HCF REWIND NO.115. MOTHRA AKA MOSURA [Japan, 1961]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 100 min/ 90 min [US version]
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A typhoon causes a ship to run aground at Island, a supposedly uninhabited site for atomic bomb tests by the country of Rolisica. A rescue party finds four sailors alive and strangely unafflicted with radiation sickness, which they attribute to the juice provided them by island natives. The story is broken by tenacious reporter Zenichiro Fukuda and his photographer Michi Hanamura, who infiltrate the hospital examining the survivors. The Rolisican Embassy responds by co-sponsoring a joint Japanese-Rolisican scientific expedition to Infant Island, led by the suspiciously secretive Clark Nelson. There, they find two young women who are only twelve inches tall. Nelson kidnaps them and puts them in a show back in Tokyo, but the natives call upon their god Mothra to help, and a huge egg begins to hatch…….
Mothra is one of the very best of Toho’s monster movies. It’s a wildly imaginative melding of science-fiction with elements of a fairytale, and manages to incorporate concerns which are still timely now such as big business, capitalism, racism, the destruction of nature and exploitation, yet never once loses focus of its compelling story. It was the first kaiju eiga to be aimed at family audiences, and the first to contain a somewhat sympathetic monster who would leave the end of the film in peace, but has none of the goofy but infectious silliness of some of the films to come. Uniquely Japanese in a way that earlier films didn’t try to be so much but with a story whose moral is universal, Mothra represents everything that is great about most Toho fantasy movies of the late 50’s and first half of the 60’s, definitely their Golden Age, when the studio, usually with Ishiro Honda as director, were almost consistently churning out vibrant, thrilling and unique pictures which make most American efforts of a similar nature seem dull by comparison. It’s original, exciting and of course spectacular!
Novelist Shinichiro Nakumura was hired to write a story based on the idea of a giant moth, and hired two other writers Takehiko Fukunaga and Yoshie Hotta to help him, each one writing one third of a treatment, which was serialised in a magazine as The Luminous Fairies And Mothra. Screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa simplified this into a full script, removing a Christian-influenced background to Infant Island, much politics involving Japan and Rosilica, as well as reducing the number of Shobijin from four to two when Yumi and Emi Ito, two female pop singers, were hired to be in the film. The climax originally happened in Kyushu and featured a plane crash, pursuit of the villains who capture Shinji the young boy, and Mothra flying to save them. It was Columbia Pictures, eager to distribute in the US the latest of what were becoming very profitable films from Toho, who asked for the ending to be relocated to Rolisica and re-shot to give the film a more ‘international’ feel. Mothra was a huge hit, making up for the commercial disappointment of Honda’s previous spectacle Battle In Outer Space [I reviewed this a while ago, click here: https://horrorcultfilms.co.uk/2012/03/battle-in-outer-space-aka-uchi-daisenso-1959-hcf-rewind/ ], and like that was picked by Columbia for its quite successful US release. The film was shortened somewhat but not harmed. Interestingly, a British monster movie called Gorgo had not long come out with a similar story where the title monster trashes London to rescue his baby. Mothra would quickly become Toho’s most popular monster after Godzilla and the most frequent one to reappear.
They gave Mothra an even bigger build up than Godzilla, with nearly half the film over before we see her, but it doesn’t matter as the film is packed with intrigue and mystery right from the beginning, with even the talkier scenes fun because the characters are interesting and certainly not all ‘black and white’ or simplistic. Michi the heroine has no bones about using underhand means to get pictures for her newspaper, while Zenichiro seems overly jokey and upbeat but later reveals great tenacity and even skill at fighting, though the scene in which this is shown is laughably bad in staging and execution and should not have been left in the film [Honda didn’t use stunt people for fights for some reason, and it shows!]. For once in a Toho film there’s a really slimy human villain in Nelson. He comes across a nastier version of Carl Denham in King Kong and someone soon becomes an obvious symbol of capitalism at its worst, while it also soon becomes apparent that the ficticious country of Rolisica is clearly a substitute for America, replete with a Manhattan-like skyline, though there are elements of Russia too. The twin fairies called the Shobijin are the total opposite, their scenes handled with an almost religious reverence. The way they never lose their temper and never seem to lose heart either is quite affecting. Their early scenes set on the Infant Island take place around sets, especially a colourful grotto, which are beautifully designed.
