Western Greed and Nature’s Wrath: MOTHRA (1961)
Mothra is one of Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya’s finest monster films alongside Godzilla. Produced in Toho’s heyday, it boasts a distinctive, fantastical tone. Mothra also features lavish, near Hollywood tier production values. Director Honda and the film’s writers delve into some interesting subtexts. These include environmentalism, indigenous issues and the dark side of Western capitalism. At the same time, Tsuburaya impresses with one stunning destruction sequence after another.
By 1960, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was eager to make another monster movie. Toho’s last such film had been the fairly disastrous Varan (1958), though a recreation of mythical beast Yamata no Orochi appeared in the following years’ The Three Treasures. Tanaka wanted a different kind of monster film this time around: a feminine beast with elements of magical realism. To this aim, he hired writer Shinichiro Nakamura to come up with a concept. Nakamura was a dramatic scribe who had adapted Yukio Mishima’s The Sound of Waves into a screenplay. He was far removed from sci-fi authors like Shigeru Kayama or Jojiro Okami. Nakamura collaborated with two other writer friends: Takehiko Fukunaga and Yoshie Hotta. Each writer would come up with one act of the story. The original story, The Glowing Fairies and Mothra, was serialized prior to the release of the film. While it had the finished film’s basic elements, it was significantly different. Nakamura and company’s story was far longer and contained many bulky subplots. There were four, larger fairies instead of two. The Christian-influenced mythology of Infant Island was also delved into. Screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa was hired to turn the long-winded story into a concise script. Inspired by the original King Kong, he simplified the story’s beats into a more adventurous form.
Sekizawa (1920–1992) was Toho’s main science fiction screenwriter besides Takeshi Kimura. He was usually recruited for more hopeful stories with a fantastical flair. Sekizawa was a younger man than Kimura and known for an eccentric charm. He often wore kimonos in public rather than Western clothing and had an obsession with locomotive trains. Sekizawa was born in Kyoto. Like many of his contemporaries, he had a painful experience fighting at the brutal Pacific War front. Returning to Japan in 1946, he turned to almost eclectic pursuits. He was an assistant and writer to director Hiroshi Shimizu, including on Children of the Beehive (1948) and Buddha’s Children (1952). He also studied manga under genre luminary Osamu Tezuka. In 1956 he wrote and directed an independent film called The Fearful Invasion of Flying Saucers. Distributed by Shin Toho after Daiei and Toho passed on it, it starred Tadao Takashima in an early role. Flying Saucers was believed to be a lost film until a 16mm print turned up at auction in 2010. Sekizawa soon joined Toho as a screenwriter, one of his first films being Varan (1958). He wrote films in numerous genres including Kihachi Okamoto’s 1960 The Last Gunfight and Westward Desperado. After Mothra he began to specialize in fantastical science fiction scripts, writing more Godzilla entries than any other screenwriter.
Tanaka had only one choice in mind for the Twin Fairies. That was popular chanteuse duo Emi (1941–2012) and Yumi Ito (1941–2017), better known as The Peanuts. Being identical twins, they were discovered in a nightclub by a talent scout. The Peanuts had debuted in Japan’s music scene only a few years prior to Mothra and were now top of the charts. Tanaka was able to procure them in spite of their busy schedule. They were indeed a valuable asset in selling the film. Honda loved working with them and thought they were very professional. The roles necessitated that they speak in unison. That was easy for them as they were used to singing together. When filming their scenes, Honda found it nearly impossible to tell them apart. For scenes where the tiny Fairies interact with the regular-sized actors, dolls were used as on-set stand-ins. Their lines were played on a tape recorder to the actors. Mothra wound up being very good for The Peanuts’ career and international notability. They would go on to make guest appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Danny Kaye Show in the states.
