Easter’s come and gone, but in the spirit of the holiday (and spring in general) I just had to review Mothra vs Godzilla. It hits all the right notes! A pastel-colored stripey egg, themes of birth, death and rebirth, more eggs, a giant pink humanoid rabbit shitting out jelly beans, and tiny singing ladies. Okay, maybe not those last two. More importantly, MvG is straight up one of the best Godzilla films, and an absolute classic giant creature feature. It takes the blueprint Toho shakily put down in the previous King Kong vs Godzilla and refines it into the now-standard monster vs. monster formula while perfectly tying together Toho’s two most famous beasts. It’s also the first Godzilla flick to make it more or less unscathed to the States, with the exception of a schlocky marketing gimmick. Steal the Reese’s eggs out of your loved ones’ Easter baskets and cuddle up with an electrified steel net, because we’re talking about Mothra vs. Godzilla!
First, the trailers! Here’s the Japanese one. It’s basically a Cliff’s Notes version of the whole movie, showing off some of the best shots and spoiling the appearance of not one, but both Mothra babbies. It’s 50+ years old now (holy shit) but I’m glad I saw the movie before the trailer. Here’s the American trailer that repeatedly asks “What is THE THING?”
To preserve the sanity of 1964’s movie-goers, The Thing in question isn’t John Carpenter’s shape-shifting alien nightmare, but Mothra. I can only assume the American distributors were a little embarrassed that Godzilla, King of the Monsters was going to fight, and lose to, a big pretty butterfly, so they promoted the movie as Godzilla fighting an unimaginably gruesome mystery-monster. Hence the tentacled question mark on the poster, and the characters in the US version calling Mothra “The Thing” about half the time. If you’re going to inexplicably rename one of the most famous movie monsters of all time, at least be consistent!
But with Godzilla regulars behind the wheel, even that corny gimmick can’t slow this flick down. Ishiro Honda is back directing the shit out of it, Eiji Tsuburaya is killing it with some of his best miniature work yet, Ifukube cleverly intertwines an even more menacing version of Godzilla’s classic theme music with Mothra’s whimsical score (check this sweet suite!), and Shinichi Sekizawa wrote the script, hot off of King Kong vs. Godzilla. I haven’t really mentioned Sekizawa before, but his brain birthed the screenplays for some of the best kaiju flicks of the 60s and 70s. He had previously penned Mothra, then after MvG he went on to write Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster, Invasion of Astro Monster, Son of Godzilla, Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla and a bunch more, including non-Godzilla fare like Atragon and Ultraman. So like, all the best, goofiest stuff in the series, if not the whole genre.
Some fans may bemoan this campy craziness, pining for more grim’n’gritty tales akin to Gojira and Godzilla Raids Again, but Sekizawa’s out of control imagination and taste for wackiness are what kept Godzilla such a viable franchise. Without his outrageous originality, this series may very well have stalled out sometime in the 60s. You still see this happening today: the last 3 Fast and Furious movies have embraced campy chaos and turned into unrepentant action insanity, and they’ve done better commercially and critically for it.
But enough about other movies, let’s talk about this one! It opens with a thundering rendition of the Godzilla theme, over a roaring hurricane whipping through the ocean. Plenty of classic kaiju flicks start with credits over psychedelic, kaleidoscopic colorscapes, but MvG throws us nuts-first into chaos from frame one! We’re treated to some fantastic miniature work as a freighter gets launched out of the ocean onto shore, and shortly after the storm we meet two of our heroes reporting on the aftermath: Sakai, a serious and savvy reporter, and his newbie photographer, the cute and quirky Junko.
Junko finds something “pretty” among the wreckage, but we know it’s a Godzilla scale or some skin he shed (or a dookie? It could be a Godookie? Dookzilla? Godzuki?). Whatever it is, Junko makes sure to snap a fortuitous picture of it, but some bumpkins further up the coast score the real find: Mothra’s egg! Naturally in long shots the humongous huevo is portrayed as a composited matte painting. Sometimes it looks just okay: Other times it looks shockingly real: Though now that I think about it, that second shot was probably done with miniatures. Either way, it looks fucking delicious. The townies discovering and then retrieving the egg is great. They understandably aren’t too keen on going anywhere near that damn thing, but their live-in crazy old koot/town priest waves a staff around and says that the gods will protect them. Their greedy-ass mayor quickly and half-heartedly agrees with the shaman, plainly willing to tell his citizens anything if it means they can make a quick buck off the enormous egg. Greed being mankind’s undoing is an on-going theme throughout the movie, much like in King Kong vs. Godzilla.
