Back on June 1, 2014, I wrote about “The Poetry of Kaiju,” as found in the 1964 kaiju (Japanese monster) film, GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (aka GODZILLA VS. THE THING), with its stunning images of Mothra eggs and the otherworldly twin fairies who guard them.
This past month I opted to watch three additional films about Mothra, the giant caterpillar-turned-butterfly, and its fairy guardians, in search of similar poetic imagery.
The first was the original standalone film that introduced the giant creature, MOTHRA (1961), directed by Ishiro Honda, with effects by Eiji Tsuburaya; the second was a sort-of-remake made in 1992 called GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (retitled for its U.S. release, GODZILLA AND MOTHRA: THE BATTLE FOR EARTH), directed by Takao Okawara, with effects by Koichi Kawakita; the third was a Mothra film revamped for a child audience, REBIRTH OF MOTHRA (1996), directed by Okihiro Yoneda, with effects again provided by Kawakita. The first was on DVD and the second and third were on Blu-ray. I watched them all in their Japanese-language versions with English subtitles. There are significant and interesting differences between the three films and I wanted to discuss them here.
(NOTE: the screen grabs from GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA were taken from the pan-and-scan English-dubbed DVD and don’t reflect the high quality of the Blu-ray. Since I don’t have a DVD of REBIRTH OF MOTHRA, I took digital camera shots off the TV screen when I paused the image.)
The heroes in MOTHRA 61 are a pair of journalists, “Zen” Fukuda (Franky Sakai) and Michi Hanamura (Kyoko Kagawa), and a pair of scientists, Dr. Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) and Dr. Harada (Ken Uehara). Their chief antagonist is a sleazy foreigner named Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito), from the neighboring country of “Rolisica,” which looks and sounds suspiciously like America (although the name was originally meant to be a combination of “Russia” and “America”). When a joint Japanese-Rolisican expedition to the radioactive Infant Island discovers a pair of doll-sized fairies (Yumi Ito, Emi Ito), Nelson and his henchmen steal them and bring them to Japan to feature in an elaborate stage show and charge admission to a curious public. When the fairies sing the famous “Mothra Song” on stage for the very first time (a song that would be heard in nearly every Mothra film from then on), it’s the signal for a giant egg on Infant Island to hatch and release Mothra, in caterpillar form, to come and rescue them, thus precipitating extensive property damage.
In GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1992), the team of heroes is led by a globe-trotting artifact thief, Takuya Fujita (Tetsuya Bessho), who plunders unique treasures from remote archaeological sites, and his ex-wife, Masako Tezuka (Satomi Kobayashi), who works for the National Environment Planning Bureau in Japan. When a meteorite lands near an Indonesian island that happens to be owned by the greedy Marutomo Corporation (and turns out to be Infant Island), the Bureau enlists Takuya and Masako to join a Marutomo secretary, Kenji Andoh (Takehiro Murata), in investigating an anomaly on the island that turns out to be Mothra’s egg, which is guarded by the Cosmos, an updated version of the Fairies. In addition to Mothra, two other monsters are thrown into the mix: Battra, aka Black Mothra, and Godzilla, stirred awake from his undersea slumber (as seen in the previous film, GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH, 1991) by the meteor hitting the water. Takuya and Masako eventually enlist their young daughter, Midori, to join them in trying to reason with the monsters and the little girl even shouts words of encouragement at Mothra and has a smile on her face even in the midst of the most harrowing urban destruction.
This may be the first time a nuclear family is at the heart of the action in a Toho Kaiju movie, although at rival studio Daiei back in the 1960s, families often figured in the Gamera films. Here, the family is backed up by leading scientists and bureaucrats at the Bureau, along with assorted military officers, as well as resident Godzilla psychic Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka), who’s featured in every Godzilla film from 1989 to 1995. The villains here are embodied chiefly by Tomokane (Makoto Otake), the head of the Marutomo Corporation, which is plundering resources from remote areas and, worst of all, building a golf course in the shadow of Mount Fuji, despite entreaties by armies of protesters to stop. Andoh, Tomokane’s assistant, is the one who steals the Cosmos this time around, but he’s torn between loyalty to his boss and the noble goals of the good guys and he winds up redeeming himself. The only journalists in sight are seen in some of the crowd scenes, snapping photos or filming with video cameras. No journalist has a speaking role. Akira Takarada, from the original cast of GOJIRA (1954), the film that started it all, is seen here in the dark suit as the head of the Environment Bureau:
In REBIRTH OF MOTHRA, the protagonists are the fairies themselves, sisters named Mona and Lora (Megumi Kobayashi and Sayaka Yamaguchi) who are dubbed the Elias, and their chief antagonist is their evil older sister, Belvera (Aki Hano), who’s as small as they are, clad all in black, and flies around on a winged dragon. The Elias are aided by a pair of children, a brother and his little sister. Also involved are the children’s parents, Goto, who works for another evil corporation, and his wife, who basically just tags along. Goto represents the corporation and is the one who sets the plot in motion when he breaks the seal on an ancient rock and takes the seal with him, not showing any curiosity about its archaeological importance, and inadvertently freeing both Belvera and the monster who was kept contained by that seal, Death Ghidorah, a new version of the three-headed monster who first tackled Mothra in GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER back in 1964. For some reason, the monster’s name is given in the subtitles as “Desgidora.” So Goto starts out as the cause of all the trouble, but since he’s also the children’s parent, he has to make a major turnaround and, although the children are the only family members who perform any significant heroics, guided, of course, by the Elias, the whole family winds up reunited at the end amidst the magically created ecological bliss.
