Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mothra (Toho/Columbia, 1961)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I went to the San Diego Public Library for their “Schlockfest” series and saw the 1961 Japanese monster movie Mothra, which turned out to be a bit slow-moving (I think they were showing the complete 101-minute version, albeit with the soundtrack dubbed in English — a pity, since the DVD contains both the dubbed version and the original one in Japanese, and it would probably have been more interesting to see the Japanese version with English subtitles) but still fun even though fun in a way one doesn’t expect from something advertised as a monster movie. It begins on an island called Beiru (“Infant Island” in the Japanese version and in the subsequent three Mothra sequelae), formerly used as a site for atomic tests (as Carlos Clarens noted in his book on horror films, it was fascinating how filmmakers from Japan — the one country in history ever on the receiving end of an attack with atomic weapons — returned again and again to the Bomb as a plot device for horror movies) where a ship is wrecked.

Four sailors are rescued and survive, and when they’re asked how they lived through the high levels of radiation that would ordinarily have killed anyone, they say that the native population gave them a special juice that counteracted the usual effects of radioactivity. What native population, the authorities ask, since before they used the island for bomb tests in the first place they were supposed to make sure it was uninhabited — and it turns out that among the island’s humanoid inhabitants are a pair of twin women (Emi and Yûmi Ito), who in real life were a then-popular Japanese singing duo called “The Peanuts,” who in the movie are billed as the Shobijin (“fairies”) and put on public display by a slimy entrepreneur named Nelson (Jerry Ito). At first no one can communicate with the Shobijin — they speak neither Japanese nor the thick Japanese-accented English of the dubbed soundtrack — but eventually the film’s stars, reporter Senichiro “Sen-chan” Fukuda (an oddly homely actor named Furankî Sakai), his photographer Michi Hanamura (Kyôko Kagawa) and their friend Dr. Shin'ichi Chûjô (Hiroshi Koizumi), figure out how to speak to them through telepathy.

The Shobijin warn our Terrific Trio that back on their home island there’s a spirit called Mothra (“Mosura” in the original) who will come to Japan and wreak a lot of havoc until he finds them and returns them to their home island. The film intercuts between the Shobijin performing as part of Nelson’s show and a ceremonial ritual back on Beiru with a group of full-sized islanders — and the sheer outrageousness of the brown body makeup used to turn a batch of Japanese dancers into slightly convincing Polynesians is one of the bizarre camp treats of this movie — doing a dance around a sacred flame, obviously inspired by the native dance in King Kong, during which they sing a song to their great spirit — who’s represented by a giant egg resting on a niche above their dance circle — until the egg hatches and out emerges the larval form of Mothra, who’s supposed to be a giant caterpillar but looks more like a slug. From this point on the film devolves into the sort of destruction porn the audiences for an Inoshiro Honda (he directed) production from Toho expected, with the caterpillar Mothra swimming to Japan (crashing through at least one ship on the way, sinking it and killing everyone aboard) and then pushing its way through a bunch of cheap balsa-wood models of cities — and one of the disappointments of seeing one of these productions on the big screen instead of on TV is that the scale of the projected image just makes it obvious how fake the models really are and how cheesy the effects work is, especially by comparison to the digitalized imagery of today’s films in the giant-monster genre. At the same time, of course, the tackiness of the effects and model work is part of these films’ charm; a Godzilla movie wouldn’t be anywhere near as entertaining if it didn’t look like a guy in a monster suit (actually, I found out later, two guys in a monster suit — Godzilla was a mechanical contraption and it took two people inside to work it), and this one offers two incarnations of Mothra for the price of one.

The writers — Takehiko Fukunaga (source novel, Hakkou Yousei to Mothra), Shinichirô Nakamura and Yoshie Hotta (story), Shinichi Sekizawa (script) and Robert Myerson (English version) — worked off the moth’s well-known changes from egg to larva (caterpillar) to cocoon to full flying adulthood and had Mothra spin a cocoon attached to the wreckage of an Eiffel Tower-like radio transmitter she had just wrecked, then the military fires atomic rays at her (the script is surprisingly clear that Mothra is female), which apparently only speeds up the maturation process inside the cocoon because in almost nothing flat Mothra emerges in full giant-mothhood, though just as her caterpillar state looked more like a slug (she had the multiple arms of a normal caterpillar but didn’t seem to use them for motion), the full-grown version looks less like a moth than a bee, a giant model bee made mostly from differently colored pipe cleaners. Mothra in giant-moth-in-giant-bee-drag form takes out a few more balsa-wood models of big buildings until finally the reporters and their friend (who’s called “doctor” in the cast list but there’s little indication of that in the script), aided by a singularly obnoxious and overweight little boy, kidnap the Shobijin so that Mothra can pick them up, go back home and end the wanton destruction of balsa-wood Japan so the film can also end.

It’s not a particularly frightening film but it’s fun to see all those models go down — it’s pretty clear that these movies were mostly aimed at the pre-pubescent crowd, especially since the action is carefully staged to avoid either gore or the chills of the “vaporized” people in earlier films like 1953’s The War of the Worlds — and the presence of the Shobijin gives the film a certain quirky charm, as does the mild anti-capitalist satire in the role of Nelson and his insistence on keeping his “world’s only living fairies” show going even when it’s explained to him that Mothra is going to continue destroying Japan unless he lets go the “living faires” and lets Mothra take them back from whence they came (though the Shobijin as well as Mothra herself figured in the inevitable sequelae, including movies Toho made later in the 1960’s and 1970’s that, like Universal in the 1940’s, often combined their monster characters — sometimes casting Godzilla and other fearsome menaces from the past on the side of good as they were enlisted to fight the current evil monster) — and eventually the fairies go back to Beiru but promise to return to Japan for a visit sometime (how? Will Mothra let them?) and the movie comes to an airily happy ending that ignores the human cost of all the destruction as well as the gargantuan task of fixing it all.

One quirky aspect of the U.S. version was that, despite so many cards with miscellaneous actors’ names on them (including one whose first name was “Akihito,” also the first name of Japan’s current Emperor) — which briefly gave me the impression that half the total 1961 population of Japan was in this movie — the three leads, Sakai, Kagawa and Koizuki, were left off the U.S. credits!