Queen of the Monsters Part II: Mothra’s Journey Through the Heisei Era

A Retrospective covering Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), Mothra (1996), Mothra 2: The Battle Under the Deep Sea (1997), & Mothra 3: Invasion of King Ghidorah (1998) (The “Rebirth” Trilogy)

And so dear readers, as “KaiJune” winds down and “KaiSummer”–a summer-long look at kaiju-related films–picks up, we take one last look at Miss Mothra’s final continuous cycle in a film series, said arc being her journey through Toho’s Heisei (high-say) Era. As mentioned in Part 1, the historical Heisei period actually starts at a different point than the Godzilla & Mothra films lumped under that designation. After a 9 year hiatus, Godzilla was dusted off for a new feature in 1984, which happened to be the 30th anniversary of the original film. Longtime producer Tomoyuki Tanaka (toe-mow-you-key-tah-nah-kah), who was essentially the “father” of Godzilla, had grown tired of the kid friendly aesthetic that dominated the efforts of Toho’s special effects-centric division, Toho Eizo (toe-hoe-e-zo), in the 1970s.

While children-focused projects had benefited the “Eizo Era” in an age where the Japanese film industry was in decline & suffering from continuous competition in the form of television, eventually, the franchise could only maintain itself for so long with so many formulaic alien-invasion plots. Tanaka had been horrified by the results seen in Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971), witnessing them after a bout in the hospital, where he didn’t have the usual level of supervision he would normally. The experimental, hippie-friendly take on Godzilla & his pollution-consuming adversary had been deemed too “artsy” by Tanaka, so he insisted a more traditional & classic approach be given to the remainder of their efforts in that decade. Trouble is, money was not as readily available as it’d been through the 60s, so budget cuts combined with a juvenile tone soon resulted in diminishing returns, as well as an unfavorable stigma in the West, the 1970s Godzilla films being some of the most popular in that part of the World, for better or worse.

Though enjoyable, especially to Western audiences, Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) was the epitome of what eventually killed the second half of Toho’s Showa Era; Copyright, Toho Co.

Tanaka felt it was time Godzilla return to his somber roots, so The Return of Godzilla did just that, directly following the original film, & becoming a modest success in Japan, its Americanization once again featuring scenes with Raymond Burr. However (& despite Burr’s insistence to maintain a legitimate tone), Godzilla 1985 waffled between proper nuclear allegory updated to fit a Cold War context & terrible dubbing plus acting from the other American actors besides Burr. Additionally, overzealous product placement (care for a Dr. Pepper, anyone?) & biased attitudes towards any Russian characters were included, various edits being made to make them appear more villainous than originally intended. While the film featured the penultimate swan song of Teruyoshi Nakano’s (terry-oh-she-nah-kahn-oh) effects work, it wasn’t exactly accepted with open arms in the West, so Godzilla 1985 would remain the only post-1978 American release of a Japanese Godzilla film, barring a couple of exceptions down the line.

The remainder of the series (ignoring the continuity of the Showa Era) would be released theatrically in Japan every December, said month being the Japanese equivalent of the American Summer Movie Season, from 1991-1995, & then to American home video in the late 90s. But before the machine got rolling proper again, Tanaka’s last wholehearted effort with the franchise came in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989). Ironically, Vs. Biollante (bio-lawn-tey) would be a dose of humility for Tanaka, as the man had been so appalled by Smog Monster nearly 20 years earlier, & yet here, an original, complicated & thoroughly bizarre idea featuring genetic engineering, political intrigue, & Godzilla-Rosebush hybrids, which he stood behind, would give Japanese moviegoers pause, & not be a success, despite becoming a fan-favorite years later.

All this lays the groundwork for where we go next, as following Biollante’s poor reception, Toho decided that it would need to once again rely on the past, albeit updated slightly, to provide them with proper financial returns. After failing to obtain the rights to King Kong for a remake of what was (& really still is) the highest grossing film of Godzilla’s franchise, King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Toho looked to their own creations, particularly the most popular: King Ghidorah & Mothra. Following Godzilla being pitted against a re-imagined version of the triple-headed golden dragon, he would then go on to face Mothra, though this time around, the Big G had a little less to do.

Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), now putting the Monster King at top billing (also known on American home video & referred to in the article from here on out as Godzilla & Mothra: The Battle for Earth) had originally started out as a solo Mothra film set for release in 1990, in which she embarked on a globe-trotting adventure whilst battling a dragon named Bagan (bay-gahn or bag-anne), who himself would end up never appearing on film, despite being considered for numerous projects. When Biollante under-performed, Toho reconsidered, but then started to retool it once Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) managed to be profitable. The next iteration of the proposed Mothra revival would include a Mothra larva affected by radiation, dubbed Gigamoth, in addition to a conflict with Godzilla. Gigamoth would finally appear onscreen as Battra (bat-trah, the shortened combo of “Battle Mothra”), & serve as the primary antagonist, it being a male sibling to Mothra.

In Battle for Earth, a meteorite comes crashing down in the Pacific Ocean, not far from Infant Island nor Godzilla’s current resting place under the Sea. The latter becomes agitated, whilst on the former, a typhoon manages to uncover a mammoth egg from under the Earth. A professional thief, Fujito (foo-gee-toe), caught stealing relics in Thailand, is offered bail from a representative of the Japanese prime minister, who happens to have his ex-wife, Masako (mah-sock-oh), in tow. Together with Ando, a secretary from the Marutomo Company, the trio are asked to travel to Infant Island on a mission of exploration, the island having appeared on radar following the impact of the meteorite. Once there, they find a cave, depicting paintings of what appears to be two colossal insects, one colorful & benevolent, the other dark & ominous, locked in battle. Leaving from an exit in the cave, they find the uncovered egg, & marvel at its size. As they ponder its origins, two tiny voices attempt to answer their questions, revealing it to be the egg of a “Mothra”. The owners of the voices reveal themselves: the Cosmos, two tiny fairies in matching orange attire. The Cosmos explain the cave painting, & their origins, they being an ancient race of tiny beings who served the giant moth, Mothra. Scientists from early in human history became too bold in their experiments to control the climate/siphon energy, & so the Earth retaliated by creating a dark counterpart to Mothra: Battra, who shared no love for the human race, thus bringing him into conflict with Mothra.

The meteorite had caused a chain reaction, uncovering Mothra’s egg, awakening Battra from his slumber in the Antarctic, & worst of all, disturbed Godzilla himself. Ando insists his company take the egg back to Japan, leaving the Cosmos under the impression it is for the egg’s own good. While en-route to Japan however, the ship touting a barge with the egg is attacked by Godzilla, prompting the larva within to hatch & escape. The larva tussles with the mighty monster, but to no avail. Battra eventually arrives too (having made landfall on the Japanese mainland already in his powerful larval form) seemingly seeking out his benevolent twin for conflict. Godzilla occupies the dark larva’s attention, & the two engage in combat under the Sea, until an undersea volcano seemingly swallows them up. Once back in Japan, Ando’s superior wishes to exploit the fairies, but Fujito steals them back, also for his own greedy interests. As in the original Mothra, the Cosmos sing the iconic “Mosura” song, summoning the larva to their aid. While the larva is eventually put at ease once all offending human parties realize the error of their ways, the Self-Defense Force attacks anyway, prompting her to cocoon herself & become an adult. At the same time, Godzilla miraculously erupts from Mt. Fuji to once again go on the rampage, while Battra emerges from the ocean depths & morphs into an adult as well, though instantaneously, unlike his sibling. At first Mothra must contend with both, but once Godzilla manages to overpower Battra, Mothra convinces him to join forces, so they can finally defeat the nuclear juggernaut.

Despite switching the billing of Godzilla & Mothra’s names, Battle for Earth is still primarily a Mothra-centric story, serving as a remake of the original Mothra, but with some elements of King Kong vs. & Mothra vs. Godzilla mixed in. While nuclear allegory has been sidelined, the film makes clear its pro-environmental intentions, the core concept being Mothra & Battra’s differing stances on how humanity effects the Earth, & whether mankind can ever be used to its benefit, whilst it falls prey to their greed time & time again. As he is once again an anti-nuclear metaphor, Godzilla, the ultimate embodiment of man’s mistakes, serves as the common ground the two moths finally unite against.

