Before I swerve back to Godzilla in the next phase of my Toho kaiju marathon, I'd like to offer some attention to another tokusatsu film from which the King of the Monsters is absent. While there is probably no question that Godzilla is the most popular kaiju out there, there is one other monster within the Toho canon whose popularity is worth noting. That monster is Mothra, the behemoth lepidopteran whose frequent clashes with Godzilla make her one of his most recognizable foes. However, before Mothra fought Godzilla, she had her own film.
A bit oddly for a kaiju film Mothra was not an original creation but was adapted from a novel, specifically The Luminous Fairies and Mothra by Takehiko Fukunaga, Shinichiro Nakamura, and Yoshie Hotta. Not much is known about the book in the west, which has been greatly overshadowed by Toho's adaptation and subsequent sequels, but Mothra's unconventional origins may explain some of the movie's more unusual characteristics, which distinguish it from similar fare like Godzilla or Rodan. I'll detail more as those differences arise.
The film opens with the destruction of the Daini-Genyo-maru, which runs aground during a typhoon. Later, a rescue team discovers that some survivors managed to swim to Infant Island, a desert island in the South Pacific which has been the subject of several nuclear weapons tests. Remarkably, the survivors appear to have suffered no ill effect from their exposure to the island's residual radiation and what's more claim to have been rescued by the island's supposedly non-existent inhabitants. Despite attempts to keep this under wraps while the Japanese and "Rolisican" governments figure out what to do, two reporters, Zenichiro Fukuda and Michi Hanamura, break the story. In response the Rolisican and Japanese governments publicly announce a joint expedition to investigate Infant Island.
It bears mentioning at this point that Rolisica is a very transparent analogue to America, so much so that I'd forgotten that it wasn't America in the years since my original viewing of the film. This is to my knowledge the first time Toho uses a fictional country (in the same vein as Marvel's "Latveria" or Tintin's "Syldavia") in lieu of a real one, but it won't be the last. What's a little bit odd though is that unlike most examples of fictional countries, Rolisica is clearly a superpower: it uses nuclear weapons, it's government is strong enough to effectively ignore the Japanese public, and it contributes as much to the military actions later in the film as does the JSDF, even before events move toward Rolisica itself. This makes its presence all the more conspicuous, along with Toho's decision to not just use the United States instead. I'm uncertain what the thinking was behind this decision - perhaps the company didn't want to give the appearance of fanning anti-American sentiment - but it does strike me as more than a little odd.
Anyhow, the scientific expedition, led by the Rolisican businessman Clark Nelson, sets off, including the stowaways Fukuda and Hanamura as well as the anthropologist Shinichi Chūjō. What it finds on Infant Island proves most remarkable - despite the desolate appearance of the island from outside, it's interior is actually a very lush jungle. What's more, not only does the island's inhabitants include (ostensibly Polynesian) natives but also a pair of extraordinarily small women, the aforementioned "luminous fairies" of the book. After the twins save Chūjō's life from a carnivorous plant, the expedition agrees to leave the island and keep what they found a secret while also discouraging nuclear testing. Fukuda and Hanamura's employer is displeased when they return without anything to report, but they maintain their vow of silence despite his pressure.
Nelson, who was hoping to extract some profits from the costly expedition, is less concerned with honoring his promise, however. With the help of several other Rolisicans he returns to the island to kidnap the twins, killing several natives in the process. Given that this is a giant monster movie, it may come as little surprise that this turns out to have been a singularly bad idea. After the slaughter the surviving natives return to their temple to call upon the aid of their god Mothra, whose existence Chūjō had previously alluded to upon examination of some ancient inscriptions he found.
Unaware of the danger he's invoking, Nelson proceeds to use the twins - whom Fukuda dubs the "little beauties" or Shobijin - as the centerpiece of a stage show he puts on. Ironically, it is later revealed (and inferred beforehand) that the show provides the Shobijin with a means to reach out toward Mothra, aiding their rescue by providing a psychic link between themselves and the giant monster. Upon discovering Nelson's deception Fukuda and Hanamura inflame public opinion against Nelson, but for the moment he is protected by diplomatic immunity. Meanwhile, Mothra hatches as a giant caterpillar and begins her journey across the Pacific and towards Japan.
The film's message here is fairly explicit: while the moral culpability of humans in the destruction wrought by Godzilla and Rodan in prior films is somewhat debatable it is absolutely clear here that humans (and more specifically, Nelson and the Rolisican government for backing him) are to blame for all the destruction that is to follow. At no point is Mothra regarded as an antagonist, not even in the same "force of nature" sense that Godzilla is often regarded. Her goal is simple: to rescue the Shobijin, who have been abducted and enslaved. That thousands may die if she is not appeased is only considered as a consequence of Nelson's irresponsible actions. Mothra is nothing less than a wrathful (and protective) deity, striking down the enemies of her chosen people. Taken to its logical extreme, this is actually somewhat repugnant to our modern way of thinking, but it is entirely reasonable by the standards of a traditional polytheistic culture: you mess with the gods, you wreak their vengeance. The film doesn't go quite that far - Mothra avoids engaging the Japanese and Rolisican militaries whenever possible - but the implication is there.
It helps that, in comparison with Godzilla and Rodan, Mothra is much lighter. There are a lot more jokes and the protagonists are of a more comedic nature than those from the preceding films. But Mothra's quasi-joviality shouldn't be mistaken for camp and the movie treats the threat of Mothra very seriously, even if she is herself considered morally good. The Shobijin state in no uncertain terms that many people will die if they are not returned. They want to avoid such a tragedy if at all possible, of course, but it is inevitable if Nelson does not yield. The moral is clear: do not exploit foreign cultures, respect the divine, and do not let greed drive your actions.
I've always had a soft spot for Mothra myself - both the film and the beast herself. Westerners are somewhat divided on her, but she is among the most popular kaiju in Japan, once coming in at the top of a survey of Japanese women. Unlike most kaiju she is - at least within the ethical framework of the films - explicitly and unequivocally good. Later films emphasize this even further, going so far as to showing Mothra sacrifice herself to protect humanity even after her trust have been violated and promises have been broken. What can I say? A part of me really likes the idea of a giant monster that always comes down on the side of the humans.
On the technical side, Toho fires on all cylinders. The special effects are admittedly dated, but that's to be expected with a half-century old film and toy tanks aside most of it is done competently. Mothra herself looks pretty good, though she's a tricky thing to animate seeing as how her anatomy does not lend itself to a rubber suit the way Godzilla or Rodan's does. Instead, both the larval and imago forms of Mothra are played by puppets, though built to a scale comparable with Toho's suited men. The imago form is the most beautifully built of the two, though we see very little of it, probably because of the difficulties in animating her in flight. On the musical side, Yuji Koseki (as well as the Peanuts, who play the Shobijin) provide the film with a beautiful and often haunting soundtrack, the highlight of which is likely the Shobijin's prayer/ode to Mothra, even if the film does wear it a little thin (but then, as Nelson' growing frustration shows, that's kind of the point).
All in all, I'd recommend Mothra to any kaiju fan who has not already seen it: it's one of the better stand-alone films in the genre and it compares favorably with Godzilla even if its tone and its themes are significantly different (aside from director Ishiro Honda's continuing focus on the harmful effects of nuclear radiation). Additionally, I'd say the film is worthy of a watch by casual fans of classic science fiction as well. The special effects are no better or worse than most of what Hollywood was producing at the same point and the story is fairly compelling, even if it is "just about a giant moth."