It is odd how memory unfolds from art. It’s been twenty or so years since I last saw the classic 1964 color Godzilla film, Mothra Vs. Godzilla (better known to American audiences by the title Godzilla Vs. The Thing, as Roger Corman’s company, AIP redubbed it to lend more mystery to the ad campaign) yet, upon popping in the Toho Master Collection DVD of the film, instantly some things returned to me, of earlier viewings. The first was Godzilla’s famed entrance into the film, a half hour or so in, when reporters are covering a story about a radioactive mud field, after a typhoon has hit Japan’s countryside. Suddenly, the ground shakes, and it seems that an earthquake is abrewing. Except that it turns out to be Godzilla rising from beneath the mud, after having been swept ashore and buried. The second thing is, seeing it in color, on television, even though my family did not get color television until the late 1980s. I recall watching the film during a Godzilla marathon on Thanksgiving Day, in New York City, thus recalling Godzilla’s emergence scene, but it had to be at the home of one of my relatives. Back in the 1970s, the local, non-network, television stations would often run monster marathons on Thanksgiving. It was usually on Channel 9 (WOR) or Channel 11 (WPIX), and the marathons would be Godzilla films and King Kong films, such as King Kong, Son Of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, and, of course, King Kong Vs. Godzilla. The third memory goes back even further into my youth, into my early elementary school years, when I, and some neighborhood pals, watched the film at a local 24 hour movie theater that often played children’s films in the morning, from reels of old films that they had extra copies of, including older Ray Harryhausen, Hammer Horror, and AIP/Roger Corman films. My pals and I would often see the films free if we did some cleaning and chores for the theater owner. To see this film in color AND on the big screen still remains ensconced in my memory as a great thrill, even if the film, itself, is not the best in the original series of films from the 1950s through 1970s (aka the Showa Era films).
This claim, though, is widely and wrongly disputed by many other critics of the Japanese monster films of the era, but, in terms of cinema quality, the only two films in the Showa series which can count as films of depth and substance are the original 1954 film Godzilla, King Of The Monsters, which was an allegory on nuclear weaponry and war, and 1969’s Godzilla’s Revenge, which was a sharp allegory on childhood fears and dangers, masquing as a monster film. The rest of the series, excepting Godzilla’s Revenge, began a slow decline into campiness, starting with the series’ second film, 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again, which, like the original, was shot in black and white, and featured Godzilla as a force of nature, not cute and cuddly. The third film in the series was 1962’s King Kong Vs. Godzilla, which was a more childish film, yet still played out as a broad satiric farce of modern consumerism. This film, the series’ fourth, while not terrible, simply lacked the camp quality that made its predecessor film, if not great cinema, great fun. Mothra Vs. Godzilla is simply a rather paint-by-numbers film, with solid acting, solid special effects, but a rather ludicrous storyline: that the giant moth, Mothra, from its own titular 1961 film, would battle a huge, radioactive, fire-breathing dinosaur, and ultimately win. It’s another step down, film-wise, in the series.
This fact is proclaimed as one of the qualities that makes the film good, by the DVD commentarians on the English language version of the film, Godzilla experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, who both see this film as second in quality, only to the original film. But they are wrong. First, Godzilla is always the star of the films he appears in, and is always the good guy, even in the earliest films where he is shown as almost a force of nature. The viewer always wants to see him stomp on and fry the Japs as they run in terror. Godzilla always has our sympathies, even in the first film, where one weeps for the dead monster, not the scientist who dies to kill him. This rooting for Godzilla, by any means, and for any reason, is part of the thrill of these films; especially the earlier ones. Therefore, by dramatic necessity, all who oppose Godzilla, are evil, and villains. In this film, as example, we see all the humans as venal, bumbling, self-centered, and only after their own ends (even the Infant Island tribesmen, and the two fairies, who worship Mothra). Thus, Mothra, as the defender of humanity, is the villain of the film, and we cheer when Godzilla kills the adult Mothra, and feel cheated, dramatically, when the two caterpillar Mothras defeat Godzilla by cocooning him until he trips and falls into the sea. In this manner, this film is far less satisfying an ending than that for King Kong Vs. Godzilla, where, in a similar fashion, the great ape defeats Godzilla after both tumble into the sea (and, yes, that’s the ending in both film versions- American and Japanese; despite legends to the contrary).
In the earlier film, because it is campier, we are less emotionally invested in Godzilla’s winning or losing, and just enjoying the campy spectacle, even if we realize that Godzilla could just literally roast Kong (or all three of the Mothras) and easily win. But, the Kong victory is less frustrating for the Godzilla viewer because it can, at least, be rationalized. Kong is an ape, an intelligent mammal, who is clearly smarter than Godzilla (witness when he jams a tree into Godzilla’s mouth), and therefore his victory, seems less implausible. Also, that film ends on a more ambiguous note. But, moths (and caterpillars at that?) defeating Godzilla? Hell, moths are not even social insects, and their caterpillar forms are just basically brainless eating machines. They would be DUMBER than a reptile, and it is this schism, and the more definitive defeat of Godzilla, which has always made this film the least palatable ending of all Godzilla films.
