All Hail the Queen: Mothra (1961) Review

All hail the Queen of the Monsters! Introduced in the 1961 film of the same name directed by Ishirō Honda, this beautiful and colossal insect deity has become one of the most popular kaiju in the tokusatsu genre, starring in several of her own films and sharing the silver screen with the King of Monsters himself, Godzilla. Never without her two priestesses, the Shobijin, the mythical Mothra serves as both a call for peaceful coexistence and a warning against the dangers of atomic weapons. She’s the ardent defender of Japan and has given her life on numerous occasions for the greater good and to keep her people from harm. But as time never ends, neither does Mothra, and she always returns when humanity needs her most. She is truly Queen of the Monsters.

Based on the novel, The Luminous Fairies and Mothra, the 1961 film adaptation follows an international expedition to the remote and irradiated Infant Island after civilization learns of native culture living there. When a greedy entrepreneur, Clark Nelson, tries to exploit the island for personal gain and kidnaps the two mysterious and beautiful 12-inch ShobijinMothra leaves her tranquil island and sets off towards Tokyo to rescue her loyal priestesses.

Unfortunately for the people of Tokyo, Mothra’s giant stature means she causes unintentional destruction to everything in her path, with force from her wings blowing away entire city blocks and reducing the tallest skyscrapers to rubble. As the city prepares for Mothra’s inevitable arrival, the tenacious and lovable reporter, Zenichiro Fukada, and his partner, the observant and kindly photographer, Michi Hanamura, feel compelled to protect both the island from invasive outsiders and the Shobijin from an exploitative existence as sideshow entertainment. They look for any option to prevent the coming violence, but with Nelson’s government contacts from the fictional country of Rolisica protecting him and the public’s thirst for all things exotic and magical, their efforts prove more and more futile. 

Mothra is a unique and whimsical kaiju film that’s a little more removed from the science fiction-based monster movies that came before, subtly weaving the fantastical with the spiritual. The focus of the film isn’t on Godzilla levels of destruction and chaos (although when there is destruction, it’s impressive and frightening), but on the bond that exists between the Shobijin and their deity and the greediness of power-hungry and influential individuals who put everyone in danger. Ishirō Honda’s direction keeps the film’s outlandish premise grounded and engaging, presenting likable heroes and dastardly villains who more than deserve their comeuppance.

One of my biggest criticisms of the rebooted MonsterVerse films is the near lack of likable and engaging characters, but the characters in Mothra aren’t bland and don’t feel tacked on simply to add humans to the screen. They are connected to the plot and have stakes in the story, and each has individual mannerisms and characteristics that make them feel relatable. Frankie Sakai brings plenty of comedy to his performance as Fukada, but it’s never over the top and it fits well with the more lighthearted nature of the film. Likewise, Kyōko Kagawa gives a grounded performance as the skeptical but determined Hanamura, and her character pairs nicely with Fukada as a duo that seemed to inspire the likes of the X-Files’ Mulder and Scully.

Twins Emi and Yumi Ito are captivating in their performance of the two Shobijin, who are the emotional center of the film and the main focus of the plot. They expertly convey the Shobijin’s distress and sadness after they’re separated from Mothra, and later their happiness and joy when the main characters befriend them and attempt to help them escape Nelson. They don’t wish for destruction or chaos, but they understand the unintentional danger Mothra poses to their human friends. Meanwhile, Jerry Ito clearly relishes his turn as the villainous Nelson, who exploits the people of Infant Island for commercial gain and issues restrictions on press coverage of the expedition in an attempt to cover up Rolisica’s involvement in the bombing of the island.

While the anti-atomic messaging of the rebooted films becomes lost in the disaster spectacle onscreen, Mothra, much like the original Gojira, doesn’t shy away from the politics of the time. Rolisica is a pushy, reckless atomic superpower that’s a not-so-subtle criticism of the United States and satirizes the Western ideals of capitalism. Their bombing of Infant Island mirrors America’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Nelson’s kidnapping of the Shobijin reflects America’s occupation and assimilation of Japan.

Mothra herself represents peace, virtue, and sacrifice. While the other kaiju in the genre like Godzilla, Rodan, and Ghidorah embodies rage and destruction, she is the living example of tranquility and diplomacy, a mother who protects her children at all costs and responds to a crisis as a gentle (well, sort of, when she’s not knocking over buildings) but firm force of nature. Her goal isn’t punishment for the sake of destruction but justice for the sake of peace. Mothra was brought to life onscreen by special effects legend Eiji Tsuburaya who was instrumental in the creation of Godzilla. Her suit was the largest constructed at the time, at seven meters long, and required six actors inside to move it.

Mothra was a huge hit in Japan, and the titular kaiju became one of the most popular monsters behind only Godzilla. Her song, sung by the Shobijin, is one of the most recognizable of its kind, even to people who haven’t seen any of Mothra’s movies.

Out of all the kaiju films I’ve seen, Mothra is my favorite, and I highly recommend the movie for anyone who’s a fan of the genre. If Godzilla is the King of Monsters, Mothra is the Queen. Long live, Mothra! Long live the Queen of Monsters!

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