by Steve Habrat
In 1954, Japanese production company Toho Studios sparked a giant monster craze with their brooding epic Godzilla. While there was plenty of emphasis on stomping and smashing, Godzilla also took time to focus on a likable group of a characters, and dared to reflect upon a nation still coming to terms with the devastation of the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the Kaiju craze in full effect, Toho quickly got busy working on a follow-up to Godzilla. Replacing original director Ishiro Honda with Motoyoshi Oda, Toho’s Godzilla Raids Again was a step backwards for the radioactive beast, as a good majority of the film was interested in cheap cardboard destruction and monster-on-monster brawls that resembled an unintentionally hilarious slapping match. Godzilla Raids Again was a success for Toho, but reaction from audiences and critics was far from positive, sending Godzilla off on an extended hiatus. Despite Godzilla showing signs of fatigue, Toho was still busy cooking up another beast of the Atomic Age. In 1956, audiences were introduced to Rodan, the first color effort from Toho Studios. At an hour and fifteen minutes, the short-but-sweet Rodan is an aerial thrill ride that still shudders over thoughts of the bomb, but also taps into the UFO paranoia sweeping across the globe.
Rodan picks up in a small mining community of Kitamatsu, where two miners, Yoshi and Goro, have recently gone missing after a freak flood. When a rescue party led by Shigeru Kwamura (played by Kenji Sahara) begins searching the mineshafts, they discover Yoshi, barely clinging to life after apparently being slashed by an extremely sharp object. With no signs of Goro anywhere inside the mine, the local authorities believe he may have had something to do with Yoshi’s injuries. Believing Goro is on the run, authorities are placed around entrances and exits of the mine, but it doesn’t take long for several more men to turn up with the same injuries as Yoshi. One evening, Shigeru visits Kiyo (played by Yumi Shirakawa), Goro’s grief-stricken sister, in an attempt to console her about the accusations aimed at her brother. During the meeting, Shigeru and Kiyo are suddenly and viciously attacked by a giant larva-like creature called a Meganulon. Local authorities arrive just in time to scare the creature off, and they pursue it back to the mines where it is revealed that there are countless more of the creatures. While the locals scramble to kill off the Meganulon, another threat quickly reveals itself in the form of Rodan, an enormous winged pteranodon that can fly at breakneck speeds and is capable of massive amounts of destruction.
Of the three major Kaiju films released by Toho between 1954 and 1956, Rodan is the effort with the least amount of character development. It doesn’t boast the rich love triangle that we clung to in Godzilla, and it doesn’t feature the complex buddy formula that kept Godzilla Raids Again from being a total disaster. While you’d think the light approach to the characters would set Rodan up for failure, director Ishiro Honda makes sure to keep the adrenaline flowing. It’s a non-stop rush of excitement that refuses to let up. The aerial battle between JASDF and Rodan are all appropriately high-octane, even if there are a few instances where the dated special effects take you out of the action. Where Rodan really shines is in the final stretch of the film, where the winged behemoth hovers over Fukuoka and levels buildings with each flap of its wings. The detailed miniature work in this sequence is undeniably remarkable as buildings crumble into dust, cars roll through the streets, and debris tumbles down into a waiting river. While this sequence features quite a bit to admire, Honda is also capable of infusing these sequences of destruction with a goosebump-inducing shiver that works its way up and down your spine. It may lack the darkened, air raid-like attacks in the original Godzilla, but the whistling fallout wind kicked up by the monster’s wings is evocative enough to make your arm hair stand on end.