The lead-in to Mothra’s appearance is long and teasing. As the natives sing and dance, falling rocks reveal an egg, which seems to take forever to hatch. Eventually cracks appear, the huge caterpillar bursts out and we are treated to Toho spectacle at its finest as the creature heads for Tokyo to rescue the Shobijin, not really intending to cause destruction but doing it anyway because things are in his way. The miniatures are superbly detailed [look out for the second appearance of those satellite dish-like things on trucks which would turn up in many other films to come] and one set-piece involving the destruction of a dam is a brilliant combination of technical wizardry and expert direction, the editing tying together several different things happening at once, though what with the rescue of a baby accidently left in the path of the incoming water, it’s the only bit where some fear is attempted from the idea of a huge monster. This and most future films would ritualise the destruction and get away from any attempt at realism. After Mothra’s startling emergence from her destroyed cocoon, she flies to New Kirk City of Rolisica and loads and loads of cars are blown into the air from the beating of her wings. It’s a rather surreal sight and perfectly encapsulates the childlike wonder of Japanese monster movies.
There’s a purity and grace about the whole Mothra mythology which is extremely appealing. A slight Christian element in the film is possibly awkward, with an especially contrived moment where someone sees a church cross with the sun behind it and immediately thinks of Mothra’s symbol, though said symbol more closely resembles the Celtic cross than the Christian one. The implication remains that Western big business causes Mothra’s rampage and Western religion stops it. The film is full of interesting elements, and even switches in genre at times, virtually becoming a musical at times, though it never forgets its main job is to be a thrilling monster movie with a difference. Some may find a sub-plot involving a young boy trying to save the Shobijin pointless, but it fails to slow things down. The special effects are mostly stunning, with surprisingly convincing dolls substituting for the Shobijin in some shots and an awe-inspiring shot of a model plane flying through a cloud. It’s quite obvious that the caterpillar Mothra has people inside it [six of them!] and the three models for the moth version vary somewhat, but the only thing that really lets the side down technically is some bad matting of people, some of them featuring what looks like shots actually taken in the US. Overall the film is a technical triumph considering the huge amount of effects that are in it, but Honda’s direction matches this in many scenes like the rather balletic death of Nelson which has a genuine element of human fear and uses some interesting editing and angles to heighten the scene.
The human element is never lost in Mothra, helped by decent acting all-round especially from comedian Frankie Sakai as Zenichiro, Hiroshi Koizumi from Godzilla Raids Again as Prof. Shinicho Chujo the other human ‘hero’ of the film, and Jerry Eto as the dastardly Nelson who plays it very broad but still convinces as human scum. Yuji Koseki wrote the score for Mothra after Akira Ifukube turned it down saying he couldn’t write suitable music for the Shobijin, and it’s easily as good as Ifukube’s best work. His music, which sounds slightly less ‘Western’ [which is probably why they left it intact for the American version] than Ifukube’s, seems to emphasis Mothra’s anxiety and determination, its epic feel tempered with subtle emotion. Speeded-up organ works well as the Shobijin’s native speech. They sing two songs, and one is rather beautiful while the other, ‘Mosura No Utay’, is a really catchy melody which would become Mothra’s ‘theme’ and often be re-used. Unique, charming and thrilling, Mothra is a classic of its kind and easily the best Japanese monter movie to not feature Godzilla.
The ten minutes shorter American version of Mothra is rather good and certainly no disgrace to the Japanese version. Generally scenes were slightly cut down and/or more tightly edited rather than being totally removed, making some sections of the film move a little faster. The first encounter with the Shobijin was re-edited so the only shot of the fairies is when Chujo wakes up from his daze and seems to remember seeing them. It’s an interesting alternative version which works well. Sadly some special effects footage of Mothra destroying stuff in both caterpillar and moth forms was removed, but not really harming the film. Some characters were slightly re-named, with Fukuda’s nickname being changed from “Snapping Turtle” to “Bulldog” and even Infant Island being altered to Beiru. The dubbing is about as good as you can get, with actual Japanese people speaking much of it, and best of all, the score was left intact!