The Poetry of Kaiju: Godzilla vs. Mothra (1964)

1 Jun

At the end of my previous entry, a critique of GODZILLA (2014), I offered a teaser of this one, with five images from the first classic Godzilla movie I went back to after seeing the new one. After taking a number of screen grabs, I thought I’d make an entire entry composed of scenes from the film to show how poetic imagery infused the entire film (and other Japanese kaiju–giant monster–films) in a way that seems alien to the creators of the remake. By happy coincidence, I’ve been reading a book of academic essays called In Godzilla’s Footsteps: Japanese Pop Culture Icons on the Global Stage (Palgrave Macmillan 2006), edited by William M. Tsutsui and Michiko Ito, and it happens to contain an essay called, “Mothra’s Gigantic Egg: Consuming the South Pacific in 1960s Japan,” by Yoshikuni Igarashi. The essay looks at the first two Mothra films, MOTHRA (1961) and GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1964, aka GODZILLA VS. THE THING, as it was called in its U.S. release in 1964), and discusses Japan’s relationship to the South Pacific, where Mothra originates, in its history and popular culture and how the South represents an “innocent past” and a “mirror of Japan’s desire to escape the effect of its economic success—consumerism.” Igarashi goes on to discuss GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA and how Godzilla “represents a threat to Japan’s postwar prosperity” while Mothra has become “an emblem of Japan’s consumerism.”

Following are images from the film interspersed with excerpts from the text of Igarashi’s essay:

“Mothra returns to Japan in the 1964 film Godzilla vs. Mothra. By 1964, Japan’s own economic growth policies were securely in place, contributing to the construction of a formidable capitalist system. The success of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was just one example of the miraculous economic growth of 1960s Japan under the auspices of the Liberal Democratic Party’s economic policy. While the South still stands as a counter-entity to the capitalist modern society in Godzilla vs. Mothra, there is no longer a Roshirikan character that absolves Japan of capitalist guilt. Instead Japanese characters here enact greed for the audience, intimating that it is deeply entrenched in Japanese society. The international tension that has led to the nuclear devastation of Infant Island is given secondary treatment. Furthermore, in the three years since the original film, Mothra appears to have grown less hostile to the capitalist world. Although maintaining a critical stance toward Japanese society, the monster never engages in destructive behavior, and, in effect, ends up defending Japan against the menace of Godzilla.

“The opening scenes of Godzilla vs. Mothra first establish Mothra’s affinity to Japan’s consumer society. After being washed out of the ground by a typhoon, Mothra’s giant egg drifts toward Japan. Once the egg reaches Shizugaura, a fictional location near Nagoya, a Japanese entrepreneur purchases the egg from the local fisherman’s organization in order to promote it as a key attraction of his future theme park.

“Although the Mothra priestesses come to Japan to request that the egg be returned to Infant Island, their plea falls on the deaf ears of the entrepreneur and his financial backer. Once they find more sympathetic listeners, the women warn them that, though the Mothra that will hatch from the egg means no harm, as it roams around seeking food, it is bound to hurt innocent people. Meanwhile, Godzilla suddenly awakes from the nearby reclaimed land designated for industrial development. The monster destroys part of the Yokkaichi industrial area, an area known to be the heart of Japan’s chemical industries, which were the key sector in Japan’s economic growth in the 1960s. Then it single-mindedly heads toward Mothra’s egg. In contrast to the carefully prepared story surrounding Mothra, the film offers almost no clues as to why Godzilla appears at this particular moment. Mothra’s egg follows the kaiju no michi to reach the Japanese coast, while Godzilla is already in Japan waiting literally in the subterrain of industrial development for an opportunity to emerge.

