Field Guide to Invertebrates in Film: Mothra

Mothra (1961)

Critter: Enormous, magical member of the order Lepidoptera

Size: Huge- at least 100 m long as a larva (some report Mothra is 180 m long with a 250 m wingspan in the adult stage)

Modus Operandi: Rubber-suit & robot rampage by land, sea and air

How the Menace Emerges: The two twin “tiny beauties” that are Mothra’s representatives are abducted by an evil capitalist pig, and Mothra gets very angry.

End Goal: To save the tiny beauties, somehow implying that this will restore peace on Earth

Ah, finally! An A+ invertebrate flick! Mothra is one of the three films in the Icons of Sci-Fi, Toho Collection DVD set just out this past Tuesday. While the film could have used a bit of clean up, this is its first time out in the US on DVD and it’s uncut, in Japanese and has a killer commentary. Although it’s a classic Toho studio rubber suit monster masterpiece with Ishiro Honda (Godzilla, Matango, Dogora) at the helm, this time, the monster is hardly monstrous. Like King Kong, Mothra is a sympathetic monster. She does wreak havoc in both Tokyo & a faux US city named New Kirk City, but who can blame her. The adorable Mothra is instinctually compelled to do so out of a sense of justice. She’s not angry at Japan or humanity like Godzilla, she just wants her pals back home.

While American sci-fi was busy commenting on the awesomeness of radiation and its fictional capacity to make insects (and anything else) huge, Japanese sci-fi responded to the atomic age in an understandably more complex fashion. There is no real explanation of Mothra’s origins, but she is most likely not a mutant born of radiation, but rather a quasi-religious figure (perhaps fashioned after old animistic kami of old Japan) whose sole purpose is to protect two very special ladies. Her role is to make the world right again, and she doesn’t give a damn who gets in her way.

The tiny beauties live on Infant Island, an idyllic and supposedly uninhabited island that was bombarded with radiation in military tests (a stand-in for Bikini Atoll, no doubt) by the nefarious nation, Rosilica (a satirical stand-in for Russia & America), known for its weapons, capitalist stances and its evil representative in Japan, Nelson. It is Rosilica’s Nelson and his inhumane greed that unleashes Mothra’s wrath on innocent Japan, and the Rosilican government stands behind Nelson’s claim that the tiny beauties are not people but property. It is also Rosilica that provides the atomic heat rays that Japan hopes will kill Mothra. Of course, Rosilica’s high-tech atomic weapons don’t fix anything, in fact, they seem to make things much worse. Mere technology can’t destroy the nature that Mothra embodies, and rather than perishing, she emerges from the blast as a very fuzzy and adorable moth. She then heads straight for Rosilica for some rampaging in deserving New Kirk City. Mothra is a rather simple moral tale, and the tiny beauties bid farewell to Rosilica and their Japanese pals on a sweet note: “May all the world’s peoples live together in peace and harmony!”…or else.

Not only is Mothra chock full of insightful satire and social commentary, it is also a technical masterwork. The Toho studio system was in full swing in 1961, with a stable of excellent actors, directors and special effects folks at the ready. The effects in Mothra are a combination of models, puppets, rubber-suit monsters, remote controlled robots, blue-screen and animation, all of which are rendered beautifully. The planes glide through the sky in formation, shooting rockets with real flames that leave sooty marks and flames on larval Mothra when they land. Mothra undulates just as a caterpillar should, and bounces when she falls. Once in full adult form, she glides through the air with graceful wings that move naturally. Not all of the effects necessarily look real, but with natural lighting, a real physicality and inventive cinematography, all of these effects are convincing enough, and downright impressive.

Nit-picking Science: Mothra is light on entomology, so there’s nothing for me to rip apart here. A physicist may have a better time with stuff like the telepathy-blocking plastic and the atomic heat ray than I could.

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