REMEDIAL SF 101: Mothra

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Of all the monsters that have flattened Tokyo over the years, the concept I find most difficult to accept is that of the giant silkmoth.

The year was 1961.  The film was Mothra.

An expedition of scientists arrives on a small Polynesian island inhabited by really buff Japanese people in blackface who can dance ballet.  Sailors rescued from a sunken ship had reported that they survived the radioactivity of the island thanks to a special juice given to them by the heretofore-unknown natives of the erstwhile nuclear test target.

The scientists discover that these islanders worship two tiny twin fairies who sing like the popular girl group The Peanuts.  The financier of the expedition, the evil Clark Nelson, who by his name must be at least part American--oh, sorry, "Rolisican"--kidnaps the fairies and brings them to Japan in order to exhibit them in a theatrical production, sort of like a reverse King Kong. 

This does not sit well with the lead scientist and two reporters from the Nittou news organization (I think that translates as "comic relief") who keep pestering Nelson to return the fairies to Infant Island, lest some terrible disaster occur.  They have good reason to believe in a disaster, because Infant Island, the site of Rolisican atomic tests, is also home to a mysterious beast named Mothra, which the fairies say they can summon telepathically to save them.  They are sad to think that many innocent people will be harmed by this event, but they are serenely confident that Mothra will save them.

No one believes the fairies (!!!) until an enormous maggot is spotted swimming across the Pacific Ocean, sinking ships along the way.  The unstoppable maggot makes landfall in downtown Tokyo, knocking over some pretty elaborate miniature sets, and finally topples a broadcast tower, where it then spins a Silly String coccoon and pupates into a heatray-resistant chrysalis.


Nelson, now the most hated man in Japan for bringing this monster upon them, grabs the fairies and escapes to Rolisica, whose capital, New Kirk City, bears an uncanny resemblance to New York.  He and his grinning flunkies are just congratulating themselves on how very clever they are, when word comes over the wireless that the coccoon has ruptured and an gargantuan silkmoth has emerged.

This insect makes the trip from Tokyo to New Kirk City--which one can assume is actually about where San Francisco is supposed to be, judging by the landscape shots--in three flaps of its mighty wings, and deals the Rolisicans a lot of hurt to their miniature model before Nelson is gunned down by the police in a laughably dramatic death scene.

The reporters and the good scientist now being in possession of the fairies,  notice that the cross atop a church steeple, with the sun behind it, looks exactly like the glyph for Mothra they'd seen carved into the wall of the fairies' cave back on Infant Island, and have the brainstorm to have this symbol painted on the runway of the local airport, while all the churchbells in town are to simultaneously chime the fairies' Mothra-calling song.

OK, so if you're the mayor of a major city, and three Japanese people with a suitcase full of singing fairies tell you that painting a giant symbol on an airport runway will appease the ginormous moth that's laying waste to your town, you do it, right?

Mothra arrives at Gate Twelve, the little pixies trot out across the runway, waving sayanora, to catch their flight back to Infant Island, with the promise from the good scientist that "this will never happen again!" (until the sequel) and everybody is happy, except the girl photographer, who laments that she forgot to take any pictures!


Mothra is one of the most memorable of the slew of Japanese "rubber suit" monster movies that came out following the success of Gojira.  Adapted from a novel about a race of fairies and their giant moth protector, the movie was praised for its brilliant use of color which, considering the foregoing monster movies were in black and white, is understandable.  It may even go a long way toward explaining why a giant silk moth was chosen, since in general, moths are about as scary as...well, moths.  And unless you're made out of wool, moths aren't all that scary to begin with.

I suppose that a moth which can kick up multiple tornadoes every time it flaps its wings would be a force to be reckoned with.  I guess this film may be the origin of the "butterfly effect" in chaos theory.

Mothra is also one of the few--if not the only--female members of the daikaiju club.  Like a phoenix, she emerges from her big blue egg, crawls around chewing up the scenery for a while, pupates, then emerges as a chirpy adult, which usually ends up getting killed--but not before she's laid her next egg.

Mothra becomes a semi-divine guardian of the planet Earth over the course of her film career, often battling to protect humanity from the ravages of other daikaiju.  She even bests the King of Monsters himself, Godzilla, on several occasions--not bad for a fragile-looking lepidopteran.

The very ridiculousness, though, of a giant moth, makes it kind of difficult to watch any of the Mothra films with a straight face.  Throw in the two kawaii fairies, and your teeth start to hurt.  At least Mothra actually flaps her wings to fly, instead of just motoring along with jet sounds like the other airborne monsters.

There is an incredibly religious overtone to Mothra.  The natives of Infant Island worship her as a god, and when she is rampaging through New Kirk City, the protagonists first go to an ambiguously Catholic/Orthodox church to pray, then enlist the help of all the city's churches to use their bells to pacify the big bug with her Shobijin's song.  There may also be a point in the fact that "Kirk" is Scottish for "church" but it's probably just a sound-alike for "York."

The underlying theme is that the greed of capitalism, symbolized by the amoral Clark Nelson, can be overcome by piety and religious obedience.  Hey, I'm not making this up, it's what the Wikipedia article says!  "Remarkably, whereas the propagation of Western capitalism is to blame for Mothra's destructive onslaught, it is Western religion which appeases it."

The biggest problem with Mothra is that there's just way too much time spent on the humans.  There's an endless back-and-forth over the possession of the fairies, the usual setting-the-stage rumors of weird things happening on some remote island, unexplained shipwrecks, scientists spouting theories, governmental harrumphing, and even a sub-plot involving the impish little brother of the lead scientist (think Spritle from Speed Racer.)  It's my opinion that in rubber-suit monster movies, there should be far less talk, and more giant monsters!

The miniatures are top-notch, though, with lots of exquisitely-detailed cityscapes and radio-controlled vehicles. 

Will Conservatives like this film?  Sure, why not--?  It has a strong Christian message, there's not a lot of bloody-nose violence, the bad guy could just as easily have been a Russian ("Rolisica" being an amalgam of "Russia" and "America") and as I said, there's just something totally non-threatening about an enormous, brightly-colored moth.

Would this make a good introduction to the daikaiju giant rubber monster genre?  See the previous paragraph.  The character of Mothra is allegedly popular with women.  Watching this movie, it's not difficult to see why.