Mothra (1961)

Author: Patrick Galvan
May 22, 2015
Note: review may contain spoilers

Up until a few weeks ago, I hadn't seen—or thought much of—the 1961 color film Mothra, directed by Ishiro Honda, for quite some time. Like a great many of the classic era Japanese monster movies, I saw this film at an early age (I believe I was in late elementary at the time), but unlike some of those other films, it didn't play a big role in my movie-going childhood. Whereas I found myself repeatedly going back to Rodan (1956), Shusuke Kaneko's Gamera trilogy, and of course the Godzilla films, there was something about Mothra that simply turned me off and disinterested me.

Before we go any further, allow me to correct a certain untrue vibe that might already be emanating from those last few sentences. I have nothing but affection for the character of Mothra, and her track record with me has been predominately positive. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), also directed by Honda, and Shusuke Kaneko's Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-out Attack (2001) rank amongst my personal favorite Japanese science-fiction pictures. In addition, I recently took the time to revisit the Rebirth of Mothra trilogy from the 90s and, with the exception of the middle film of that group, found them to be utterly enjoyable— more so than I remembered. And even if we set the films apart from their character, Mothra would still remain one of my favorite movie creatures due to her signature mythos of wonder and majesty. Her existence often goes without explanation, and we don't really need to know how she came to be; we just accept it due to her fantastic, awe-inspiring nature. In essence, Mothra is a consummate fantasy character. Has she been misused a couple of times? Any duds in her career? Of course. But in my estimate, her films have been successful more often than not, and I still gladly look into some pictures simply because she's in them. (I'm very eager to see what Gareth Edwards and Legendary Pictures will be doing with her in "Godzilla 2".)

So why the lack of past affection for her debut film? I remember, in my first screening, enjoying the human villain more than anything else and being totally captivated during individual moments, but on the whole, for whatever reason, the film didn't really capture my imagination. Years passed before I saw it again; the second viewing, in my recollection, was noticeably more positive but still not super-enthusiastic. Several more years passed, and then came three successive viewings, all occurring within days of each other. And now I look at Mothra simply spellbound, absorbed by it, wondering what it was about about this humanistic and colorful fantasy that had disinterested me so much in my youth. Granted, at that age, themes and ideas weren't my number one reason for watching tokusatsu films, but how could I have missed out on the humor and the charm of this beautiful piece of cinema? I'm not sure, but my change of opinion does point to that old saying that some works of art do get better with age and repeated viewings. Now that I'm older and—if it's not too pretentious or cliché to say—wiser than before, I can better appreciate the subtle themes and humanistic ideas that Honda presents in the film. In short, I think it's wonderful.

The picture begins in a similar vein as its contemporaries. A ship, caught in a typhoon, runs aground near Infant Island, a speck of land recently devastated by atomic tests; the vessel's hull becomes shattered, and the crew takes refuge on the irradiated island. Only four men survive to be found by a rescue party. However, much to the surprise of the world's scientists and reporters, when the men are inspected for radiation poisoning, their bodies are completely uncontaminated. And when it's revealed that a group of natives (revealing that the island had, in fact, been inhabited) saved their lives, an expedition is mounted. Among them are Drs. Shin'ichi Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) and Harada (the great Ken Uehara) and a mysterious financier named Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito). Plus, a stowaway journalist: Senichiro Fukuda (Frankie Sakai).

The expedition discovers a dense jungle teeming with bizarre plant life beyond Infant Island's barren shores. At one point, Chujo, venturing from the others, becomes snared in the vines of a carnivorous plant and, before fainting, catches sight of someone watching him: a pair of doll-sized girls, smaller than the foliage around them. Chujo regains consciousness on the boat, convinced the tiny women had saved his life, and subsequently leads his comrades to find them again. Sure enough, they discover two small women—fairies—in the dense underbrush; after a near-altercation with the (regular-sized) native people of Infant Island, the team returns home empty-handed, vowing never to speak of what they found, in hope that the island's surviving inhabitants might live out the rest of their days in peace…as they had before the H-bomb. That is until Nelson returns to the island, captures the two fairies, guns down several of the native people, and puts his new prizes on display in Japan. All efforts to send the girls home fail, and it's not long before the world learns there was yet another form of bizarre life on the island: a monstrous egg containing a giant caterpillar called Mothra, who shares a telepathic bond with the fairies. After hatching, the colossal insect crawls to the sea and starts making its way toward Japan, intent on finding the captives and returning them to their island.

