Monday, August 31, 2015

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)

One of the strangest things about classic works and pop culture mainstays, is realizing that at one new they were brand new and untested. Jaws and Star Wars were expected to be huge bombs, James Bond was originally adapted to be an American CIA agent named "Jimmy Bond" for an episode of an anthology TV show, and once upon a time Godzilla's name was not considered enough of a box office draw in the very land that gave birth to him.

In 1962, and the following International releases in 1963, King Kong vs. Godzilla proved to be a huge hit. Toho had clearly made the right decision in licensing the character of King Kong and using him to bring their homegrown monster back to the big screen after a 7 year absence. For the first time since 1955's rushed sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, Godzilla was seen as a viable franchise property at a time when franchises were not the norm.

(For more evidence of how unusual franchises were at that time, remember that Godzilla Raids Again became "Gigantis, The Fire Monster" in the US because the studio assumed audiences would be more likely to go see a new film than a sequel)

Well, Toho may have seen the franchise potential in Godzilla, but they clearly weren't all that sure of his name value yet. When it came time to follow up King Kong vs. Godzilla, Godzilla was once again the second-billed monster. Clearly 1961's Mothra had been enough of a success that Toho felt audiences would see Mothra as the draw and cast Godzilla as the sinister foil to her heroic role.

Man, I would love to know the story behind this wacky publicity still.
In the US, however, that sentiment was much the opposite. While this entry is easily one of the least altered Godzilla films to make it to US theaters, the title and poster art promised an entirely different film: Godzilla vs. The Thing. Gone was even the barest mention of Mothra in trailers and promotional materials--and even in the film, characters inexplicably refer Mothra by her proper name and as "The Thing," interchangeably. On posters, Godzilla was shown facing off against a big question mark or, in the case of the astoundingly dishonest poster above, wrestling with a tentacled monstrosity so horrible it has to be hidden behind a "Censored" panel.

I really, really wish there was more available press from the time of the film's release because I seriously must know how many people walked out of the film feeling ripped off.

I would like to believe that some of the sting was taken out by the fact that the film they did see was amazing.

We open with the most famous of Akira Ifukube's themes, and the theme that became as inseparable from Godzilla as tapping two piano keys became from killer sharks. For Japanese audiences, this would actually be the second time they heard this theme, but producer John Beck tragically deprived Western audiences of it when he was chopping King Kong vs. Godzilla to pieces. The theme is a prelude to a raging typhoon that obliterates a seaside industrial area we'll later discover is Kurada Beach. Say what you want about how obvious the miniatures are in this sequence, the scale of destruction rendered is impressive.

The next morning, huge pumps are hard at work flushing the water back out to sea. An unnamed politician (Kenzo Tabu) arrives to bloviate about how successful he cleanup has been and, in what I am convinced is not an accident, he has a Hitler mustache. The press shows up in drives and we focus on journalist Ichiro Sakai (Akira Takarada!) and his photographer Junko Nakanishi (Yuriko Hoshi!). Sakai is rather unimpressed that Junko hasn't instantly begun taking photos, but he's distracted from haranguing her by the politician singling him out. It seems Sakai has been critical of the politician's progress in cleaning up after the typhoon.

Sakai escapes having his ear chewed off by the politician because the man is too busy using the crowd for self-promotion to actually keep an eye on the man he was just angrily confronting. Sakai, meanwhile, finds Junko setting up for a shot and is annoyed when he finds out it's her first. (Sakai is kind of a jerk) However, when he sees what she's shooting he's stunned out of his lecture on how easy photography is--floating among some wreckage is an object the size of a hubcap, rainbow colored like oil on water. And then Sakai picks it up, ruining Junko's shot.

Meanwhile, back at the newspaper they work for, a call comes in to the chief editor, Murata (Jun Tazaki, here not playing a general). In the first instance of a running gag, the news Murata gets causes him to prevent Nakamura (Yu Fujiki) from finishing eating a egg--at a beach near the site of the typhoon, an enormous rainbow-colored egg has been sighted floating offshore.

The fishermen of the village are scared of the egg, but the head villager (Akira Tani) tells them that it's a great opportunity for the village and the priest (Ikio Sawamura, the old man in practically every Ishiro Honda film I've mentioned before) assures them that the Gods will protect them from any curse upon the egg. Well, that's good enough for the fishermen and they row out in their canoes and somehow bring the egg ashore.

Sakai and Junko are naturally quick to make the scene--though not quick enough that we don't get a spinning newspaper announcement of the egg's discovery first. The egg is surrounded by scientists taking samples, lead by Professor Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi, who sadly passed away earlier this summer). Miura is not interested in answering questions, but despite her accidentally blinding him with a flashbulb even he can't resist Junko's cuteness and relents to answer one question at her urging. Sakai then blows this opportunity by asking if the egg will explode.

