She’s been called the Queen of the Monsters, and she is perhaps the most beautiful and mystical of the classic Toho kaiju. While colleagues like Godzilla and Rodan have been ambivalent about their relationship with humanity over the years — if not outright hostile on a number of occasions — Mothra has almost always seen it as her duty to protect those little creatures running around on the surface of the Earth, even if they often did not accord her the proper respect and understanding. Her defense of the planet and its people continues in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, her first Hollywood movie.
Mothra made her debut in 1961, and alternated between appearing as either a giant larva/caterpillar or a massive moth. She is actually known as Mosura in Japan and the first movie was based on a serialized novel called The Luminous Fairies and Mothra. The book established the concept of the two tiny humanoid fairies who act as Mothra’s heralds, as well as Mothra’s origin as a divine larva hatching from an egg and later evolving into its winged form.
Mothra was the first of the kaiju to receive title billing alongside Godzilla, in 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla. She was the first of the major kaiju to share the screen with the king of the monsters, who had previously only fought the relatively lesser monster Anguirus in 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again and the American-created King Kong in 1962’s 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla. She ultimately became second only to Godzilla in terms of total screen appearances, while also becoming the only kaiju of the Toho universe to get her own spin-off series.
Mothra was initially created for the screen through two different kinds of practical effects. The larval form was a large puppet operated by six stuntmen crawling in single file, while the adult version was a wire-operated mechanical puppet, with radio-controlled legs added in later films. Her origins have changed over the years, while her powers have included enormous blasts of air generated by her wings, a poisonous yellow powder (“scales”) that can suffocate her enemies, psychic abilities, and of course the silken web she can spray in her larval form to immobilize her opponents.
The Showa Era (1961-1968)
The 1961 movie Mothra from Toho Studios was part of the company’s initiative to expand its universe of giant monsters, which had up to that point introduced Godzilla, Anguirus, Rodan, and Varan. The director was Ishiro Honda, who made the original Gojira seven years earlier and directed many of Toho’s best-known kaiju films, while the screenplay was by first-timer Shinichi Sekizawa, who went on to write a number of Godzilla movies for Honda and Toho.
Mothra did not portray the giant insect goddess as a benign creature, however, but an enraged deity who hatches from her egg on Infant Island — where the inhabitants worship her — after her fairies, known as the Shobijin, are kidnapped by invaders from the nation of Rolisica who intend to exploit them. She tears through Japan in her search for the Shobijin before finally tracking them to Rolisica, where she destroys the capital city there until recovering the fairies and heading back to Infant Island.
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) was her next appearance, in which her egg washed up on the coast of Japan where it is made into a tourist attraction. The Shobijin head to Japan to ask for it back and are captured as well, although some sympathetic humans help them return to Infant Island. Godzilla soon attacks Japan, and the humans lobby the Shobijin to persuade a dying Mothra to return to Japan and fight him off (the impending death of the creature is usually accompanied by the arrival of offspring). Mothra agrees, sacrificing her life in a losing battle with the giant reptile, although her egg hatches and twin larvae emerge to wrap Godzilla in webbing and throw him into the ocean.
Mothra showed up again in 1964’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, still one of the most popular and beloved of Toho Studios’ first wave of kaiju movies. Only Mothra is initially determined to stop Ghidorah as he arrives from space and levels city after city, but when she bravely goes it alone against the beast, her courage convinces Godzilla and Rodan — previously foes — to join the battle with her. The film marks the first time that some of Earth’s most fearsome and gigantic monsters would team up to defend the planet against a common enemy, with Mothra acting as a sort of conscience for them.
Despite working together in the previous film, Godzilla and Mothra found themselves at odds again in 1966’s Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster). After Godzilla fights both the title monster, a sort of giant lobster, and a terrorist organization known as the Red Bamboo, he is apparently so worked up that he picks a fight with an imago (adult) Mothra as she’s trying to rescue the human population from an island that’s about to be destroyed. Mothra turns the other cheek, however, simply knocking the big green guy aside so she can successfully proceed with her rescue.
Mothra was back in larval form for 1968’s Destroy All Monsters, living peacefully on the island sanctuary known as Monsterland with the other kaiju until their minds are hijacked by the alien Kilaaks. Mothra is dispatched to destroy first Beijing on her own and then Tokyo in conjunction with Godzilla, Rodan, and Manda. Once the monsters are freed from the Kilaaks’ control, however, the gang team up to defeat both the alien invaders and their ultimate weapon, King Ghidorah. Mothra and the giant spider Kumonga do their part by tag-teaming the three-headed dragon with webbing.