The movie was one of the first two Heisei films I ever saw, alongside Vs. King Ghidorah. Me & my Dad had picked them up on VHS at a local store back around the time they debuted on video here in the States, & I would have loved to pick up more of these newly released films (for Americans anyway), but I wasn’t the one paying. So for years, these two, plus the 1976 remake of King Kong, would be my “updated” variations of those classic giant monsters, & Battle for Earth remains a personal fave to this day. Said feature would end up being the second most-successful Godzilla film in the entire franchise at the time, which encouraged Toho to continue the Heisei Godzilla series for three more films, before killing off the Big G so that he could continue on in his first American iteration, or so they thought. But, before they undertook damage control, Toho logically carried on with their second most profitable creation: Mothra herself.

For the first time since 1961, Mothra got her own solo film, simply titled Mothra (1996) in its native Japan (internationally referred to as “Rebirth of Mothra”), & spawning a trilogy. This new Mothra film would adhere a bit closer to the serialized novel that the original Mothra had based its screenplay on (The Luminous Fairies & Mothra), particularly in how it adapted the Fairy characters. Rather than the pet name of “Shobijin” (which again, meant “tiny beauties”) or the “Cosmos” as they were called in the re-imagined battle with Godzilla, here they would be called the “Elias” (el-e-us). The Elias, as opposed to prior versions, were two distinct characters (but both sisters), named Moll & Lora (mole & lore-ah), one wearing orange & yellow attire, while the other wore blue & white. This time around, the fairies would also have a third sister, the dark, but comically diabolical Belvera (bell-ver-ah), the original novel having featured four fairies in total. Mothra ’96 would also be the last film that the aforementioned Tomoyuki Tanaka would supervise in any capacity, dying of a stroke some months after release.

In the film, Mothra faces off against a new three-headed space dragon, the charcoal, quadruped (four-legged) Desghidorah (dez-gee-door-ah), or “Death Ghidorah”. Desghidorah had wiped out all life on Mars, then made his way to Earth, killing the dinosaurs, but eventually was stopped & sealed away by Mothra. In the ancient past, there were several Elias fairies, as there were giant moths that protected them. In the present, only Moll, Lora, Belvera, & Mothra remain. While Moll & Lora are peaceful & kind, Belvera views humanity as a threat, & seeks to conquer them. Also in the present, a logging company working in the Hokkaido (hoe-ky-doe) forests uncovers Desghidorah’s tomb, & one of the workers, Yuichi Goto (you-e-chee-go-toe), takes home the seal (which appears to be a trinket to the uninformed), as a gift to his young daughter, Wakaba (wah-kah-ba). The Elias sisters soon intervene, riding atop their unique steeds: for the gentle duo, Fairy (a miniature Mothra); for Belvera, a nasty miniature dragon named Garu Garu (gah-roo-gah-roo). While Moll & Lora manage to keep Wakaba & her brother, Taiki (tie-key), safe from Belvera’s machinations, the dark fairy manages to retrieve the seal, & rushes off to free the monster. With the aid of the children’s bewildered mother, Makiko (mah-key-ko), the family rushes off to warn Yuichi of what’s coming.

Unfortunately, they are too late, as the powerful Desghidorah emerges from the tomb, & begins to feed on the energy created by organic life in the surrounding forest, so that he may regain the ability to fly. The Elias, despite their reservations of calling upon an elderly Mothra to assist, summon the divine moth, & she conducts a doomed battle against the space dragon. Sensing its mother’s distress, a newly laid egg hatches its larva, who rushes to aid its dying mother. This new larva seems to possess extra abilities not seen in the prior generation, including a green energy beam fired from its chest & the ability to turn invisible. Mother & Child tag team Desghidorah until they manage to subdue him with water from a ruptured dam, but for the Elder Mothra, it’s the End, & the young larva is carried by the dying moth out to Sea, where she sinks beneath the waves. Despite being momentarily deterred, Desghidorah regains his wings, giving new range to his rampage. But the new Mothra isn’t beaten yet, as the young larva travels to a sacred forest to cocoon, & morph to adulthood, producing a variation never seen before, able to divide into thousands of smaller moths, among other fantastic feats.