Sorry, Sakai, you're thinking of beached whales not beached eggs. (Don't search YouTube for footage of exploding whales unless you have a strong stomach)

Well, Miura doesn't get to take many samples because suddenly the head villager arrives with Kumayama (Yoshifumi Tajima, last seen here being eaten by an H-Man), a sleazy businessman with a Hitler mustache. Again, I don't think this was accidental. Kumayama's company, Happy Enterprises, has purchased the egg from the villagers and, in an amusing bit, we find out the price was determined by multiplying the wholesale price of one chicken egg by how many chicken eggs this monster egg is equal to. At any rate, over Sakai, Junko, and Miura's objections Kumayama has the scientists driven away--but promises to let them study the egg for the same fee he's going to charge everyone else to see it. And then he asks unko to take his picture and deliberately ruins the shot by blowing smoke at her.

Presumably the scene of him kicking a puppy was cut for time.

At a nearby hotel, Sakai, Junko, and Miura are all together, discussing the issue. All three agree that Happy Enterprises shouldn't be allowed to keep the egg. However, none of them know what to do about it. Miura scoffs that the government would need too many committee meetings to even decide it's worth discussing, while Sakai can only offer his role as a journalist to try and sway public opinion against Happy Enterprises.

As the three are exiting the hotel, presumably to go to dinner, they see Kumayama coming in and asking the front desk if a certain party has arrived. Sakai gets the feeling that maybe Kumayama isn't in charge after all, and this might be a chance to see who's pulling his strings. Sakai is right, for Kumayama is meeting Jiro Torahata (Kenji Sahara!) in Torahata's room. As he lounges in sunglasses at night and chews on a fancy cigar, Torahata discusses the wonderful profit potential of the monster egg--and the two pore over a blueprint of the giant incubator they'll build for the egg.

Now, you might think that the Japanese government might come down swiftly on any corporation incubating a kaiju egg on Japanese soil--especially since, in King Kong vs. Godzilla, they wouldn't let Tako's company bring King Kong to Japan. However, this is never addressed in the film and I'm fairly certain that is a part of the film's satire of Japanese corporate culture. Especially since, in the original Japanese version of King Kong vs. Godzilla, King Kong is blocked not because he is a public menace--he's blocked because Tako hasn't paid the import taxes on him!

At any rate, as Torahata congratulates himself on a wonderful plan and draws on his cigar, a tiny voice objects that is plan is wrong. I mean a literal tiny voice. Two tiny voices, actually. Torahata assumes the voies are corporate spies after the plans and shoves them into a locker full of cash--which Kumayama almost literally drools over. However, the two men soon discover the source of the voices is on a nearby shelf, where the twin fairies or Shobijin (Emi and Yumi Ito, or "The Peanuts", reprising their roles from Mothra) are standing in order to implore the two men to return the egg.

It doesn't go well.

Torahata and Kumayama immediately think that they should follow in the villainous Nelson's footsteps in Mothra (apparently unaware how badly that ended for Nelson) by capturing the fairies and displaying them with the egg. Unfortunately, the Shobijin have learned some tricks since their last visit to civilization and easily elude the two men. Sakai uses the sound of their struggle as an excuse to rush into the room. He's quickly ushered out, but now he knows Torahata is involved.

Sakai meets with Junko and Miura in the woods behind the hotel. As they discuss ideas for how to deal with the issue, they are addressed by two tiny voices imploring them to return the egg. Junko spies the Shobijin on a tree branch. Our heroic trio is, naturally, far more willing to listen to reason. Especially once the fairies reveal that the egg is Mothra's and, in flashback, explain that the egg was washed away when the tidal waves caused by the typhoon wore away the cliff face it was buried in. If the egg is not returned before it hatches, the larva inside might cause great damage in its search for food. The natives of the island have been praying for the egg's safe return for days, but the Shobijin caught a ride to Japan on Mothra.

What's that? Oh, yeah, Mothra is sitting right over there on a nearby hill. Her attempt to "wave" hello nearly blows the poor humans away with the force of her wings.

In the hopes that, together, they might be able to succeed where separately they had failed, our heroes bring the Shobijin to a meeting with Kumyama and Torahata. Hilariously, being told that the egg belongs to a giant moth that had leveled Tokyo and New Kirk City only three years earlier, just makes Torahata joke that they should come back with whatever lawyers Mothra can provide. Seeing that Junko has the Shobijin inside the box she's carrying only makes the two sleazeballs offer to buy the twin fairies. So much for that plan.

