1961's "Mothra" marks for us, something of a shift. We've now moved beyond the era of cheesy American giant monster productions to a new age where the Japanese kaiju genre becomes the hegemony for decades. We'll still cover a few Western films here and there, the next two reviews are going to be for "Konga" and "Gorgo", both monsters targeting London, but after that the 1960s are completely owned by the East. And I'm hardly complaining, since the whole point of this series was actually to cover these classic Japanese kaiju films, especially the Toho ones. "Mothra" is enough of a cinematic success to make me very excited for the dozens of movies we have yet to cover. This is the start of the Golden Age of Showa Kaiju.
"Mothra" is the first kaiju film in which the giant monster is not a horrifying natural plague brought upon mankind. rather, its more of an adventure film with the occasional scenes of cities getting pummeled by a giant butterfly. The movie is actually rather light-hearted and silly, with the addition of fantastic elements such as the tiny singing twins. Its here that we start to see kaiju change from being serious (and often not-so-serious) horror to more of a family movie, until by the 1970s, Godzilla and his pals will be punching monsters in campy movies for children worldwide. And also, "Mothra" is a very well-made movie in just about every respect, this is clearly a step-up from the movies, both American and Japanese, that have come before.
Once again our director is Ishiro Honda, the producer is still Tomoyuki Tanaka, but the music was actually done by not by Akira Ifukube, but instead by Yuji Koseki, who would write the famous Mothra theme song. That song was sung by a Japanese vocal group called The Peanuts, who also appear in the movie itself as Mothra's tiny twin fairies. I would watch out for that Mothra theme song, its very very catchy, especially if you haven't listened to it for about ten years like poor Blue here. Its been two days, I can't get it out of my head. Anyway, the stars of the film are played by Frankie Sakai, a Japanese comedian and a surprisingly effective hero, and Hiroshi Koizumi, the more bland and traditional kind of protagonist. The villain is played by Jelly Ito*. Also there's a girl, but she has so little effect on the plot as to be almost not worthy of mention at all.
The plot involves the discovery of inhabitants on Infant Island, a small Pacific jungle island probably in the same neighborhood as King King's Skull Island which is being used as the location for nuclear testing by the great nation of Rolisica. Rolisica is a weird fantasy nation that appears to be a combination of the United States, the Soviet Union, and for some reason, Turkey. Its flag is a combination of the Soviet Sickle and an Islamic Crescent, its soldiers dress like Red Guards, many of its inhabitants speak English in an American accent, Jelly Ito and his henchmen appear to be Turkish, and one of the Rolisican cities is New Kirk City, with a skyline obviously that of Manhattan but also featuring palm trees in several shots. A Japanese freighter gets lost in a typhoon, but some of its sailors are found alive on Infant Island, where they reveal the existence of a tribe of natives. This leads to the launching of a joint Japanese and Rolisican expedition to the island, commanded by the treacherous Nelson (Jelly). The main hero is Zenchiro (Sakai), a fat reporter known as "bull dog" for his inability to let go of a story. But along for the ride is Chujo (Koizumi) who while investigating the strange and man-eating plants of Infant Island, discovers the tiny fairy twins.
Jelly, being a paranoid and purely slimy crook, immediately sees his fortune in these two tiny women, and almost starts a war with the island natives to steal them. The Japanese heroes convince him to let the girls go... which he does for about five minutes until he comes back with more guns and shoots the islanders up. Then Jelly has found his Eighth Wonder of the World, these girls:
I'm not entirely sure how tiny women can perform for a packed theater
but I will say their debut goes much better than King Kong's did.
The tiny women actually are the main focus of the entire plot. Their spiritual performances of the film's impressive musical numbers, which Jelly claims is their happy industriousness as his employees, are actually part of a summoning that will result in Mothra being born and ravishing Japan and Rolisica. Chujo made a small connection with the girls - probably the closest thing this movie has to a romance - and visits them. There he learns that they can learn languages through telepathy and also that Mothra is on her way. Zenchiro, despite being a huge fat guy and something of a fool, is actually quite an active character. He's more or less the action star of the film, beating up four guys in one scene and later saving a baby from a collapsing dam. Even modern films could learn to use their comic reliefs as actively as "Mothra" does.
The other big detail that I like about "Mothra" is how well it sets up its monster. Mothra does not appear in any form for at least half the movie, but the script is so well constructed you'd hardly notice. But before that, there is an entire indigenous religion shown devoted to Mothra, showing her not to be the creation of random nonsensical atomic mutation, but rather a insectoid goddess of great power. I avoid using the word "divine wrath" since Mothra is too pure a character to really imagine ever properly getting angry, but there is definitely a sense of holy punishment coming towards Nelson/Jelly and his comically dumb henchmen. We see the islanders pray for their divinity to come, and Mothra is even given a cross-like symbol similar to a Celtic Cross. I'd say the mysticism surrounding Mothra is really what makes her stand out from the other Toho beasts, as she isn't quite a giant monster, she's a spiritual being. Of course, these are all themes that will get further developed as Mothra herself appears again in the Godzilla franchise. For now its just an interesting plot point: a kaiju film where the kaiju is not the antagonist, rather its a scummy criminal with a smug face.
Ultimately Mothra is born and goes straight to Tokyo to save the twins. As you'd expect the Japanese military is completely useless in stopping this monster, as they almost always are. Mothra is still not the beautiful winged creature best known to audience, but rather in her larval form, which is an ugly brown worm that crawls its way across the countryside. The caterpillar form of Mothra always creeped me out, because it has huge depressions on its face, but only tiny little turquoise beads for eyes. The Japanese fire everything they can, but they can't stop that giant insect from reaching the center of Tokyo.
Eventually Mothra reaches the Tokyo Tower, where the Japanese military launch an all-out assault. The poor Tokyo Tower was only built in 1958, and already its getting split by a giant monster. (And trust me, this is not the last time that particular landmark is going to get destroyed in a kaiju film.) It appears that Mothra might be injured but in fact she's preparing for her transformation. The worm spits up silk into the air, creating a huge cocoon in the center of the city. At this point Rolisica, who previously have been protecting Jelly and his cronies, let the Japanese take the girls, but Jelly flees to his home near New Kirk City. The superpower also supplies Japan with a couple of nuclear flamethrowers. These are put to good use setting Mothra's cocoon on fire, but prove completely useless when Mothra emerges in her fully adult form.
And now: beautiful.
The reborn Mothra flies to New Kirk City to hunt down Jelly Nelson and his sidekicks. Jelly is put on high alert in his home nation and flees into the streets where an American/Russian/Turkish crowd stops him. Meanwhile up in the skies, Mothra is doing an excellent job destroying the George Washington Bridge. Much like Rodan, Mothra is capable - in this movie at least - of creating sonic booms with her wing flaps and shoots hurricane winds right down on the Rolisican crowds. Jelly dies as he lived, being a horrible slimy dude, shooting a cop before getting killed himself. With that, the story is concluded. The twins ride Mothra back to Infant Island, thousands are dead, but at least the world is briefly at peace.
"Mothra" really is a very decent film, especially when compared to all the rather boring movies I've had to watch before on this countdown, especially that nasty piece of crap "Varan the Unbelievable"***. This movie here is definitely more entertaining, with fairly decent and memorable characters, a strongly memorable monster character, and great set, music, and character designs. This movie looks more advanced than "The Mysterians" in terms of effects, and it actually has several points of true visual brilliance. That's to say, I'm not going to run out and buy a dress to marry "Mothra" but its really a classic of the genre and worth a watch.
Next time on All-Out Giant Monster Attack! - a giant ape that is definitely, certainly, totally, undeniably, clearly, obviously, irrefutably, and demonstratively not a rip-off of King Kong (except he is): "Konga".
* Mothra's gender is very inconsistent across the movies. I believe in Japan, Mothra has always been female, aside from a super powerful male version that shows up in the 90s movies (long story). But in the US, it really depends on the whim of the dubbing company: male, female, genderless pronouns, take your pick. Personally I've always assumed Mothra to be female because she's a butterfly and when I watched these movies as kid, butterflies were assumed to be far too pretty to be boys. So I'm simply going to use female pronouns the entire way through.
** His name is actually "Jerry Ito", but the US credits call him "Jelly". So that's his name now, "Jelly".
*** More like its UNBELEIVABLE how bad this movie is!