2020 still sucks boiling hot dogshit through a straw made out of electrified razor blades and barbed wire, so let’s ignore it for a little while longer and finish off our deep dive into 1996’s delightfully doofy Rebirth of Mothra! If you missed part 1 of the review you can rub your eyeballs all over it here.
There is SO MUCH more monster moth mayhem to unpack and I can’t wait. I will say this before we pick up the recap where we left off (Desghidorah’s grand entrance): I think this is one of my favorite Heisei-era Toho monster flicks. This movie is way the fuck more solid than it gets credit for. It doesn’t have the earnest sci-fi seriousness of Return of Godzilla, it doesn’t have the astonishingly good practical effects of Godzilla vs. Biollante, and it’s not hilariously, mind-bendingly weird like Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, but it’s got it’s own, different set of goals and nails ’em! More on that and a whole bunch more after the jump!
SO everybody dun goof’d and let Belvera bust Desghidorah out of magic mountain jail:
Desghidorah, in addition to looking awesome, is now sucking the life-force out of the surrounding forest. He’s a genocidal space demon, whaddya expect?! The kids wisely run their asses off, scrambling their way through a burning, chaotic hellscape. There’s NO musical accompaniment for that sequence, which struck me as super strange! A little music could have punctuated how brave the kids are being, or how scary their situation is, or both! Maybe the lack of music was meant to make it more intense or more real? The kiddos find the parents before too long, and Lora, Moll and Fairy Mothra rendezvous with the scared-but-okay Goto family.
The Elias throw Wakaba the seal and discuss whether or not they should call in Mothra. Lora is worried that Mothra is too old and too weak from recently laying her egg. We also get a little world-building here–apparently way back when there were loads of Mothras, but the (non-Fairy) one here is the last surviving member of her species. But the Elias remember they also need to help the Gotos escape a fiery death. I’m mostly going into this much detail about this scene because there’s a great gag with the parents. At the end of all this exposition and stakes-raising, the Elias fly off, leading their human friends to safety. Check out Dad though:
Lora and Moll keep arguing about whether it’s right to call in Mothra when she’s so likely to lose this deathmatch. “What do you think Mothra would do?” gets asked, which of course makes me want a “WWMD?” bracelet… except I don’t know if anyone would get the “WWJD?” joke… and also it could possibly look like I am in favor of weapons of mass destruction what with “WMD” being included in the abbreviation.
ANYWAY Lora and Moll (whom I keep wanting to call “Molar and Lol” 🤣) know that Mothra would do anything it takes to keep people safe, personal consequences be damned, so they finally pull the trigger and call their boss… THROUGH THE MAJESTY OF SONG! As stated in part 1 of the review, this version of the classic Mothra theme totally slaps in a sexy 90’s R&B kind of way. Which rules! The song sequence has some deliciously 90s visuals too:
Of course we also get some great, moody shots of Mothra rising and rushing to the scene.
It’s a little weird that Mothra makes it to their location so quickly, so the filmmakers sort of cover the oddness of insta-Mothra by throwing in a quick scene of Taiki and Wakaba getting frazzled and fussy. That helps pacing-wise, but also… Mothra’s magic, she can get where she needs to be through ways we don’t have to fully comprehend.
But enough fiddle-faddle, MOTHERFUCKING MOTHRA IS HERE ASSHOLES AND SHE’S COMIN’ OUT BLASTIN‘!!
BA-BLAM! KABLAM! KERBLAMMERS! It’s an exciting kick-off to the fight and a bad-ass entrance for Mothra. Naturally this is another (at least partly) aerial battle, but on a much grander scale than the adorable mini-dogfight from Act I. We get a little bit of physicality with the occasional charge or tackle or Mothra dusting Dessy with her poisonous scales, but for the most part this is another infamous Heisei-era “beamwar” or “beamspam” fight. If the last half of that sentence was gibberish, “Heisei-era” is referring to the run of Toho special effects films from 1984-1995 (during the reign of Japan’s Emperor Akihito starting in ’84, but ending with the conclusion of that run of Godzilla flicks in ’95) and then “beamwar” and “beamspam” are fan community terms for the HEAVY emphasis on laser-blasting in these movies.
