There are several ways to make monsters. One of the oldest is to take an existing animal and simply scale it up. It’s present in several mythologies with giant humans, Persians had the giant bird called a roc, and it’s speculated that it might be how the legends of dragons came about — simply take a lizard, make it several stories high, and you have a dragon. Makers of monster movies applied the same techniques, and the Japanese company Toho, responsible for the creation of Godzilla, naturally became known for it. One such film — arguably the best known other than Godzilla itself — is the 1961 monster movie Mothra, directed by Ishirô Honda.
You can hazard a guess as to what sort of creature they enlarged to gargantuan proportions.
Like most giant-monster movies of the 1950s and 1960s — American or Japanese — the source of the beast is atomic radiation. In the case of Mothra the island Beiru (“Infant Island” in the original Japanese) has been subjected to atomic tests from Japan for several years. When the survivors of a shipwreck wind up there, they are rescued and tell how they were spared from the effects of radiation by a fruit juice given to them by the natives — shocking the press and scientists as they were unaware the island was inhabited. An expedition goes to the island, and discovers tribal Polynesians living there, as well as something remarkable — two fully grown women who stand only a foot high (Emi and Yûmi Itô).
Conflict comes in the form of Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito), a businessman from Rosilica (a fictional country, which the creators have said is a hybrid of the United States and the Soviet Union). Nelson sees money to be made from exploiting the “fairy twins”, and kidnaps them, forcing them to sing in public performances for his profit. The heroes in the film are Dr. Chûjô (Hiroshi Koizumi) and his son Shinji (Akihiro Tayama), and a pair of sympathetic journalists, female photographer Michi Hanamura (Kyôko Kagawa) and Frankie Sakai as Sen-Chan “Bulldog” Fukuda. Bulldog is the lead role in the heroes, pursuing information and even occasionally fighting Nelson’s guards, while at the same time sometimes functioning as comic relief. The acting is decent, and the dubbed voices are also done reasonably well, but for a largely character-driven monster movie, there isn’t a huge amount of character development here. Nelson especially suffers from being a very two-dimensional villain, and most of the others are just filling stock roles as well. Granted, the humans aren’t really supposed to be the stars here, but the film does focus on them as much as the monster.
What do you mean, I can’t get top billing above a bug?
The kidnapping awakens Mothra, the ancient guardian of the island. Mothra emerges initially as a caterpillar, swimming towards Tokyo. The Japanese military tries to take Mothra out, but of course is unsuccessful. The special effects are good for the time, but there’s a degree of variability in how well they hold up to the scrutiny of today’s movie-goers. As a caterpillar, Mothra doesn’t move very much (just in a straight line most of the time), but looks about as believable as can be expected. The cocoon that Mothra forms is as realistic as anything today. But the heat ray cannons used against the cocoon, while probably fine for 1961, look a bit hokey today. And the final form of Mothra is, unfortunately, rather silly looking. It looks like a cheap gift shop stuffed animal, and if it weren’t for the fact that moths were probably not a common gift shop item, I would almost suspect it of being just that. I try to make allowances for special effects in older films, but I have to admit it took me out of things, and when the giant monster is the star of the film, that’s a significant weakness. I also never really got the sense of a city-wide threat that Mothra is supposed to pose; there are some destroyed buildings, to be sure, but there was never that feeling of awe that accompanies a well-done disaster movie.
Even so, there’s a basic story that works reasonably well here, and fans of the giant monster movie genre will enjoy the film. There may not be much here for other people, though; not quite enough character depth, a monster who is hard to buy into, and a lack of awe add up to a film that may be an entertaining novelty, but a novelty only.