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Film Review - Mothra (1961) Ishir˘ Honda


Out of all the films present in Ishir˘ Honda's kaiju legacy, Mothra (Mosura - 1961) seems to have the most focus on human elements, themes, and characters, and it all started with an intentional shift in focus to the female demographic. This led to positive audience reception across the board, and a rejuvenation of the then stagnating kaiju brands at Toho. Along with the increased presence of comedy elements as well as a little pop-star power, there was also an effort to beef up the writing in the early stages. Commissioned by Toho, Takehiko Fukunaga, Shinichiro Nakamura, and Yoshie Hotta penned a novel of the developing concept titled, 'The Luminous Fairies and Mothra', with each of the three focusing on a separate act. The writers were from more dramatic backgrounds instead of science-fiction, and the end result was also very political, though toned down a bit in that regard in the final screenplay adaptation by Shinichi Sekizawa.

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A freighter ship caught in a deadly storm opens the film, and is pinned by the storm against an island usually avoided for naval routes, Infant Island, a well-known site for nuclear blast tests. Navigation gets sketchy, and the freighter strikes land leading to the crew abandoning ship. The men are retrieved in the morning and everything seems fine, though it is eventually realized that they are completely free of the expected radiation levels. A few questions later we're made aware of a juice given to them by natives that grants radiation nullifying effects. Understandably, this sends ripples of excitement throughout the science community and news outlets, which introduces us to our team of protagonists. First there is hero-reporter team Senichiro, played by then-popular comedian Frankie Sakai, and Senchiro's photographer Mishi, played by Ky˘ko Kagawa. They later approach camera-shy handsome scientist Dr. Chűj˘, played by Hiroshi Koizumi, and the three form bonds of trust rather quickly.

It should be mentioned that it was the nation of Rolithica that conducted those nuclear tests at Infant Island, an obvious stand-in for the United States which is made much more obvious in the source novel. It is also Rolithica that heads up the investigation team with their despicable representative Clark Nelson, played brilliantly by Jerry Ito. Nelson is a brash and slimy man that rules the expedition with his iron grip, not at all afraid to wave his gun around when arguing with someone. His gun is accompanied by his alleged diplomatic immunity, something he is constantly reminding the other characters about. His character has a theatrical bravado that steals every scene in which he's featured. The man just oozes evil to the point where hating him becomes a guilty pleasure.

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Beyond the expedition you essentially have the King Kong story turned on its head. Their big discovery is a pair of fairy-sized women played by the The Peanuts, the adorable pop duo and real-life twins, Emi and Yűmi It˘, whom the natives of the island do their best to protect. The women don't seem to be able to speak at first, but their body language makes them seem friendly and harmless. The team decides to leave them alone and head back to the mainland due to the insistence of our heroes, but smelling money our antagonist Nelson plus goons return later to seize the tiny women, gunning down at least a dozen Infant Island natives in the process. The tiny women are made to perform as singing circus attractions, and are a huge sensation. The protagonists naturally object, at first creating bad press under the direction of their editor, played by regular Akira Kurosawa collaborator and Godzilla veteran Takashi Shimura, who is a natural fit for the role. After several failed attempts to rescue the little women we notice Mothra swimming towards Tokyo, being guided by the very song the faeries have been performing in Nelson's show. The heroes do manage to get close enough to these tiny women to reveal their ability to speak telepathically, and once they earn their trust they share with them the nature of Mothra as their protectors. Unless they are reunited with Mothra the creature will continue it's path of destruction.

Mothra's first actual attack on human person or property is presented with an artistic flair that really stands out, making it the most beautiful sequence in the film. It opens with a faerie performance, showing their tiny suspended carriage floating across the upper-theater space as they sing, this time a different song than the well-established tune from before. Fading into the bottom of the same shot is an image of Mothra swimming through the sea at an almost dream-like overcranked speed, and with similarly dreamlike underwater spot-lighting that seems to suggest a stage production. This magical sequence completes the already-established connection between Mothra's path towards Tokyo and the faerie's siren song, and all with a beauty not often seen even within Honda's own limited kaiju efforts, much less kaiju as a whole.

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One of the more prominent examples of the source material's political bend would be in the original characterization of the Ky˘ko Kagawa role, Mishi, a student protester mirroring the student movement against the infamous Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, a pivotal factor to the US presence in Japan. This was a very fresh issue at the time, and a point of reference for a lot of the Japanese New Wave, the best example being Nagisa ďshima's Night and Fog in Japan (1960). Mishi's protesting of Nelson's actions are by extension protesting Rolithica, and even with a lot of the obvious connections removed in the final script, the underlying animosity towards the US from the original story still resonates throughout the film. One telling plot point that managed to survive was the way Rolithica protects Nelson's actions when they are first requested to aid Japan. They do decide to cooperate later, but it frustrates that it took them so long to deal with the problem, making it difficult not to interpret it as potentially self-serving.

The action set-pieces featured as Mothra begins wrecking havoc through Japanese locals are a sight to behold. The monster's larva form doesn't command a lot of damage compared to other Toho monsters, but then there are incidents like the destruction of the dam, which I would easily place next to the singing/swimming sequence mentioned above as film highlights. The overcranking is pitch-perfect, giving the water and rubble a real sense of force once they finally give way. At some point, path of destruction in tow, Mothra ends up at Tokyo Tower, destroys it, and builds a cocoon. This gives the humans a chance to regroup, which allows Rolithica to extend help with twin atomic energy canons. It isn't too difficult here to make the connection to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, especially with the onlookers being asked to wear protective eye gear reminiscent of those used in nuclear tests. The canons are interpreted as a success by the humans, but that is short-lived once Mothra emerges in its magnificent final form, the butterfly moth. It is a beautiful monster design, rarely seen in the original Godzilla series where Mothra mostly stays in larva form.

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As a moth, Mothra's wings create devastating hurricane-force winds, which blow away objects such as cars like leaves. Following the faerie's telepathy, Mothra makes the journey to Rolithica, where Nelson has fled. The final act in New Kirk City, a stand-in for New York, was intended in the early stages, but was changed later into the production to a showdown with Nelson at the top of a mountain in Japan. It wasn't until Columbia stepped in requesting the New Kirk City sequence and offering the necessary finances that that final scenery change became a reality, making Mothra a Japanese-US co-production. Nelson's final moments are those of a desperate clawing animal clinging to life, and it is hard to imagine Clark Nelson the man had any sort of plan beyond taking the evil or dishonorable path to their absolute limits, cackling with laughter every step of the way.

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Once the rescue takes place and the trio are reunited, Mothra and the faeries journey back to their home together, all three depicted brilliantly as victims of circumstance and leaving behind a promise of friendship with the humans. The film ends on a religion-focused note, indicating Mothra, the faeries, and the natives of Infant Island all have origins that involve a sort of universal religion with the Christian crucifix being a core symbol. It is interesting to find this in the film, also unexpected. The end titles are shown with an image of Infant Island in the center of the shot.

by Duke Togo


3 Comments

I like your mention of how Mothra's most iconic format - the full-on butterfly - is really only seen at any length in this film, at least in the original Toho Kaiju cycle.

This film is absolutely a favorite of mine, and this is a wonderful review.
Did they go with the same design (colors, powers, etc) in other instances where butterfly Mothra was used?
I'm not sure, to be honest. I may be mistaken, but I don't think that the butterfly Mothra made another appearance until the trilogy of films made in the '90s, and I haven't seen any of those.