This is a return to glory for everyone involved after the gigantic backward step that was Varan. Even uncut versions of that are painfully rehashes of previous Honda monster movies, symptomatic of those Ancient Enemies of all good film: lack of time and a low, low budget.
Mothra is a full-180 turn, the first daikaiju masterpiece of the 1960s. Like Rodan, it follows a small cast of actually-interesting characters. But unlike Godzilla and Rodan, Mothra is more of an urban fantasy than a depressing polemic against the horrors of nuclear weapons and the ethically-challenged March of Progress that overlay this entire age of world history. After all, it’s 1961: JFK, MLK, and Malcolm X are still alive! The Space Race is in full swing! The Rodans are dead and Godzilla was last seen at the bottom of an icy rock slide. All is right with the world! What could possibly go wrong?
Since this is Japanese cinema the answer is obvious: natural disasters. In this case, a typhoon that capsizes the 5400 ton ship Genyo-maru and strands its survivors on the rugged and radioactive Infant Island (or Beiru Island if you’re listening to the original language), lately the site of some above-ground nuclear tests by the English-speaking, Caucasian nation of…ahem…Rolisika. The Genyo-maru survivors are rescued but their relative health amazes the white coats down at the National Synthesis Nuclear Center. Don’t you just love the names these films think up for Japanese institutes of Super Science?
Infant Island apparently puts out over “three million units” of…something. We never really find out what, but if it’s rads (a) that’s impossible unless the whole island’s made of uranium, and (b) the human body can barely take 1000 rads without tongue-swelling, skin-pealing, organ-liquefying death. Making the fact that these dudes took three million the greatest scientific anomaly of the 20th century. Certainly bigger than Godzilla. After all, at least he’s one of a kind…as far as we know…
The survivors figure that the red juice the natives gave them must’ve warded off any adverse effects of radiation poisoning. That’s funny (a) because its bullshit pseudoscience and (b) because there shouldn’t be any natives on Infant Island. The Rolisikan government swore there weren’t before they dropped The Bomb and now swear they certainly wold never have dropped it had the known the island was inhabited.
Yes, it’s called “Rolisika” in every language on this DVD, but I think we all know who the “Roliskans” really are. Giving them another name just makes the resemblance even more obvious. As obvious as the tense, guarded resentments certain Japanese artists held against the United States, particularly as we began using the Pacific Ocean as our personal nuclear laboratory. But there’s more to it than that. We Nortes rarely consider the lasting effects of our post-war occupation of the Home Islands. Whenever we do, we tend to look back through the rose-tinted goggles of National Exceptionism, believing those seven years were a sunny, fun time for everyone involved. (After all, we brought Democracy™ to the Land of the Rising Sun.) So the fact that nearly every “Rolisikan” in this film is a soul-less, greedy, conniving monster out to make a quick buck off the suffering and exploitation of others…might not sit very well with some of you. Personally, I find that a picture-perfect description of the North American character, subtype Estados Unidos.
Because, greedy or not, the Rolisikans refuse to organize an expedition to Infant Island, showcasing another of our defining traits: a complete willingness to bury their heads in the sand. They just don’t know where those natives could’ve come from and aren’t too keen to find out at all, thank you. Crusading Reporters Michi (Kyôko Kagawa) and Sen “The Snapping Turtle” (Frankie Sakai) of Nito Newspapers are forced to fill their column with a quote from anthropologist Dr. Shin’ichi Chûjô (Hiroshi Koizumi, Tsukioka the Working Class Hero of Godzilla Raids Again), an expert on the Polynesian Islands around Infant, making him Our Scientist for the remainder of the picture. Michi and Sen ingratiate themselves by rescuing Chûjô’s son, Shinji’s (Akihiro Tayama), mouse from under the couch cushions. Chûjô in turn reveals just what kind of Scientist he is by telling them “Legend has it that the Polynesian people were the descendants of the ancient continent of Atlantis.” Uh-huh. And how many of them are members of the Lost Twelfth Tribe of Israel? “Do you believe what I’m saying?” Michi doesn’t cuz she’s smart, meaning I’m instantly in love with her:
“I only believe what I see through the camera.”
