Godzilla! One plaintive cry of fear, accompanied by the roar of the biggest baddest monster of the nuclear age, created a cinematic icon that has lasted for well over fifty years. Godzilla, and the associated kaiju movies that sprung up in its destructive wake, not only captured the cultural imagination of people worldwide in the 1950s, but carved out an incredibly vast new genre of science fiction movie that lasts well into the new millennium.
Welcome to Toho Kaiju Monogatari, a year-long weekly series that hopes to not only share the joy of these Godzilla movies, but all the kaiju movies that came out of Toho Studios from 1954 to 2004. Not just Godzilla, but Rodan, Mothra, Japanese King Kong, kaiju-Frankenstein, and dozens more! And you can play along with the adventure, following the full weekly schedule HERE, as we watch men in suits stomp miniatures of famous cities flat for not just our entertainment, but for the history of cinema itself!
So we’ve been firmly entrenched in the early years of kaiju films so far, the wave of movies that appeared after Godzilla all more or less embracing the model of Godzilla with horror elements and a focus on the destructive power and inevitable suffering that’s caused by our own scientific hubris. But on the tail end of this first wave, a new screenwriter would appear: Shinichi Sekizawa, who had a new concept for where to take kaiju films, an idea that would reshape the direction of the genre.
And with it would come the first emergence of the new trend for these movies: successful, relatively cheap adventure films, that eschewed the sobering social commentary of the 50s for something much more adventurous, something much more light-hearted, and something much more fantastical.
Of all the kaiju movies we’ve seen thus far, none of them have felt as instantly King Kong inspired as Mothra. From the outset, we’re given a mysterious irradiated island where a fishing boat accidentally crashes. The rescue party, heading to this Infant Island expecting to find bodies, finds the fishermen not only healthy but unaffected by the radiation sickness. When they admit that they came across natives that gave them some sort of concoction that cured them, it becomes clear that Infant Island might hold the much-desired secret of curing the affects of radiation. Too bad the press broke into the lab to hear the discovery, and is ready to tell the world the exciting news.
The discovery, however, is also discovered by the Russian-American amalgam/stand-in called Rolisica, who were originally the ones who conducted the nuclear tests and who technically own the rights to whatever is on Infant Island. The Rolisican government then quickly forms a Japanese-Rolisican coalition, roping in the reporters before they can get their story out too far and wide, that is tasked with heading to the island to discover the source of this mysterious power and, if possible, find a way to exploit it. Heading this task force is Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito), a huckster capitalist with a penchant for making money by any means necessary.
A bunch of Japanese people in blackface. Sometimes these movies are gross.
Once the expedition lands on Infant Island, they quickly discover not only indigenous natives, but the shobijin (translated to small beauties), two women only a foot tall who communicate through song. They seem to be worshiped in some way by the natives, who also have caves full of hieroglyphic writing that the expedition struggles to decipher, seemingly speaking about a guardian spirit called Mothra. The entire expedition seem instantly protective of the identity of the shobijin, outside of Nelson who decides that he can use them to further his own gains by capturing them and bringing them back and putting them on display to sold-out concert halls who will pay to see magical tiny women sing. Needless to say, the expedition isn’t into this idea, and are happy to leave the shobijin in peace, so Nelson takes them in secret and smuggles them back to Tokyo.
All in all, this whole plot is essentially what happens in King Kong, with the shobijin standing in for the gorilla. It’s pretty shameless, but in many ways its the best part of the movie, if only because Nelson is such a scummy guy and the shojibin are the best part of the movie, iconic not-really-performances by musicians The Peanuts. It’s also the start of some really problematic stuff in these films, as the ‘natives’ are an assortment of Japanese actors playing ambiguous ethnicity with the kind of grass skirt, dumb stare stereotypes that belong back in the 1930s but read as really weird here. It’s not quite openly offensive (at least comparatively) yet, but we’re going to see a lot more of this in future movies, so it’s worth noting how big a role it plays here.
Either way, the shojibin begin to perform against their will, singing a song that became instantly famous and video of which will be linked below. The Mothra song is pretty indeible, more so in some ways than the monster itself, which only is revealed halfway into the movie when the natives pray around a mountainside that gives way to reveal a giant egg that slowly begins to crack open. What was hidden away was the eponymous moth-monster itself, who emerges from the egg in a larval state and immediately makes a beeline for Tokyo and the shojibin, connected by telepathy and ready to rescue them to the exclusion of everything in its path.
