by Steve Habrat
In 1954, Japanese director Ishiro Honda unleashed the grim and brooding radiation nightmare Godzilla on the world. Godzilla would go on to introduce audiences everywhere to Toho Studios, a Japanese production company that would become well known among horror and science fiction enthusiasts for their “Kaiju” (strange beast) films. While Godzilla is certainly the top monster in the long line of monster movies produced by Toho Studios, the second in command would most certainly be the 1961 effort Mothra, a splashier and sillier effort from Mr. Honda. Lacking the hypnotic appeal and haunting linger of Godzilla, Mothra is clearly the more upbeat monster movie. It has all the trademark elements of these Japanese “Kaiju” films that genre fans have come to know and love, but at times it seems to be a bit too silly, fantastic, and, dare I say, cuddly for its own good. While Mothra may not possess the thought and depth of Godzilla, the film still dares to show a few post-WWII scars under all the colorful action and adventure. There is still a shiver anytime the bomb or atomic radiation is mentioned, but it almost seems like the film is chuckling at itself, which is a pity because this monster movie could have mustered a roar just as mighty as Godzilla’s.
Mothra begins in the waters off of Infant Island, with a Japanese ship getting caught and running aground in a nasty typhoon. The ship’s crew gets stranded on Infant Island, which is presumably an uninhabited site for Rolisican atomic tests. A few days later, a rescue party finds several members of the ship’s crew alive and well on Infant Island. The crew is immediately taken to the nearest hospital for radiation sickness, but doctors are stunned to learn that the crew did not get sick due to juice that was provided to them by natives living on the island. The bizarre story is broken to the public by rotund reported Zenichiro “Bulldog” Fukuda (played by Frankie Sakai) and photographer Michi Hanamura (played by Kyoko Kagawa), both who obtained the story through posing as doctors. The Rolisican government soon responds by putting together a joint expedition to the island. Among the expedition is greedy entrepreneur Clark Nelson (played by Jerry Itou) and kindly linguist Shin’ichi Chujo (played by Hiroshi Koizumi). While exploring the island, the group stumbles across the shy natives and a pair of young women (played by The Peanuts) who are only twelve inches tall. The two girls plead with the group to halt the atomic testing on their island and to leave the natives in peace. The group agrees and quickly leaves, keeping their findings a secret from the public. However, Nelson secretly travels back to the island and abducts the two girls and forces them to perform a singing act in Tokyo. The horrified natives call upon their god, Mothra, to rise up and bring the girls back to their island.
Honda quickly sets Mothra apart from his deadly serious Godzilla through pop-art action and exotic adventure. There is a trip to a beautiful yet sadly mutated island with natives peaking between giant leaves and over twisting flowers as scientists in ominous HAZMAT suits parade around with machine guns. It almost feels like something out of King Kong, only done up in the most effervescent colors imaginable. There is also plenty of slapstick humor and wisecracks, especially from the instantly likable Zenichiro, who nervously giggles when he is backed up against a wall and manages to get tiny mice caught in his suit. Despite how lavish it all looks and how funny the jokes are, there is never a hint of the impending doom that loomed over the opening half of Godzilla. However, once the action of the second half kicks in to high gear, there are traces of Godzilla everywhere. Tension builds as a massive caterpillar inches its way towards Tokyo in an attempt to find the abducted girls. Japanese fighter jets swoop over and drop canisters of napalm down on the best, but it does no good. When it finally reaches Tokyo, it bashes and smashes through miniature buildings that certainly crumble realistically enough. Things take a cheeky turn when the caterpillar morphs into the iconic Mothra, who can whip up a wind storm just by furiously flapping her wings. You’ll certainly chuckle as toy cars get tossed around like, well, toy cars and fake builds tremble like… fake buildings. The longer it all goes on, the less it impresses.
In addition to the rocky action, the performances are never as gripping as what we saw in Godzilla. Sakai is charismatic and fun as the humorous hero Zenichiro, a nice change of pace over the square-jawed heroes that were battling giant bugs in America. The oafish Sakai doesn’t seem to be taking the picture too seriously, which is a shame, but he will certainly get you to chuckle at least once. Kagawa acts as the pretty-faced sidekick that follows Sakai around from one site of destruction to the next. Koizumi is passable but largely forgettable as the camera shy linguist who is basically the more handsome hero to Sakai’s Zenchiro. Itou is vile enough as the exploitative entrepreneur who leers over the tiny girls like a madman. It is interesting to see just how cowardly he is when Mothra comes calling. Rounding out the main cast in the twin-sister singing act The Peanuts, who are here as the tiny “Shobijin.” The Peanuts are tragic enough, but this is mostly due to their situation rather than their acting. While much of their performance consists of them huddling together and smiling at the camera, you will still find yourself hoping and praying that Mothra will come save them from Nelson’s clutches.
What really separates Mothra from the other monster movies is the fact that Mothra herself is more of an avenging angel rather than a snarling stand in for the atomic bomb. Even if she does look like one of your daughter’s stuffed toys, she is actually sort of neat in that respect. She isn’t a mindless abomination of atomic radiation and destruction, which really gives the film itself a bit more individuality. While it may lack the deeper meanings and the sorrowful meditation of Godzilla, Mothra is still a fairly resilient plea for peace and harmony. It may have been falling of deaf ears and drive-in eyes simply looking for the next destruction sequence, but at least it was giving it a try. Overall, while it has its lasting moments, Mothra begins to fall victim to a shaky third act set in a cardboard stand-in for New York City (here it is New Kirk City). There is too much interest in comic book fantasy and retina-shattering color blasts, which cause the film to feel more like a drawn-out cartoon rather than a serious minded work of art. It’s fun in small doses but maybe it should have taken itself a bit more seriously.
Mothra is available on DVD.