There is a journalist here and he’s actively trying to expose the dirty deeds of Goto’s corporation, but he’s presented as something of an antagonist rather than a hero and his behavior is shown to be pretty abrasive.
In MOTHRA, the fairies are ethereal creatures of another dimension, kind of like traditional fairies in folklore are supposed to be. They’re easily captured and are helpless to resist Nelson and his efforts to force them to perform on stage, singing their island songs in perfect harmony. (The two actresses were a popular sister singing act in Japan called the Peanuts.) Little does Nelson know that when the girls sing they’re calling for Mothra. It takes a while for them to adjust their frequencies to learn how to communicate with humans, but eventually they talk to the protagonists and share with them their knowledge of Mothra. (Their counterparts in the later films are much more talkative.)
In GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA, the Cosmos are a little more assertive and are able to communicate in Japanese to the heroes immediately upon introducing themselves. In fact, they’re quite the little chatterboxes, relating the whole 12,000-year history of themselves and the ancient civilization that spawned them, as well as the stories of Mothra, and Battra, all without being asked. They’re also more eager to assist the heroes in their efforts to appease Mothra. They’re not in captivity for very long and they’re carried into action by the nuclear family at the heart of the story. They sing the same songs that were sung in the earlier Mothra movies. (The score is by Akira Ifukube who did the music for the original GOJIRA and several other Toho monster movies.) The actresses who play them look like twins but are apparently unrelated. There are many more closeups of them than there were of the fairies in the earlier wave of Mothra films.
In REBIRTH OF MOTHRA, the Elias are much more proactive and jump into the action on their own without being found by anyone from Japan. They also have names, Mona and Lora. They are lively, energetic, and aggressive and there are lots of closeups of them. When Belvera is freed, Mona and Lora immediately fly into Japan on their little “Fairy,” a mini-Mothra, to find her and try to stop her from carrying out her evil plan to revive Death Ghidorah. They fly into the Goto household, where Belvera has tied up the mom and taken over the mind of Wakaba, the little girl in the family, while brave Taiki tries to help them, and they launch aerial attacks against Belvera and her dragon, “Gagaru.” After driving off Belvera, but not stopping her, they recruit the kids to help them and eventually enlist the parents as well as they all go off to Hokkaido.
On the plane ride, the Elias masquerade as Wakaba’s dolls.
They sing three times in this one and their singing style is more in line with idol-style duos of the era (think Pink Lady and Wink, although there must be others). While the songs performed by the Peanuts in MOTHRA 61 were staged in an older, more theatrical and traditional style, the songs of the Elias in 1996 more closely resemble J-pop music videos of the era. The duo in 1992 also looks more like pop duos of the time, although the numbers themselves are more simply staged, since they happen to be in a cage or a traveling box most of the time. In 1992, they sing the same songs as in 1961. In 1996, they sing two of the original songs, but add a new one.
The big concern in MOTHRA 61 is about the nuclear testing that was done on Infant Island (the country responsible for the testing is never exactly identified, although Rolisica seems to be the obvious culprit). The plot is set in motion when four shipwreck survivors rescued from Infant Island show test results with no trace of radioactivity, thus prompting the expedition. Then, when the fairies are stolen and exploited, the natives on Infant Island (Japanese actors in brownface) react quite strenuously and do their part, via ritual chants and dances, to hatch the egg and release Mothra to bring the fairies back and restore the natural order of things on the island.
Both the 1992 and 1996 films offer much greater emphasis on environmental issues and place the blame on Japanese corporations which are plundering resources and defacing the landscape both at home and abroad. As Andoh says rather bluntly in the English dub of the 1992 film, “My company has destroyed forests. I feel very guilty.” In both films, a corporate representative is brought around to the cause of helping the fairies and appeasing Mothra. There’s less of an emphasis on Mothra’s native land. Infant Island is seen briefly in 1992, but there is no native culture there. In 1996, Mothra and the fairies seem to come from another dimension inside an ancient mountain. After Death Ghidorah ravages the landscape of Hokkaido and is finally vanquished, the reborn Mothra sprinkles some kind of green glitter all over the devastated landscape and brings it magically back to life, foreshadowing the ending of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece PRINCESS MONONOKE, which came out a year later. There’s definitely a “new age” vibe in REBIRTH that’s a far cry from the original MOTHRA. I daresay that with its emphasis on proactive female protagonists, it can be classified as shoujo kaiju (girls’ monster movie).
