I often find myself asking one question all the time – Above all else, what should a film be?
Over the course of this countdown, we’ve seen twenty different ways to answer that question. A film can be atmospheric like “Seven” and “The Night Of The Hunter,” or it could be touching like “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Fargo,” while others could be suspenseful like “Strangers On A Train.” Of course, every once in a while, we get an analytical film that touches upon social issues and cultures of all shapes and sizes, like with “Ran” and “WALL-E.”
But, when it comes right down to it, none of this means anything if a movie isn’t one thing – entertaining.
I’m not afraid to admit it, for all of cinemas’ subtleties, advancements and vast range of storytelling, that would go no where if audiences did not have fun with these films. The reason I hate films like “Casablanca,” “Blade Runner” and most Ingmar Bergman movies is quite simple, I do not find them entertaining. Film is certainly an art form, but it is also a form of entertainment, like any other media or art form. If art does not give you any enjoyment, then it fails.
I bring this up, because we have now arrived in my top five favorite films of all time, and we are starting off with what I consider the most entertaining movie I have ever seen. For others, they’ll jump to the original trilogy for “Star Wars,” or the Indiana Jones films, and more recently the “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy. While I have a blast with each of those movies, there is one movie that makes me smile all the way through. A film that has never failed to get me excited and appreciate how much fun cinema can be.
That film is Ishiro Honda’s 1964 monster epic, “Mothra Vs. Godzilla.” Oh yeah, we’re going back to the Godzilla franchise.
While “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan” is still the film I have watched more than any other, “Mothra Vs. Godzilla” is most likely the second highest, and certainly the Godzilla film I have watched the most. This was strange as a kid, since my favorite Godzilla movie growing up was “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” for having a long and drawn-out battle between two titans atop Mt. Fuji. Though, over the years, I realized the plot and characters did not hold up and the only reason to watch the movie was because of the final confrontation, like most giant monster movies.
But “Mothra Vs. Godzilla” taught me that it was possible for a daikaiju film to have a strong narrative that was as interesting to watch as the monster scenes. That a monster movie shouldn’t be only about the monsters, but the people effected by these monsters and their attempts to combat them, or simply survive.
Granted, looking back on this, 1954’s “Godzilla” covered this topic better than any other monster movie, but that film didn’t have Godzilla fighting a giant moth and the advanced effects they would have in 1964.
The film starts with a massive typhoon hitting Japan, destroying an industrial park area. More surprising though is that a giant egg washes up on a Japanese beach, leaving everyone surprised as to where it came from. Before researchers can find out about this egg, a business man by the name of Kumayama (Yoshifumi Tajima) buys the egg from the local fishermen and intends to make a theme park with the egg as the center attraction.
A local reporter (Akira Takarada) and his photographer (Yuriko Hoshi) look into the matter and find that Kumayama is being funded by one of the richest business men in Japan, Banzo Torahata (Kenji Sahara). As the two discuss their plans, they’re visited by two unexpected guests – Mothra’s twin fairies, who claim that the egg belongs to Mothra and that it must be returned to them, before Mothra hatches and causes great damage across Japan.
Though this might be the least of their problems, as it seems that typhoon washed ashore something bigger and more dangerous than Mothra.
“Mothra Vs. Godzilla” has an interesting atmosphere, unlike any other monster film out of Japan. Other than “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” this was the first film Toho would make that has two monsters battling it out. Prior to this, they focused on solo monster endeavors, like “Rodan,” “Varan” and most notably, “Godzilla” and “Mothra.” As such, Toho wanted to make this match-up feel grand and epic, or at least more so than usual. Their solution to this was to carry over as many themes and atmosphere from “Godzilla” and “Mothra” into this film.
“Godzilla” was a morbid, gritty look at the lives of a frail Japan being savagely beat down by a giant monster, made of the same atomic fire they had witnessed first hand. Throughout all the destruction and chaos, the film chooses to focus on individuals stuck in this unbelievable scenario, like a shot where Godzilla is about to destroy an apartment complex and we see every window full of people looking up in never-ending horror.
“Mothra,” however, was less about the frailty of man, and more about the horror of man, in particular greed. In that film, Mothra’s twin fairies are kidnapped and forced into show business, with Mothra traveling across Japan to save them and destroying anything in its path. Ultimately, “Mothra” is about the pain that man inflicts upon itself.
One might think these two have little in common. One is dark and disturbing, while the other is whimsical and prone to break into musical numbers. This is why these two were born to fight one another. To watch these two drastically different styles of filmmaking and atmosphere clash and give us a product that is the best of both films.
Much like in “Mothra,” this film finds something of the giant moth’s being used to make a profit. Both Kumayama and Torohata are unwilling to give the egg back, since Mothra has no legal power. Where this film differs is that these men are far more fleshed-out than the villain in “Mothra.”
