Monday, January 7, 2013

Mothra

"One of Toho's best films... abandoning the semi-documentary style ... in favor of color-filled, dream-like imagery.  ... you've got a preposterous, beguiling fantasy."

-Stuart Galbraith IV, Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo: The Incredible World Of Japanese Fantasy Films [p.168]-









Up to this point, we've spent time looking at some of Ishiro Honda's earliest science fiction.  Gojira [1954] was dark - very dark, but was unstoppable in its singular vision to incorporate the political climate of Japan.  Only Godzilla Raids Again [1955] surprisingly went to another director.  Rodan [1956] was your classic, albeit, mostly grim Saturday afternoon creature feature.  The Mysterians [1957] and Battle In Outer Space [1959] were the first two components of his sci-fi trilogy.  Both were spectacular if a little devoid of the all-important human component.  The black and white Varan The Unbelievable [1958] demonstrated even less joy and was a generally plodding affair.  H-Man [1958] offered serious science fiction crime noir.   With the arrival of Mothra [1961] and the 1960s, things start to get interesting for Toho, Ishiro Honda, special effects wunderkind Eiji Tsuburaya producer Tomoyuki Tanaka particularly in their efforts to incorporate humor and humanity into their already smashing spectacle pictures.  If I had to recommend one to check out, Mothra would rank the best to date.  Still, this was just the beginning of Toho's fortunes as their fantasy pictures would become even more entertaining largely due to the influence and success of some of Mothra's ingredients as demonstrated in King Kong Vs. Godzilla [1962].



Mothra's tale begins following a storm as four survivors of the Genyo-Maru II are rescued from Infant Island and are observed for radiation sickness. Miraculously they survive lethal levels of radiation potentially saved by a red juice provided by the natives of the island.  Of course, Infant Island was a nuclear test site by the Rolisican government and there was no evidence of inhabitants to be recorded.  The island is symbolic, once again, of Honda's own nuclear fears and the testing that had resumed following World War II on the Bikini Islands between 1946 and 1958.  The Genyo-Maru II is representative of the fishing vessel caught in those tests called the Daigo Fukuryu Maru.  The Rolisican government is a fictitious government standing in for America.  These historical aspects have been well-documented to date in my coverage of all things Ishiro Honda.







An expedition team, headed by capitalist Clark Nelson and anthropologist/linguist specialist Shinichi "Chujo" Tyuujou, played by Hiroshi Koizumi, and radiation specialist Dr. Harada, is sent to Infant Island, a Polynesian island, as part of a joint effort between the Japanese and the Rolisican Embassy.  Once again, this underscores Honda's vision and belief that cooperation and coordination is necessary for a sustained peace and the proper application of technology and science.  Partnership is essential to Honda.







News reporters Zenichiro "Bulldog" Fukuda, played by a popular Japanese comedian Frankie Sakai and photographer Michi Hanamura, played by the lovely Kyoko Kagawa, join the team and add a certain levity and bounce to the often heavy-handed proceedings of the Toho kaiju eiga pictures really for the first time. This approach would become more pronounced and proved effective and popular in future films.  Sakai is perfect at balancing humor with the empathetic in his role never becoming a bumbling joke, but the comedic efforts of Toho can really trace back to Sakai here.





According to Stuart Galbraith IV in his book Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!, actress Kyoko Kagawa [who played a reporter], didn't actually "remember working on these films at all."  That, of course, or she chose not to remember much like actress Yumi Shirakawa [The Mysterians, Rodan] who appeared to be embarrassed about discussing these projects on her curriculum vitae when also requested for an interview. Some actresses, but not most, clearly did not hold these pictures in high esteem.  Most Japanese actors and actresses embraced the fantasy films.



Suited up in radiation gear, the team begins to discover the unexpected and the fantastical on Infant Island. Chujo falls unconscious after being attacked by the local plants of the island, a vampire vine of some type.  But Chujo is saved by two small women as viewers are introduced to the popular singing duo The Peanuts.



Apart from the infusion of humor for Mothra, The Peanuts, the iconic fairies of Mothra, were portrayed by Japanese twins Emi and Yumi Ito, and delivered another fantastical layer to the genre.  The Peanuts were indeed a terrific visual gimmick of the sort popular in Sinbad pictures.  The girls were also Japanese pop stars scoring number ones through King Records in Japan in 1959.  They also recorded The Peanuts Around The World for Columbia Records and appeared on American broadcasts like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Danny Kaye Show.















