Mothra (1961) review [The Godzilla Project]


During the summer of 1960, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka approached Shin’ichiro Nakamura to ask him to write an original kaiju story. Collaborating with Takehiko Fukunaga and Zenei Hotta, Nakamura created The Glowing Fairies and Mothra and released, in parts, in the Weekly Asahi Extra magazine in January 1961. The same year, The Glowing Fairies and Mothra was adapted into a screenplay by screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa.  

For this film, Ishiro Honda wanted a more family-oriented approach – a Disney-like experience. Yet, the many fantasy elements in Mothra were not Honda’s ideas, but Sekizawa’s. Honda was more interested in the anti-nuclear themes of the narrative. Yet, does Mothra only explore anti-nuclear themes? Or are these anti-nuclear elements linked with another post-war ‘threat’?

[This review is part of The Godzilla Project. Click the link to find more reviews and analyses.]


A very harsh typhoon is nearing the Japanese archipelago. Matsubishi’s Genyo-Maru II is caught within its centre. Yet, before help can arrive, the ship runs aground near infant Island, an uninhabited island heavily utilized as a nuclear bomb test site by the Rolisican government. The crew abandons the sinking ship.

The next day, after the typhoon has past, a search party is launched and some survivors are quickly found on the shores of the island. Of course, having been exposed to deadly levels of radiation, they are taken for observation at the National Synthesis Nucleus Centre. Strangely, none of the survivors have any symptoms nor show signs of being contaminated by radiation. The mystery is heightened when one of the survivors tells Zen Fukada (Frankie Sakai), a journalist who infiltrated the centre, that their miraculous health might be due to the red juice they received from the natives. This revelation leads the Rolisican government to launch a joint expedition to Infant Island. On the island, the expedition finds two miniature women (Yumi Ito; Emi Ito).

Mothra (1961) by Ishiro Honda

Mothra offers a more comically flavoured narrative and a somewhat more magical experience that previous kaiju narratives. Yet, this spark of magic does not stop Honda and Shinichi Sekizawa from delivering another narrative that explores the state of post-war Japan.

The evocation of radiation experiments and the death and destruction that radiation leads to is not utilized within the narrative to critique the atom bomb nor evoke the traumatic truth that marks the post-war societal fabric of Japan, but to give the spectator the key to undo the fictional decoration of Rolisica and unearth which country it ultimately represents.       

Rolisica is – there is little doubt about it – a representation of the post-war USA, who used some of the Marshall Islands to test nuclear bombs from 1948 to 1958. This is further corroborated by other narrative and visual elements sprinkled throughout the narrative – e.g. New Kirk City with all its high-rise buildings, Pan American airlines, the main language of their citizens is American English, the presence of the car-brand Ford, … etc..

Mothra (1961) by Ishiro Honda

So, how should we understand the relation between Japan and Rolisica and what does is echo about post-war Japan? The answer to both questions lies in the trajectory of expedition leader Nelson (Jerry Ito) within the narrative. The spectator is first confronted with his villainous nature when he starts making decisions that go against the pure academic nature of the expedition (i.e. the expedition data is put under his strict control). Moreover, his presence, as embodied by his threatening smile, and his curt way of interacting with Japanese others evoke that he is a figure marked by a kind of ‘evil’ thirst. Yet, what kind of thirst drives him? And how can we understand his demand to take possession of everything?

Slowly, as the narrative unfolds, the spectator is able to qualify Nelson’s thirst as being imperialistic capitalistic in nature. This thirst is not simply about exploiting objects or what is Other as object to accumulate wealth and satisfy one’s greed, but to install an object-to-enjoy (e.g. merchandise) to entrap the other into a circuit of consumption and feed his hunger for eating fleeting empty pleasure. It is this capitalistic thirst, as embodied by a human figure rather than a kaiju, that is staged as being a post-war threat to the Japanese societal fabric and its subjects.  

Mothra (1961) by Ishiro Honda

While King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) explores similar themes, it is important to note that in Mothra the threat of capitalistic exploitation to fuel the consummative pleasure of the subject is positioned as coming from outside the Japanese archipelago. Moreover, capitalism and the joyous act of consumption is, as is beautifully evoked by the grand show that Nelson organizes in Tokyo, introduced in post-war Japan as being wondrous and full of economical promise. Or to put a somewhat differently, the post-war control and interference of the US in Japanese society allowed extreme capitalistic thought to ‘poison’ Japanese minds (e.g. see Mr. Tako in King Kong vs Godzilla (1962)) and ensnare the Japanese subjects into the celebrative circuit of consuming objects-of-pleasure (e.g. Bireley’s soft drink, alcoholic products like Torys Wistan, … etc.) (Narra-note 1).  

