Mothra (1961) [Columbia Version]

Class: Staff
Author: Miles Imhoff
Score: (3/5)
August 13th, 2004 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Modern Mothra fans aren't used to this. A highly destructive Mothra stars in the 1961 classic: Mothra. As compared with its remakes, this movie is done quite differently. Mothra is not as benevolent as she would become in future movies. Her usage in the movie is also relatively minimal; and concentration is placed foremost on the human aspect. Differences like these don't hinder the movie. They instead come together to form a unique film for Mothra fans to enjoy in a different way.

The plot, unlike those in future Mothra remakes, isn't recycled. It is quite original. The survivors of a shipwreck are found on the mysterious Infant Island. The island is desolate around the exterior due to nuclear testing; however, it is lush and green on the interior. An expedition is launched from Japan to check out the island. The expedition includes Senichiro Fukuda, a stow-away reporter; a scientist by the name of Shin'ichi Chujo; Clark Nelson, a devious entrepeneur; and a number of other crewmembers. Upon arriving, two 1 ft. tall twin fairies are discovered. The greedy Clark Nelson attempts to abduct them for profit, but the look of the ominous natives convinces him that it is not the best idea. Clark Nelson does return on a following expedition, bent on capturing the fairies. This time around, he shows no mercy in ruthlessly killing several natives as he steals the Shobijin. One native caught in the attack survives long enough to call to Mothra for help... an insect of epic proportions that has a psychic connection with the twin fairies. The enormous moth larva reaches Japan and starts to rampage as Nelson parades his captured fairies for profit. Senichiro Fukuda, Michi Hanamura (a photographer who works with Fukuda), Shin'ichi Chujo and his son Shinji Chujo try to rescue the fairies. When Mothra's presence becomes too close for comfort and the government starts to realize the connection between Nelson's fairies and the destructive creature, Nelson flees for his homeland, Rolisica. Mothra metamorphosizes into her imago form and flies for New Kirk City, a major Rolisican metropolis! The people of Rolisica, knowing of Nelson's treachery, mob his auto. Paranoid, Nelson shoots a policeman in the mob. Another policeman manages to shoot Nelson, killing him. The fairies are recovered, but Mothra is still wreaking havoc. In order to attract Mothra, a significant symbol from Infant Island is drawn on an airport runway. Mothra lands on the runway, reunites with the fairies, and returns to her island in peace.

Mothra is commonly known as the positive, kind monster that Toho uses whenever it needs to foil a deplorable enemy kaiju. However, when the line, "thousands dead!" appears in a movie that only contains Mothra, quickly erased is any idea that Mothra is once again out for peace. Mothra is benevolent, but only to the Infant Islanders. When their fairies are stolen, all is lain to waste in Mothra's quest to rescue them! She shows no regard for any semblance of humanity while she is on her rampage.

Despite the fact that Mothra was made a menace in this film, she was used far too minimally and far less effectively than in any Mothra movie since. Overlooking how short the Mothra scenes were, these stale scenes with ground-based artillery versus either the crawling or flapping monster did manage to become so old so soon that the audience actually hopes for some human drama. The pace of the human action is quite smooth, but there is only so far a film can go with a monster whose greatest weapon is locomotion.

