Of the 30+ films in the Godzilla franchise, this is one of my nostalgic favorites. I remember first seeing it during TNT’s Monster Madness Godzilla movie marathon as a kid, which my parents then recorded on a VHS tape so I could watch all the movies on it as often as I wanted (at least until it wore out). Of the five or so films in said marathon, Mothra vs. Godzilla was tied with one other as my favorite, and to this day it has some of the most iconic moments of the franchise as far as I’m concerned.
The film begins with a great sea storm, the kind that often wreaks havoc on Japan in real life. It should be noted that Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects artist of these early Godzilla movies, was originally renowned for how skilled he was at water effects in miniatures, and the dude does a stellar job making this sea storm look like a REAL sea storm. A cleanup operation goes into effect the following morning, and it is there that we meet our heroes: a reporter, Ichiro, and a photographer, Junko. They are initially accosted by a businessman who doesn’t want new of the wreckage to give him bad publicity, but Junko slips away to take photos of the wreckage. Ichiro briefly scolds her, but stops when they both spot a massive, irridescent object of unusual shape and qualities.
Meanwhile, our heroes’ boss hears that a massive egg has washed up on the Japanese shore. The film cuts to the beach in question, where all the locals debate on what to do with the egg. Believing it belongs to them, the local fishermen scramble (heh) to pull the egg out of the water. Once again, Junko and Ichiro arrive on the scene, and once again a corporate shill follows to muck things up. This particular shill, Kumayama, represents a company called Happy Enterprises (sounds legit) and buys the egg from the local fishermen (paying them specifically what it would cost to buy enough chicken eggs to equal the giant egg’s weight, which is a funny little detail). He then claims no one will study the egg, as instead he plans to turn it into a tourist trap. Just to be a dick, he blows smoke into Junko’s camera, because that’s how capitalism rolls.
Junko and Ichiro meet with a scientist named Professor Miura at a hotel, only to find Kumayama is there too. Realizing that Kumayama is there to meet his boss, they follow him with the intent of figuring out why Happy Enterprises won’t let people study the egg. The boss of Happy Enterprises, Jiro Torahata, explains this to Kumayama in private: the mystery will attract business. Unknown to both parties, two other visitors have arrived to try and change the corporation’s heart: the Shobijin, Mothra’s twin fairy priestesses! However, instead of listening to the tiny women, Kumayama and Torahata try to capture them, as the two would make a wonderful attraction (apparently neither man has heard what happened to the LAST capitalist who thought that was a good idea).
Thankfully the Shobijin escape and cross paths with Junko, Ichiro, and Prof. Miura. The twin fairies ask our heroic trio to return the egg, as it is Mothra’s eggs. The reporters ask how this can be the case, since Infant Island was used for atomic testing not too long ago. The Shobijin claim that though the tests have made life on Infant Island hard, Mothra survives, though in the devastation her egg was lost to a terrible typhoon. Now that mankind has recovered it, the least they could do is return it to Mothra. Besides, it’s in humanity’s interest as well, since the baby Mothra in the egg, while benevolent, will need food after hathcing before it can return to Infant Island, and thus will cause a great deal of havoc. Our heroes are sympathetic to the Shobijin’s pleas, but lack the power to accomplish this on their own. Like most people trying to make a better world, they are suffocated by the iron fist of corporate greed and callousness. The Shobijin are dismayed at this answer, and note that they didn’t exactly come alone, revealing that the adult Mothra has been waiting in the woods this ENTIRE TIME.
The next day Junko, Ichiro, and Professor Miura – try to convince Happy Enterprises to return Mothra’s egg, warning of the consequences if they don’t. Torahata demands proof, at which point the humans reveal the Shobijin are with them. Instead of listening, the businessmen try to buy the fairies from the reporters, who quickly whisk their friends to safety. The Shobijin then reluctantly return to their island with the adult Mothra, saying they are sorry they couldn’t spare humanity the destruction that will ensue, but thanking our heroes for their kindness. Mothra then flies off, leaving humanity to its fate.
