In the wake of a powerful typhoon a gigantic egg is found drifting off the coast of Japan. Seen as a bad omen by some, the egg is soon taken over by an enterprising young billionaire and his sidekick, a greedy talent agent, who intend to make it the centerpiece of their new amusement park. There’s just one catch – the owner of the egg is none other than the god-monster Mothra, and she wants it back!
Enter reporter Sakai (Takarada) who, along with photographer girlfriend Junko (Hoshi) and the helpful Professor Miura (Koizumi), takes up the cause of Mothra and her envoy, a pair of twin foot-tall princesses (the Ito sisters). Before anything can be done about the egg another disaster strikes. Buried in the muck left behind by the typhoon is Godzilla, who emerges from his temporary prison to lay siege to the Japanese countryside. Sakai and his friends must travel to the nuke-blasted Infant Island, home of Mothra and her peaceful followers, in hopes of convincing the only good monster in the neighborhood to help save Japan and its people from the unstoppable onslaught of Godzilla.
After the lukewarm reception of their dull, black and white production of Godzilla Raids Again, Toho Company went on a brief hiatus from new Godzilla adventures and instead focused on a variety of other tokusatsu concepts, some involving monsters and some not. By the time they revisited their budding franchise in 1962 Toho had become a special effects powerhouse, their product now easily discernible from their contemporaries’ by its dazzling color and ‘Scope production values. What’s more, the company now had a whole host of monsters at their disposal – not just Godzilla and Angilas, but Rodan, Varan and, most popular of all, Mothra.
Mothra’s self-titled 1961 debut had been a smash for Toho Company, earning millions more than even the original Godzilla and soundly trouncing its first sequel at the box office. The company’s 1962 blockbuster King Kong vs. Godzilla had pitted the Toho creation against a popular, but expensive, foreigner. When the time came for Godzilla’s fourth film outing Toho wisely chose to put him up against an in-house creature, one that had already proven successful in a solo production all its own. Mothra’s debut as a franchise player would lead to a decades-long relationship with the King of the Monsters in which the pair would co-star in no fewer than nine films.
The juxtaposition of the two monsters here remains a potent one nearly fifty years out, thanks in large part to the starkly contrasting ideas they represent. Godzilla would make the unlikely transition to hero later the same year, but is still deadly serious stuff in Mothra vs. Godzilla. The towering embodiment of the horrors unleashed by the nuclear age, the beast here possesses a palpable menace not seen since the first film. At one point he takes on the unexpected but thematically appropriate role of executioner, dispensing cosmic justice when the billionaire Torahata (Kenji Sahara) commits mortal sin to defend his fortune from a man he wronged.
Mothra exists as a rejection of Godzilla’s nuclear threat, as hope for life in a world now capable of destroying itself multiple times over. A creature of beauty hailing from an island decimated by nuclear testing, Mothra is the antithesis of the typical atomic monster – a representative of life and rebirth as opposed to the harbinger of death and destruction. Director Ishiro Honda and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa utilize Mothra not only as an indictment of unchecked nuclear proliferation but as a symbol of resilience during a cold war. She would return as a monster mediator in the same year’s Ghidrah: the Three Headed Monster, effectively chastising world leaders (represented by Godzilla and Rodan) for being unable to resolve their differences for the sake of the greater good.
Effects director Eiji Tsuburaya and his team (a handful of talented genre artisans including Teruyoshi Nakano, Akira Watanabe and Sadamasa Arikawa) craft the most engrossing scenes of monster combat of their age for Mothra vs. Godzilla, scenes bolstered by clever scripting on the part of Shinichi Sekizawa and the keen emotional awareness of director Ishiro Honda. The first confrontation between the eponymous creatures is a literal fight to the death, with an aged adult Mothra battling to protect her unborn offspring to her dying breath. Her legacy – giant twin caterpillars – is the world’s only chance of survival, a younger generation to take on the problems of the old. The final battle is expertly timed on all the production fronts. The baby Mothras earn audience sympathies as the weak against the strong while the plight of a class of grade school students caught in the crossfire ratchets up the suspense.
As should be expected for Toho Company tokusatsu efforts of the time, the special effects production here is second to none. Tsuburarya and company’s puppetry skills had improved considerably since 1961′s Mothra, where the mock-up of the adult monster was just too stiff to be believable. Here the adult Mothra is granted a superior range of motion, from its bobbling head to its six anxiously twitching legs, creating an illusion of life far more convincing than even the 1992 re-imagining Godzilla vs. Mothra could muster. In contrast with the bumbling Godzilla, who destroys more here by accident than on purpose (tripping into Nagoya Castle, getting his tail stuck in Nagoya Tower), Mothra appears elegant, intelligent, and more than worthy as an adversary.
Godzilla himself gets one of my favorite of his series overhauls, his number of toes reduced from four to three on each foot and his face given a solemn expression that some have compared (not unfairly) to that of Droopy the Dog. His brief rampage through Nagoya is by no means as epic as his first tour through Tokyo a decade prior, but the monster is granted impressive scale thanks to the clever optical photography of Yukio Manoda and Yoshiyuki Tokumasa. Much of Godzilla’s screen time is devoted to the foiling of military’s plans to control him, including one operation in which the beast is covered in metal nets and electrocuted (a nod to 20 Million Years to Earth, perhaps? – it would be far from the first time a Harryhausen effects vehicle had informed a Toho production). Another in which Godzilla is bombarded from the air looks to have been legitimately dangerous, as one of the fiery explosions sets the head of the suit ablaze.
