Saturday, August 23, 2008

Winging It: Mothra(1961)

As a kid I was delighted by the fact my father was also a fan of giant monster movies. Among his favorites were War Of The Gargantuas(1966), Godzilla King Of The Monsters(1956) and Godzilla Vs The Thing(1964). My father actually saw Godzilla Vs The Thing in a NYC movie theater in 1964 while he was on business there. My father's absolute favorite kaiju film of all time was Mothra(1961) , a film he also saw in a theater. It took me, admittedly, some time to "warm up" to this gigantic, lepidopteral monster. Mothra is widely considered the second most popular kaiju, after Godzilla. I'm certain this is a debatable issue. I've seen great debate about who gets second place in popularity after Godzilla at many message boards. What isn't subject to debate is that Mothra has appeared in over a half dozen other kaiju films and has a trilogy of films, released theatrically in the 1990's, that also showcase the winged creature. The first film this monster appeared in is still, IMO, the best, overall.

Mothra was released theatrically in Japan on July 30, 1961. It would reach American theaters later in May, 1962, released by Columbia Pictures, which had bought the North American rights to the Toho film.

The film's story:
A ship called the Daini Genyo Maru runs aground in a typhoon in the waters near Biru Island, located in an area of lingering radioactive fallout from repeated atomic tests conducted by the country of Rolisica. Four survivors from the wrecked ship are found by a search and rescue effort, curiously unaffected by the radiation in the area. To investigate the mystery further, the Rolisican government sponsors a Rolisican-Japanese expedition to study the island. There they find an isolated area of lush green vegetation, natives indigenous to the island, and two six inch tall girls. Deciding to leave the tiny girls and the island alone, the expedition departs Biru Island and returns to Japan. Unfortunately, entrepreneur Clark Nelson, in charge of the expedition, returns to the island and,with the help of his thugs, kidnap the tiny girls, cutting down the natives in a barrage of gunfire. Nelson immediately puts the tiny girls on a vaudevillian-like display as part of his "Secret Fairies" show, much to the disdain of other expedition members Shinichi Chujo, a linguist/anthropologist, Zenichiro Fukuda, a reporter, and Michi Hanamura, Fukuda's photographer and colleague. This trio implore Clark Nelson to relinquish the tiny girls. Nelson refuses. Result: a gigantic egg on Biru Island hatches, loosing an enormous caterpillar called "Mothra", which swims towards Japan, to "rescue" the two girls. The giant caterpillar, surviving an at sea napalm attack, and plowing through an ocean liner that happens to be in its way, reaches the Japanese mainland and begins it's search for the two little girls. (no other spoilers).

This film has a decidedly "fantasy" feel about it, the story driven by the performance of (the late) Jerry Ito, who masterfully portrays vile, ego maniacal and greedy entrepreneur Clark Nelson. His performance makes it easy to despise him and cheer for Mothra to come and rescue the two island "fairies". The score, by Yuki Koseki, is sweeping, majestic and grand. The special effects, courtesy of Eiji Tsuburaya, are outstanding, the miniature effects and wirework effects used to bring Mothra to life a marvel to watch. The rendering of the larval Mothra is done through people inside a prop, Haruo Nakajima manning the "head" portion of the suit. The adult(flying) form is rendered through a large prop which is maneuvered via a system of overhead wires. Mattes are used quite a bit for Mothra's attack on the Rolisican metropolis called "New Kirk City". Other Toho actors in this movie include Hiroshi Koizumi as the linguist Shinichi Chujo, Frankie Sakai as Zenichiro Fukuda(nicknamed "Snapping Turtle" in the original film and "Bulldog" in the English dubbed version). Kyouko Kagawa, who played "Michi Hanamura", was very cute. Kenji Sahara has a small role as a helo pilot, Harold Conway portrays the Rolisican Ambassador, and Robert Dunham a Rolisican police detective.

The film, which did very well at the box office both in Japan and in the United States, was shot in color and 2:35.1 widescreen aspect ratio. It is available on Region 2 DVD and can be purchased via online order at either or CDJapan, though in Japanese language only(no English subtitles). Recently it was announced that Sony will be releasing Mothra to R1 DVD in 2009 as part of a DVD set, which also includes the Toho films Battle In Outer Space(1959) and The H-Man(1958). Truly great news!

The film has appeared a few times on Turner Classic Movies, though not recently, in full frame format and in English dubbed audio.

The R2 DVD for sale at CDJapan:

The Japanese trailer for Mothra(1961):