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Mothra (1961) has often been a target of ridicule. After all, a giant flying moth? Miniature twin princesses who speak in unison? An island tribe that worships a humongous larva? This isn't Ingmar Bergman territory. Well, the surprise for anybody who watches with an open mind is that Mothra is actually a light-hearted fantasy rather than your typical Japanese sci-fi tale about an irradiated monster destroying a big city (though there's plenty of that in Mothra for even the snobbiest connoisseur of metropolis smashing). When it opened in the United States, Mothra was often double-billed with The Three Stooges in Orbit (1962) which unfortunately gave moviegoers the impression it was supposed to be a comedy. A much better pairing would have been The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (the only film written for the screen by Dr. Seuss) or possibly the dream-like Invaders from Mars, both released in 1953.
But even among the best Japanese fantasy films, Mothra has a unique twist. Mothra you see is female and actually makes her debut in the film as a giant caterpillar. She's not a rampaging destroyer like Godzilla but a protective super-being and she lives on the remote island of Baru (near the site of atomic bomb testing) where she's attended by two six-inch-tall twin princesses. A couple of evil scientists steal some larva samples and capture the princesses before heading back to the bright lights of Tokyo with their finds. The almighty larva eventually becomes Mothra and she's not too happy about this particular turn of events.
Everybody who sees Mothra wonders about the actresses who play the tiny princesses. Who were they? They were the Ito twins - Emi and Yumi - a real-life singing duo known as The Peanuts and they even performed on the The Ed Sullivan Show. They became huge stars in Japan in 1959 and appeared in a handful of films; their last film (Kureji no daiboken aka Crazy Cat's Big Adventure) was released in 1965.
Mothra also features other actors familiar to Japanese audiences. Frankie Sakai (as Bulldog) was well known in his own country for such comedies as Train Station and Company President (He also played Lord Yabu in the 1980 TV mini-series Shogun). He won a Japanese Academy Award for Best Actor in 1996, shortly before his death. On the other hand, Jerry Ito (as Clark Nelson) had an American parent and could barely speak Japanese. That didn't stop him from appearing in several Japanese films during the sixties like The Manster (1960) and The Last War (1961). As for the caterpillar version of Mothra, that part was played by several college students in a large costume.
Director Ishiro Honda made the first Godzilla film and numerous science fiction outings such as The Mysterians (1957), Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) and the unforgettably titled Matango: Fungus of Terror (1963, also known as Attack of the Mushroom People, which is part nightmare/part theatre-of-the-absurd). Like many Japanese directors of that time Honda worked his way through the apprentice system, first as an assistant director for the legendary Mikio Naruse before making his first solo feature in 1951 (he'd previously done some documentary shorts). He ended his career as an uncredited fill-in director for Akira Kurosawa's last three films.
The English-language version of Mothra was scripted by Peter Fernandez who did similar work on dozens of dubbed films of that era. Recently he's worked as an actor and voice director on several animated projects such as The Cartoon Network's Courage, the Cowardly Dog. (In the sixties he provided the voice for Speed Racer.)
Mothra made a few more appearances over the years in films like Godzilla vs. Mothra (1964) and Destroy All Monsters (1968) before the giant monster genre (called "kaiju eiga" in Japan and by fans around the world) began to fizzle out. However, a revival of interest in Mothra led to a cycle of new Mothra films in 1996, though this time they were clearly targeted at children. You can pick up some of these new Mothra films like Gojira vs. Mosura (1992) and Mosura 2 (1997) on DVD in the U.S.
Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka
Director: Ishiro Honda, Lee Kresel
Screenplay: Shinichi Sekizawa, Takehiro Fukunaga (story), Yoshie Hotta (story), Shinichiro Nakamura (story), Peter Fernandez (English version)
Production Design: Teruaki Abe, Takeo Kita
Cinematography: Hajime Koizumi
Film Editing: Kazuji Taira
Original Music: Yuji Koseki
Principal Cast: Frankie Sakai (Journalist Senichiro), Hiroshi Koizumi (Dr. Nakazo), Kyoko Kagawa (Michi Hanamura), Jerry Ito (Clark Nelson), Ken Uehara (Dr. Haradawa), Emi Ito (Shobijin), Yumi Ito (Shobijin), Takashi Shimura (News editor).
By Lang Thompson