Saturday, July 30, 2011

Winging it: memories of MOTHRA(1961)

It took me, admittedly, some time to "warm up" to the Toho created kaiju called "Mothra": as its name implies this giant creature, which has tangled with the likes of Godzilla, Gigan, a marine monster named Dagarah and even the three headed, gold colored space dragon King Ghidorah, is a moth like monster. This winged creature's size has varied in the numerous films it has appeared in and its powers include being able to generate hurricane force winds and emitting a poisonous powder on its adversary monsters.

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, in my opinion, the best overall: a movie called Mothra which debuted in Japanese theaters back on July 31, 1961. This film is celebrating its 50th "birthday", if you will and I'd like to take another opportunity to lay some props on this classic. The overall special effects and miniature effects employed in Mothra(1961) are, I think, among the absolute best ever produced by Toho's special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya and have stood the test of time very well. The actual sets that were created for this movie remain the largest ever made by Toho for any kaiju film. Mothra was released theatrically in Japan on July 30, 1961. It would reach American theaters later in May of 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 great sense of spectacle and fantasy, the story driven in large part by the performance of (the late) Jerry Ito, who masterfully portrays vile, ego maniacal and greedy entrepreneur Clark Nelson. Ito's performance makes it easy to despise "Clark Nelson" and cheer for Mothra to come and rescue the two island "fairies". The score, by Yuki Koseki, is sweeping, majestic and grand and compliments the acting and special effects quite well. The special effects, courtesy of Eiji Tsuburaya, are outstanding, the miniature effects and wireworks 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 plays a Rolisican police detective.

I've seen some message board criticism of this film for being a bit slow at times and also because it doesn't have non-stop kaiju action. Motha(1961) is, like many films, a story and in this story it does take some time for the creature to become prominent in the film's storyline. Once Mothra does the various sequences of both the larval and adult Mothra on the rampage, both in Tokyo and in the skies over "New Kirk City" respectively, are visually marvelous as we see the creature display the full force of its destructive power.

The film, which did quite 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). Mothra(1961) was also released to Region 1 DVD in 2009 as part of a DVD set called Icons Of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection, the set also including the Toho films Battle In Outer Space(1959) and The H-Man(1958).

The film has appeared on Turner Classic Movies(the Columbia Pictures version in English dubbed language) and also other cable channels as well.

The R2 DVD for sale at CDJapan:

The R1 DVD set of Icons Of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection for sale at

The original Toho trailer: