Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, March 21, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1964) Part 1

4. Mothra vs. Godzilla
Mosura tai Gojira / Godzilla vs. the Thing

After the massive success of “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” Toho recognizes the public's renewed interest in their mascot monster. It was clear Godzilla had to return. It was also clear that he probably couldn’t support another film on his own. Luckily, Toho had an extensive library of other giant monster movies at their disposal, creature characters they could use without paying royalties. Though they could have matched Godzilla against a number of monsters, the studio brain trust wisely decided on Mothra. The giant moth-goddess, previously seen in her 1961 solo debut, remains one of the studio’s most memorable, dynamic, and likable kaiju-creations. Pitting the reptilian Godzilla, a radiated mutant, against the graceful Mothra, a symbol of nature, was an inspired decision.

The story owes a debt to “King Kong vs. Godzilla” in another way. The two films share a very similar outline. During a typhoon, a massive egg washes up on the Japanese shore. Immediately, a pair of businessmen snatch the egg up with plans to exploit, building an amusement park around the egg and charging folks admission to see it. Naturally, the egg turns out to be the offspring of Mothra. Despite the pleas of the tiny beauties, Mothra’s miniature fairies, the greedy businessmen refuse to return the egg. Around the same time, Godzilla reappears, wreaking yet more havoc on Tokyo. The egg being threatened forces a truce between Mothra and the human world, both working together to deflect Godzilla’s attack.

The previous film was a parody on the greed and cynicism of the advertising world, a satirical comedy that also happened to feature giant monsters. “Mothra vs. Godzilla” handles a similar message from a slightly more serious approach. Greedy capitalist Kumayama, teaming up with unscrupulous millionaire Torahata, walks up to the giant egg on its first day in Japan, offering money to buy it. Later on, the heroes of the film present the men with Mothra’s magic fairies. Instead of being moved by their pleas, Kumayama instead offers to buy the miniature women. The movie mocks the greed of humanity, the men even refusing to return the egg after Japan is threatened by Godzilla. By film’s end, the two businessmen succumb to their own greed, violently turning on each other. The film comments on the path of greed without ever sinking to the silly parody of “King Kong vs. Godzilla.”

The Godzilla series have always had an ecological theme. “Mothra vs. Godzilla” brings this idea into sharp reflect. Midway through the film, the cast visits Infant Island, Mothra’ homeland. When last seen in ‘61’s “Mothra,” the island was a lush paradise, full of exotic, colorful flora. In this film, the island has been devastated by nuclear testing, reduced to brown, smoldering ashes. What natives have survived are hostile to outsiders, blaming them for the destruction. The pacifism of the Infant Island natives has been violated, their trust turned on. Even the fairies are reluctant to help the outsiders. Director Ishiro Honda’s anti-nuclear stance is enforced strongly without overdoing it. The script also provides a message of hope. Yoka’s pleas for help, accepting the burden of guilt onto her shoulders, begging for peace. Mothra, naturally, comes around, moved by the human’s prayer. By working together, Godzilla is repelled, the egg is saved, and order is restored. While shrouded in sci-fi monster movie metaphor, the movie’s message of world peace and cooperation is clear.

“Mothra vs. Godzilla” benefits from having one of the most likable human cast of any of the Showa films. A story device that would be used repeatedly in the future, the film’s heroes are news reporters. The newsroom cast has a quick chemistry with each other that makes for compelling viewing. Hero Ichiro Sakai is a handsome, wholesome crack reporter with just enough wry cynicism to make him interesting. Akira Takarada’s acting skills have obviously improved since his debut in the original “Godzilla,” as Ichiro proves far more charming then the bland Ogato. The female lead of the flick, Junko, proves to be the story’s emotional heart, her pleas for peace especially affecting. Yuriko Hoshi gives an excellent performance, providing warmth to the material. Even the newsroom bit players prove memorable. Hardboiled editor Arota, played by Jun Tazaki, is dryly hilarious, responding to the shenanigans around him with muted grouchiness. Tazaki has a great back-and-forth with Yu Fujiki, who plays the egg-obsessed Jiro, the frequent whipping boy of the editor. Too often the human elements of these kaiju films are dull and forgettable but the cast and characters here are memorable. You’d like to spend more time with these guys.

Even the film’s villains are unusually amusing. Yoshifumi Yajima hams it up nicely as Kumayama. He sinks his teeth into every line, his body language portraying a shyster nicely. Kenji Sahara is similarly despicable as Torahata, the movie’s other villain. A memorable moment is a phone conversation between the two greedy men. Kumayama swears silently to himself while asking for money, Torahata nonchalantly hitting on his secretary at the same time. The two make for very human villains, motivated not by a world-dominating plot but by simple human avarice. The two turning on each seems inevitable, their greed consuming them.

Ah, but what about the monsters? “Mothra vs. Godzilla” is focused more on the big bug, Godzilla not making an appearance until a half-hour in. Despite his belated appearance, the movie makes the most of the King of the Monsters. He gets an impressive entrance, his tail exploding from under the ground, the movement punctuated by Akira Ifukube’s music. The monster shakes the dirt off before continuing on his rampage. Godzilla’s behavior here is presented differently then in previous films. While marching through Nagoya, the monster gets his tail stuck on a television tower, stumbling forward, bringing down the tower and an additional building. Later, he trips over a small ledge, slamming into a castle. Godzilla’s rampage isn’t malicious. Instead, he’s a natural force, destruction simply part of his nature. The behavior frames Godzilla as even more of a classical monster then ever. He’s simply too big for this world. Godzilla’s neutral nature is further solidified when he winds up crushing the film’s villains.