Mothra had one of Toho’s biggest budgets for a monster film and there’s a lavishness to it reminiscent of old Hollywood films. The production values are some of the best Honda and Tsuburaya ever achieved. Hajime Koizumi’s images are luminous and Mothra has a fantastical tone. The production design of the Infant Island sequences are especially impressive. It is said Honda drew aesthetic influence from an unexpected place: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948). Mothra also boasts deeper themes than meets the eye. Nakamura, Fukunaga and Hotta’s original story was less subtle in its political overtones. There was an anti-discrimination message and jabs at America and Japan’s controversial 1960 AMPO security treaty. While Sekizawa toned these themes down, there are still strong hints. Rolisica, its name a portmanteau of Russia and America, is a grim parody of a Western nation. It’s much akin to the portrayal of Russia and America as the “Alliance” and “Federation” in the same year’s The Last War. The Rolisicans, responsible for conducting atomic tests on Infant Island, are quick to defend Nelson’s property rights despite moral conundrums. They are also swift to deploy an atomic weapon on Japanese soil, blatantly violating Japan’s non-nuclear principles. The sociopathic Clark Nelson is a grotesque personification of Western imperialism. A darker take on King Kong’s Carl Denham, he is a quintessential “ugly American”. There is subtext in Mothra about indigenous peoples’ rights and even environmentalism. Nelson, as if standing in for “manifest destiny”, massacres the natives of Infant Island before exploiting the Fairies for capitalist gain. His appalling greed brings about the wrath of nature through Mothra, who takes on the classic role of Shinto yonaoshi god.
There was an alternate ending shot. Columbia bought the rights to the film early on. Their contract stipulated that the ending take place in an American-style city to give Mothra more marketability overseas. The original story had an epic finale in Rolisica’s capital of New Kirk City. The bean counters at Toho, however, wanted a less expensive ending. They petitioned Columbia to allow for a final set in Japan. In this ending. Nelson and his men kidnap Chujo’s brother Shinji and flee into the volcanic mountains of Kyushu. Engaging in a shoot-out with police, Nelson is finally blown into a volcano by Mothra. In many ways, it was a more satisfying end for Nelson than what appeared in the final cut. Toho, not wanting to delay principal photography, started shooting the film while waiting for approval from Columbia. The alternate ending was one of the first scenes shot. Columbia declined Toho’s request shortly after and the footage was left undeveloped and eventually destroyed. This ending will forever be a lost relic ala King Kong’s “spider pit” scene, with scant glimpses available on the film’s poster and in publicity shots. The Rolisica sequences, containing just about every Western expat who resided in Tokyo, are the weakest link of the film, stagebound on obvious sets.
Mothra’s cast is eclectic; a mix of consummate Japanese players and amateur foreigners. Frankie Sakai (1929–1996) plays tenacious reporter Zenichiro “Zen-Chan” Fukuda. He was a beloved triple threat: a comedian, jazz musician and actor. Born Masatoshi Sakai in the South Japanese city of Kagoshima, he was the descendent of samurai. His uncle was Gokuro Soga, one of Japan’s first comic actors. His name “Frankie” was christened when he was performing at an American military cabaret during the Occupation. In 1954 he formed the jazz band “Frankie Sakai and the City Slickers. While performing he met comic actor Junzaburo Ban who got him into show business. His big breakout role was in the acclaimed TV drama and later movie I Wanna Be a Shellfish (1959). He was also known for frequent roles in Toho’s Company President and Train Station comedy films. Sakai was something of an activist and lobbied for a strong actors’ union. He also hosted a string of quiz and variety shows for a while. Later on in his career, Sakai appeared in James Clavell’s Shogun (1980). A passion of his was ukiyo-e printer Sharaku and one of his final projects was a biopic directed by Masahiro Shinoda. Kyoko Kagawa plays Zen’s trusty photographer Michie Hamamura. Kagawa (1931-) was an esteemed actress who appeared in films by Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse. At 17, she joined Shin Toho. She first turned heads in Mikio Naruse’s Mother (1952) and in the role of an Okinawan girl pressed into the role of army nurse in 1953’s Tower of the Lilies. Soon she appeared in Yasujiro Ozu’s beloved Tokyo Story (1953). She was a favorite actress of Kurosawa’s, acting in The Lower Depths (1957), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), High and Low (1963) and Red Beard (1965). She married and moved to New York City for a while but returned to Japan soon after. Still active to this day, more recently she was in Masayuki Suo’s Shall We Dance (1996).
