THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT or How Mothra Became Queen of the Monsters - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT or How Mothra Became Queen of the Monsters

Gordon Hopkins needs a bigger can of Raid.
Giant, prehistoric monstrosities from the dawn of time. Huge reptiles with sharp teeth and massive claws, mutated by atomic radiation, crushing everything in their path. These were the sights that greeted moviegoers in both Japan and America. That's what the jaded buyers of cinema tickets wanted to see: big monsters. They wanted bigger and badder and more destructive. Toho Studios had set the gold standard for giant monster movies with their unstoppable creation: Godzilla. So what was next? How could they possibly follow up their most terrifying creation?

Well, obviously, with a really big moth.

The tag lines pretty much write themselves. “Just when you thought it was safe to put on a sweater...”

Okay, how this ever got passed the pitch stage is a complete mystery to me. Nevertheless, in 1961, Toho Studios released Mothra.

There were, of course, a plethora of giant bug movies before Mothra. Giant ants, giant spiders, giant grasshoppers, giant mantises, etc., has all gotten the screen treatment. On the other hand, most of those bugs can be scary. But a moth?
Mothra, however, is a very different kind of giant bug movie.

The film begins rather unoriginally with a ship in the Pacific that finds itself in an atomic test area during a storm. Exactly why this was done is not clear to me, as I am unaware that radiation had anything to do with the creation of Mothra. However, it does create a sense of mystery, as survivors of the inevitable shipwreck discover natives on and island, despite the belief of the outside world that the island was not only uninhabited but uninhabitable, due to the aforementioned radiation.

The native islanders worship a giant egg. So you know where this is headed. You don't show the audience a giant egg and not let it hatch at some point.

Also on the island are a pair of six-inch tall pixies, played by sisters Umi and Emi Ito, known professionally as the Peanuts. (No relation to Charlie brown and Snoopy.) They were a hugely popular singing duo at the time and it is tempting to assume the characters of these teeny fairies, called Shobijin, were plugged into the movie as an afterthought, a cynical marketing gimmick. In fact, the fairies were always a part of the plan. An early version of the story was called The Luminous Fairies and Mothra and featured four fairies, not two. Columbia Pictures, the American distributor, had a contract with the Peanuts and that was how they ended up in the movie.
Like Toho's other monster flicks, there was a message buried not too deep. At this time, Japan was transitioning from a once subjugated nation to an economic powerhouse. Not unlike the U.S., there was a backlash against aggressive capitalism by a small but vocal portion of the population and a growing concern that spiritualism was being replaced by greed.

That is very much the theme of Mothra. An expedition to the island is bankrolled by a rather nasty businessman, who attempts to exploit the island economically in the most direct way possible: by kidnapping the fairies, taking them to Japan and putting them on TV.

The island natives pray to their god for the return of their beloved fairies. The egg hatches and a massive grub crawls out. Intent on rescuing the fairies, the critter swims to Japan, where it manages to cause lots of destruction, due not to any malevolent intent but mostly because of it's size. Meanwhile the fairies express sadness that so many good people will be hurt, due to the actions of one bad man.

The other big concern of Japan of the day was that of the Cold War. Many Japanese felt, understandably so, that they were caught between two huge “monsters” (Ooooh, do I detect subtext?), the United States and Russia. The villainous businessman is not from Japan but, rather, from Rolisica, an unsubtle amalgam of Russia and America. The fictional country is apparently located somewhere between Asia and Eastern Europe. It is interesting to note that, though the actor who played the businessman is clearly Asian, when the action movie to Rolisica, the populace is portrayed as a hodgepodge of ethnicities, white and Asian, not unlike the U.S.

As I said before, we pretty much know where this is going, so I don't think it qualifies as a spoiler when I tell you the giant grub spins a cocoon and becomes the gigantic Mothra. The bad guy is vanquished, in a satisfying manner, and the fairies return to the island with their flying goddess.

Despite causing destruciton on a Godzilla-like scale, Mothra is not a particularly scary monster. Sparkly and fluffy, she was actually more intimidating in her caterpillar stage. What makes her different to other giant bugs, or other giant monsters in general, even Godzilla up until this point, is that she is, in effect, the good guy. Other monsters may be genuinely evil or, more often, simply disinterested in the suffering they cause. Mothra, in the other hand, is on a rescue mission. That makes her largely unique.

And that brings us to: Godzilla versus Mothra.
Mothra was enough of a success that a sequel had to happen. Pitting her against Godzilla seemed a natural, and not just because they were both owned by the same studio, though that undoubtedly helped.

The plot for Godzilla versus Mothra is virtually the same as that of King Kong versus Godzilla. Another capitalist with more greed than common sense locates a giant egg on another Pacific island. The origin of this egg is pretty obvious. Said capitalist's action eventually leads to a showdown between the two titular monsters.

While Godzilla versus Mothra may resemble King Kong versus Godzilla plotwise, it a superior film in almost every way. The childish humor tamped down and fight scenes are much less silly. In fact, Mothra makes for a unique foe for Godzilla, not just because she can fly but because it is not even a little bit anthropomorphic. It does not look like two guys in rubber suits wrestling. Indeed, for many, Godzilla versus Mothra may very well be the pinnacle of the series.

Oh, and the Peanuts put in an appearance as well. Can you really ask for more than that?

In Godzilla Raids Again, Anguiras and Godzilla were both equally destructive forces. In King Kong versus Godzilla, the audience knows to root for Kong, but only because Godzilla is the badder of the two. Kong still has his own agenda and it just happens to align with that of humanity. Godzilla versus Mothra is different because, for the first time in the series, there is a clear goodie and a clear baddie. There is never any doubt Mothra is on the side of the angels. It is a clear indication of things to come.

The American Version: Unlike it's predecessors, Godzilla versus Mothra, reached the U.S. largely intact. The most significant differences actually happen in the credits. Director Ishiro Honda's name is misspelled as Inoshira Honda. Also, the title was changed for the American release to Godzilla versus the Thing. I wonder how many American moviegoers thought they were going to see the big lizard take on the alien plant man from Howard Hawkes' The Thing From Another World?

The Denouement: The creators of Godzilla versus Mothra make a brave choice when they allow Mothra, who had been set up to be the hero, die in battle. Of course, as I said before, when you got an egg, something is coming outta that egg. Not one but two Mothra caterpillars emerge and wrap up Godzilla in a sticky white thread like Spiderman. Echoing the ending of King Kong versus Godzilla, the Big G falls into the ocean and disappears. The Mothra babies then swim home to their beloved island.

The Odds: I'm not even going to place odds on this one. If there are future Godzilla movies, Mothra will show up again. No doubt. On the other hand, what about Mothra's twin fairies. As much as I enjoyed the recent Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), one thing that disappointed me was that, while Mothra appeared, the twins did not. I certainly hope they put in an appearance in the future. I'm going to lay odds at 2:1 in favor.

Read all of Gordon Hopkins previous Godzilla articles here.

Gordon Hopkins is an award winning reporter and columnist for The Fairbury Journal-News, a 130-year-old newspaper in Jefferson County, Nebraska (He hasn't been working there that entire time.) He has also written a couple of crime novels (“Fraudsters” and the best-selling “Broken”) and edited a few non-fiction books.

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