Toho’s fabulous, kid-safe Kaiju spectacle about the super-moth from Infant Island might be a stealth Cold War fairy tale. Kids respond to the fanciful Shobijin fairy princesses, while adults (watching the Japanese version) might catch the authors’ message about belligerent nationalism and the abuse of Third Worlders. Greedy ‘Rolisican’ opportunists pay the price of an ancient curse. For its expression of Nature’s justice, vigilante-style, Ishiro Honda’s music-filled show stands right up there with Gorgo — and the giant Moth is also the only Japanese Kaiju monster identified as female.
Mill Creek Entertainment
1961 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 88, 101 min. / Mosura / Street Date July 9, 2019 / 24.98
Starring: Frankie Sakai, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kyoko Kagawa, Ken Uehara, Emi Ito, Yumi Ito, Jerry Ito, Takashi Shimura, Tetsu Nakamura, Akihiro Tayama.
Cinematography: Hajime Koizumi
Director of Special Effects: Eiji Tsuburaya
Original Music: Yuji Koseki
Written by Yoshie Hotta, Shinichiro Nakamura, Shinichi Sekizawa from a novel by Takehiko Fukunaga
Produced by Tomoyuko Tanaka
Directed by Ishiro Honda
The early 1960s were boom years for Japanese filmmaking — the relatively small country was producing more movies than Hollywood. At the same time that Toho was trying out more overt horror in pictures like the disturbing Matango, they also experimented with a giant monster fantasy suitable for impressionable children. Mothra (Mosura) is a colorful storybook tale with a Kaiju context and some interesting political comment. The shortened American version omits some of the flavor of this saga about the giant insect god of a mysterious lost civilization. In keeping with Sci-Fi’s newfound ecological theme — perhaps taken directly from the previous year’s Gorgo — Mothra is the first Kaiju in which the monster is the hero, and the villain is modern society itself. Mothra blows cities to rubble with the force of its giant wings, yet retains the full sympathy of the audience.
The tale begins in a fashion similar to the original Godzilla. A scientific team is dispatched to investigate a mysterious radioactive isle. Thought to be uninhabited, Infant Island supports a population of sad, reclusive natives. Dr. Sinichi Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) meets the tribe’s tiny ‘Shobijin’ fairies, (popular singing stars Yumi & Emi Ito, aka ‘The Peanuts’). The tiny twins communicate telepathically. Stowaway reporter Senichiro ‘Sen-chan’ Fukuda (Frankie Sakai) befriends the Shobijin, but sneaky Rolisican gangster-entrepreneur Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito) secretly returns to the island, murders a number of natives and kidnaps the fairies to sing in his stage show back in Tokyo. Official efforts fail to force Nelson to relinquish the tiny girls, as do the reporters’ attempts to liberate them. The Shobijin tell Senichiro that they are sad, not for themselves, but for innocent Japanese citizens: Mothra will come to their rescue and obliterate Tokyo. And indeed, as the Infant Island natives dance, a giant egg hatches an equally monstrous caterpillar, which immediately sets sail for the Japanese capital.
Mothra is a charming monster tale with excellent effects and terrific set pieces. The giant larva plows through the ocean waves and leaves a wake of destruction across enormous miniature sets. Kids react positively to the psychic connection between the fairies and the monster, and the metamorphosis from caterpillar to colorful moth is an affirmation of nature’s triumph over man’s petty politics. The title bug has an impressive screen presence despite the fact that it is little more than a giant fuzzy marionette. The blast of wind from its mighty wings hits like an atomic-era Big Bad Wolf.
The giant larva climbs Tokyo Tower to spin its cocoon. When the fairies are taken to a foreign country called Rolisica, the newly hatched giant moth files halfway around the world to rescue them. In the context of the movie, the nation Rolisica is an amalgam of Russia and the United States. The arrogant Rolisican Clark Nelson is the trouble behind everything — he assumes control of the expedition to Infant Island, which his country once used as an atomic blast site. Rolisica denies that the island is inhabited despite hard evidence to the contrary, a kind of pre-echo of the documentary Radio Bikini. The villainous Clark Nelson is a combo of Carl Denham and Al Capone, committing theft and mass murder against a native population. Clark wiggles out of charges of kidnapping and slavery by claiming that the Shobijin are merely merchandise: they like to sing and dance, so he’s making them happy! The Rolisican government is complicit with Nelson’s efforts to loot the world, at least until Mothra arrives to wipe out its capital, ‘New Kirk City.’ The Russian aspect of Rolisica can be seen in the combination of symbols on the flag of the Rolisican Embassy and the Russian-looking uniforms of the Rolisican generals helping to fight Mothra.
Every Anglo performer that could be rounded up is used to play Rolisican citizens, including familiar Toho faces Robert Dunham and Harold Conway. New Kirk City has Manhattan skyscrapers, the Golden Gate Bridge and Los Angeles’ Harbor Freeway. We also see a short clip of the row of hotels on the bluffs over Santa Monica Beach. Nelson’s gangster thugs occasionally speak in English. He and his main crook pals laugh themselves silly:
“Mothra is dead! Now we can be filthy rich and happy! Ha ha ha ha!”
Clark Nelson’s last ten lines are all the same: “Shut up!” I hadn’t noticed before, but the gangster’s rotten final act is to knock the cane out from under an old man! I think there were some happy subversives at Toho that year.
Co-star Kyoko Kagawa plays the hero’s female photographer sidekick, a fairly thankless role. Ms. Kagawa did this film between stunning appearances in two Kurosawa classics, The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low. The nickname of the lovable Frankie Sakai in the original is ‘Snapping Turtle,’ changed to ‘Bulldog’ for the dubbed American version. Sen-chan never lets go, see? In keeping with the overall non-violent tone, Sen-Chan is a master of the obscure martial art of slapping bad guys on the head with folded pieces of paper.
