Thursday, February 13, 2014

60 Years of Godzilla - Mothra vs. Godzilla

When Frankenstein drops out, Godzilla faces an unlikely opponent.

When American producer John Beck first brought the project that would become King Kong vs. Godzilla to Japan's Toho Studios, the script he had in place (based on an idea originated by stop-motion effects wizard Willis O'Brien) featured King Kong doing battle with a large, beastly variation on Frankenstein's Monster. While Toho removed the Frankenstein aspect in favor of pitting King Kong against Godzilla, they did have an interest in getting into the Frankenstein business.

Toho first attempted to work Frankenstein's Monster into a sequel to 1960's Ishirô Honda (Gojira) directed, Takeshi Kimura (Rodan) scripted sci-fi crime thriller The Human Vapor, about a man who uses his science-gifted ability to turn into a gas form to go on a crime spree. A screenplay was written by Mothra's Shinichi Sekizawa, but that's as far as the project got.

Toho then tried to take the O'Brien/Beck approach to Frankenstein's Monster and started developing Frankenstein vs. Godzilla. As Godzilla was brought back into the world by radiation, so too would be Frankenstein's Monster. The monster's heart had somehow ended up in Hiroshima, and the radiation from the bombing of the city would cause the monster to regenerate from the heart and continue growing until it was the size of Godzilla. Since the towering monster is a carnivore, subsisting on animals it captures in the wild, the powers-that-be would soon come to worry that it'd start eating humans as well. The decision is made that Frankenstein must be destroyed... but the only thing in the world powerful enough to do so is Godzilla. Having again ended up entombed in an iceberg after falling into the ocean at the end of his fight with King Kong, Godzilla would be thawed out by the Japanese military and lured to the location of Frankenstein's Monster on the mainland through the use of bright lights, a callback to Goji's fascination with lights in Godzilla Raids Again. In the end, Godzilla would prove to be a greater threat to the people than the monster, and the pair would battle to their apparent deaths with the monster becoming the tragic hero.

A screenplay for Frankenstein vs. Godzilla was completed by Takeshi Kimura, but Toho felt there were too many issues with the logic of it all. Godzilla still being a villainous creature in these movies, he wasn't right for the scenario presented in Kimura's story, it didn't make sense that he would be purposely revived. Kimura kept working on the screenplay, but Godzilla was removed from it and another draft of the script was eventually filmed as 1965's Frankenstein Conquers the World.

Another Godzilla film was still on track to be made, and in the absence of Frankenstein's Monster, since the crossover with Kong had been so successful, Toho decided to pit Godzilla against their second most popular kaiju, Mothra.

Mothra (and King Kong vs. Godzilla) collaborators Shinichi Sekizawa and Ishirô Honda reteamed to write and direct, respectively, this battle between Toho's biggest monsters, with Eiji Tsuburaya returning to handle the suitmation, models, and marionette special effects, and Akira Ifukube again handling the score.

As the film begins, the coast of Japan is being battered by a vicious typhoon. When the storm has passed, Maicho News newspaper reporter Ichiro Sakai and his newbie female photographer Junko Nakanishi arrive on the scene to do a report on the damages done to the Kurata Beach Industrialization Project. To Sakai's irritation, Junko is artier than he believes necessary, more concerned about capturing themes for her images and getting the lighting and composition just right than she is about snapping away at the debris. Her unorthodox approach does, however, lead to the discovery of a strange, multi-colored object floating among the wreckage.

It's never directly stated within the film exactly what this object is. The official explanation is that it's a scale that has flaked off of Godzilla, and I'm glad that information is out there because I've never known what this thing is and wouldn't have guessed that it came from Godzilla given its coloration. If Godzilla was covered in scales that looked like this, he'd look like he'd been tie-dyed by a hippie.

I had assumed the object was a chip off the next thing the typhoon is revealed to have brought near the shore - a giant egg that looks like it's been painted up for Easter and is first seen floating in the ocean not far from a small fishing village. Seeking to improve their village's standing in the public perception, the fishermen excitedly bring the egg ashore.