Hiroshi Koizumi (1926–2015) plays one of his first scientist roles for director Honda. Koizumi was not new to the genre, however. He previously appeared in Godzilla Raids Again (1955). Koizumi was born in Kamakura, Kanagawa, the son of Shotaro Koizumi, a politician. He studied economics at Keio University but got into broadcasting after he graduated. His radio performances showing a great deal of talent, Koizumi was encouraged to apply at Toho’s New Face program. Making the cut, his first film was 1952’s Youth Conference, directed by Toshio Sugie. In 1956, Koizumi played the main character’s suitor in the romantic comedy Sazae-San (Miss Sazae). He became especially beloved for this role which he reprised in sequels a dozen more times. For Honda, Koizumi became a favorite: appearing in five more of his films in a row. His acting career died down but Koizumi became the host of a popular quiz show. He returned to the kaiju genre occasionally, playing smaller roles in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), The Return of Godzilla (1984) and Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003). In the latter, he reprised Mothra’s role of Chujo. Koizumi’s older brother Junsaku was an equally famous painter.
Jerry Ito plays the vile Nelson with lip-smacking albom. Ito (1927–2007) was born Gerald Tamekichi Ito in New York City. He was the second son of dancer and choreographer Michio Ito and an American woman. He grew up in California and after his parents divorced, his father was accused of spying for Japan by the FBI. Michio Ito fled back to his home country to avoid trial. To save young Jerry from internment, his American family took him to New York where he finished high school before being drafted into the U.S. Navy. Jerry wound up serving in the Occupation forces in Japan. During this time, he searched for his father whom he had lost contact with during the war. After several months, he finally reunited with him and met his Japanese family for the first time. Returning to the United States, Jerry Ito studied drama in New York. After two years of studies, he appeared on Broadway for the first time. Ito did a short stint in the Korean War where he avoided being sent to the front-lines and instead helped put on musical shows at Fort Dix and West Point. He returned to Broadway where he appeared in a stage version of Tea House of the August Moon. In the mid 1950s, Jerry Ito returned to Japan to visit his family. One of his uncles was actor Koreya Senda and another production designer Kisaku Ito. His two uncles got him into Japanese show business and Ito remained in Tokyo. In addition to Mothra, Ito also appeared in the same year’s The Last War and the 1959 US/Japanese co-production The Manster. He also appeared on the Tsuburaya TV show Mighty Jack (1968) and its follow-up. His final onscreen role was in Kinji Fukasaku’s Message From Space (1978). Ito moved back to California later in life. He suffered a stroke but was gradually recovering before dying of cancer.
Other notable actors in Mothra include Ken Uehara and Tetsu Nakamura. Uehara (1909–1991) was born the son of an army colonel. After graduating from university, he joined Shochiku and became a popular actor there. This career was interrupted by a short stint fighting in China. His unit was overwhelmed by the amount of fan mail he received. After the war he quit Shochiku. He appeared in films for Daiei and Toho including Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums (1954). Eventually, he contracted with Toho. There he focused on character acting as he began to suffer from Meniere’s Disease. His son was Yuzo Kayama, adored for his role in Toho’s Young Guy series. Uehara appeared in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (1983) in his later years. Tetsu Nakamura (1908–1992) was born Satoshi Nakamura in British Columbia, Canada. As a youth, he trained to be a singer at the Britannia Secondary School. Nakamura eventually emigrated to Japan in the early 1940s. There he began to pursue acting and was contracted to Toho in 1942. Postwar, his fluent English made him an asset on international co-productions where he often acted as interpreter. He also played a memorable role in The Manster. Later, he appeared in Red Sun (1971) opposite Toshio Mifune, Charles Bronson and Alain Delon. One of his last roles was in the U.S./Japanese co-production The Last Dinosaur (1977).