The newspaper prints a story about how Happy Enterprises refused Mothra’s good will, but Happy Enterprises simply has a rival paper print a story about how that’s fake news, while also announcing the construction of the egg’s giant incubator. We then see that Kumayama hasn’t fully paid the fishermen for the egg, because, well, because that’s how businessmen do, and our poor fishermen are kicked out of his office without a fair deal. Kumayama then calls his boss to ask for the money to fix this situation, but Torahata claims he can’t spare it, all while being shown to be in the lap of luxury. Kumayama even points out that Torahata had a big stack of cash the last time they met, but Torahata remains stingy.
The critique of capitalism isn’t exactly subtle, yes, but like a good Twilight Zone episode, the bluntness of this social commentary is warranted by the horrible, wretched truth of the world we all live in.
We cut to a scene at the newsroom, where one of Ichiro and Junko’s coworkers is revealed to just be OBSESSED with eggs, rambling about how long it would take to boil Mothra’s egg. Junko and Ichiro get a call and learn they were irradiated by the object they discovered at the start of the film, and are cleaned at Professor Miura’s lab to keep from getting disease. It’s here that we learn the object is actually a reptillian scale, and a highly irradiated one at that.
Our heroes rush to the place where they discovered the scale, and a crowd soon forms there once a team arrives to scan the place for radiation. The wreckage of the typhoon has been completely cleared, and the owner of the land is angry that the investigation is being carried out, as he claims there was no nuclear testing on the land and fears the bad publicity will ruin his business venture. Junko, meanwhile, takes a candid shot of the cleared landscape, just in time for everyone to notice something moving beneath the ground. Professor Miura’s geiger counter spikes during this, and soon a massive, serpentine tail emerges from the dirt. The rest of Godzilla emerges shortly afterwards, covered in dirt.
This entrance is one of the most unique and memorable entrances Godzilla has had through the entire series, subverting our usual expectation of him coming from the sea while still being fully within his wheelhouse. I should also mention that this particular Godzilla suit design is, to this day, my favorite Godzilla suit, with its thick eyebrows, lizard-like head, curling lips, and persistent expression of irritation that ranges from “grumpy” to “furious” depending on the scene. When I think of Godzilla, this suit is the first face that pops into my head.
Having been tossed ashore by a typhoon caused by nuclear testing, buried under rubble, and left entombed for days, Godzilla is not happy when he awakens, and quickly goes on a rampage, destroying the city of Nagoya. Interestingly, a great deal of the destruction Godzilla causes in this scene is through clumsiness – his tail snags on a tower and it falls on him, he slips and falls into a castle, etc. While some of this was the result of an accident on the suit actor’s part, the end result is that Godzilla seems downright disoriented through this rampage, smashing things out of grumpy, half-awake confusion. It’s a wonderful bit of characterization for the big lug, even if it wasn’t wholly intentional on the filmmakers’ part.
Ichiro and Junko’s boss asks Professor Miura what to do about Godzilla, but the scientist claims that’s the government’s job. The boss, a credit to fictional newspaper editors everywhere, barks, “You talk like a rookie. Newspapers don’t just inform people about the government.” Despite being “just” the press, the boss is set on defending Japan from Godzilla. When egg guy mentions Mothra’s egg, the boss has his eureka moment: Junko and Ichiro could go ask Mothra to protect Japan from Godzilla, and even use the fact that Mothra’s egg is in Japan as leverage to convince the insect to help! Ichiro initially refuses, noting that humanity failed to help Mothra, and thus is in no position to demand her help. Professor Miura says they could make it a sincere appeal to end suffering, and our heroes reluctantly agree to make the expedition.
