From everyone’s favourite Kaiju to my own personal favourite: Mothra, the giant light-bulb botherer of legend, giant moth and protective deity of the natives of Infant Island (or the entire planet, depending on which film you’re watching) with phoenix-like powers, able to begin her life cycle again as an egg when she dies, re-emerging as a mammoth caterpillar before making a cocoon and reforming as her moth self again to cause ultimate havoc. And also the giant monster with the most wins against the king himself, Godzilla (though she’s never been able to best him on her own).
I can never pin-point why Mothra is my favourite. She stands apart from most of the other Toho Kaiju by being a puppet on strings rather than a guy in a rubber suit (apart from when the poor stuntmen have to crawl along wearing that caterpillar costume), and she is always a force for good, as opposed to the others who sometimes flirt with the idea of good but just love smashing stuff too much. But I guess if I had to say, it would be the series’ inherent lightness; Mothra the film was the first of the giant monster movies to step away from horror and aim for a fun action comedy feel, before everyone else got in on the act and we ended up with films like Son of Godzilla (which despite being terrible I still enjoy).
So let’s start at the beginning with her first appearance on celluloid, Mothra. Based on the novel The Luminous Fairies and Mothra, it tells the story of a group of scientists sent to explore a radiated island after it is discovered that natives have been living there unbeknownst to the nation of Rolisica (a strange amalgam of Russia and America, a fictional country created to reflect a western super power), who were performing atomic tests on the supposedly uninhabited island. The natives seem unaffected by the radiation, and the mystery as to why propels an international team of Japanese and Rolisican scientists to form in order to explore the island.
Tenacious Zenichiro ‘Bulldog’ Fukuda, the intrepid reporter who broke the story of the discovery of the natives to the press and our comic foil, sneaks on to the expedition’s ship, unable to let such a story go. But on board we discover that not all is as it seems; tight restrictions are being placed on the scientists aboard as to who they can report their findings to, because Clark ‘I couldn’t be more evil if I wanted to’ Nelson, the expedition’s leader and shady Roslican business man, is calling the shots and keeping as much information secret as possible.
When the team finally arrive at the island we are treated to all the glories of Technicolor sixties sci-fi at its best; terrible-looking ‘advanced’ radiation suits, long tentacled purple plants that grab and choke in a way that makes you say “He could have just walked out of there”, giant mould spores that look like something out of a Jefferson Airplane video and weird natives who when gunned down by the our bad guys are quite blasé about the whole thing.
And if it wasn’t weird enough, the team discover a pair of foot-high women, the Fairies of the original novel or Shobijin “small beauties”. These two pint-sized priestesses are Mothra’s envoys and have the power to communicate with her and summon her if need be.
Clark Nelson, twiddling an invisible moustache to sounds of ominous organ music (I made up the moustache part but the old-time radio organ is true) cannot resist taking the two girls back to Japan, thus setting off a chain of events that leads to the obligatory city-wide destruction that these movies call for. Yes, learning nothing from the exploits of Carl Denham some 30 years previously, Nelson traps the Shobijin and plans to use them as an attraction, even giving a similar speech to his thoughtless American forbear before displaying his prizes before the eager crowd with dancers dressed as natives.
And we can all guess where this is heading. Mothra, a little ticked off that her favourite little friends have been kidnapped, sets off for Tokyo. First stop Tokyo Tower! (I feel bad for the poor bastards that have to rebuild that thing every time one of these guys gets a little pissed off.)
It’s a shame that in this first movie Mothra really doesn’t get to show off her full range of powers – for the most part the destruction is merely a symptom of the wind generated by her wings as she flies over the city in search of her friends, but in later instalments she can shoot lightning, use her psychic abilities and release a harmful dust from her wings. But for now she’s stuck just causing a hurricane through the streets, picking up little cardboard cars in the gust and throwing them about. Without the visceral bludgeoning of a man in a suit this might not be to everyone’s taste, but in my opinion, with the little model cars and tanks trying to shoot her down, the last act of this movie is tantamount to the greatest Thunderbird episodes you have ever seen and it fills me with the same childlike joy every time.
Not Mothra at her best, but definitely one to watch and a little more restrained than the later instalments – a good place to start with the lighter side of the Toho Kaijus.