Friday, January 15, 2010
Running time: 101 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Kaiju monster movies first rumbled across the cinematic landscape (or crawled from the depths) in 1954 with the first appearance of Godzilla in Ishiro Honda's modern science fiction masterpiece "Gojira". Because of everything that has come after it it's a surprise for a lot of viewers seeing "Gojira" for the first time just how dark and tragic it is. It realy is an allegory for the horror that Japan endured during the Second World War and includes footage in its post-Godzilla rampage scenes that you'd think might have been shot at ground zero Hiroshima the morning after they dropped the atomic bomb. Very strong stuff considering when it was made, but it also considering when it was made, 1954, there was no big budget, no sophisticated special effects, and certainly no CGI. You have a guy in a rubber dinosaur suit trampling toy cars, trains and miniatures of Tokyo. Looking past the technological limitations of post-war Japanese filmmaking is probably the best strategy for contemporary viewers of "Gojira" but it's hard for a lot of folks to do that, especially seeing that so many of the subsequent kaiju films produced by Toho, many of which were directed by Ishiro Honda, got more ambitious while their special effects were limited to men in rubber suits. Now if someone hears "Japanese monster movie" they think B-movie, camp, and tons of fun. Besides the B-Movie aspect (kaiju movies were never produced by Toho as B-movies, in fact they helped save the studio during rough financial times) these films were campy and a ton of fun and I can't think of a better example of the aesthetic than another Honda classic, 1961's "Mothra".
Here's the story - A Japanese naval vessel is caught up in a storm off the cost of Infant Island, the site of nuclear testing by Rolisica (a fictional nation standing in for the United States). The ship runs aground on its shores much to the dismay of the crew and their compatriots in Japan, but instead of being fried by the lethal levels of radiation the rescue team sent to Infant Island discovers survivors, perfectly healthy ones at that. What happened? The survivors of the shipwreck tell of how the natives on the island gave them a red juice which must have protected them from the radiation. Hold on! Natives? On an island used for nuclear testing? The mystery of the film is established and soon a crew of scientists both Japanese and Rolisican are heading to Infant Island to figure out who might be calling this infernal island home. In tow is Zen, a.k.a "Bulldog", a reporter who once he sinks his teeth into a story just never lets go. Once on Infant Island they discover the opposite of what they thought would be there. The interior of the island is lush jungle filled with exotic plant species. Not only that but very quickly the expedition leaders, Dr. Harada and linguist Koizumi discover another unexpected wonder - two miniature women only a foot tall each who instead of communicating with language communicate via bell-like tones and telepathy. It's the find of the century and one that their fellow Rolisican scientist Clark Nelson takes immediate advantage of. Defying the orders of Harada and Koizumi (and possibly following orders from Rolisica) Nelson kidnaps these two little women and takes them back to his country where he makes them the centerpiece of an elaborate all singing, all dancing stage production. The only thing is their haunting plaintive song they sing for the amazed audiences isn't written for the show, it's in fact a distress call to the god of Infant Island, you guessed it, Mothra. As the giant caterpillar who will end up transforming into the mighty Mothra makes his way to Rolisica everyone scrambles to convince Nelson that his entire country is in grave danger... but will they convince him in time?
Now if you read that synopsis and think, "That's one part 'Gojira' and one part 'King Kong'!" you'd be right. "Mothra" definitely has the feel of being the cinematic offspring of these two classic monster movies, but don't judge too quickly. The film is in fact based on a serialized science fiction/ fantasy novel by author Takehiko Fukunaga, an icon of popular pulp science fiction in Japan along the lines of a Ray Bradbury or an H.P. Lovecraft. It's not just "Mothra's" source material that makes it pure pulp though. Watching the film is like being given a primer on pop culture in Japan circa 1961. First off the defacto lead in the film, Zen, is played by famed Japanese comedian Frankie Sakai, star of over 120 films and eventual co-star of Toshiro Mifune in the 1980 NBC mini-series "Shogun". Every time he's on screen he steals the show, but not by chewing the scenery. Sakai is honestly funny, possessing great comic timing while never overshadowing the mystery around Mothra that Honda and screenwriters Shinichi Sekizawa and Shinichiro Nakamura build up. In fact the scenery chewing goes the the film's villain. No, not Mothra. The giant moth who, like the Japanese ship sent to Infant Island, is on its own virtuous rescue mission, but Clark Nelson played with maniacal relish by half-Japanese actor/ singer/ celebrity Jerry Ito. Ito was fluent in Japanese, but the stilted American accent he uses for Nelson is hilarious to listen to. The real component that makes "Mothra" literally pop with pop culture though are twin sisters Emi and Yumi Ito (no relation to Jerry) who star as the two miniature natives at the heart of the whole drama. The sisters from Aichi Prefecture had multiple hits on the Japanese charts between 1959 and 1975 as the singing duo The Peanuts. Do a sweep of YouTube with the katakana version of their name, ザ・ピーナッツ, to hear some really fun early 60's pop tunes.
Of course the key to "Mothra" isn't just the casting of these pop culture icons. Despite its hybrid Godzilla/ King Kong feel Honda actually crafts a pretty compelling mystery that of course leads up to Mothra going on the prescribed kaiju spree of destruction, but on the way you have everything from song and dance numbers to comic set pieces and some pretty inspired visuals. The image of pupae Mothra swimming through the ocean waves while the two tiny sisters float through the night shy in a gilded miniature carriage is worthy of a Salvidor Dali and Luis Bunuel co-production from the 1920's. Like those folks who watch "Gojira" for the first time and are surprised by how grim it gets I found myself surprised at just how entertaining (and campy, and colourful) this entry into the kaiju genre was. "Mothra" isn't high art by any stretch. Think of the 60's equivalent of a Roland Emmerich film - fun, absorbing (at least while you are watching it) and with just the right amount of melodrama and cheese. If that's what you're in the mood for on a movie night at home then seek out "Mothra".