Infant Island is a far cry from how it looked in Mothra. The beach is covered in the skeletons of giant animals, including a turtle skeleton the size of a cow whose head slowly bobs with the breeze in a truly creepy detail. The natives of the island immediately capture our heroes when they arrive and forcibly escort them to the islanders’ sanctuary within a cave. Despite the harsh introduction, the islanders give our heroes drinks, which the chief commands them to consume. Then the chief asks them why they came, and when our heroes say they want Mothra’s help, he rails against them, telling them that Godzilla’s wrath is because the outside world played with “the devil’s fire” – i.e. nuclear weapons.
The Shobijin intervene, however, singing a truly mournful son to their goddess. Our heroes run to meet them, and the islanders allow them to go. The Shobijin, we discover, are in the sole oasis of life left on the island – a lush and green garden preserved from nuclear contamination, and the only reason the Islanders have survived. Our heroes finally ask the Shobijin for help, and though the fairies initially refuse, Junko makes an impassioned speech to both them and the natives for the sacredness of all human life. Ichiro backs her up, acknowledging that while some have harmed the Infant Islanders, this is not the ONLY way humanity knows how to act, and that there are civilized people who want to trust others. Mothra’s cries sound at the end of his speech, and all the humans and fairies rush to see her. While her people remained skeptical, Mothra has decided to fight for humanity’s sake, even though, as the Shobijin tell our heroes, she herself is nearing the end of her life.
If the Christian imagery in her debut film didn’t make it clear, Mothra is very much a messianic figure.
We cut to a scene of some army fellows discussing this sequels new plans to stop Godzilla that are absolutely futile. This time around they’re building what is essentially a giant pit trap, which is then surrounded by electrical wires and tanks in hopes of trapping Godzilla and barraging him with enough sheer firepower to put him down for good. While this is going on, Kumayama angrily confronts Torahata for screwing him over Donald Trump style, as Kumayama has lost all the money he invested in the incubator while Torahata ran off and left him to eat the losses. The two get into a violent fight over the money, with each beating the other blood before going for the stacks of cash. Torahata sees Godzilla coming their way through the window, shoots Kumayama, and then tries to run off, only to be caught in the monster’s wake. Torahata dies as the building collapses under Godzilla’s tail, crushed by rubble while holding his bags of ill gotten gains.
Godzilla then reaches the egg and its incubator, the later of which he smashes with his tail before closing in on the former. Thankfully for the egg, Mothra arrives just in time, and the two monsters have their first duel. Mothra buffets Godzilla with hurricane winds kicked up by the flapping of her wings, only for the monster king to retaliate with his nuclear fire. The egg is blown away in the process, and Godzilla goes to grab it, only for Mothra to pull him away by his tail. She then rakes the reptile’s head with her six clawed arms before dusting him with a poisonous yellow powder. This, the Shobijin remark, is Mothra’s final weapon, and though it keeps Godzilla down for a while, he eventually gets a good shot in on her wing, and Mothra, old, wounded, and frail, flies off to shield the egg with her body before finally dying.
Clearly frustrated by how hard it was for him to kill an already dying moth, Godzilla leaves the area to rampage elsewhere. The situation looks grim, as nothing can stop the monster now, but the Shobijin give our heroes hope: Mothra may have died, but she is also eternal, and shall be reborn anew when the egg hatches. The army, meanwhile, mobilizes to put their old trap in place, adding planes and a massive burning field to the mix. Godzilla wanders right into the trap and, being Godzilla, no-sells every weapon, barely even reacting when they briefly set his head on fire. The electric towers shock him as he continues his rampage, but despite his supposed weakness to electricity, Godzilla simply punches them out and continues on.
Back at the egg, our heroes watch as the Shobijin sing to Mothra’s egg, while the natives on Infant Island simultaneously perform a ceremonial dance for the ancient goddess. Elsewhere, the next few traps laid for Godzilla go off, as he is repeatedly firebombed from above, tangled in a giant net dropped by helicopters, electrocuted by yet more towers, netted two more times, and then further electrocuted as the army insists the electricity be dialed past the breaking point (i.e. they turn the dial up to eleven). This causes the towers to short out, and, once freed, Godzilla goes on one of his most glorious and vicious revenge attacks in film, melting the towers and tanks around him into red hot slag. While scenes of Godzilla shrugging off the attacks of the military are rather predictable even at this point of the franchise, this particular battle is one that sticks out in my mind as particularly spectacular – the sight of those tanks turning red hot and melting into slag is one that always pops into my mind when thinking about the character’s destructive prowess.