There is no denying that the epic levels of destruction keep the film’s entertainment level high, but the main attraction of any Toho Kaiju film are the monstrous abominations that kick up the mayhem. After the addition of the somewhat dull Anguirus in Godzilla Raids Again, Toho redeems themselves with not one, but two Rodans and an army of shrieking and slithering Meganulon. Predating the enormous caterpillar that wormed its way through Mothra, the Meganulon are bug-eyed monstrosities that emit ear-piercing calls and attack with a flesh-tearing savagery that really makes up for their cartoonish appearance. While the Meganulon’s are a fun little appetizer, the main course are the Rodans that glide mightily through the skies. With their leathery wings, pointed beaks, and sleek horns that protrude from their heads, the Rodans are a spooky addition to Toho’s famous line of monsters. What makes them even creepier are what they are meant to reflect. Much like Godzilla was created as a metaphor for the atomic bomb, Rodan was created in response to the UFO paranoia of the 1950s. From a distance, the Rodans resemble an unidentified flying object darting through the clouds, as skittish jet pilots frantically try to make sense of what they are seeing. In the middle of the film, a montage of scenes featuring terrified Japanese citizens staring towards the sky and pointing in awe are smartly tuned in to the reports of saucer-like objects descending from the heavens and quietly revealing themselves. When Rodan lands in the middle of a city and begins a reign of terror, the famed Kaiju seems to take the baton from Godzilla and subtly mirrors the fear of the H-bomb.
While Rodan finds Toho getting their Kaiju line back on the right track, the film isn’t without a few flaws. Some of the scenes of Rodan gliding over the heads of curious civilians are simply stock footage filler of jets leaving contrails in the bright blue sky. With all the time and money clearly put into the film, you’d think that Honda would have refused the distracting stock footage contrails for something a bit more inventive and eye-catching. Another complaint would have to be the final minutes of the film, which are essentially a montage of explosions and rockets being fired into a volcano. It becomes increasingly clear that this fiery sequence is Honda’s way of filling out the runtime of the film. However, the explosions fail to turn our empathy for the suffering Rodans to ash, and it does send you away feeling sorry for the poor creatures despite the amount of death and destruction they brought in their wake. Overall, the colorful Rodan may not be quite as somber as the original Godzilla, but the pop art action and the thoughtfulness put into the script makes this one of the more terrifying monster movies to emerge from the mushroom cloud. A minor Kaiju classic!
Rodan is available on DVD.
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
by Steve Habrat
Two years after the abysmal King Kong vs. Godzilla, director Ishiro Honda returned to the giant monster genre with yet another installment in Toho’s Godzilla franchise. Enter 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, a massively entertaining and thoroughly satisfying monster fight that more than makes up for what Honda delivered in King Kong vs. Godzilla. Once again, the emphasis in Mothra vs. Godzilla is on the earth shaking action and the epic showdown, but Honda dares to let his this film be a bit more thoughtful than the last two Godzilla efforts. With this offering, Honda is attacking big business greed, but he does it in the most colorful and exciting way possible. Thankfully, Honda never forgets why we are watching Mothra vs. Godzilla and this time around, he really makes sparks fly. Unlike the odd-couple pairing of King Kong and Godzilla, this effort actually seems a bit more plausible, mostly because these two hideous titans are coming from the same monster family rather than two separate cinematic universes. No, these are abominations of the bomb, two radioactive gods who mean to dish out some serious hurt and not simply toss boulders at each other while doing the twist.
After a typhoon washes a giant egg onto a Japanese beach, the local citizens descend upon the beach to marvel at its exotic beauty. Among the admirers is news reporter Ichiro Sakai (played by Akira Takarada) and photographer Junko Nakanishi (played by Yuriko Hoshi), who are both determined to get some answers about the big blue wonder from Professor Miura (played by Hiroshi Koizumi), who has arrived to study the egg. It doesn’t take long for local businessman Kumayama (played by Yoshifumi Tajima), a bigwig at Happy Enterprises, to show up and declare that he has purchased the egg. Pretty soon, Kumayama meets with Happy Enterprises CEO Jiro Torahata (played by Kenji Sahara) to draw up plans to turn the egg into a tourist attraction. During the meeting, the two businessmen are visited by the Shobijin (played by The Peanuts), two pint sized twin girls who claim to be from Infant Island. The Shobijin explain that the egg belongs to their god, Mothra, and that they wish to take the egg back to their island. Kumayama and Torahata ignore the Shobijin’s pleas and try to capture them in an attempt to exploit the tiny girls. The Shobijin narrowly escape the attack and they soon bump into Sakai, Nakanishi, and Professor Miura, who agree to help the girls get their egg back. Meanwhile, it appears that the egg wasn’t the only thing washed to shore. To the horror of the locals, Godzilla has re-emerged and is on the rampage. As Godzilla nears the egg and threatens to destroy it, the aging Mothra arrives to protect her what belongs to her.