Rebirth of Mothra 2, or Mothra 2: The Battle Under the Deep Sea (1997), would see the new Mothra fight another original monster, the marine dragon Dagahra (duh-gar-ruh), created by the ancient civilization of Mu (basically the lost continent of Atlantis or Lemuria), here referred to as “Nilai-Kanai” (knee-lie-kah-nye). Dagahra was supposed to consume pollutants, but in doing so, the dragon-beast would end up producing toxic starfish creatures called “Barem” (bear-em). A new crop of these Barem have started to infest the coast of Japan, alerting the Elias to the reemergence of Dagahra. This time around, a small, furry creature called “Ghogo” (go-go), is what Belvera is after, she believing he is the secret to the treasure of the Nilai-Kanai.

Ghogo comes into the possession of a young girl, & together with two classmates & the good Elias sisters, they seek out a submerged temple, whilst Belvera controls/aligns with two greedy fisherman who believe Ghogo will bring them fame & fortune. Dagahra resurfaces as the temple does, & seeks to destroy it in revenge against his creators. The Elias summon Mothra, & despite a noble attempt, they’re quickly subdued once the battle takes to the Sea. The children meanwhile encounter what appears to be a hologram of the Princess of Nilai-Kanai within the temple, she revealing that Ghogo himself is the treasure of the ancient civilization, & a means to allow Mothra to defeat Dagahra.

And finally, in Rebirth of Mothra 3, or Mothra 3: Invasion of King Ghidorah (1998), Toho would bring back the infamous golden space dragon for a one-on-one with the divine moth. On Infant Island, Belvera rummages through ancient ruins, searching for something. She finds it: a key to a box, within which contains three triangular power emblems/jewels, representing three character traits: Courage, Wisdom, & Love. Moll & Lora intervene, trying to figure out Belvera’s intentions, but she rushes off with at least one jewel after some cryptic teasing about a “King of Terror”. Moll & Lora inspect what jewels are left behind, one of them (Wisdom) connecting to Moll’s personal dagger, turning it into a full sword. The other jewel (Courage) doesn’t fit, meaning it belongs to Belvera’s dagger, & that Belvera has Lora’s (Love).

Elsewhere, preteen Shota (show-tah), the older sibling to Shuehei & Tamako (shoe-hey & ta-mah-ko), along with their mother & father, witness a meteor shower, one particularly large meteorite crashing somewhere in the countryside. Moll & Lora investigate the next morning, & deduce that the rock of the meteorite is prehistoric, dating back to when the dinosaurs went extinct. Eventually, the monster inside reveals itself, being none other than King Ghidorah himself (this variation specified as “Grand” King Ghidorah). The space dragon has returned to the present to absorb the life energy of young children, & he collectively abducts 528, trapping them in a sentient dome. Shuehei & Tamako are absorbed into the dome, prompting their parents as well as Shota (who was safely traveling a personal secret route in the local caves) to search for them.

Shota witnesses Mothra, summoned by the Elias, in battle with Ghidorah, & the mystic insect is quickly overpowered. Even worse, after staring into Ghidorah’s eyes, Lora is corrupted. This leaves Moll alone, & after encountering Shota (who has found the downed Mothra), she sends Mothra back in time to when Ghidorah was a much younger & weaker creature. The strain from the lyric ritual seemingly kills Moll, or at least puts her in suspended animation. Mothra engages the young Ghidorah whilst bewildered dinosaurs look on. The space dragon still puts up a fight, enough of one that Mothra is left barely alive after throwing the young monster into a volcano. However, a piece of Ghidorah’s tail, severed in the battle, allows Ghidorah to continue to survive into the present. But Mothra has a back-up plan as well, having been encased in a cocoon by primitive larvae, allowing for a final new form to defeat Ghidorah.