Special effects director Kawakita’s lust for lasers isn’t the only reason why our kaiju kombatants prefer to zap each other from afar. A quadrupedal dragon and a big-ass moth can’t really get into knock-down, drag-out fistfights or perform high-flying pro wrestling/kung-fu maneuvers on each other. Plus beams are flashy and fun to look at! … for the most part. For my money there absolutely is a saturation point for beamery. It’s just not as viscerally kinetic and thrilling as tooth-and-claw, close-quarters combat. Beamsmanship can get boring if it’s not paced well and if the monster performers don’t adequately sell their reactions to the beam blasts. Rebirth comes right up to that saturation point, but stays just smart and creative enough to stay on the right side of that line. Instead of relying on recycling the same couple beams over and over again, Rebirth continuously pulls out new, insane attacks and powers. The sheer variety of beams and projectiles is of course beamspammy in its own way, but Rebirth manages to stay fun to look at without just devolving into pure visual noise:
That crazy-ass, split-the-earth-in-twain pyrokinetic laser lightshow is even more bonkers in motion than it is in stills! We see Rebirth’s solid opticals assisted by the incredible pyro effects which in turn are juiced up with some great physical particle/dirt/rock effects. It all comes together to absolutely sell the shit out of one SINGLE, utterly spectacular attack from Desghidorah. According to various fan-sites this thing has either one of two fittingly over-the-top, bad-ass names: Fiery Prye Road or Strong Violent Advancing Thunder Quake.
One last thought on Heisei-era beamery, specifically regarding the Rebirth of Mothra series. I totally get why this decision was made. It’s a monster-fight movie and Mothra’s the star, so they had to come up with some way for the elegant, insectoid Mothra to hold her own in a straight-up fight with a big-ass dragon. Making her shoot different types of laser beams out of every orifice and appendage is certainly one way to do that. If your goal with Mothra is to make her kick ass, I definitely prefer the way Godzilla: King of the Monsters did it–by playing up and enhancing her already bug-like features, specifically by giving her a stinger and giving her big stabby mantis legs. Especially since both of those features can be tucked way until they’re needed, allowing her to switch between a nurturing and maternal mode and a Mama Bear whup-yer-ass mode.
Having a Mothra that can toggle between caregiver and throat-cutter is super entertaining and a satisfying encapsulation of the beauty/brutality duality of nature, but there’s even a third option that I would love to see some day: A Mothra who wins without fighting. I don’t necessarily know if/how you could pull that off. It would likely have to be a very different kind of movie with very different obstacles for Mothra to overcome (even the very first Mothra has her winning the day through overwhelming might). A Mothra who wins by healing those that are broken, guiding those that are lost, protecting those in danger. I think something like that would really be true to the heart of Mothra as a character and feel really fresh and unique. Those themes pop up in Rebirth, but they serve the monster fights, not vice versa. Speaking of monster fights!…
Desghidorah gets the upper… mouth… and slams Mothra to the ground. Somebody has to stop Desghidorah, but Mothra’s been over-powered and out-monstered! What can anyone even do? HOW ABOUT MOTHRA LEO CLOCKS IN A LIL FUCKIN’ EARLY?!
Molar and Lol sense Leo’s dangerously early hatching (another monster baby premie like Minya!), but also know they have a job to do vis a vis heralding Mothras–time to sing this bad-ass baby into battle! Leo’s “come here and help us fight this murder monster!” song isn’t as fucking banging as Big Mothra’s, but its solid and fits the character. It’s also accompanied with some delightfully 90s choreography and imagery:
LARVAL 💩 MOTHRAS 💩 ARE 💩 GREAT. Do they look like big logs of poop? Oh yeah. Do they still manage to somehow be adorable? ALSO YEAH. Can they no shit hold their own in fights against some of the biggest, baddest assholes in all of monsterdom? SOMEHOW YES THESE GUYS FUCKING RULE
Leo, just minutes old, hears the call of Lora and Moll and squirms as fast as he can into the fray. His crawling movements look really good and lifelike, while his swimming motions are… less realistic, but an iconic throwback to earlier Mothra appearances.
With Mothra Leo reinforcements (Leoinforcements?) on the way, we cut back to Desghidorah running fucking roughshod over Big Mothra, the Goto family, the forest, nature in a sort of broad cosmic sense, common decency, LIKE HALF OF MY FAVORITE TACO BELL ITEMS FUCK YOU 2020—
Mothra has to retreat, Belvera steals the seal, Mothra steals it back with like… antenna laser-whips???