The big difference is that in KKvG, the greed is played for laughs, and mostly comes from the nerdy, harmless pharmaceutical company CEO. In Mothra vs Godzilla though, the rampant avarice is a lot less cartoonish. It generates some great dry humor, particularly when the corporate scum villains ask our heroes to prove Mothra has granted them power of attorney. By the end of the film though, it’s escalated to some lethal backstabbing between the aforementioned sleazebags. It’s satisfying to see a couple shyster assholes give each other what they deserve, but it’s far from the usual “good guys beat the bad guys!” heroic ending.
But I’m getting a little ahead of things. Shortly after the yolk-els pull the egg ashore, Sakai and Junko are on the scene to report on the egg and interview Professor Miura, the resident egg-spert. Miura is played by Toho sci-fi regular Hiroshi Koizumi who also popped up in movies like Mothra, Godzilla 1985, and the deliciously bleak horror film Matango. Dude doesn’t play real varied roles or chew any scenery (he’s usually a mild-mannered scientist) but he has a relatable, earnest quality about him… which is totally undercut by whoever dubbed him for the English version. Everybody else sounds great! With this one exception, this is maybe the best dub-job ever in a Godzilla film. But the English voice actor for Miura sounds like Harrison Ford sleepwalking through his narration in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner. Sakai and Junko try to get some soundbytes from Miura when they meet one of our two human villains, the mustachioed huckster Kumayama. He’s easily one of the most entertaining human villains to show up in a kaiju movie, as he’s a straight-up hustler. He swindles the townies out of the egg (coming up with a low-ball bullshit number by comparing Mothra’s egg to the price of chicken eggs), declares that anyone can come and view the egg for a nominal fee, and blows smoke in Junko’s face before swaggering off, presumably to sell ice to an Eskimo and then mentor a young, pre-fame Jay-Z.
If Kumayama is a braggadocio hustler, his partner Torahata is a reserved mastermind, the real brains behind their eggs-ploitation. They meet up in their swank-ass hotel room to discuss building a tourist attraction around Mothra’s egg, and generally how much of ballers they’re about to become. Just when they think they have everything on lockdown, they’re suddenly interrupted by disembodied voices protesting their douchemanship.
Our villains freak out and start searching the room for mics or bugs, assuming corporate spies are trying to egg-stract sensitive information from them. Their frantic search reveals Torahata’s on-site giant locker full of money and that the pissed off little voices they’re hearing aren’t spies from a uh, rival egg-based entertainment company, but Mothra’s tiny twin psychic singing fairy princess heralds. Because of course a gigantic moth-god-monster should have tiny twin psychic singing fairy princess heralds.
The tiny ladies (also known as fairies, Cosmos, Shobijin, Little Beauties, Elias, and maybe a few I missed) are desperately trying to convince Torahata and Kumayama to return Mothra’s egg to its home on Infant Island (aka Mothra Island in the US version). Naturally Kumayama and Torahata are having none of that, they just want to capture the tiny ladies to make another quick fortune off them. Like the scenes of the tiny monster in Pulgasari, many of the effects shots for the tiny ladies are achieved just by putting the actors in giant-sized sets. Thanks to Toho’s set-building bad-asses, the effect is surreal and seamless. The composite shots are good too, especially later when our human leads interact with them. The doll-like miniatures are probably the least effective, so they’re understandably used sparingly.
Anyway Sakai overhears our business-bitches arguing with and chasing the tiny ladies around their hotel room, and reports back to Junko and Miura hiding out in the woods. He doesn’t really need to tell the whole story, because the tiny ladies somehow appear to them on a nearby tree branch. They plead with our heroes to help return the egg and let them know that Mothra Island has been devastated by nuclear missile tests. Not only that, but if Mothra’s egg hatches in Japan, the baby Mothra will pretty much trash everything in its path, not out of malice, but because it’s a dumb baby. I guess Angelica was right.
