Friday, August 28, 2009
Random Movie Report #69: Mothra
Sony have recently released a three-disc set of Toho sci-fi epics directed by Inoshiro Honda, and though it has some technical problems (all three discs are stacked on top of each other on one spindle, so be prepared to do a variant on Towers of Hanoi each time you want to pick a film) it’s great to see these films available at last. The most famous film on the set is, no doubt, MOTHRA, the most successful of Toho’s non-Godzilla monster movies and one of their most ambitious full-color Tohoscope fantasies. The simple story of a radioactive island, a giant bug, and two tiny twin singers is rendered with lush detail, with a touch of social satire and daring international commentary. It’s basically their version of a Pixar movie- heartwarming and colorful and sweet, but with more buildings exploding.
A typhoon forces a ship aground on Infant Island, an island reportedly contaminated by radiation from atomic tests conducted by the nation of Rolisica (the United States with the serial numbers filed off, basically.) The place is supposed to be uninhabitable, but some time later, the survivors are rescued, with no trace of radiation and stories of being treated well by the natives. Japan and Rolisica send a scientific expedition, which finds that beyond the rocky shores of the island there’s actually a thick jungle, with natives, bloodsucking plants, and two beautiful foot-high fairy girls whom a tag-a-long reporter (Frankie Sakai) dubs the “shobijin”, or “tiny beauties” as the subtitles translate it. The girls (Emi and Yumi Ito) are kidnapped by unscrupulous Rolisican adventurer Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito, presumably no relation), who exhibits them as an elaborate theatrical attraction. As reporter Sen, photographer Michi Hanamura (Kyoko Kagawa), and Dr. Shinichi Chuju (Hiroshi Koizumi) work to free the girls, the island’s protector, Mothra, hatches from an egg as a giant caterpillar and begins a trek to Japan. Soon, freeing the fairies becomes not just a question of morality, but one of preventing the entire country being destroyed by a giant insect.
Though written and directed by the same team that brought Godzilla to life, MOTHRA has a different look and feel from the start. It’s a more delicate, childlike movie, with a mostly innocent monster saving two innocent creatures from the corrupt world of man. For a film which satirizes American pushiness (though the script makes pains to point out that Nelson is worse than the rest of the Rolisicans), MOTHRA has the feel of an Old Hollywood adventure movie, with native pageantry and elaborate song numbers to complement the traditional mayhem and destruction. There’s a particularly brilliant and evocative scene where the larval Mothra attacks a ship at sea, following the ethereal voices of the fairies and mysteriously lit from below.
A lot of the film’s atmosphere owes to the score by Yuju Koseki, which is of a different tenor than the themes Akira Ifukube was composing for Toho’s other monster epics. Koseki is responsible for the famous “Song for Mothra” that Toho has used for the monster ever since, and his other compositions are similarly distinctive. Mothra himself (or herself- Toho officially has said that Mothra’s a he, but a lot of people think of the creature as female) is a striking creation; the scenes of the monster as a caterpillar are frequently shot with the camera low to the ground, the creature’s bulk and tiny blue eyes looming in front of the camera in a way both surreal and effective. Mothra doesn’t do much fighting with the military, not really having any weapons, but the critter’s wings create gusts of wind that can easily level cities, and again, mankind’s weapons are useless.
The film’s human story is especially effective, rendered simply as a look at greed and the unintended consequences it can have on the world. Even more than in GODZILLA, the monster in MOTHRA is a symbol of nature’s revenge, striking at man for the destruction he wrought on the world, be it through nuclear weapons or simple plundering of its resources. (One interesting element, not explored much, involves the theory that the fairies are survivors of an ancient civilization which used to connect all the major South Pacific islands, and that Mothra is also part of this ancient culture.) It helps that Nelson is such a wonderfully scummy character- Jerry Ito gives an excellent performance, making the scientist-turned-huckster both believably influential and completely unlikable. Frankie Sakai, a veteran comedy actor, is also charming as the bulldog-like reporter who bluffs his way onto the scientific expedition, only to be legally forbidden from reporting anything about it.
After a few years of trying to top GODZILLA for action and spectacle, Toho hit on a different approach. MOTHRA is very distinctly a Japanese monster movie, with all the chaos and flattening of elaborate miniatures that entails, but it’s also good-natured, with well-rounded characters confronting moral problems and trying to do their best. It’s a genuine epic, going from tropical islands to downtown Tokyo to the almost-European-style “New Kirk City”, and the breadth of its spectacle and the wild creativity of it all helped establish the big, colorful, crazy style of its science fiction spectacles in the coming decade. It’s something of a triumph for everyone involved, and a bit of old-fashioned fun that’s long overdue in our region.
Based on the novel “Hakkou Yousei to Mothra” by Takehiko Fukunaga
Story by Yoshie Hotta and Shinichiro Nakamura
Screenplay by Shinichi Sekizawa
Directed by Inoshiro Honda