Mothra gives the seal to Taiki. Taiki tries to use it to heal Mothra, but it doesn’t work… until he and Wakaba do it together!
Speaking of family members coming together to beat insurmountable odds, Mothra Leo’s here now!
I know I complained about the beamspammy 90s Toho movies not having the tactile thrills of tooth-and-claw combat, but I think it actually works for the Rebirth movies. They’re big beautiful bugs in a sparkling, flashy kid’s fantasy flick! It at least feels appropriate and stays varied and pretty enough to continuously be dazzling. It’s a terrific opening salvo for Leo, but unfortunately electric rainbow laser silk will only get you so far:
Aaaaand it gets worse:
Thanks to the juice-up from Wakaba and Taiki, Big Mothra is able to swoop back in and help her kid. With Leo free from Dessy’s chompers, we are treated to maybe the most gratuitous beam yet. Friends, I give you Larva Leo’s Inexplicable Titty Laser:
The fight continues with lasers blasting and beams flying. The Mothras handily outmaneuver (pre-flight) Desghidorah, but Dessy keeps things tense thanks to his three heads that can quickly whip around and blow the shit out of multiple targets. It’s a real technical showcase (though there are a couple shots with visible strings, sadly) and a hoot in general. Big Mothra lands on Dessy and lets out a big gnarly pulse of energy, frying the big ol’ bitch. Leo goes straight up Predator with a cloaking ability he pulled out of his ass! Everyone has lots and lots of powers. Wakaba and Taiki urge Mothra to retreat… and she heeds their advice?!
The Goto clan finally manages to regroup, and the monster mash moves to a nearby dam. Surely nothing untoward will happen to this vital piece of infrastructure… 😈
Water crashes through the valley, effectively ending the battle. Desghidorah is washed away and Big Mothra is able to airlift bb Leo to safety. Obviously this was a bigger, more spectacular battle than the household dogfight in act I… but I still find that to be the more exciting action setpiece. The Mothra/Dessy 3-way is bigger, flashier, and more important to the story in almost every conceivable way… but it’s two characters zipping around and taking potshots at one almost completely stationary opponent in a big open space. Dessy can whip his heads (and even whole body) around to target our heroes, but he’s still not agile enough to keep up with…. a big dookie worm. The micro aerial battle from earlier is part fight, part chase with opponents that are very closely matched in both firepower and maneuverability. PLUS they had said fight/race in an interesting environment full of obstacles!
So Mothra and Leo get away! Safe and sound? They’re both totally fine and okay? Forever?
Yep, looks good! We know Mothra larva can swim, so we’re all set! Smooth sailing from here–
Mothra knows her time is up. Leo knows it too. They share one last buggy embrace out in the ocean. Leo cries out, he tries to help her back up into the air, but it’s too late. Mothra was old, the fight with Desghidorah took too much from her, and getting Leo to safety took whatever she had left. The Elias watch helplessly as Mothra slips away, pulled beneath the waves.
The music swells and turns angelic as Mothra gracefully drifts down to her final resting place. Spicy take–it is almost as moving as Godzilla’s death in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah… especially because Mothra is a creature of pure, selfless, nurturing goodness. She’s like the Mr. Rogers of big destructo-monsters. YES I GOT PRETTY MISTY WATCHING A BUG PUPPET MOURN THE SLOW AND PEACEFUL DEATH OF ANOTHER BUG PUPPET YOU WANNA FIGHT ABOUT IT
With Mothra pulled into the darkest depths of the sea, Mothra Leo bravely soldiers on. HE’S GOT NO FUCKING CHOICE! The Elias meet back up with the Goto family and explain that Leo is headed to a top secret, magical place to transform into his adult form. The Elias tell Wakaba and Taika to protect the seal at all costs, and the two families part ways for now. The Gotos hobble to the closest, fucking packed hospital to get their myriad scrapes, burns, and bruises treated. The hospital is overwhelmed with people that have suffered one side effect or another of Dessy’s rampage, so the Gotos settle in for a little TV to take their minds off the horror of the space-demon’s ongoing assault.
