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Mothra (1961)

Mothra (1961)

Written by Richard Durrance on 26 Mar 2021

Distributor Eureka • Certificate PG • Price £24.99

When the marketing email appeared in my inbox, replete with an image of frankly a rather swanky, psychedelic cover I was tempted to pre-order the Eureka release of Mothra. I have a real affection for Eureka, having for years flown the flag for silent cinema and releasing a lot of other fascinating films, including my first ever blu-ray, in the form of Sion Sono’s excellent, perverse and at times downright (even by his standards) disturbing, Guilty of Romance. But I didn’t. It was pretty pricy so instead added it to my list of films to be sent by post – yes, I am still that antediluvian. But I was very happy to see it arrive the through the door, reminding me, too, that I need to watch my Criterion bookset (really, it’s shaped like a bloody big book) of Godzilla films. And, of course, Mothra is directed by the man behind the camera of Godzilla, the kaiju auteur: Ishiro Honda.

At the outset Mothra is not the most entrancing of films, apparently unsure whether it’s a knockabout comedy or a disaster film. Opening with a storm warning that swells to fruition and just happens to sink a ship off a radioactive landmass, Infant Island. Abandon Ship! so shout the sailors and almost me, too. Cue rescue attempt and phew, some lucky ones survive despite the apparently irradiated landmass upon which they have had to survive, having dragged themselves from the cruel sea. Off to hospital for tests aplenty, those recued sailors are saved from the tender mercies of the press except: enter the comic relief. And not good comic relief either. As reporter, Zen, nicknamed the snapping turtle for his perseverance, and his photographer sidekick, Michi, are discovered to have infiltrated the hospital ward, dressed as doctors and start to try and interview and photograph the survivors. What is more, Zen and Michi are not turned out on their ears, frogmarched to the door and arrested for trespass but allowed to stay. Goes to show perseverance pays off. At least in the movies.

Now what about these survivors?

They are all safe and well and curiously lacking in cell destroying radiation. Why? The natives, of course! "Natives on a desolate radioactive rock?" you ask yourself - or at least I certainly did.

So what else can be done but to send a scientific party to the island? Clearly it must done! Even if the leader of the party, Nelson, is from the nation of Rolisica and looks to be the worst villain in history, and wants the scientists and military to kowtow to him. Whatever can go wrong?

So much, it seems.

Mothra is a bizarre film. Mainly because it makes not a lick of sense. Oddly, too, it’s mainly without a monster; especially in comparison to some where the monster dominates the film. By contrast, in Mothra it’s the threat of the monster and the build-up that forms the atmosphere of menace, until the obligatory disaster hits.

You cannot help but wonder at the story meetings building up to Mothra because it steals lavishly from key monster texts, most noticeably King Kong but also Conan Doyle’s The Lost World -  as well as taking concepts from Honda’s previous Godzilla. Intriguingly, unlike Godzilla, where radiation and the horror of the atom bomb feels very political, in Mothra it doesn’t seem to be at all. If anything the radioactive aspect feels like something the writers felt they had to add because when we first see Infant Island, from the perspective of a rescue helicopter, all we see is blackened, blasted earth, and some precarious survivors. The radiation seems an excuse for no one to go near the island, though the boat that sinks clearly doesn’t try too hard to skirt it, storm or no.

When the scientific party of Japanese and Rolisicans first set foot on Infant Island, we see the same blasted rock as before but it suddenly gives way to a wide expanse of lush verdant land - and is this meant to be a surprise to the party? To us? From the air all we had ever seen is bleakness, suggesting that these rocks blasted by atomic particles are entirety of the island. So how has all this lush landscape survived and thrived? It’s a bizarre moment because it feels like it’s meant to be analogous to the moment in The Lost World, when Professor Challenger and his party suddenly discover this plateau where dinosaurs still live, except in Mothra this lush world would be very visible from the air and no one seems that surprised it’s there... and yet this island was meant to be an atomic testing site. It’s not really very clear if this is a surprise as the party seem to accept it right off but to the audience it’s treated like a revelation. But who cares? Certainly not the writers.

Oddly I didn’t care too much either by this point, I’d bought into the film, even if I did feel like Conan Doyle’s pen was in the mix. Whereas Conan Doyle has his band of adventurers find dinosaurs, Mothra has its very motley crew discover flesh eating vines! And tiny princess fairies! I mean, one foot high. And very healthy looking natives! (The survivors cite the natives giving them some drug that saves them. Convenient.) Logic, for the most part, is out the window and whereas normally I don’t want too much exposition or explanation, here you feel the writers have cobbled a load of stuff together and tally-ho! (Did I also forget to mention that Zen, snapping turtle, manages to smuggle himself aboard the scientific expedition’s boat and is allowed ashore Infant Island. With a gun.)

Now we enter twisted King Kong territory. Yes, King Kong had expedition leader and movie mogul, Carl Denham, a man of few principles but who was at least reasonably honest and not wanting his movies stars and crew to get eaten alive. Mothra has Nelson, the snarlingest, sneeringest character in the history of snarling sneer. Tattoo “I am a villain and will stop at nothing!” on his forehead would make him no more or less clearly an unutterably evil bastard. From the first moment, our nominal heroes Zen and expedition linguist, Chujo, meet Nelson, you know Nelson is up to something... but what?

To kidnap the one-foot high fairies, of course, and like Carl Denham in King Kong, to put them in a show. What else would a snarling sneering villain do?

Bad move Nelson my (not so good) man, because the natives want them back and Mothra will be invoked to rescue our good, one-foot-high fairies.

