If Godzilla is King of the Monsters then Mothra is undoubtedly the Queen. Originally appearing in Mothra in 1961, this winged Kaiju would appear in many of her own films, as well as a number of Godzilla movies over the years, firmly earning her place as one of the most beloved movie monsters of all time.
Mothra begins with a ship lost at sea during a terrible storm, and a search for any survivors about to be abandoned. Luckily, the last of the search and rescue helicopters spots some of the ship’s crew on the rocky shore of Infant Island, a small atoll that had been used for atomic testing. When the survivors are brought home they tell people that Infant Island is actually inhabited, and that the people there took care of them.
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An expedition is put together to travel to Infant Island to find out more about these people. The group discover a strange forest filled with giant plants, and soon locate the inhabitants. Stranger still, the island is also home to two fairies, who communicate telepathically, and seem to possess strange powers. The leader of the expedition, a shady businessman called Nelson, captures the fairies, killing several of the islanders in the process.
With the two fairies taken to Tokyo, their protector, Mothra, emerges from her egg in order to save them. This giant larva follows the expedition back to Japan, and demolishes Tokyo as she spins a cocoon around Tokyo Tower. Seeing this, Nelson takes the fairies and flees to the fictional country of Rosilica. When Mothra emerges from her cocoon she’s her beautiful, fully grown self. Now able to fly, she travels across the globe to Rosilica. Mothra attacks New Kirk City, and manages to free the fairies, whilst Nelson is killed by the police. Reunited, Mothra and the fairies return to Infant Island together.
One of the things that instantly makes Mothra stand out from other Kaiju movies is that she’s quite clearly not a villain. Other giant monster movies both before and after Mothra would centre on a creature causing havoc and destruction, even if it was down to a more friendly monster to stop them. In this film, however, the monstrous villain of the piece is Nelson, played by Jerry Ito. Representing the greed and capitalistic nature of the West, his home country of Rosilica seems to be an amalgam of both Russia and America, with New Kirk City standing in for New York.
The change to the established formula definitely helped Mothra to stand out amongst other Kaiju movies of the time, and her being a somewhat heroic figure made it a lot easier for Toho to produce more films with her, folding her into the Godzilla universe three years later when the two of them would clash; though they would eventually go on to work together to protect the earth from King Ghidorah in other projects.
Mothra also stood out due to the inclusion of a sense of whimsical fantasy, using on-screen musical numbers courtesy of the fairies, played by famous Japanese pop icons The Peanuts. Despite featuring elements that touch upon science, such as the atomic testing on Infant Island (similar to the themes in Godzilla), the film was definitely more of a fantasy movie, and audiences loved it because of this. Mothra and her fairies are not the result of atomic radiation, but are implied to be divine figures.
The film would prove to be a big hit in Japan, but also had a lot of success in other countries too. Columbia Pictures actually helped with the production of the film, and distributed it to the US, where it was similarly well received. This partnership also meant that it was one of the more lavish Toho productions, creating some of the largest miniatures special effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya had ever made.
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There are a lot of films that are referred to as a ‘classic’ but Mothra is one where the title is very much deserved. The film had a huge budget at the time, and thanks to the dedication of the cast and crew you can definitely see it coming into play on screen. Everything looks superb, and the characters all give it their all. The film would spawn one of the most popular film monsters of all time, and with an impressive 9 million tickets sold in Japan, it was a bigger hit than the original 1954 Godzilla.
Mothra was released on 30th July 1961.