Mothra is one of the strangest kaiju flicks you’ll ever see, especially for its time. Toho broke the mold a bit with it, but they did so in a way that built off of the kaiju flicks they made before. As I talked about with Rodan and Gojira, Toho never intended for its monsters to be unsympathetic. They are antagonists, yes, but we are meant to pity them more than hate them. The true villain of these movies is war, specifically humanity’s unnatural desire to engage in it regardless of the cost. Needless violence and destruction is the real enemy, and the kaiju are merely victims of it who turn their pain against humanity. Well, Mothra just gives up the pretense that the monster is the villain. The titular monster is unambiguously benevolent, and mankind’s greed and entitlement issues are the true cause of all the terror in the movie.
Instead of beginning with an atomic bomb, the monster just… exists. Alone on a secluded island is Mothra, a massive insect of marvelous power. She is worshiped by the humans who live on the island who, while technologically inferior to the explorers who find the island, are nonetheless happy under the protection of their giant bug goddess. Mothra is also served by two tiny six inch tall women who are explicitly called fairies in all translations of the story. These women are Mothra’s priestesses, giving the monster a voice to communicate with humanity. They, like Mothra, merely want to protect the island, and warn the explorers not to harm the people there.
Well, some of the explorers believe these priestesses would make them lots of money, and decide to kidnap the two fairies and force them to sing in shows. It’s kind of like King Kong in reverse, with supernaturally tiny people being exploited instead of a supernaturally large ape.
And, to continue the reverse King Kong vibe, the giant monster then chases after the women and breaks into the world of man to save them.
Mothra doesn’t purposely destroy buildings in a vicious rage like Godzilla or Rodan. She has one clear goal: save the little women. Mothra follows that goal to the letter, swimming through seas and crawling around and through buildings to find her priestesses. The military tries to stop her, but their weapons prove mostly useless. Mothra seems to be dead at one point, only to wrap herself in a cocoon of silk. The military then tries to destroy the cocoon, but Mothra survives, emerging in a beautiful flying form and coming to the rescue. She gets her priestesses, causing a lot of collateral damage in the process, and returns home.
So basically, Mothra is Taken, except Liam Neeson is a giant moth.
You might be looking at that plot and thinking, “Uh… that’s not a horror movie. That’s… like, fantasy or something.” Well, what horrifies us has changed a lot more than you may realize. It’s not constant. The first horror novel, The Castle of Otranto, begins with a scene that feels like it’s our of Monty Python’s Flying Circus: a giant helmet falls out of the sky and crushes a dude. Seriously, that is literally the first scene – hell, the first PARAGRAPH of the first horror novel ever written. And, in its day, it was terrifying.
On the surface, Mothra looks exactly like a typical horror movie of the 60’s: a giant bug destroys buildings and crushes people. That was scary as hell at the time. Mothra just gives this a big twist by making the insect – which, traditionally, is one of the monster types that people are least inclined to sympathize with – the protagonist and hero of the story. Oh, Mothra does horrible things, yes, but the real horror is the fact that we as the audience know that the humans, our surrogates, deserve to have this happen to them. Mothra is raining down righteous fury on humanity, and every crushed car or flattened building is a blow we deserve to take.
We stole Mothra’s friends. We stole her voice. We stole two harmless little sentient beings that Mothra cared about – tiny little women who warned us not to trifle with the big bug because they were concerned for our safety. We, humanity, saw these helpful little creatures and decided to exploit them for our own amusement. And when the giant insect tried to get them back, we tried to kill it. Oh yes, we had it coming.
Mothra builds on the themes of Gojira and Rodan by showing what these kaiju – these personified forces of nature – could be if we treated them better. Mothra is a protector, a benevolent and powerful force with great strength, valor, and determination. This is the ally humanity could have if it would only cast aside its vicious lust for violence and petty greed! This is what the natural world could be for us – a powerful creature that nurtures and guards us.
And, if we build on my theory that horror is only one half, or really one third, of the traditional hero legend, Mothra helps the Godzilla film series move towards completing that story – its movement towards reclaiming the missing parts of its inherent story structure. Gojira and Rodan and the other Toho monster flicks before show that something is rotten in the state of Tokyo, and that humanity has created a huge, supernatural obstacle – a pantheon of monsters – to face. In Mothra, we discover that there is an opposing force – a supernatural hero – that can face them. And the story will only build from here.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that people tend to think Mothra is a different sort of monster than Godzilla or Rodan, who seem to be strictly atomic mutants. People think Mothra is purely Fantasy fare – a magical being – while Godzilla and Rodan are creations of science alone, i.e. SciFi. This makes perfect sense from a Western standpoint – we like to keep our magic and spirituality separate and far away from our science and logic.
Buuuuuuuuuut it’s ignoring an aspect of Japanese culture, one that I’m going to have to explain in vague terms because I’m not an expert on Japanese religion and am worried I might botch up badly if I go into specifics. This is something I learned from other people about Godzilla movies – from essayists and my older sister, who has studied Japan more closely than I have. According to my rough understanding, in Shinto religion, it is believed that all things in the world have souls or spirits – not just humans, not just animals, not just plants, but literally all things, including rivers and mountains and inanimate objects. When a thing is wronged in some grievous manner, its spirit can be corrupted and become monstrous. This is why there are so many Japanese folktales about monsters that were inanimate objects, which isn’t a particularly common trend in the west (where “souls” are, for the most part, strictly a human thing).