Mothra contains more Western actors than the average Toho production. Generally, gaijin in Japanese films were played by an eclectic group of expats. These were mainly businesspeople and military men working or stationed in Tokyo. Only with Frankenstein Conquers the World did Toho start to bring professional, Hollywood actors to Japan. There are several such interesting figures in Mothra. The first is Osman “Johnny” Yusuf. Yusuf (1920–1982) was a Turkish national whose parents emigrated to Japan during the Taisho era. He started off playing American villains in films produced by the Imperial government. After the defeat, he continued playing bit parts in Japanese films, especially for Toho. He ran an agency called Kokusai that specialized in obtaining Western actors for Japanese productions. He was also, for lack of a better word, a glorified pimp who specialized in obtaining Western women for wealthy Japanese businessmen. He can be glimpsed on film after film, often appearing in crowd scenes. Another memorable role he played was as a mafia goon in The Street Fighter (1974) with Sonny Chiba. After playing one final role as a military tribunal member in Toshio Masuda’s The Imperial Japanese Empire in 1982, he died. His younger brother, Omar Yusuf, was a Japan-based professional wrestler. Robert Dunham (1931–2001) was another such figure. A native New Englander from Maine and Massachusetts, he studied art history before enlisting in the Marines. There he was stationed in Japan and decided to stay there after discharge. He played a notable role in Kinji Fukasaku’s Greed in Broad Daylight (1961). He later appeared in Dogora (1964), The Green Slime (1968), Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) and ESPY (1974). He spoke Japanese almost fluently and was one of the few foreign actors in Japan who could recite Japanese lines. He also dabbled in filmmaking, producing a 45 minute short called Time Travelers (1966) that was shown on television. Dunham did a lot of English dubbing work for William Ross’ Frontier Enterprises as well. In 1975, Dunham returned to the U.S. however where he lived out the rest of his days with family as a freelance writer.
Mothra features a novel score by Yuji Koseki. Koseki (1909–1989) was chosen after Akira Ifukube turned down the opportunity to score the film. Koseki’s music gives Mothra a completely different and more whimsical feel. Koseki was born in Fukushima Prefecture to a wealthy family. He grew up around music; his father was one of the few Taisho-era Japanese to own a gramophone and collect records. Koseki studied business in college but self-taught himself music composition as a hobby. This hobby paid off as he became the first Japanese composer to gain success overseas. At only 20, Koseki performed at the British branch of the International Society for Contemporary Music. In 1931, was signed with Nippon Columbia. Koseki became a successful composer with a penchant for populist work. During the war, he composed Imperial army and naval marches. Koseki also scored the early anime propaganda film Momotaro: Sacred Sailors (1945). Post-war, he created the iconic theme for the baseball team the Yomiuri Giants among other achievements. In Mothra, it was decided to have the Peanuts sing Mothra’s iconic theme song in Bahasa Indonesian for a more exotic flair. The song was translated by a Indonesian foreign exchange student studying at Tokyo University. It became one of the most iconic and popular kaiju film melodies and was reused numerous times in the Godzilla series.
Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects sequences are beautifully executed, boasting one impressive sequence after another. As Tsuburaya began work on Mothra, he was hit hard by the death of his colleague Shuzaburo Araki (1913–1961). Araki was Tsuburaya’s brother-in-law and had been a combat photographer for the Imperial Army at the Chinese front. He had long helped Tsuburaya and Sadamasa Arikawa with miniature and optical photography. Yukio Manoda thus took over the optical shooting arm of Tsuburaya’s unit. Mothra’s special effects visuals are gorgeous and phantasmagorical. Tsuburaya was given more money to work with than usual and it shows. The composites are among the very finest in Tsuburaya’s career. Three different versions of Mothra’s larval form were constructed. These included a smaller, mechanical puppet. The attack on Mothra by the Defense Force at sea was one of the first monster sequences shot in Toho’s “Big Pool”. It was built in 1960 to stage the attack on Pearl Harbor in Shue Matsubayashi’s Storm Over the Pacific. The “Big Pool” covered a whopping 86,000 square feet. It would be integral to the water sequences in Toho’s monster and war films in the coming decades. It was used one last time in 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars before being paved over. The destruction of Kurobe dam is an impressive scene. The dam was recreated at 1/50th scale. Eiji Tsuburaya was planning to destroy and flood the miniature with water pumped from four tanks. Assistant art director Yasuyuki Inoue thought that four water tanks wouldn’t be enough. The water used needed to burst the miniature dam and make the deluge look realistic. He was adamant on sixteen tanks. Toho only had eight such tanks on their backlot. Undaunted, the brilliant Inoue built four more for twelve in total. Tsuburaya was at first irritated with Inoue. He was frustrated that Inoue’s rigging of the tanks made camera placement difficult. It took multiple takes to destroy the miniature, but Tsuburaya was impressed with the results. Inoue (1922–2012) had lost his foot in World War II. He developed a love of furniture making in a rehabilitation program for wounded veterans. While visiting a set on Shin Toho’s lot, the impoverished Inoue was given a free meal and returned the next day. When it was found out that he could build sets and miniatures, he was quickly hired. He would go to Toho to join Tsuburaya’s team on the original Godzilla a year later, soon becoming a valued member. Inoue even was entrusted with choosing the building materials and estimating the costs.