Plus, it’s not a particularly good film by other measures. It follows the formula King Kong Vs. Godzilla established, but it lacks the humor, the acting (of both the monsters and humans), and the story is just flat. In the earlier film, human consumerism is attacked. In this film, well, we just get the cute Infant Island twin fairies (the pop duet The Peanuts- Emi and Yûmi Ito). In both the Japanese and American versions the DVD presents, a giant egg washes ashore, after the typhoon that opens the film. Minor wrangling over who owns it and can exploit it abounds between the good guys- news reporter Sakai (Akira Takarada), Professor Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi), and love interest Junko (Yuriko Hoshi), and the bad guys- capitalists Kumayama (Yoshibumi Tajima), and Torahatta (Kenji Sahara). Godzilla shows up, does his thing, the film’s heroes go to Infant Island to convince the fairies to send Mothra to save the day. The giant moth responds, just in time to stop Godzilla from crushing its egg (which, despite the commentarian’s claims about good special effects in this film, strains credulity given the size of the egg and size of mama Mothra). They battle, Mothra seems to be winning, until Godzilla fries Mothra, which sends it crashing to its death, protecting its egg with a wing. Godzilla goes on to fall into the Japanese army’s electrical trap (a holdover plot device from King Kong Vs. Godzilla), but escapes when the dumb (and evil) humans get cocky and push things too far (see, hubris is why Godzilla must punish mankind). Then, the larval Mothras hatch, follow Godzilla to an island where, sure enough, women and children are imperiled (a hammy plot device to extend the film and make sure Godzilla can tumble cocooned into the sea), to add melodrama, and, despite a thrashing from Godzilla, outsmart and straitjacket the reptile, even as his fire breath can melt boulders, kill the adult Mothra, but seemingly have no effect on the caterpillars. Again, a very dissatisfying end to a mediocre film (albeit, as a Godzilla film, still better than most sci fi films of the era, in terms of the sheer joy of watching Godzilla do his thing).
The DVD has both versions of the film, and the subtitled Japanese version (also a half minute longer, at 88 minutes) is a better, cleaner print, and shown in widescreen Tohoscope (a 2.35:1 aspect ratio) vs. the American 16:9 ratio, as well as being in readable gold font. There is a nice 10 minute tribute to the film’s musical scorer, Akira Ifukube- who did most of the Godzilla films, and, truly, no one can argue with the fact that Godzilla scores are some of the most memorably menacing in all of film history; the original Japanese theatrical trailer; a poster gallery; and the commentary on the American version. Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, as they did on the Gojira/Godzilla commentary, for that DVD release, are excellent. Their comments are scene specific, filled with trivia, personal reflections, and is fast paced. Despite disagreeing with their overall assessment and claims for this film over other, superior Godzilla fare, their comments are very good, and a shot in the arm to appreciating these films as more than just childish silliness with poor English language dubbing. The special effects are just so-so, despite the commentarians’ claims to the contrary. Godzilla is not as cartoonish as later films would make him, but this was the start of the de-menacing of his look, especially compared to the three earlier films. And Mothra simply is the least convincing of the big name Japanese monsters, with no expressiveness from its odd eyes, and inexpressive body. Its wings do look a bit more realistic, but only in contrast to its anatomy. Compared to Rodan, the monster is not nearly as impressive a flying creature. And the larval caterpillar versions (which, as a single creature- which one died?, appears more often than the adult version in the films) are, in several shots, revealed as wheeled mechanical pull toys (see especially the scene where one of the larvae bites Godzilla’s tail and is thrashed about). The story, which was a rehash of the earlier King Kong Vs. Godzilla, was scripted by Shinichi Sekizawa, and simply follows formula. The cinematography, by Hiroshi Miyagawa, is solid, but nothing spectacular, although the special effects, by Eiji Tsuburaya, of the tiny fairies being seen in the same frame with the rest of the actors is quite impressive for its day, and Ishirô Honda’s film is certainly not a bad film, overall nor within the Godzilla series; it’s just not nearly as good as its champions proclaim. In fact, the Japanese version is, in many ways, an inferior film, as it lacks an impressive missile sequence where the offshore American military bombs Godzilla, and almost defeats him until, well, they seem to run out of missiles. Also, the original ending is much more smug and preachy than the American version.
That said, I still enjoyed both versions of the film, the commentary track, and, whether a middle-aged man, like me, seeking to relive some joyous moments of youth, or a sci fi/monster film fan looking to delve into the genre’s history, Mothra Vs. Godzilla is a fine way to spend an hour and a half. Just don’t think you’re getting Godzilla at his best. Take that, you goddamned Japs!