Back into the jungles of bizarro land that is Infant Island, the team happens upon the fairies who are apparently speaking in some kind of indecipherable code.  Miraculously they are somehow interpreted by Chujo.  The fairies wish for their island to be unscathed from nuclear testing.  The fairies are picked up, like Fay Wray of King Kong [1933], by the Rolisican corporate sponsors, clearly representatives of evil and symbols of greed.  It is nearly comical to see them handling literal barbie dolls, but these were the days of real effects and Japanese barbies were the perfect substitute for the handling of real Peanuts with the absence of CGI.  Honestly we have come a long way, but I wouldn't trade that moment for all the advancements in the world - it's absolutely priceless! My whole family just howled.  I had trouble loading the video clip so the images will have to do.



Of course, most of the expedition is horrified by the actions of the two company men.  The natives literally grow restless, come out of the forest and demand the fairies be released.  They are set free.  The little girls wave.  They smile.  No hard feelings.  Incredible.  If I were the fairies I would have executed orders that these invaders be destroyed immediately, but Honda's message is always one of understanding and enlightenment while enchanting his viewers, until of course the villains abscond with the wee ladies and then all bets are off.



So the tiny beauties, as Fukuda calls them, or shobijin [small beauties], clearly inhabit an island impacted by nuclear testing but inform the expedition not to perform further testing.  We can only assume these islanders go underground during times of crisis.

Upon returning to the mainland, the expedition is kept hush.  It's somewhat surprising to see Fukuda silent on the events that unfolded.  Chujo and Fukuda unearth information on Nelson who had once trekked to the Amazon in 1954 in search of beautiful women for his entertainment empire.  You guessed it - The Peanuts are next!





So while Chujo explains to Fukuda that he has etched cave writings from Infant Island on a cloth that speak of Mothra, Nelson, meanwhile, has sent his cronies back to the island to abduct those wee little Peanuts.

The natives are massacred and the great Mothra is summoned by the bloodied tribal leader.  A rock face crumbles as the remaining islanders behold a beautiful, massive-sized Easter egg dubbed Mothra.







Before long publicity photos of the fairies start making their way in the world publicizing Nelson's latest effort.  They are a circus-like attraction dubbed The Secret Fairies Show.  Meanwhile, the newspaper wonders why Fukuda never spoke of these girls.  He does present a case for vindication explaining his desire to protect them seemed in the best interests of the islanders.  As a human being he felt it was the right thing to do.  Fukuda demonstrates a selfless side of his humanity.  Nelson on the other hand is shameless in his efforts to enslave the two fairy beauties.



Not unlike King Kong's island abduction the girls are brought back to the mainland and the civilized world for the benefit of making money.  The morality play that is greed is at the root of all evil is very much in play.  The fairies are abducted from the comfort zone of their island.  This is an alien place to them as much as New York was to King Kong.  But what the fairies can do that Kong could not is sing.  And boy can they sing!  Their tiny little golden pipes belt out some of the most beautiful notes and away they go entertaining the masses with their delightful songs. Honestly it's no surprise that Japan and other Asian nations churn out girl pop duos and girl pop groups by the dozens.  They are indeed easy on the eyes and their melodies are enough to lure you into a trance like the songs of a siren luring ships to the rocks.  Just gorgeous.  Each film's production number has become something of a Honda staple when considering H-Man and Rodan both highlight similar nightclub-like productions.



Additionally, the fairies' song appears to transmit and speak to their native islanders who are chanting and singing a similar song on Infant Island summoning forth Mothra like the natives on Skull Island.  Of course, this makes sense as later we learn that the girls can telepathically communicate to their islanders and perhaps Mothra.

On the mainland, Chujo and Fukuda discover Nelson is confining the girls in a bird cage.  Unfortunately, the girls warn that many innocents will die if they are to be saved.  Mothra is coming.



The great egg cracks and a larvae bursts forth.  The imprisoned fairies are headline news photographed by Kyoko secretly.  The larvae worm is floating across the ocean.  Mothra is coming!





The girls sing and their sounds beckon to Mothra as it makes its way across the sea with Tokyo the target, once again, of another terrific Tsuburaya creation.  Like the harbinger of death, Mothra is coming.

