One of the most unusual creature features of the 1960’s, Mothra takes Toho’s sympathetic approach to monsters to its logical extreme, creating a story where the monster is undeniably heroic, and the horror that unfolds is entirely caused by mankind’s own greed and cruelty.
The music during the opening credits of Mothra isn’t grim or ominous like Toho’s previous monster films, but instead has an adventurous and downright beautiful feel. There are no tortured shrieks of the film’s titular monster, though we do see cave paintings that include her symbol. Right from these credits, we establish that Mothra is a different sort of monster, and that this tale will not unfold the same as the prehistoric monster films before it.
Our first scene, however, is familiar. We join a ship at sea as it encounters some disastrous weather, taking a page right out of the Gojira playbook. This is followed by a scene of a search party looking for the survivors, who note that there’s a great deal of radiation in the area. They find the survivors on a seemingly deserted island, and manage to take them to a lab for inspection. Miraculously, none of the surviving sailors have any signs of radiation poisoning. Two newspaper reporters sneak into the lab and demand to know how the men survived the deadly levels of radiation completely unharmed. One of the sailors then mentions that natives on the island – Infant Island – gave them “red juice,” which may have saved them from the radiation poisoning. This baffles everyone involved, as Infant Island was the test site for atomic and hydrogen bombs, and as such should be uninhabitable.
The country of Rolisica (which is fictional) announces plans to form a joint expedition with Japan to uncover Infant Island’s secrets. The expedition is headed by a Rolisician businessman named Clark Nelson. It should be noted that Rolisica conducted the nuclear bomb tests that made Infant Island radioactive in the first place, that the Roliscians are white and speak English, and that they don’t want the Japanese press to be involved in their exploration of this Asian island with may contain highly valuable natural resources. Hmm, one has to wonder what real world nation Rolisica might represent.
Of course, one of the reporters, Zenichiro, stows away, and is reluctantly allowed to join the expedition. Our protagonists discover that beneath Infant Island’s barren exterior is a lush and beautiful jungle, the kind that could not normally exist on an island that has been subjected to atom and hydrogen bomb tests. The flora and fauna of Infant Island is both beautiful and strange, with massive colorful plants mixed in with otherwise normal jungle vegetation. Lustrous, multi-colored crystals fill the islands cave systems, one of which is filled with ancient runes. A translator in the expedition manages to parse the meaning of one recurring runestone: “Mothra.”
There are dangers on the island too, as one of the explorers gets caught by animate vines that quickly try to strangle him. He is saved by the singing of two tiny women – and by “tiny” I mean “12 inches tall.” He faints before the others can rescue him, and the other explorers have trouble believing his story about the small women. Zenichiro, however, believes him, and immediately asks for more information about the “Tiny Beauties.”
Sure enough, our protagonists discover the tiny women the next day, and the miniscule twins communicate in a musical, chirping language none of the explorers fully understand. Nelson kidnaps the two women, much to the horror of the rest of the expedition, and threatens the Japanese explorers with a gun when they voice their concerns. The other natives of Infant Island arrive at this moment, and unlike the twins, these people are human-sized. Outmatched, Nelson releases the tiny beautires, and the Infant Islanders allow the explorers to go free.
The expedition promptly returns to Japan with inconclusive findings. Zenichiro, however, has not stopped his sleuthing, focusing his sights on Nelson’s history. It turns out Nelson has a history of both exploring jungles and trying to kidnap beautiful indigenous women for entertainment purposes, which is only slightly less creepy than my phrasing makes it out to be. His date of birth and true nationality are both unknown. Clearly, this dude is shady as hell, which makes it rather unsurprising that Nelson conducts a second expedition in secret, wherein he finds and kidnaps the tiny beauties once more. The Infant Islanders arrive to rescue the fairies, but this time Nelson is prepared, gunning several of them down before making his getaway. The remaining Infant Islanders call upon their deity, the foreshadowed Mothra, and mountains crack to reveal an enormous blue and yellow egg.