Just as responsible for the epic feel of the special effects as the technicians behind them is Akira Ifukube, who composed one of the finest film scores of his career for Mothra vs. Godzilla – his third series outing. The now famous Godzilla theme, a modification of that composed for the earlier King Kong vs. Godzilla, has all the bombast we associate with its later variations, but also a soulful and dirge-like quality that lends it a decidedly ominous edge. Mothra is accompanied by themes both exhilarating and tragic, a combination that suits her place in the film perfectly. Best of all are the vocal pieces composed for the Ito twins (better known as the pop musical act The Peanuts), lyrical and haunting melodies superior even to those composed by Yuji Koseki for 1961′s Mothra.
There really aren’t enough positive things I can say about Mothra vs. Godzilla, the only film in the franchise that I feel has ever improved upon the original. The cast list alone is enough to set a golden-age tokusatsu fan’s mouth to watering – Akira Takarada (Godzilla, The Last War), Yuriko Hoshi (Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster), Hiroshi Koizumi (Dogora the Space Monster, Godzilla Raids Again), Kenji Sahara (Rodan, King Kong vs. Godzilla), Jun Tazaki (War of the Gargantuas), Yoshifumi Tajima (Godzilla’s Revenge) and on and on. This is Japanese monster cinema at the very peak of its potential, and a deserved classic of the genre.
I’ve little to complain about with Toho Visual Entertainment’s Blu-ray of Mothra vs. Godzilla from March of 2010 – it’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but its presentation of the film is well in advance of anything that’s come before.
Toho’s restoration staff put significant work into Mothra vs. Godzilla in advance of its HD home video debut, particularly with regards to the color timing (contrast was flatter and there was a distinct red push to the transfer when it first premiered on HD television), and while the results aren’t so stellar as, say, Shochiku Co.’s ace restoration of Harakiri it still makes for an impressive presentation. For me it’s all about the color here – with strong contrast and healthy saturation, Mothra vs. Godzilla‘s tremendous color production design shines here as it never has before on home video. One wishes that detail and textures could have been brought out a bit more, and a fresh scan on better equipment might have culled more from even the vintage ‘Scope photography, but the image here still has plenty of pop in motion. Grain is evident, more so than in the Blu-ray Atragon, but is not overpowering, and use of DVNR, if any, looks to have been kept to a minimum.
It’s worth noting that this is also the cleanest I’ve ever seen Mothra vs. Godzilla look. Not every speck and scratch has been scrubbed from the proceedings – some very minor damage remains – but a lot of restorative work has obviously been performed, particularly where the frequent optical effects are concerned. Mothra vs. Godzilla is presented in 1080p at its native ‘Scope ratio of 2.35:1, and backed by a strong Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at an average bitrate of 31.3 Mbps. There are no English audio or subtitling options, but the primary Japanese audio (in 16-bit LPCM 2.0 monophonic) sounds very, very good. The 2003 5.1 surround remix is also included, in Dolby TrueHD, and a set of optional Japanese subtitles are provided.
Supplements are stacked, but sadly do not include any material for the film’s American release (those keen on the Frontier Missile sequence will want to keep their domestic copies handy, as there’s nary a sign of it here). An audio commentary (Japanese only, of course) with actor Kenji Sahara, originally produced for the Toho DVD if I’m not mistaken, accompanies the main feature. Video supplements include a Japanese trailer newly transferred in HD, an 8mm short adaptation from the original Mothra (Mothra Attacks Tokyo! / モスラ アタック 東京!) in decent SD quality, a narrated picture-book of the same presented in HD, a new half-hour featurette that provides an overview of the monster king’s various looks from 1954 to the present (Godzilla: World of Modelling / ゴジラ 造型の世界, HD), a still gallery of behind-the-scenes photos (HD), and a video gallery of concept sketches for Godzilla’s battles with the film’s three Mothras. Also provided is the shortened 1980 re-release version of Mothra vs. Godzilla, which runs 73 minutes in upscaled HD with Dolby Digital audio. The special features are Japanese only, of course. The disc itself appears to be all-region compatible, and plays just fine in both my Region-A locked Playstation 3 and my Rebion-B secondary deck.
So it’s not English-friendly and the video transfer may not be up to everyone’s expectations (it’s lovely to these eyes in motion, and if the film never looks better on home video I’ll be perfectly pleased), but this is still a substantial package from Toho Visual Entertainment, complete with the strangely glittery slip-sleeve and ace main menu design that marks the rest of their Tokusatsu Blu-ray series. Fans won’t find better, and those undeterred by the language barrier and price (retail is ¥5,985 tax included, or a little over $60) are encouraged to indulge.
Mothra vs. Godzilla is available now from Amazon Japan and other online retailers. Unlike many of the other Amazon sites I receive no kickbacks from Amazon JP for promoting them – I do, however, use the site for all of my current video imports from the country, and highly recommend them.