For shots where the larva smashes buildings, a gigantic, almost 40 foot long suit was built. This suit was crafted by Teizo Toshimitsu with help from then-apprentice Keizo Murase and built by the Yagi Brothers. It was performed pantomime horse style with eight people in total, headed by Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka. The back of the costume was manned by younger members of the special effects staff. Murase did a lot of work on the costume to make it look more “lived in”. This included adding a barnacle to its face along with a vinyl coating so it looked slimy. Tsuburaya was quite happy with these touches. Larval Mothra’s attack on Tokyo is one of the very best effects sequences Tsuburaya’s unit ever produced. The miniature work is stunning and, thanks to the giant suit, was built at a larger than usual scale. Some of it was constructed as big as 1/20th and made from photographs Tsuburaya’s FX crew took around town, a tradition since Godzilla.
The original story called for Mothra to cocoon itself on the Diet Building, Japan’s House of Parliament. Tsuburaya and company perhaps found this redundant as Godzilla had already trampled it in 1954. They opted to go with the recently built Tokyo Tower instead. A nod to this would appear in 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra, however. Tsuburaya’s staff petitioned to use the original Tokyo Tower blueprints but the local government declined. Instead, the staff made their own miniature blueprints through photos. These blueprints came in handy for future films like Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) and King Kong Escapes (1967). Rumor has it they may have even been stolen by Daiei and used for Gamera, the Giant Monster (1965). Mothra’s cocoon silk was made from a liquid polystyrene, a recipe used on future films for decades. It was sticky and corrosive. Protection was required for the camera and it burned the skin of crew members. The Atomic Heat Ray Cannons were designed by Akira Watanabe and built by Inoue. The miniature was recycled to make the A-Cycle Light Ray in Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965). It was also influential on the Maser Cannon in The War of the Gargantuas (1966). As with the larval Mothra, three versions of the adult imago Mothra prop were made. The largest and most elaborate had glowing eyes from small light bulbs. The props were suspended from a moving rig with piano wire. The wires were attached to the center of the wings, which gave them a more realistic flapping motion.
Released on July 30th, 1961, Mothra performed well at the Japanese box office. It was the 10th highest grossing film that year. The success of Mothra convinced Tanaka to revive the Godzilla series after a seven year hiatus. King Kong vs. Godzilla followed soon after in 1962. Along with a cameo in the comedy Cheers! Mr. Awamori in late 1961, Mothra would, of course, return. Mothra was pre-sold to Columbia as it was, more or less, a U.S./Japanese co-production. With a big ad blitz, it was released to American theaters on May 10th, 1962. In some regions, it was shown on a double bill with The Three Stooges in Orbit. The U.S. version runs ten minutes shorter, though its cuts aren’t too noticeable. The American credits oddly forget to list Frankie Sakai, Kyoko Kagawa or Hiroshi Koizumi in the cast. The English dubbing was recorded by Titra Sound Studios in New York City. Mothra actually got unusually good stateside reviews for a Japanese monster film. Even the New York Times sang its praises, albeit faintly. In 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, Mothra would become one of Godzilla’s most popular foes. In December 1974, Toho reissued Mothra for their winter Champion Matsuri festival. This version, reedited by Honda himself, runs a scant 62 minutes. This recut version is recommended only as a curiosity. Variations of Mothra would appear in nine more Godzilla entries up to the recent Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). Mothra would also get its own standalone film series starting with Rebirth of Mothra (1996).
J.L. Carrozza (1986-) is the author of the book SF: The Japanese Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia (2021). This article is excerpted and edited from a chapter in that book. Carrozza has written for such publications as Asian Cult Cinema, Monster Attack Team and Otaku USA.