Chujo requests the fairies send Mothra back home.  Unfortunately, Mothra is a creature of instinct hell bent on saving the islanders.  It is a force of nature, a beast without a moral compass or understanding of right and wrong.  Mothra is pure mission and it is ironically a maternal one to save her inhabitants even at the expense of the living to do so.

Still scientists believe they can use a synthetic material from nuclear reactors [could material from the fires of something so evil be utilized for good?] to shield the fairies' brainwaves and thus hide them from Mothra.  In effect, maybe Mothra will leave. This merely masks a moral wrong and that will never go unanswered.



Mothra's advance brings about the launch of Japanese fighters and the usual Japanese onslaught begins.  But Mothra's advancement to save the girls is an interesting twist, moreso than Rodan, because Mothra generates great sympathy.  Rodan acted to save a fellow winged creature.  Mothra acts to save human islanders.  It is acting solely out of a need to save lives that were wrongfully sequestered.  This can only be the beginning of what would become a love for a national icon in Japan.  Unlike Godzilla, Mothra is entirely a feminine phenomenon and its maternal instincts find great support from fans of the kaiju eiga series as much as it finds sympathy from those who understand its mission to save life.  It explains why Mothra has appeared in several Japanese films.



Meanwhile, Rolisica supports Nelson's rights abroad as a businessman. Not a good decision.

As Mothra wreaks havoc and takes lives, Shinichi, Chujo's young brother, sneaks into Nelson's place to rescue the fairies.  The scenes of devastation are truly impressive once again thanks to Tsuburaya's model work.  Mothra, the creature itself, even in its larval form is striking.  Rodan looked great, but Mothra is a marvel as it crawls along the ground in epic fashion, a truly original, juggernaut of a thing that doesn't come off as a man in a suit.  It seems to slink along walking upstairs alone or in pairs [think Godzilla Vs. The Thing] and making a slinkety sound, a thing, a thing, a marvelous thing - everyone knows its Mothra.  Based on the evidence here Godzilla has nothing on this little fellow.



When it reaches Tokyo Tower, Mothra undergoes its infamous transformation sequence as it begins spitting its webbing.  Mothra is undergoing its chrysalis phase.  Mothra reborn, phase two, is coming!

Mothra is fully cocooned.  All out attacks commence on the cocoon in accord with the Rolisican government.  Heat rays are employed.  Meanwhile, Nelson and his cronies have escaped to the island of Rolisica with their two fairy beauties.  They taunt them to sing and unknowingly tell them Mothra has been destroyed, but Mothra has merely finished its transformation into a big fluffy, lovable Thing.

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In Tokyo Mothra breaks free of its cocoon and more havoc ensues.  The flying creature is a gorgeous, colorful creation of the imagination with wing power reminiscent of Rodan for sheer destructive capability causing all manner of carnage, but a wing span to behold too.  Tsuburaya never tired of destroying his model creations.  In fact, comically enough, despite the near annihilation of modern civilization everyone still smiles and waves goodbye to Mothra by episode's end.  This is clearly a creature that is not misunderstood and a great reservoir of empathy lies within the hearts of the Japanese people for its existence.  No hard feelings.



Mothra wasn't some clunky monster hell bent on destruction for destruction's sake - a nightmarish creation of the atom bomb.  No, Mothra was summoned as a beautiful monstrous savior of two island girls wrongfully abducted and absconded back to the mainland for a road show tantamount to King Kong mania.

What of the fate of New Kirk City [you can't make this stuff up, but the Japanese can]? Nelson?  Mothra?  The tiny beauties? This and more in the final minutes of Toho's fantasy extravaganza that is Mothra.



Mothra was the third in Honda's approach to "the trappings of American 'giant insect' movies of the 50s" [p.29], noted Galbraith IV. Clearly, the aspect that appealed most to the youth in America was its extreme sense of fantasy that was uniquely or "singularly" Japanese. As Gailbraith noted, Mothra was a "colorful, impossibly large moth whose flapping wings create hurricane-sized wind storms" that wreaked havoc and was ultimately "vivid and imaginative but, perhaps, a bit bizarre for American audiences" [p.29], yet, again, kids seemed to understand these films like myself. There was indeed a "dream-like" quality to these Japanese fantasy pictures. They were immense and beautiful. Mothra remains an icon of the Japanese kaiju eiga genre that may be potentially the most popular next to Godzilla and Gamera.

Mothra succeeds not just largely on the breadth and scope of imagination provided by Honda and Tsuburaya but by infusing the story with a host of real characters and good humor making Mothra one of the most entertaining and fun of Honda's fantasy pictures.  More than Rodan, there is much more humor and character abound in Mothra making it the most fun to date.  Mothra represents the third film in Honda's rise to acclaim as a monster movie director.  Gojira set the world afire, while Rodan added to the mystique of the men behind Toho's kaiju eiga, but Mothra was the film that cemented a reputation for the creative team that seemed to really bring together elements of character and story to their special effects creations.



The film was based on the book The Luminous Fairies And Mothra with a terrific adaptation to script by key writer Shinichi Sekizawa. This is Sekizawa's best screenplay to date following the humorless Varan The Unbelievable [1958] and the sterile but visually appealing Battle In Outer Space [1959].  As Kalat noted in his book, A Critical History And Filmography Of Toho's Godzilla Series, Sekizawa gave Honda's "escapist family movies a deeper level of sophistication."  Sekizawa would become known for the fantastical lighter fare, while Takeshi Kimura would be known for the darker works [see writer footnote in Rodan]. Mothra proves things are about to get even more interesting with Honda's kaiju eiga.

Mothra: B+. Director: Ishiro Honda. Writer: Takehiro Fukunaga, Yoshie Hotta, Shinichiro Nakamura, Shinichi Sekizawa.



"Mothra... was not so much a horror movie as an action fantasy for the whole family, a tone that better suited the brightly colored, widescreen spectacle Toho's kaiju eiga had now become." -David Kalat, A Critical History And Filmography Of Toho's Godzilla Series [p.44]-



Additional Commentary:
As writer David Kalat notes complementing my own reflections in the conclusion, the Japanese people, in essence, embrace Mothra, unlike Rodan and Godzilla.  The people wave goodbye to the great island creature and even welcome its return.  Kalat notes Mothra is indeed a force like Rodan, "but she is not a menace to be destroyed" [p.63].



Kalat accurately notes that Toho and Honda began moving in the direction of Mothra with Rodan's own "crudely defined" personality.  Mothra has "intelligence" and "noble motivations."  Kalat states that the real villain here, or monster, is not Mothra, but rather the "greedy capitalist Clark Nelson."  One could certainly argue that man has always been the villain to a certain extent even with Godzilla.  Though Godzilla hardly attacked with noble intent as Mothra does here in Mothra. The legendary Godzilla was spawned by the villainy of atomic weapons created by the hands of man and his quest for power.  This has always been at the heart of Honda's message.  Granted, Kalat's point is well-taken and Mothra takes a giant leap into fantasy from the much grittier darker world of Gojira and even the empathetic world of Rodan.



Elements of humor are abound here and Mothra embraces a human dynamic and dramatic component within Mothra absent from some features to date.  This popular amalgamation with would reverberate for decades as part of the Toho fantasy.  Mothra even introduces children to the mix offering a glimpse of another popular element to the kaiju eiga pictures of the future particularly popularized by the Gamera pictures and Daiei Studios.  I mean Mothra even pre-Gamera's the corner on the kid market.



But ultimately it is the humanity and humor of a terrific ensemble cast and their chemistry combined with an empathetic approach to Mothra with more complex motivations that makes Mothra such a success and awakens Toho to even greater possibilities to come.  In fact, many of the elements that would make Mothra such a success would be reconstituted and fortified to greater effect in King Kong Vs. Godzilla, as mentioned earlier, also penned by Sekizawa.  Kalat accurately notes these ideas would be "recycled" reappearing in other pictures.  Toho knew how to mine a good thing.



The tiny beauties and the incorporation of The Peanuts is also a clever visual touch adding further depth to the story and character ensemble.

Thematically, Mothra is a fantasy picture immersed in anti-capitalism, as both Galbraith IV and Kalat note in their books.  Kalat states Mothra was filmed during a period of economic rebuilding in Japan and Mothra is a "critique" on Western values and capitalism.  Perhaps it was a cautionary tale as well for Japan's own socially-conscious, but capitalistically-driven culture.  As Kalat reflected, Japan still puts the "social good over pure profit."  Kalat points to Aliens [1986] by James Cameron as a film with a similar message but distinctly noting that Mothra is a "family" picture firmly grounded in the fantasy world.