Regrouping at a restaurant, Sakai, Junko, and Miura take turns despairing of how hopeless it is. They've simply done all they can. And then they notice the Shobijin have vanished. The three quickly realize that the fairies must have gone back to Mothra. It's too late, though, as they hear the voices of the fairies thanking them for their efforts, but they're going back to Infant Island--and then Mothra nearly blows them away on take-off.

Mothra is taking a noticeably more diplomatic approach to retrieving her young than she did to retrieving the fairies in her last outing.

Since this is a film from 1964, Sakai and Murata discuss the best way to sway public opinion via their newspaper. However, while their articles do unsettle the villagers enough to force Kumayama to borrow money from Torahata to keep them happy, Happy Enterprises still goes ahead with activating the furnaces that power their incubator. So far the free press is powerless against the corporate juggernaut.

Well, soon that monster egg will be old news. Junko fetches Sakai because Miura left a message for them. After insisting the two go through a decontamination chamber, Miura informs them that the weird object they found in the typhoon wreckage at Kurada Beach is radioactive. They go back to test the area, now clear of water, for residual activity. Unfortunately, the politician from earlier tells them to get lost when he discovers they aren't there to praise his efforts. Except when Sakai goes to collect Junko, she points out to him that she has been unable to get a good shot of the industrial area because the land is moving.

Sure enough, the land is rising and falling like something is pushing up from underneath it. A srage fountain of mist erupts from the ground, which sends Miura's geiger counter into fits. And then, in the greatest moment in film history, Godzilla bursts up through the ground.

"... I am never drinking again."
Having been buried there by the typhoon, Godzilla is in a foul mood when he wakes him. He advances on Nagoya, destroying a refinery before wandering through the downtown area. In a sure sign of how groggy the big brute is, he gets his tail caught in the base of a tower and proceeds to wrestle with said tower after he knocks it over onto his back. He wanders over to Nagoya Castle and proceeds to stumble on the castle moat and fall into the castle, which he then destroys as if he totally meant to do that, folks.

"You take that back, my mother was not a skink!"
In the US version, we get an unusual sequence in that it was shot by Toho exclusively for use in the American release. The US Navy helpfully offers to aid Japan by engaging Godzilla with their shiny new Frontier Missiles. The fleet finds Godzilla just fine and bombards the beach he's on, but as you might expect all those fancy missiles do is momentarily knock Godzilla down a cliff--which, given how clumsy he's been so far, he might have done regardless of their involvement.

In the newspaper office, Sakai, Junko, Miura, and Murata try to decide what the hell anyone can do about Godzilla's return. Nakamura arrives, having been forced to leave the area where the egg is housed due to Godzilla being at large. Murata is annoyed that he didn't stay behind and risk being stomped by Godzilla, but then Nakamura suggests that maybe Mothra could be persuaded to help. I mean, she is a giant monster and her egg is currently in the country being torn apart by Godzilla, so it could be in danger, too. Sakai, Junko, and Miura reluctantly agree that it is worth a shot.

The trio are airlifted to Infant Island, but land in an inflatable dinghy. They survey the radioactive ruin that is much of Infant Island, strewn with skeletons--check out the oddity in the background that is referred to as "Skeleturtle" by the fandom: it looks like a skeleton, but bobs its head and blinks at random intervals.

"Maybe Skeleturtle will fight Godzilla?"
The natives find them and bring them to the island's temple. The island chief (Yoshio Kosugi, here wearing red paint and a white beard instead of black face as he did in King Kong vs. Godzilla, where he also played a native chief) makes sure the strangers drink the radiation-curing juice estabished in Mothra and then demands to know what they want. Understandably, an island used for nuclear tests is not exactly trusting of outsiders and hearing, "Hey, we want to borrow your God so she can fight Godzilla," goes over like a lead balloon. Hearing the voice of the Shobijin singing leads everyone to a beautiful garden oasis, where the twin fairies are waiting. They cheerfully explain that they know what the trio wants, thanks to their telepathy, but they will not help.

It then falls to the trio to take turns making impassioned pleas for why Mothra should help, oddly none of which is, "If she doesn't, Godzilla might decide to make her egg an omelet." Well, Mothra is persuaded and cries out, so the Shobijin lead the trio to the temple where Mothra is perched. Mothra has agreed to help, but given her age and waning strength there's not getting around it: Mothra will not survive this battle, win or lose.

