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The story opens with the discovery of an enormous egg on a Japanese beach, washed ashore the night before during a powerful typhoon. When reporter Ichiro Sakai (Akira Takarada) and photographer Junko Nakanishi (Yuriko Hoshi) investigate, they learn that local fishermen have sold the egg to a developer named Kumayama (Yoshifumi Tajima) who, backed by shady businessman Torahata (Kenji Sahara), plans to turn the monster egg into a tourist attraction. Kumayama and Torahata are astonished when they are visited by two tiny twin girls (Emi and Yûmi Ito) who identify the egg as belonging to the benevolent monster Mothra of Infant Island. When the unscrupulous entrepreneurs refuse to return the egg, the twin fairies appeal to Ichiro, Junko and the sympathetic Professor Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi), but the three are unable to help and the tiny beauties return home. The dreaded Godzilla, also washed to Japan's shores by the typhoon, awakens and emerges from his underground resting place to attack the city of Nagoya. Realizing that only Mothra might have the power to stop Godzilla, Ichiro, Junko and Miura travel to Infant Island and humbly beg the twin fairies for the monster's help. Weak and in the final stages of her life, Mothra agrees and valiantly battles the radioactive reptile, but perishes defending her egg. Just when it appears that nothing will be able to stop Godzilla, the egg hatches, revealing two Mothra larvae prepared to avenge their parent's death.
One of the primary reasons Mothra vs. Godzilla works is that it strikes just the right tone. It avoids the heavy, anti-nuclear portentousness of the original (which could not be duplicated without coming across as pointless repetition) and the jokey satire of King Kong vs. Godzilla and instead adopts the lighter, fairy tale-like quality of Honda's Mosura (Mothra, 1961). Without descending to the juvenile tone of the later kiddie-oriented entries in the series, Mothra vs. Godzilla has the directness and simplicity of the best children's stories, while also offering exciting spectacle and humor. Although set in the "real world", the bare outlines of the story resemble a fable or myth, with Godzilla a dragon or ogre threatening a kingdom; Mothra, the aging knight who honorably sacrifices her life and is "reborn" in the form of her offspring; and the twin fairies, magical intermediaries between the realm of the humans and the god-like monsters. It also helps that the film creates a "rooting interest" for Mothra. In the two previous Godzilla sequels, the monsters fought because, well, they were monsters. Mothra fights to protect her young as any animal might, but also makes a choice to defend mankind, in spite of the fact that humans reduced her island to a barren wasteland via nuclear testing. Although Toho would soon take anthropomorphizing of its monsters to absurd degrees, it works here, and we cheer on Mothra as she charges into battle against her formidable opponent.
The chief draw of a monster movie is, of course, the creatures and the special effects, and Eiji Tsuburaya and his crew deliver all the spectacle a monster-loving kid--of any age-- could want. The Godzilla suit, nicknamed the "MosuGoji" suit by fans, is very well designed, with heavy brows helping to create an especially menacing look. With budgets for the series slowly shrinking there is less smashing of pricey miniature buildings than in some of the earlier films, but more use of opticals to combine Godzilla with real locations and fleeing crowds. Thanks to Tsuburaya's purchase of a new Oxberry optical printer shortly before production began, the composites are much better than those in earlier Toho effects films, which tended to be plagued with dirt and matte lines. Several battles between Godzilla and the military are exciting and well-staged; as Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski observe in their commentary, this is one of the few films in which the Japanese military appears to employ an intelligent strategy, rather than just randomly throwing weaponry at the monsters. Marionette work on the Mothra miniatures is skillfully executed, with the wires well-hidden, and the two undulating Mothra larvae, with their cocoon-spinning abilities, are memorable. Complementing the images is Akira Ifukube's exciting score, one of the best of the many he contributed to the genre. In addition to re-using his familiar Godzilla themes and Yuji Koseki's "Song of Mothra" from Mosura, Ifukube composed a delicate, tragic theme for the giant moth that is one of his finest works.
Like most monster movies, Mothra vs. Godzilla doesn't give its human cast much of an opportunity to show off their acting chops, but Akira Takarada, Yuriko Hoshi and Hiroshi Koizumi are likeable and sincere as the three heroes. Female viewers may cringe at some of the dated, sexist attitudes written into Hoshi's role: Junko is a borderline inept amateur who never seems to get the photos needed, and at one point wanders off to photograph something in the water just because she thinks it's pretty. Emi and Yûmi Ito, who made up an immensely popular singing duo know as The Peanuts, are charming as the twin fairies. The most memorable performance belongs to Yoshifumi Tajima as the greedy huckster Kumayama; he's broad and funny, but still a recognizably human character and not a caricature.
For director Ishirô Honda, Mothra vs. Godzilla is the last great film made during an astonishingly creative period in his career. Starting with the original Gojira, he helmed one science fiction and kaiju (monster) classic after another, including Rodan (1956), The Mysterians (1957), The H-Man (1958), Battle in Outer Space (1959), Mothra, Gorath (1962), Matango (1963) and Atragon (1963). In most of these Honda communicated his belief in the need for mankind to set aside differences, shun selfishness and work together for the common good in the face of possible nuclear annihilation, depicted metaphorically as a monster or space menace. This theme is somewhat soft-pedaled in Mothra vs. Godzilla, but it does inform the plot, as the greed of the businessmen is contrasted with the selflessness of the heroes. It comes to the forefront when Ichiro, Junko and Professor Miura visit the nuclear-blasted Infant Island. Humbled when faced with the devastation man has wrought upon the lives of the natives, they admit mankind's sins and confess they have no right to ask for help; this acknowledgement of the shared humanity of the natives and the equal right of all life to exist is what finally persuades Mothra to help. After Mothra vs. Godzilla, most of Honda's work became more and more impersonal, as if he had said all he had to say and was burned out.
Classic Media's DVD of Mothra vs. Godzilla contains both the Japanese and American versions on the same side of one disc. The Japanese version is presented in the original Tohoscope aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and is 16 x 9 enhanced, with removable English subtitles. There is a slight softness to the image and contrast is a little lower than ideal, but the color is good and the overall picture quality is satisfactory, as is the mono soundtrack. The English-dubbed American version is more problematic, and the source of some controversy among fans. The image is 16 x 9 enhanced, but cropped to 1.78:1, losing significant information on the sides. This is particularly frustrating because the American cut contains a unique effects sequence not found in the Japanese original, in which the American military assist the Japanese in trying to stop Godzilla by firing a battery of Frontier missiles at the beast from battleships. Additionally, a few brief seconds of footage are missing, and there is a steady stream of superficial damage (scratches, dirt) on the source element. The transfer is otherwise fairly sharp and colorful, although it does look as if the color and black levels have perhaps been boosted artificially in telecine.
The major extra is a commentary with the American version by Ed Godziszewski, publisher and editor of Japanese Giants magazine, and Steve Ryfle, author of Japan's Favorite Mon-Star. The two clearly have a lot of affection for the movie, but the commentary avoids fanboy gushing and instead offers a wealth of interesting and detailed information on the making of the film. American Godzilla producer Henry G. Saperstein, voice actor Peter Fernandez and others offer their memories in recorded interview excerpts edited into the commentary. Also included is a short biographical featurette on composer Akira Ifukube narrated by Godziszewski, and concluding with a tribute by producer Shogo Tomiyama; it suffers from a lack of music excerpts (licensing issues probably prevented their inclusion), but is otherwise a fine overview. The original Japanese trailer and a montage of Japanese posters are also included.
A nostalgic and colorful example of Japanese monster movie making at its best, Mothra vs. Godzilla is recommended for all fans of the genre.
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by Gary Teetzel