blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Mothra (1961, Honda Ishirô)

Mothra is a strange mix of Japanese monster movie, 1950s Hollywood sci-fi and Disney. The last ingredient only becomes clear at the end of the movie, though it’s probably present throughout (as Mothra returns home with the two fairies, it’s clear Mothra would have made a fine animated feature). But the strangest element of Mothra isn’t a genre one, as Christian movies weren’t big in that era. Mothra interacts with religion–specifically Catholicism–in a way I’ve never seen in a Japanese movie, much less a giant monster movie, before. At the end of the movie, it’s revealed Mothra herself is some kind of agent of God. It’s a discrete revelation (the movie doesn’t deal with the implications at all), but it’s definitely there. Had Mothra dealt with those implications, like the origin of church bells and the cross as a Christian symbol being on a Polynesian Island since long before Christ… well, it would have been a far more interesting film.

Moving on, Mothra also features a very global community. Instead of containing the action to Japan, the movie ends in Rolisica–which is as close as Russia (and features a large Russian farming community, as well as Eastern Orthodox churches), but looks like America and everyone speaks English. Initially, the country’s only a stand-in for the USSR, so when its propping up a crazy capitalist, it’s real funny. But the unreality of the country, in terms of its national character and closeness to Japan, lends to that Disney feel (as does everyone waving goodbye to Mothra, who’s just gotten done destroying a bunch of cities and killing untold hundreds).

But the story, which is clearly influenced by King Kong–an expedition produces some good showbiz results with disastrous consequences–is all right. It follows a reporter (Frankie Sakai) and a scientist (Koizumi Hiroshi) to the expedition and back, establishing them as important and so on. There’s the reporter’s cute photographer and the scientist’s little brother who tag along for their adventures. It’s all very genial (and somewhat damning at the end, when Mothra ends on a dumb, “women are so silly” joke).

The likable cast–well, Jerry Ito is terrible as the villain, but moving on–only needs to get the movie to the special effects sequences and they do. Once Mothra’s attacking the city, the excellent miniature effects take over. There’s a lot of city work, with moving vehicles and detailed buildings and it all looks fantastic. Only when the camera holds too long on the miniature figures are there any problems (most of the editing during the destruction sequences is perfect though). And then there’s the issue of Mothra herself. The caterpillar, even with its lifeless eyes, is good. The giant moth… not so good. Luckily, Honda doesn’t pause the camera on it, instead going to the street scenes and those are fantastic. When Mothra hits the New York City stand in and blows the blocks of cars all around… great stuff.

Mothra‘s strangely ambitious–especially at the end with the Eastern Western setting and the Christian overtones–and a lot of it works real well. Great effects throughout, some good music and Honda’s got some excellent shots in the movie, sometimes just in conversation. But the end, kneecapped already with the ludicrous fond farewell to the monster, and then ending on the dumb joke, really brings Mothra down. As the movie gets more interesting from a scholarly standpoint, its quality lessens.

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