Really the stars of this movie.
The joint forces of the Japanese and Rolisican military aren’t nearly enough to stop the larval form of Mothra from swimming from Infant Island into Tokyo where it proceeds to headbutt the hell out of everything before wrapping itself into a cocoon up against the confines of Tokyo Tower. In the meantime, Nelson takes this opportunity in between the chaos to smuggle the shojibin out of Tokyo and to New Kirk City, a strange fake-New York where everything looks like a set that’s part American city and part European village. It’s here that the reporters and police finally confront Nelson, leading to a shootout where Nelson is killed and the heroes finally get the shojibin back. Just in time, too, as in Japan the cocoon bursts open and suddenly the fully mature adult Mothra takes off, leaving devastation in its wake as it rushes for the shojibin with renewed purpose.
It’s here that the movie hits its weirdest point, as the Rolisicans decide to pray in front of a clearly Christian church for sanctuary from the wrath of Mothra, even as the shojibin send out calming thoughts in order to keep it from destroying New Kirk City when it arrives. Their prayers include a pan up the church itself, until it lights upon a cross with a halo from the sun behind it, which matches a hieroglyphic that the reporters found all the way back on Infant Island at the start of the film, a sort of symbol for Mothra’s protecting godhood. Nobody ever stops to consider the implications, as they rush to get the shojibin to the air field where Mothra is going to land, but essentially the movie collaborates Mothra with some sort of greater mythological deity, a sense that Mothra is an eternal myth and its wrath or protection has echos even in Christian myth.
What Japan thinks America looks like.
And that might seem rather trivial, but it’s a decided move away from the prehistoric creatures mutated by the hubris of nuclear technology and into the realm of full on adventure-fantasy. Mothra isn’t a metaphor for our own foibles as a people, but a creature from forgotten history, a spiritual mythic legacy that comes back into our modern lives to readjust our perceptions of what is or isn’t possible. The horror of Mothra (if you can claim the movie has horror elements, because it really doesn’t) isn’t that we create our own destruction, but that we bring destruction upon ourselves by forgetting our heritage and not respecting the cultural foundations of others. It’s more socially conscious, and decidedly apolitical, and there’s little surprise that it breezes into the genre and takes a firm hold as the movies begin to step more and more into the realm of the fantastical as kaiju enters the 60s.
Zilla’s American Counterpoint
The American version of Mothra manages to cut ten minutes out of the Japanese release, removing a lot of the more overt implications that Rolisica is the United States and managing to remove the entirety of the religious connotations towards the end. Which really just leaves it as another monster movie, which is honestly the weakest part of Mothra as a whole.
I decided to save my general impression of Mothra until now because it’s even more apparent in the US cut, but Mothra is a movie that lays better groundwork than it does work on its own. It’s interesting in themes, but ultimately the story is just a weird rehash of King Kong with the monster mostly removed from the movie. Mothra doesn’t even emerge from its cocoon into the colorful monster everyone knows until the movie is nearly over, and most of the time it’s just flying somewhere. There’s no personality, a general dearth of cool ‘moth destroys stuff’ effects, and just an air of disinterest. It ends up feeling monster-wise like a cut rate retread of Rodan, which did flying monsters infinitely better than Mothra bothers to do.
Mothra egg! I think the kaiju eggs are all really cool in general.
Not that the movie is terrible. It’s not as immediately interesting as many of the films that surround it, but Mothra is a cool monster design and the themes that it brings to the genre feel fresh after so many of the serious first-wave kaiju films with their heads firmly stuck in 50s moralizing alarmist tales of science gone awry. It’s great to have some fun and fantasy put on the screen, but it just doesn’t feel like enough. A step in the right direction, but really what the world needs is something ridiculous. Something monumental. Something … like King Kong vs Godzilla.
Mothra – larval
length: 80 meters
mass: 15,000 metric tons
origin: guardian of Infant Island, hatched from egg
- unstoppable by conventional weapons
- silk spray
- telepathic link with the Shobijin
Mothra – adult
wingspan: 250 meters
mass: 15,000 metric tons
origin: metamorphosis of larval Mothra, emerged from cocoon under Tokyo Tower
- super speed
- destructive gusts from wings
- telepathic link with Shobijin