It's certainly a more whimsical tale than some of Honda's other early monster pictures such as Rodan (1956), The Mysterians (1957), and—most of all—Godzilla (1954). So all the more credit is due to the director and his screenwriter, Shinichi Sekizawa, for finding the right balance of seriousness and humor. The filmmakers do ask us to treat some of their ideas with a straight face, but they don't object to providing a couple of laughs while they're at it. Consider the setup. After a relatively serious opening sequence with the ship being destroyed and the survivors being brought back to the mainland, Honda and Sekizawa start channeling some well-conveyed humor through their protagonist played by Frankie Sakai. They don't shy away from having some fun with the reporter's overabundant ambition (his nickname is "The Snapping Turtle" because once he bites onto a story, he refuses to let go—plausible and yet smile-inducing at the same time) as well as the sticky situations the character bumbles his way into. Making things better, they matched just the right actor to the part. Sakai was a capable dramatic actor (see Shue Matsubayashi's The Last War [1961] or Hiroshi Inagaki's Chushingura [1962] for evidence), but he had a natural talent for humor, as he so evidently demonstrates in Mothra. A joyful performance; he's clearly having fun with the role. Still, the comedy and comical acting acting is fairly restrained. It might have been tempting for Sakai to go completely over-the-top in one such scene where the character starts scrambling about as a mouse crawls down his pant leg, but the actor holds back just enough to avoid descending into flat-out parody. The end result is funny, but it delivers mostly chuckles, as it should for this sort of film. Sakai makes for an all-out lovable protagonist.

My enthusiasm extends to the supporting players, especially Jerry Ito, who is delightfully entertaining as the villain. Koizumi, as the linguist, is his usual charming self. Takashi Shimura gives a solid performance as a hard-hitting news editor. And then we have two performances that, to a Japanese film buff, are not only pleasant to see but also somewhat of a surprise—a surprise in the best sense of the word. In the years since I last saw Mothra, I'd forgotten the cast included Ken Uehara and Kyoko Kagawa. So you can imagine my enthusiasm when I rediscovered that the negligent husband from Mikio Naruse's Sound of the Mountain (1954) and the little sister from Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story were in this film as well! Of course, Uehara appeared in a few other Honda-directed science-fiction pictures, but to my knowledge, this is Kagawa's one and only appearance in tokusatsu*. So seeing her, in particular, instantly gave the film a few more points on my scale. But of course, I cannot leave out Emi and Yumi Ito as the twin fairies who are at the center of the narrative. They embody their performances with a captivating sense of mystery and wonder, compelling the audience to wish them a safe return home by the end. Bit parts are well-played by recognizable faces such as Akihiko Hirata, Kenji Sahara, Yoshio Kosugi, Ren Yamamoto, and Yoshifumi Tajima. On the down side of things, there are some English-speakers in the film as well, and since this is a Toho film, most of them are expectedly subpar (Robert Dunham seems to be the sole exception).

The characters of Mothra aren't the most three-dimensional people to appear in a Toho film, but they are so instantly likable and fun to watch that ultimately it doesn't matter so much that we don't know many of the deep, searing points of their personalities and backgrounds. Narrative participant or cipher, they all work in this story which, like many other Honda films, is full of themes and humanism.

The screenplay embraces Honda's primary recurring themes: calling out against the use of atomic weapons; and wishing for unity amongst the people of the world. Both messages are represented by the picture's (fictional) English-speaking country, Rolisica. First off, Rolisica is an obvious stand-in for the United States and the Soviet Union: a nuclear super-power toying around with the most devastating weapon of the 20th century (it was their H-bomb tests which destroyed most of Infant Island). But what is refreshing—again, keeping in mind Honda's humanism—is that the film doesn't paint all foreigners in broad, one-dimensional strokes. Honda doesn't portray Rolisica as a heartless nation of dehumanized monsters; he seems to be expressing concern over man's often-reckless use of atomic weapons. The nuclear testing on Infant Island is what commences the story's conflict: if it wasn't for the expected fallout failing to kill the survivors of the shipwreck, the expedition never would've gone to the island in the first place; their not going would have, in turn, not spawned the events which triggered Mothra's destructive rampage. Clever storytelling and Honda's subtle way of implying one disaster could just lead to another. But again, the only 'bad' Rolisicans are defined by their own individual personality, not by which part of the world they come from. Then comes the film's signature anti-nuke statement. Mothra, still in caterpillar form, has built her cocoon under the partially collapsed remnants of Tokyo Tower (a relatively new landmark at the time). Rolisica offers to help: a respectable gesture with a questionable solution. In their last-ditch effort to destroy Mothra, the foreign super-power recruits a pair of atomic heat ray cannons—cementing Honda's concern over man threatening or resorting to nuclear weapons in the event of a crisis. This is the film's very best scene. First off, the filmmaking is at its pinnacle: the evacuated portions of the city; the military blockades holding civilians back; the announcers counting down the seconds; the witnesses shielding their eyes with protective visors—it all has an eerie, documentary-like feel to it. Right before the attack begins, we get a quick dash of humor (Frankie Sakai hurriedly covering his eyes), and then the cannons open fire. And Honda doesn't present the sequence simply as a failed endeavor. For not only do the atomic heat rays fail to kill Mothra, they also produce a huge firestorm and very likely just speed up the giant insect's growth to adult form. For this scene, composer Yuji Koseki employs a dynamic piece of music that also has a tinge of tragedy to it. I don't believe the sorrow was meant to be directed toward the monster, but rather toward the fact that, once again, man has resorted to nuclear power without fully evaluating the true consequences.

Still, just like in The Mysterians (1957) and Gorath (1962), Honda expresses hope that, just maybe, people from other parts of the world can join together to solve a greater problem. The Rolisicans end up turning on Nelson (a villain not by his nationality but by his own greed) in favor of helping Japan and then again as their own country falls victim to Mothra's devastating attacks. And while the atomic heat ray attack was an unwise decision, it was in effort to help out a neighboring country under attack. Even though you could argue perhaps the gesture was also to save their own skins (correctly fearing Mothra would eventually come to Rolisica), nevertheless, they make this effort while cooperating with the Japanese, who consent to their plan without hesitation.

For the denouement in which mankind is saved, Honda turns to one of the most potentially touchy subjects in history: religion. He handles the subject very delicately, using it not as a method of denouncement or trying to convert the unconverted; rather, he seems to be interested in simply using it as a way of asking, 'No matter what we believe, why can't we all co-exist?' And, by the end, both the natives of Infant Island and the people of the civilized world, who clearly have separate belief systems, are finally allowed to continue living in peace.

The screenplay for Mothra has so many valiant elements that it's a little disheartening to admit to any faults with it. But there is a notable story lapse concerning Chujo's younger brother Shinji (Akihiro Tayama). For roughly the first hour of the movie, the character is built up as a major participant in the narrative—from his intro to the scene where he tries to rescue the fairies from Nelson. A potentially interesting arc that could've extended through the rest of the narrative, and it is suddenly dropped and never picked up again. Now, in an earlier draft of the screenplay, Shinji was actually kidnapped by Nelson instead of simply being left behind as presented in the finished film. This, in turn, lead to a climactic confrontation on a mountain with the protagonists trying to save both the boy and the fairies, until Mothra, in full imago form, suddenly appears and dispatches the villains. Reputedly this change was made so that the climax could take place in New Kirk City (and thereby increase international box office potential), but I also like to think it was because Honda was more interested in staying with his theme and going for a symbolic ending as opposed to an action-oriented one. In a sense, it was the right choice, but it does leave a lapse as far as that seemingly important character is concerned, and perhaps the more wholly satisfying denouement might've been accomplished by combining both endings in some way.

Onto the eponymous monster. Using a giant moth was actually something revolutionary for the early 60s; most movie monsters of the era, American as well as Japanese, began in one form and stayed that way throughout the remainder of the picture. The cleverness of Mothra is that its monster begins in one form and then changes into another, adjusting its size and appearance as well as its destructive capabilities. It plays further into the fantasy element of the story. More than an hour passes before Mothra actually makes landfall in Japan and starts devastating the civilized world, but it is well worth the wait! The attack set in the countryside, in which Mothra is bombarded by tanks and fighter planes, is a first-rate example of how to shoot and edit an action scene. Special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya employs mostly wide shots, sometimes mixing miniatures with live-action plates. The frequently long takes of the planes whisking through the heavens are not only impressive (the aircrafts don't wobble and remain in graceful formation) but also evoke wartime imagery, as do preceding shots of civilians fleeing to safety. To make the visual experience even more impressive, Tsuburaya's camera eventually cuts to a pair of jaw-dropping aerial shots representing the fighter planes' point of view as they soar over the countryside and bombard Mothra with their missiles. It's truly riveting to see.