Throughout the exchange, everybody, including Mothra’s own tiny hype women randomly refer to Mothra as “The Thing.” They also insist on pronouncing it “Mahdra.” rolling the R and everything. It’s such a weird choice, but I assume they were trying to make Mothra seem a little more exotic and mysterious, since its name really is the common English name for a bug with “ra” thrown on the end. The best part of this scene is the reveal at the end, when the tiny ladies cheekily let our heroes know that Mothra has been listening and watching the whole time and sure as shit, they direct our attention to a hill in the middle-distance with a full-size huge-ass Mothra just chilling and creeping on everybody.
Our heroes confront Torahata and Kumayama, tiny ladies in tow, but they’re ultimately unable to sway them from their money-grubbing horseshit. The tiny ladies peace out with Mothra, essentially saying “thanks for trying, but we have a bunch of nuked-to-hell islanders to look after. Sorry baby Mothra is about to take a murder-dump on your country.”
Sakai and Junko don’t have long to dwell on it though, because they get a call from Miura to come to his lab. After taking a dip in some delightfully pseudo-sciencey anti-radiation tubes (the restorative powers of smoke and purple light!), Miura lets them know that the dookzilla sample Junko brought in is super irradiated. They return to where the storm hit the coast to run some tests and see if they can figure out what the hell the black and blue hunk of schmutz is.
The greedy douche (which puts us up to four in this movie if my count is right) handling the industrialization of the area tries to get our heroes to fuck off, but Junko notices some dirt shifting around in the distance. Toho’s miniature effects in this scene are super on-point: the dirt caving in looks great, the beached ship creates a sense of scale and reminds you of the disaster that already happened, and the jets of steam shooting out of the ground add to the ominous drama. From like a quarter mile away their Geiger counter goes crazy (which, best case scenario means our heroes are probably sterile after this?), and then it happens: Godzilla’s tail comes whipping out of the ground, with his triumphant, malevolent score announcing his arrival. Godzilla rears up out of the Earth, shaking off dirt, and making everyone lose their collective shit. It makes no sense for a sea monster to make his entrance by bursting out of the ground, but it 100% doesn’t matter because it is completely fucking awesome and easily one of his best entrances in the entire franchise.
When Godzilla shakes the dirt off, his jaws wobble a bit. It’s a small detail that makes this one of the most alive-looking suits in the early movies. And it’s an accident! The main theory is that something went wrong with securing the jaws the to the framework of the head, but whatever the cause, the result is that the whole thing looks more expressive and natural. It reminds me of how Yoda’s ears quiver and twitch in the original Star Wars movies. It was originally an issue in how the puppet is constructed and the fact that Frank Oz’s arm is just up in there, so they tried to “fix” it. Thankfully they didn’t, because it gives the character even more vitality.
With this being Godzlla’s fourth theatrical appearance, he’s still very much a villain, and his emergence unto the world is greeted with air raid sirens, emergency broadcasts and people generally flipping their shit left and right. It’s great. But while he cuts an imposing figure (especially looming over a crowded street full of people desperately loading up cars) and trashes some stuff, I have a theory that Godzilla in this movie is less malevolent and more kinda hung over.
The Godzilla films, especially the initial run in the 60s and 70s have a notoriously loose continuity, but there is a little bit there. In the prior movie, Godzilla loses to King Kong. Both monsters tumble off a cliff into the choppy ocean below. After a moment or so, Kong pops back up and swims home victorious, but our main man Godzilla never resurfaces. Granted he’s a sea monster and doesn’t need to swim on the surface, but taking his strange dirtsplosion entrance in this movie into account makes me think Kong unceremoniously stuffed Godzilla into some craggy underwater fissure before paddling home. This would not only explain why he bursts out of a shallow grave but also why most of the carnage he creates is due to him clumsily gumping around. He’s groggy and dazed from his first-ever loss!
After successfully trampling through an oil refinery, Godzilla’s tail gets caught on a TV tower, which crashes down on top of him. Shortly after that humiliation, he trips on the ditch from that gif above and crashes spectacularly into a beautiful Japanese castle.
Tsubaraya and his crew are just crushing it, every catastrophe is a blast to behold. But even during the beautifully crafted chaos, I felt bad for Godzilla this time. We’ve all been hungover and hangry! This is probably the first time Godzilla’s been used to explore one of director Ishiro Honda’s most famous themes: “Monsters are tragic beings. They’re born too tall, too strong, too heavy, that is their tragedy.”
