After this summer’s fun-if-flawed GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS I must’ve been in need of some spiritual guidance because I was thinking I should look into worshipping Mothra. See what that whole thing was all about. And then, as if by divine intervention, a slick piece of Mothran propaganda – a nice new steelbook Blu-Ray of the original MOTHRA film from 1961- caught my eye. It’s an old school Toho kaiju movie with lots of goofy human shenanigans holding off the good stuff until later, but its imagery and strangeness warm my soul a little.
The structure seems lifted from KING KONG. An expedition to a mysterious island inhabited by strange creatures and primitive, drum-thumping natives brings something exotic back to the city to be exploited in a heavily hyped stage show, but these forces can’t (and shouldn’t) be contained, so this all leads to a giant creature attack on a city.
In this case it begins with an international scientific expedition to mysterious Infant Island, which has the feel of one of those havens for ancient undiscovered species (mostly in the fauna category), though the team suspects nearby nuclear testing is an influence. Most of the explorers seem well-intentioned, even Zenochiro (Frankie Sakai, SHOGUN), the sneaky reporter who stows away on the boat and almost gets thrown off when discovered. But Nelson (Jerry Ito, GOLGO 13: ASSIGNMENT KOWLOON), an oligarch from the English-speaking country of Rolisica, is definitely up to some Weyland-Yutani shit.
The first big event of the exploration (and the movie, admittedly) is when Dr. Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi, LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS) of Japan is attacked by carnivorous plants and saved by two Barbie-doll-sized local ladies (twin singers Yumi and Emi Ito, a.k.a. The Peanuts). These two, dubbed “the tiny beauties” by headline-minded Zenochiro, are apparently supposed to be fairies and priestesses of the Mothra religion. At first they only communicate through a weird high pitched sound, but then all the sudden they can speak Japanese. They’re sweet to the point of passivity. Immediately after the visitors vow not to test nukes on the island, Nelson tries to snatch the beauties (an adorably unconvincing special effect involving dolls), only letting them go after being surrounded by angry natives (Japanese actors with darkening makeup). But then the twins just smile and wave goodbye like nothing happened. No offense taken.
Nelson himself funds a later, more secret expedition in which he abducts the T.B.s and forces them to star in a stage show where they float down in a fancy little cage and sing the Mothra theme song. The lyrics are in Indonesian, not subtitled on the Blu-Ray, but I’ve read that they translate to “Mothra, oh Mothra, with the power of your ancestor, grant the prayer of your followers, arise and show power!”
Maybe the producers should’ve asked the fairies what they were singing about. Little do they know that the Infant Island natives have chanted and drummed in their ancient temple, hatching a giant egg, birthing a caterpillar that can hear the tiny beauty song and is swimming across the ocean toward it. The Japanese military do catch on in time to attack the giant bug at Tokyo Tower and force her to make a cocoon, which the Rolisican Atomic Ray Squad thinks they can destroy. Sorry Hans, wrong guess! Out from the cocoon emerges Mothra, the fuzziest and most colorful of all kaiju.
We now understand Mothra to be female, so that’s how I’ll refer to her. In this movies she gets lots of “it”s and at least one “he.” The American trailer included on this Blu-Ray has repeated “he”s and “him”s. The American poster is also some bullshit for drawing the “mightiest monster in all creation!” with evil eyes (and kind of an ant-like head) even if it admits she’s “ravishing a universe for love!”
Mothra is not as violent as Godzilla. She’s just here on a rescue mission, not a rampage. But the wind from her wing flaps destroys buildings and blows vehicles around like a pile of dry leaves. Everyone knows what she wants, but god damn Nelson doesn’t want to give them up. He flees to Rolisica with the TBs in a briefcase and Mothra goes after him like she’s Liam Neeson. The great thing is that the locals spot him, mob his car, drag his ass out and make him free the beauties. An uprising against the 1%.
“Rolisica” kept making me laugh, because it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue or sound like the name of a real country. But I was too slow to catch on that it’s meant to be an amalgam of “Russia” and “America.” At any rate, it’s clearly meant as a western country with mostly white English speakers. I can’t be mad about it, because we definitely have rich assholes like Nelson, who are corrupt and exploitative and hostile to the press who expose their misdeeds. I’m proud of the regular joe Rolisicans for revolting against him. Today we are all Rolisicans, we are all Infant Islanders, we are all Tiny Beauties, we are all Mothra, in egg, caterpillar and moth forms.
This is another classic directed by Ishirō Honda, who had already done the original GOJIRA and RODAN (among many others). Legendary Toho effects director Eiji Tsuburaya gets to do more of his famous model work, but adult Mothra’s shape and constant flying prevent her from being the “man in suit” that certain people go crazy for. Instead she’s a large wire puppet, but I can’t even tell how they made her wings curve as she flaps them.
Caterpillar Mothra isn’t a man in suit either – she’s six men in a suit. The biggest monster they ever made.
Of course the most exciting parts are whenever Mothra is on screen. You just want to look at her. The best part could potentially be when the fairies finally are on top of Mothra, but I guess they didn’t figure out how to deal with the scale enough to get us a good look at it. It’s funny how she kinda sticks her mandible thing out for them to climb onto but there’s no shot of them actually climbing onto it. We get the idea, I guess.
My favorite image in the whole movie is actually before Mothra hatches. There’s this amazing tableau of the giant egg at the top of the screen and below it are the natives dancing and drumming in a sort of temple chamber, and along the sides is a matte painting of all these strange flowers of a much more fantastical style than they were able to ever depict in three dimensions. It kind of has the look of an elaborate stage design so it’s cool that when the fairies are actually on stage the set has more crudely painted versions of the same type of plants.
This is a nice movie, but I’m gonna have to do more research. There are later movies where Mothra meets Godzilla, and a new trilogy made in the ’90s. And if you really want to get deep into the theology of it you probly gotta know Japanese so you can read The Glowing Fairies and Mothra, a magazine serial by Shin’ichiro Nakamura, Takehiko Fukunaga and Zenei Hotta, commissioned by Toho to create a new kaiju story.
One thing I don’t understand: how long have they been worshipping this egg? I assume somebody had to lay it, so maybe there have been various Mothras throughout time. They lay an egg in the ceremonial cave before death and the Infant Islanders only crack it open in case of emergency? Or was there only ever an egg, and this religion (with its Mothra song and everything) was based entirely on faith, and here it has paid off? Also, what sort of threshold is there for a Mothra hatching emergency? If it had just been two regular sized drummers and not the beloved tiny beauties that were in trouble, would they have been shit out of luck?
Apparently the original magazine story tells of Ajima and Ajiko, the god of night and goddess of daylight, who conceived the giant egg, smaller eggs and a sort of Adam and Eve who populated the island. But when the caterpillars from the small eggs turned into moths and flew away Ajima got upset and committed suicide by tearing himself into four pieces. Obviously this upset Ajiko so she followed suit, but her four pieces turned into the fairies who would go on to serve Mothra once she hatched.
Screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa (BLUEPRINT OF MURDER) changed it to two fairies to make them easier to deal with, and never mentioned where they might’ve come from, so its up to us as individual spiritual beings to decide whether to accept what’s on film as a legitimate interpretation of the full truth, or as a heresy. There’s a certain poetic beauty to how puzzling and seemingly unanswerable it all is, but I think I need to contemplate it more before I make any serious life choices.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.