While it might have seemed like a good idea at the time to bring RKO’s King Kong and Toho’s Godzilla together, the film had a hard time making this viewer buy into the fact that those two giant beasts were mortal enemies. It’s easy to see why Honda and Toho thought it might be a good idea to have these legends meet up (Kong battled dinosaurs in his first solo outing), but the two behemoths were from drastically different cinematic universes that didn’t compliment each other in the slightest. Thankfully, Mothra vs. Godzilla more than makes up for that slapdash effort with solid special effects and a completely plausible union, even for a genre film such as this. The appeal of the Toho monster movies is their tacky special effects, but King Kong vs. Godzilla really pushed it to the limit. Anyone who calls themselves a fan of “kaiju” movies knows to expect some cheese but that effort delivered moldy cheese that had been left out in the hot sun for weeks. With Mothra vs. Godzilla, Honda smartly pulls his monsters out of Japanese cities and has their battle take place largely in the scenic countryside. Godzilla still attacks a military base and he can’t resist crushing a few small villages, but widespread destruction remains on the sidelines. It’s a nice change of pace for the series that has relied on the gimmick of the radioactive dinosaur trudging his way into a crowded metropolis and smashing everything to pebbles.
Another major slip-up in King Kong vs. Godzilla were the monsters themselves, which look like they were done up by a distracted ten year old boy. Kong’s face looked like a swirl of brown and red and the rest of costume looked like it was a crewmember’s old Halloween costume complete with cardboard claws. Here, we have nothing that comes remotely close to that eyesore. Mothra looks spectacular as she soars around Godzilla’s head and grabs at his tail, a ferocious lioness protecting her young cubs. Even the first glimpse we get of her here is pretty chilling, which is surprising because she had a hard time making an impression in her first solo outing. When Mothra’s slimy young come slithering out of their big blue egg, the clash really gets good as they splash their way towards Godzilla, who has stomped off to feast on a handful of terrified school children stuck on an island. They nip on his tail and strategically spit their silk spray on the roaring giant to freeze him in place. As far as Godzilla himself goes, the big guy hasn’t looked this menacing and nasty since we first saw him in his shadowy black and white debut. When he descends upon the scattering villagers, he is welcomed by menacing horns that could easily have influenced the legendary score of Jaws. He is a force to be reckoned with, one that is out to cause serious pain, which allows us to really root for Mothra to put this radioactive abomination in his place.
Just when you think that Mothra vs. Godzilla can’t get any better, Honda decides to neatly tuck a very human story inside all that gloves-off fury. The characters here are very similar to those found in Mothra, but there doesn’t seem to be a bumbling one is sight. Takarada and Hoshi have plenty of chemistry as our two warm and surprisingly heroic leads. They team up with Koizumi’s wise Professor Miura on an exotic detour to Infant Island, which allows Honda to reflect a bit more on the atomic testing. Tajima and Sahara are perfect as the cartoonish money-hungry businessmen, who see a disaster as a quick way to make a buck. Watching them mistreat the pitiful Shobijin really pierces your heart, especially when they try to capture the girls and put them on display. It appears that sometimes, greedy humans can be even more monstrous than any radioactive giant with fire breath. Overall, while it wouldn’t have taken much to really make up for King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla goes above and beyond to erase all the bad memories of that film from the viewer’s mind. It is well-paced, intelligent, action packed, vibrant, moody, ornate, and carefully crafted for maximum entertainment. This is perhaps the most satisfying Godzilla sequel.
Mothra vs. Godzilla is available on DVD.
