Four shipwrecked sailors are picked up from Beiru Island. Since the island is used for atomic bomb tests, these men should have radiation poisoning but claim berries supplied by friendly natives saved their lives. Greedy foreign businessman Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito) organizes an expedition to hunt down these mysterious islanders, roping in scientists Dr. Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) and Dr. Haradawa (Ken Uehara), while scoop-hungry reporter “Bulldog” Tsin-chan (Frankie Sakai) sneaks aboard.
The explorers discover an island full of lush vegetation, ancient relics, and a vampire plant, but their real find is the Twin Fairies (Emi Ito and Yumi Ito, a.k.a. J-pop stars: “The Peanuts”), tiny magical princesses worshipped by the kindly natives. Nasty Nelson snatches the girls back to Japan for his “Secret Fairies Show”, bringing the wrath of their sacred monster Mothra upon the long-suffering citizens of Tokyo. Can good guy “Bulldog” and gal pal photographer Michi (Kyoko Kagawa) free the fairies and save the city?
Bill Warren, the great author of Keep Watching the Skies!, remarked that giant monsters generally have one of two motivations: to escape or eat as many people as possible. Toho’s fairytale-monster movie put a fresh spin on a genre in danger of becoming stale. Based on a novel: “The Luminous Fairies and Mothra” by Takehiko Fukunaka, the story was adapted screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa (Toho’s go-to guy for lighthearted whimsy) with monster maestro Ishiro Honda further lightening the mood with sunny colours and spectacular special effects by the great Eiji Tsuburaya. Mothra remains one of Japan’s most fondly remembered films and introduced a monster whose longevity rivalled that of Godzilla - although some curmudgeonly fans maintain the giant moth is boring. Strong characters were still important to Toho’s monster makers at this stage, and this film features some of the best. “Bulldog”, Michi and Chujo are lively and appealing in their heroism (“Bulldog” rescues a trapped baby from a flash flood) and friendliness to the fairies, while a subplot involves Chujo’s kid brother and his attempts to rescue the fairies. This would surely have appealed to children who were by now the core audience for Japanese monster movies.
Mothra arrived around the same time as Eugene Lourie’s similarly maternal monster movie, Gorgo (1961). Unlike that movie, the fairies are kind enough to worry about innocent lives at risk. It’s just as well the Japanese eventually made nice with the Twin Fairies, since they helped save the nation in Mothra vs Godzilla (1964) (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. the Thing), turned Godzilla into a good guy in Ghidrah: The Three-Headed Monster (1964), and returned several times well into the millennium. Emi and Yumi Ito were a very successful singing duo and stuck with the series until Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966) where they were replaced by “the Bambi Pair”.
Aside from the Peanuts, the star turn here comes courtesy of Frankie Sakai, a popular comedian who made a handful of genre films in sixties and went on to co-star with Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune in the hit miniseries Shogun (1979). Spare a thought for poor Jerry Ito whose semi-Caucasian features left him forever typecast as “shifty foreign devils” in everything from sci-fi to spy movies and gangster flicks. He even played a slimy American paedophile named Mr. Polanski (!) in the Sonny Chiba vehicle Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon (1977).
Toho revived Mothra for trilogy of films in the late nineties. The now-male Mothra Leo was powered by a 10,000 year old tree and could adopt an array of forms including Rainbow Mothra, Aqua Mothra, Light Speed Mothra, Armour Mothra and Eternal Mothra. Cast as a mystical eco-warrior, Mothra battled the flora-destroying Death Ghidorah in Rebirth of Mothra (1996), the toxic waste-spewing Dagahra in Mothra 2: Adventure Under the Sea (1997), and the newly reincarnated Grand King Ghidorah who feeds off the life force of Japan’s children in Mothra 3: Attack of Grand Ghidorah (1998). Unpopular with American fans, these films proved popular with youngsters in Japan and featured a new take on the Twin Fairies as feisty sisters with clashing personalities. Last seen in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), chances are Mothra will return soon.
Mothra is probably my favourite of the Japanese giant monsters, it's such an eccentric concept you can't imagine anyone in the West coming up with it. Don't listen to the naysayers, everybody, just because Mothra was always one of the good guys doesn't make for a boring creature.