The Surreal Wonderment of Godzilla vs. Mothra (1964)
Sure Godzilla vs. Mothra is a giant monster movie, but it’s a giant monster movie about an enormous MOTH.
The Toho universe has always operated under a different set of rules. Cities are flattened then rebuilt in days, but insurance premiums never go up. The existence of giant monsters, even those from outer space, is taken for granted (“Aww, crap, here comes that stupid Baragon again”), but drop a humanoid alien into the mix and it’s inevitably met with suspicion and doubt (“Are you really really SURE you’re an alien?”). Psychics and giant robots are commonplace, and the ever-hopeful self-defense force always rolls out the same array of weapons that’ve never worked in the past.
As the Godzilla franchise marched on through the ‘90s and into the early 21st century, it seemed to become more solidly grounded in a comprehensible and recognizable reality. Human characters were believable, even a little world weary, dealing with monsters the same straightforward way they would deal with a typhoon, a clogged toilet, or a boring old invading foreign army. Giant radioactive lizards and three-headed dragons aside, the world they lived and worked in looked and felt very much like our own.
There was a time though…early in the franchise and often under the guidance of director Ishiro Honda, when things just got really fucking weird, when images straight out of Salvador Dali, Andre Breton, or Luis Buñuel were inserted into the reality of the Toho universe, and none of the human characters really batted much of an eye about it. It’s the absurd, bizarre, utterly unpredictable world I always wanted to find waiting outside my front door every morning.
In King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Kong gets really stoned, then is floated back to Japan tied to a cluster of bright red balloons. Godzilla and the giant fiddler crab Ebirah play a game of volleyball with a huge boulder in Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster (1966). While swimming from Monster Island to Japan in Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972), Godzilla and Anguirus speak to each other in garbled English via cartoon-style word balloons. And in 1989’s Godzilla vs. Biollante the oversized villain is an evil rose bush.
There are big and small head scratchers in most every film the franchise has to offer, but for mind-boggling outlandish High Strangeness (as Jack Webb would call it) straight out of the Surrealist movement of the early 20th century, there’s no topping 1964’s Godzilla vs. Mothra. If you watch the film in the proper mindset, suspending disbelief and accepting all the conceits of the Toho universe, it’s no big deal. It’s another Japanese giant monster fantasy, albeit one with a lighter touch than most. But if you take a few steps outside the bubble and consider the imagery with a more critical eye, well…my god.
Since much of the film’s imagery can be traced directly back to Honda’s lesser-seen 1961 original, Mothra, we need to take a step back. First and foremost is the question, who in the hell thought it would be a good idea to make a giant monster out of a damn MOTH? What the hell’s a damned moth gonna do anyway, right? Eat a giant sweater? I mean, ever since I was a kid moths have always given me the creeps, but that apparently had nothing to do with the decision.
read more: A Brief History of Mothra
After releasing a handful of sci fi and fantasy films in the wake of ‘54’s Gojira (Rodan, The Mysterians), Honda and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka wanted to try something new. They wanted a more sympathetic monster, a monster with a clear purpose, one that would undergo a transformation, and one that would be elegant and beautiful. They also wanted something a bit more feminine than they’d done up to that point in hopes of attracting a larger female audience. Okay, so, hence a giant damn moth.
Although the film borrowed heavily from both King Kong and Gojira (which was a little redundant given how much Gojira itself borrowed from Kong), Mothra had a completely different feel. Despite all the standard giant monster trappings (collapsing buildings, crumbling dams, useless military weaponry, crowds fleeing in panic), it was more fairy tale than monster movie. Despite what the original ad campaign promised, it was a much gentler film. It was also a musical comedy with a couple of big production numbers and commentary on the environment, religion, nuclear testing, capitalist exploitation, greed, imperialism, and the political tensions between Japan and the West. That whole jumble of themes, together with a sympathetic (if clumsy) monster made Mothra a turning point for Toho’s kaiju eiga. It was the model Toho would follow from that point on, establishing genre-mashing “Japanese sci-fi fantasy” as an immediately identifiable genre unto itself.
