* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Midnight/Matinee Madness)
Would-be filmmakers should take Mothra as either encouragement or a warning. On the one hand, it shows that even if you have very little to work with, it can still find an audience and be remembered for years to come. The flip side of this, of course, is that a movie with quite frankly hilarious shortcomings in the production values department can dog you for generations. Director Ishiro Honda spent much of his career doing this type of movie, so maybe he isn't embarrassed by it, although he may just have been a good Toho employee.
If he was embarrassed, he shouldn't have been. Amused, perhaps, that forty-plus years after its initial release, this movie is still remembered and held in enough esteem to get new prints and a limited run in repatory theaters. Mothra belongs to that class of monster movies that are so simple in their conception and exuberant in their execution that they manage to work despite their obvious budgetary shortcomings. It also taps into something real - it's not as close to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the original Godzilla (itself written by Honda), but the spectre of radioactive contamination and the fears of America running roughshod over its allies were still prevalent enough in the Japanese mindset (and, to a lesser extent, everywhere in the world) to make this story seem somewhat topical.
Here, "America" is disguised as Rolisica, an island nation that nonetheless conducted nuclear tests on Infant Island and takes total control of an "international" mission to investigate the island, when Japanese sailors stranded there say that they were saved by natives. When the Rolisican impressario who funded the expedition, Clark Nelson (played by American-born Jerry Ito, he has an Anglophone name but Japanese features) kidnaps two foot-high girls they find on the island, the natives call on their island's guardian, Mosura (transliterated as Mothra), to retrieve them - and the Rolisican Embassy gives him sanctuary, even as Mosura (in its larval form) is laying waste to Japan. Eventually, he flees to his own country, but Mosura follows, its moth form ready to do as much damage to "New Kirk City" as its larval form to to Tokyo.
What you're working with here is basic dime-novel fiction, giant-moster style; you've got the journalist main character (Frankie Sakai), his photographer assistant (Kyoko Kagawa), and an initially reclusive linguist who sort of winds up being a general-purpose scientist. The foreign villain likes to throw his head back and laugh. The editor is gruff and demanding. There are native populations who can surround a party without a sound. And there's a scale model of Tokyo to crush. Honda is familiar with all this stuff (he also wrote Godzilla and directed Rodan), and he knows exactly how far he can go without overplaying his hand.
The production values on movies like this walk a fine line between impressive and laughable. There's great attention paid to detail in terms of how well the miniatures are built, for instance, and they look good coming down. However, both the Mosura larva and later moth form look quite goofy, and a lot of the action looks to be done with toys. Seriously, when you see Nelson pick the "tiny beauties" up, they're clearly Barbies (or whatever the equivelent Japanes 11.5-inch fashion doll is named). And I wouldn't be surprised if the tanks were remote-controlled vehicles that anyone could get off the shelf; the soldiers' heads peeking out are immobile and don't exactly look like they were sculpted and painted by someone used to working at that scale. The cars flying through the air as Mosura approaches New Kirk City? Matchboxes.
But it's kind of charming, too. I don't know if "charming" would be the right work to describe it had I seen it in 1961, but in 2004, it's possible to admire how much Honda did with so little, making up for what his effects team couldn't do with what he could. Kitsch looks better with a little distance.
So Mothra ends up being a lot of fun, and embeds itself into Japanese pop culture to the point where the giant bug has appeared in the four most recent Godzilla movies, 40 years later. it endures, more than can be said about many movies of its age.