Though the continuity isn’t ever explicitly addressed after Battle for Earth, Mothra’s two appearances in Godzilla’s Heisei films do set-up her Rebirth trilogy, to a degree. Battle for Earth has the Cosmos mention that Battra was supposed to awaken & prevent a meteorite from hitting the Earth in 1999 (or the end of the 20th Century), but as he is killed by Godzilla, Mothra assumes that responsibility for him. While Mothra 3 was released in 1998, the Heisei Godzilla films have a habit of taking place a year ahead of when the film is actually released, so the meteorite that Ghidorah arrives in could very well be the one that Mothra went to stop. You may be wondering though, if she went to stop it, then why does it arrive in Mothra 3? During a brief appearance in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994), Mothra is seen out in space transforming herself into thousands of fairy moths, the same kind that would appear in the Rebirth films. One flies back to Earth, accompanied by the Cosmos to warn the psychic Miki Saegusa (mickey sigh-goo-sah) of SpaceGodzilla’s arrival. Presumably, these fairy moths reconstitute as Mothra on Infant Island. At the start of Mothra ’96, Mothra is seen on Infant Island observing a new egg materialize in front of her, which could also be these fairy moths.

Now, while I left gender vague in my descriptions of the Rebirth films above, the second Mothra in these films is supposed to be called “Mothra Leo”, which is in reference to a song on the first film’s soundtrack & implying that the main Mothra from the Rebirth films is a male offspring. What is confusing though, & gave me pause, is that my copy of Mothra 3 (through subtitles) refers to Mothra Leo as a “she”. So either this is a flub on the part of the subtitles, or Mothra Leo transitions to a female, perhaps in preparation for egg laying. Either way, this Mothra is most well-known as Mothra Leo, & my pondering about gender-swapping might be for naught, given the egg for Leo materializes without being laid, making Mothra being female for reproductive purposes moot.

It is perhaps something of a nitpick that I wish the Cosmos in Battle for Earth had started out as the Elias, making the connection between the four films all the more apparent. Even then, three of the four share a strong visual aesthetic, likely due to the special effects of Koichi Kawakita (coy-e-chee-kah-wah-keeta), & obviously in shared themes. Mothra ’96 continues the theme of environmental awareness the most similarly to Battle for Earth, the logging company being as seemingly apathetic to pillaging the Hokkaido forests as the Marutomo company is in pillaging Infant Island. Both films also feature parental characters under marital strain, Fujito & Masako being divorced in Battle for Earth, & Yuichi & Makiko being tense over the former’s working hours in Mothra ’96.

Battle for Earth (being technically one among the more serious & less kid friendly Godzilla Heisei films) features the Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF) engaging the monsters. All the Rebirth films feature no military presence, though news coverage mentions off-screen military attempts to confront the raging dragon Desghidorah, & the effects of the monster’s consumption of oxygen from surrounding organic life is shown through people piling up in the hospitals. So, while more innocently simplified in their approach, the menacing Kaijū in said films do have consequential impact, Dagahra & King Ghidorah actually seen rampaging in cities during 2 & 3, though Mothra is the only thing that stands in their way.

Even after this most recent re-watch, I have to say I still don’t see why there is so much hate directed at Mothra 2. Sure, Mothra ’96 has parental characters to switch off with the children in terms of focus, & Mothra 3 has a preteen as the lead, plus his parents as the main supporting characters. By comparison, Mothra 2 focuses on latter elementary school kids, the two boys being particularly obnoxious, & our only adult touchstone is two bumbling thirty-somethings who remain fairly unlikable throughout. I can see the lack of appeal, but in this writer & viewer’s humble opinion, they still don’t reach the levels of inane that various child characters do in the latter half of the Showa Gamera (gam-uh-rah) series, in which the titular giant, flying turtle continuously saves children from vicious creatures. While the Rebirth films are often compared to those (#2 in particularly venomous fashion), I find these three Mothra films much more enjoyable as a whole. Gamera would get a proper Heisei reboot, thankfully, but that’s a story for another day.