Charmingly odd as the original Mothra was, all the weird little touches that made it that way were ramped up several notches for Honda’s requisite follow-up three years later. And since the most recent Godzilla film, 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, had been such a smash it was an easy decision to pit the lizard against the moth in the sequel. The results were, well, wonderment.
Let me just pull out a few random images, considering all the human characters seem to accept them as given.
As the film opens, a typhoon washes a gigantic egg ashore near a Japanese fishing village. I mean an enormous five-story chicken egg, just sitting there on the beach. For the rest of the film, eggs of all kinds would be a recurring reference point, with the giant egg itself being the focus of the story: who owns it, whether it should be returned to its rightful owner, how much profit can be made off it. For all the talk and arguing about the big egg, though, there’s very little speculation regarding what might be, y’know, inside it. We get recurring cuts back to a giant egg sitting on the beach of a poor fishing village as people go about their daily routines. This five-story-tall egg simply becomes part of the accepted reality.
read more: Godzilla: King of the Monsters – Complete Easter Eggs Guide
The giant egg is purchased by a crooked conglomerate called Happy Enterprises. The first hint there might be something shady afoot, apart from all the sinister chuckling, is that “Happy Enterprises” is known for building factories and industrial complexes. Only after acquiring the egg do they decide to go into the entertainment business, turning the egg into a sideshow attraction.
Speaking of sideshow attractions, soon after cutting the deal, the CEO of Happy Enterprises is visited by the Mothra Twins, two tiny telepathic identical twin fairies who magically appear in his office. They dress in white fur, speak quickly in unison, and have a tendency to break into song (usually the same one) at the drop of a hat. Through them we learn the egg belongs to Mothra, the protector goddess of the nuclear test site Infant Island, and she wants it back. The twins are played by Yumi and Emi Ito, who had an immensely popular nightclub act at the time as the pop duo The Peanuts.
When they appear and start making demands, there is no moment when the normal-sized humans in the room stop and shriek “What the fuck is that?” or run into the kitchen to grab the nearest cleaver. What the hell would you do if two six-inch tall girls suddenly appeared over there in the corner and began chastising you? Far from being at all startled at the sudden appearance of two miniature women in white fur, the CEO’s first impulse is to grab them and make them part of an advertising campaign.
Later on Infant Island the twin fairies (in unison) point out the last patch of green on an otherwise radiation-scarred wasteland. We also learn Mothra is near death and grumpy. When we eventually see Mothra (who does a lot of lurking behind trees) and the egg in the same shot, you can understand why she’s near death and grumpy. I mean, the damn egg is eight times the size of the creature that laid it! I know she’s a magical goddess and all, but how in the hell did that even work?
Then we get a couple production numbers and the twins sing some songs, including their outrageously catchy hymn to Mothra.
When Godzilla emerges from the waters near the fishing village, people seem far more concerned that he might damage the egg somehow than they are about having a 350-foot tall radioactive lizard tromping toward their town.
The twins, who are carried around in a small mahogany box for convenience, sing their hymn to Mothra again.
When the egg finally does hatch three-quarters of the way through the film it reveals two enormous gray segmented moth larvae who wriggle about in the sand for a bit. Having no other defenses at their disposal, they spray Godzilla with liquid silk during the film’s climactic battle. Godzilla seems to find this very annoying. I’ve always wondered why he doesn’t just stomp on them, and maybe in fact that’s what he’s trying to do when he stumbles and falls into the ocean.
Okay, yes, eggs, especially the giant variety, have played a role in Japanese symbolic art for a very long time now. Not so sure about the big moth larvae though. Still, when you take things like tiny singing twins and grumpy moths out of the context of a fairly realistic story they seem ridiculous and bizarre. But that’s always been the magic of the visionary Honda and his special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya that they could take these images and work them into a story in an utterly acceptable and believable way much like the Surrealists did. Honda reportedly once dreamt of being an artist, so maybe it’s not such a stretch to think there may be a direct connection between the Surrealists and his visual style. He was dealing with some pretty surreal material to begin with, after all. To this day, every time I watch the film I still expect a character, maybe that hard-bitten newspaper editor, to look up from his desk and comment, “Oh, it seems the clock is melting again.”