Mothra (1961)

Genres - Science Fiction  |   Sub-Genres - Creature Film, Sci-Fi Action  |   Run Time - 100 min.  |   Countries - Japan   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Bruce Eder

Ishiro Honda's Mosura (1961), or Mothra (as it is known in the English-speaking world), is nearly as compelling a creation as his earlier Gojira (1954). If Gojira (aka Godzilla) was Honda and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka's accusatory allegory about Japan's nuclear victimization, then Mothra was their cautionary tale about tampering with other peoples, other cultures, and nature in general. Directed as much at Japan as at the rest of the world, its plot is steeped in warnings about the limits to which modern man may "exploit" the plunder that he finds around the world, be it animal, vegetable, or, in this case, human. If the monster Godzilla represents a manifestation of hydrogen bomb experiments gone out-of-control, Mothra stands in sharp contrast, as a pure force of nature, and a purifying force of nature. (Also, in this case, the Japanese name Mosura derives from an English root, as the Japanese word for moth -- "Ga" -- offered little in the way of a good monster name.) Indeed, among the benefits that Mothra seems to bring to Infant Island is the ability to purge and cure the effects of radiation contamination; in that sense, she's almost the "anti-Godzilla." But she is every bit as destructive, not out of malice or a malevolent nature, but due to her sheer size and power, when her environment is thrown out of balance, as it is by the kidnapping of the twin fairies (Emi Ito, Yumi Ito) by greedy entrepreneurs and speculators. In rescuing them, Mothra proves almost as destructive as Godzilla, if a little easier to placate. (Rather than kill her, the authorities and some courageous individuals arrange to restore balance to her environment by returning the twin fairies, and she leaves peacefully.)

Those are fairly advanced ideas for what was supposed to be an escapist entertainment movie for kids in 1961, and it's one reason why Mothra continues to draw audiences more than four decades later (two days of showings at New York's Film Forum in August 2004 played to virtually full houses). Additionally, the movie, especially in its 101-minute Japanese version (13 minutes longer than the U.S. dubbed version), also offers a lot of plot, characterizations, and character complications that make this film a bit more complex than the later Toho monster/sci-fi films, which were aimed exclusively at kids. Frankie Sakai, as the reporter nicknamed "Bulldog" in the U.S. version (or "Snapping Turtle" in a direct translation), is one of the most enjoyable leads in any of these movies, by turns comical and pugnacious, and ultimately resourceful and heroic. In a sense, in the relationship that he develops with Dr. Chujo's younger brother (Akihiro Tayama), he's a kind of idealized older brother, a little goofy and a little funny but there in the clutch (while the doctor himself is more of a dignified father figure to the boy); that whole relationship reflects a core part of Japanese social structure. Kyoko Kagawa is also appealing as a new kind of onscreen figure, the Japanese career woman, a working reporter and photographer who is pretty resourceful in her job and not at all demure or subservient. And Takashi Shimura, after playing a range of scientists and other exotic parts in previous Toho sci-fi/monster movies (in between profoundly serious roles in Kurosawa's movies) gets to show a lighter side to his work as the tough-talking, wisecracking newspaper editor. If not as profound or moving as Gojira/Godzilla, Mothra is every bit as rewarding and entertaining, and is well worth a second or third look, not just for those plot elements but also for Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects and the beautiful conception of Mothra herself (picture a butterfly twice the size of a battleship) and the lyricism of the special effects sequences. The 101-minute Japanese version (with subtitles) is preferred over the shorter U.S.-released edition.