Kumayama saw an opportunity to make a name for himself and refuses to let it go. It seems to be less about the money for him, and more about reputation, as his projections for how much they’ll make out of this are lower than Torohata’s numbers. When the fishermen complain that they haven’t gotten their money for the egg and the land to build the park, Kumayama insists that he will pay them back the next day, even though there’s a rumor the park will never open due to the bad press.
By the end of the film, Kumayama is a desperate man who wanted everything to be fair, only for Torohata to betray his loyalty and use him to become even more powerful. Simply because that’s how business works.
“Mothra Vs. Godzilla” takes the themes of greed and capitalism of “Mothra,” but gives it a more human touch by making the characters relatable and sometimes heart-breaking, like those being destroyed in “Godzilla.”
The size and scope of “Godzilla” is also still in full effect, though is enhanced by having superior effects in this film. In particular, Godzilla’s opening rampage is one of the most haunting monster sequences I can think of. It starts off with Godzilla rising out of the ground, as if he were a zombie ready to feast again. Once Godzilla reaches Nagoya, we start with seeing Godzilla’s figure way in the distance, only for the camera to get closer and closer, until Godzilla is destroying a building right in front of our faces.
This sequence makes full use of rear projection and super-imposing images of Godzilla over live shots of Nagoya fleeing from this monstrosity. “Godzilla” used this a few times, but here we see Godzilla tower over the massive city landscape, to the point where it looks like he is still miles away and is already bigger than most of the skyscrapers.
For this reason, and many more throughout the film, “Mothra Vs. Godzilla” has the best effects of any Toho monster film. During the 1950s and 1960s, no other film studio was doing what Toho did and was doing so well – they made creatures bigger than anything we had constructed up to that point and making them seem believable and still terrifying. We would fight it with everything we had, even though we were sure it wouldn’t do anything.
The filmmakers understand the scale and power these abominations possess, and that they offer a struggle we might lose but certainly worth fighting.
Unlike almost any other monster film, the military in “Mothra Vs. Godzilla” is intelligent. They understand what they’re fighting and know that it cannot be stopped, only incapacitated or moved to an area with fewer casualties. They lure Godzilla to an area with no civilians, and drive him to where they want him to go with fire, with the effects crew accidentally setting Godzilla’s head on fire at one point (though it is shocking to see on film). Once there, the military unleashes millions of volts of electricity on Godzilla, which do down Godzilla at one point.
Once again, this makes the characters not feel like they’re putting on a performance to the camera, but that they’re humans doing their best to fight something beyond their power.
This is why “Mothra Vs. Godzilla” is the most entertaining movie to me. It takes my favorite movie genre of giant monsters, never skips on a chance for exciting action with one-of-a-kind effects, and still plans out every scene, character and monster fight to the last detail to give us a movie that respects its audience. It combines eye-popping visuals with a great story, something you don’t see too often in the monster genre.
Of course, the crowning moments in the film are the fights between Mothra and Godzilla. Mothra, being a creäture of beauty and kindness (in terms of monsters), does not fight like any other monster. She prefers to out-wit her opponents and get them in a position where they cannot hit her, using her maneuverability and wind to keep them away. Godzilla is a monster of brute strength and will take a threat directly to the face if he has to. Together, these two have a cat-and-mouse style fight, where you’re never too sure who is the cat and mouse.
This is made more suspenseful when we’re told that Mothra is dying and has little strength left, but will use the last of it to stop Godzilla.
The battle at the end of the film is as fun to watch, though I always find myself switching sides on who to root for. Mothra’s egg finally hatches and gives birth to two Mothra larva, who immediately head for Godzilla to fight him. This turns into a battle of brains against brawn and the monster equivalent of David against Goliath. The twin Mothra’s can only dodge Godzilla’s atomic ray (which apparently is now strong enough to melt solid rock) and use their webbing to slow him down.
What helps sell these fights, as well as any scenes with Godzilla and Mothra, is the music. Composer Akira Ifukube scored nearly every Toho monster film between 1954 and 1995, but “Mothra Vs. Godzilla” is his best work. His style of music was not to ecompany the scene, but enhance the atmosphere and give some moments a bigger emotional punch. This is the film where Ifukube would nail down the classic Godzilla theme, which would be used in nearly every Godzilla film from that point on. That theme carries a power that matches Godzilla’s slow methodical pace, but also his immeasurable strength, like a bomb that has crashed and could go off at any moment.
Yet the quiet almost lullaby of Mothra’s theme provides a nice contrast to the Godzilla theme. These pieces of music perfectly capture their respective characters, and makes their fights far more intense when their themes are also fighting for control.
“Mothra Vs. Godzilla” is a great example of every film aspect coming together to produce the most entertaining film in the Godzilla franchise. The effects have never been better, the writing is logical and relatable, the acting matches the writing perfectly, the music is larger than life and makes so many scenes better, and the monsters are still amazing to watch. This film manages to take what “Godzilla” and “Mothra” started and makes it even better, providing a film that always makes me excited when I see it.