Well, Godzilla's certainly getting a lot more attention now than he has for a long while! With all of the excitement surrounding the release of a new trailer for America's second crack at the Big G now seemed as good a time as any to resume my coverage of Toho's past excursions into the world of giant monsters. This time I'll be covering Mothra vs. Godzilla, one of the most important (and well-made) films in Toho's library.
I've touched briefly before on the fact that the Toho's tokusatsu films during the Showa period - with a few exceptions - are all part of a shared continuity. To draw a comparison, this was not altogether very different from Marvel's ongoing "cinematic universe," wherein each film more or less stands on its own but is tied into a larger web of interrelated events. Toho's continuity was ultimately a bit looser than Marvel's, but the comparison gives you a sense of how everything tied together. And it was Mothra vs. Godzilla which first firmly established this shared universe's existence.
King Kong vs. Godzilla may have been Godzilla's first major crossover, but for various legal and narrative reasons the giant ape in that film was not the same one which had appeared in the original 1933 film, nor was there a shared continuity between the two. However, the Mothra featured in Mothra vs. Godzilla, despite some notable differences, is most definitely the same kaiju which appeared three years earlier in Mothra, thus establishing for the first time that Toho's top-billing kaiju all existed within a shared universe. For this reason alone Mothra vs. Godzilla is a historic film. It also happens to be a pretty good one.
With the commercial success of the previous film, it was little surprise that Toho was eager to revisit Godzilla again. After briefly considering pitting Godzilla against Frankenstein's monster, Toho instead hired Shinichi Sekizawa to pen a script putting Toho's two most successful kaiju against one another. Ishiro Honda was signed once more to direct and Eiji Tsuburaya brought on for special effects. The initial script focused very heavily on Godzilla, with Mothra playing a secondary role, but by the time it was finished, the situation had reversed, with Mothra arguably taking the central focus.
The film opens as a typhoon ravages the eastern coast of Japan, near the Aichi prefecture. After the storm has wreaked its damage, reporter Ichiro Sakai and photographer Junko Nakanishi, head to Kurada Beach to report on a local politician's assurances to the public about reconstruction. While there they uncover a strange, scale-like piece of flesh, which immediately grabs their attention, in part due to its radioactivity. At about the same time, not a great distance away, a group of local fishermen discover to their surprise an enormous egg which has appeared offshore following the storm. Convinced it may be of some value, the villagers move to recover it and claim it for themselves.
News about the egg's appearance spreads quickly and it is not long before it reaches Sakai and Nakanishi. With their editor Murata's begrudging permission, the two switch stories to focus on it, instead of the reconstruction plans. Looking for a lead, Sakai and Nakanishi turn to a local scientist, Professor Miura, who they believe might have some expertise to offer on the matter. They are interrupted, however, when Kumayama, a businessman who has his own interests in the egg, arrives. Claiming to represent a company called Happy Enterprises, Kumayama offers to purchase the egg from the villagers. After a slightly amusing bit of haggling over exactly how many chicken eggs the leviathan ovoid is worth, the villagers agree to a price and sell the egg to Kumayama, much to Sakai, Nakanishi, and Miura's consternation.
Kumayama later meets with Jiro Torahata, the leader of Happy Enterprises, to report the good news. As the two discuss their plan to make the egg a local tourist attraction they are interrupted by the sudden appearance of the Shobijin, who explain that the egg is Mothra's and demand that Kumayama and Torohata return it to Infant Island. Evidently unperturbed by what happened the last time someone thwarted Mothra's will, the two businessmen attempt to capture the Shobijin and add the two to their collection.
The Shobijin escape, however, eventually reaching Sakai, Nakanishi, and Miura outside, who were already nearby to investigate Happy Enterprises. The Shobijin repeat their message, claiming that if Mothra's egg is not returned it will bring great destruction to Japan. Sakai, Nakanishi, and Miura agree to help the Shobijin and take them back to Happy Enterprises to make their plea. It proves no use, however, and the Shobijin resign themselves to failure and leave, revealing that Mothra has been watching the entire time. Although Sakai attempts to incite a public outcry by writing an article on the subject, he too eventually succumbs to a feeling of powerlessness when the law appears to be on Happy Enterprises' side.
With Mothra's egg an apparent dead end, Sakai and Nakanishi's editor reassigns them to the story about the reconstruction of Kurada Beach, where they and Miura resume their study of the unusual radioactivity in the area. They are not there long, however, before Godzilla, evidently the source of the radioactivity as well as the mysterious scale, bursts from the mud, having been buried during the storm. Surprised by Godzilla's sudden appearance, Sakai, Nakanishi, and Miura retreat as the King of the Monsters lays waste to nearby Nagoya.
While the JSDF tries to fend off Godzilla, Sakai and Nakanishi discuss the possibility that their efforts will fail considering past experiences with the monster. A colleague named Jiro suggests that Mothra might be a potential match for Godzilla, though Sakai and Nakanishi are skeptical that the inhabitants of Infant Island will want to help Japan, after having been abused so many times in the past. As their fears about the military's ineffectiveness prove well-founded, however, Sakai and Nakanishi decide they have no choice but to try and win Mothra's aid.
Arriving at Infant Island, Sakai and Nakanishi find the island a desolate wasteland, nothing like the verdant paradise from three years earlier. Ruined by nearby nuclear testing the island is now barely habitable and the natives are understandably hostile towards outsiders and as expected refuse to help Japan. With nowhere else to turn, Nakanishi makes a desperate plea, arguing that the whole of Japan should not be punished for the actions of a wicked few and that if nothing is done, Godzilla will kill millions. Moved by Nakanishi's speech, the Shobijin and Mothra agree to help, over the objections of the natives, although they warn that Mothra is weak and may not survive the battle.
Compared with its immediate predecessor, Mothra vs. Godzilla possesses a much stronger story. The identity of both our protagonists and antagonists is clear, Godzilla appears a genuine and deadly threat, and the linkage between the film's various plot threads is strong enough that they all feel like they're part of a single story, a large improvement over the disjointed nature of King Kong vs. Godzilla. Sakai and Nakanishi are relateable heroes, even if they are largely stand-ins for Fukuda and Hanamura from Mothra. We empathize with their struggle to find justice as well as their seeming powerlessness against the power of corporate authority. Likewise, Kumayama and Torahata make a fair pair of villains, demonstrating a kind of banal evil which is a marked improvement over the cartoonish antics of Mr. Tako in the previous film.
The music and the special effects also stand up quite well in this film. Akira Ifukube's soundtrack is as strong as before, taking musical cues both from previous Godzilla films as well as Mothra, bringing the two monsters together in an emotionally evocative clash of themes. And it''s to Eiji Tsuburaya's credit that the fight between the Mothra puppet and Godzilla looks as convincing as it does, considering the immense difficulties involved in animating the former and the clumsiness of the latter. The only real slip-up in production values here is the disjointing of Godzilla's upper lip on Nagoya Castle, though Tsuburaya reportedly liked the look so much that he chose to make it a feature, rather than a bug.
Altogether, Mothra vs. Godzilla is an entertaining and surprisingly moving kaiju film, which brings with it both the heartwarming heroism of Mothra and the atomic menace of Godzilla, representing a successful clash of opposites. This is how crossover films should be done and it is a testament to it's success that Mothra would eventually go on to be one of Godzilla's most recurring (and successful) adversaries in the films to come.