By the time Sakai and Junko reach the fishing village, a business agent named Kumayama has already swooped in and bought the egg from the locals for the price that 153,820 chicken eggs would go for at wholesale, as that's what the size of this egg is equivalent to. Not only has Kumayama ripped the naive villagers off by purchasing the egg at this price, but he's also robbed the science community of the chance to study this strange find. As its "rightful owner", Kumayama tells those who have gathered on the scene - including scientist Professor Miura - that if they want to get a look at the egg, they can wait and pay a fee after he gets it set up as a public attraction.

Kumayama is actually working for an unscrupulous billionaire named Jiro Torahata, who plans to make the egg the main drawing point of an amusement park called the Shizunoura Happy Center, where the egg will be placed inside a giant incubator. Admission will be charged for people seeking to see the egg, and then to see whatever kind of beast hatches out of it. As Torahata and Kumayama have a meeting to go over the plans for the park, they're interrupted by two tiny voices pleading with them to return the egg to where it belongs.

The voices belong to the one foot tall twin fairies, the Shobijin, of Infant Island, the nuclear bomb ravaged home to the legendary moth-like monster Mothra. The egg came from Infant Island, it belongs to Mothra and was washed out to sea by the typhoon. A larva will soon hatch from the egg, and in seeking food and trying to return to Infant Island this larva could cause much trouble and destruction in Japan. The Shobijin, who are, as in the previous Mothra movie, portrayed by the singing sister duo The Peanuts, Emi and Yumi Itō, seek to avoid this by having the egg returned to Infant Island, where the larva will be able to live in peace. Torahata and Kumayama ignore their pleading and instead try to capture the two tiny women.

Escaping from the business men, the Shobijin try to get help from Sakai, Junko, and Miura, but they find that nothing can be done. Torahata and Kumayama's company Happy Show Business just claim legal ownership and keep the egg, and even have the audacity to offer to buy the Shobijin from Sakai so they can be used to perform in a show at Shizunoura Happy Center, much like they were forced to perform in a stage show in Mothra's solo outing. Realizing it's a lost cause, the Shobijin return to Infant Island without the egg.

Time passes, construction begins on the Shizunoura Happy Center amusement park, and Torahata is not only cheating the fishermen who sold the egg to Kumayama out of the money they're owed but is also scheming to take Kumayama's share of the egg from him.

Meanwhile, Miura has found that the object Junko found floating in the typhoon wreckage is radioactive, a discovery that prompts Sakai and Junko to return to the Kurata Beach Industrialization Project... It certainly makes sense that the explanation of what the object was is a Godzilla scale, because during this return visit, at the 32 minute point of the movie, Godzilla comes rising up out of the ground in the area of Kurata Beach that the typhoon had flooded.

Regular Godzilla performer Haruo Nakajima reprised his role as the radioactive monster in this film, wearing a suit that had been newly redesigned by Eiji Tsuburaya, giving Goji a less bulky look than in King Kong vs. Godzilla, with a more evil appearance and sharp, pointed claws.

Godzilla proceeds to make his way through the Japanese countryside, causing the usual mass destruction, although this time more of the destruction seems to be caused accidentally. He gets his tail caught in a tower and pulls it down, he slips on an embankment and smashes into a towering castle. He's just too big to walk around in our modern world without messing things up.

For the initial "Godzilla wrecks Japan" sequence, there is one action beat that Toho shot specifically for the film's release in the U.S. that isn't included in the Japanese version of the film, a sequence in which the American military attempts to come to Japan's aid by firing Frontier missiles at Godzilla from Naval warships. The bombardment of missiles knock Godzilla down, but they don't knock him out.

Previous Godzilla films have shown that our modern weaponry is basically useless against the monster, and it's the Maicho News staff that comes up with the idea for what can be done to stop Goji this time around - they must try to enlist the aid of Mothra.

