by Jeremy Clarke.
You’d be forgiven for assuming Mothra (1961) to be a typical Toho monster movie in which a giant moth attacks Tokyo. However, the film single-handedly redefined the genre as much as the original Godzilla film defined it.
With a typhoon moving towards Japan, sailors abandon ship near Infant Island where nuclear weapons have recently been tested by Rolisica – an amalgam of Russia and the US. When rescued survivors are tested for radiation sickness, no symptoms are found. Two members of the press, the reporter Zenichiro Fukuda (Frankie Sakai) and his photographer colleague Michi Hanamura (Kyoko Kagawa) sneak into the team of scientists to take pictures and ask questions, learning that the natives gave them red juice to drink. They report back to their editor (Takashi Shimura).
Clark Nelson (American-Japanese actor Jerry Ito, who barely spoke Japanese in real life) leads an expedition to Infant Island where they find a jungle reminiscent of the one Pathé built in Hollywood for The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and King Kong (1933), filled with man-eating plants, hostile natives and two telepathic, singing Shobijin (lit: ‘small beauties’) about a foot tall. These two diminutive women are played by real life twin sisters Yumi and Emi Ito (a.k.a. Japanese singing sensation The Peanuts), who appeared in a dozen other films including several knockabout comedies and Toho’s next two follow-up monster pictures Mothra vs Godzilla and Ghidora The Three-Headed Monster (both 1964).
As in King Kong, the expedition leader is a showman who resolves to bring wondrous creatures back to civilisation and exhibit them in a theatre show. The two Shobijin are flown on wires in a Cinderella-type golden carriage into a theatre arena, where they sing a captivating song to the audience. But their song is actually a distress call to wake Mothra and summon her to their rescue. This is a refreshingly feminine take on a largely masculine genre, very different from Kong rampaging through New York before being shot dead, In a similar vein, Ray Harryhausen’s masterpiece The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) had featured a foot-tall woman transported in a gilded cage. Both these films happily throw brave and offbeat ideas into their narratives then run with them with scant regard for audience expectations or genre conventions.
Renowned critic Kim Newman comments in an on-disc interview that despite being captured by the evil showman and exploited, the Peanuts are also pop stars who feel obliged to put on a show rather than sulk. The tone of general good humour, warmth, charm, generosity and camaraderie in Mothra’s characters is actually a very pleasing note that makes the subsequent run of monster movies work better. The spectacle of destruction is so much a part of the appeal of these films yet Toho’s Mothra, like The 7th Voyage, conceives its monsters as wonderful, ridiculous, magical and charming. One might add that the Mothra screenplay is engagingly silly.
Mothra, in caterpillar form, hatches out of a giant egg to make her way across the sea, through aerial bombardment and an inland dam to Tokyo. She weaves a cocoon around the newly constructed Tokyo Tower before emerging as an adult moth to wreak havoc on Tokyo and later Rolisica’s New Kirk City, rescue the Shobijin and return them to their island home. This gives effects director Eiji Tsubaraya the perfect opportunity for extended scenes of scale-model mayhem, with everything done on-set in front of the camera. You’ll marvel at the level of artistry and the skill with which he, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and director Ishiro Honda integrate this technically breath-taking footage into the final film.
Our first sight of Infant Island bears a close resemblance the recurring establishing shot of Tracy Island in Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds puppet TV show (1965-66). Could it have been inspired by Mothra? Just look at the distinctive shape of the island and the way the water of the sea created in a studio tank for the film moves from left to right. Mothra also boasts silent airfields with ambulances racing across them, all rendered in immaculate and detailed model work, which again anticipate similar set-ups in Anderson’s show. Eiji Tsubaraya may not delight in blowing up his models in quite the same way, but he has buildings on fire and collapsing, often skilfully melded with other film elements such as tanks in motion with model soldiers standing exposed in their turrets and cars blown around the deserted model streets of New Kirk City by Mothra.
Eureka!’s disc contains not only Toho’s Japanese version of the film but also Columbia’s slightly different version dubbed for the US market. Each version has a commentary, one by David Kalat, author of A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series, the other by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, authors of Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa.
Toho’s production contract with Columbia Pictures in the US stipulated that Mothra should at some point in the film attack a Western city. So, as well as Tokyo, the giant moth also turns up to wreak havoc on ended up being called New Kirk City, Rolisica. At one point, it was Newark City, a name abandoned when it was pointed out that an actual Newark City existed in the real world. Kalat points out that while the film mostly takes place in and around Japan, Rolisica features heavily, mostly as a superpower interfering in Japanese home political affairs. Rolisica looks like America yet appears to be geographically located where Russia is in our world. Mothra was made at the height of the cold war yet takes place in a fantasy world where not only is the Cold War not happening, but the script has also merged its two antagonistic nations into one superpower.
Ryfle and Godziszewski dredge up a riot of compelling, incidental trivia about the production and those involved with it. This is the place you’ll learn that the location of the then recently built National Sports Centre turns up not only in Mothra but also as the Space Centre in Battle in Outer Space. They also employ excerpts from recorded interviews from the likes of actor Jerry Ito, Michael Friend (who worked on this 2009 Mothra restoration for Sony) and US ex-pat journalist Clifford Harrington, who lived in Japan at the time and moonlighted playing extras on Mothra and other movies.
A relevant extract from Ryfle and Godziszewski’s book appears in the disc’s highly informative 60-page booklet which also features writing on the film by Simon Ward, Christopher Stewardson and Jasper Sharp.