What remains most appealing for me when it concerns Mothra 2 is the marine theme, & the return of the sunken ancient civilization of Mu. This concept only appeared in three Toho films total, first in the flying super submarine film Atragon (1963), then 10 years later in the Godzilla series, as the Seatopian civilization from Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973). While alien invaders from outer space reign supreme in a majority of films from this genre, ancient dwellers of the deep are far more rare. Pollution-consuming Dagahra represents the marine theme most strongly, & offers viewers a welcome divergence from the two carnage-loving space dragons seen in the other two Rebirth films, even if said dragons may be quite appealing in their own right.

And speaking of space dragons, Mothra 3 gives King Ghidorah the proper reinvention he needed in the Heisei Era. The infamous kaiju’s previous Heisei appearance stripped away his alien origins, once again in an attempt to distance from what was presumed to have run the Showa Eizo films into the ground. In Vs. King Ghidorah, he is instead a radioactive mutant conglomerate of three adorable little creatures (called Dorats), engineered by people in the future as pets. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka had wanted Ghidorah to remain an extraterrestrial, but writer/director Kazuki Omori insisted against it. As Vs. King Ghidorah proved a success, Toho had considered a direct sequel to the film featuring an alien version of the monster returning, & the novelization for Vs. King Ghidorah had made mention of the Dorats being created from harvested cells off the Moon (or Mars, it was one or the other), implying they were of alien origin, making the main Ghidorah of the film essentially a man-made recreation. So, as the end of these various developments, “Grand” King Ghidorah would finally appear in the third Rebirth film, as the true Heisei Ghidorah. Curiously, both he & his “sibling” Desghidorah, are mentioned having wiped out the dinosaurs. Did they do it together? Or was it a goof on the part of the screenwriters? Probably the latter, but it is fun to consider the former.

Thematically, Mothra 3 makes some poignant statements about sibling rivalry & bonds, both through the Elias sisters, & through the withdrawn Shota, who feels out of place both in his sibling hierarchy & in the real world (though his refusal to go to school would be taken care of by a truant officer realistically, but whatever). The Elias sisters do reconcile briefly in order to restore the corrupted Lora & bring Moll back to life. These slightly more developed character themes likely account for why Mothra 3 is the fan favorite, in addition to Ghidorah proper.

As we conclude KaiJune (and christen KaiSummer) with the second part of my Mothra two-parter, it wouldn’t hurt to mention the Monster Queen’s subsequent four appearances outside of the Heisei series. Mothra’s popularity & marketability are the reasons she was dusted off from the Showa shelf in the first place, so when Toho once again was having doubts about where to go when they were three films into the Millennium series & once again facing disappointing box-office returns from the original ideas that they had used, they had her boot out one of the less well-known Kaijū considered for the next Millennium film, with Ghidorah (once again compromised from his original origins) booting out another.

The resulting film was Godzilla, Mothra, & King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001), a mouthful of a title if there ever was one, so let’s call it GMK instead. While the best film in the Millennium series, this writer/viewer would like to think the original intentions for GMK would’ve been preferable. Especially since this reliance on nostalgia by Toho is what quickly killed off the Millennium series, with Mothra next being employed in the rather redundant Godzilla: Tokyo SOS (2003). A snazzy title, that probably should’ve been used for Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, but I digress.

While Tokyo SOS gives us a fitting conclusion to the story of Kiryu (keer-e-u), the third version of famous Godzilla opponent Mechagodzilla, its re-use of the familiar Godzilla vs. Mothra subplot, particularly from the original 1964 film, is one of most glaring examples of “been there, done that” in the entire 35 film franchise. The Mothra prop from this film would be used in the 50th anniversary spectacular Final Wars (2004), said film being the last in the franchise till America gave it another go at adaptation, 10 years later, in Godzilla (2014). The sequel to this new American film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), would, among other things, finally nail what was so appealing about the Japanese films, but with updated CGI effects. It would see Mothra finally be given an American adaptation, one of the most memorable & beloved elements of this film in particular. As she remains Toho’s second most popular Monster/Kaijū, & has left quite the legacy behind her, you can be rest assured my dear readers, Mothra isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Long Live the Queen. 

Above: Mothra is shoehorned into GMK (2001) Below (from left to right, top to bottom): Mothra appears in both Tokyo SOS & Final Wars (2003, 2004), & then finally gets an American rebirth in Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019); Copyright, Toho Co. & Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures.

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