Thursday, March 13, 2014

GodzillaMania #5: Mothra vs. Godzilla

Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Grade: 82/A-

King Kong vs. Godzilla may have been a silly film, but it was a tremendous financial success, making ¥350 million in Japan (on a budget of ¥5 million) and over $1 million in America. Toho decided to make another film featuring Godzilla fighting a giant monster, but this time chose one of its own creations: Mothra, who had her own successful film in 1961. More importantly, however, it allowed director Ishirō Honda and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa a chance to expand on the environmentally conscious themes of both Mothra and the original Godzilla, giving the first Godzilla sequel with real thematic heft.

When a typhoon unearths a giant egg, scientists come to study it, only to be shooed away after it’s purchased by entrepreneur Kumayama (Yoshifumi Tajima) of Happy Enterprises. Kumayama and his boss, Torahata (Kenji Sahara) plan on using the egg and its contents as a centerpiece for a new eastern amusement park, much to the dismay of Professor Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi) and reporters Sakai and Nakanishi (Akira Takarada and Yuriko Hoshi). The three encounter the Shobijin (twin pop singer sisters Emi and Yumu Ito, aka The Peanuts), the tiny guardians of Mothra, who have come to bring her egg back to Infant Island. Kumayama and Torahata refuse to return the egg, and the Shobijin return to their island, but humanity soon must ask for Mothra’s help when Godzilla returns.

The billing of Mothra vs. Godzilla is indicative of how Godzilla was viewed at this point: as with King Kong vs. Godzilla, the king of the monsters is still the villain (though he wouldn’t be for much longer). But Mothra vs. Godzilla has a better idea of how to communicate this, and Godzilla’s menacing look is restored following his sillier design in the previous film. Gone is the longer snout and bulkier look, replaced by a shorter/meaner face, a leaner look, and evil-looking yellow eyes. The new designs are more effective when Honda frames Godzilla as death incarnate, each military attack more futile than the last (though the effect of seeing them use electric towers against Godzilla is pretty cool).

By contrast, Mothra is viewed in an almost heavenly light, an object of great beauty and wonder. It helps that Honda’s working with decent color film, as opposed to the icky looking King Kong vs. Godzilla, which lends itself to the warmer tones of Mothra’s designs and his environment. Infant Island is partially destroyed by nuclear tests, but the area around Mothra is brimming with life, turning the final battle to a fight between nature and destructive forces. As Shobijin, the Peanuts even get a chance to give Mothra a heavenly song along with the battle chant made famous by the original Mothra film. Bonus: the depiction of natives on Infant Island is infinitely less racist than the ones in King Kong vs. Godzilla, giving the natives legitimate beef with the rest of humanity over nuclear testing and its destructive wake.

That’s not the only slap against man’s inhumanity here. Kumayama and Torahata are pretty nasty characters, approaching everything around them with questions of how much money it can make them and what they can possess. When the Shobijin approach them with a plea to return the egg, they first try to capture them, and then, when Professor Miura and the reporters try to help, ask how much Miura and co. are willing to sell the tiny women for. Kumayama even stiffs the local fishermen who turned the egg over to them on their payment, while Torahata screws Kumayama out of his share of Mothra’s egg. The two of them hardly even need Godzilla to spell their doom: after a surprisingly bloody fight, Torahata shoots Kumayama (Honda and co. go a bit heavy handed by having one die under a pile of money) before Godzilla destroys their building.

The connection between the greedy human villains and Godzilla himself perhaps isn’t strong as it could be, but he’s still a potent symbol for nuclear destruction, a new threat to Mothra’s egg (i.e., the future of nature) following the H-bomb tests’ destructive effect on the earthly creature’s home.  Mothra and her larvae are mother nature embodied, capable of destruction withount intent, and with the ability to protect. There’s a real weight to Mothra’s death, as well as the battle over her lineage. Her continuance means the continuance of a healthy world.

All this is to say that the battle has a potent metaphor beyond Kong vs. Godzilla’s meta commentary, one regarding nature vs. man-made horror. It’s also a better fight, giving Honda and effects director Eiji Tsuburaya a chance to get more imaginative than the previous film’s giant wrestling battles. Mothra vs. Godzilla has a centerpiece of Mothra lifting the king of the monsters before being hit by his radioactive breath, while the fight between Godzilla and the Mothra larvae has a memorably goofy bit of Godzilla wigging out after one of the larvae bites Godzilla’s tail. Perhaps the battle against Godzilla is a bit too easily won, and the film still has a handful of silly lines (“Just a moment! I am a doctor of science!”). But Mothra vs. Godzilla is the best-made and most interesting Godzilla film since the original, precisely because it’s the first sequel that tries to be more than just a monster movie.  

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