“Then believe only in what you see. To me the sound of a shutter reminds me of the sound of a guillotine.”
Damn, son. That’s pretty dark for a daikaiju Scientist. But Michi takes us to an even darker level when she holds up her $10 spy camera-disguised-as-a-cigarette-lighter and responds
“Just like the guillotine, you’ll never know when you’ve been hit with a photo.”
Damn, girl. Creep out your sources much?
If you watched the dubbed version of this as a child you’ll probably remember Sen as “The Bulldog” because the underlying meanings of “Bulldog” and “Snapping Turtle” are surprisingly equivalent, cutting right across the language barrier. Hell, I grew up in a part of the United States where the correspondence is one-to-one, making this one of the rare times when a literal translation actually would’ve been appropriate to the verbal expression at hand. So of course they changed it. And of course no one would ever dream of broadcasting anything other than the dubbed version of this on TV. I’m looking at you, old Sci-Fi Channel. You sucked in your own special way even if you weren’t yet Imagining Greater. (Whatever the hell that means. Language mutilating bastards!)
With the Rolisikans officially out of the picture, it’s up to Japan (of course) to raise an expedition to Infant Island. Supposedly led by Aging Scientist Dr. Harata (Ken Uehara), the expedition’s actually led by the Rolisikan money man Clark Nelson (played by the American-born emcee Jerry Ito – and remember, this was a time when the term “MC” still meant something).
In any case, The Snapping Turtle sneaks aboard the expedition’s boat, pulling a Clark Kent and stranding Michi on the docks without a word about his plans. (What a dick.) And don’t give me any of the He was trying to protect her delicate widdle womanhood crap people would’ve given me back in the sixties if I’d said this: I hope Michi smacks him upside the head as soon as he gets back.
The expedition finds Infant Island inhabited, not only by human beings, but by an amazing amount of plants for an atomic graveyard…all giant mutants, of course. Some even come to life and try to pull an Evil Dead on Chûjô, but personally I think he was asking for it. Look at him, walking around in that tight little hazmat suit, showing off those…gloves…and that cute little glass-dome helmet. Tentacle plants just can’t help themselves when they see something like that walking across the island in front of God and everybody.
Thankfully, this nightmare fuel’s cut off by the Shobijin (Yûmi and Emi Ito), twin women no larger than Barbie dolls…which they have a bad habit of morphing into on occasion. Employing what we later learn to be telepathy, the Shobijin call the Hentai plant off Chûjô, earning his eternal gratitude. So he sticks up for them when Clark Nelson tries to kidnap them on sight, though the actors in body paint who materialize out of the jungle help back Nelson down.
Still, as soon as the expedition gets home, Nelson rushes right back to Infant Island with an armed guard and succeeds in his abduction. Michi doesn’t snatch Sen bald for his sudden disappearance, unfortunately, because Sen has to deliver some exposition. Turns out Nelson is a complete non-person: his pre-War history as blank as The Question’s face. He strikes Sen as an “international art broker…the type who seeks out ancient art and steals it to sell.”
That’s a bit of a stretch, and it comes right out of nowhere, but somebody must’ve put up the cash for that expedition. To say nothing of the gigantic stage show Nelson puts on as soon as he returns with the Shobijin. It makes the front page, much to Sen’s editor’s (Takashi “Professor Yamane” Shimura in a rare non-scientist role) disgust. Sen counters that everyone on the expedition agreed to keep the girls a secret, fearing just this sort of thing might happen. “The scientists are human too,” he says. But Rolisikans? Walking assholes, all of them…who put on tacky shows that totally rip-off King Kong, though the Ito twin’s lovely vocals are always a welcome addition.