Nelson, as Kim Newman notes an in the interview included as an extra, is played by American Japanese actor, Jerry Ito, whose Japanese is apparently execrable and even as a non-Japanese speaker this is clearly obvious. He sounds like me singing along to an anime theme song only worse. But that’s by the by, as what is really odd about Nelson is how, despite the fact that he looks and behaves like a failed cheap yakuza wannabe, what is very clear is that he has enormous sway with the Rolisica government, to the point of they will run air strikes for him! And give him unconditional command of the joint Rolisica-Japan scientific expedition party. Yet, he seems to barely have anyone competent that works for him, or anyone at all to the point where linguist, Chujo’s, kid brother manages to sneak in to see the two fairies.

Ah, yes, the fairies, or the “Tiny Beauties” as snapping turtle Zen calls them. Again, Mothra as a film makes not a lick of sense when it comes to them. Nelson puts them up as a show and what a show! We’ve shown crowds the like of which Donald Trump would have tantrums at and claim his were biglier! Though Nelson kidnaps the fairies and imprisons them, the tiny beauties seem happy to perform night after night for Nelson. OK, as part of their performance they sing out to Mothra, but seem almost happy to perform daily for crowds. And what crowds! Even this feels odd because you can understand King Kong, where we are obviously meant to sympathise with Kong and his escape, but Kong also makes sense insomuch that it's a spectacle. You can imagine a fifty foot high beastie bringing in an audience. What physicality! What presence! What visceral bestial power! But huge audiences cram in to watch one-foot high fairies, from a distance, and to listen to their songs though they’d barely be able to hear them, if at all. Nevertheless Honda gets in some song and dance routines with our two tiny beauties (played by Yumi Ito and Emi Ito, who it seems did have some musical success separate to the film). Actually the numbers are done with a certain panache that means, for all I seem to be mocking the film, I was happy going along with it. Yes, I recognised it was ludicrous, but at this stage but did I care? No! And the sets for the numbers are great: richly replete with colourful and otherworldly designs. You can see where they have splashed the cash and the end result is a series of beautifully performed, if mildly ludicrous, singing scenes.

So where’s the kaiju? So far some expeditions, songs and villainy but no monster!  Finally, the natives bring forth… well a very large caterpillar that like an Evangelion angel makes its slow and inevitable way towards our tiny beauties, finally to hatch into MOTHRA! And the destruction begins. Well, after the obligatory failed attempts to blow the caterpillar to king(kong)dom come.

But this is really towards the end of the film and so most of the film really hangs on Zen, Michi and Chujo slowly working out that Mothra exists, the threat it poses and trying, vainly, to convince others of the danger. Even Zen’s editor, played by the venerable Takashi Shimura cares not for their nonsense. But the world will find out how right they are when destruction comes.

And to be fair, Mothra, once hatched, is a delight. Kind of furry and knitted-like, but still colourfully wonderful. Maybe because Mothra isn’t like the thumping majesty of Godzilla, but instead sleek and graceful, causing damage simply through the turbulence of beating its wings. It feels delightfully ludicrous.

And the special effects hold up pretty well too! Yes, you can see the odd wire and colour is less forgiving when it comes to cheaper special effects. Nevertheless the movie always manages to pull off it's special effects scenes with some degree of success, be they Mothra in flight, buildings crumbling, or the blue-screened tiny beauties mixed into the same shots as normal sized humans. Suspension of disbelief is possible if you're a little forgiving. 

You could comment on the performances but what is the point? Mothra isn’t about the acting – though Shimura in his small role as Zen’s editor is clearly wasted talent – and once you get past Frankie Sakai’s mugging as Zen, you just have fun. Admittedly, Yumi Ito and Emi Ito, as the tiny beauties, really do give it their all, and considering their roles were entirely blue screened, kudos to them. Just look at the blue screening in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and you can see just how bad acting can be when playing to a screen!

It’s not all fun though - like Godzilla, the film does have a political point to make. Rolisica is clearly meant to be some form of Russia-US hybrid, an imperialist political power that will happily throw its weight around, back cheap gangsters and go out of its way to protect them, as Rolisica does Nelson. Rolisica if anything seems more recognisable as a stand-in for the US. Shots of the city are created in the US, and it utilises Western actors for most of the politicians or civilians.

You can easily watch Mothra ignoring any of the "issues" it tries to address and, after all, Nelson is such an absurdly evil git that he eclipses any pretence of the film having much intellectual merit.

Oddly to me, Eureka sells Mothra as a "psychedelic" film, which may let some viewers down given that, Mothra's colouring and the tiny beauties aside,  the film isn't very psychedelic at all.

Visually, the print Eureka put out is a good one that brings out the best of the creature and especially the sets used for the tiny beauties musical numbers, as odd as they are narratively. There is one very obvious niggle though. Director Honda isn’t cited on the credits. But his name appears about five minutes into the film, suddenly, amongst normal subtitles. It’s a single mistake but its poor QC on the disc.

I cannot say I investigated the audio-commentaries or the English version of the film, which appears to be missing about ten minutes, but the ever-obligatory interview with Kim Newman is always worth watching and he is clearly a fan. I must admit by the end so was I. That said, would I want to pay the RRP for it? No. I appreciate the release comes with a 60 page booklet (then again most of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema films do).

It’s crying out to be included in a box-set alongside Godzilla or Arrow’s Gamera. I enjoyed Mothra a lot, but not 25 quid a lot. It’s not Godzilla, and the original of that series is genuinely an excellent film and Mothra, for all its colour, can't take on the King of the Monsters.

Makes as much sense as pogo-sticking across the arctic in a pair of shorts but a lot of fun once you buy into the story

Richard Durrance
About Richard Durrance

Long-time anime dilettante and general lover of cinema. Obsessive re-watcher of 'stuff'. Has issues with dubs. Will go off on tangents about other things that no one else cares about but is sadly passionate about. (Also, parentheses come as standard.) Looks curiously like Jo Shishido, hamster cheeks and all.


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