Monster Movie Monday: Mothra (1961)
Matthew Turner | On 03, Aug 2020
Director: Ishirô Honda
Cast: Furankî Sakai, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kyôko Kagawa, Yumi Itô, Emi Itô, Jerry Itô, Ken Uehara, Takashi Shimura
Watch Mothra online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
Co-created by Shinichiro Nakamura, Takehiko Fukunaga and Yoshie Hotta, giant moth Mothra was the third of Toho studio’s giant monsters (or kaiju) to make a big screen appearance, following the original Godzilla in 1954 and Rodan: The Flying Monster in 1956. As well as appearing in 11 different Godzilla movies, Mothra also had her own trilogy in the 1990s and is regarded as Toho’s second most popular kaiju character.
Directed by Ishirô Honda, the film begins with an expedition to the mysterious Infant Island. After being attacked by a blood-sucking plant, Dr Shinichi Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) is rescued by two tiny island women, a pair of beautiful twins who appear to communicate in song (Yumi Itô and Emi Itô, known collectively as twin sister vocal group The Peanuts). However, when the twins are kidnapped by unscrupulous expedition leader Nelson (Jerry Itô), their singing awakens the giant moth Mothra, protector of the island, and she attacks Japan while flying to their rescue.
The great thing about Mothra is that you effectively get a two-for-one giant monster deal. After hatching from her egg (prompted by both the song of the twins and an island ritual), Mothra initially appears in her larval form, making her way to Japan by swimming across the sea (and destroying a boat that gets in her way) and then crawling over the land and forming a giant cocoon, after which she emerges in moth form.
However, if you thought Mothra’s rampaging abilities might be somewhat limited by being in larval form, then think again, because Larval Mothra rivals Godzilla himself when it comes to knocking down buildings and that. She also manages to smash down a dam on the way to the city, so extra destructo-points there too.
As for her moth form, Mothra in flight is truly a thing of beauty, thanks to exceptional creature design from Toho’s special effects team. Mothra’s flying motion is genuinely impressive, and the fact that the flapping of her wings also causes multiple cars to get blown along streets and into the air is an added bonus. In fact, as befits her essentially heroic nature, the creature design on Mothra is surprisingly cute – it’s fair to say that the posters for the film do her a real disservice in that regard.
As a creature feature, the other thing that Mothra has going for it is the general likeability of its human characters, particularly the central trio of Doctor Chujo, beautiful photographer Michi Hanamura (Kyôko Kagawa) and dedicated journalist Sen-chan “Bulldog” Fukuda (Furankî Sakai), who gets his own little hero moment when he rescues a tiny baby from a rapidly crumbling dam. Accordingly, there are a couple of nice running gags, including the reason why Bulldog is named Bulldog (or Snapping Turtle in the Japanese version) and Michi constantly failing to take a decent photo.
However, what really makes Mothra stand out is the delightful weirdness of the twins, who are also the source of Mothra’s awesome theme song. Seriously, we defy you to watch Mothra and not find that theme song stuck in your head for several days afterwards.
Similarly, Jerry Itô’s Nelson (complete with two henchmen) makes for a superbly hissable villain, complete with a truly hilarious MANIACAL LAUGH that will have you giggling for several minutes. How evil is Nelson? Well, he exploits the twins for personal gain in a stage show in the Roliscan (an amalgamation of Russian and American) capital New Kirk City and he also beats up a child who tries to rescue them, that’s how evil. It’s really all in the sneer, though – Itô has a face that just screams narcissistic arrogance and the film takes full advantage of it.
Thematically speaking, if Godzilla was an allegory for the horrors of the nuclear bomb, then Mothra represents the protection and respect of traditional cultures. You could also see her as representing the masses, fighting back against the destructive forces of capitalism as embodied by Nelson and his nefarious schemes. Or you could just ignore all that and enjoy the gorgeously produced spectacle of a giant moth smashing stuff up.
(Note: The version on Amazon Prime Video is the dubbed American version, which is 10 minutes shorter than the Japanese version, although the monster attack scenes are largely intact. However, it’s only fair to warn you that the aspect ratio is a little off in the available version. Sort that out, please, Amazon.)