Upon his return to Japan, Nelson announces that he will be putting the miniscule twins on display. Zenichiro gets chewed out by his boss for not giving his newspaper the scoop, but Zenichiro argues that he’s a human, and as a human he felt a moral obligation to protect the fairies from harm by keeping them secret from the greedy outside world. Sure enough, we see exactly what happens when one fails to keep to those human morals, as Nelson forces the tiny beauties to perform in a gaudy and exploitive spectacle, placing them in a tiny golden carriage and making them wear elaborate dresses as if they were dolls. People dressed in colorful and inauthentic “native” costumes dance around the fairies, completing the spectacle that Nelson wishes to sell. The fairies sing as they are commanded to do, but Nelson doesn’t realize the true purpose of their song – for the twins are calling out to Mothra. Meanwhile, the natives of Infant Island are performing the same exact song with a more authentic dance, all in the sight of that gigantic egg.
Zenichiro, his photographer Michi, and two of the explorers from the original expedition, Harada and Chujo, confront Nelson, telling him that the fairies’ song shows they are in distress. Nelson, however, argues that they sing when they are happy, and that the twins are well taken care off, all while stripping Michi of her camera equipment. The fairies thank the heroic humans for their concern, and explain how they can communicate their feelings with telepathy, even to places “far away.” They also hold out hope for returning to their island, albeit with some reluctance, as “innocent people will suffer” when Mothra shows up. Sure enough, at that exact moment, Mothra’s egg hatches on Infant Island, and the enormous silkworm that emerges heads out to recover its kidnapped priestesses.
Zenichiro’s boss reports on the cruelty of Nelson’s enterprise, and stands firm when the capitalist threatens to sue him unless he issues a retraction. Zenichiro interrupts the meeting to relay the twins’ message: Mothra, an enormous godlike beast, will reclaim them. Nelson scoffs at this, but, if you consider how this movie was retroactively made canonical with Godzilla, Zenichiro’s claim has more weight than it appears to – this is a world where giant monsters have appeared before.
Sure enough, Mothra is sighted heading to Japan, and the country knows by this point how such encounters go. Nelson is told to return the fairies, but he refuses, claiming he’s not responsible for what some giant monster does and refusing to take responsibility for what his actions have caused. The heroic humans try to talk the girls into sending Mothra back, but Nelson’s men bar the way. Zenichiro fights them off while Chujo talks to the girls. The fairies, however, explain that Mothra’s loyalty is too strong, and the monster will take them back no matter what.
The military tries to stop Mothra and of course fails, since by this point it’s pretty well established that guns, tanks, and bombs don’t do much against a pissed off giant monster. Again our heroes petition Nelson to return the twins, but instead he simply puts them in a cage that’s designed to block their telepathy, keeping Mothra from honing in on them. Instead of stopping the monster, Mothra just wanders blindly into Japan, crushing everything in her wake in a desperate attempt to save her tiny women. She breaks dams, tramples city streets, and is basically a juggernaut.
Mothra’s devastation isn’t bloodless, either. Like past Toho creature features, the film goes out of its way to show innocent people get caught in the crossfire. Yet unlike Godzilla and Rodan, there is no intent to harm on Mothra’s part – all the damage she does is collateral, and it all would have been avoided if Nelson hadn’t kidnapped her people. The insect’s rampage is a byproduct of human greed, and she would simply be a benevolent protector of her island had her priestesses not been kidnapped by some rich jackass.
A little boy tries to steal the fairies from Nelson so they can return home, and Nelson’s men quickly apprehend him. We see them violently hold the boy down and gag him, firmly establishing that these rich capitalists are not good people, just in case that message flew over the audience’s head so far. Thankfully the Japanese police arrive shortly after, and while Nelson and his cronies have escaped already, the little boy is rescued by Zenichiro, Chujo, and Michi.
Mothra finally reaches the city, and though Japan’s military puts up a great deal of resistance, nothing stops the caterpillar’s relentless move forward. Again, Mothra’s rampage is incredibly different than the kaiju that came before her. She never purposely attacks those who attack her, screams in pain, or shows any real awareness that people are trying to stop her. She simply ploughs ahead in utter determination to get her twins back. There’s no malice or cruelty, just, well, heroic resolve. Mothra will rescue her people, and nothing will sway her from that noble end. Many human characters share that same attribute – Mothra is the Liam Neeson of kaiju.