Dessy can fly now. Also vegetation is dying… pretty much everywhere he goes. And big billowing blankets of smog follow in his wake. Just, fucking great, man. If 2020 was a kaiju…
One thing I love about Rebirth is that it knows when we need a breather. We’ve had exposition, we’ve had some crazy monster battles, we’ve had the heartbreaking death of a genre icon–it’s time to give us a small, quiet, real moment with our human heroes. Dessy’s smog has started to roll into this jam-packed hospital, and plants are already starting to whither and die. Staying calm and finding some small way to help, Wakaba and Taika use some aquarium water to nourish the dying flora. I don’t know that fish-piss water would help keep plants from asphyxiating, but it’s 100% the kind of thing well-meaning kiddos would think to do, making this mini-moment even more genuine and endearing.
Speaking of good pacing and making moments feel like they have weight, we see Leo’s journey to his sacred, secret transformation place!
Our boy Leo makes it to Yaku (sic?) Island, a nature preserve home to trees over 7,000 years old. Sounds like a perfect place for a nature spirit to rest, grow, and rise anew! Leo finds his spot, starts cocooning up, and the Elias help him along through the power of song. Like most things in this movie, this sequence is buckwild and its aesthetics border on vaporwave-adjacent. BEHOLD
LEO! HE’S SO BEAUTIFUL NOW! This transformation sequence is wonderfully, perfectly nuts. I know I goofed on this movie’s CGI earlier, but holy shit it’s a perfect fit here. The cocoon jizzing out a trillion spectral, rainbow mini-Mothras that flutter around before congealing into Leo 2.0 is so choice. We already saw him mundanely hatch out of a thing when he was a worm, so it’s super smart to make his second birth something much more ethereal and mystical.
MAN this movie hits me a LOT differently now than it ever did before. This shit all works, I’m IN and FEELING these feelings. Awe, wonder, sympathy, the whole deal. Our big beautiful boy got his turbo-charged glow up and TV news outlets are… reporting on that somehow!?
Rebirth once again does a great job of giving moments like this the right amount of heft and gravitas. How? By following this reveal with a whole stack of Spielberg-style “OH SHIT” reaction shots!
I guess the news is probably reporting on Leo entering Japanese airspace, not his actual emergence on Yuka Island. I say that because this dramatic reveal is followed by some hilariously obvious product placement for JAS airline:
The JAS commercial is followed by some dorky mini-exposition from the Elias and Belvera about how Leo is faster and stronger than Big Mothra. I get that they want to explain how Leo can get back to fighting Desghidorah so quickly AND explain that he can do it solo AND drive home that he’s the exciting new mon-star, but they probably could have done that WITHOUT BESMIRCHING THE MEMORY OF THE RECENTLY AND DEARLY DEPARTED. YOU HEARTLESS MONSTERS. YOU FUCKING BARBARIANS
With Leo on his way to kick some Desghidorass, Taiki and Wakaba flip their shit and bolt out of the hospital hoping to cheer on the lepidopteran legend. When Neo Leo gets line of sight on Dessy, we are treated to a drawn-out orgy of completely fucking insane laser beams and ray blasts and energy bolts and fire zaps. But also some aerial sumo!!
At one point Leo re-splits into millions of mini-moths…
…THEN BLOWS THAT BITCH THE FUCK UUUUUPP
Wing lightning! Crazy vertical traveling beams! Forehead prism blaster! The optical artists either loved working on this movie or fucking hated it!
Plus we get another MAJOR air joust!
It rules! Caught up in all this mayhem, Garu-garu gets FUCKED UP, leaving that lil stinker Belvera in dire straits.
Belvy is more or less responsible for this whole shit show, and yet… the Elias still have enough mercy in their hearts to pluck her up out of the crossfire and into safety.
Desghidorah gets desperate and starts flailing around, taking wild potshots at Leo, but baby, it’s already fucking over. Why? Because Leo’s finally worked up the chutzpah to pull off this. Bonkers-ass. Move:
THAT’S A SERIES WRAP ON DESGHIDORAH FOLKS LET’S GIVE ‘IM A HAND ACTUALLY DON’T HE WAS A HUGE KNOBJOB FUCK THAT GUY
The gifs are glorious, but here are some stills too, because Jesus fuckin’ Christ what just happened?
Yes. YES. YEEEAAAAAUUUUSSS!!! Eat shit forever
kaiju I am projecting my 2020 anxiety, rage, deep depression, and terror onto Desghidorah! Leo softened him up so Wakaba and Taiki could throw the seal to the Elias, who used it to truly and finally put Desghidorah back into The Phantom Zone or whatever the fuck. Mom and Dad Goto catch up with their kids, and Belvera peaces the fuck out.