So, if Nelson embodies the post-war threat of unmediated capitalistic thinking, what does Mothra and her destruction represents (Narra-note 2)? The first element that is instructive is, of course, the signifier infant island. While not much attention has been given to this signifier by other commentators, it is nevertheless important to determine the nature of Mothra. In short, one cannot think the signifier infant without the signifier mother/parent that is linked with it – it is a signifier-couple. Such association impels us to argue that the godly Mothra is a m(Other)ly instance. This is further corroborated when the little girls tell Zen Fukada and the others that her ‘instinct’ is to protect them, whatever it takes.     

Mothra (1961) by Ishiro Honda

Yet, even though Mothra is a motherly force in search for her ‘infants’, she also ends up visualizing the other side of the hungry exploitative capitalistic coin. This wondrous moth-like kaiju reverberates the destruction that the capitalistic machinery fuelled by greed is able to cause. While those who are radically marked by the capitalistic dynamic (e.g. Nelson) viciously try to repress the destruction the fabulous system causes and disavow the causal link between its exploitative tendencies and the societal destruction that follows, Mothra rises up to undo this attempt and to show the truth of the system of wild capitalistic exploitation and unmediated consumption (Narra-note 3).  

It is also important to highlight that Mothra is structured around a conflict between Japanese subjects who reject capitalistic exploitation (e.g. Zen Fukada and his troupe) and the brute force by which Nelson pursues his greed. More than merely strengthening the warning against such exploitation and the joy of unlimited consumption, this conflict echoes the one born within Japanese society due to America’s forced introduction of capitalistic tendencies into the societal fabric (Narra-note 4, Narra-note 5).

Mothra (1961) by Ishiro Honda

For the composition of Mothra, Honda fluidly combines dynamic shots (spatial dynamic shots, zoom-ins, …etc.) and static moments to create a rhythm that invites the spectator into the narrative. This compositional fluidity also extends to the integration of the special effects within the visual fabric. By carefully concatenating imagery of models (e.g. the Genyo-Maru II, the two tiny female human beings, …etc.) and miniature landscapes with imagery that frames actors/actresses or combining two different images into a fluid whole (e.g. the two small women in the cage with Zen Fukada and some other around it), Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya create a spatial and temporal continuity that, by being so smooth, allows the spectator to suspend his disbelief and invest in this wondrous kaiju narrative.  

Mothra’s decors (e.g. the jungle areas, the other-worldly caves, the strange mutated ‘plants’, … ) are rich and lush. Due to the care that went into crafting these decors, these visual moments do not only heighten the believability of Infant Island, but also evoke a sense of mystery and strange wonder that compels the spectator. The musical accompaniment plays its role heightening the sense of wonder and magic into the unfolding of the narrative.    

Mothra might be somewhat lighter in tone than previous kaiju narratives, it nevertheless offers a fantastical glance at the conflicts and fears that marked the post-war Japanese society. By elegantly using the kaiju Mothra, Honda warns the Japanese spectator of the destructive societal effects that the blind adoption of unrestricted capitalism and wild consumption can cause.


Narra-note 1: The emphasis on Mothra’s destruction of a gas station richly decorated with the brand-name Pontiac in Japan is also noteworthy. One could, if one wants to, read this moment as a subtle critique of the way America used its control over Japan to introduce American brands to the Japanese public and allow companies to get a foothold on the Japanese archipelago.

Narra-note 2: That the Rolisican Embassy ultimately requests that Nelson renounces ownership over the tiny beauties highlights that Mothra is not about demonizing the USA as such, but has to be understood as a warning against the societal and subjective threat that resides in the wondrous exploitative capitalistic machinery.

It is, in truth, a bit ironic that Rolisica and Japan ultimately join hands to defeat Mothra, to repel the destructive tendencies of an economical system that Rolisica/USA introduced into the Japanese societal fabric.  

Moreover, the fact that Nelson is killed by Rolisican police officers echoes that the blind and greedy capitalism dynamic embodies by him is also a problematic element in American society.  

Narra-note 3: The fact that Mothra destroys everything in its path (e.g. Roliscan Atomic Heat Ray Brigade, the Rolisica’s air force, … etc.) emphasises that the capitalistic threat cannot be defeated by brute force. As the destruction is born from within the capitalistic system, the system itself needs to change. One cannot violently repress its truth with military force.

Narra-note 4: Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski (2007) rightly emphasize in their book that in Mothra religion is echoed as what can enable peace, understanding, and cooperation. The ultimate point of the religious references that decorate the film’s finale is that it reveals that religion remains an antagonistic force against the greed bred by the capitalistic machinery.  

Narra-note 5: Mothra’s destruction of the Tokyo Tower, the symbol of Japan’s post-war ascendancy, has a similar meaning. The destruction subtly confronts the spectator with the destructive effects unrestrained capitalism will ultimately have on society.   


Ryfle, S.; Godziszewski, E. (2017). Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa. Wesleyan University Press.


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