MOTHRA 61 and 92 both offer kaiju fans the requisite amount of urban destruction and property damage, all filmed in real time on Toho’s sprawling miniature sets with actors dressed in the monster costumes stomping through the scenery. Mothra 61 crawls through wonderfully detailed sets of Tokyo and knocks over the Tokyo Tower to create a “tree” on which to spin its cocoon, in quite a beautifully designed sequence. After it transforms and flies off, it goes to Rolisica, where Nelson has taken the fairies, and lays waste to “New Kirk City,” which looks suspiciously like New York, until the fairies are returned to it in an elaborate ceremony representing the cooperation of our heroes and the ranking Rolisican officials, the Mayor of New Kirk City and the Police Chief.
In MOTHRA 92, Mothra has two opponents: Battra and Godzilla. It fights both of them, but eventually finds common cause with Battra and they join wings to fend off Godzilla in a massive battle at a Tokyo amusement park where they make judicious use of the Ferris Wheel. In this one, Mothra uses the central government building in Tokyo, the Diet, to form its cocoon after smashing through one side of it. The sets are quite spectacular. The military goes into action against Mothra in 1961 and against all three monsters in 1992, but is only briefly mentioned in 1996.
In REBIRTH, Death Ghidorah never leaves the Hokkaido wilderness. The reason given is that it wants to suck up the energy from the plants, trees and soil of Hokkaido. We’re told this, but not shown a great deal. We only see it shooting flames from its three mouths and starting fires in the forest. Mothra, after coming out of its cocoon on Yaku Island in the south, flies back to Hokkaido to fight Death Ghidorah and defeats it with a suspect gimmick involving its complement of fairy dust or whatever it is that it sprinkles and that seems to tame the wild three-headed monster. We are told the military is on full alert in Hokkaido but we never see any of them. So no urban destruction whatsoever.
The most interesting thing I found in any of the three films is something I noticed about MOTHRA 61. Because of its Rolisican characters and the shift to Rolisica late in the film, the cast has more westerners in it than I’ve ever seen in a Toho monster film. And several of them speak both Japanese and English in the film—all recorded sync-sound (live on set). There might be more English spoken in this film than in any other Japanese language version of a Toho monster movie. This is not something you’d learn from watching the English dub. I’m guessing they recruited every westerner they could find and used the ones who spoke Japanese for the speaking parts. Jerry Ito, who plays Clark Nelson, was in fact Japanese-American and worked chiefly in Japan after the war.
The most well-known of the white actors working in Japan at the time, at least among kaiju buffs, is Robert Dunham, an American race car driver who went to Japan after World War II and wound up getting recruited to appear in films like this. He plays the police chief of New Kirk City (at least I think that’s his role) and he speaks English to the townspeople, but communicates in Japanese with Dr. Chujo, Zen and Michi, all in sync-sound. I’m not sure who plays the Mayor, but he does the same. It’s pretty funny that the Japanese characters expect the Mayor and Police Chief of New Kirk to speak Japanese.
Also on hand is Harold Conway, another American active in Japan. He’d been making films for Toho since THE MYSTERIANS (1957) and was usually hired when a high-ranking western scientist or official was needed. (Dunham usually played lower-ranking professionals or shady characters.) Here Conway plays the Rolisican ambassador who speaks mostly in Japanese and makes clear that his government wishes to distance itself from Nelson’s actions. He’s sitting in the center in these shots:
Ultimately, the Japanese and the Rolisicans make a good show of international cooperation. The best moment comes when a New Kirk crowd fleeing the advance of Mothra spots Nelson in his car trying to get away with the fairies, so they surround and batter the car and demand he give up the fairies. Minutes later, the fairies are turned over to the Japanese scientists upon their arrival. Power to the people, indeed!
There are seven other Mothra films with the fairy characters that I could have watched for this, but then I’d never get it done. A total of nine actresses played the parts over the years, but only the first two, Yumi and Emi Ito, were actually sisters. Here’s an album I have featuring them:
I do enjoy the later kaiju films, but I still prefer the original MOTHRA and its use of journalists and scientists to fashion a combined team of heroes. There is a message in the film about leaving natural environments and native cultures and traditions alone and restoring the balance of nature, but it doesn’t hit you over the head with it. I also prefer the theatricality of the Peanuts’ performance pieces to the more “J-poppy” aspects of the songs in the later films, not so much for the musical elements but for the cinematic aspects of those sequences.
And I love the miniature sets and men-in-rubber suits aesthetic of these films. Much more aesthetically pleasing to me than CGI.
All three discs I watched for this were released by Sony Pictures Entertainment.