During the performance of the title track, Sen and Chûjô trade some more exposition about Nelson. Seems he put up all the funding for the expedition all by his lonesome, the Rolisikan government being recently saddled with financial difficulty. Oddly enough, the recession of the early-60s actually happened, making this an honest-to-God recession joke. So whoever this Nelson guy really is, he came out of nowhere after the war, got a bunch of money stealing stuff out of places like the Amazon, and now he’s using innocent mutants to put on a minstrel show. There’s an eclectic career path for you. These days I like to pretend Nelson is actually Shia LaBeouf’s character from Crystal Skull. After a few years living with Indy and Mother Marion, lil’ Mutt just couldn’t take it anymore. So he fled the house, changed his name, got some light face-work, and used the tricks he learned from Indy to build up a small fortune being one of his father’s old villains.
Joke’s on him. The Shobijin’s song is actually a telepathic SOS, eventually summoning Infant Island’s god/monster guardian, Mothra. This particularly transition is one of Honda’s bonafide masterpieces. We watch the Ito twins perform on Nelson’s stage. Cut away to Infant Island while the soundtrack changes to a minor key, completing the switch from the fake-fake native ceremony to the real-fake native ceremony.
Back in town, Michi, Sen and Chûjô (and Shinji – the first real proto-Kenny in Honda’s body of work) do the reasonable thing and try to persuade Nelson to stop pissing on basic human decency. He throws an old line slave owners used to deploy back in the 1850s (“They wouldn’t sing if they weren’t happy!”) in Our Heroes’ collective face, but lets them see the Shobijin for a few minutes. Long enough for Our Heroes to learn “Mothra is coming.” Given their telepathic bond, the Shobijin have no need for words, but between that, full immersion, and all the stress they must be under, they’ve picked up Japanese pretty goddamn fast.
We never actually learn the extent of the Shobijin’s mental powers and later movies would give them whatever powers are appropriate to the plot. But here I don’t care because this is still the best portrayal of the Shobijin I’ve seen, and the Itos are my favorite pair. Under their stage name The Peanuts, these two were insanely popular pop stars of their age, building an entire career of the synchronized duets we enjoy here. It was their bread and butter, they did it well, and it shows. Heck of it is, this is only their second movie, but any unease they might have is indistinguishable from the unease their characters would naturally feel, with the being kidnapped and all.
Then there’s the giant caterpillar making a B-line for Tokyo. Naturally, Sen types all this up while Michi gets some photos of the girls in a cage to tug at the public heartstrings. Their editor (bless his forehead wrinkles) backs them 110%, even when Nelson shows up to threaten some lawsuits. “It’s my newspaper’s responsibility to report the truth,” Editor Man says. Remember when we could all believe newspaper editors actually said things like that? Yeah, neither do I. But doesn’t seeing it, even in a fifty year-old monster movie, kick ass? Damn right.
In fact, Nito is officially the most badass newspaper in the world. Its editor shrugs off lawsuits, its lead photographer packs more cameras than a CIA surveillance team, and its lead reporter can fight off four guys at once, come away without a scratch, and still make it to work the next day with an expose ready for the copy boys. They even have a perfectly good excuse to rush out and be in the middle of the monster attack…especially once Shinji forces the issue by trying to rescue the girls himself…and, like any good child in Japanese sci-fi, getting tied up by the Villains.
Still, this proto-Kinny is more effective than some Shinjis I could name (I’m looking at you, Ikari-kun). He just doesn’t listen. The Shobijin even flat-out tell him, “There’s a giant fucking butterfly coming to pick us up. We don’t really need you or the stupid adults you slipped past to stage this in the first place. We’ve got a god-monster on our side. What part of that is so hard to understand?”
Sometimes, Mothra feels like a transmission from some universe wholly independent of mainline Godzilla continuity (which, to be fair, didn’t really gel until half a decade later). Example: Mothra plows through Tokyo and spins a cocoon out of the rubble of Tokyo Tower…which Godzilla destroyed in 1954. So much for all the trouble everyone went to rebuilding that national landmark, to say nothing of all the other buildings Mothra bulldozes.
