Thursday, 14 May 2020

Mothra


I Larvae Good Movie

Mothra 
Japan 1961 
Directed by Ishirô Honda
Toho/Mill Creek Steelbook  Blu Ray Zone A

And so onto Mothra.

Made by the director of the original Gojira (aka Godzilla, reviewed here), Ishirô Honda, Mothra is similar in style to that movie in that it’s a fairly slow burn for the first part of the story. It’s strong on characterisation though, focusing on a scientist, a reporter and the reporter’s photographic assistant, played by Hiroshi Koizumi, Furankî Sakai and  Kyôko Kagawa respectively. We also have screen legend Takashi Shimura turning up as the chief editor of the newspaper where the reporters in question work.

The film starts off with a somewhat overly long opening credits sequence where the typography is superimposed over shifting shots of very colourful rock textures, before we get into a ship crashing on the supposedly irradiated shores of Infant Island in yet another reference, presumably, to the real life radiation accident with a bunch of fishermen that inspired the original Godzilla movie. When the few survivors are rescued it is found that they are not irradiated at all and a group of investigators, including the main scientist and the reporter (who stows away), are sent to Infant Island to investigate. It is there that they find two teeny tiny doll sized ladies played by the Japanese pop duo The Peanuts, who are kind of guardians of the Mothra legend and held in high regard by the group of natives who, just as in King Kong VS Godzilla (review coming very soon), consist of a bunch of Japanese people in black face. Not very politically correct these days, I guess, but fine for anyone over the age of thirty, I would imagine.

It’s in this first section that Honda sets up the necessary human villain who is the spanner in the works regarding the peaceful coalition of islanders and civilisation. This is a ‘single monster’ movie (albeit a dual incarnation monster) and so there has to be an antagonistic element somewhere. This comes in the shape of a philanthropist bad guy and his henchmen who all come from the country Rosilica. In my naiveté, I suspected that Rosilica was a less than subtle stand in for Russia so the writers could have a dig at that country and show them up to be the land of origin for the less than intelligent and evil antagonists. As it turns out, I was only half right... it’s an amalgam supposed to represent both super powers... Russia and the USA, showing them up to be the bad guys as, well, subtly as it can manage I guess.

Anyway. Long story short... the villain kidnaps The Peanuts so he can put on shows with them in Japan and so they sing (regularly) and this, combined with their psychic link to the sacred Mothra egg and the natives doing their ritualistic dance, causes Mothra to hatch as we first see her, in larvae form... which is basically a white grub-like creature which swims across the seas to rescue The Peanuts, causing a wake of destruction in her path. This is because, in the words of the two ‘small beauties’ (as they are referred to in the film), Mothra has no sense of right or wrong... which is possibly at odds with her heroic nature later on in the Godzilla franchise but certainly it’s a step in the right direction to having a film with a ‘good monster’ in it as opposed to the normal perception of them.

From hereon in, the movie is about the cities trying to battle the Mothra larvae while the heroes are trying to track down the film’s prime villain, who has stuffed The Peanuts into a suitcase and is on the run with them. At one point, when the humans think they have destroyed Mothra, all that’s happened is it has cocooned itself, emerging from the cocoon a day later as the full on flying ‘moth’ version of the creature, with it’s voice as distinctive as Godzilla’s roar.

And that’s pretty much everything and the story continues mostly as you’d imagine but, once again, Honda shows a real knack for framing and building characters rather than just concentrating on monstrous action. Indeed, the first half of the movie is devoid of this kind of spectacle asides from a fairly cheaply done blood sucking plant on Infant Island. He also takes time to hone in on little details which other directors might not bother with, such as a view of a ship’s wake through calm water by way of an establishing shot and to add to the atmosphere of the thing.

We also have Yûji Koseki’s score, which seems organ dominated at times and which is, mostly, very different from what Akira Ifikube would do for a film like this. And, of course, there are the songs sung by The Peanuts including the famous Mothra Song. Plus some nice use of leitmotif as the Mothra theme comes back in different arrangements in moments when you’d least expect it to.

All this and some nice but variable special effects. The model work in some of the scenes is still quality stuff and some of those tanks must have been just fronts of lorries for some of the shots because there’s an impressive moment when a human, not a puppet, is riding a motorbike right next to one of those things. And it still makes me laugh when somebody says that they’ve called on the 'Rosilican Heat Ray Brigade', as though those mobile heat ray cannons actually existed... but the model shots of them and the tanks battling the Mothra larvae are still very impressive here.

What’s not so impressive are the matte lines where shots are composited together and, as you might guess, this nice new Blu Ray transfer of the film just makes that dodgy stuff all the more apparent. It’s also really easy to spot the strings holding Mothra up too so... that’s not necessarily a good thing either, to be honest. Although, having said that, I’m glad they didn’t make the heretical decision to digitally remove the strings for the Blu Ray edition.

In terms of the leading villain, I find it curious that a big, elaborate ‘death by Mothra’ scene was planned for him originally but, in the final movie, he never actually meets Mothra. Instead, he just has a ‘super villain mad moment’ towards the end and is gunned down by the authorities for his trouble. Which actually seems quite a lot bleaker, truth be told.

All in all, though, while it possibly drags a little for some people's tastes during the first three quarters, Mothra is a solid entry into the kaiju eiga of Japanese cinematic legacy and it’s easy to see why she was revived for the Godzilla franchise a little while later. Although, due to the way she’s pitched here, she doesn’t die at the end (instead is seen as a rescuer character), it should have made bringing her into the Godzilla franchise an easy task but my memory is kicking in and telling me that it’s not necessarily the ‘same’ Mothra in the later films because, I seem to remember she starts off in her larvae state in the first of her Godzilla appearances too?* I’ll know soon enough because it’s in the Criterion Blu Ray set I’m steadily working my way through so I’ll report back on that sometime soon. If you’re a fan of Japanese monster movies then the original 1961 version of Mothra certainly isn’t the worst of them and it’s well worth a look, especially to see how the human characters are portrayed in these things.

*My memory was faulty, it turns out. There are, in fact, three Mothras
 in that next film and it does follow on from events in this one... kinda. 

Thanks to Charlie Brigden for helping me source a Blu Ray copy of this.

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