Indeed, the only thing that slows Mothra’s progress is her own biological needs. The caterpillar climbs partway up Tokyo Tower and, while being struck with tank shells and missiles, proceeds to cocoon herself in silk – snaring one helicopter in the process. Soon enough she is completely covered in an impregnable chrysalis. Japan mobilizes every weapon they can muster and tries to kill Mothra while she’s in the cocoon, including a bunch of laser firing tanks, but like the noble Metapod, her defense is impregnable, rendering their toughest attacks into mere scratches. Mothra emerges shortly after in her beautiful and colorful Imago form, and Nelson takes the twins and retreats to Rolisica’s New Kirk City.
Hmm, I wonder what country Rolisica might represent? Hmm? Perhaps New Kirk City’s name might give us a clue.
Now capable of flight, Mothra is somewhat less destructive, though that doesn’t stop the army of Rolisica from attacking her on sight. The giant moth flies low, kicking up enormous winds with her wings while futile enemy fire fails to make a dent in her furry exoskeleton. Meanwhile, a mob of panicked Rolisician citizens discover Nelson and, after a brief shootout, Nelson is killed and the fairies are taken by Rolisician authorities.
Chujo, Michi, and Zenichiro have arrived in Rolisica, and realize that the cross and bells of a local church could be used to gain Mothra’s attention, allowing the monster to rescue her fairies and finally return home. An airport runway is cleared and marked with Mothra’s holy symbol: a cross embedded within the blazing sun. The bells are then rung in a rough approximation of the summoning song, attracting Mothra to the runway. Our three human heroes go to the giant insect and release the fairies. With her priestesses safely returned, Mothra flies back home in peace.
Mothra is a rarity for a monster movie of its time, and indeed monster movies in general, as it is one of the few creature features where the monster not only survives, but gets exactly what it wanted, all while ending the film on a happy, uplifting note. While most giant insects in film are portrayed as mindless monsters, Mothra is an unambiguously heroic and sympathetic figure. She has the same single minded relentlessness of her contemporary arthropod monsters like the ants from Them!, but in her case that isn’t a horrifying quality, but rather a virtue. While her tenacity results in great destruction, the film repeatedly reminds us that Mothra is just trying to save her imperiled people. Her motives are as pure as any hero’s, and it is the unchecked greed of men like Nelson that’s truly responsible for the horror that unfolds. The havoc Mothra wreaks isn’t a result of her wickedness, but rather a punishment mankind brought upon itself by empowering despicable people who are motivated by selfishness and greed.
There’s a strong anti-capitalist streak in Mothra, perhaps even on par with the anti-nuclear sentiment of Godzilla before it. Though Rolisica could represent any number of Western nations, there are some pretty clear signs that one in particular is being lampooned pretty hard, considering that the USA tested atomic weapons off of Japan’s coast and forced the country to keep quiet about it when they found out, and that the USA had a pretty big track record of plundering Asian countries during the 50’s and 60’s. While the lighter tone of Mothra, complete with its fairly happy ending, means it often gets overlooked compared to Godzilla, its themes are just as well developed as its 1954 predecessor, even if the plot is more fantastical.
The character of Mothra herself offers up an idea of what beasts like Rodan and Godzilla could have been if they were not victimized by human meddling. Mothra is a guardian of the people who inhabit her island. While the movie is vague about her nature, it is implied that Mothra predated the nuclear testing on her island, as the natives have worshipped her long before that started, much as Godzilla was a legend on Odo Island long before he surfaced as a radioactive mutant. The movie also doesn’t outright state it, but there’s an implication that Mothra’s protection has kept the radiation at bay, protecting her islanders from the force that corrupted beasts like Godzilla and Rodan. Mothra is what monsters could be if humanity lived in harmony with nature, a benevolent protector that can withstand all the horrible weapons of war mankind has developed. If movies like Godzilla and Rodan focus on the consequences of mankind’s cruelty, then Mothra shows us what we could obtain if we changed our ways – while keeping us aware that a protector like the titular insect can easily turn into a scourge if we continue to exploit the world for our own gain.
Stranger still than the films that came before it, Mothra is one of the most unique monster films of the sixties. Yet rather than remain an oddity, it would go on to influence several more films to come. Godzilla was about to come back to the silver screen, but thanks to Mothra, he wouldn’t be stuck repeating the motions of his first two films for very long…