This actually makes a lot of sense: Godzilla quietly transitioning to sympathetic villain sets him up perfectly for his role in Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster, released the same year as MvG. In Ghidrah, Godzilla transforms yet again, from sympathetic villain to reluctant anti-hero. By the 70s, he’d become a full-on scaly superhero that people cheer for instead of run from. For now though he’s a misunderstood menace, and it’s one of my favorite versions of the character.
Shortly after Godzilla wrecks the city (and himself) viewers of the US version are treated to a pretty cool bonus scene where the US Navy teams up with Japan’s self-defense forces to blast the shit out of Godzilla with missiles while he strolls up the beach. It’s a cool action scene that reminds us of what a resilient beast Godzilla is, and it also gives us a taste of Honda’s other favorite theme, the brotherhood of man.
The missiles do actually manage to throw Godzilla off-balance, but being a radioactive rage monster, he survives the assault. Our heroes decide that Mothra is their only real bet for warding off the G-meister and head to Mothra Island to beg for help. The Mothra Island exterior sets are… not great. The script called for a rocky, radioactive hellscape, but the remaining budget called for “worse than ‘Star Trek’ the original series.” Director Honda has even said he regrets not fighting for better sets, but ultimately it’s a slight ding against an otherwise great creature feature. The best/worst part of the set is probably the weird, bobble-head cartoon turtle skeleton we catch a glimpse of:
A few islander scouts apprehend our heroes. The scouts look like scorched, vengeful spirits, covered head to toe in bright red paint and clothes. Once inside the temple, we see that most of the islanders look more like typical 60s-movie tropical natives. They force our heroes to drink some non-descript red goo to dispel their evil, and Sakai gives a goofy little “cheers” gesture before nervously glorping it down. I actually love how the islanders are portrayed in this movie. They’re pissed at our heroes, treating them as representatives of the world at large. The islanders got nuked to fuck and back, received no aid in retrieving their god-monster’s sacred egg, and now the dickheads responsible for both have the gall to come and ask them for help?!
The islanders insist that Japan, and by extension the whole outside world, is being punished for nuclear weapons testing and for keeping Mothra’s egg. “May your land be ruined like ours.” Pretty cold-blooded… but pretty understandable too. Luckily our heroes hear Mothra’s tiny ladies singing in a beautiful nearby oasis, the last green space on the entire island. Unluckily we find out the tiny ladies are just as pissed as the standard-sized islanders and initially refuse to offer any help.
Junko and even the normally cool and collected Sakai give impassioned speeches, telling the tiny, pissed off ladies that refusing to help means abandoning their brethren and guaranteeing that the innocent are punished alongside the guilty. It hits home for the twins and rounds out Honda’s “brotherhood of man” theme nicely. They eventually cave in and convince Mothra to help through the magic of song, because that’s what you do when you have pop stars portraying your mini-princesses.
While journalists and a scientist watch a couple tiny women sing at a giant bug, Kumayama rolls in to Torohata’s place to bitch him out. Torohata’s duplicitous scamming has robbed Kumayama blind, and the Kumster is here to get his goddamn money back. By force if he has to. This naturally erupts into a sloppy, bloody brawl. Monster fights in these movies are usually treated as grand, high-flying spectacles of gleeful chaos and destruction, but the human fights are generally an awkward, sad mess of men flailing and bleeding. I touched on this idea in my Gamera vs Barugon review, but I think these sad mano a mano scuffles may be just as much a choice as they are a result of limited filmmaking resources. You get glamorized theatrics when the monsters do battle, but are sent back to bummer-reality when it’s two petty men squabbling.
After some sad, middle-aged fisticuffs, Torohata happens to spot a full-blown Godzilla headed their way while Kumayama is distracted by the Benjamins. So instead of immediately running for his life like a normal person, Torohata fucking smokes Kumayama with a revolver, grabs armfuls of money, and then tries to run from Godzilla. Torohata gets karmically crushed to death when Godzilla absent-mindedly tramples the building. Narratively it’s a satisfying way to wipe out a worthy villain, and thematically it does a great job of showing that nature doesn’t give a single wet fart about your material wealth. It will kill your ass to death no matter how many bitcoins you’re spending on the dark web.