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
by Steve Habrat
After passing on directing duties for the 1955 Godzilla follow-up Godzilla Raids Again, director Ishiro Honda was reunited with his radioactive beast on the 1962 monster-against-monster epic King Kong vs. Godzilla. With Honda returning to the director’s chair, you’d think that sparks would fly as these two legendary names squared off against each other, but that certainly isn’t the case with King Kong vs. Godzilla. The third entry into the Godzilla franchise was probably the worst of the Toho Studios bunch at that point, but the film went on to be a megahit anyway. In America, King Kong vs. Godzilla was picked up by monster movie juggernaut Universal Studios, who further drove the film into the ground with distracting commentary sequences, horrible dubbing, inane dialogue, and even reused the bone chilling score from The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The horror doesn’t stop there, folks, as King Kong vs. Godzilla ends up being a shoddy horror outing plagued by overacting and an outrageously awful portrayal of Kong, a monster who simultaneously scared us out of our wits and earned our sympathy in his 1933 debut King Kong.
King Kong vs. Godzilla begins with the chairman of Pacific Pharmaceuticals, Mr. Tako (played by Ichiro Arishima), trying to figure out how to market an exotic berry that was just discovered on Faro Island. Mr. Tako soon learns that Faro Island is the home of the legendary monster King Kong, a beast that he believes would make a great face for his new product. Mr. Tako sends two explorers, Osamu Sakurai (played by Tadao Takashima) and Kinsaburo Furue (played by Yu Fujiki), to track the giant ape down and capture it. Meanwhile, an American submarine studying bizarre oceanic conditions gets trapped in the same iceberg that the Japanese government buried Godzilla in several years earlier. Just as help arrives, Godzilla breaks free from the iceberg and stomps off. On Faro Island, Sakurai and Furue manage to make their way past the natives and an array of exotic creature and track down King Kong. The duo captures the beast and secures him on a raft for transport to Japan. Along the way, Kong manages to break loose and head off to find Godzilla, who turns out to be his ultimate rival.
A disjointed mess from the get-go, King Kong vs. Godzilla does away with the dark atmosphere of the first two films and reintroduces these two titans of terror in glorious color. The color certainly does give the film plenty of personality, but also reveals the tackiness of the special effects. There are moments when superimposed natives or soldiers actually glow blue as they dart around and scream at the feet of the rubber monsters. The once spectacular miniature sets are now cardboard metropolises with glaringly obvious remote-controlled plastic cars and shiny train sets. Honda was able to conceal some of the cheesier moments in Godzilla because he plunged everything into moody darkness, but here, everything is presented to the viewer in broad daylight, which reveals all the screws, tape, and glue. They make you long for the days when Japanese officials ordered a black out as the radioactive Godzilla lumbered through the builds and spat a jet of fire down on the terrified citizens in crisp black and white. The rural sets fare much better than the city sequences, but these moments are marred by the two worst performances from men in rubber suits that you may ever see.
First, let’s discuss Godzilla. As it turns out, Godzilla’s slightly redesigned costume here is the one that his diehard fans adore the most. While the changes are minor (Godzilla has three toes here rather than four, he is a bit bulkier, and the eyes appear to be a bit bigger), the costume looks relatively the same. He still looks fierce with those giant fins on his back that glow white when he gets ready to unleash his fiery stream. The problem is the person inside the suit, who just swings their arms around and does something resembling a dance when he confronts his ape nemesis. Kong’s costume is the real eyesore of the two beasts, mostly because it looks like a cheapie Halloween costume that the filmmakers picked up at a grocery store. The Kong mask looks like a misshapen blob that has been used for a painting palette and the costume itself looks like an early gorilla suit that was dug out of one of the crew member’s attic. It is also clear that when Kong pounds his chest, the actor is wearing fake hands to give the illusion of longer arms. It is like a sick joke when held up next to the original stop-motion Kong, who was a hell of a lot more menacing than anything we see here. Just when you think that Honda can’t desecrate the Kong character anymore, he then informs us that Kong uses lightning to strengthen him up. Um, what?!
