisican government), is the embodiment of all the negative aspects of outsiders, rolled into one. In his quest to obtain the fairies for his own gain, he thinks nothing of mowing down a group of unarmed natives with rifles. When he finally has his prize, Nelson’s dismissive attitude is laid bare as he comments, “Those fairies aren’t human. They’re merchandise.” *
* Not So Fun Fact: Sadly, Nelson’s abhorrent behavior is not without precedent. His treatment of the fairies recalls human zoos, which flourished in the late 1800s, lasting well into the mid-1900s.
In addition to Jerry Itô’s scene-stealing turn, Mothra boasts some fine performances by the other cast members, especially Frankie Sakai as tenacious reporter Zen, who likens himself to a snapping turtle (a bulldog in the American version). Comic actor Sakai keeps things from getting too serious, with some well-placed moments of schtick. Zen’s counterpart, plucky photographer Michi Hanamura (played by veteran actress Kyôko Kagawa, in her only kaiju film), lends balance to his scenes, keeping everything from going too far over the top. Also watch for a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance of Honda regular Kenji Sahara as a helicopter pilot. Arguably, the true stars of Mothra, outside of the giant insect itself, are pop duo The Peanuts, who convey a childlike innocence and grace under adversity. Their signature song needs no introduction, as it’s become firmly entrenched in pop culture.
Eiji Tsuburaya and his effects crew put their all into the film, to make the star attraction,* in its final form, a truly memorable creation. Somewhat more refined versions of Mothra would appear in later movies, but the basic design owes much to this early version. Other standout effects sequences include a bursting dam, and a detailed replica of Tokyo Tower, where the juvenile Mothra, aka: The Very Angry Caterpillar (my apologies to Eric Carle for the cheap shot) undergoes a metamorphosis. The film’s climax,** which takes place in the Rolisican capitol, dubiously named New Kirk City (an amalgamation of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles), provides another chance for Tsubaraya to showcase his signature brand of wholesale destruction.
* Fun Fact #3: There were three Mothra models used for the film: 1) a small version, used only for long shots, 2) a medium version, with flexible wings; and 3) a large version with a 2.5-meter wingspan, with more rigid wings and illuminated eyes.
** Fun Fact #4: A different ending was originally shot, which has been presumed lost (although still frames exist). The original cost-conscious ending, featuring a confrontation between Nelson and Mothra was nixed by Columbia, in favor of the conclusion in an urban setting (New Kirk City).
Some might argue there’s an awful lot of build-up before we see the star attraction, in all its glory. The big “M” doesn’t appear, in its final form at least, until well into the third act. Before that, we’re treated to some shenanigans with Nelson, The Fairies, and Zen. When Mothra finally shows up, our patience is rewarded. Minor quibbles aside, it’s a solid debut for one of Toho’s most inspired, enduring, and yes, beautiful, creations. It’s the big bug movie to end all big bug movies (Okay, that distinction belongs to Them, but do you know what? Mothra is a close second.). The enduring kaiju would live to fight another day, facing off against Godzilla in 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, and appear in numerous sequels. I anxiously await Mothra’s inevitable return.
Sources for this review: Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa, by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, with Yuuko Honda-Yun; and Mothra Blu-ray commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski