Exploring Japan’s post-war economy in Mothra.
As I said many times either through my writing or on Gargantucast, one thing I adore about the Kaiju genre is how it can explore the various themes about humanity’s place. You got Godzilla and his inception as an allegory for the horrors of nuclear war, Gamera and the themes of spirituality in the Heisei trilogy, and newer films such as Colossal (2016) tackling themes of toxic relationships. But today, let’s talk about the second most popular kaiju (at least according to Japanese fan polls): Mothra!
Making her cinematic debut in Mothra (1961), the giant moth would instantly become an icon of monster cinema, up there with the likes of Godzilla and King Kong. From appearing in dozens of films to being heavily merchandised, Mothra would become a staple of Japanese pop culture. But ever since her inception her archnemesis wasn’t Godzilla, Rodan, or King Ghidorah. No, Mothra was created to battle an even deadlier foe…CAPITALISM!
No really. Ever since her first film, a majority of Mothra’s film appearances tackled themes such as the dangers of unregulated capitalism, colonialism, exploitation of the environment for profit, and other dangers of business. But if one looks over the character’s history in the film and in real life, it actually makes sense. Let’s dive into the good ole’ world of Kaiju and Japanese history!
Profit After War Times
After surrendering to the Allies (mainly the United States) at the end of World War II in 1945, the US occupied the nation and completely restructured it to be both a democratic government and one of the only nations to have a “Collective Capitalism” which relies on cooperation but ignores the fact that the means of production is private. This occupation would last until 1952, but its effects would remain to this day in Japan. Many felt they are going through an identity crisis as Western philosophies would dominate Japan’s redevelopment, but no one expected how strong the results would be.
In the late 50s and all through the 1960s Japan experienced what many described as an “economic miracle” with Japan quickly expanding its industries to become at one point the second wealthiest nation behind the United States. But that doesn’t mean that was a painless growth. Many rural areas were bulldozed for factories and many workers went under the thumb of cut-throat capitalists. And along with this stress, Japan was essentially in the middle of the Cold War between the US and Russia.
Mothra Origin Explained
So with these anxieties, media is always there to address it. And this can be seen in Mothra’s first appearance…in print. Yep, the character first appeared in literature in the serialized novel The Luminous Fairies and Mothra written by Takehiko Fukunaga, Shinichiro Nakamura, and Yoshie Hotta and first published in Weekly Asahi. In the novel, it follows an expedition of the fictional nation of Rolisica (an inoffensive stand-in of both the Soviet Union and the USA as the name is a mix of “Russia and “America”) who venture to an uncharted island.
There they encounter the island’s natives along with the mystical fairies (who were called Ailenas in the novel) and a gigantic egg of their goddess Mothra. The Rolisicans cans kidnap the fairies in order to find a way to make a profit for their small size and uniqueness, only to enrage Mothra as she hatches and eventually metamorphs into her adult moth form. Mothra eventually makes her way to Rolisica’s capital city of New Kirk City (subtle) and levels the city until she rescues the fairies.
As seen in the novel it seems to be a metaphor to how some Japanese felt exploited by the US and the Soviet Union post-WWII and during the Cold War. The novel even references The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security (a real-world treaty that strengthened the military of both the US and Japan) when it addressed Japan’s tensions with the Rolisica.
One can read how the Rolisicans capture the fairies as to how Japanese culture was exploited and commodified in both Japan and in the US who began to appropriate many Pacific Island cultures after soldiers returned home in WWII. What makes this more unique, as while most kaiju at the time represent fears of nuclear power towards Japan, Mothra represents Japan itself in a way as in the end she lives and it’s humans who served as the antagonists.
The novel would be dated that same year by Toho with Mothra, directed by Toho veteran Ishiro Honda with Shinichi Sekizawa writing the screenplay. The film follows closely the events of the novel with some changes such as reducing the fairies into a pair of twins (now referred to as the Shobijin), the expedition being a joint Rolisican-Japanese operation, and a shift in the films primary focus from political tension to capitalism. While the tensions between Rolisica and Japan are present, Honda and Sekizawa shifted focus to how the fairies were exploited for entertainment by Roliscican capitalist Clark Nelson.
If one would look over Honda’s work, it’s clear he wanted to focus the film’s message from a humanist angle. An open pacifist, Honda felt humanity should work together with our world’s hardships and one thing getting in the way is uncontrolled capitalist. In Mothra, Nelson stubbornly keeps the fairies to himself despite Mothra’s rampage across Japan and even his home country as he tried escaping Japanese authorities, only to be gunned down by Rolisican police trying to take the fairies from him and stop Mothra’s wake of destruction.
Honda makes it clear Rolisica isn’t completely evil and just as undeserving of destruction as Japan was, which at the time was a very nuanced viewpoint during the cold war. And it seemed the film resonated with Japanese audiences in 1961 as Mothra became a massive hit for Toho, essentially cementing the 1960s as “The Golden Age of Kaiju Films” with Toho leading the charge. But it wouldn’t be long until a certain radioactive beast would make his return.
In 1964 Honda and Sekizawa would reunite for what many consider one of the best entries in the Godzilla franchise with 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla. This acts as both a sequel to Mothra and 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla as it follows several human heroes (a reporter, his photographer, and a scientist) discovering a massive egg that washed up onshore. It turns out via the twin fairies that the egg is from Mothra and both the kaiju and the island natives want the egg returned safely, but it turns out a pair of capitalists “bought” the egg from the village it washed up next to and planned display it for profit.
Unfortunately at the same time heavy industrialization and land demolition awaken a sleeping Godzilla as he begins a rampage across Japan, with our human protagonists begging the fairies to have Mothra stop Godzilla and potentially save Japan and her young. If you would watch this film after seeing the original Mothra would notice this film follows similar themes as Mothra as the human antagonists are capitalists wanting to exploit the natives of Mothra’s islands, only in case her young.
However, the film also brings up Japan’s heavy push of land development as when the scientist investigates large amounts of radiation, a factory work demands him to leave as it interferes with the development of his new factory, only to be revealed that it was the very same development that awakens Godzilla. Themes of environmentalism would become a major part of Mothra’s character as seen is some of her later appearances.
With Mothra vs. Godzilla also becoming a huge hit, the character of Mothra would make appearances in other Godzilla films such as Ghidorah The Three-Headed Monster, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, and Destroy All Monsters, she wouldn’t be as much as the primary focus and as such aside of Honda’s usual themes of cooperation amongst ourselves. And after 1975 with the release of Terror of Mechagodzilla, Toho would end the first era of their Kaiju films or what many would dub it the Showa Era. It wouldn’t be until 1984 where Toho would revive their kaiju franchise with 1984’s The Return of Godzilla.
But while The Return of Godzilla was a reasonable hit in Japan, its sequel Godzilla vs. Biollante would be released in 1989, only for it to be a disappointment in the box office. As such Toho decided to devote this new era of Godzilla dubbed The Heisei era to revive classic Toho kaiju and in 1992 would mark the return of Mothra with Godzilla vs. Mothra. In the film a group of explorers sponsored by the fictional Marutomo company explores an uncharted island, only to discover a giant egg. They then encounter this film’s incarnation of the twin fairies (now called The Cosmos) as they revealed the egg is Mothra who was reincarnated after losing aginst her twin brother Battra, who was created after an ancient civilization heavily destroyed the Earth’s environment. At the same time, both Godzilla and larva Battra are awakened due to a giant meteor striking the pacific ocean.
The Marutomo company offers to “help” the fairies and Mothra by taking the egg to Japan for “safety”. Unfortunately, the freighter transporting the egg is intercepted by Godzilla and Battra, forcing Mothra to hatch and fight off the two kaiju with Godzilla and Battra sinking into an underwater volcano. It then turns out the CEO of Marutomo wanted the fairies and the egg for publicity purposes and our human heroes save the fairies from him. Mothra would then make landfall in Japan and evolve into her adult form just as Battra does the same and Godzilla returns to attack Japan. The three battle in the film’s climax where Godzilla kills Battra and Mothra taking Godzilla to see and attempts to imprison the kaiju there.
While Godzilla vs. Mothra suffers from a very messy plot and is almost laughable in how overzealous in its environmental messages that make films such as Godzilla vs. Hedorah look downright subtle, it does bring up dangers of capitalism with this case heavy deforestation. In fact, one of the reasons Battra lashes out on Japan is due to his purpose of protecting the planet no matter what. And in the film’s climax, the CEO of Marutomo stubbornly stands his grounds for his desire to expand his company despite Godzilla rampaging across Japan as his partner claims Godzilla’s wrath is the planet’s revenge against him.
And while this film delves into Captain Planet territory, director Takao Okawara clearly knew how the themes of Mothra as a character is vital for her reintroduction. And her return proves that she is a pillar of the Godzilla franchise as Godzilla vs. Mothra would become the highest growing entry in the Heisei Godzilla series. So much so that in 1996 Toho decided Mothra would be popular enough to have her own films again with the first entry of The Rebirth of Mothra trilogy. And while it’s definitely aimed at a much younger audience (akin to the Showa era Gamera films) the first film delves into deforestation that seemed to have continued from Godzilla vs. Mothra.
And as the franchise enters the Millenium, the character of Mothra would focus on themes of spirituality as seen in her appearances in Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, and Godzilla Tokyo SOS. And with Legendary bringing Mothra into the modern age with 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, it’s clear Mothra as a character has enured ver since her debut in 1961. But it’s still fascinating how a film about giant moths and singing faires delve heavily in themes of heavy capitalism and with today’s conversation of the gap between the rich and poor, it seems Mothra is more relevant now than ever before.