Despite this somewhat sympathetic characterization, “Mothra vs. Godzilla” is the last time in the Showa era Godzilla would be a true villain. The monster can’t coexist with humanity, one likely to destroy the other. For the first time, the Japanese army actually has a proper plan to counteract the kaiju. The army pushes Godzilla away from the city with napalm, luring him into a trap. His weakness to electricity established by now, Godzilla is attacked with a high voltage lines and, later on, huge steel nets electrified with cartoonish energy bolts. Surprisingly, the army actually comes close to finishing Godzilla this time, getting him on the ground and on the count. Its man’s own hubris that winds up freeing the monster, perhaps feeding into the film’s theme of humanity’s destructive nature.

The effects are impressive too. While the previous film featured an impressive suit, the Godzilla suit here is another stand-out. The yellow eyes and longer claws are ditched. However, the monster’s head is more rounded, a perpetual grimace molded onto his face. His body is leaner and more flexible. The monster’s destruction is brought to life fantastically. Once again, he melts tanks and electric towers into hot, red, molten steel. At the end, the monster even melts rocks. A notable moment involves Godzilla getting sprayed with napalm, the suit’s head visibly aflame! Haruo Nakajima, by now a veteran performer of the character, actually gives an excellent performance. Godzilla has a personable body language. He rolls around on the ground, spraying his nuclear breath erratically. Nakajima gifts the monster with tiny character quirks, shaking his spines and head. Godzilla has never looked or acted better.

Mothra, always one of Tsuburaya’s most dynamic creations, also gets shown off. The giant insect is imbued with a great deal of personality, its head and legs quivering. The sped-up footage during the final fight is a little awkward but adds energy to the battle. The fight between Godzilla and mama Mothra is certainly an exciting conflict. Mothra drags Godzilla around by his tail, slamming into the monster. My favorite moment is the moth scratching at Godzilla’s head, quickly darting around him, delivering small blows in fast succession. Once again, Godzilla seemingly meets his match, covered with poison powder. That is before he gets in a lucky, fatal shot. Mothra slowly fluttering to the ground, using her last will of life to protect her egg, is actually sort of touching. Compared to Godzilla’s force of destruction, Mothra is protective and forgiving.

The sight of two Mothra larvae emerging from the egg is actually a decent surprise, a nice last act reveal. At first, the idea of two giant caterpillars getting one over on Godzilla seems unlikely. The movie pulls it off. The two larvae cocoon the King of Monster while dodging behind rocks, avoiding the monster’s atomic spray. It makes for an exciting climax, the less powerful kaiju getting the upper hand on the all-powerful Godzilla by out-strategizing him. The battle is further powered by Ifukube’s score. Godzilla’s theme makes a dark impact, providing a power behind the monster’s action. Godzilla’s trumpeting theme blends and contrasts nicely with Mothra’s lusher, romantic theme. Furthermore, the worms are fantastic creations. Their bobbing motion conveys a life-like energy. My favorite moment is the one larva shaking on the ground after getting a whack from Godzilla’s tail. The little Mothras never seem like stiff puppets but instead living beings.

The movie’s only major flaw is its somewhat awkward script construction. While Godzilla is still active in the city, the heroes move off to Infant Island, trying to get Mothra on their side. The villains are disposed with still a half-hour of run time to go. Godzilla defeats the mother Mothra and continues his rampage, the babies not making their debut for a while more. With most of the conflicts resolved, the script has to cook up a new problem in the last act. Suddenly, the newsroom trio have to rescue a stranded school teacher and her students while Godzilla rampages near-by. It, ultimately, distracts little from the movie’s enjoyment. However, it’s not exactly a smooth ride.

Unlike the previous three Godzilla films, “Mothra vs. Godzilla” wasn’t butchered upon arriving in America. The film was left almost completely intact, the story progressing the same, Ifukube’s score maintained. A new scene was inserted but, thankfully, it’s not a bunch of boring dudes sitting around and talking. Instead, the new sequence is Godzilla fighting a fleet of American battleships. It’s an exciting moment, full of explosions and special effects. I’m honestly not sure why it wasn’t included in the Japanese version. Most of the changes have to do with American International Picture’s baffling advertising campaign. The movie was retitled “Godzilla vs. the Thing” and Mothra’s identity was kept a secret. While referring to the giant egg as “The Thing” rather fits the character’s exploitative attitudes, I imagine Monster Kids of the time being rather disappointed that the Thing turned out to be, neither James Arness nor Ben Grimm, but a big bug.

Even the dubbing is pretty good. What little clipping did happen actually speeds things up a bit, making the American version arguably better paced. In either version, “Mothra vs. Godzilla” is a great kaiju flick, brisk, fun, and entertaining. It’s easily one of the high water-marks for the entire Godzilla franchise. [Grade: B+] 

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