Likewise, when a soul is particularly strong, its body can become something supernaturally marvelous.
Godzilla, Rodan, and all the other kaiju in the Godzilla series are more than just large animals – they’re nature spirits, personifications of the natural world itself that inhabit the bodies of mighty beasts. Their forms are biologically mutated, yes, but also spiritually mutated. They are scientific and spiritual at ones – both fantasy and sci-fi, and horror all around.
Mothra, having escaped the scarring presence of mankind’s cruelty and scientific progress, only shows the effects of a spiritual mutation – a positive one, at that, as she has become something akin to a demigod. She is what Godzilla and Rodan should have been, had they been treated better by humanity, and what Godzilla and Rodan could become if they were shown some kindness. Mothra’s role in the overarching story of the Godzilla films is absolutely crucial. She’s the moral compass of the kaiju, the kindest of the lot, and the one who helps them become a team. With her two priestesses she works as a diplomat between man and monster, helping both sides come to an agreement.
I really like the difference in appearance between Mothra’s two forms. Her larval stage is pretty ugly, and has often been compared to a big turd. A lot of people try to change it when they adapt Godzilla, but they really shouldn’t. Mothra is all about love and empathy, and a big part of that message includes extending kindness to things we aren’t inclined to be kind towards. Mothra wants you to love the ugly and the beautiful equally, so it’s important that one of her forms is kinda gross. Mothra’s larval form is also specifically based on a silk worm, which, while being ugly, is a caterpillar that is renowned for being helpful to humans by producing silk. Being helpful and kind is, again, a huge part of Mothra, so that resemblance is important. Her imago form, with its bumblebee body and butterfly wings, really only vaguely resembles a moth. Instead it’s an amalgam of many different pollinating insects – creatures that help the environment in a multitude of ways just by existing, as their flight helps countless trees and plants survive. Mothra is beautiful, yes, but that beauty also has a great utility to it. Mothra is made of creatures that encourage and help life survive. You can’t get more benevolent than that.
A lot of Godzilla fans detest Mothra because she’s “weak” or “girly” or “too pretty,” while others idolize her because “she can beat Godzilla despite being girly and pretty.” I think they’re both wrong. Mothra being having a peaceful nature and pretty appearance does not make her weak, and likewise, her greatest strength is not her physical might. She can hold her own in a fight, yes, but that’s not what’s awesome about Mothra. In a world filled with violence and roaring and death, Mothra charges up to fire spouting lizards and the destructive machinery of mankind without a trace of fear, telling these stupid, cruel creatures that there is a better way. Mothra sees a world of war and preaches peace. Mothra sees hordes of deadly enemies and gives them love and understanding. Screw your multicolored horses – Mothra is the true face of love and harmony.
My final point for this entry: I began work on this series when I started hearing people refer to “The Kaiju Genre.” As a person who has been in the kaiju fan community for more than a decade, one who has researched and discussed kaiju movies in depth, and one who has made a fairly successful series of kaiju stories himself, I suddenly found myself wondering if there actually was a Kaiju Genre. I was an English Major in college, so the word “genre” has special weight to me. A genre can’t be defined just by having one element – a genre is a recipe, not an ingredient. Are there enough common elements in Kaiju stories to make it a genre a part from others?
It got me thinking about the roots of Kaiju movies – how they share elements in common with the Alien Invasion movies of the Cold War, and the smaller scale monster movies like The Creature from the Black Lagoon. That, in turn, got me thinking about how Cold War horror stories differed from ones in the Victorian era, and how movies from the 70’s and 80’s differed from them, and so on and so on. I started developing a theory of not just one subgenre of horror, but several – a taxonomy of horror.
Mothra is the movie that lets me say yes, there is a Kaiju Genre. It is part of Atomic Horror, yet has elements that set it apart from other Atomic Horror stories. Like Atomic Horror, the source of horror in Kaiju movies is always progress – specifically the impatient, thoughtless kind of progress, the impulsive need to advance without thinking of consequences. Horror comes in kaiju movies when people spend so much time thinking of whether they could do something that they never consider whether they should. That theme is enough to tie it to Atomic Horror.
The Kaiju Genre differs, though, in the fact that it also strongly shows the opposite end – that thoughtful, considerate progress can relieve terror, and that kindness and empathy can make progress a blessing. The supernatural elements in a kaiju story can be science fiction and fantastical at the same time, while most other Atomic Horror stories are strictly sci-fi. Finally, kaiju stories can complete the three acts of a hero myth, letting their horrors turn into equally supernatural heroes, or fall by a hero’s hand. The Kaiju Genre has access to archetypes other Atomic Horror stories can’t, or at least won’t, touch, and can use story arcs other Atomic Horror stories refuse to attempt. It’s not just about having a giant monster in your story – it’s a genre.
So thank you, Mothra, for taking us to a strange place, and allowing the tale of Godzilla and his monstrous kin to reach an even greater potential. There is only one more essential piece of the puzzle left to complete the story’s potential: a great villain…