With the army once again rendered useless, there is nothing anyone can do but run as Godzilla proceeds to ravage the countryside. Among the evacuees is a man screaming about a school-teacher and her students who are stuck on an island directly in Godzilla’s path. Sadly, it is too late to save them, as Godzilla is already looming in the distance, and the poor man can only watch as the monster king makes his way towards the island, and the innocent children on it.
Thankfully, Mothra’s egg finally hatches, and from it emerge two massive caterpillars – for some unknown reason, this iteration of Mothra was reborn as twins! The young Mothras immediately head to intercept Godzilla. On the island, the teacher tries to get her kids to high ground, because let it be known that educational professionals care about their charges and will do what it takes to keep them safe in a crisis. The larval Mothras catch up to Godzilla in time, and proceed to fight him in a manner befitting two immature kaiju: by playing hide and seek while covering him in silly string. Our human heroes, meanwhile, stealthily head to the island to rescue the children, because they aren’t going to lie down and let the monsters do all the work.
Despite his prodigious strength and boundless ferocity, the baby Mothras consistently give Godzilla the run around, with one even biting the tip of his tail and freaking him right the hell out in the process. Though that particular larva eventually gets a savage lashing from Godzilla’s tail in return, its twin quickly distracts Godzilla, and soon the two work together to thoroughly confuse the brute while slowly cocooning him with their silk. By the end of the battle, Godzilla is not only barely mobile, but also so confused and presumably embarrassed that he actually stumbles straight into the sea. It is a humbling moment for the monster king. With the threat ended for now, the Shobijin wish our heroes well as they and the two Mothra larva return to Infant Island.
After a decade of experimenting with the genre, Mothra vs. Godzilla is where Toho really refined their approach to monster movies. All their signature stylistic and structural touches are present: we have a monster fight at the core of the plot, we have social commentary, we have spectacle, and we have moments of genuine terror where a great deal is at stake. Few monster films have a better human cast: Junko is sassy, independent, and one of the most memorable female leads in kaiju history, and Ichiro is likewise an incredibly competent male lead to match. The other staff at the newspaper provide great bits of comic relief as well as a genuinely awesome where they defend the purpose of journalism. Kumayama and Torahata are excellent villains, smug and contemptible in unique ways that make their demise oh so satisfying. And, of course, the Shobijin, Mothra, and Godzilla are all standout characters by this point.
One of the reasons I get a bit testy when people say Godzilla is just a metaphor for the atomic bomb is that his films actually tackle MORE issues than just the use of nuclear power. As this film shows, both the franchise and the character have qualms with capitalism as well. The callous greed of business tramples on just as many human lives in this film as Godzilla does, if not more so, and steadfastly stands in the way of both peace and the progress of human knowledge. As I said before, Mothra vs. Godzilla is heavy handed in how it delivers this message, but like a lot of 60’s science fiction stories, it NEEDED to tell this message with a heavy hand, because people clearly were not – and, as the present sadly shows, still do not – get it.
At this point in Toho’s monster making history, both Godzilla and Mothra personify two opposite ways the natural world reacts to humanity. With Godzilla, we see nature’s wrath, a blind force of destruction that, once unleashed, destroys all in its way, both the guilty and innocent alike. With Mothra, we see nature’s mercy, and how the natural world will provide for us even after we’ve savaged it. Godzilla emerges from a radioactive wasteland while Mothra provides an oasis for her people. They couldn’t be more different, and of course the two would fight in this film. Yet given the utter humiliation Mothra wrought on Godzilla not once but TWICE in this film, one has to wonder if it will remain that way.
As the next film in the series will show, it certainly does not.