Taiki tries to run down Belvera for a sec, but the Elias stop him. They reveal that yeah, she’s kind of a asswagon, but she’s their older sister and they still love her. Forgiveness is a goddamn superpower, friends. With the imminent threat locked up for good, that’s pretty much it, right? Desghidorah’s damage has been done, but now the world is safe to heal itself. It’ll take time, but if kids like Taiki and Wakaba remember that we’re all on this big organic spaceship together, maybe they can save the world when they grow up. Leo gives the kiddos a ride as a thank you for helping, you know, save the planet.
Mom and dad wax philosophical about the mess of a planet they’re leaving behind for their kids and grandkids to fix.
It’s a heavy but honest note to end a kid’s movie oooohhh SHIT LEO JUST MAGICALLY FIXED THE WHOLE FOREST
FUCK YEAH YEEEAAAUSSS!!! Is it kind of a copout that undercuts the message of the movie? Maybe! But I don’t think it totally kills the message. In the magical world of Rebirth of Mothra there’s a godmoth that can instantaneously heal an ailing biome, but only the littlest kids wouldn’t understand that we don’t have that awesome ally here in Shit World. It makes sense to end a kid’s movie on a hopeful, upbeat note, and to be totally, maybe even embarrassingly frank, I really fucking needed that right now.
So that’s it! That’s Rebirth of Mothra! It’s a silly little confection of a kid’s movie… that is also super well crafted, consistently gorgeous, and endlessly charming. It’s not exactly a classic that’ll stick with you forever, but it’s consistent, it’s solid, and except for some occasional visual effects flubs, it never shits the bed in any meaningful way.
Sooooo this is one of those Toho monster movies that has a rep with the hardcore fans. OR MAYBE I’M THINKING OF REBIRTH OF MOTHRA II? I went into this review thinking “hoo boy, these Rebirth movies are a slog to get through,” and then was surprised and delighted to have a blast watching this thing again for the first time in years. And I distinctly remember the fan community dumping on these back in the day… but recently the general consensus seems to be that Rebirth 1 and 3 are just dandy while II is the big steamy turd in the proverbial bowl of Froot Loops. Which jives with my (admittedly extremely foggy) memories of Rebirth II being challenging to get through.
But you know what? I’ll give ’em both a second chance!… eventually. I love that this movie is anchored by a nice big spectrum of women characters: sassy little Wakaba, motherly and sensible Makiko, courageous Lora and Moll, deliciously villainous Belvera, and of course, the godlike and mystical Big Mothra.
I think it would have been cool if Leo was female: it would be awesome to have one more powerful, beautiful, bad-ass female monster in the kaiju landscape (and in this movie)… but I also find Leo’s maleness interesting in a slightly subversive way. Mothra is the most famous female kaiju, and she has a ton of attributes that are traditionally considered feminine: beauty and color, nurturing and mothering. So it’s pretty rad to have a male kaiju with those same, supposedly feminine traits!
I was a little confused initially because the dub I watched sometimes refers to Leo with she/her pronouns, but after a little more research I found that Leo’s feathery antennae specifically denote he’s male, while Big Mothra’s and Fairy Mothra’s narrow, stumpy antennae denote them as female–just like real-life moths! Leo’s a big beautiful baby boy, gang!
We got two more Rebirth movies after this one, so it was at least a minor box office success in Japan. And no matter how good or bad the Rebirth films turned out, it was extremely unlikely that Mothra’s status as an absolute genre ICON would change. And it hasn’t! She’s popped up in plenty of Godzilla movies since, including her triumphant Hollywood debut in King of the Monsters last year. All that said, I gotta pour one out for Mothra Leo.
He starred in all 3 Rebirth movies… and then quickly faded into obscurity. He’s not completely forgotten, having made small appearances in video games and uh action-figure based mini TV shows, but he’s never helmed a feature film again. It would be wonderful to see his fuzzy face on the big screen again (assuming we eventually get to live in a world where movie theaters open back up…), but I absolutely get why that probably won’t ever happen. After headlining a whole-ass trilogy, I’d say he’s more than earned an early retirement. See you on the other side, Leo.