"What if we gave her a really big sweater to eat?"
The next day, the trio returns to Japan near the giant incubator, whee Mothra has been promised to arrive. Unfortunately, Godzilla has made his advance towards the same area. In the nearby hotel, Kumayama confronts Torahata because it seems the money he "borrowed" was actually his own: his business partner has been cheating him. Kumayama beats Torahata bloody and breaks into the money locker. Torahata, seeing Godzilla advancing on the hotel,  pulls a gun out of his desk and shoots Kumayama in the head. Unfortunately, the time it takes to gather up his money means Torahata is still in the hotel when Godzilla casually strikes it with his tail.
And my inner commie is delighted to see the two corrupt capitalists kill each other before being stomped on by Godzilla.

Godzilla proceeds to smash the incubator to get at the egg, which is the point when Junko finally realizes that it would be a bad thing if Godzilla got to the egg. While Godzilla decides on "scrambled" or "sunny side up," Mothra arrives and wastes no time in savagely attacking Godzilla. What follows is one of the only times anyone has successfully come up with a satisfying answer to, "What's a giant moth going to do against Godzilla?"

"Ow! OW! Oh God, GET IT OFF ME!"
Mothra is faster than Godzilla, so she swoops in and stays constantly in his blind spot. She claws him with her feet, beats him with her wings, and ultimately knocks him into a ravine where she douses him in a yellow powder--a form of poison that is the last weapon in her arsenal. Unfortunately, while she puts in a good show, Godzilla eventually gets an opening and blasts her in the face with his flame breath. That's all it takes and Mothra flies away, her last thought of her young as she wraps her wing around the egg and dies.

Godzilla decides to move on to the next target, as the military runs away to set up a death trap for him involving artificial lightning (Since electricity suddenly became his kryptonite in the last film) The Shobijin, however, don't see the battle as over. "Godzilla must die," they chirp. See, Mothra may be dead, but her egg is very much alive--and with a little bit of prayer it can be hatched so that the twin larvae inside can seek revenge...

"You killed our Mothra. Prepare to die."
A lot of folks who know me well may tease me for being a contrarian, and they're usually right. I think The Godfather is great but The Godfather, Part II is overrated. I actually liked Terminator 3. However, some opinions of mine are absolutely in line with the majority:

Mothra vs. Godzilla is my absolute favorite Godzilla movie, and the Godzilla suit used is my favorite version of Godzilla.

Honestly, I'm amazed when I find someone who doesn't like the film--and they exist, because ours is a cruel universe--because I can find so little fault with it. For one thing, the human characters may not be the absolute greatest in the series, but they are wonderful and completely engaging. The score by Akira Ifukube is amazing, Shinichi Sekizawa's screenplay is wonderfully engaging as both a kaiju film and a satire, and Ishiro Honda's direction is marvelous.

Of course, the monster action is where any Godzilla movie is often measured and this film excels there. While Godzilla doesn't actually cause all that much destruction compared to some of his earlier rampages, he does get to tear apart a few landmarks and melt the hapless military response. The monster battles are also unique, as you would expect. Mothra can't wrestle Godzilla like King Kong, nor can she really maul him like Anguirus. Instead, the adult Mothra battles him fiercely and the larvae--in a sequence I never get tired of--use guerilla tactics to wrap Godzilla in silk. It's exciting and dynamic, especially when we discover for the first time that Godzilla really hates it when you bite his tail.

The special effects by Eiji Tsubraya, while certainly not flawless--for instance, the scenes of Godzilla superimposed onto location footage alternate between being blurry and being surrounded by obvious matte lines, and there's two "melting rocks" in the climax that just look dreadful--are still amazing. They're dynamic and exciting, which can sometimes be a better quaity for effects than "convincing" when used properly.

Seriously, that Godzilla is perfect. Sleek but powerful, with an unfriendly scowl--and I personally rather like the wobbling jowls. It was completely by accident that slamming into Nagoya Castle model knocked the lips of the mask free from their adhesive, but the result feels oddly organic. No wonder Tsuburaya and Honda kept those shots in the finished film.

It's also fascinating to realize that this film was, in a way, the end of an era. This would be the last time for 20 years that Godzilla would be the out-and-out villain of a film. After this point he would not stray far from the hero role introduced in the same year's successive entry, Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster until the series was first rebooted in 1984. And boy, did they retire the villainous Godzilla while they were ahead--just look at how stale Godzilla's character would become when he was not allowed to be anything more than villain or anti-hero from 1984 to 2004.

Bottom line, if you've enjoyed any Godzilla films and haven't seen this one yet, you owe to yourself to do so. Of the 30 films in the series, this is the only one I'd stand behind as being better than the original Godzilla, which is saying a lot. It's a classic, not just of the Godzilla series but cinema in general.

And it's a wonderful example of why Godzilla will never die. Sorry, fairies.

"Oh, this is yours? I just thought this was the complimentary breakfast bar."