Monster Bites - Bugging Out

MOTHRA (1961)

Time to go back to a mysterious time when monster cross overs were unheard of and Toho still had Godzilla on ice after that whole tuna fishery episode. It would be another year before they'd decide to bring him back to fight another island dwelling creature. In this period there was still plenty of output from IshirĊ Honda ranging from science fiction to horror, but the kaiju features that would surface are some of the most enduring. While Godzilla in 1954 may have been partially inspired by a re-release of King Kong in Japan, it was the first appearance of Mothra that would take the most from the 1933 classic. In a lot of ways this is the archetypal creature feature that sticks to all the usual tropes, but it remains one of the best.

After a typhoon the crew of a wrecked ship are rescued from being stranded on Infant Island. There's a lot of concern that they've been exposed to radiation as this uninhabited place was the the site for atomic testing by the nation of Rolisica. However there are two strange things about the statements given by the crew; they feel perfectly fine and there are native people living on the island. Anxious to find out how this is possible and whether there are any other secrets lying in wait, Japan and Rolisica form a joint expedition to explore the region. If it's not immediately obvious the fictional nation is a stand in for the North America, which is more apparent as the story progresses.

This premise is taken straight form King Kong, with a few changes here and there, with the journey to an unknown land and the subsequent exploitation of the discoveries found. There are also natives worshipping a giant creature as a god. However in this case the greedy businessman Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito) steals two tiny creatures that look like foot high human women from the island to put in a stage show. Mothra itself is not uncovered by the scientists and awakens later to rescue them. But what are they? It's never particularly clear, although there are allusions to them being priestesses or fairies that serve the local people. It's certainly a strange discovery and perhaps not the best sort of thing to try and show off in front of a huge theatre audience. The seats at the back might need binoculars.

This kind of money hungry villain would be re-used in later Mothra appearances, just as the two fairies are always included. The result is a more sympathetic monster rather than the largely destructive ones that usually feature. Although it still crushes city blocks and takes a beating from the military. The island itself could have been utilised more, and it's a shame that everyone forgets how the place has strange vampiric plants and mutated fungus growing there. Even the anthropologists are pretty nonplussed about the native people they discover. There are many vague details in the film, particularly the details on how this tribal group survived the hydrogen bomb.

However everything is forgotten when the discovery of the Shobijin or 'small beauties' hits the headlines. They try and warn the reporter Zen (Frankie Sakai) and Dr. Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) that their people will pray to Mothra for help, and that innocent lives will be lost. However Nelson is too busy raking in profits and laughing maniacally to care. At one point someone reports that he previously explored the Amazon looking for women to put in a dance show, it's pretty cheesy stuff. But sometimes that works best, and overall this is one of the better human casts in a film like this. The reporters clashing with the sinister foreign villains is fun and Amano, the brusque newspaper editor (Takashi Shimura) is particularly good. Overall the dynamic between all the characters works.

This saves the first half of the story from becoming too dry, as it's a while before the giant egg being worshipped on Infant Island hatches. Eventually of course there are plenty of special effects sequences as the caterpillar form of Mothra runs amok and is met with resistance from military rockets and heat rays. Later the schemes of Nelson and his cohorts fall apart and he escapes to New Yor... sorry New Kirk City where the adult form has to be stopped. Mothra looks a bit shabby compared to some of later '90s versions, but there are some good set pieces involving the wings of the giant creature blowing down city streets. It's also got some great visuals and a few neat editing tricks, particularly a scene when Nelson loses his cool and imagines an angry mob as island residents.

Destruction takes precedence over science in the third act and it's never explained what the island juice that saved the shipwreck survivors was, and how the atomic tests effected the local flora or the natives. There are also some vague references to Christian iconography that are throw in at the last minute, but I suppose overall this isn't that kind of story and these ideas are mostly just dressing. It's a movie about a giant tiger moth flattening buildings to save a pair of sacred fairies. Jesus and Mothra are on equal terms here I guess. Ultimately this is just a fun example of all the essential elements done right, and you can read into it more than that if you'd like. It strikes the best kind of balance between the character stuff and the monster mayhem, which is all you can ask for.



So from the beginnings of a franchise to the death throes of an icon, this is not a great example of the genre. However it's kind of fun. It's definitely not good... but it's hard to hate a story as simplistic as this. The atomic weapons subtext is given the most basic lip service and the plot involves a giant robot designed by a child in a real life contest. However the absurdly named Jet Jaguar (there are no jets and he just looks like Ultraman) wasn't trusted to carry the film by himself, and so this became another entry in the Godzilla series. At this stage the cracks were really showing and it would all be mothballed just two years later.

After nuclear testing upsets underground nation Seatopia they unleash a giant beetle monster to destroy the human world. Meanwhile two of their agents disguise themselves and head to sabotage the robotics program of Goro Ibuki, which could stop the creatures progress. It's a very uneven film even with this basic setup, and there's a lot of meandering as the narrative moves from the Jet Jaguar lab to the destruction caused by Megalon. They also give a lot of screen to Goro's nephew, just in case you're unclear on the target audience. Later it's revealed that the villains actually want Jet Jaguar for themselves so it can guide Megalon to the cities they wish to crush... but this is a really flimsy excuse to have the two interact. It also makes both them and their monster look completely ineffective.

They look just as hapless when Megalon gets his ass kicked and they resort to calling for help from the aliens that sent Gigan in the previous movie. Of course this is just so they can have a doubles match at the end and use some good old stock footage. It's a weird shambling mess of a movie where cartoon logic often prevails over basic storytelling. But that does mean it has a certain kind of charm. It's bad, yes. But it does have the ridiculous handshake scene and that infamous flying kick. Plus there's also the Jet Jaguar-Godzilla thumbs up moment. A lot of it is just rather patience testing but sometimes it veers right into good-bad territory. There aren't enough of those moments unfortunately, but it's ultimately harmless nonsense.