Of course, violence in films is relative. Mothra sinks several ships and lays waste to two of the world’s major cities, but those are unseen fantasy deaths, that take place on miniature sets with Toho’s amazing toys. Besides, kids respond quickly to the lesson that it’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature. The storyline is equally respectful of the Infant Islanders’ religion. Mothra worships a symbol that looks like a Christian Cross with ‘extra’ illumination detail. In New Kirk City, church bells are sounded at Mothra’s approach.
Within the special stylisation of Kaiju pictures, Mothra maintains a colorful charm. Nothing looks ‘real,’ although the effects are often impressive just for being so elaborate. Those giant miniature sets must have filled an entire sound stage. An over-use of blue-screen opticals result in some rather ragged composites, but many shots combine foreground full-scale action and background miniatures with great skill. The larva’s onslaught across the countryside is beautifully visualized, sometimes with the monster visible only in the background of very wide compositions. A not particularly successful wide shot of the egg on Infant Island places the natives’ dance arena as a small round area at the bottom of the frame. Being about 70% matte painting, this composition always reminds me of shots of the Base Camp in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Some of the matte paintings are a little rough, and in a few wide shots of the island, a camera problem gives the artwork an annoying pulsing effect. And for its panic and military montages, Toho raids isolated stock shots from The Mysterians and even The H-Man. Mothra herself is a pleasing design, just ‘buggy’ enough to resemble a real insect but as charming as a child’s fuzzy toy. We kids learned early on that all Toho Kaiju had distinctive ‘voice signatures,’ often heard over the main titles… well, that’s at least true for Godzilla and Rodan. We immediately knew when the American editors that adapted Gigantis The Fire Monster swapped out Godzilla and Anguirus’s signature roars. Mothra’s eerie vocal cry is the creation of some brilliant sound designer. It now happily resides on my iPhone, as a timer alarm.
Mill Creek Entertainment’s Blu-ray of Mothra is something of a mixed bag. The slim steelbox packaging is pleasing, with artwork split between the cover, and a sliding clear sleeve that carries the (sexed-up) images of the Shobijin twins from the U.S. poster.
The slight disappointment of the feature encoding is due to the same issues that dog Sony’s 2018 Blu-ray of Battle in Outer Space: this Mothra transfer is from the same so-so source as the 2009 DVD. The two new encodings are in HD, of course, but neither version is super-sharp; in fact, they look a little dark and greenish. That may sound ungrateful, as we’re lucky to have Mothra in Tohoscope and color — I had to wait until the new century to see something better than a flat 16mm print. It was another instance in which I borrowed Stuart Galbraith IV’s Japanese laserdisc… which carried a stereophonic soundtrack!
I initially felt cheated until I checked my DVR copy of a (compressed) TCM HD cablecast — it may be a tad brighter, but highlights are slightly blown out. The Mill Creek Blu-ray is smoother overall. As for the greenish tinge and light contrast, that may be partly due to the difference in standards between Japan and the U.S. Once one adjusts, it looks more normal. The awful color mismatches of old TV prints are a thing of the past.
The disc contents mirror what was on 2009’s DVD. Both the shorter American re-cut and the original Japanese version are present; the English subs on the Japanese version are reasonably accurate. When cut and re-dubbed for America, Mothra lost 13 minutes of running time. Generations of kids love the key ‘Mothra’ song, which is presented in a command performance similar to the exhibition of King Kong. Clark Nelson’s speech is practically a copy of Carl Denham’s. In the uncut Japanese version, the Peanuts perform a second number on a little cherry blossom set, wearing kimono costumes. It is interesting that the stadium audience is delighted, when not even the spectators in the front row could possibly get a good look at the tiny twins.
Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski’s commentary offers a good rundown on the Infant Island backstory dropped for the film, an alternate ending and a full accounting of input from its various writers. A wealth of production detail includes the information that the largest crawling larva monster was twenty feet long and operated by several men, Chinese Dragon style. The commentary also wades into the film’s political context, and lists some topical protest-oriented material that was left out. The movie indeed shapes up as a P.C. fairy tale about superpower arrogance.
I probably shouldn’t be encouraged to add my personal experiences with these old movies, but some of my best mail comes in sharing similar stories. I’m a lot older than many of my readers, and can confess to having seen Gigantis first-run, in a theater (Wow!). The 1962 U.S. release of Mothra, I’m afraid, was not a success story for the ten-year-old CineSavant. Parents were required to drive us to the downtown San Bernardino theaters. I interested the bratty kid across the street in seeing Mothra, but he inexplicably changed his mind at the last minute and talked his mom into taking us to the movie at the E-Street theater next door: Disney’s Babes in Toyland, for crying out loud. So my childhood experience with the Togo classic was limited to staring at the impressive B&W photos in Famous Monsters of Filmland. I didn’t catch up with Mothra on TV for twenty years.
The show remains a special memory I share with my daughter. We kept her clear of most everything but Sesame Street, and at age two-point-five we tried her out on a TV showing of Disney’s old The Three Little Pigs. It was just too vivid and mind-altering, and she was terrified. Then, when she was four, I saw that a repertory theater in Glendale was showing Mothra. To prepare her (and convince her mother that I wasn’t nuts) I drew a little comic book of the basic events in the film. The outing was a big success, even though they screened the same miserable 16mm print I’d seen on TV. I managed to retain some early home video of her singing the Mothra song, but I still need to re-locate and scan that comic book!
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Steelbook Edition Blu-ray rates:
Video: Good –minus minus
Supplements: Audio commentary with Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, trailer (which identifies the film as Mothra, The Monster God), photo gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (on both features only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: July 11, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson