Premise: A giant, ancient moth begins to attack Japan when coming to the rescue of its two, foot-tall worshippers who were taken by shipwreck survivors.
Mothra, a giant moth monster, made her entrance into the kaiju scene in her eponymous 1961 film directed by Ishiro Honda. The queen of the monsters’ debut on film is a lackluster one, unfortunately. There are impressive scenes of monster chaos to be found in the film’s last act, but the road to that destruction is paved with uninteresting characters and a plot line that, for the most part, plays like a lazy riff on 1933’s King Kong.
The film spends a considerable amount of its runtime setting the stage for Mothra to awaken and come ashore. It’s almost a full hour before we are introduced to her. Unfortunately, the time spent building toward the monster reveal and destruction just isn’t that enticing or interesting. There is a human villain in capitalist Clark Nelson (of the fictitious Rolisican government), who serves as Mothra‘s answer to King Kong‘s Carl Denham to an extent. But Nelson simply isn’t terribly compelling as we wait for Mothra to rise.
The film takes on somewhat of a lighthearted tone through its lead character Fukuda, a reporter we follow through the action. Furankî Sakai’s performance as Fukuda takes on a slightly buffoonish and awkward tone that seems slightly off considering the rest of the characters are playing things absolutely straight. His status as a talented and respected journalist makes his comedic persona feel slightly incongruous overall.
Japanese cinema stalwart (and Godzilla‘s Dr. Yamane) Takashi Shimura appears as Fukuda’s editor at the newspaper. It’s a supporting role that doesn’t offer much to the story except to give Fukuda instructions to move the plot forward. Shimura’s talent would have been a greater asset to the film if he were given a bigger role. Nevertheless, it’s still good to see him onscreen.
Unlike her betrothed kaiju’s debut in 1954’s Godzilla, Mothra doesn’t offer much in the way of social commentary. There are offhand references to atomic bomb testing and radiation. But it’s all but cast aside in favor of island natives chanting Mothra into life to rescue captured one-foot tall fairies. It’s an hour’s worth of setup for the reveal of a monster that, frankly, doesn’t have as engaging a reason for the destruction she lays out.
She is not a monster disturbed from slumber and wreaking havoc as much as she’s a goddess summoned by island natives to retrieve the fairies. It makes the destruction brought upon her journey to get the fairies back ultimately inconsequential. She’s just a giant moth getting from point A to point B and the movie suffers for that as it comes with a considerable lack of stakes in the chaos.
Similar to the way the first couple acts feel like a riff on King Kong, the human reaction to Mothra and the problem-solving that takes place feels slightly borrowed from Byron Haskin’s 1953 adaptation of The War of the Worlds. Seeing the public clad in eyewear huddled together to watch as Mothra is bombed and hopefully destroyed felt a little too familiar without adding anything unique to Mothra.
The destruction itself is admirable and definitely the high point of the film. When Mothra takes on her final form as the giant moth, the film uses the wind generated by her wings to create really impressive destruction set pieces. Using models and rear projection, the destruction set forth by Mothra’s wing flapping is highly satisfying. It provides some welcomed variety as it takes on a much more chaotic and natural disaster feel compared to Godzilla and even King Kong’s rampages.
While the set pieces don’t make up for the lackluster first hour of Mothra, it does pay off the film fairly well and delivers what audiences look for when seeking out this specific genre of film. Although a lack of detectable social commentary and weak characterization does plague most of the runtime, Mothra is not a bad movie where it counts and is worth seeing.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.