1964 brings us the 4th movie in the Godzilla series and the addition of a new monster to the Godzilla menagerie: Mothra. Mothra had her first movie in 1961, separate from any interaction with Godzilla. In this movie we start to get a sense of who the regular actors will be in Godzilla movies. There are a number of actors that show up time and again in a variety of roles in the Godzilla movies and I think it adds to the charm of the entire franchise. I also enjoy trying to place where I’ve seen a particular actor before when I watch the movies. For example Hiroshi Koizumi played Dr. Miura in Mothra and then Dr Chujo in Godzilla: Tokyo SOS. He was in several other Godzilla movies too. Once again Ishiro Honda is at the helm and the results are spectacular.
The movie opens with a hurricane lashing the islands. Then an avalanche releases a giant monster egg, which is later seen floating out to sea. Soon enough it floats near a more populous island and people gather along the shoreline to see this enormous thing floating out at sea.
A wealthy corporate man sends impoverished fishermen out to collect the egg. These villagers are reminded explicitly, “Remember everything you bring in from these waters belongs to us.” The theme starts off with an anti-exploitation message that is still pertinent today.
A large corporation ruthlessly exploits the poor and destitute. The movers and shakers of the corporation are appropriately villainous too. In perhaps a prescient moment the overriding message of this movie is that of a cautionary tale about unfettered greed and the unethical treatment of the weak by the powerful.
There is a sub theme that is also socially relevant today as well. One of the main characters is a photographer, Junko Nakanishi, who is a woman and she is treated badly throughout the entire movie by the journalist, Ishiro Sakai, she is assigned to work with. He is constantly demeaning her and belittling her ability. Yet her care and attention to detail prove invaluable throughout the movie. She plays an important role, even helping to save the tiny twin priestesses of Mothra. In some ways Godzilla is downright subversive.
The giant striped egg is bought by a shadowy figure named Torahata who, we are told, has a lot of wealth and influence in political circles. He uses a greedy company man to buy the egg, intending to sell tickets to see it to everyone who wants to see it. The twin Mothra priestesses tell him this is a wrong thing to do. They want their egg to take back to the island to Mothra to whom the egg rightfully belongs. Naturally the exploiters of natural resources, peoples and now monster eggs refuse.
While people are gathering around the giant egg and the photographer, journalist and a scientist are trying to get a look at it, an earthquake from the nearby drained mud flat created by the hurricane shakes the area. To the horror of the assembled spectators the earthquake turns out to be caused by Godzilla whom, I can only speculate, was swept inland and buried during the hurricane. Godzilla is a bit grumpy. He could probably use a giant cup of coffee, and he’s got a mouth-full of sand. Talk about waking up with bad morning breath. Plus there’s this giant egg from another monster right there which makes Godzilla even crankier.
The people ask Mothra to protect them but Mothra is unwilling because they would not return her egg. A perfectly reasonable response, really. Junko, Ishiro and Dr. Miura travel to the island of Mothra to plead their case. One of the things Mothra vs. Godzilla highlights is the destruction and death that the nuclear testing has visited upon the island. The three heros land upon an island that is barren and littered with the skeletons of animals that perished due to the nuclear tests. These things are not glossed over but rather highlighted, bringing to the viewer’s attention the ecological devastation of warfare of all kinds and especially nuclear war.
After being rebuffed by both the native islanders and the priestesses Junko steps forward and talks to the twin priestesses convincing them to listen and then Ishiro speaks up and shames the fairy into relenting. Mothra makes the final decision and despite knowing that she will never return to her island, Mothra leaves to battle Godzilla.
The twin fairy priestesses successfully sing the egg into hatching after Mothra battles Godzilla and the larva eats their own trail of destruction through the countryside. Finally the larva find a place to make its cocoon, despite the best attempts of the Japanese military to kill it before it destroys the city. This destruction is all on the heads of the greedy corporate exploiters who would not return the egg and in a fine example of karmic comeuppance they fall victim to Godzilla’s rampage in the end.
The interesting thing to note is that Mothra is female and is generally singular. There is only one Mothra at a time and one egg. When Mothra dies or is dying, the larva hatches and becomes the next Mothra. This often leads to another battle with Godzilla, which happens in this movie. In this movie twin larva are hatched and battle Godzilla.
The effects are very well done if a bit dated. Keep in mind the movie was made in 1964. I’m watching the Toho Masters Collection version on a Hi Def television with an upconverting DVD player. There are scenes where I can see the texture of the artist’s canvas they painted the mat backgrounds on for the movie and yet I did not once see a wire on Mothra and I know that monster is a giant marionette. In fact there is only one Godzilla movie I’ve ever seen a wire that I can think of off the top of my head and we’ll get to that one later. I will have to say that movies involving Mothra always make me think this is the best use of silly string as a special effect ever (probably not silly string but I still think it). These movies are very, very, well done for 1964 effects and the plot as well as social and ecological commentary are very thoughtful, almost prescient. It seems to me that when Godzilla is done well, there is always a social and ecological component.
Godzilla has withstood the test of time because Godzilla is not just a giant monster movie. These movies are not just about destruction and the defeat of monsters. Godzilla is commentary about our world and how we treat it. Godzilla movies are modern morality stories.
(An earlier version of this review first appeared on The Geek Girl Project)