Sakai, Junko, and Miura travel to the Infant Island, which was ravaged by nuclear bomb tests in the past, forcing the tribe that inhabits the island to drink a purifying juice from mutated plants to survive the radiation, and are initially met with hostility from the natives. By making a heartfelt appeal to the tribe's humanity, making them realize they shouldn't regard outsiders as separate from themselves and should instead consider helping their fellow people, they convince the tribe and the Shobijin to send Mothra to fight Godzilla. The grown moth version of Mothra is dying, soon to be replaced by the larva that will hatch from the egg, but she will devote her remaining strength to stopping Godzilla.

The Japanese military has a plan of their own. A huge fence electrified with 50,000 volts has done nothing to stop Godzilla in the '54 film (it was 300,000 volts in the Godzilla, King of the Monsters! American version), but a barrier electrified with a million volts had successfully deterred the monster in King Kong vs. Godzilla. This time, there's a plan involving thirty million volt artificial lightning - first they'll try to blast Goji with it, and if that doesn't work they'll drop electrified metal nets on him.

Torahata and Kumayama are taken out of the film (and the world) by their own evil nature and by pure bad luck in time for the last thirty minutes of the movie to be devoted to both the military and Mothra's efforts to stop Godzilla... and Mothra arrives just in the nick of time, as Godzilla had his sights set on destroying her egg.

Mothra makes a valiant effort to take Godzilla down, buffeting him with the wind generated by the flapping of her wings, dragging him across the countryside by his tail, blowing some kind of strange yellow dust all over him... But as we know, Mothra's life was coming to an end, and a blast of Godzilla's atomic breath brings about that end.

As the military does their best to destroy Godzilla, a set accident allows for a magnificent shot, in which the fire caused by the many rockets being fired at the monster briefly ignites Godzilla's head. The head of the costume wasn't meant to catch aflame, but the fact that it did looks awesome, and the burning had no effect on Nakajima within the costume because the head of the suit continues on above the head of the performer inside. Nakajima's head was actually in Godzilla's neck.

The millions of volts that Godzilla gets blasted with do indeed cause him a lot of trouble, but ultimately it's up to the reborn Mothra, in the form of two larva that crawl out of the hatched egg, to take the rampaging monster out for good. Or until the next movie.

I may not be particularly enamored with Mothra, in either its larval or full moth form, but this crossover film is a whole lot of fun. The first 32 minutes before Godzilla shows up can be a bit tiresome with the repetitious "give up the egg"/"you can't have the egg" scenes, but once Goji rises up from the ground, the film becomes a nonstop action thrill ride.

I find the scenes with the military attempting to fight off Godzilla to be the best scenes of this type yet, and though you may think a giant moth would be outmatched going against Goji, Mothra proves to be quite capable against him. Then Godzilla himself proves to be outmatched when faced with the larval versions of Mothra, which is kind of a letdown, but it works well enough.

The film's American distributors either felt that the idea of Mothra fighting Godzilla wouldn't appeal to U.S. audiences or were just fans of marketing with mystery, because here the movie was released under the title "Godzilla vs. The Thing", with publicity materials hiding Goji's opponent from view but giving the impression that he would be going up against some kind of massive, multi-tentacled creature. A tagline asked: "What is The Thing?" Well, it doesn't have tentacles, and it sure isn't James Arness.

The human characters are a pleasant bunch to be around, the dramatic interaction with the Infant Island natives makes for some strong scenes. Torahata and Kumayama are great villains and meet a satisfactory demise when they're no longer of use to the story.

The story is perfectly simple, with Honda and Sekizawa basically doing a reversal on their Mothra set-up - in that one the Shobijin were captured and being held in Japan and Mothra came to save them, here Mothra's egg is being held in Japan and the Shobijin try to save it - to lay the groundwork for the battle of Toho monsters.

Mothra vs. Godzilla was a great success, proving the viability of these monster mash concepts, further elevating Mothra's status at Toho, and paving the way for a sequel that would reach theatre screens just under eight months later and find Mothra and Godzilla sharing screen time again... with some other monsters thrown into the mix as well.

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