“In a desperate search for a way to contain Godzilla, three Japanese visit Infant Island to solicit Mothra’s help. When the visitors arrive on the desolate island, they are captured and taken inside a cave by a group of natives. Although the Japanese characters are dressed in protective suits when they land, the scenes inside the cave show what they have worn underneath: spiffy attire. The two men wear a tie and a suit, while the female photographer appears in a fashionable dress and hat. They came to the island dressed in the height of fashion as if they are visiting a trendy resort town. Their attire perhaps anticipates the island’s future as a favorite destination for Japanese tourists, along with such islands as Guam, Saipan, and the Hawai’ian islands.

“The natives refuse the Japanese visitors’ request, citing the selfishness of the modern world that has led to the island’s destruction. However, hearing the woman’s plea for saving innocent lives, Mothra agrees to fight Godzilla. Mothra turns itself into a defender of Japan who fights against Godzilla’s destructive forces. The rivalry between Mothra and Godzilla is motivated by different kinds of attitudes toward the past within 1960s Japan. Mothra—the modern day silk deity—returns to Japan as an embodiment of the idealized past, feeding on the nostalgic desire to recover what is already lost. Infant Island serves as a metaphoric South where the innocent past is preserved for Japanese consumption. Similar to Yanagita’s southern islands, Infant Island and its monster provide a symbolic anchor to a nation that has experienced radical historical changes. Mothra decides to fight the monster that threatens Japan’s economic prosperity, the condition that has supported this symbolic value of the South.

“For his part, Godzilla embodies a different kind of past, not the tamed, commercialized kind, but the past of preindustrial labor conditions that persisted despite the new regime of the high-growth economy. The dark, rough surface of the monster’s body resonates with memories of the bodily hardship that was common in rural Japan until the mid-1960s….

“The fantastic and almost divine images that shroud Mothra sharply contrast with the commercialism and greed that postwar Japan had come to embrace. Yet Mothra’s egg is snugly encased in the incubator at the theme park construction site. The nostalgic past that the object embodies is already deeply embedded in Japan’s postwar capitalist economy. As an emissary from the dark, declining past, Godzilla challenges the more slick, commercialized images of the past. (This is the last time Godzilla acts as an evil force before his return in the 1984 version of Godzilla.) The king of the monsters manages to kill the opportunistic entrepreneur and his backer and destroy the facilities of the theme park, thereby destroying the exchange value of the egg. He even manages to kill the mature Mothra—a Mothra in imago form—that has flown from Infant Island to defend the Japanese people. But Godzilla is unable to crack the giant egg. The monster gets more than what he bargains for: two larvae that emerge from the egg tame Godzilla’s fearful force by enwrapping him in their silk thread. In the end, Mothra’s larvae transform Godzilla into a thing like themselves—a cocoon. The modern deities of the exotic south summarily defeat the king of the monsters. It turns out, despite the Mothra priestesses’ warning, that Mothra’s larvae destroy nothing in Japan, while silencing the desperate cry against industrial and commercial development.

“Thanks to Mothra, postwar Japan reunites with its own problematic past, albeit in an already commercialized form. Although the monster originates on an island in the South Pacific, it plays a role in a purely domestic drama of 1960s Japan. Godzilla appears from Japan’s underground to represent the abject past that haunted Japan’s industrialized economy. The story that the giant monster tries to tell is by definition nonsensical: he merely roars. This is a battle that he has no chance of winning. In 1954, Godzilla performed another kind of abject past—that of war memories—and managed to touch the minds of millions. In 1964, Godzilla is relegated to being a sidekick to a giant moth, which happily shrouds itself in nostalgia. The king of the monsters appears in the film only to be ushered out in a humiliating way. In the world outside of the films, Godzilla emerges from his cocoon, so to speak, in the form of vinyl and tin toys to be circulated in 1960s Japan. In the end, what was most monstrous in 1960s Japan turned out to be the flow of capital and commodities that transcended Japan’s national boundaries, a flow that easily tamed monsters into kids’ toys and eventually into collectables or purveyors of nostalgia.”

GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1964/Japan) Dir.: Ishiro Honda. Cast: Akira Takarada, Yuriko Hoshi, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kenji Sahara, Emi Ito, Yumi Ito.

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