In fact, most of Tsuburaya's effects are impressive. The motorized model of the caterpillar Mothra moves in a very organic manner, segments of its body rising and falling as it crawls, and the prop's immense size allows for an even greater amount of detail to be put into the surrounding miniature buildings. For close-ups of the creature's head smashing through street-level structures, a massive suit (operated by several stuntmen at once) is used; and while it doesn't provide the same elegant, lifelike movements of the aforementioned model, it still presents an enormous amount of detail and conveys the monster's power. As for the different-sized props used for the imago Mothra, it's all stunning. Even the occasional instance where one of the wings moves out of sync, causing the body to wobble a bit, sort of adds to the illusion that that this is a living creature. Unlike some later incarnations of the character, this Mothra flaps her wings fast and frequent enough to convince us she's capable of taking to the air. (It's interesting that, despite her contemporary popularity, the adult Mothra only appears in the last 16 minutes of the film.) The models for the atomic heat ray cannons look very good, as do the fiery, animated rays they spew from their turrets. The destruction of the dam brilliantly shows off the values of practical effects, and I also like the blue optical effect added for when Mothra is flying toward the airport runway at the end of the movie—although it is never specified or hinted why this occurs. Matte paintings used for the cocoon, the island, and distant shots of the Infant Island jungle are all very impressive as well. Oh, miniatures! Such an under-appreciated art!

Where the special effects occasionally struggle, though, is with the miniatures surrounding Mothra. The model tanks appear to have been mostly filmed at normal camera speed, unfortunately resulting in movements that seem much too fast for machines supposedly weighing thirty-plus tons. Not to mention that, after a while, it becomes hard to ignore the dreadful, wholesomely unconvincing puppets of soldiers sticking out of their hatches. Thankfully, Tsuburaya counters with some inventive camera movement, passing foreground objects, misc en scene, and other moving miniatures within the same shot. A particularly great one missing in the American cut concerns a tracking shot of a tank and couple of men on motorcycles—great miniatures for these—moving through the streets of Tokyo. As for the city set used for the finale of the adult Mothra destroying New Kirk City (the capital of Rolisica), it doesn't come across as impressive as its Tokyo counterpart (at times, it looks too much like a collection of model buildings), but the inventive filmmaking and clouds of dust filtering into the screen add visual interest and lessen the inadequacy of some of the miniatures. The excellent handling of the Mothra prop and the crisp editing by Kasuji Taira helps as well. All in all, the special effects are not as solid of some of Tsuburaya's other efforts, but they are entertaining for the most part and, very often, truly dazzling.

As for the soundtrack by Yuji Koseki, it was another unexpected surprise for me. (This includes his opening prologue music, which is unfortunately no longer included with the film.) Predominately, the score is very gentle and atmospheric, rarely relying upon gusto to enhance the mood. Although there are exceptions such as the dam sequence and the music for the natives' dance which awakens Mothra, and when it comes to the action sequences, Koseki doesn't fail to excite. Mothra's first two mainland attacks are enhanced by an excellent repeating motif; to repeat an earlier point, the score for the attack by the atomic heat ray cannons consummately embodies everything director Honda intended for that sequence. It's also worth mentioning that Koseki wrote the music for Mothra's signature song. Yes, that familiar tune we've heard sung many a time in subsequent movies did not originate with Akira Ifukube despite his longtime association with the character; he actually turned down the opportunity to score this film as he felt he could not write suitable music to accommodate the songs. What Koseki does is simply wonderful, and it becomes even better when accompanied by the enamoring voices of the Ito sisters.

Like many Japanese monster pictures of its age, Mothra was subjected to some revisions when it came to the western market, beginning with a dub. Compared to some others of the time, it isn't half-bad, and it actually makes for an improvement as far as the movie's original English-speaking characters are concerned. Still, there are some really awkward moments. In a line absent from the Japanese ending, Frankie Sakai tells the fairies, "And if you want, come back someday!" An odd invitation given the fact that Mothra just finished destroying two major cities. Tame or not, the world probably wouldn't be too happy to see her return anytime soon. There are some editing weaknesses as well. The buildup leading to the larvae Mothra's attacks on both a ship at sea as well as Kurobe Dam have been trimmed, causing these scenes to come up rather abrupt. Cutting away most of Nelson's interlude with skeptical authorities at the airport renders that once-fine scene pointless. Furthermore, the monster's attack on the countryside and the first part of her attack on Tokyo have been clumsily edited and spliced together, creating a drawn-out middle climax that goes on too long for its own good. Sometimes the music has been unwisely dimmed (the atomic heat ray cannon scene springs to mind), and almost all of the religious symbols and gestures are axed—inoffensive as they were. In short, the American cut stands inferior to the original version, but it's enjoyable in its own right. (Maybe not quite enough—could this be what turned me off about the film when I first saw it so many years ago?)

Revisiting Ishiro Honda's Mothra a few weeks ago was one of the great unexpected movie-going pleasures I've had in a while. I went in honestly not expecting much and came out utterly spellbound, enchanted by what I had just seen. I've since watched it two more times, and I expect I'll be watching it again sometime in the near future.

* Since the publication of this review, I have seen Hiroshi Inagaki's The Three Treasures (1959) a special effects-heavy fantasy film in which Kyoko Kagawa also appeared.