Mothra is everybody’s second favourite kaiju. The mammoth lepidopteran is beaten only by the almighty Godzilla in the pantheon of Japanese studio Toho’s most memorable monsters. Her debut came in 1961, just seven years after the film’s director, Ishirō Honda, kicked off the kaiju craze with Godzilla. Even almost six decades later, the film still stands as one of the maddest monster movies ever committed to the big screen, helped by some wacky special effects and the sheer ambition of Honda’s vision.
The movie focuses on the mysterious inhabitants of Infant Island – an isolated locale that had been presumed to lack human life before nuclear weapons tests after the Second World War. Tenacious reporter Fukuda (Frankie Sakai) – nicknamed The Snapping Turtle – dupes his way on to a boat set to explore the island and uncovers the presence of two diminutive women (twin pop duo The Peanuts), as well as a tribe of locals. Businessman Nelson (Jerry Ito) is also on the expedition and his greed drives him to kidnap the women, as well as massacring dozens of the natives.
Mothra is a less overtly political tale than Godzilla and, at times, its messaging is far more optimistic. However, it’s notably the corruption and moral bankruptcy of the western capitalist Nelson – he hails from USA-inspired fictional nation Rolisica – that leads to the “small beauties” singing the haunting song that will summon their insect protector. Naturally, Mothra has little time for humanity’s cruelty and begins to wreak destruction.
There’s an intriguing patience to the storytelling in Mothra, in which Honda directs a script by subsequently regular collaborator Shin’ichi Sekizawa. Gratification on the giant monster front is delayed until fairly late in the day, with most of the time devoted to Sakai’s comedic journalist and his linguist friend Dr. Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) attempting to rescue the women from their cruel reality of being used for circus-like shows by Nelson. Sakai’s performance is likeable enough to keep things moving, though there’s definitely a slightly too stately pace to the way things progress.
Once the titular beastie emerges from her egg, though, the tension ramps up, and the special effects mastery of Toho regular Eiji Tsuburaya is allowed to come to the fore. Mothra’s unique visual style is completely different to the dino-inspired, reptilian forms of many of the other kaiju leads and, as a result, she feels like a novel spectacle – even watched in 2020. It’s true that the special effects have dated about as well as you’d expect, but the gleeful mischief of the movie’s vibrant colour palette and enjoyably destructive action papers over any creakiness.
As the chaos escalates, though, Honda’s movie finds room for a quietly moving – albeit twee – an instance of international cooperation for the greater good. As Mothra trashes the Rolisica capital of New Kirk City, two nations come together in ensuring that the native women are able to return home, with the promise they will not be bothered again. Notably, there’s no violent conclusion in which Mothra is finally brought down, but instead an example of how humanity still has the power to fix the messes made by the worst of us. How lovely is that?
Mothra has always been one of the more characterful of Toho’s kaiju creations and, in her first outing, it’s easy to see why she has captured so many imaginations over the years. While this film may lack the visceral commentary of Godzilla and suffers from some pacing issues, it all culminates in a third act which is a joy to experience in all of its nonsense. It’s just a shame about how thoroughly squandered Mothra was in the awful Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Hopefully, her next big-screen appearance will see her in her full, madcap glory.
Dir: Ishirō Honda
Scr: Shin’ichi Sekizawa
Cast: Frankie Sakai, Kyōko Kagawa, Jerry Ito, Hiroshi Koizumi, Yumi Ito, Emi Ito, Ken Uehara
Prd: Tomoyuki Tanaka
DOP: Hajime Koizumi
Music: Yûji Koseki
Run time: 101 minutes
Mothra is available on limited edition Blu-ray from 16th November, courtesy of Eureka Entertainment.