The Heisei Era (1992-1998)
Mothra took a breather for 14 years after the strenuous events of Destroy All Monsters, before surfacing twice in the second series (the Heisei period) of Godzilla films. The first was 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra, part of a deliberate attempt by Toho to revive some of the most popular monsters from the Showa era after the box office failure of 1989’s Godzilla vs. Biollante. With Mothra one of the most popular kaiju — especially among women — she was a clear candidate for a revival.
At first developed as a standalone Mothra film called Mothra vs. Bagan, the film ended up becoming the highest-grossing of all the Toho Godzilla movies. The plot brought back aspects of the Mothra mythology such as Infant Island, the monster emerging from an egg and the tiny fairies, called Cosmos this time out. Mothra fights both Godzilla and another ancient flying creature, called Battra, in the film, although by the end she has defeated them both and heads happily into space with the Cosmos.
Mothra makes only a brief appearance in 1994’s Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla, where she and the Cosmos encounter the title villain in space and send a warning about him back to Earth (it’s also possible that Mothra helped create SpaceGodzilla by inadvertently carrying some of Godzilla’s cells into space with her). By this point, plans were underway to give Mothra something that no other kaiju in the Godzilla universe had ever received — her own standalone series.
The Rebirth of Mothra trilogy was separate from the continuity of the Godzilla films and the first one, Rebirth of Mothra (1996), was the last film produced before his death by Tomoyuki Tanaka, creator of the Godzilla franchise. In the first entry, Mothra was portrayed as the last remaining member of a species of giant moths who guarded a civilization of tiny humanoid beings called the Elias — the latest version of the original Shobijin fairies. This civilization was destroyed millions of years ago by a monster called Desghidorah (a relative of Ghidorah), whom Mothra defeated.
When Desghidorah returns in the present, Mothra is too weakened to fight but lays an egg that produces a new male Mothra, named Mothra Leo. Sadly Mothra is killed by Desghidorah while Leo is still too young to get into the battle, but Leo eventually matures and defeats the creature. Mothra Leo returned in Rebirth of Mothra II (1997), where he evolved into new forms like Rainbow Mothra and Aqua Mothra in order to fight an underwater pollution-eating monster called Dagahra.
Rebirth of Mothra III (1998) was the conclusion of the trilogy and featured Ghidorah himself as its villain. Mothra Leo gets in the ring with Ghidorah and is defeated, but becomes Light Speed Mothra in order to time travel to the past and engage with Ghidorah there. Leo’s plan to eradicate the dragon from the timeline fails, however, and they must again do battle in the present, with Mothra Leo becoming an armor-plated version of himself to destroy the beast. By the end of the film and trilogy, Armor Mothra is transformed into the divine Eternal Mothra and flies away in peace, its mission fulfilled.
The Millennium Era (2001-2004)
Mothra made three more live-action appearances in the third era of Godzilla movies, starting with 2001’s Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters’ All-Out Attack. As was the curious case with other films in the Millennium era, this acted as a direct sequel to the original 1954 Godzilla and ignored the events of previous entries in the series (so each Mothra in the Millennium films is a “different” one). The movie also repositioned Mothra as one of the ancient Guardian Monsters who, along with Baragon and Ghidorah, must defend the planet against the now-evil Godzilla.
As its mouthful of a title suggested, GMK delivered loads of heavy monster action while flipping the script and the loyalties of its two main antagonists. It also introduced a mystical element into the proceedings during a third act in which Mothra’s spirit is transferred into Ghidorah, turning him into something called the Thousand Year Dragon, with both their spirits flowing into Godzilla and sinking him into the ocean.
Mothra returned for Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003), warning humans (through the Shobijin) that their creation of an enormous cyborg called Kiryu (basically a souped-up Mechagodzilla) using genetic material from the original Godzilla is an affront to nature that she cannot tolerate. Mothra dies in battle against Godzilla in this one, but not before producing an egg that hatches two new Mothra larvae into the world who help Kiryu defeat Godzilla.
Mothra is given a slightly different backstory in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), with the movie postulating that millions of years ago, she fought an ancient creature called Gigan (who first appeared in Godzilla vs. Gigan in 1972). When Gigan is revived by the sinister alien race the Xiliens, Mothra once again hears the call of duty and soars into battle, seemingly sacrificing herself to help Godzilla defeat both Gigan and a Ghidorah offshoot known as Monster X and/or Keizer Ghidorah. But at the end of the film, Mothra is seen to still be alive, flying off to Infant Island to reunite with her beloved Shobijin.
That was 15 years ago, and while Mothra — like the other kaiju — has also appeared in books, comics, video games and short-lived animated series, Godzilla: King of the Monsters will mark the big screen return of this popular, dedicated and godlike protector of both humanity and fairies. As one can see from just the trailers, the new Mothra is ethereal, elegant and luminous, reminding us that nature can work in mysterious ways and that every monster is not automatically monstrous. Long live the Queen.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is out in theaters this Friday (May 31).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye