Queen of the Monsters Part I: Mothra’s Journey Through the Showa Era

A Retrospective Covering Mothra (1961), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964), & Ebirah, Horror of the Deep/Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966)

Long time no see, ladies & gents. Last time we saw each other, I stepped out of my comfort zone a little bit, (writing-wise anyway) & dared to dream up a plot treatment that crashed the worlds of Tremors & Jurassic Park together. As it so happens, right as that went up, the real world went a little bit crazy, & even though it really hasn’t entirely let up in the ensuing months since March, the Fictosphere’s monthly theme for June inspired me to come out of hiatus, finally. And what theme might that be you ask? The nifty play on words that is “KaiJune” might give you all a clue. No? Well, let me help out on a few basics.

“KaiJune” is intended to reference the term “Kaijū” (ky-jew), which is the Japanese word meaning “monster” or “strange beast”. The variant “Daikaijū” (die-ky-jew) means “giant monster”. Now, just as the term “Anime” (annie-may) is applied to animation originating in Japan here in the West, so to is “Kaijū” to any giant monster film from said country, with the iconic Godzilla being the most noteworthy & famous example, all films of this type being called “Kaijū Eiga” (ky-jew-e-gah), or the “Monster Movie”. However, it should be noted that, while these terms are applied a very specific cultural identity for Western viewers, cartoons like Bugs Bunny are also considered “Anime”, & vampires like Dracula are also considered “Kaijū”, if the terms are used in the purest sense of the word.  Also important to know before we dive into our particular subject of interest today, are the Eras or time periods that films of this genre fall into. Historically speaking, these eras correspond to who was the ruling Japanese emperor at the time, but when used to categorize films or television shows made under these rules, the specifics can vary.

Showa (show-ah): History-wise, this era describes any point in time from 1926 to 1989. When it concerns films though, particularly Kaijū, we’d be talking about any film made between 1954 (when the original “Gojira”; go-jeer-ah, or “Godzilla” debuted) & 1975, when Godzilla’s parent company, Toho (tow-ho) Studios, ended this particular era, though films & shows made outside & inside of the Kaijū genre could still be considered Showa films, depending on their individual discretion.

Heisei (high-say): History-wise, this era describes any point in time from 1989 to 2019. When it concerns Kaijū films though, we’d be talking about any film made from 1984 (when Godzilla’s second era of films began) up to 1999. Other films & shows outside of the Toho & Godzilla franchises, collectively part of the Tokusatsu (toe-ku-sat-sue), or “special effects” genre, could be made in years after this point, & still be Heisei, again depending on individual discretion. The Return of Godzilla (1984), a direct sequel to the original 1954 film, was the only Heisei film released theatrically in the U.S. (as Godzilla 1985) & featuring additional scenes with Raymond Burr, also like the original film. The remaining six would be released as Japanese theatrical & American home video exclusives.

Millennium: Concerning Godzilla, this particular era’s entire existence is due to the poor financial & critical reception of America’s first adaptation of the property, Godzilla (1998). Not wanting the character & brand to be permanently represented by this ill-conceived & received iteration, Toho made six additional films in Japan, all technically being made during the historical Heisei period, but were specifically dubbed “Millennium” films, having been made after the turn of the 21st Century, & all but two having some kind of anthology or disconnected nature, each giving their own spin on being direct sequels to the original 1954 film. The first of these, Godzilla 2000 (1999) was the only film of this era to see a U.S. theatrical release, with the remaining five being Japanese theatrical & American home video exclusives.

 The poster for the American release of Mothra decided to market her in the usual rampaging insect style; Copyright, Columbia Pictures, 1962

With that foundation of basic terminology out of the way, & starting with the Showa Era, we’re now going to track the arcs, or character journeys, of Toho & Japan’s second most famous giant monster, the immaculately divine giant moth, Mothra, or Mosura (mow-sue-rah), as she is known in her native Japan. If Godzilla is the “King of the Monsters”, then Mothra follows suit as the “Queen”. Unlike many of her American-made giant bug counterparts, like say the ants in Them! (1954), Mothra isn’t some vicious radioactive spawn or prehistoric relic released from suspended animation, but is instead a benevolent, mystic deity or goddess. In fact, the only time Mothra displays any kind of aggression or destructive tendencies towards human beings is when her two tiny, twin fairy priestesses, the Shobijin (show-be-jin, Japanese for “tiny beauties”), are being threatened. All these elements tend to make Mothra something of a head-scratcher to general audiences in the West, but whether she is misunderstood or beloved, she remains unique all the same.

These days, Mothra tends to be synonymous & inseparable from the Godzilla series, but she actually started out with her own solo film in 1961, & along with King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), the two films ushered in what would become the classic standard for films of this type for years to come. Both Mothra & KK vs. G tackle, in critical & satirical senses, the natures of commercialism & advertising, both ethically & morally, the latter film being a bit more comedic in its approach, but nevertheless still obvious. By showing how individuals & corporations with greed-based interests try to exploit these two gods (who are essentially giant animals) either in exploiting those who can tame them (the twin fairies) or the creatures themselves directly (Kong being this latter case), the duo of films have more to say underneath the obvious suit & miniature-based spectacle.

Carl Nelson (Jerry Ito) poses with the Shobijin (Emi & Yumi Ito), note that the Itos have no relation; Copyright, Toho Co., 1961

In Mothra, following a nasty typhoon, shipwrecked survivors find themselves on Infant Island, & upon rescue, puzzle Japanese authorities thanks to their unscathed condition. Their confusion is based in the assumption that the island (located in a zone heavily affected by atomic testing done by Rolisica; row-lee-see-ka; a fictional country sharing traits of both America & Russia) should be deadly to anyone who finds themselves on it, yet the survivors prove otherwise, claiming that a juice provided by natives kept them from experiencing any ill effects from radioactivity. To investigate, a joint expedition between Japan & Rolisica arrives in protective gear & finds that some of the life on the island has been mutated, including bizarre molds & vampiric vines. A member of the expedition, Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi; hero-she-coy-zoom-e), is rescued from the vines by the Shobijin. The twin fairies fascinate the team of explorers, the head of the Rolisican half of the party, capitalist Carl Nelson (Japanese-American actor Jerry Ito), being particularly intrigued, for what are later revealed to be nefarious reasons. Nelson attempts to take the Shobijin right then & there, but is discouraged from doing so by intervening Island natives, & thus the rest of the expedition. The Shobijin ask that Rolisica no longer conduct nuclear tests upon the island, as the team leaves in peace.

The Shobijin when we first meet them, then later, as they solemnly perform for Nelson’s show; Copyright, Toho Co., 1961

Nelson, however, returns with his own team to recapture the fairies, gunning down any hostile natives. He then puts the fairies in a show for his nightclub in Tokyo, displaying their musical talents. Unknown to Nelson, the remaining natives have begun to pray to the massive egg of Mothra, & upon hatching, the larva within is drawn to the music sung by the fairies during the show, the iconic “Mosura song” being a telepathic SOS. Chujo & friends attempt to reacquire the fairies & send them home, but are constantly rebuked by Nelson, even when it is made aware to him that Mothra is heading straight for Tokyo, the telepathic signal of the fairies prompting the monster larva to destroy anything in her path, until the fairies are returned to her care. Nelson flees from Tokyo to New Kirk City in Rolisica, using a specialized box to block the fairies’ telepathy, leaving Mothra to engage the JSDF (Japanese Self-Defense Force). Once in New Kirk City however, Nelson removes the shielding of the box, allowing the Shobijin’s song to alert an adult Mothra (emerging from a Tokyo Tower cocoon) to their presence, prompting a final showdown that results in a wrecked New Kirk City, by the now airborne Mothra. In the end, the bad guys get what they deserve, & the Shobijin return to Infant Island with Mothra, ending the giant moth’s introduction to moviegoers.

While Mothra isn’t like her predecessors Godzilla & Rodan in being a prehistoric monster revived by atomic testing, the overarching theme of criticism towards the use of nuclear weapons, all inspired by the uniquely Japanese experience of having witnessed the effects of these weapons firsthand, is still present in her story as it concerns the natives of Infant Island who worship her, said natives being under her protection. This element, along with themes of exploitation for capitalistic greed, would continue in varying degrees for her following three main appearances in the Showa Era.

We next find Mothra clashing, then later aligning, with Godzilla himself, in Mothra vs. Godzilla & Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, both released in 1964 & the latter being my personal favorite Godzilla film of all time (said films cemented the classic Godzilla formula in iconic fashion).

In MvG, another typhoon manages to dislodge a new Mothra egg from its submerged mountain location on Infant Island, & subsequently washes it ashore in Japan. With no one besides the natives having witnessed the egg in the previous film, this is a stunning site to the local residents, garnering not only the attention of a reporter, his photographer, & a professor (played by Hiroshi Koizumi from the previous film, though as a separate character), but also unfortunately a new duo of greedy businessmen hoping to exploit its potential for commercial profit. The Shobijin eventually arrive, along with Mothra, asking all involved parties to return the egg to them, thus revealing it to be Mothra’s future offspring, or more her reincarnation, her memories being passed to each subsequent generation.

Godzilla reemerges from the beach following his battle with King Kong, then goes on the rampage; Copyright, Toho Co., 1964
The Shobijin look on as they are convinced to let Mothra help defend against Godzilla, but she is already convinced; Copyright, Toho Co., 1964

The businessmen refuse, but the main trio try their best to convince them otherwise. As a dismayed Shobijin & Mothra leave, Godzilla resurfaces, reviving from underneath a beach after his previous conflict with Kong, uncovered by the typhoon, just as the egg was. The seemingly indestructible behemoth prompts our trio of main characters to go to Infant Island (which has deteriorated further thanks to its radiation exposure) asking the Shobijin & Mothra for help. The now bitter natives (& reluctantly the Shobijin as well) insist that Mothra’s services not be used, but a desperate plea to counter their lack of faith in humanity eventually moves them, reminding that not all mankind should suffer for the actions of a few. Mothra, slowly in the process of dying, takes off to challenge Godzilla, & despite a valiant effort, is quickly defeated. But, not one, but two larva emerge from the egg, once again prompted by the telepathy of the Shobijin’s song. Together, the larvae duo engage in a David & Goliath type battle with Godzilla, & their combined wits & tactics overpower the lethal saurian, dropping him back into the ocean whilst covered in their silk.

The following film, Ghidorah (gee-door-ah), mostly focuses on a subplot that somewhat resembles The Bodyguard (1992), with a foreign princess filling the Whitney Houston role, & a Japanese policeman filling Kevin Costner’s. Following an assassination attempt orchestrated by her uncle, the princess is overcome by the sudden resurgence of her latent alien ancestry, which prompts her to become a modern-day prophet, forecasting the apocalyptic doom that will follow the reemergence of both Godzilla & Rodan, as well as a new monster, the three-headed golden space dragon, King Ghidorah, who had previously wiped out the alien ancestors of the princess on Venus (Mars in the American dub), & arrives on Earth encased in a meteor.

Godzilla & Rodan sense the presence of an enemy, the former resurfacing from the ocean & the latter from underneath the volcano of Mt. Aso. Both monsters sight one another upon their reawakening, & therefore mistake the other to be the enemy they sensed, a territorial dispute following. However, one of the Mothra larvae (the other having died, so that Mothra can continue to be a singular entity), realizing the potential danger to Infant Island & the World from Ghidorah, attempts to convince Godzilla & Rodan to help her stop the triple-headed menace.

Mothra, Rodan, & Godzilla manage to claim victory & drive Ghidorah away…for now; Copyright, Toho Co., 1964

Whereas Mothra vs. Godzilla essentially just builds on the themes introduced in the original Mothra, using Godzilla as a further metaphor for mankind’s mistakes & the terror it unleashes upon itself, Ghidorah makes the most strides in terms of development for the mystic moth & her fairies, as rather than letting themselves become bitter victims of humanity’s errors & exploitation, the Shobijin & Mothra become proactive in their roles as forces for good.

The fairies in particular are witnessed appearing, comfortably & of their own accord, on a Japanese variety show, something they wouldn’t have been thrilled to do in the original film, but they have now realized that they are the ambassadors of their island, & if they won’t represent it & speak for themselves, who else will? Mothra, despite being an infant (technically), takes upon the difficult task of convincing two far stronger & more threatening monsters than herself to not just think for themselves, but for the planet they live on as well, as petty squabbles will prevent them from recognizing a far greater danger upon their well-being. This action in turn redefines Godzilla for the rest of the Showa Era, as he no longer operates as a harbinger of doom, but gradually transitions into a heroic figure, which would become a lasting trait for the soon to be pop culture icon.

Japanese release poster for Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966); Copyright, Toho Co.

And finally, we come to Mothra’s final main appearance from the Showa Era continuity, in Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966), or as I & most American audiences would know it by, Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster. Like Ghidorah, this is another personal fave of mine, as after witnessing King Kong vs. Godzilla, Vs. The Sea Monster, & Ghidorah on the Disney Channel in the late 90s, I would go on to recreate scenes from them, Sea Monster in particular by using action figure stand-ins for Godzilla & Ebirah (eh-burr-ah; the monster lobster), a generic rip-off toy being used for the former & the lobster henchmen from the Street Sharks cartoon for the latter, all whilst swimming in the family pool.