The human aspect at least becomes more interesting than it has in previous kaiju movies of the time. The bland romance and anguish in Rodan (1956) and the drawn-out drama of Godzilla Raids Again (1955) are overshadowed by a much more upbeat and likeable acting style in this movie. Frankie Sakai plays the most interesting human of the film. His character: the bumbling, slapstick, and always clever Senichiro Fukuda; is one of only two characters who are really developed. The evil Clark Nelson: the covetous, murderous, paranoid, arrogant... well, he's an all-around bad guy; becomes the only other character of which a fair deal is known. Obviously, all of the effort in character development was really put into the main protagonist and the main antagonist; leaving the rest of the characters to dot the plot and add whatever necessary whenever necessary. As far as the acting is concerned, it seems at times as though it's laid on a little too thick. The acting does come across as fun to watch, which is one of the things that truly makes this movie more enjoyable than some of its kaiju predecessors. Frankie Sakai's acting style seems to pull a bit from 1950s stand-up comedy, whereas Jerry Ito's acting reminds one of a Saturday morning cartoon villian. Ito's speckling of light, maniacal laughter and his use of twisted grins help to quickly point out that this character is up to no good. Kyoko Kagawa's performance was also well done, despite the fact that she wasn't used enough. The formula for the photographer would be used again in the 1964 remake with much greater frequency, leading to greater success from the roll of the photographer. Ken Uehara's deadpan-scientist performance, quite a common character amongst almost ALL monster movies, works well to bring down the silliness of Sakai's character, at times. Akihiro Tayama seems to come across as yet another child actor in a kaiju film, at face value at least. He beats the stereotype, however, and does a great job portraying the determined, kind child out to save the day. Emi and Yumi Ito have the oddest rolls in the movie... two twin fairies who mostly speak simultaneously. For such an odd, unprecedented roll; they manage to pull it off with such success that the same formula for the twin fairies' acting was recycled even beyond Emi and Yumi's career as the Shobijin.

The Shobijin really do steal the show, even from the title monster! Emi Ito and Yumi Ito do a very good job at playing the innocent and lovely Shobijin. The twin fairies, who show sympathy and remorse for what their loyal monster will do to Japan, come across as the most likeable characters in the entire movie. In fact, Toho must have thought so too. They reprised their role in Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964). One more thing to note is that Emi and Yumi Ito were a popular musical duo known as the "Peanuts" around the time they appeared in Mothra movies (source). Their talent served them well, as they sang often in their movies.

The special effects were a mixed bag in this film. The shots of Mothra in all of her forms were quite nice. The optical effects used for the Rolisican heat ray were superbly well done for the time too, especially when considering Moguera's flat eye-beams from The Mysterians (1957), only a few years earlier. The heat ray appears to have become the inspiration for the maser cannons of future movies, including the recent Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002) and Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003). The biggest blemish in the movie was the miniatures. The miniatures went from bad to worse throughout the movie. The tanks would have been so much more believable if they had removed the lookout dolls. New Kirk City had perhaps the worst problems of all the miniatures. It was meant to look like a vast metropolis; but instead it looked like what it truly was: a small model city. The backdrop screens were of poor quality too, and were done with no more sophistication than in Rodan, five years earlier. A final special effect problem was the animated Mothra silhouette. Used mainly near the end of the film, it looked more like a gangly bird than a giant moth. Its usage is understandable, as it was obvious througout the film that Mothra's interaction with scenery was limited.

The score for the film was quite interesting. It had an almost Arabian quality to it... increasing the romantic mystery of Mothra. The use of the mysterious Shobijin songs was an intriguing touch, as well. It would be an aspect of this first movie that would be repeated in future Mothra movies with great success.

There is one more thing worth mentioning about this film. The addition of a non-existant country: Rolisica, was an interesting plot device that worked to create an allegorical subplot. Despite the fact that it cannot be found on real maps, this country can be seen as a definite symbol of America and Russia. The greed of its native, Nelson, can be seen as the perceived greed of the American and Russian superpowers. The country's devotion to Nelson can be seen as the blind arrogance of the superpowers. America and Russia's lust for the most superb nuclear energies can be seen through the Rolisican atomic heat ray. Finally, not to ignore the age old pattern of hiding allegorical evidence in names; Rolisica and New Kirk City both have a phonic similarity to Russia and New York City respectively. While some may become offended at these obvious connections, the symbolic castigation is relatively mild and should only be perceived as a well-thought out warning against greed and arrogance.

Despite the film's significance to the kaiju genre, it is often dwarfed by its remake, Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964). This is understandable, because there is a lot to be desired from this first movie. Aside from this, Mothra is the movie that started the famous kaiju's long and successful career. It's for this reason that Mothra will go down in history as a classic.