As far as the showdowns go between the two beasts, nothing really stands out as being particularly entertaining or exciting. It is largely like the battle you saw in Godzilla Raids Again, just sillier, shorter and in color. The first time the two beasts actually stare each other down, Kong throws boulders at Godzilla and Godzilla swings his arms around like he is trying to fly away. Perhaps the neatest action sequence of the whole film is the scene in which Kong battles a giant squid on Faro Island. It has some slimy special effects and some icky sound work that will pucker your face. As far as our human characters go, no one does anything remarkable with their character. Arishima just looks dumbfounded behind giant glasses and Takashima and Fujiki are there simply to add unfunny comic relief to the playtime action. Mie Hama also drops by as Sakurai’s sister, Fumiko, who is here as a stand-in for the original King Kong’s Fay Wray. Overall, while it may have seemed like a good idea to try to bring together the two biggest names (literally) in horror, King Kong vs. Godzilla is an empty-headed clash of two titans who mix like oil and water. Honda never hits a stride and his Americanized vision is tarnished even further with unnecessary additions. Godzilla should have stayed frozen and Kong should have remained on Faro Island.
King Kong vs. Godzilla is available on DVD.
Pacific Rim (2013)
by Steve Habrat
These days, it is extremely difficult and rare for a major Hollywood studio to take a creative risk, especially during the hot and humid summer months when audiences turn out in droves. The suits fall back on time-tested franchises, overdone remakes, comic book heroes with built-in audiences, and winded sequels that guarantee them a major worldwide hit. Take this summer, for example, as we have seen another Marvel megahit with Iron Man 3, a grim reboot of the Man of Steel, two familiar animated sequels (Monsters University and Despicable Me 2), a Brad Pitt led zombie blockbuster based off of a wildly popular novel by Max Brooks (World War Z), and another installment in the Star Trek series. While I have enjoyed all of the films I’ve pointed out here, I’ve still craved something fresh and creatively stimulating. Enter Guillermo del Toro, a man with a vivid imagination and a knack for serving up some seriously zesty cinematic efforts, both big (Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army) and small (Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth). After a lengthy hiatus from the director’s chair, we finally have a new summer blockbuster from del Toro and that film is the astonishing giant monster-giant robot mash-up Pacific Rim, a pulpy blast of rainbow science fiction that is exactly what the cinema doctor ordered. Seconds, please!
Pacific Rim begins by explaining that giant monsters known as “Kaiju” have crawled out of a portal beneath the Pacific Ocean and stomped into our cities. Unable to bring them down with the weapons we already have, the world develops a new weapon called “Jaegers,” which are giant robots capable of tossing around the raging “Kaiju.” After several exhausting years of battle, the “Jaegers” grow less and less effective in keeping the “Kaiju” at bay. The united governments of Earth grow weary of the giant robots and they decide to cut funding for their construction. The remaining “Jaegers” are shipped off to Hong Kong, where they are left to rust away and fade from memory. The remaining “Jaeger” program is left to Commander Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba), who is determined to keep the “Jaegers” fighting the good fight. Stacker approaches washed-up “Jaeger” pilot Raleigh Becket (played by Charile Hunnam), who piloted the American “Jaeger” Gipsy Danger but quit when he watched his brother die in combat, about rejoining the program in a final attempt to prevent the imminent apocalypse. Raleigh agrees and begins training to find a suitable co-pilot, which he finds in the scrappy “Jaeger” test pilot Mako Mori (played by Rinko Kikuchi). Meanwhile, bickering scientists Dr. Newton Geizler (played by Charlie Day) and Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (played by Burn Gorman) have assembled a machine that allows them to establish a mental link with the “Kaiju” and discovered that the giant monsters are in fact genetically-bred weapons sent to wipe out the human race so that their masters can colonize the planet.