But that personal history aside, Vs. The Sea Monster finds a young man from the Japanese countryside, Ryota (ry-oat-tah), attempting to get the city police to help him find his brother, believed to be lost at sea. Shunned by them, he notices an ad for a dance competition, one of the prizes being to win a yacht. He arrives to find two exhausted competitors inform him the competition is over, but he insists he must find a boat, so the duo decide to humor him & take him to the nearby harbor, where they board a yacht that happens to have a bank robber hiding out (Akira Takarada; ah-keer-ah-talk-ah-rod-duh, who also played the reporter lead in Mothra vs. Godzilla). The robber says they can stay for the night if they leave him in peace, but upon daybreak, they find themselves out to Sea, Ryota having cast off in determination to search for his brother. After several days on the ocean, eventually a fierce storm & an enormous claw destroys their yacht, leaving the four to be washed up on a nearby island.

While exploring, they scale one of the mountains on the island to get a better lay of their surroundings (Mysterious Island (1961) style), & spot a ship entering a port. Eager to be rescued, they race to meet it, but instead discover it belongs to a terrorist organization, the Red Bamboo, who have a base on the island. While played by Japanese actors, the nationality of the Red Bamboo is never revealed, but it is presumed they are a rogue group branched off from the Japanese military, illegally producing nuclear weapons, which are banned in Japan. The Red Bamboo are also kidnapping natives from Infant Island, & forcing them to work as slaves, grinding up a local fruit to be used for a deterrent spray on their ship, which discourages the monster lobster, Ebirah, from halting their travel to & fro, Ebirah being what caused our main characters to be marooned in the first place.

Dayo (Kumi Mizuno) informs her new friends of their current predicament; Copyright, Toho Co., 1966

Ryota & friends meet up with Dayo (die-oh, famous Japanese beauty Kumi Mizuno; coo-me-me-zoo-no), a native who manages to escape, but in turn draws the Red Bamboo’s attention to our heroes, forcing them to hide out in a cave. While in hiding, Dayo informs the others that the natives are praying to Mothra & the Shobijin to send a rescue, & that Ryota’s brother is safe on Infant Island. But, they also soon realize that Godzilla lies in hibernation deeper in the cave, putting them between a rock & a hard place, until one of them suggests that they create a make-shift lightning rod from one of the Red Bamboo’s discarded weapons & Dayo’s basket thread, using it to awaken Godzilla during a storm. Godzilla in turn fights Ebirah, destroys the Red Bamboo’s base (but not before they engage a self destruct mechanism, obliterating the island), all while our heroes & the kidnapped natives await Mothra’s rescue.

Upon a recent re-watch, it occurred to me that Sea Monster stylistically proceeded Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971) (in which Godzilla faces off against a pollution-consuming, alien sludge monster named Hedorah; he-door-ah), at least in terms of it being a departure from its cinematic peers of the time, in that it was geared more towards youth culture & essentially was the blueprint for the wackiness that would finish the rest of the Showa Era, though it wasn’t nearly as psychedelic or heavy-handed in anti-pollution themes as Smog Monster would end up becoming.

As for what it says about Mothra, Sea Monster sees the guardian moth return to her adult form for the last time in the Showa Era, & also brings the continuous threat of outside-influenced nuclear menace towards Infant Island to a climactic peak, as the Red Bamboo terrorist organization represents the most powerful iteration of this concept, they having literally kidnapped the people that have suffered from the effects of nuclear weapons for two previous films, & then using them to aid in their continued proliferation of the devastating power. As a final note, since the The Peanuts (Emi & Yumi Ito) bid farewell to their role as the Shobijin in Ghidorah (after playing them for a total of three films) the twin fairies are played by Pair Bambi in Sea Monster, another musical duo from Japan.

Pair Bambi replace The Peanuts as the Shobijin in Ebirah, Horror of the Deep; Copyright, Toho Co., 1966

Mothra would appear (essentially as an extended cameo in larval form) during the monster-loaded spectacular Destroy All Monsters (1968), though with no real development from her previous appearances, & with the Shobijin being absent, her destructive tendencies being influenced here by mind control from invading aliens. When we next meet the Monster-Queen, we’ll be tackling her Heisei Era revival in the 1990s. Stay tuned.

Mothra Larva from Destroy All Monsters (1968); Copyright, Toho Co.

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