Additionally, the theme of religion is also in play through Mothra's use of crosses and its underscoring of Mothra as one of the "monster-gods." These creatures are like "superweapons" moderating between competing groups in the films.  This theme can be seen in all manner of Toho films such as Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla [1974; also known as Godzilla Vs. Cosmic Monster] as one example.  Civilians and innocents always die as Kalat notes.  "The army is always powerless."  The creatures will not relent until some form of cooperation or peace can be resolved.

Once again, Mothra, as a creation, as Kalat notes, though self-evident and noted earlier, is "beautiful, colorful and elegant, simultaneously delicate and powerful."



Actor Footnote: Hiroshi Koizumi [1926-present].  Koizumi had a number of feature film roles within the genre for Toho. His films include Godzilla Raids Again [1955], Mothra [1961], a favorite and a strong role in Matango [1963], Atragon [1963], a return for Mothra Vs. Godzilla [1964] as a different character, Dogora [1964], Ghidorah, The Three Headed-Monster [1964], Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla [1974], The Return Of Godzilla [1984] and finally Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. [2003].  As you can see, Koizumi is a notable figure in some of the very best of the genre favorites from Toho.



Actress Footnote: The Peanuts: Emi Ito [1941-2012] and Yumi Ito [1941-present].  Pop singers who portrayed the pint-sized tiny beauties as the fairies in Mothra. Enjoyed pop success on the Japanese charts in 1959 and recorded one English language pop recording. They were cast as the shobijin [little beauties] in Mothra. According to Steve Ryfle in Japan's Favorite Mon-Star they were popular probably less for their talents and more for their "speaking-in-unison shtick and Eiji Tsuburaya's trick photography" [p.101].  They have a fairly extensive discography and the sibling duo retired in 1975.

Writer footnote: Shinichi Sekizawa [1921-1992]. Sekizawa would begin making a significant name for himself opposite Takeshi Kimura who was also one of Toho's notable scriptwriters.  Most of the kaiju eiga genre favorites were either written by Kimura [see writer footnote in Rodan] or Sekizawa.  Both screenwriters have since passed away.  Sekizawa's highlights are many including: Varan The Unbelievable [1958], Battle In Outer Space [1959], Mothra [1961], King Kong Vs. Godzilla [1962], Atragon [1963], Mothra Vs. Godzilla [1964], Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster [1964], Dogora [1964], Invasion Of Astro-Monster or Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero [1965], Godzilla Vs. The Sea Monster [1966], Son Of Godzilla [1967], Godzilla's Revenge [1969], Latitude Zero [1969], Godzilla Vs. Gigan [1972; written with Takeshi Kimura], Godzilla Vs. Megalon [1973; written with Takeshi Kimura], and Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla [1974].  The man was like the J. J. Abrams of his day he was so busy.  He was a definitely a Toho favorite along with Kimura.







Actor footnotes: Akihiko Hirata [See The Mysterians] and Takashi Shimura [see Gojira].

5 comments:

Troy L. Foreman said...

All I hear in my head is that song, Save the earth...save the earth! Classic film..for a japanese monster movie! Great read!!

Francisco Gonzalez said...

That shibojin song that appears in Mothra vs. Godzilla is so freaking catchy, I love that movie, it's one of my favorites of the Godzilla movies. I have yet to see this one though, i need to get my ass moving, I really want to check this one out.

Agree, Mothra is more of a defender of earth then a destroyer like Godzilla, it is a benevolent creature. This is why I found Mothra vs. Godzilla: The Battle for Earth so interesting, it presents us with the idea of an evil Mothra named Batra.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Troy. Hope you are well.
You have got me completely intrigued with checking out the English version as well.

All the best

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Hi Francisco.
I'm looking forward to covering the first Godzilla Vs The Thing later this year.

But I do love, as you said, Mothra, defender of the Earth. She is very much that kind of monster.

And, as you note that becomes more pronounced with each ensuing picture.

Troy L. Foreman said...

Yea, definitely check it out when you get the chance. Man, it's been years since I've seen that movie, but do remember that part! Also, looking forward to your take or review on teh BTFB book!