While many will be quick to label Pacific Rim as a Transformers wannabe, the film has so much more to offer than one of those Michael Bay abominations. This candy-colored gem is an exhilarating ode to Toho Co., the Japanese production company that is responsible for releasing giant monster movies (called “kaiju” movies, which is Japanese for “giant monster”) like 1954s Godzilla. While Pacific Rim certainly tips its hat to Godzilla and his family of rampaging atomic beasts (Rodan, Mothra, etc.), del Toro’s vision is something completely singular. The story line is carried by the myriad of colorful characters, which consistently stand apart from the astonishing special effects and towering action sequences that are loud enough to wake up the two people sleeping through The Lone Ranger in the neighboring theater. In the vein of Toho, the action is relentless, especially the neon fist-fight between a handful of “Jaegers” and a couple of seriously nasty “Kaiju” in the middle of downtown Hong Kong. It’s a rock ‘em-sock ‘em moment of pure adrenaline ecstasy that will have adults and children cheering in delight. But the thrills don’t stop there, as del Toro keeps uping the ante and powering up his beasts for a show-stopping underwater brawl boosted by a nuclear fizz.
While the heavy metal CGI action is a must-see, Pacific Rim is a very human film and one brimming with performances that will beckon you back for more. Del Toro proves that you don’t necessarily need a Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr., or Johnny Depp in the thick of the action to keep the audience absorbed in what is playing out before them. All you need is colorfully drawn characters with fragile emotion tucked delicately inside the layered armor. The relatively unknown Hunnam is out for blood as Raleigh, and I mean that in the best possible way. He is the all-American good guy—one that is nursing deep wounds but is eager to deliver a one-two hit to the massive monsters that wade through the Pacific. His chemistry is exceptional with Kikuchi, who isn’t the same old love interest (It is hinted at but never addressed outright. Perhaps in the sequel.). Kikuchi is heartwarming as the girl with a shy crush, but she is a lightning bolt of vengeance when we are allowed to glimpse inside her broken heart. These two animated leads are kept on a short leash by Elba’s no-nonsense father figure, who pops pills for a life-threatening illness and delivers pulse-pounding speeches about meeting the “monsters that are at our door” and “canceling the apocalypse.”
While our three leads do an incredible job, the supporting players are certainly something to behold. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day is a quirky and fun choice as the tattooed “Kaiju” scientist Newton, who rambles and shakes like a hipster lunatic in oversized specs. Surprisingly, he isn’t here simply to act as the comic relief, which really is a testament to his talent. Burn Gorman is great as Day’s uber-nerd partner Hermann, who pounds on a chalkboard and hobbles around like a comic book Albert Einstein with high-waisted pants and a cane. Clifton Collins Jr. is a treat as Tendo Choi, an Elvis-like greaser “Jaeger” whiz who is determined to spice up the role of the guy who simply sits behind the computer screen and acts as a guide to the heroes in the field. Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky are great tough guys as Hercules and Chuck Hansen, a tough-as-nails Australian father-son duo tasked with a beast of a mission. The pint-sized Mana Ashida is fantastic in her minor role as a young Mako Mori. She basically just cries and wanders around with a shoe in her hand, but she sent chills down my spine with her raw emotion. Last but certainly not least is the always-welcome Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau, a blinged-out black marketeer in sinister goggles who tracks down and deals “Kaiju” organs. He shares some wonderful moments with Charlie Day’s twitchy scientist.
Considering that Pacific Rim is a tribute to Atomic Age creature features, there are numerous nods to Godzilla and many other Toho releases. I certainly smiled when Hong Kong citizens were locked into an underground shelter and huddled together as “Kaiju” footsteps boomed overhead, something that called to mind the original Godzilla. There is also a sly little tribute to the flare tactic used to keep Godzilla away from a blacked out city in Godzilla Raids Again and there is a magnificent aerial moment that sung praises to Rodan and Mothra. If there is something I absolutely need to criticize, there are a few moments where the action was a bit incoherent, but these moments are few and far between. Overall, while Pacific Rim doesn’t ever get as political and poetic as those post-World War II efforts did, there is still something deeply personal about del Toro’s vision. It is coming from the heart and it is a beautifully written love letter to the monster movies that del Toro loved as a kid. This film is a labor of love, a carefully crafted summer epic that earns its action sequences and doesn’t ever forget to remain human.
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.