Mothra (American Release: 1962) – Directed by Ishiro Honda – Starring Frankie Sakai, Kyoko Kagawa, Jerry Itou, and Hiroshi Koizumi.
I love MOTHRA as much for what it represents as I do for the film itself.
Growing up, Kaiju movies were, for me, nothing more than the occasional Saturday afternoon diversion from Red Sox games. I watched enough of them to know who most of the famous Kaiju were, however, but not enough to understand the differences between them. Meaning, I had no idea what made someone like Mothra unique beyond her appearance.
Only a handful of watches into this extended Kaiju marathon, however, I already recognize what makes Mothra unique. Gone is the dark, deeply political, philosophical, and cultural meanings of the classic GOJIRA/GODZILLA and the pretty solid RODAN. In contrast, MOTHRA is like a big piece of colorful bubble gum for us to enjoy and our resident monster is much more a “monster.”
Similar to earlier films (and how quickly has Ishiro Honda gone from a director I’ve never heard of to one of my all-time favorites?), MOTHRA is about guilt. In GOJIRA, it was cultural guilt about atomic testing. In RODAN, it was cultural guilt about industrialization. In MOTHRA, it’s cultural imperialism. Clark Nelson (Jerry Itou) pays for a scientific expedition to an island that’s been thought to be inhabitable thanks to atomic tests from the nation of Rolisica (a seemingly dual stand-in for Russia and the United States). There was a shipwreck on that island, however, and there were survivors who return perfectly healthy. Nelson pays for the science expedition, and he’s cut from the Norman Osborn cloth – a well-dressed businessman with questionable ethics and a willingness to do whatever he needs to do to get ahead.
In this case, that means stealing two tiny women away and bringing them back to Japan to perform in a theater show.
I don’t mean these are short women, either, but the Shobijin, as they are called, are women who appear to be no more than a foot tall. There’s a human-sized population of, native islanders who aren’t keen on seeing the women get stolen, and after the science expedition initially convinces Nelson to leave the island without the women, Nelson simply returns later with some armed henchmen and take the women and mow down the islanders in a hail of gunfire. A surviving islander goes to their holy temple and prays to a giant egg.
It’s hard to not love these movies, isn’t it?
While this is happening, our human protagonists are back in Japan keeping the existence of the Shobijin secret. Zen-Chan (Frankie Sakai) is a journalist who snuck on board the expedition to see what was going on. Zen-Chan is a great character and Sakai imbues him with a wonderful sense of decency that evolves thanks to his experience on the island. Nicknamed “Bulldog” because he’s a reporter that never lets go of the story, we see him using some questionable tactics to trick the reclusive scientist Shinichi Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) into letting his guard down so his sidekick photographer can snap a picture.
As the expedition continues, however, Zen-Chan becomes less the bulldog and more the concerned citizen. He objects to taking the Shobijin and never files a story, which makes his editor furious. He explains to the editor that keeping the secret was more important, and when the editor tells him of Nelson having returned with them on a subsequent trip, Zen-Chan teams up with Chujo to try and do what’s best for the women – which is to return them to the island.
One thing I already love about the Kaiju genre is how little these movies have to do with the monster. Yes, the monster usually gets the film named after them, and yes, the monster is typically a stand-in for cultural guilt, but Mothra herself plays a decidedly small role in the film until the last 20-30 minutes when the action kicks into monster gear.
MOTHRA is much more about Zen-Chan, Chujo, and Nelson. Critically, the desires of Zen-Chan and Chujo mirror the desire of Mothra – to return the Shobijin to their island home. Like Mothra, they’re willing to break a few laws and smash down a few doors in their attempt to get the Shobijin back home.
I really love the concept behind Mothra. While she represents cultural guilt and while she smashes up a couple cities, she’s also a bit more complicated than Godzilla and Rodan in that while she comes into existence because of the ill-advised actions of humans, she’s also birthed from her egg because of the prayers of humans who want her to help them reclaim what has been stolen. The Shobijin know she’s coming and sing to her to lead the creature to them. The trail leads to New Kirk City (a stand-in for New York) where the crowd turns against Nelson, demanding he returns the Shobijin. Now, the crowd is doing it because they don’t want Mothra to tear up their city more than any actual concern about the tiny women, but it does shift the narrative energy of the movie into Mothra’s corner – the crowd wants Mothra to have what Mothra wants.
There’s also a wonderful sense of escapism in MOTHRA. Yes, bad things happen, but the movie plays out like a wild contemporary fantasy where the monster is actual an agent of justice or revenge. I love the subtle twists with the character – Mothra emerges from the giant egg as a giant caterpillar that transforms into a giant moth. The look is fantastic and Mothra’s journey across the ocean as a swimming caterpillar and then across the ocean again to New Kirk City as the moth is a pretty good use of building up the character and using the transformation to raise tension.
I really love MOTHRA. Fun, bright, escapist, and containing a great message, MOTHRA is a fantastic movie.