Turning 60 this month, what messages can Mothra still teach audiences? We’ve been taking a look at a classic monster movie.
Spoilers for Mothra lie ahead.
This month sees the 60th anniversary of one of cinema’s most beloved monster films: the marvellous Mothra. Toho’s 1961 opus is a feature packed with vivid special effects, gorgeous Tohoscope photography, and a layered political message that catapults the film to the very best of its kind. I’d argue too that its unabashed positivity still resonates today.
If you’re not familiar with the movie, the setup runs as follows. After shipwrecked survivors are found close to Infant Island, a mysterious land exposed to nuclear testing, an expedition is mounted. Headed by shady entrepreneur Clark Nelson (played with great malevolence by Jerry Ito), the team meets the Shobijin (literally translated as ‘small beauties’), two tiny women who end up saving the life of one of our heroes, Professor Chujo (the wonderful Hiroshi Koizumi). Unbeknownst to the rest of the expedition, Nelson and his henchmen later return to slaughter the Infant Islanders and kidnap the Shobijin. Back in Japan, Nelson puts the girls on display, unaware that the song they sing is actually a call to their monster god, Mothra.
The character of Clark Nelson is a citizen of Rolisica, a fictional amalgamation of Russia and America that stands as a thinly-veiled stand-in for the latter – complete with New Kirk City. It’s through Rolisica that the film’s director, Ishiro Honda, and its screenwriter, Shinichi Sekizawa, are able to realise some striking political commentary.
International tensions rise as the film goes on, with Rolisica initially defending Nelson’s ownership of the Shobijin, a tacit endorsement of what is effectively slavery. As Mothra begins her tremendous march across Japan to rescue the girls, the film’s heroes – led by Japanese comedy legend Frankie Sakai – struggle to do the same. However, Rolisica eventually relents, and even lends Japan several atomic heat cannons to use against the irritable insect. With this burgeoning international co-operation, the film speaks to both real and abstract ideas.
In 1960, Japan witnessed some of the largest protests in its political history, squarely against revision and renewal of the controversial US-Japan security treaty. The initial form of the treaty was signed toward the end of the American Occupation in 1951. One of its most contentious terms was that the US could maintain a large military presence in Japan, and could even exert power over domestic quarrels.
Tensions rose throughout the 1950s, as did the number of demonstrations against aspects of US military presence. As renewal of the treaty approached amidst the unrest, prime minister Nobosuke Kishi (himself an accused war criminal) attempted to rush controversial revisions through the Japanese Diet. The culmination of political strife erupted on 15th June, when student protestors stormed their way into the Diet building, and a bloody battle with right-wing ultranationalists and the police ensued. By its end, a young woman had died.
With unprecedented television coverage, it’s more than likely that Shinichi Sekizawa was aware of such political turmoil, not least because direct commentary on the security treaty appears in one of the film’s first story drafts.
With Rolisica, as a stand-in for the US, placing military hardware on Japanese soil in the form of atomic heat cannons, there are two ways to read what follows. From a more cynical angle, the fact that these cannons do little more than wake Mothra from her chrysalis can be read as an indictment of the supposed protection offered by such military presence. But on the other hand, it more naturally reads as international relations improving. Sekizawa, having been drafted into the Imperial Japanese army, hated his wartime experience. As film historian David Kalat has noted, it may have paradoxically informed the lighter tone of his scripts. The positivity with which Sekizawa approached his own ethos can therefore be seen in how Mothra unfolds, a leftover reaction to the authoritarian regime which had sent him to war.
By the film’s end, Rolisica and Japan have improved relations, Clark Nelson has been stopped by Rolisican authorities, and Mothra is reunited with the Shobijin. Justice prevails. In a vacuum, the film still ends with hope and balance, as Mothra returns to Infant Island. But, in considering the very real political climate which informed its production, Mothra’s vision of hope is one shaped by unfortunate realities. The protests against the US-Japan security treaty (mentioned in only brief detail here) are but one context to consider when reading this film.
It should, however, be clarified that Rolisica was not an intentional indictment of the United States as these readings may lead you to believe. Not only was Columbia Pictures Corporation co-financing the picture (New Kirk City was included as part of a stipulation that the climax take place in an American-looking locale), but Toho was certainly savvy enough not to directly criticise America when wanting to export its films overseas. Nevertheless, though Rolisica is thinly-veiled, that same aspect allows the criticisms against it to be projected against any number of imperialist states. Thus, the film has greater reach in its messaging.
With the ‘brotherhood of mankind’ theme repeatedly appearing across director Ishiro Honda’s science fiction filmography, the ending of Mothra, with international co-operation fomenting a happy resolution, is a broad image of a better world. Meanwhile, the individual actions that characterise Rolisica’s place in the narrative can be read as a more generous depiction of the very real political unrest Japan had witnessed just a year prior.
Watching Mothra today can be somewhat sobering, for the film’s international optimism is marred only by memory of real-life world horrors that have unfolded in the following decades. Yet Mothra’s hope isn’t quite vanquished. The film envisions a world that still suffers from capitalist greed, nuclear colonialism, and political strife, but it also says that these problems can be solved. Justice can prevail. More than a year into a deadly pandemic, political violence at home and abroad, and injustices beamed to our screens every minute, what can Mothra – or indeed any film – offer to us?
A film is just a film, and it is by no means a substitute for real, material action to better our world. However, the world as director Ishiro Honda and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa envision it exists for us forever in this marvellous film. In our words, in our actions, and in our hearts, we can try to make sure it doesn’t stay there.
Happy 60th, Mothra.
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