With the human antagonists dispatched, the movie returns focus to the titular titan going on a terrible tear for the world’s biggest Moons Over My Hammy. Godzilla starts shredding the huge glass incubator housing the egg, with Mothra swooping in just in time to protect it. Mothra is goddamn gigantic in this movie, and looks awesome filling the sky over G-man’s head, it’s a seriously impressive puppet. This is when the movie really kicks into overdrive, and we’re treated to some iconic effects shots as these two beasts engage in an unforgettably bizarre and entertaining rumble.
It’s an incredibly ambitious sequence. A lot of different techniques are used, and not surprisingly some shots work a lot better than others. After a barrage of tail-whips, dino-drags, claws to the head, and nuclear breath blasts, Mothra uses her “oh shit I’m gonna die anyway” move and suicide-bombs Godzilla with golden dust scales from her wings. Godzilla returns the favor by blasting a smoking hole through her wing, forcing the lepidopteran deity into an emergency landing onto her egg.
Mothra croaks protecting her egg, and the military swoops in. Godzilla getting bombed at night looks bitchin’ anyway, but things go full on metal album cover when they napalm him. The suit’s head (accidentally) catches on fire, and yeah, a fiery, screaming Godzilla in the darkness looks like a Dio lyric come to life.
Of course by now Japan’s armed forces have gotten a little bit genre savvy, so they know it’ll take more than conventional weapons to take down the King of the Monsters. They blast his ass with gigantic tesla coils, and then drop steel nets on to him so the tesla coil zaps hurt even more. The couple zillion volts screaming through his body does manage to incapacitate him, which is interesting because in Gojira electricity has no effect on him, and later movies like Godzilla vs the Sea Monster and Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla have him getting powered up by lightning strikes.
So the self-defense forces are really happy that their plan seems to be working, but they push their luck too far when they go full Tim Allen and demand “MORE POWER HORT HORT HORT”. When they crank up the juice they fry their system, killing the tesla coils and giving a freshly pissed off Godzilla the chance to express his discomfort with a thoughtful, well-spoken monologue about his feelings. Just kidding, he goes bonkers and melts one of the electrical towers and roasts every tank in a 5 mile radius.
Luckily, the tiny ladies and the islanders have been singing at the egg the whole time Godzilla and the army were fucking around with each other. Unluckily, Godzilla trampled a seaside town while they were kumbayaing at the egg, and now a bunch of kids are trapped on an island that Godzilla is heading for. But also luckily, the egg received its required song quota and hatched! Double luckily, it hatched twins!
The class of kids stuck on Monster Fight Island feels a little tacked-on, but I’d always rather have the human leads have something to do that puts them right in the middle of the monster action. It makes things more exciting, and it makes the story feel more cohesive. It keeps the people and monsters as co-stars, instead of plot devices.
The final battle between Godzilla and the Mothra larva is just as strange and exciting as the earlier fight with their ma’, but it’s a little funnier too. The larvae are of course wildly out-matched by Godzilla, but they use their speed and their (relatively) weird little bodies to their advantage, slithering in and out of safe caves and alcoves to dodge Godzilla’s nuclear hellfire. Mothra, always the embodiment of peace whether she takes the form of a colorful butterfly or a big brown crawling dildo, decides to wrap Godzilla up in silk. It’s super clever, fun to watch, and fits perfectly with the rest of the story.
Godzilla naturally gets more and more enraged, and the Mothras stay zen as fuck, using his spazzy fury to their advantage. Godzilla manages to whack the bejeezus out of them with his tail, at one point whipping one of the Mothras around like a lunatic after it chomps onto the end of his tail. The Mothras eventually manage to troll him with spooge until he ragequits. Bested by cooler heads, a jizz-mummified Godzilla tumbles into the ocean to leave Japan alone… for now.
Other than the genre-defining Gojira, this really is the Godzilla movie. So many classic tropes and story beats originate from this movie and get reused throughout the series and all across the giant monster movie filmscape. If you only ever watch one Godzilla movie, I think this might be your best choice. It has everything: a mean, city-smashing Godzilla doing battle with the military and multiple monsters, cool human protagonists and slimy villains, terrific model, puppet and suit-work, a classically bombastic monster score, and a (much subtler than usual) message. Not only that, but it masterfully intertwines Mothra and her entire mythos into a Godzilla movie (or Godzilla’s mythos into a Mothra movie, considering she has top-billing), making this by far one of the best cross-over movies ever. It was also a huge step in establishing Toho’s shared monster film universe, which they would deliver on almost immediately with Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster. 11 out of 10, A++, a billion stars.