Inspired by the disappointing response to Jurassic World (no colon?) Dominion—and, let’s be honest, almost all of the Jurassic saga films—I took a whirl through my mental catalog of giant monster movies to provide Cinematic Doctrine listeners a good alternative to this year’s lackluster Kaiju output. It would be wrong for me to think everyone reading this article is up for a giant monster destroying cities and/or fighting other monsters. Especially so if the giant monster, as my wife puts it, “Looks like a two-year-old throwing a tantrum.” But I also know that there are plenty of you out there in CinDoc land who hold those angry toddlers in costumes very close to your heart! So, I must say: proceed with caution. The waters you’re about to enter are filled with kitsch, cheese, and white people dubbing Japanese people. Let that be the detractors’ warning; but equally let that be the fanatics’ welcome home!
A Brief History of Kaiju Films
Moviegoers have loved giant monsters for what seems like all of cinema history. If we’re talking dinosaurs, there’s Gertie the Dinosaur from 1914. Yeah, it’s a silent cartoon and obviously not scary at all—but it’s there! Though, certainly not a Kaiju picture. Then if we’re going the action/adventure/kinda scary route, there’s The Lost World, based on the popular Arthur Conan Doyle novel, from 1925. But the Kaiju really gets its start in 1933 with King Kong, the groundbreaking stop-motion monster classic that inspired generations of filmmakers. Not least among those filmmakers were director Ishiro Honda and special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya, who created the true classic of Japanese Kaiju pictures: 1954’s Godzilla.
Sixty-eight years and dozens of films later, the Godzilla series continues. But it’s not just the big G carrying on the Kaiju legacy. Kong has plenty of remakes, sequels, and spin-offs; there are tons of other Japanese Toho monsters; and let’s not forget the Gamera films! America especially seems to have an affinity for big beasts, with the popularity of Ray Harryhausen’s special effects movies in the fifties all the way up through the Monsterverse and Jurassic saga of today. But on to the issue at hand.
Mothra vs Godzilla
Now, if you’re like me, you’ll likely be a little tired of overblown CGI effects. Certainly, the motion capture effects in the Monsterverse (remember all those movies leading up to Godzilla vs Kong?) are great; but at the expense of sounding a little snooty, I like to see something in films that I could reach out and touch. Where’s that tactile connection to show biz? What about appreciating the artifice of cinema? I can’t be alone here, people!
Without extending that rant any longer, let’s suffice to say that guys in monster suits are just cool. And if you’re looking for one super-fun, monster-suited, character-driven, special-effects laden picture emerging from the Land of the Rising Sun, I proudly recommend Mothra vs Godzilla!
Released in 1964 and retitled Godzilla vs The Thing for American audiences, “MvG” was directed by Ishiro Honda and written by Sinichi Sekizawa. The scenario features a giant egg washing up ashore a fishing community, then soon bought by a corrupt businessman. As the businessman goes about planning an amusement park with the incubating egg as its main attraction, a scientist and some journalists try to find out what the giant egg is. Before long, we learn it’s the progeny of Mothra, a giant moth worshiped by a group of South Seas islanders and a couple of twin fairies. Before the egg can hatch, however, Godzilla emerges from a radiated field of mud and begins to wreak havoc, threatening the next generation of giant moths. Mothra arrives to defend the community as well as its egg, and a battle for the ages begins!
Sounds ridiculous, right? But viewers would be surprised how well it actually works. The plot is a little so-so but coupled with some occasionally pretty good dialogue and fine character acting, we’re mostly sold on it. Discerning viewers will find some turns a little hard to swallow, but the sincerity of every performer should win over anyone with a love of classic genre cinema. Specifically, I want to highlight the performance of Toho Studios’ frequent character actor Yoshifumi Tajima, who is just plain hilarious here! This is far from arthouse, but Mothra vs Godzilla is just entertaining to the core.
Beyond that, it’s technically excellent. Where the film suffers from middling writing, it excels in fabulous special effects work. Toho’s special effects supervisor, Eiji Tsuburaya, shines here with his use of optical effects, miniature work, and wonderful set and suit design. There’s hardly a better-looking Godzilla suit than this one here, which actually looks menacing and sports a lot more mobility than previous suits. The Shobijim, or little fairies—played dutifully and rather well by The Peanuts—are utilized rather well considering the time period. There are several shots where viewers can hardly believe they’re anything taller than the established thirty centimeters; but admittedly, there are several poorly aged effects that make them look like Star Wars force ghosts.
But let’s be honest: we came here to see a giant lizard fight a giant moth. Question is, do we get a good fight? Thankfully I have to say yes!
First off, Mothra is a great design. I can’t think of her looking any different or any better, honestly, and there are times viewers can definitely buy into her being a real giant moth. But what’s really amazing is how they make her work in action scenes. One would think a giant model suspended by wires couldn’t possibly look good fighting a nearly fully mobile suit worn by the legendary Haruo Nakajima; but they pull it off! Everything looks surprisingly fluid and there are several memorable set pieces, including Mothra dragging Godzilla down a slope and, at another point, gusting gale-force winds at him. In addition to that the characterizations make total sense. Why wouldn’t Godzilla be stumbling around, a little drowsy, after a long hibernation? In accordance with this Tsuburaya has him walk around stumbling, falling into things, and he’s noticeably off his game while fighting the canonically aged moth-monster. In turn, since Mothra is supposed to be near the end of her lifespan, she’s not on her game either! Which leaves open the role of whatever’s coming out of that egg. But that, readers, is something I’ll leave to you to see.
Don’t get me wrong: this is no masterpiece. It’s a Kaiju movie, after all, so it’s not Casablanca. Heck, this movie isn’t even technically as good as the original Godzilla. There are moments of camp (which, depending on your temperament, may be a good or bad thing), some instances of outright bad acting, and the plot is all over the place. But ultimately, Mothra vs Godzilla is a very solid film and the last film till 1985 in which Godzilla was actually a villain. We have to give it points for that and for the pure entertainment of it all! So, I’m going to give this three-out-of-four stars and recommend you watch it, preferably with a frosty beverage in one hand and a salty snack in the other. Mothra vs Godzilla is streaming free on Tubi, Crackle, PlutoTV, and many other platforms. You have no excuse: go watch it!
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Stephen McFerron likes movies. It’s that simple. From the lowest depths of the drive-in to the highest peaks of arthouse; the grand golden age to superhero spectacles, he’s all in! Since watching Gremlins and Jaws at a young age, Stephen has had an appetite for the strange and fantastic, as well as the old! If you’re here to explore movie history, or learn more about the best of today, Stephen’s your guide! He may even say something mildly profound along the way… if he’s lucky!