THE YEAR: 1961
THE DIRECTOR: Ishiro Honda
THE WRITER: Shinichirô Nakamura, Takehiko Fukunaga & Yoshie Hotta (story), Shin’ichi Sekizawa (screenplay)
THE CAST: Frankie Sakai, Kyoko Kagawa, Hiroshi Koizumi, Ken Uehara, Emi Itô, Yûmi Itô,
In a world where giant rubber monsters roam the Earth leaving a crumbling path of destruction in their wake, one winged being stands apart as being quite unique. A protector, rather than a destroyer. A caring goddess. A keeper of balance and peace. Other kaiju were grotesque and horrifying. This one was beautiful and graceful as she soared through the skies in a quest to defend her friends… unless she was in the United States.
In the United States she was released in theatres on a double bill with The Three Stooges. And an insect.
How about we fly towards the rewind button and take a look…
Legendary Japanese director Ishiro Honda had already delivered the hit giant monster movies Rodan and Gojira (Godzilla), amongst many others, by the time Mothra came to be. While still following the framework of most kaiju movies, Mothra was decidedly different. Certainly one of – if not the – first feminine monsters, Mothra is depicted as a protective deity where most other monsters are called to destruction. Despite the collateral destruction in the film, Mothra is the hero rushing to save her friends and the villains are all human.
Also outside of the norm is Mothra’s metamorphosis from larvae to imago form. Changing or adapting monsters had happened before, and certainly since, but often due to science or some sort of spell. Mothra changes not as a mutation, but as part of her natural progression. It’s something built into the core of the character and her life cycle.
What else makes Mothra unique? She is summoned by song. The song itself is interesting because even in its original early sixties, drum heavy version here, it is still quite docile and beautiful. Not really what one would expect in calling on a monster. Future versions of the songs continued to get even more melodic. It really reinforces the inherently peaceful nature of Mothra.
Of course, given the success of Honda’s earlier monster movies in the United States, the rights to Mothra were quickly scooped up for a North American release, but how do you market a gentle monster to an American audience? Simple: you sell it as a giant man-eating mutant insect. As you can see on the poster above, Mothra’s soft exterior and brightly colored wings end up eschewed for what is essentially a giant fly with fangs, complete with crashing jet fighters in the back ground. The Fly and The Return of The Fly were big hits not long before. Coincidence? Well… probably, but through the 1950’s and into the 1960’s giant insect movies (such as Them!) were a big thing, and this was likely seen as a more lucrative way to market the film than trying to sell American audiences on protection or peace. “From the director of Godzilla!” wasn’t quite a widely used promotional pitch just yet. Of course, the dubbed release was heavily edited for the United States and it was paired with the sci-fi comedy The Three Stooges In Orbit in cinemas. Nyuk nyuk.
The film did get very favorable reviews in the United States, however, with American critics praising the cinematography and the advanced (for the time) special effects, as well as the story – which, in even in its edited form, stayed quite powerful in spots. Audiences also responded quite well. So when Mothra finally had her showdown with Godzilla, you can just imagine the marketing blitz for the two well know monsters.
For what questionable treatment Mothra received in her solo film, it was even worse in the American release of Godzilla vs Mothra, or as it came to be released as: Godzilla vs The Thing, because how tough can a butterfly be, amirite? The posters wouldn’t even show Mothra’s image, just a “censored” image in front of Godzilla with plant-like tentacles lashing out around it (oddly like Godzilla’s future nemesis, Biollante). Mothra wouldn’t get proper credit in the film until the home video release in the 1980’s, although the dubbed dialogue still calls her “The Thing” throughout.
It just goes to show how tough women have it in Hollywood. Even if you’re a kaiju.
Mothra, of course, has gone on to feature in eight different Godzilla movies (so far) and a trilogy of Mothra solo movies, becoming one of the most beloved characters in Toho’s enormous stable, especially among female fans. Rumors abound right now that Mothra will make her first North American appearance in the sequel to Gareth Edward’s Godzilla film.
What if Mothra hadn’t become a part of the Godzilla universe? Would she be as popular as she is today? More so, would she have been able to carry her own series? In the sixties and seventies, I might have to say no. The nineties did see the Rebirth of Mothra series which saw the birth of a new male Mothra in Leo, with upgraded powers and more modern effects. That series managed to do some very fun things that wouldn’t have been possible back in the day. I’m afraid in the sixties a solo Mothra series would have likely quickly become a lot of same-old, same-old.
THE BIG QUESTION:
What is your favorite film appearance of Mothra?
Let us know in the comments below!
Mothra is an absolute classic and is required viewing for any Kaiju fan. Period. Sadly, the original film hasn’t had stellar treatment in North America, still not having seen an uncut, remastered, or high definition release.
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