The Rolisikan’s loan Japan two of those tank-mounted, satellite dish laser guns the JDSF deployed against the Mysterians, but that just wakes Mothra up early. In her adult state, Mothra’s wings generate gale force winds, much like Rodan…except Mothra’s a giant butterfly. Not exactly the most threatening daikaiju in history..and the hell of it is, she’s the first that isn’t meant to be a Grave Threat to All Mankind. What we have here is the first real daikaiju protagonist since the Eighth Wonder of the World, and I happen to find her more sympathetic than three generations of giant apes.
I think the fact that she’s an insect holds Mothra back significantly, along with the fact this movie’s tone is all over the place. It’s structured like an international adventure/thriller…until the giant moth egg hatches. We see Nelson’s men gun down a whole village worth of natives right before we get the Obligatory Song and Dance Number from the movie’s musical guest stars. We get slapstick comedy, like Sen getting friendly with Shinji’s mouse, and we get tentacle porn. We get beautiful daikiaju destruction, which is a contradiction in itself.
We get a plot that seems to be more than a straight rip-off. I think Mothra might be Isihro Honda’s direct answer to King Kong, and possibly American daikaiju film in general. He seems to be starting from scratch, going back to the well. He made Varan and found nothing left there, so he went further back, to the grandday of them all. There he found a plot about imperialist bastards stealing something from idealized, peaceful natives. But whereas Carl Denham just up and stole God, Clark Nelson fucks himself (and Tokyo, and the “Rolisikan” city of “New
York Kirk”) over by stealing a pair of High Priestesses.
By this point, Godzilla, Raids Again (under the title Gigantis the Fire Monster) Rodan, and The Mysterians had all been released in American. So are the Shobijin representations of Honda’s previous films? Kidnapped and exploited in a foreign land by unscrupulous round-eyes with no concern for their welfare? Is the destruction of New Kirk City Honda’s belated, cinematic vengeance upon Terry O. Morse, the King Brothers and Crown International?
More power to Honda if they are. The ending shows us Honda had no beef with American people. They’re the ones who catch Nelson hiding in their midst. They’re the ones who force him from his car with a good, ol’ fashioned,
American Rolisikan vigilante mob. They’re the ones who shoot him down and they’re the ones who (through their duly elected representatives in government) ask Michi and Sen to liaise with the Shobijin, since the Reporters and our Scientist are the only trustworthy outsiders the Shobijin have met so far. The whole country unites to help – not defeat so much as “placate” – Mothra, ending her reign of terror (once again) without recourse to Super Science.
So the movie’s a rip-roaring, giant monster adventure. It’s pretty pat, and the characters are melodramatically two-dimensional, but what characters they are. No Raymond Burrs here. These characters don’t just happen to know everyone involved in the actual story, or stand around in the background while the story happens in another piece of footage. (Plenty of extras to fulfill that role, and all they have to do is stand in front of blue screens.) They’re the ones making this story happen. If not for the giant moth, they’d be carrying this film on their own and doing a wonderful job of it. I’d go so far as to say this is the second-best daikaiju cast I’ve seen. Kudos to all, from the Honda Repertory Company Players to all the welcome new additions.
If anything, Mothra feels superfluous in her own film. For example: Our Heroes come up with the most absurd plan for ending a giant monster rampage to date. Not only do they convince the civic leaders of New Kirk to paint a giant Mothra symbol on an airport runway, creating a landing strip, they get every churchbell in town to ring out at exactly 3:00 pm, which somehow draws Mothra to the sigul. Future films would correct this superfluity at the expense awesomeness. Thankfully, with Mothra, Toho’s daikaiju productions entered a sustained period of same. As we’ll see once we get around to the most famous and (depending on who you ask) most awesome of them all: King Kong vs. Godzilla.